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Wednesday, 16 August 2000
Page: 19100

Ms HALL (1:10 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2000 provides supplementary funds to the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA, for distribution to states and territories for this year in line with price movements—$931 million for 2001. It is of vital importance to note that this legislation provides no growth funding whatsoever and does not restore the $240 million that the government slashed from the TAFE system.

The TAFE system is at the very heart of vocational education. Vocational education, as we all know, is really at the core of the skill development of a lot of people within our country. You could hardly say that the government has made a commitment to vocational education, a commitment to expand vocational education, when it is cutting funds to TAFE and cutting the opportunity for young Australians to enter those TAFE colleges and get the essential skills that they need to be able to enter into the work force in this country. I am sure all members in this place have been faced with parents and young people at the beginning of the year or at the start of a semester who have come to see them because there are insufficient places for these young people who are qualified to enter TAFE colleges but are unable to access these colleges simply because the colleges do not have the funds to provide the vocational education to the students who would like to access those colleges.

The government's commitment to education has been to cut funds whilst it articulates that it is committed to education, committed to vocational education and committed to young Australians. The Howard government's big funding initiative in the area of vocational education has been to put an emphasis on efficiency: `We will be able to provide better education and there will be more opportunities for students, for young people, if providers, and TAFE colleges in particular, become more efficient, if we have more competition.' But the vocational education system can only achieve a certain level of efficiency. After that, the number, the quality and the availability of vocational options start to decline. In other words, there are fewer courses, the quality of those courses is questionable, to say the least, and, as members on both sides of the House would know, there have been many incidences of people who have been involved in vocational education courses where the provider has been much more interested in making a profit out of that course than actually funding a course that will set the student up to enter the work force.

The implication of this is disastrous for Australia. It is really disastrous. I do not know how members on the other side of this House can be silent on such an issue of vital importance. In the global economy, with the world the way it is now, the way we live today, the countries that have knowledge, that invest in knowledge and that invest in a skilled work force are the countries that will thrive and will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. This means that those countries will enjoy the standard of living that we in Australia have enjoyed for many years. Knowledge and skills really equal wealth. They both equal wealth. Without being a country that invests in knowledge, invests in our population—in our greatest resource, Australians—and giving them the knowledge and skills that they need to operate in a work force in this 21st century, we as a country have a very dim future.

The government's response to the challenge of providing knowledge and education has been to cut funding in real terms to vocational education. I have already touched on the cuts to the TAFE system. What do the cuts in funding to research and development mean? It is a brain drain. All the people with the knowledge and the research take it offshore because this government refuses to invest in it. Companies in Australia cannot thrive and be as competitive as they would like to be, because this government will not invest in research and development. In education we find that the government is cutting funding to public schools and this has an enormous implication for the 70 per cent of young people in Australia that attend public schools. Universities are struggling for funding. Money for research in universities has been slashed. Now we see that the minister is making a move towards privatising our university system, in the same way that he is moving towards privatising our school system and privatising our vocational education system. I will touch on that more a little later.

Whilst other countries are investing in education for all, this government is selectively investing in education. Private schools are doing very well. In university fees, we are hearing about a system where students will be able to apply for loans by which their education will be paid for, and on the other hand the HECS system will be abolished. We will have young people, once they leave university, faced with the decision of whether or not they will ever be in a position to have a family of their own, because they will be paying off the $100,000 loans that they have had to take out to access that education. Similarly, we have a government that feels, `Well, if you have a little extra money, we may let you attend a university if you get a lower TER than a bright young student that comes from a working-class background.' This is a government that believes in education if you have money, if you can afford it.

This is a very narrow approach. It will divide the nation. It will disadvantage Australia in the current world and global economy. For the workers and the people that live in Australia it will mean that we will not have an educated and skilled work force at the level that the people of Australia are capable of achieving. The Howard government supports this privatised education system. The minister has been quoted as saying—I am sure I read this somewhere—`If you can find it in the Yellow Pages, then government should not provide it.' Therefore, it is a natural progression that this government feels that it should not have to provide education.

We on this side of the House strongly disagree with that approach because there are other costs that do not come into the equation. If you do not invest in education, you are not going to have a quality work force with the skills that are needed to exist in the current world environment. The greatest investment any government can make is in education, because that is an investment in our future. It is the right of every Australian to have equal access to that education. I know that those of us on this side of the House believe in that so passionately. That is one of the core beliefs we have. We would really encourage the government to please rethink the direction of their policies. It should not be your socioeconomic status that determines whether or not you can have education; it should be ability. And the type of education that you decide to undertake should also be determined by your ability. An educated population is best for the country, and a country that shares the wealth between all is a country that thrives and prospers.

