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Wednesday, 20 June 2001
Page: 28063

Mr LEE (12:20 PM) —My time on the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2001 is limited due to agreements between the government and the opposition, so I will begin by moving my second reading amendment. 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:

(1) notes with concern that the Government has failed to provide appropriate support for vocational education and training by cutting $240 million from TAFE, and contributing no growth funding for five years, thereby restricting training opportunities and damaging the quality of training; and

(2) condemns the Government for allowing the Australian National Training Authority Agreement to lapse by:

(a) failing to make a realistic offer of funding; and

(b) finally offering an amount of funding which is even lower than the amount of previous funding cuts and which fails to adequately address the needs of Australian vocational education and training”.

Many people have heard about the Labor Party's plan to make Australia a knowledge nation. It is our view that, if Australia is to fully take advantage of the opportunities that will open up for us in the coming decade, Australia has to invest more in education, training and research. Only by becoming a knowledge nation will we be able to ensure that as many Australians as possible have the opportunity for new careers and for a more secure job and to ensure that all children have the chance to study at excellent schools. Many people do not understand that a key part of Australia becoming a knowledge nation is about not only ensuring that we have excellent universities which are carrying out world-class research but developing better schools, ensuring that we have wider access to quality early childhood education and, most importantly, ensuring that as many Australians as possible have access to quality vocational education and training.

I have remarked in this House before that when people of our age left school they did think they could have a job for life. Students who are at school today know that when they leave school they are going to have many different careers. The pace of change in the workplace is such that people have to have the ability to learn different skills to ensure that they are in employment throughout their working life. To have the most satisfying life they will also need the ability to obtain new knowledge and develop new skills at various times during their life, both before and after working employment. If we are to ensure that people do have the most secure job possible, if they are to have the widest possible career choices, then we need to ensure that more Australians have access to quality training.

This is not just about ensuring that as many people as possible have the opportunity to study for an apprenticeship but also about ensuring that people have the ability to upgrade their skills. We need to make more training available so that more workers can upgrade the skills that they have. We need to make sure that the welder in the Illawarra has the chance to do extra training to become a welding inspector. We need to make sure that the storeman in Geelong has the chance to do extra IT training so that they can operate the computers in the warehouse where they work. There is no artificial split between new economy and old economy. We have got to make sure that the Ford workers in the car manufacturing plants have the IT skills so that they can program the pieces of equipment in their factory. It is about making sure that as many Australians as possible have got access to quality training, and it is for that reason that the funding from the Commonwealth government to the Australian National Training Authority is a very crucial part of the role of the national government.

You would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the week before last the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs finally reached agreement with the state and territory training ministers for a new funding agreement for ANTA. The minister for education described this as a `major milestone'. It certainly is, but not in the way the minister tried to imply. It is a milestone because it represents the capitulation by the Howard government in a desperate re-election attempt following five years of pressure from the states and territories for a fair funding agreement for training. The federal government has finally come up with some badly needed funding for vocational education and training, after five years of keeping the VET sector on a starvation diet. This started with the cuts in 1996, further funding cuts in 1997 by the Howard government and a failure to provide growth funding, despite the fact that there was enormous demand, enormous need for many Australians for access to quality vocational education and training.

The effects of the Howard government's policy are outlined in a report to state governments by Dr Vince FitzGerald called Skills in the knowledge economy: Australia's national investment in education and training. Dr FitzGerald's report says that Commonwealth funding for VET has been cut back while the states have maintained steady growth in their resourcing. It also says that despite the increase in state funds the effect of the Commonwealth's cutbacks has meant that the total resourcing for VET has ceased to grow from 1998 onwards. Dr FitzGerald also found that there had been a downward trend evident in funding per student from the mid-1990s, which has accelerated over the last few years. Dr FitzGerald said that the VET resourcing had been so squeezed that quality has been at stake. The damage done by this government and this minister for education and training to VET cannot be repaired simply by now putting back even less money than the government has taken out since it was elected. Cuts to VET since 1996-97 totalled $240 million. This offer, dragged out of the minister, does not even put back the funds that they have cut since they have been elected.

You would remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, that when the minister first started negotiating this ANTA agreement his initial offer was for absolutely no growth when it was put on the table. Then, after pressure from the states, last December he was forced to increase that offer to a three-year offer of an extra $20 million in the first year, $25 million in the second and $30 million in the third. It says something about the weakness of the South Australian Liberal government that they signed up for that offer. We have a conservative state government that was prepared to sign up for only an extra $75 million over the three years of the ANTA agreement, a decision which only they could explain to the people of South Australia. As a result of the new pressure placed on the federal government by the states other than South Australia, we had the government having to significantly increase that offer to a total of $230 million over three years, which left the South Australian government looking completely stark naked, given the agreement they made earlier in the year.

