Speeches

THE NEED FOR REFORM IN SKILLS & TRAINING

June 15, 2020

I rise to speak about the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. Labor will not oppose this bill. It amends the governance structures of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national VET regulator, and enhances information-sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Key amendments will revise ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder—a CEO—and will establish the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. The advisory council is intended to provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. The changes respond to initial findings from the rapid review of ASQA's governance, culture and processes.

Labor supports a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve its capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers, but we will reject changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA audit processes don't allow any drop in quality. In the past, we've seen this government be slow to act on quality issues, and it has done serious damage to the sector.

As I said earlier, Labor will not oppose this bill, but we will push to ensure TAFE and union representation on the advisory council. It's crucial that the public provider has a seat at the table. Given the important role the advisory council will play in providing strategic advice, Labor believes it is imperative that the council represents a cross-section of the sector, while providing essential expertise. As the public provider, TAFE plays a critical role in the sector and it should be properly represented on the council. We do not want to see an advisory body that is unduly weighted to representing private providers. This could undermine ASQA's stringent regulatory approach. Equally, trade union representation is vital. Union members, the workers, are at the coalface of training, and they know too well the system and the system's problems. They have played a critical role in the development of standards, career advancement, safety and quality of courses. To remove the voice of those at the coalface would diminish any work the council did.

More broadly, this is just another tweak from a third-term government that simply refuses to deliver a genuine reform package to overhaul the vocational training sector. The bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. The outbreak of the coronavirus highlighted that more than seven years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocational training. The most recent figures show a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. I've spoken to small businesses who say they've been struggling to keep their apprentices on. The government did earlier offer a subsidy for apprentices, and that's one small step in the right direction, but this is a critical problem for us. We had skills shortages before the pandemic hit. Before COVID-19 we were simultaneously experiencing a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skills shortages. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is a disaster. And here we are, confronted with just that. There's a nearly 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages.

While businesses are struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill those positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that those roles require. Why isn't the Prime Minister training these people for jobs in industries where there's a shortage of workers? Well, because the government has spent seven years neglecting our TAFE and vocational education and training system. It has spent seven years neglecting it. It has spent seven years ignoring the vital role that TAFE, the public provider, plays in the growth and development of young people and the vital role it plays in the growth of our economy. It has spent seven years cutting funding, while also underspending the meagre amount it promised the sector. Rebuilding our skills and training sector will be crucial to getting the economy going again post the pandemic.

We absolutely need to be properly funding our TAFEs and our apprenticeship programs. Sadly, we've seen $3 billion of cuts in recent years to TAFE and training. The government must restore the funding they have cut. They must invest in developing our younger generation of tradespeople in these areas. They need to take responsibility for this. As we learned last year from the federal Department of Education's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. The numbers involved are shocking. It is all sitting in the government's bank account, idling away, and that is in addition to the more than $3 billion already ripped out of the system.

We have TAFE campuses falling apart across the country, desperately in need of infrastructure upgrades. We have state governments closing campuses and ending courses, all while this pile of money remains unspent. Why? Because this government says there has been less demand than forecast. Every year since the Liberal Party came to office?

That just doesn't stack up. When underemployment is near record levels, employers are at the same time crying out for skilled workers, and young people cannot get jobs.

What is the result? Under the Liberals there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that over the past year 20 per cent fewer people were signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This was even more extreme in a number of essential trades. Australians starting an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction, including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing, dropped an alarming 40 per cent. There are more people dropping out of vocational training than finishing it. This doesn't happen by accident. The Liberal government's billion dollar 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.

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 has neglected our youth—not only our youth but the many other workers needing reskilling to get a job after they have lost theirs or have been made redundant. Think of autoworkers. They were highly skilled workers in good, solid jobs with decent pay and conditions that were gone at the whim of a past Treasurer and his government. Thousands of skilled workers were employed directly by the car companies themselves or in supply chains or services companies that relied on the sector. Research shows that, when an industry collapses or is shut down, one-third of workers get a similar job, one-third end up in lower paid, casual, less skilled jobs and one-third never work again.

Planning for full employment, in particular in the face of sectoral change, is complicated but necessary, and it can be done. All the VET sector—TAFEs, RDOs, community colleges, group training organisations—has 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 I, along with my party, have a vision for the vocational education and training sector. It is one where courses are reworked to reflect new and traditional skills, where teachers are offered secure jobs in the sector, with good pay, and where the best of the best can be attracted to teach. It is one where students are proud to have secured a place at a prestigious TAFE and where they are delivered qualifications that can set them up for life. It is one where students have state-of-the-art equipment and world-class amenities, where qualifications are valued equally with those of the university sector, where dual qualifications may even be possible, where businesses compete for collaboration and opportunity and open the doors of expertise for people to be trained, and where businesses do their bit to ensure a future with a productive, skilled workforce. It would be a world leader in education and professional standards and growth.

We need a framework and a government with the vision to set this up. We need a regulator that has a compliance role, for sure. But we also need it to have a role in education, enabling and transforming and evolving the training organisations. We have a vision for TAFEs and the VET sector—one where it is vital, robust and valued. This government does not. It gives lip-service but does nothing useful. Yes, we support this bill, but it's just tinkering in a sector that is crying out for reform. For almost seven years this government has shown a palpable lack of leadership. But, suddenly, the Prime Minister has apparently clicked and knows it's important to the Australian people and the economy. He made some hollow references without any hard detail and without any policy announcements. There were no funding commitments and there was no indication of what this means. We are seeing piecemeal reforms in response to a flurry of disconnected reviews. But there have been too many wasted years, and there is no clear vision.

The Productivity Commission says the VET system is a mess. The Business Council of Australia is calling for fundamental reform. The Australian 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 skill shortages cannot be addressed with a piecemeal, half-hearted approach to skill acquisition, vocational education and our public provider.

I am a nurse, and I did a Bachelor of Education so I could play a role in the education of future nurses, enrolled nurses and carers. I've had experiences in both receiving and delivering quality vocational education, and it starts with a commitment to the end goal of skilled workers through real collaboration with industry, trainers and government. That connection between industry, training organisations and government is broken. In fact, in many ways the VET sector has divided—moved away from industry. It's no longer supplying the skills that industry demands nor is it providing the quality of training that is 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 industries' interests—nor, for that matter, the economy's interest.

Everyone from the Business Council of Australia through to the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling for intervention to restart the process. The government's response has been poor. It is not listening. It is merely tinkering. The Prime Minister has no plan to create more jobs or to lift wages for those who are actually employed. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work needed to solve them. He would rather spin and deflect, bringing in marketing teams and celebrity ambassadors to distract from the real issue. Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the profound problems that undermine vocational education and training and, consequently, the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy.

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:

(1) the Government has damaged Australia's world-class vocational training system by:

   (a) cutting funding for vocational education and TAFE by over $3 billion;

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

   (c) failing to tackle falling completion rates, with more people dropping out of vocational training courses than finishing them; and

(2) this bill fails to deliver the reform needed to fix problems in the vocational training sector".

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