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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19065

Mr LATHAM (10:11 AM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 provides a fine opportunity for the parliament to examine the work of ANTA. I want to address three issues in my remarks. The first is the meaning of lifelong learning and how we build a learning culture in this nation, the second is to advocate the development of a national TAFE system, and the third is to examine ways in which government can use its leverage in the corporate sector to gain a greater commitment to training, particularly for disabled people.

On the first point, I congratulate ANTA for the development of their lifelong learning project. I would recommend that members of the House read the findings of their study. This is one of the most important reports ever conducted into attitudes to lifelong learning in this country, and it has thrown up some very interesting conclusions. ANTA has found that Australians are indeed keen on learning. They recognise the need for new skills and capabilities in a fast changing economy and also the social benefits of learning. But—and it is a big but—Australians are not so keen on inflexible classroom learning environments. They are looking for learning opportunities which are more casual, comfortable and flexible; indeed, they are looking for learning beyond the classroom.

We hear a lot of talk in modern politics about getting the balance right between work and family. If we are serious about lifelong learning, we have to get the balance right between work, family and learning commitments. In many ways, we have become a time-poor society. There are enormous demands on all families in all respects. Government needs to play a role in assisting mature Australians to get the balance right between their work, family and learning commitments. How can this be done? The obvious point is that learning opportunities need to be built around the needs of the public, not the other way around. We need to take learning beyond the classroom to the people themselves.

There are some fine examples of how this is happening, examples which should be supported in public policy. For instance, the New South Wales government has established a program where people can learn their TAFE courses on the train from Wollongong up to Sydney. If people have commuting time on their hands—some would say too much time on the New South Wales trains at the moment—why not undertake a bit of adult learning on the train of a morning and afternoon? Another example is that the New South Wales clubs association is establishing Internet cafes in its facilities. Why doesn't government use this opportunity to develop adult and community education courses in the clubs themselves? Again, that is a fine example of taking learning to the people. People are looking for learning opportunities where they feel comfortable, they feel energised, they are not intimidated by big sandstone buildings or a rigid timetable; they can do learning according to their own time needs and arrangements.

In Britain, there are some fine examples of this learning beyond the classroom agenda. For instance, the government is working with the Tesco supermarket chain to establish learning centres in the supermarkets themselves. Anyone who goes down for a bit of shopping can put their children into a learning centre for a bit of preschool instruction. That is of course better than having the kids race up and down the shopping aisles, and the kids benefit from it. I see the member for Makin nodding in agreement. She knows that there is a real need for this sort of facility. And why shouldn't the parents themselves take advantage of the learning centre? They can slot themselves in for learning opportunities with tutoring and the use of interactive computer packages. In their busy schedule, they can take advantage of the learning centre. Another example in Britain is the concept of a communiversity. This is a magnificent idea combining the best of higher education and community learning opportunities. The communiversity in Britain is a model where a local community centre buys university courses online and offers face-to-face tutoring in the community centre. It is a fine example of how people can develop a level of comfort, can develop learning opportunities and can develop qualifications according to their own busy timetable.

We have a big challenge in bringing a large number of Australians back into the learning system. It is estimated that one in four adult Australians never returns to any form of formal learning after they leave school. Mostly they are big boofy blokes like me. They have looked at the education system and thought that it is not for them. One out of every four adults is not going back to education after they leave school, and that is a big number of Australians. If we are to be serious about lifelong learning and if we are to make learning a reality for all Australians in all parts of their lives, surely we need to do better than that statistic. This indicates the need for learning beyond the classroom agenda. We will not attract the interest and energy of these Australians unless they find learning opportunities with which they are comfortable and find a level of convenience. This statistic also points to the need for and the value of a learning account or a targeted entitlement for these Australians, where they can draw on a bank of learning resources to undertake adult education courses. Of course, with the learning accounts if they do not use the entitlement they lose it, so the incentive is there for people to take up the learning opportunity.

This whole model of learning beyond the classroom opens up a partnership function for government; to join with licensed clubs, supermarkets, community centres and transport terminals to develop learning opportunities in a more flexible and comfortable environment; to actually take learning to the people themselves. I would say that this is the first task for a knowledge nation—to build public enthusiasm and to energise public effort for lifelong learning. It will not happen in the traditional institutions. It will not happen in the traditional silos of learning. We need to go beyond the classroom and develop a whole new agenda. We need to embed lifelong learning opportunities in all parts of civil society. There is here a new agenda and a new function for government in developing this partnership model; to actually become an agent for change in civil society; to broaden the learning horizons in Australia well beyond the traditional institutions of schools, colleges and universities.

