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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19096

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (12:50 PM) —It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Calwell, particularly in light of his long interest in and association with education. I am pleased to participate in the debate on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000, and I rise to support the second reading amendment as circulated by the shadow minister for education on this side of the House. On the surface, the bill looks fairly innocuous. It provides for a so-called increase in funding for vocational education and training, yet in reality it does nothing more than maintain the current funding levels. It is pretty typical of the smoke and mirrors approach of this government to Commonwealth funding, be it for education, for aged care, for health or for any number of public institutions.

In this bill, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs is again complicit in stifling funding for vocational education and training. I can hear the minister quip, `What's the problem? We're providing more money.' There is a problem, and that kind of response is wearing very thin, particularly on this side of the House, and particularly as we investigate the issue a little bit further. In this instance, it could well be argued that the level of Commonwealth funding for vocational education and training is a case of more being less. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 allows funding to be topped up this year, in line with Treasury estimates, from $918,352 million to $931,415 million. It also makes provision for base funding for next year of $931,415 million. Sure, it means an increase of $13 million, but it provides for nothing more than the impact of the CPI. It covers inflation but the bottom line is that there is not one extra dollar of growth funding.

This is in stark contrast to the former Labor government's commitment and recognition of the importance and growing demands of vocational education and training. Let us cast our minds back to the establishment of the Australian National Training Authority in 1992, an initiative of the Paul Keating government. ANTA, as it is known, was the body set up to distribute vocational education and training funds to the states and territories. To demonstrate Labor's commitment to vocational education and training we need only look at the massive increase in funding of a decade ago. In the 1990-91 financial year the Commonwealth provided $422 million in 1999 dollars. By the time the coalition came to office that had more than doubled, to $846 million. The then Labor government not only dramatically boosted base funding for vocational education and training but made provision for an addition $70 million of growth funding a year for the 1993-95 triennium. These arrangements were subsequently extended to 1996-97. That was funding for growth, as opposed to the current policy of simply keeping pace with inflation.

But we all know what happened when the coalition came into office in 1996. How things have changed for vocational education and training since then. In its first budget the new coalition government not only introduced efficiency measures which resulted in a five per cent reduction in funding but discontinued the provision for real growth funding. With a stroke of the pen it wiped out $70 million a year in funding to vocational education and training. But it got worse. In its next budget, of 1997-98, the government cut funding to the states and territories again to provide an incentive `to the states to achieve efficiency gains in the VET operations'.

This reduction, which took effect from 1 January 1998 and into subsequent years, was estimated to be about $20 million a yearanother $20 million a year lost. True to form, the coalition revised its funding agreement with the Australian National Training Authority in 1998 in which it agreed to maintain funding—no real increases, just to maintain funding—for the three years 1998 to 2000—that is, the states and territories were bullied into agreeing to the principle of growth through efficiencies. The only conclusion I can make as far as efficiencies in education are concerned is that this government is very efficient at pulling money out of the system.

In essence, what the Howard government said to the vocational education and training sector was, `You will be expected to do more without any additional funding.' So, in effect, the agreement locked in the reduction in annual funding announced in the 1997-98 budget. That is what I mean about more being less, and members opposite cannot deny it. Clearly, this is not an outcome the Australian National Training Authority is happy about. It goes against the spirit of its formation, but under this government it had no choice. Negotiations are still under way for a new ANTA agreement. I suspect it is by no means a done deal, nor should it be, given the government's attitude. The government not only fails to recognise the need for growth funding or real funding increases but does not recognise growing demand for vocational education and training, despite its rhetoric.

If vocational education and training is important to our nation's future, it is absolutely critical for regional areas in electorates like my own, which are striving for a foothold in the new economy. It is all about employability and continuity of employment. Even on the government's own internal estimates of growth and demand for vocational education and training, the funding as it stands now will fall well short of what is needed.

The latest statistics from Australia's principal research and evaluation organisation for vocational education and training, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research Ltd, give an insight into the dramatic growth in this vitally important sector of our education system. For example, over 1½ million students undertook vocational programs in 1999, an estimated increase of 111,900, or a rise of 7.3 per cent, over the previous year. Of Australia's working age population, 15- to 64-year-olds, 12.7 per cent participated in VET programs. It is projected the VET system will grow by 16 to 33 per cent over the next five years.

