House debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020; Second Reading

10:09 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm rising in continuation. I began my remarks last night. When the adjournment debate interrupted my remarks, I was just drawing attention to the fact that in a recent survey, in September last year, the Australian Industry Group found that three-quarters of employers they surveyed could not find the skilled and qualified staff they needed for the vacancies that they had. This is a damming indictment on the record of those opposite when it comes to vocational education and training. As I said yesterday, while we don't oppose the particular measures in this bill, they don't go anywhere near restoring the billions of dollars that have been cut from vocational education and training nor the close-to-$1-billion underspend in this area. We have got young people in particular, and workers who are looking at retraining later in life, desperate for an apprenticeship or a training opportunity that would give them the skills that they need to meet the vacancies that employers tell us they have. And yet we somehow can't manage to bring the people who are desperate for a job together with the employers who are desperate to employ them. That is a real mark of the failure of those opposite. It's a skills crisis that is only getting worse, because those opposite don't admit that it's happening, first of all, and have no plan to fix it.

Right across the full range of jobs that we have in our community—plumbers, carpenters, hairdressers, motor mechanics, pastry chefs—there are so many great opportunities and great careers out there, and we're not training people to take them up. Employers wanting to offer good jobs to people with these skills are not able to find skilled workers to take on. This runs the length of our country as well. It is extraordinary that nationally we have fewer Australians doing an apprenticeship or a traineeship today than we did a decade ago. And it's not concentrated in one state or territory; this is right across our country. In every state and territory we see a decline in the number of apprentices and trainees. It's even affecting our defence industry. We've heard today that, despite all the commitments about the local content on the submarine project in South Australia that those opposite originally made, we're really going to struggle to attract some of those jobs to Australia.

On top of this, in December the CEO of Weld Australia told a Senate inquiry into the Australian shipbuilding industry that the nation was not equipped to deliver the next generation of defence vessels. The submission told the Senate that the quality of trades training and the number of maritime engineers are totally inadequate to build new submarines, frigates and patrol boats. How can this be? It's not like it's a surprise that we're going to have these jobs available, that we are investing in these industries in Australia. How can it be that we are not training the Australian workforce to do the work? The Weld Australia submission went on to say that the quality of certificate III apprentices being trained was 'totally unacceptable and not of the required standards for the defence industry' and that 'repeated submissions to consecutive defence industry ministers have been ignored'. This really is as damning as it gets. It's at the heart of Australia's economic and national security interests.

Under those opposite, there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or a traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. Businesses can't get the skilled staff they need. More people are dropping out of courses than finishing them. There are almost two million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed—they want more hours of work—and yet the Prime Minister has no plan to fix the skills crisis that he created. He's got no plan to support jobs or lift the wages of those who are employed. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from the problems than face them. He thinks he can fix them with a marketing campaign rather than actually investing to train Australians for Australian jobs. The Prime Minister would rather spin, deflect and bring in celebrity ambassadors than really tackle the real issues before us. And he wants to blame young Australians and their parents and pretends that they are turning their noses up at jobs in trades. That's simply not the case. There are many people—young people, in particular, and workers mid-career who want to retrain—who would love an apprenticeship, if only they could get one.

There's no substitute for proper funding in this sector, and there's no substitute for leadership. Australia's TAFE and training system is sorely lacking in both. Consequently, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government:

(1) has failed to fix the problems in the vocational training sector; and

(2) instead has:

(a) cut TAFE and training by over $3 billion;

(b) presided over simultaneous crises of youth unemployment and skills shortages;

(c) failed business, which is struggling to fill the skilled roles they have on offer; and

(d) also failed young people desperate for work, who are unable to fill those positions because they have missed out on opportunities for training".

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

10:16 am

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise to speak on a matter of education when we have a group of students sitting up in the gallery. From here, they look quite young—probably still in primary school. I'm sorry if I have just offended you by calling you primary school students. All of you have the options when you leave school to follow vocational education or higher education, to get an apprenticeship or to go out into the workforce. You live in a wonderful country and you've got opportunities available to you. So I hope that you realise that you do live in an absolutely wonderful country.

I'm really happy to speaking in support of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019. Australia's capacity to grow, compete and thrive in an increasingly global economy is dependent on employers and all individuals, regardless of their background or circumstances, being able to access and use the right skills at the right time. A strong VET sector, sitting hand in hand and alongside a strong higher education sector, is critical to our economy and to helping prepare Australians for the workforce opportunities of today and the future. Equally important—I would actually say more important—is having the opportunity to acquire useful skills and to be able to pursue employment and work opportunities using those skills. That is vitally important for individual and societal wellbeing. Australia and Australians cannot afford to be left behind in this time of rapid change, a time of escalating digital transformation and disruption. We need to be adaptable and we need an accessible high-quality VET sector that is innovative, robust and responsive to industry needs and ever-emerging gaps.

The size and significance of the VET sector was highlighted in the Braithwaite report of 2016. There are 4,500 RTOs delivering 1,400 qualifications to around 4.2 million students. Private RTOs deliver VET to approximately 58 per cent of students, TAFEs deliver to about 18 per cent and community education providers deliver to nine per cent. VET is also provided by universities, schools, enterprise providers and combinations of providers. In response to the Braithwaite report of 2016, the government fully acknowledged the importance of the VET sector in Australia and for Australia. And, in a suite of actions since then, the government has undertaken the steps of implementing the recommendations from the Braithwaite report and the later Joyce report. A number of those recommendations were in relation to the VET regulator, ASQA.