My second point concerning the work of ANTA is about the development of a national TAFE system. Recently at the National Conference of the Australian Labor Party in Hobart there was a magnificent announcement for a Medicare alliance. This is the enlightened view that federal-state funding in key areas of responsibility should be pooled. We should bundle together state and federal funding. I am a great supporter of pooling and bundling. I have been talking about it for years. It of course broadens the horizon for the Australian federal system of government. Once you start pooling and bundling, which level of government is going to run the one pool of funds? It makes no sense to have two or even three levels of government trying to run the one pool of funding. So this concept of a Medicare alliance opens up other issues about the future of Australian federal-state relations.

If you ask the question, `Who is going to run the single pool of health funding?' I would argue, given the state government administration, the regional health authorities that are already in place, that these become the logical unit for health administration. If the states are to take greater responsibility in the administration of health, who is going to look after post-secondary education in this country? We have an historic opportunity for the proper rationalisation of federal-state relations. I would argue very strongly that as part of this change all post-secondary education responsibilities should come under the coverage of the Commonwealth government. It makes no sense for state governments to maintain legislative control of universities when they put in just a small fraction of higher education funding in this nation. It makes no sense to have so many diverse funding and administrative responsibilities in the area of vocational education and training.

Many people have described ANTA itself as an absolute labyrinth of administrative detail and conflicting responsibilities. ANTA itself should be rationalised by bringing all of the VET responsibilities under the coverage of the federal government. Finally, it makes no sense to have so little Commonwealth government effort in the area of adult and community education. If we are to develop a knowledge nation in Australia, the best structural initiative is to bring all the post-secondary responsibilities under the coverage of the national government. These responsibilities are university funding as well as legislative control, the full coverage of vocational education and training regulations and funding; plus a Commonwealth effort to build up the strength of adult and community education.

With regard to TAFE, the ANTA agreement allows this model. It allows the states to transfer their TAFE institutes to the Commonwealth. I support the view long advocated by Senator Kim Carr that over a 10-year period Australia's 84 TAFE institutes should be transferred to the Commonwealth government. This would establish a national TAFE system. It is absurd to think that we all talk about the value of learning and skills and the development of a learning society as a national responsibility when we have not got a national TAFE system. This is the great national responsibility that needs to be discharged by this parliament. Over a 10-year period, using the existing ANTA agreement, it would be possible to transfer the 84 TAFE institutes to the Commonwealth. With the associated rationalisation of Australian federalism, it could be done in a financially responsible fashion. This is not a big spending policy; it is a smarter spending policy for the Commonwealth.

My third point in this debate concerns the efforts of the corporate sector in vocational education and training. Unhappily, Australia has one of the worst performing corporate sectors in the world. Our corporate training effort is very low by international standards. At one level this points to market failure: companies traditionally underinvest in the skills of their workers because they have a fear that, if they train up a particular worker and that person is poached by another company, that is a loss of their financial resources and a wasted investment. So there is a market failure and, accordingly, a very strong role for government intervention, particularly for low skill, low income workers. We hear a lot of talk in the public arena about the problems of mature age workers being retrenched and then finding it very hard in their 40s and 50s to find new forms of work. Why is it that the debate is always couched in terms of mopping up the problem after it has occurred? Why don't we have pre-emptive policies in place? Why don't we have a national strategy that pre-empts economic restructuring and gives these workers the best chance to hang onto their jobs? We need a new training scheme targeted at low skill, low income workers as a pre-emptive measure to ensure that these people have the best chance of remaining active in the work force.

Some of these things have been tried in the past. The Hawke government's training levy was abandoned in the 1994 Working Nation statement because of problems with its design and implementation. We desperately need a replacement scheme in this country. When we look overseas to try to pick up best international practice, there is no doubt that the best scheme is Singapore's Skills Development Fund. This is a program which places a levy on companies as a proportion of the wages of their low income employees. It recognises that the people who get the least training effort in the workplace are those with low incomes and low skills. They are the people who are retrenched in the case of changing technology. If there is a bit of workplace restructuring, they are the first ones out the door. Companies then try to bring in new workers with higher levels of skills. The Skills Development Fund in Singapore is designed to pre-empt the problem. It is designed to do something about it in practice. A levy is placed on companies as a proportion of the wages of those low income employees, and the money is held by government and then returned to the companies once the companies have produced a proper training program. So it is a win-win initiative. The national interest is served by the fact that low income, low skill employees are getting the training they need to update their skills, to stay part of their workplace. It is also a win for the companies. This is not a levy that they never see again; they actually get the money back. They pay the money to the government and then, once they have an authorised training program, they get the money back so they can train their workers up to be more effective in the workplace. This is a win-win scenario: good for the nation, good for the companies and, further, good for the low income, low skill workers.

