Senate debates

Monday, 16 March 2015


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015; Second Reading

6:16 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

it is good to have you on board, Senator Birmingham, but this change that is happening now is happening in a context. I want to explore that context in terms of the state that I represent here in the federal parliament, the great state of New South Wales, and see what smiling Mike Baird, the Premier there, has been up to.

I was at the launch for the Labor Party campaign with our leader, Luke Foley, at the Catholic club in Campbelltown. That is actually where I grew up in my teen years. I went to St Patrick's College in Campbelltown, and I am very proud to be the duty senator for the great seat of Macarthur. Mr Foley said at that launch that he had nothing against Mr Baird in principle. He seems like a nice fellow with a lovely smile. But he is a Liberal, and they have a different set of values from the Labor Party, which I represent here.

Across New South Wales and on the Central Coast, where I live, under the Liberal government of Barry O'Farrell and now Mike Baird, TAFE courses have absolutely taken a hiding. Courses have just been completely axed, with students saying, 'I'm part-way through a diploma or qualification and unable to complete it.' They have been arbitrarily shut down. Special assistance measures for students with disabilities have been wound back. If you have a visual impairment or a hearing impairment, that is the support that you need to be successful—and I have taught many of these students who transitioned from the TAFE system into the university. I have taught many of these students, and all they needed was a little hand for a little while to get the skills that they needed. That kind of support has been ripped away by a Liberal government. Do you get the pattern here?

And, of course, there has been a predatory fee increase. This has happened in 2015, and it is hitting students hard. Again, students who had planned for how much it might cost them to study are being hit with incredibly high fees, doubling the cost, for example, of a certificate III in hairdressing. It now costs $2,000, an increase of $998. For young people who certainly do not get very high wages even when they become qualified, overall the increase to fees on TAFE courses under Premier Baird's change is simply going to put vocational training out of reach of many young people in New South Wales and push them into the hands of unscrupulous RTOs that would bring them in the door, load them up with debt and leave them with a qualification worth nothing. This is a construction of the Liberal government: the decimation of TAFE, creating that empty space in which these young people and mature-age workers who are seeking retraining are now vulnerable participants.

The massive hikes are also going to have a very negative impact in terms of the long-term skill shortage that they will create for many industries, not to say anything about the quality—and I would like to make some more remarks on that if time permits. But the fee increases we are seeing to the TAFE sector are not only going to hurt our economy; they are going to compromise the future jobs of thousands of people across the great state of New South Wales. I am a resident of the Central Coast, where we have incredible pressures in terms of unemployment. This plan of the Liberal government in New South Wales is devastating for the Central Coast.

There is a contrast. Labor has a $100 million TAFE rescue plan on the table to reverse the Baird government fee hikes that have happened for apprentices. That will be a saving of $990 for these apprentices. It makes a difference—because Labor has a different view about access to education from those in government here federally and in New South Wales. The Baird government, no friend of education, cut $1.7 million from the education system. What has it done to teachers? It has axed the jobs of 1,100 teachers and staff.

Courses have been lost at Wyong TAFE. One of the hot spots for youth unemployment in New South Wales is on the northern part of the Central Coast. What have they cut? They have cut the second-chance HSC—it is just gone. So, if anything happens to you—if you have an identity crisis, you have anxiety, you are unwell in any shape or form, there is a crisis in your family, or a parent or sibling dies—if anything traumatic or dramatic happens to you as you are approaching the HSC, your second chance to have a go at the HSC is gone. And young people's lives are up in smoke because of a short-sighted government. They have cut tourism, which is an easily accessed industry in our area. They have cut hospitality. In doing so, they have cut the links between well-equipped schools and the local TAFE. And they have cut IT. Gosford TAFE has had cuts in maths. It has had cuts in metal fabrication, and it has had cuts in welding. This is really, really bad for the coast, where trades are a vital part of our economy.

These cuts are actually called—a great misnomer—'Smart and Skilled'. It is dumb and broken. That is the kind of New South Wales that Mike Baird wants to create, and that is an expose of the Liberal policy. Hollowing out TAFE into a business is the first step towards privatising it entirely. What we are seeing in New South Wales is the construction of a completely private sector—and they are in cahoots with this federal government; make no mistake.

Liberals, both federal and state, just do not get it. The TAFE system actually changes the lives of many, many Australians. It provides for people of all ages and from all walks of life. It gives people the opportunity to learn a trade, to begin a career or to make a change when their career choice when they first left school is in an industry that later no longer exists.

Unfortunately, in New South Wales, the Baird government has just spent four years cutting the TAFE system to shreds. This is madness—absolute madness—when you have unemployment growing and you have unemployment on the coast climbing to 7.2 per cent. For 15- to 19-year-olds on the Central Coast, youth unemployment is at 21 per cent. But the Liberal government goes ahead with the cutting, the slashing, the burning. 'Oh, it'll be good for you; just trust us,' it says. We have kids who are devastated, whose lives are falling apart right now. They cannot wait for the Liberal government to wake up to the fact that it is killing off the opportunities for young people.