This bill picks up on the recommendations regarding amending the legislative framework to ensure that the regulator works with the RTOs to lift quality in the sector, while placing only a proportionate regulatory burden on them. Of course, this is all to ensure that our RTOs are of the highest quality and are able to deliver desirable student outcomes. The changes proposed in this bill are part of the government's $18.1 million commitment to supporting reform of the national VET regulator, including its engagement with the sector, and to ensure that its regulatory approach is fair, transparent and effective.

The bill includes a number of provisions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of regulation, including strengthening registration requirements by requiring organisations to demonstrate a commitment to and capability of delivering quality training. Obviously this is key to the sector. It also clarifies that the standards in relation to VET accredited courses are ongoing standards that must be met the entire way throughout the registration period —not just at the beginning, not just at the end, not just at the time that you are audited. The bill also facilitates electronic sharing of data with prescribed bodies and streamlines sharing of data between ASQA, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research and tuition assurance scheme operators. It also—and this is a critical element—enables the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment to release information to the public about training by registered training organisations and the outcomes and experiences of students attending RTOs and employers of those students. This is an initiative that has been introduced successfully into the higher education system and is actually a vital element of transparency and a very important tool to enable students, before they make a choice as to where they go, to ascertain what other people are saying about that particular course and that particular provider. The bill also increases transparency in other ways by making public the release of audits by the regulator, so the regulator can make audit reports available.

The minister and assistant minister have been meeting with state governments and VET providers across the country and have undertaken an extensive consultation process to listen to the issues that are of most importance to providers, to industry and to students. In fact the assistant minister recently joined me in my electorate of Curtin for a roundtable dialogue with a number of VET providers who are located in Curtin. He had the opportunity to discuss their views and listen to their feedback. The government has responded to concerns raised throughout this consultation process, and this bill has responded to and addressed some of the concerns which have been raised.

One such concern raised by some stakeholders was the potential that, if ASQA released audit reports, this would have a negative impact on the sector. They queried whether the audit reports are suitable for the public domain. Because of earlier consultations with states and territories on this, care has been taken in the bill to ensure that ASQA is not required to immediately publish audit reports once the amendments in the bill commence. The government is going to continue to work with stakeholders on identifying appropriate information to include in published reports. Audit reports will be published only after this consultation phase has occurred.

Another concern stakeholders raised, which was actually based on a misunderstanding, was that a provider's registration would be able to be cancelled with immediate effect. This is not correct. The amendments in the bill do not change the natural justice requirements in the act that ensure providers are notified of ASQA's intention to cancel and that provide time for RTOs to respond to the notice. The amendments provide ASQA with flexibility and discretion in determining when cancellation would take effect, so as to minimise the impact on students, because it must be student-centric and student-focused in this regard.

The coalition government, as I said earlier, is committed to ensuring that Australians have the right skills for the workforce of today and tomorrow. We are committed to ensuring that we are equipping Australians with the skills they need for good, secure jobs. In 2019-20 we are investing over $3 billion in VET, which includes $1.5 billion given to the states and territories every year through the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development; $1.1 billion to fund the government's own skills program, including employer incentives and support for apprentices; and $0.175 billion to the states and territories via the Skilling Australians Fund to support increased apprenticeship and traineeship numbers.

The government's skills package is contributing to an increase in Commonwealth funding to VET over the budget forward estimates. Funding under the NASWD is going to grow to an expected $1.6 billion in 2022-23. Funding for the Commonwealth's own programs is expected to be about $1.3 billion by 2022-23, and funding for income-contingent VET loans is going to be about $0.6 billion in 2022-23.

I am extremely passionate about VET pathways for our students and ensuring that we have a strong and responsive VET sector. In my electorate of Curtin we have over 16,000 people undertaking VET qualifications. This is likely to continue as people look to upskill, to reskill and to adapt to changing times and needs. We need to make sure that we provide them with the pathways they need to succeed, and this bill forms part of the considered, comprehensive and vital changes being implemented by this government. We are committed to and excited about the future of VET in this country.

10:26 am

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor will not oppose the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019. The bill reforms the operations of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the VET regulator. Labor has always and will always support a strong, transparent and properly resourced regulatory framework for ASQA. The bill will strengthen the powers of the regulator to enhance student protections. It improves transparency in ASQA's audit process and will assist in moving ASQA towards a more informative and educative approach to compliance.

Key amendments will impose a new condition of registration that requires RTOs to demonstrate a commitment and the capability to deliver quality vocational education and training. They will strengthen and clarify existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions. They will require publication of audit reports and enable public sharing of information on RTO performance to improve transparency. They will expand ASQA's scope to adopt a more educative approach to lifting quality in VET, and they will shift ASQA to a full cost-recovery model.

As the member for Sydney noted, we do have concerns about the shift to a cost-recovery model. It was not recommended in the Joyce review, and it may mean that some providers will have to pass the cost of ASQA's services on to students who can least afford it. This is just about the last thing that VET students need. Stakeholders in the sector noted their frustrations with the lack of consultation on the legislation, and there remains some uncertainty as to how many of the changes will work in practice. There is concern about making significant changes while an internal review into ASQA's operations is yet to be finalised. It is incumbent on the government to get this right. The VET sector needs to know how it will work.