There is no doubt at all that VET needs to play a fundamental part in developing the country. But the Prime Minister's 2001 offer does not represent some road to Damascus conversion to a belief in the value of education, training and research; it simply represents a desire by the Prime Minister to be re-elected. There is no commitment here to provide better quality training; it is a commitment to try to get himself elected later this year. But what this government and this Prime Minister cannot escape is the actions that they have taken over the last five years. We do not forget the massive cuts to education in the 1996 budget, including a reduction in vocational education and training grants to the states and territories of $66 million; a reduction in ANTA's operating expenses of $13 million; the abolition of the five per cent real growth on the base recurrent TAFE funding, a cut of $91 million; and in the 1997-98 budget a further cut which subtracted a further $72 million from the funding had been provided to the states. This totals $240 million that could have been invested over those lost five years in expanding access to quality training.

The problems of TAFE were compounded by conservative governments in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and, to a lesser extent, Western Australia. We all know that by the end of 1998, thanks to Jeff Kennett, two of Victoria's largest TAFE colleges were facing insolvency. There have been a number of reviews in each of the states that have sought to reveal the true position of the inadequate funding for TAFE as a result of the policies of conservative federal and state governments.

It is also important to look at the impact that the policies of these governments have had on the quality of training being provided. Many members would be aware of the report carried out by Kaye Schofield in Queensland which found that around 20 per cent of trainees were receiving no training at all under the user choice system so favoured by the coalition at the federal and state levels, which usually involves full on-the-job delivery of training. The report went on to say that this threat to the quality of traineeships, if not remedied, was a threat to the VET system as a whole.

As far as user choice is concerned, federal Labor recognise the importance which employers place on the ability to choose a provider in order to ensure maximum flexibility in meeting their training needs, but we also recognise the rights and needs of trainees to receive quality training. We recognise that the choice is not necessarily just about different providers; it can also be about the range of courses available. We believe that there are some areas of Australia where user choice is not practicable because the population base cannot support both a TAFE campus offering everything which the community expects of it and a range of private providers catering, as private businesses naturally do, to the more profitable end of the market. Labor believe that the needs of employers can be met without putting our TAFE system at risk, while also ensuring that trainees have access to quality training.

There are a number of issues that also need to be dealt with in considering this legislation. It is important that those institutes of TAFE around the country that are providing quality vocational education and training experiences receive the support and resources that they need to provide that quality training. I recently had the privilege of visiting the Box Hill Institute of TAFE, which, under its director, John Maddoch and with the help of the Victorian Labor government, is expanding to provide additional facilities and additional opportunities for training in business and IT. Certainly they are doing some very impressive work down at Box Hill.

The great revolution in funding for VET took place of course under the prime ministership of Paul Keating. It was the Keating government which committed to provide an additional $450 million for just over five years in funding for ANTA and VET. It is in stark contrast to this massive increase in funding for VET that we see the Howard government simply seeking to put back—$230 million, having taken out $240 million. Compare the current government that is not even putting back the total amount that it has cut from VET with the Keating government that put in almost half a billion dollars in ramping up access to quality training for the country. This is important for future opportunities for existing workers as well as young Australians.

I know there are some TAFE colleges that are working closely with schools to ensure that students who are studying through the VET in schools program or school leavers who are considering taking up apprenticeships are being offered a wide range of experiences in allowing them to choose the right trade for them to take up. Whether it is young people who are looking at careers in the building industry or people who are looking at a career in the automotive trade, it is important that we work at developing new ways to offer quality training experiences to young people both at school and after they leave the school system.

It is also important that in seeking to meet the needs of the country we make sure that we are providing quality training in those industries where it is essential—in areas like IT, for example, where we hear many people talking about the severe shortage of Australians with IT skills. Some of the people skills that are required will require IT graduates. But there are many people with IT skills at the paraprofessional level, people with practical skills in IT, that do not need full university graduate status but require skills that are more relevant and more practical for IT employers. Providing quality training experiences through the national training system is the best way to ensure that those needs of the nation are fully met.

Given that there is an agreement between the government and the opposition to limit our contributions to 15 minutes, I will finish there. I commend my second reading amendment to the House, because it does place on record our concerns about the government failing to offer a level of funding which adequately addresses the training needs of the Australian nation.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hollis)—Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Kernot —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.