Labor and Liberal: two very different views of education. Luke Foley's Labor has committed to rebuilding TAFE. It will invest an additional $100 million into TAFE, and that is the sort of money that is going to allow Gosford and Wyong to reinstate vital courses that have been cut.

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30

Prior to the dinner break, I was making some remarks with regard to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015 and pointing out the very different set of values that Labor and Liberal members of this parliament and also of the New South Wales parliament have with regard to education, particularly the TAFE sector. Labor have committed to rebuild TAFE and invest $100 million into TAFE. That will allow places like Gosford and Wyong campuses to reinstate some of the vital courses that, as I articulated, have been pulled out, including a second chance to do the HSC and metal fabrication courses, taking away the opportunity to learn and build a future. We need to see this restoration of student support, and the reason that has to happen is that Labor is seeking government on the back of a four-year Baird-O'Farrell government, with cutbacks and massive rounds of fee increases to our students.

The shadow minister for education, Ryan Park, visited my home region of the Central Coast recently. He visited Wyong TAFE, which has been so savagely attacked by the Liberal ideology, with places taken away from young people, and he said what is apparent to me as a Labor person and to any fair-minded Australian: that a strong vocational education and training system is absolutely vital for the future of this nation, and it is certainly vital on the Central Coast, where unemployment is rising and four out of 10 students do not complete year 12. Where are they going to go after the Liberal Party have finished killing off the TAFE system? They are going to go to these RTOs that we are seeing this legislation brought forward to try to contain. We need to call on this government for Mr Abbott to talk to his mate Mr Baird and say: 'Get your hands off TAFE. Leave TAFE standing. Give it some status. Give it some funding. Let it stand as the one thing that will provide the bridge between unemployment and a future for millions and millions of Australians.'

Labor has committed that in one term we would abolish the very misnamed Smart and Skilled Liberal policy of TAFE privatisation; we would reverse the Baird government's TAFE fee hikes, including the savage increases that have commenced this year; and we would guarantee funding to TAFE by capping the amount of public funds that can be contestable by private operators at 30 per cent. If this government is serious about making a backflip that is actually worth something, it might make some sort of similar commitment, saying that it will not support the states that do not limit the capacity of the RTOs to take over more than 30 per cent. We need TAFE. Australians know it has been a quality deliverer of education for decades. We need it. We would also commission a landmark review of education and training in New South Wales after year 10, with an action plan to develop Central Coast TAFE into a world leader.

Mr Shorten was on the coast last week, and he reiterated Labor's commitment to and concern for TAFE. He said:

There is a role for private providers in training and there are some private provider organisations doing outstanding work, but I think there is mounting community concern that on the one hand we've seen the Liberals dismantling and attacking TAFE, and on the other hand, we've seen the 'leave it to the market' attitude of private providers in training and we're seeing a long tail of underperformance and indeed in some cases scandalous behaviour.

That could not be any more clear than in Victoria, where people have undertaken courses that were so badly delivered by private training organisations that their qualifications are null and void—people who have been through the terrible experience, paid the money and got a certificate not worth the paper it was printed on. We know that the behaviour of some of the private providers has served to undermine confidence in vocational qualifications. It has taken advantage of students unable to make informed decisions.

We know that disadvantaged students are under-represented in the for-profit VET sector. TAFE continues to enrol most early school leavers, regional students and students with a disability. It is doing the heavy lifting of helping young people and those who find themselves unemployed to transition to work. But we know that the VET for-profit providers are avoiding offering the skills for areas of shortage, like trades, because it would cost them too much money. They are focusing on high-volume, high-profit areas like business studies, but we do not need more business studies; we need people with the trades that match our needs in the community. If Mr Baird and Mr Abbott have another surfing fest on the Northern Beaches and get their way, we will have a totally privatised model and a large-scale abandonment of trade training opportunities.

The record of this government is pretty appalling. They have cut $2 billion from the skills portfolio since the budget—$2 billion. Apprentices should feel rightly betrayed by Mr Abbott and this government. There was a promise before the election: 'Oh, the coalition will provide better support for Australia's apprentices.' That is an absolute load of rubbish. What Mr Abbott did when he got in was cut direct assistance to apprentices; he cut Tools For Your Trade. So, instead of being able to buy a small ute in regional Australia for $5,000, now they will help you out with a $20,000 loan. That is the Liberals' idea of support for people who need access to TAFE. They have abolished the mentor and access programs. They have abolished Apprenticeship to Business Owner. They have abolished the joint training funding. They have cut funding to Australian apprenticeship centres.

Tradies on the Central Coast are the second largest employment group we have. They need proper training for the ones that they want to train up. These are vital parts of our community. They are great employers. They contribute amazingly to sponsorship of surf lifesaving clubs, to Lions, to Rotary and to work experience. Kids growing up know that we need tradies. They want to be tradies. They want TAFE so they can become tradies. They want to become hospitality workers or IT workers. They want to get on and do their HSC and access uni when they could not before. Only Labor will deliver these things, and this government, with this backflip, is very, very slowly approaching a crisis that it has continued to assist in making in every state, and particularly in the great state of New South Wales, by its appalling treatment of those who want to study and work in TAFE. (Time expired)


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