I want to put on record why Labor will always support ASQA's strong regulatory framework. It's because we have seen, sadly, the sector almost ruined by scandals and rorts: students who were not even aware they had been signed up to do courses; students enticed into courses that provided scant education and no job prospects but offered enticements like free iPads. RTOs have collapsed, taking with them student dollars and leaving the students saddled with debts. I've heard story after story of young apprentices and trainees being left in the lurch by dodgy RTOs, left with no qualifications and no job, and out of pocket for thousands of dollars. It breaks their hearts and it breaks their parents' hearts.

At a time when we as a nation are screaming out for skilled workers, it's a travesty that this government has neglected the VET sector and our youth. But it is not only our youth. There are many other workers needing reskilling to get a job after they lose theirs or have been made redundant. Think of the workers in the automotive sector. They had good, solid jobs. They were highly skilled workers with decent pay and conditions. Those jobs have gone, on the whim of a Treasurer and his government. Thousands of skilled workers employed directly by the car companies themselves lost their jobs, as did many more thousands in the supply chain or services companies that serviced the automotive sector. Research shows that, when an industry collapses or is shut down, one-third of workers manage to get a similar job, one-third end up in casualised, less skilled, low-paying jobs and one-third never work again.

Planning for full employment, in particular in the face of sectoral change, is complicated but necessary and can be done. Reskilling and retraining are the most important parts of that puzzle for getting those workers back to work. The VET sector, TAFEs, RTOs, community colleges and group-training organisations all have a role in ensuring that we have maximum employment through skilling, reskilling and lifelong learning. In a world where people no longer have a job for life, where workers are more likely to move through the workforce and where technology changes at a rate faster than we can keep up, we must have an agile, comprehensive and valued VET sector.

I come from the Labor Party. That means that I have a vision for VET. Imagine a sector where courses are reworked to reflect new and traditional skills, where teachers are offered secure jobs with good pay, where the best of the best can be attracted to teach, where students are proud to have secured a place at a prestigious TAFE, where they have delivered qualifications that have set them up for life, where students have state-of-the-art equipment and world-class amenities, where qualifications are equally valued with the university sector, where dual qualifications may be possible across the university and TAFE sectors, where businesses compete for collaboration and opportunity, where they open their doors of expertise for people to be trained and where business does their bit for ensuring a future with a productive, skilled workforce. Imagine Australia as a world leader in vocational education and professional standards and growth.

Sadly, we do not have that. It is still just a vision. But we need a framework to set this up. We need a regulator that has a compliance role, for sure, but also a role in education, enabling, transforming and evolving the training organisations. We have a vision for TAFEs and the VET sector, one where they are vital, robust and valued. This government does not. It gives a lot of lip-service, but it doesn't really do anything useful. Yes, we support this bill, but it is just a tinkering in a sector that is crying out for significant reform.

For almost seven years the government has shown a palpable lack of leadership. We're now finally seeing some piecemeal reforms in response to a flurry of quite disconnected reviews, but it's too many wasted years with still no clear vision. The Productivity Commission says the VET system is a mess, the BCA are calling for fundamental reform, and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called the government's commitment to VET 'lukewarm at best'. The Chief Scientist doubts the system is equal to the challenges posed by a rapidly-changing technological future. Business concerns in relation to skills shortages cannot be addressed with a 'business as usual' approach to skill acquisition, vocational education and TAFE.

Consider this: TAFE and vocational education funding and the number of supported students are lower now than they were over a decade ago. This is despite an increased number of jobs requiring vocational skills. There has been $3 billion in federal funds slashed from the vocational training system, and we learned last year from the federal education department's own data that the Liberal government have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. The Liberal government's $1 billion underspend included incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help people finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. These programs are crucial for young people getting their first start in life.

The result? The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago, and we have more people dropping out of apprenticeships today than completing them. There has been an almost 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages—all that, while we have 1.9 million Australians looking for work or looking for more hours of work, and we've got three-quarters of Australian businesses saying they can't find the trained and skilled staff they need.

In my electorate of Cooper, there's an engineering firm that makes intricate metal parts for machinery, and they cannot get apprentices. The ones they have trained have gone on to great higher paid jobs as they have matured with their skills. The owner has no problem with that. He understands he is passing on knowledge and skills to the economy broadly. In fact, he is very proud of his legacy and he knows where many of his apprentices have gone. He would be happy to take on new apprentices but he can't get them. We have a textile manufacturer exporting high-end denim wear to the US and the UK who cannot get machinists and quality cutters—no-one trains them anymore.

I am a nurse. In fact, I did a Bachelor of Education as well as my nursing qualification so I could play a role in the education of future nurses, of enrolled nurses and of carers. I've had experience in both receiving and delivering quality vocational education, and it starts with a commitment to the end goal of skilled workers through collaboration with industry, trainers and government. That connection between industry training organisations and government has broken down. In fact, in many ways, the VET sector has divided and moved away from industry. It is no longer supplying the skills that industry demand, nor is it providing the quality of skills required. In fact, the VET sector is a perfect example of market failure—where the marketisation of the sector created the provision of cheap courses that served neither the workers' interests, nor industry's interest nor the economy's interest. Everyone from the BCA through to the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for intervention to restart the process.