The government, in particular the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, has boasted about its success in creating apprenticeships under its New Apprenticeships scheme, but on closer examination we find that in actual fact, because the government has lumped trainees and apprenticeships together, the growth is mainly in the area of traineeships, not in the area of traditional apprenticeships. That is why owners of service stations and other people that need to employ motor mechanics cannot fill those positions: the skilled workers are not out there. This is creating a real problem for Australia. In addition, it is important to note that the New Apprenticeships scheme is extremely restrictive.

I will take this opportunity just to talk about two constituents that live within the Shortland electorate. Young Katie has a disability. She has had lots of input—very supportive parents, who have helped her. I actually have her working in my office at the moment as a volunteer, because she has been unable to get a job. Her parents were so supportive of her that they helped her go to TAFE and she completed a certificate level III course. Guess what that means? Katie is now unable to access a traineeship. Here is a girl who is a prime candidate for a traineeship, who would thrive and be a wonderful employee, but is ruled out of being able to access those courses because her parents sent her off to TAFE and she completed a level III course. She is not the only person; there are a lot of people in this position. The parents think they are doing the right thing by their children when they leave school, and what they find is that actually they have cut off an avenue for them to access employment.

There is also young Peter. Peter is a prime example of how the New Apprenticeships scheme does not work. He was offered a traineeship with an employer who has offered traineeships to a number of other young people. They finish their time and then they are unemployed. During this time, Peter was offered no proper training. I believe that this employer is now being investigated. The several employees that he had before all suffered the same fate, but the employer got the incentive that was offered. When Peter finished there, another employer in the area who ran a plumbing business, with a real apprenticeship, took young Peter on. He is just a one-man operation and a good tradesman. When he put in to get his incentive payment, something that was actually going to keep Peter in a job, he was told, `Forget it. This young man has already attracted a payment to one employer.' So for the rest of his life he is prohibited from ever accessing that scheme again.

If the scheme is about training for workers, if the scheme is about getting young people into the work force, why is it judged on whether or not an employer has got a bucket of money? I am nearly lost for words. I feel some urgent action is needed by the government. This is hardly an indication of a successful apprenticeship scheme. It is inflexible and it is geared to the employer, not the trainee. These were two motivated young people—and the system failed them both.

I have spent a large part of my working life working with people who needed to access vocational education before re-entering the work force. I worked for many years as a vocational counsellor and I know the importance of vocational education. I have also worked casually lecturing at university in the area of vocational education and I was involved with Skillshare for many years. This government's approach to vocational education is really piecemeal. It is based on mutual obligation, cost cutting, minimum intervention and short courses provided by private providers. Mickey mouse courses are the order of the day, rather than real courses based on market analysis and the skills that are needed for young people or other people to enter the work force. These mickey mouse courses do not look at the individual abilities, the literacy level, the potential of the workers, the interests or the values that those people have. If you do not examine all these things, vocational education is going to be a failure.

To provide successful vocational education you need to know the types of skills that are going to be in demand. You need to know the kind of market you are operating in. You do not need to say, `Well, computers are a good thing—let's put a whole heap of people through computer courses,' because those people may not have the aptitude for working with computers, they may not have the ability, they may have a value system that relates to working outdoors and doing something totally different to being locked in a room with computers. Unless vocational education addresses these needs, it is going to be a total failure. If the government ignores all this, who suffers? Australia and our future.

The government abolished Skillshare, as I said, and directed funds from TAFE to private providers. Some private providers do a really good job, but there are others that do not do such a good job. Sometimes the government loses track of whether or not it is about providing quality vocational education or just providing the cheapest option. This directly impacts on the quality of the education. The providers are sacrificing quality for profit.

Whilst I was working in the area of vocational counselling to help people enter the work force, a large part of that time I worked with people with disabilities. In no other area is it more important to look at the assessment and the training process. At the moment this government is examining people that are on the disability support pension and looking at implementing a mutual obligation component. I really recommend that you approach this very cautiously. This is a government that disbanded the disability review panels, a government that has moved away from the support that people with a disability need to enter the work force. You have to have a coordinated approach. You have to look at the person's physical as well as academic abilities, and then you have to have a coordinated approach to that vocational education and entry to the work force.

The current system is set up under a principle where providers are competing against each other rather than working together for that person. Any system that is going to be based on that approach, with a bit of mutual obligation thrown in, is going to fail. It has got to be about the individual and about the opportunities that exist in the community. The government's response in dealing with the long-term unemployed shows its commitment in that area and how successful it has been.

Lifetime learning is something that we as a country must come to terms with. There is going to be a need for us as a nation to continue learning and upgrading our skills. Failure to recognise this will see Australia becoming a second-class country, a country of haves and have-nots, a country of missed opportunities. If Australia is to thrive as a nation, we must embrace education and assure all Australians have the skills they need to make Australia a successful nation. (Time expired)