We all know that in the workplace it is the high-income people who do best in terms of training output. They have the personal income and they have the investment from their companies to take on new qualifications and to cope with the inevitability of economic change. It is the low skill workers who never get the training because they do not have the money in their own pockets to pay for it themselves, and they do not get it from the company. So it is a classic case of market failure. You need to have government intervention. I can assure the House that, internationally, Singapore's Skills Development Fund is the very best way to proceed.

There is also an argument for a variation on this scheme to take account of the special needs of disabled workers. This is a topical issue today with the release of the McClure report. We will hear a lot of rhetoric around the place about the need to help disabled workers. But let us do something about it. Australia's training effort for disabled people is appalling: it is an absolute national disgrace. We have virtually no corporate training for disabled workers, and our employment take-up of disabled people in this country is very low by international standards. When you go to Europe you find that those nations actually have quota systems on corporations requiring that four or five per cent of the work force be disabled people. It is an affirmative action policy for the disabled. They are serious about doing something. They are not just placing punitive welfare policies on disabled people but actually giving them job opportunities and making it mandatory in the workplace to employ them. We have had 30 years of rhetoric in this country about treating mildly disabled people as full participants in our society, particularly with regard to employment opportunities. But we have to go beyond the 30 years of rhetoric and beyond cheap ideas about mutual obligation and make a national investment in the skills and employment opportunities of disabled Australians. The European example shows it can be done.

I am not known as an advocate of affirmative action policies, and I am not suggesting we adopt the European model in detail. I know my colleague the member for Gellibrand is listening. She does not need to take too many notes because what I am saying is that the Singaporean Skills Development Fund can be modified to take account of the needs of disabled workers here. There should be an expectation in this country that large corporations should employ disabled workers to the level of three per cent of their payroll. If they do not meet that three per cent requirement, they have to pay the extra money back into the Skills Development Funds which is then distributed by government for disabled training purposes. So we can adapt the Singaporean scheme to the needs of disabled workers and at long last in this country do something positive about a national crisis.

There is a handful of disabled training providers in my electorate in the south-west of Sydney. I have visited them and spoken to them and they are doing great work, but they are meeting just a small fraction of the public need with the public funding that they receive. I argue that it cannot be done by government alone. Sure, government should do more, but these national crises can never be met by government alone. We need a partnership agenda; we need cooperation between the corporate and public sectors to get better results. So let us have a greater effort by corporate Australia in supporting disabled workers. It is a national disgrace that 30 years of rhetoric about disabled people has never been acted upon. It is a national disgrace that 550,000 Australians are on the disability support pension, in most cases with very weak prospects of ever finding a job and, in most cases, with no chance of getting the training, the rehabilitation or the support they need to get themselves back into the labour force as active participants. I am talking about real mutual obligation. There is an obligation on government to do more, an obligation on corporate Australia to meet its social responsibilities in assisting disabled people, and an obligation on the disabled, people with mild disabilities, to take their best chance in life and to make the effort to get a job and to fulfil their potential in our society.

What I have tried to do in my speech during this second reading debate is to outline a program by which Australia can do a lot better in the area of vocational education and training—to embrace the agenda of learning beyond the classroom, to develop a national TAFE system and to develop a skills development fund for the benefit of low income, low skill and disabled people in this country. The good thing about these three initiatives is that I am not talking about higher taxes. I am not talking about some new generation of government spending and government largesse. I am talking about a rationalisation of federal-state relations. I am talking about partnerships with civil society to develop learning beyond the classroom. I am talking about clever ways of leveraging greater training effort from corporate Australia. This is not a big spending, high taxing agenda. This is the sensible, modern, social democratic way of leveraging extra vocational education and training resources. It is the sort of thing that we will not see from the Howard government. It is the sort of thing that should be adopted and acted on by the next Labor government.