Of course, there are many wonderful registered training organisations out there that work very hard day in, day out, but unfortunately the system is failing them and they are finding it harder and harder to do their jobs. The government's response has been pathetic. It is not listening; it is tinkering. It just doesn't care.

10:36 am

Photo of Emma McBrideEmma McBride (Dobell, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Sydney. Labor does not oppose this bill, the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019, which seeks to reform the operation of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, the national VET regulator, to strengthen its powers, enhance protections for students and improve transparency to assist RTO compliance.

The proposed reforms largely implement recommendations of independent reviews that've been supported by the sector. The amendments will impose a new condition of registration that requires RTOs to demonstrate a commitment and the capability to deliver quality VET; strengthen and clarify existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions; require publication of audit reports and enable public sharing of information on RTO performance to improve transparency; expand ASQA's scope to adopt a more educative approach to lifting quality in VET; and shift ASQA to a full-cost recovery model.

Stakeholders in the sector support the intention of the bill but express their frustrations with the lack of consultation on the legislation. Consequently, there is some uncertainty as to how many of the changes will work in practice. One proposal which is of particular concern to Labor is for ASQA to move to a full minister-directed cost-recovery model. This may result in some providers passing the cost of ASQA services on to students. This change contradicts the recommendations of the Joyce review which stated:

It is important that ASQA be adequately resourced to perform the guidance and educative role and to perform its role more generally. In many jurisdictions there is an understood difference between parts of the regulator's activity that should be directly funded by the regulated through cost recovery arrangements versus what are broader activities for the 'public good', and should therefore be government funded.

The Joyce review specifically noted that the 'Australian Skills Quality Authority should be specifically resourced to provide broad education and guidance to the VET sector.' We will monitor the adequacy of funding of ASQA to make sure it can perform its regulatory and educative tasks.

Labor has always backed a comprehensive regulatory compliance and education framework for ASQA. Following the large-scale rorting of VET FEE-HELP, ASQA's work is crucial in ridding the sector of dodgy providers. Labor supports a fair and considered approach to reforms. We support changes that improve ASQA's responsiveness to students, communities and employers but reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework.

Such a framework is necessary to give students like Heather from Berkeley Vale in my electorate the help they need to deal with dodgy providers. Heather contacted my office because she had enrolled with an online vocational college to complete a certificate III in individual support. Heather had decided to pursue a career in aged care because she understood there were good job prospects on the coast in aged care. She paid $3,000 upfront for her course, and everything was going well until she started looking for a work placement. Her online vocational education provider had promoted itself as providing excellent work placement opportunities. Heather said that, each time she contacted an aged-care employer, they were enthusiastic about giving her a work placement, and then they'd find out which college she was enrolled with and suddenly withdraw their offer. She then started asking them directly why and eventually was told they don't provide placements for students from that college. The college had also promised support finding a work placement but that wasn't the case. Heather said, 'I was basically told it was my responsibility to find an internship and the internship was necessary for me to complete the course.'

She decided to make an informal complaint to the VET provider with the support of my office to prompt the college to deliver on its promises and what she had paid for. She said she found the whole experience stressful and wished she had enrolled with TAFE, which was supported by the employers she wanted to complete an internship with. She was considering taking her complaint to ASQA or simply cutting her losses and moving to TAFE. She told me that she felt ripped off and that she had been misled by the college about its ability to deliver work experience, which was necessary to complete the certificate III. This is just one of the many examples of why ASQA needs stronger powers to support students like Heather to get a fair go and get what they paid for.

The unfortunate thing about this bill is that it is just another tweak from a third-term government in its seventh year not prepared to deliver genuine reform to overhaul the vocational education and training sector. It does nothing to address the damage to vocational education that has occurred under this government. They've slashed funding to TAFE and training, and we've seen a fall in apprentice numbers resulting in a shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. The impacts of these cuts are being felt particularly in regional and remote Australia, in places like my electorate of Dobell. I recently surveyed local small business owners and operators, and you won't be surprised that they named skills shortages as one of their major concerns for business growth. At the same time, the Central Coast youth unemployment rate, which has ranged from 9.2 per cent up to as high as 19 per cent since the late nineties, remains stubbornly high. Central Coast business owners need skilled staff. Local young people want the skills for a steady job and a secure future. The missing part of this picture is affordable, high-quality, local vocational education and training.

The Morrison government's cuts to TAFE are making it even harder for young people—and people at any stage in their working life on the coast—to get the skills they need and that local employers want. And this is a problem nationwide. While the Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find qualified workers they need, there are about 1.9 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We are experiencing an underemployment and unemployment crisis at the same time as we are experiencing a crisis in skills. Does this government just not get it or do they just not care? Do they care about young people from the coast? Three billion dollars: that is the amount this government has cut from TAFE and training. Young people in the regions, like the Central Coast, are bearing the brunt of these cuts.

As I've said, we have a major shortage of Australian tradies, and this is happening at a time when tradies will be needed for emergency recovery from bushfires, floods and storms. Under the Liberals, there are now 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees across Australia and 37,000 fewer in New South Wales, and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry and motor mechanics. The number of Australians taking up an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. There are more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than there are finishing them and gaining their qualifications. There is a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skill shortages. The Liberal government either doesn't really care about people looking for work, the unemployed, the underemployed and those seeking skills, particularly in regional remote Australia, or doesn't have the capacity to do the work that needs to be done to build better post-school education. Fiddling at the edges of the system won't address the problems that undermine vocational education and training in Australia today.

Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as a public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships, or the value of the hardworking and dedicated TAFE teachers. My dad was a TAFE teacher. He was a builder and engineer. He spent many years teaching at TAFE in Ultimo in Sydney and in Newcastle. He got a real sense of satisfaction and pride from teaching engineering at TAFE, the quality of the courses that were provided and the calibre of students who graduated.

In my electorate of Dobell we have two TAFE campuses: Wyong, which offers courses in plumbing, which my brother Eddie did; and electrical and automotive trades at Ourimbah, which offers courses in building and construction. Local students and young people tell me that local TAFEs are now no longer offering the range of courses they need, forcing them to commute. Higher fees and travel costs mean that many can't afford to finish their training. Face-to-face hours have also been slashed. Where courses are available locally, the facilities are aged and outdated and funding isn't being made available by the federal or New South Wales governments to provide local students with the learning environments they need for the skills of today and tomorrow. It could cost as little as $1 million to upgrade a building at Wyong TAFE so that students have the facilities which are taken for granted on other campuses in bigger cities. I committed to this in the May election, and I call on the government to match this commitment. It's urgent. The effect of competition policy and privatisation in the VET sector, coupled with chronic underfunding, has had devastating effects in communities like mine. Too often we have seen dodgy providers overload with students for a quick profit then go belly up, leaving students out of pocket and without the qualifications they need. What will it take for this government to act? It needs to act now.

10:46 am

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019 and the amendment moved by the shadow assistant minister. Labor is not opposing the bill. We support it. There are some sensible changes in this bill. It largely implements the recommendations from the independent Joyce and Braithwaite reviews into the sector. It does address some of the frustrations felt by the RTOs with the existing system, and it adds to an information and education approach to compliance. There are sensible changes, and we support them.

But we have some concerns, as usual, with this government. The devil is in the detail. Firstly, the bill moves to a full cost recovery model for auditing. This goes directly against the recommendations of those independent reviews. They have had independent reviews and taken them on board, but when it comes to costs, no, they won't follow that; instead they'll pass those costs on to the training organisations, against the recommendations of the independent reviews. Of course, what will the training organisations do? How will they recover those costs? They'll pass them on to students and families. Labor is very concerned that this full cost recovery model will push providers into passing costs on to students and that will increase the price of training. Just as we want more students, more young Australians getting into training and taking on these courses, this government is going to make it even harder by making it more expensive to get training.

The government, if it's going to say that that won't happen, needs to make sure that it doesn't happen. It needs to monitor the situation and ensure that these organisations don't do it. But given the track record of this government, I doubt that that monitoring will happen. I think what we will see is that full cost recovery will occur, training organisations will pass those costs on to students, and that will be the end of the matter. I do hope that we don't see students dropping off the perch as a result when it comes to taking on training, but I fear that could be a consequence.

We need to ensure that the reforms to the skills quality assurance system don't allow any drop in quality. In the past, we've seen this government being very slow to act on quality issues when it comes to training. That has done serious reputational damage to the sector. Over the last few years we've seen what a mess has been made of the training sector. Labor has a longstanding commitment to make national TAFE the central pillar of training in this country. TAFE has the runs on the board when it comes to providing proper training and qualifications for students. Of course it has to be funded properly, and I'll come to that. But we see what a mess has been made of training in recent years, with a number of basically sham contractors and sham organisations going belly up and leaving students in the lurch. We need to make sure that quality is looked after. We will not oppose measures that enhance student protections or address provider concerns.

At it's heart—and this is why I do support the assistant shadow minister's amendment—this bill does not come even close to fixing the real mess that this government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. That is at the heart of this. As useful as these reforms which are before us today in this bill are, they don't really go to the heart of Australia's training system. At the heart of the training system in Australia is the lack of funding under this government.

Our country sits on the doorstep of a continent to our north that is going through one of history's greatest economic transformations. South-East Asia, Asia and India are going through massive economic transformation and we are in the box seat in this country, to take advantage. Our young people can take advantage of those opportunities that are on our doorstep not just overseas but also here in Australia. They are perfectly placed to benefit from the extraordinary growth that's going on around us, and yet under this government we have seen 150,000 fewer apprentices go through the books than previously. What an absolutely wasted opportunity under this government to provide proper training and proper apprenticeships for young people. At a time of extraordinary growth and opportunity, this government has been asleep at the wheel.

We need to be training young Australians in the skills and the qualifications that are required to meet the opportunities to our north, such as in the engineering, construction and maritime industries. There are almost too many to mention, but, unfortunately, this government has just not grasped those opportunities. It has spent the last seven years not just neglecting but destroying our TAFE and training system. If it was just a case of wilfully letting it go, that would be one thing, but it has actually have cut funding over seven years to TAFE and training in this country. The numbers involved are absolutely shocking.