In a report yet to be released the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs estimated an additional $234 million would need to be pumped into the system by 2005. However, many believe even that is far too modest an estimate given the changing employment landscape throughout Australia. As we all know, in this day and age employment is less stable, and training or upskilling is in most cases no longer optional; it is a necessity. Not only people gaining work who come off employment benefits require training straightaway; when people become unemployed they still need training to give themselves the best chance of returning to the work force. Needless to say, there is also demand from people who are already in employment.

A working party report by CEOs from the Australian National Training Authority which looks at the future demands of the VET sector predicts that kind of growth would necessitate an injection of $1.5 billion by 2005. That, I understand, is a much more realistic figure than the DETYA estimate that I produced earlier. So, rather than supplementing funding for this year and using that as the base funding for next year, this bill should really be looking at an instalment of growth funding to meet future needs. However, that appears beyond the capacity—or the will—of this government's thinking.

The current Senate inquiry into vocational education and training has seen both Labor and non-Labor state governments calling for growth in VET provision and in the Commonwealth's share of funding, yet this government remains unmoved. The inquiry has been told time and time again that the acute skills shortages facing this country are a looming crisis for our economy. A wide range of industries are having difficulty finding suitably qualified people to employ. At the same time we see unemployed people who are not receiving the training they require under the Job Network and certainly under the Work for the Dole scheme.

Last week it was pleasing to see improvement in the national employment rate, but the fact remains that there are still 178,200—in seasonally adjusted figures—long-term unemployed people in Australia. This means these people have been out of work for one year or more. In addition, 112,300 have been unemployed for over two years. There are concerns any employment gains that are made may well be unsustainable in the long run unless they are backed up with quality training. Vocational education and training may not be a fashionable topic for this government, but that should not mean that it abandons its responsibility to the working men and women of this country and to those unemployed people who need retraining and upskilling.

In regional areas, in communities like those in my electorate that stretch from Latrobe to Smithton, the level of economic and social wellbeing is often the barometer of how well they are going. Economic growth and jobs growth are fundamental to our future prosperity. We are only too well aware of that in my electorate. Yet it is against a backdrop of a continuing decline in our traditional industrial base, a shrinking population and double-digit unemployment that the north-west coast must rise to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future. It is by no means an easy task, but it is not impossible.

There are many industry and business success stories in my electorate. They are spread across the north-west coast, from carpet manufacturer Tascot Templeton to Australian Weaving Mills, Serv Ag, Chas Kelly Transport, Fairbrother Pty Ltd, Simplot, McCain, Lactos, Caterpillar Elphinstone, Bonlac and Classic Foods, to name just a few. Together with our forest based industries and agricultural producers, they represent a diverse range of interests, but all have one thing in common: they have grasped opportunities and prospered and grown through innovation by making old technologies work better and more efficiently through world best practice, and they have employed genuine partnership between management and employees. The key in that is partnership.

What we also need is a federal government interested in true partnership with all levels of government, industry, business and community—the kinds of partnerships foreshadowed by Kim Beazley at Labor's recent national conference in Hobart, the kinds of partnerships proposed in the education priority zones that would provide for government, local schools and communities to help improve educational outcomes in disadvantaged areas. It was particularly heartening for me to hear of the north-west region of Tasmania becoming part of a national network of priority zones under a future federal Labor government. The coalition, it seems, may finally be starting to realise the value of genuine partnership, but it is being dragged kicking and screaming all the way. Partnership in education and training needs to be above politics. Australia does not need the confrontation approach of this government, particularly as far as the broad spectrum of education policy is concerned; it certainly does not need an educational minister of the ilk of the one currently in the job. I suspect he should be looking for another job or, at the very least, for some retraining. I wonder whether our vocational education and training system would offer a suitable course.

It is essential that our regional communities in particular keep pace with information technology and telecommunications so they will have a stake in the new economy. In this context, the importance of vocational education and training cannot be overstated. How often do we hear nowadays that there is no job for life? People will change jobs and careers and will be required to retrain and upgrade their skills to keep ahead of the changes in each and every workplace. But unless this government changes its tight-fisted approach towards vocational education, in fact to education across the board, it will remain out of step with the growing demands of the system.

