Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2017


Vocational Education

10:10 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to be following my colleague Senator Andrew Bartlett, and I congratulate the Queensland Greens on their amazing and fantastic outcome due to all the hard work and strategic planning that's gone on for well over a year. I had the pleasure of joining them for a short time on the campaign trial and I warmly congratulate them.

Tonight I want to pick up on another election that's coming up—a by-election in New England. It's clear that New England very much needs a fair deal on TAFE. This is absolutely urgent. We've seen TAFE seriously undermined. It's been going on for years. Tragically, it largely started going downhill in 2012, when former education minister Julia Gillard renegotiated the national agreement on vocational education and training, which opened the door very wide to for-profit private providers, and the problems have flowed since then. In regional Australia it's particularly tough. We're seeing many TAFEs disappear. I was recently on the South Coast of New South Wales visiting other TAFEs in the region, right down to the Bega area. It's quite shocking what the government is planning to do in New South Wales to close down that TAFE and many other TAFEs as viable institutes.

When it comes to New England the Greens are the only party offering a guaranteed 100 per cent of the public vocational education budget to be devoted to TAFE. This was set out very clearly by Pete Wills, the Greens candidate for New England. He raised this very clearly at a number of forums on public education held last week across the New England electorate. The Liberal-National and Labor governments have put TAFE qualifications beyond the reach of most New Englanders, and that's because course fees now total many thousands of dollars and student loans are offered on less favourable financial terms than those for university students. I mean, how extraordinary is this? Our TAFE system was once world class, world leading, and now it's just been run down by successive federal and many state governments.

For people in rural towns, who depend on TAFE to get a start in the workforce, it's very unfair. We see this particularly clearly with the state of the apprenticeship system in this country. You could say that the apprenticeship system is in crisis. Since 2012 the number of apprentices in Australia has almost halved. This is very much a crisis for young people who are seeking a trades career, seeking to develop their skills for their future. I recommend a recent research paper by the CFMEU and the Australian Education Union, which shows that while the number of apprentices has declined almost one in three young people either can't find a job—about 13 per cent unemployment for them—or can't find enough work, which is 20 per cent underemployment. More and more qualified tradespeople are saying they find it increasingly difficult to engage in apprenticeships when they are faced with insecure and sham contracts. The privatisation of vocational education and training was identified in this study as something that's devastated the apprenticeship system. Again, it goes to the for-profit private providers. They're rorting the system. We've heard the stories. We've heard the government saying that they've stemmed the free giveaways of laptops et cetera. But the problems still exists, and that national agreement has to be changed.

Cuts to TAFE funding have made vocational training much less accessible. Again, to emphasise: in rural areas they are doing it even tougher, largely because of the run-down in the TAFE colleges themselves but also because of the fees. And these were issues that Mr Wills, the Greens candidate in New England, well and truly put on the map last week at these forums. And these are some of the comments he made:

Instead of replacing TAFE with an internet cafe like the Nationals, or keeping TAFE on life support with a 70 per cent funding threshold like Labor, the Greens will restore quality public TAFE colleges throughout New England with a 100 per cent funding guarantee.

He went on to say:

Greens respect rural communities with our recognition of the prime role of TAFE for practical vocational education to people of all ages, and especially for young people, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities, and students for whom traditional schooling did not meet their needs TAFE also enables older Australians to re-enter the workforce or transition to new careers.

I very much congratulate Mr Wills for giving such leadership on this critical issue.

TAFE in rural areas is much more than vocational education and training. It's like the glue that holds communities together. It provides opportunities that bring people back into society, bring people back into considering education and opportunities. It broadens their horizons. It gives second chances. People for whom school didn't work get a second chance to get back into the education workforce. These TAFEs in country town after country town have added to the richness of those areas, and now, under the Nationals, the party that makes out it cares about the bush, we're seeing these TAFEs just wound back.

In some areas like what was described to me on the South Coast, they just end up with a centre with some computers and somebody who doesn't have teacher qualifications there to help you with how to look at a computer and try to get some lessons off a computer. This is so deeply unsatisfactory. At the speech I noticed the shocking decision of Labor in 2012, but I think it's very relevant that, at a recent national TAFE summit in Sydney on 20 October, Labor's education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, admitted that Labor had got it wrong by opening up the TAFE budget to dodgy private colleges that did not provide quality training.

As we know, many of these private providers are now bankrupt. They've taken millions of dollars out of the public purse because of the appalling way the system was organised once that national agreement was changed. And, again, by changing that, we've got to get rid of the for-profit private providers in the system so we can ensure the viability of TAFE, restoring it to its national and international standing that it had, because TAFE is such a proven system in terms of the education standards that it can deliver.

I do acknowledge that—and this may be the case more in regional areas—if TAFE doesn't have the ability to run courses, there can be a role for private providers, though not ones that make a profit out of the system. But first off we have to go to the public TAFE system because 'TAFE is the proven way to develop the human capacity'. Again, this is something that Mr Wills, our candidate for New England, has identified as a way to develop the human capacity of New England's rural towns and communities.

Here is another comment that he made at these forums that he addressed last week:

Every dollar we invest in TAFE comes back to each community many times over a lifetime of dignity, respect and social cohesion that springs from meaningful and fulfilling skilled employment.

Mr Wills comes from Quirindi and also spoke of how in his own hometown of Quirindi as well as Glen Innes, Tenterfield and Armidale TAFE colleges are being replaced by so-called 'connected learning centres' that won't deliver practical skills that are the hallmarks of a quality TAFE training. So that's what we are in the midst of at the moment: this shocking shift away from TAFE colleges on campuses that have wonderful facilities. They're being run down. Often the land is being sold off, and we're losing those centres. And Mr Wills asked:

How can anyone safely replace the brakes in a car or repair farm machinery from a YouTube video?

TAFE is the brakes in your family car. It's the wiring in the house where your loved ones sleep. You can't replace that with an internet cafe, as the Nationals would have you believe.

We need a strong public TAFE system. I congratulate Mr Wills for his work on TAFE.

Senate adjourned at 22:19