As we learnt last year from the federal government's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. That means the government budgeted nearly $1 billion for TAFE and training and they didn't spend it. They had it in the bucket to invest in TAFE and training, but thought, 'No, we don't need to spend that.' They claim it's because there has not been enough demand from students and families to take up those places. What absolute rubbish! I can tell you that in my electorate there are heaps of kids who want to take up TAFE and training opportunities, but, for all sorts of reasons, whether it's cost, availability or accessibility, they've been unable to take up those opportunities. Instead of assisting kids into these training opportunities, which will put them on the pathway of a better life, this government pocketed that money to go towards its budget numbers. It's all sitting there. It's all sitting in the government's bank account, supposedly earmarked for TAFE and training, doing nothing. And that's on top of the $3 billion that has already been ripped out of the system. We have TAFE campuses falling apart across the country because of rampant capital underinvestment by this government. We've got state governments closing campuses and ending courses all while this nearly $1 billion—$919 million—remains unspent, because there has been 'less demand than forecast'. What an absolute joke. What an absolute abrogation of the responsibility of a national government. This is neglect, pure and simple.

It's not just the decaying infrastructure or the shrinking course options. What this government has caused is a loss of faith in Australia's TAFE and training systems. I remember maybe 40 years ago, when I was a young fella, that TAFE and training was something to aspire to. People had faith in TAFE. They had faith in the technical colleges. They knew that, if you didn't want to go on the pathway to university, you got on the pathway to an apprenticeship or a trade, and TAFE was the way to get there. You could be sure that the qualifications you got would help you get a good job. You would be provided with the skills you needed to get a good job. This government, through its wilful neglect of the sector, has absolutely destroyed that reputation. We have, by the defence industry—just as the defence budget is increasing—a submission from Australian shipbuilding to say the quality of certificate III apprentices currently being produced was 'totally unacceptable and not of the required standards for the defence industry'. What an absolute indictment of the current training standards under this government that the defence and shipbuilding industry feels that the current levels of training are not up to standard to work on Australian manufacturing. That is an absolute disgrace.

This hasn't happened by accident. This government's $1 billion underspend has been on incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, support to help finish their apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. That's what they've underspent on. They've underspent on programs that are meant to help get kids in these schemes. They've underspent the money. I don't understand their methodology at all.

I come to my own state. All signs show that the TAFE and training system in Tasmania is not working. As I've said, on a national level we have 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees. In Tasmania between 2013 and 2018—that's a period covered entirely by Liberal governments, both here in Canberra and in Tasmania—we had a decrease of 12.52 per cent in apprentices. There have been 12.52 per cent fewer apprentices over those five years than previously. That is 1,200 fewer apprentices being trained in the skills that our state needs to continue to grow.

What happens when you don't train young people in plumbing, carpentry, electrical engineering and all the skills you need for construction and road building and to keep the economy moving? What happens when you don't have the skills being trained locally? You bring the labour in from overseas. If employers can't get young people trained in these jobs, they put their hand up and say to the government, 'We need temporary visas to bring people in from overseas.' And that's an absolute indictment when we have the current levels of youth unemployment. We see workers coming in from overseas on temporary visas taking up jobs that young Australians should be getting qualifications in. It's an absolute failure of policy.

We have a mass shortage of critical trades—carpenters, plumbers and mechanics—and unacceptable unemployment and underemployment rates in my state. In September last year Tasmania's jobless rate was 6.7 per cent and our underemployment rate—as we know, they are people who may be employed for one, two or five hours a week and desperately want more work—was 10.6 per cent. That is the worst in Australia. I remind you that this is the worst in Australia at a time when the Liberal government in Tasmania is telling Tasmanians that we're in a golden age. We're in a golden age in Tasmania, yet underemployment in my state is 10.6 per cent!

Our workforce participation rate is 60.3 per cent. That means that a lot of people are looking for work and more work. It's worse if you're a woman. In the 12 months before September 2019 more than 5,000 full-time jobs were lost in my state. At a time when we have a $919 million underspend in TAFE and training, 150,000 fewer apprentices and a record number of people coming in on temporary work visas, we have seen 5,000 full-time jobs lost in my state. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if we train more local young people in the skills for local jobs then we won't need to bring as many people in from overseas.

We have seen interstate and overseas plasterers, plumbers and electricians brought in to work on the Royal Hobart Hospital upgrades. We have seen the Cattle Hill Wind Farm in my electorate and a lot of other major projects bring in workers from interstate and overseas because they can't source locally skilled labour. That locally skilled labour should be provided by local TAFEs and training organisations. What a wasted opportunity by both the state and federal Liberal governments.

Because of our failing TAFE system and the poor quality of our VET courses too many people are unable to explore the pathways that will provide them with the foundation on which they can build their skills and find new jobs in an economy that is changing and resulting in the disappearance of low-skilled jobs. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed the local supermarket's push to get people to use the self-serve check-outs. You might think it is a small thing, but for every person who goes through a self-serve check-out that's a person not being served by someone with a job. If you don't go to a cashier and you do it yourself, that's one less job. I'm not the only one—I make a point of never using a self-serve check-out. No matter how inconvenient it is, I make sure I stand at a check-out with a cashier. And when the supervisors come up to me and say, 'Sir, would you like to use our self-serve check-out?' I say: 'No, thanks. I'm protecting jobs. I'll stay here.' Hopefully, if more people do that, that will force those supermarkets to put on more cashiers and stop this rampant use of auto check-outs, because I know what's happened on the mainland. In Sydney, where my brother lives, they used to have self-serve check-outs and they'd have enough people to manage it. Of course, what they have done now is cut all the staff. All the staff have gone. All the cashiers on the check-outs have gone. Now they've got long queues on the self-serve check-outs, so it's no quicker than it used to be. People have been trained to use a self-serve check-out; meanwhile the supermarkets are saving millions of dollars in lost jobs.