Take the demand for vocational education and training in Tasmania. In my home state the total number of students in the vocational education and training system rose by 9.7 per cent last year, to 31,800 participants, compared to the previous year. It was well above the national average of 7.3 per cent over the same period. An interesting aspect of that was the dramatic increase in the number of female students in Tasmania. While the number of male students rose by 2.5 per cent, we saw an increase of almost 20 per cent in the number of females. Almost seven million hours of vocational education and training were delivered in Tasmania, an increase of two per cent on the previous year. So in my home state we are seeing increases in participation rates for both males and females, and a rise in the number of hours of training and course enrolment. But is there an increase in funding? No. Operational expenditure in 1999 decreased by two per cent, and the Commonwealth's contribution dropped by over nine per cent. Nationally, funding declined by four per cent in 1999 compared with the previous year.

This government can talk about efficiencies as much as it likes, but there is a human side to this debate, and, as so often, this is overlooked. I find it rather ironic that, for a minister so committed to efficiencies in the vocational education and training system, there was such a stink last year over the alleged rorting of traineeships under his stewardship. I remind the House of the huge question mark over the use of taxpayers' money for traineeships under the so-called New Apprenticeships scheme. At the time, I informed this House of people in Tasmania being signed up for traineeships but not in fact undergoing any training at all, of existing employees being put on traineeships despite the fact that they had already been trained, and of allegations that training funds received by some employers were spent not on providing training or upskilling workers but on buying things like office equipment, filing cabinets and fax machines. I recognise the importance of financial incentives for employers to offer legitimate traineeships and to upskill their workers and for employees to have the opportunity, but surely there should have been more accountability by the federal government.

Concern over the operation of Tasmania's traineeships prompted the Schofield report last year. Similar reports were also produced in Queensland and Victoria. From the review of Tasmania's traineeship system undertaken by Kaye Schofield, I note the findings that:

Many stakeholders have become increasingly anxious about quality and fearful that quality training is being eroded by policy-driven growth—that the traineeship system is being driven by quantity not quality.

The dramatic uptake of new traineeships last year, whatever the motives, might have provided the government with a good-looking statistical outcome, but was it efficient use of Commonwealth funding? In instances where the money was misused, I think not. Along with efficiency, `flexibility' is an often used word in many workplaces nowadays, and one this government is eager to use.

A case recently brought to my attention in a college in my electorate that was taking part in the VET in Schools program highlights the need for more flexibility in the system. I ask the minister to take into account what I am saying on its behalf. St Brendan-Shaw College in Devonport decided to diversify career options for its year 11 and 12 students by introducing vocational education and training programs in 1990. Over the past 10 years it has increased training programs for students from one to eight, and I believe it has done so rather successfully—in fact, probably too successfully, because the college is now suffering under the current guidelines. The college receives general recurrent funding which is provided on a dollar per student basis and is calculated at the beginning of August each year. At the start of this year, St Brendan-Shaw had 182 senior secondary students, of which 48 were in VET. To date, nine students have been fortunate enough to join the work force in apprenticeships or traineeships or through work in their relevant VET vocation. Congratulations.

The college's concern is that, by being proactivethat is, providing a pathway for its students into employmentit is being disadvantaged because of the VET funding formula. It raised with me the following questions. Again, I put on notice to the minister that I ask him to take these on board and to respond. The college's questions are as follows. First, is the college able to get pro rata payments for students up to and including the total time spent at the college, that is, from February to July? Second, is there a possibility of setting up a scheme for payment to colleges for apprenticeships and traineeships according to the number of competencies achieved before gaining full-time work? Finally, could colleges be asked to sign off documentation for apprenticeships and traineeships and/or work placements as a justification of employment to gain a subsidy for the training provided? I again ask the minister to consider these questions in the interests of greater flexibility. I also think the minister has squeezed enough so-called legitimate efficiencies out of the vocational education and training system; now it is time to give something back.

I would like to conclude by raising another issue in terms of VET in schools, particularly in the colleges in my electorate, related to the full service school program. Basically, that is to provide support for students who came in under the common youth allowance; it was a softener for this. Effectively, it was to help those schools cope with the added influx of students who, in the main, had left school or were leaving school. The problem is that those funds are drying up, yet those colleges are still required to support those students, students who are most at risk and take more resources for support in terms of per capita funding than students doing traditional courses. (Time expired)