The point here is that these low-skilled jobs that employed people—good jobs for people with low skills—are going. They're being automated out. Automation is taking over, and they're going. So, in conclusion, I would just like to say we support this bill before the House, but I do support the assistant shadow minister. It's a very good amendment. This government needs to be held to account for its dismal failure towards Australia's TAFE and training system.

11:01 am

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been a TAFE teacher, a university lecturer and a university professor and I've managed some registered training organisations in the past. Let me say, I'm very proud of Australia's world-class training and education system. I think that that's particularly reflected in the case of a constituent of Cowan, Mr Anthony Di Cristofaro, who lives not very far from me. Last year he was awarded the Apprentice of the Year at the WA Training Awards. Anthony took the time to write to me at length about his story and to tell me about his struggles to get an apprenticeship, what he went through and the incredible resilience that he showed in sticking with his apprenticeship. Just two weeks before he started his apprenticeship, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Anthony has three children, so he became a primary carer for his mother as well as looking after his three children while also trying to complete this apprenticeship. He is now a very successful carpenter. Anthony's story reminds us of the importance of a world-class training system and the importance of ensuring that we have a well-regulated training system so that people like Anthony who want to retrain, who want to become skilled, can do that.

I also want to speak to this as a mother. As a mother, let me say this: there is absolutely nothing more disheartening than watching your child's dreams disintegrate and feeling powerless to do anything about it. I see that when I have fathers coming to my office who have sons or daughters who want to take up apprenticeships and they want nothing more than to see their child succeed in acquiring those skills. But I hear these stories of how these young people have had to give up their dreams because they can't access the apprenticeships and the traineeships that they want to access because of cuts to our public training system.

This bill goes some way to achieving some form of regulation in the training system. It imposes a new condition of registration that requires registered training organisations to demonstrate a capability and commitment to deliver quality vocational education and training, which we on this side know is very important. Labor, of course, supports a strong, robust and effective vocational education and training system.

The bill strengthens and clarifies existing ASQA powers, with stronger civil penalties and powers to make directions. Importantly, the reforms follow some widespread frustration among registered training organisations about the way in which ASQA currently conducts some of its audits. These include concerns about an audit culture that focuses on minor issues that don't necessarily impact on the quality of teaching and learning, and concerns about the variability of treatment of providers by different auditors. I have another example from my electorate of Cowan. In this case an RTO in the construction industry failed compliance with ASQA on some minor admin and website errors. As a consequence, they were deregistered. The impact of that was that, in this particular case, 140 students who completed their training were left without a qualification.

I certainly welcome a more robust approach to RTOs and to quality in our vocational education system. Labor's position on this is that we will always continue to back a strong and comprehensive regulatory compliance and education framework for ASQA, particularly following the widespread rorting of the VET FEE-HELP program. We recognise ASQA's vital work in attempting to rid the sector of low-quality and unscrupulous providers, but, there needs to be some form of standardisation in the way in which ASQA approaches its duties to ensure that providers that are providing quality vocational education and training aren't punished for minor errors and that compliance is based on the quality of education and training that's being provided.

While we support a fair and considered approach to the ASQA reforms and we support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure a responsiveness to students, communities and employers, we will not support any changes that attempt to weaken their regulatory framework. We'd like to monitor the implementation of these and other forthcoming amendments to the regulatory arrangements. The shadow minister has spoken about that at length as well.

In talking about the importance of vocational education and training to Australia's education system and its contribution to education, skills and employment, it would be remiss of me not to mention this government's failure to adequately fund and support our public vocational education and training system. Members before me have spoken about the decrease in the number of apprenticeships and traineeships. In my electorate of Cowan the largest number of people employed are in the trades. That has fallen quite dramatically since this government has taken power. I know that is not due to natural attrition. I know that because, as I said in my opening remarks, I have parents and young people coming into my office seeking out apprenticeships and traineeships, seeking out vocational education and training courses that are no longer available at their local TAFE. As a university professor I used to get prospective students come to me. The first thing I would say to them is, 'Why do you want to do a university degree?' I held, and I still stand by this, that not everybody needs to go to university, not everybody wants to go to university and not everybody should go to university. We need a strong vocational education and training sector to train a whole range of skills that aren't provided by the university sector. I gave the example earlier of Anthony, who was the WA Apprentice of the Year. He started out studying for a degree in psychology, I believe, and then changed to commerce. Then he decided that university just wasn't for him. That's not an unusual story. I see a lot of young people and older people who start a university degree and decide that it isn't for them. They want to do a trade. They want to acquire a skill. They rely on our vocational education and training sector to be able to acquire what they need to enter the workforce and be productive and participate in our economic life. It is vitally important that we continue to provide that service for people who are looking for jobs, for people who want to acquire a skill and for people who want to enter a trade, particularly in the construction areas. This is what we need. This is what it means to have a comprehensive education system that affords an opportunity for every Australian to participate fully in the social and economic aspects of our society. It shouldn't just be about universities. It should also be about vocational education and training.

A strong economy requires a skilled workforce. It requires a workforce that is able to meet the demands of industry, and our VET sector is best placed to do that. It is best placed to be really responsive to the demands of industry as those demands change. We need to support our VET sector, particularly public vocational education and training, to ensure that students walk away with a high-quality education that gives them the best opportunity for meaningful employment. I've said this before in this House and continue to hold by this: vocational education and training is an important pillar of our community. It's not just part of our education system; it's part of something that Australia can be proud of. We export education, we export VET, and we should continue to do so.

But I want to make mention of this government's failure to ensure that we have a strong public vocational education and training sector. As somebody who worked at TAFE, I continue to keep up with people that I worked with at TAFE: teachers and managers at the different TAFE campuses where I worked before I entered the university sector. What I'm hearing from them is that many TAFEs have had to reduce the number of course offerings they have. This has meant that they have had to lay off some of the teachers or casualise a lot of their workforce. This is a direct result of this government's track record on training, which, quite frankly, has been appalling—quite appalling.

To me, it appears very clear that the government don't respect vocational education and training, at least not in the public sense. They don't know how to support our VET sector, and it shows. It shows. They have a strong record of cuts to the VET sector, to our public TAFEs. They have a strong record of failing to ensure a robust VET sector. While the bill, which we are supporting here today, goes some way, in terms of the regulation of private RTOs, it does nothing to restore the public vocational education and training sector, which, at one point, was a real sense of pride for Australia.

I remember travelling—about eight years ago, now—to the Gulf States on a business mission and talking to people there who were keen to tap into our expertise on vocational education and training, particularly Australia's TAFE model, the VET sector model, of being responsive to industry needs, and the construction of our training programs. I'm afraid that that's gone. I'm afraid that we've lost the capital that we had to export education, to be a world leader in vocational education and training. And I'm afraid that it's as a direct result of this government's failure to adequately fund the TAFE sector and their ignorance of the TAFE system.

We have fewer apprenticeships and traineeships available today. As I said, while we support these reforms, because they contribute to a more robust regulatory system for RTOs, Australia still has a long way to go to regain the reputation we had as a world leader in the VET sector. I implore this government to turn their attention to the public TAFE system, to recognise the importance of VET in our education system for our employment sector, and, particularly, to give hope to those young people who want to take up a trade, who want to learn a skill and who want to contribute to our economy.

11:15 am

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Vocational Education, Training and Apprenticeships) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to sum up the debate on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2019. I'd like to thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate on this bill, which will ensure that the national VET regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, is positioned to safeguard and enhance the reputation and integrity of Australia's vocational education and training, or VET, sector. I'd also like to thank the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills for its consideration and scrutiny comments on the bill, contained in Scrutiny digest 1 of 2020.

Last year this government committed $18.1 million to support the reform of ASQA. These reforms will ensure that regulation of the VET sector is transparent and effective and is aligned with modern best-practice models of governance and engagement. This bill is the first tranche of changes to ASQA, which respond to the recommendations from the 2018 Braithwaite review of the regulator's primary legislation and the 2019 Joyce review of VET, to ensure the legislation is fit for purpose.

This bill supports ASQA's move towards transparency, ensuring it is a balanced regulator that builds quality and capacity in the VET sector. These measures ensure the regulator has the necessary powers to scrutinise registered training organisations, RTOs, and ensure that only those RTOs genuinely committed and adequately resourced to deliver quality training to students will be allowed to operate. Where ASQA must cancel an RTO's registration for noncompliance with the VET quality framework, the amendments provide ASQA with flexibility and discretion in determining when cancellation or refusal of registration takes effect so as to minimise the impact on students. In practice the amendments will allow providers in some circumstances to continue operating for a period while students complete their training or arrange to transfer to another provider.

It is critical for ASQA to follow standard regulatory procedures so RTOs are afforded the principles of natural justice and decisions are supported by sound evidence. There are existing natural justice requirements in the NVETR Act that ensure providers are notified of ASQA's intention to cancel and provide time for RTOs to respond to the notice. These remain unchanged by these amendments, and the RTOs will continue to have access to appeal processes.

Improved transparency of regulatory actions will occur with the public release of RTO audit reports once an appropriate format for these reports has been consulted on and agreed. This important measure will improve VET sector confidence in the ability of the regulator to make appropriate, consistent and proportionate regulatory decisions. Expanding information entered on the publicly available national register and enabling ASQA to share information electronically with those responsible for administering laws to the VET sector will assist students to make informed enrolment decisions and provide employers with better information about training quality. Further technical amendments in the bill support ASQA to be a more responsive and efficient regulator and facilitate improved engagement with the sector.

I understand the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash, has written to the chair of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, Senator Helen Polley, to thank the committee for its scrutiny comments, made in Scrutiny digest 1 of 2020. The minister has responded to the committee's request for advice in relation to several issues in the bill. Having considered the observations and comments made on the bill, no amendments were considered appropriate.

This bill is the first step in a suite of measures the government is bringing forward to enhance ASQA's regulatory approach and ensure Australia's ongoing capacity to deliver quality VET training to meet the needs of a growing, skilled economy. Once again, I thank all the members for their engagement, feedback and scrutiny of this bill. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Sydney has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment moved by the member for Sydney be agreed to.