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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 32628


Mr BARTLETT (7:39 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 is largely about funding—that is, the appropriation of some $1.148 billion as the government's contribution to the national delivery of vocational education and training. This is administered, of course, through ANTA, the Australian National Training Authority. Funding under the current agreement will expire in December this year, so this legislation ensures funding for 2005. The government is determined, despite a lack of cooperation from the Labor state and territory governments, to fulfil its responsibilities to ensure a strong national system of vocational education and training.

I have no cause to doubt the sincerity of the previous speaker, the member for Capricornia, and I certainly agree with her on the existence of the problem—that is, there are skills shortages in Australia, and sadly those skills shortages do exist side by side with pockets of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. However, I disagree with her on her evaluation of the reasons for that problem and the proposed strategies to address it.

Listening to her contribution, three or four things came to mind. Firstly, there is the typical pattern of half-truths about and misrepresentations of the situation and what the reasons for it might be. Secondly, there is a severe case of amnesia about Labor's record. We hear these grandiose and great-sounding ideas about what Labor would do, but there is no admission of the fact that when they were in office apprenticeships and traineeships fell to a 30-year low. There is no recognition that when they were in office we had the highest level of unemployment and the highest level of youth unemployment since the Great Depression. I guess the moral is that it is one thing to listen to what Labor say in opposition, but it is a very different thing to look at their record in government.

Thirdly, there is their deafening silence on state Labor government policies that are really undermining the whole vocational education and training system. It is great to make these claims, but Labor are condemned, I am afraid, by their silence on this issue. Why have we not heard one Labor speaker opposite criticise the New South Wales Carr Labor government for the appalling rise in TAFE fees—a rise of 250 to 300 per cent in the cost of doing TAFE courses? If there were genuine concern opposite about these issues, we would have heard some condemnation of the New South Wales Labor government. So while, as I say, I respect the sincerity of the member for Capricornia, I do have to wonder about the Labor Party's silence on state Labor policies, and their confusion and amnesia in terms of their own record and their own policy position.

I turn to the facts—firstly, the background to this bill and the funding arrangements. The background is simply that this government held extensive negotiations with the states in a genuine attempt over a period of time to get some sort of agreement with the state and territory governments on vocational education and training funding. This required a reasonable level of contribution from them, a level of contribution that they were unwilling to commit to. The offer then had to be altered. That offer was funding of $3.6 billion over the next three years, an average annual increase of 2.5 per cent above inflation—that is, growth funding above inflation. The previous speaker, the member for Capricornia, said there was no growth funding.

The intention was to provide this growth funding of 2½ per cent a year over and above inflation—delivering a total sum of $3.6 billion over three years. Sadly, as I said, the state and territory governments refused to agree to this offer and commit themselves to this arrangement. For this reason, the government had to introduce just a one-year rollover with indexation on the base funding, not growth funding, to carry funding through for the vocational education and training sector for this year. The funding that was not taken up by the states and territories—again, they dug their heels in for whatever reason and refused to be part of it—would have left their state or territory short of funding.

So the Australian government, in an effort to keep good faith and deliver on its commitment to vocational education and training, decided to use that money to purchase some seven and a half thousand training places via an open tender process, to make sure that the opportunities were there for our young people to undertake vocational training. The focus was on priority groups—that is, older workers, people with a disability and people returning to work—those who really needed to be able to access vocational education and training. The point is that this government has fully maintained its level of commitment to support vocational education and training, despite the lack of support and cooperation from the state and territory governments.

While this bill is primarily about funding, it provides an opportunity to make some other observations about vocational education and training and about the government's commitment to supporting and strengthening the national VET system. The first point I will make is that in recent years we have seen a very strong growth in VET—that is, vocational education and training—especially in schools. Under this government, since 1996 the number of students undertaking VET courses in schools has trebled from 60,000 to 185,000—a massive increase. We have had an even more rapid increase in school based new apprenticeships, with the number up from 1,500 just six years ago to 14,000 this year. So there has been a very real and positive growth in vocational education and training at the school level and in school based new apprenticeships.

The other point that needs to be made is that the increase in the focus on vocational education and training is long overdue. It is well and truly time that we focus on the needs of the 70 per cent of young people who do not go to university and who, under previous governments, were almost sidelined in the education process. The focus was very much on academic achievement, on aspiring to university entrance. Sadly, the message was given to many young people that, if they failed to reach university, they were somehow second rate, they were failures. This, unfortunately, left many young people leaving high school frustrated, disillusioned and inadequately prepared for their post-school options.

This government's determination and efforts to reinvigorate the VET system, particularly VET in Schools, has over the past few years greatly assisted students by broadening their awareness of a range of post-school options and by helping them develop knowledge and skills to help them to make a successful transition from school to work. It is worth pointing out, however, that more work needs to be done in this area, particularly in vocational education and training in schools and at the post school level. We need to continue to focus on raising the status of VET, to again arouse interest in the traditional trades and to correct the perception that they are dirty, dangerous and demeaning—that they are somehow second-rate options.

The member for Capricornia referred to the issue of skills shortages. The reason for skills shortages is not, as she pointed out, entirely due to the fact that there is not enough money for training or that the government does not want to support people in those skills. One of the problems has been the issue of perception and status. Many young people have been reluctant to pursue traditional trades perhaps because they have not been seen as being fashionable; they have been seen as being dirty, demeaning and dangerous.

Part of the challenge for any government is to again arouse interest in VET courses and in some of the traditional trades. This government has been committed to trying to raise interest in these areas, because they provide very valuable and worthwhile career opportunities for young people while at the same time helping to meet the skills shortages that we all agree exist. This government has been committed—through, for instance, the National Industry Skills Initiative, the Business Education Partnership Advocates program and the industry project officer program—to developing in young people while they are at school an interest in pursuing traditional trades.

Another key to arousing this interest is to improve the quality of careers education in this country. If young people are to make considered and appropriate career choices and to take the paths that best suit their skills, their abilities and their interests, they need to have access to the right sort of guidance—guidance that will make them aware of the options that are available and help them choose subjects at school that will give them a start in pursuing those options. In other words, they need sound, appropriate and timely guidance while they are at school. The problem is that the quality of careers education in Australia varies greatly. Some states, particularly New South Wales, have a very professional, structured system with a designated full-time careers adviser in every school and a mandated and well-defined careers education program. Unfortunately, careers advice in many other states is not nearly as well structured or as appropriate to the needs of young people.

It is important that we improve the quality and the consistency of careers education around this country. While this is largely in the hands of the respective state and territory governments, as they administer their own education systems, the Howard government is also taking steps to try to strengthen careers advice around this country. In February this year, for instance, the Minister for Education, Science and Training announced a professional development package for careers advisers. This includes a best practice resource for all secondary careers teachers, an accredited online course to enhance the skills of those careers teachers and the introduction of an elective career education course as part of bachelor of education undergraduate degree courses for training teachers.

The minister also announced recently the careers education Lighthouse Schools Program. This is an initiative that will assist schools which have effective careers programs to promote these as models of best practice to other schools so that they can see what is happening and what is working well and take that up as well. The minister has also announced a prize to the value of $2,000 for students undertaking school based apprenticeships or VET in Schools courses. This is again aimed at raising the profile and status of VET in Schools to attract more young people to those areas of study.

As well, $14 million has been spent this year to support local community partnerships. These partnerships are very important in forming those essential links between schools and the workplace, in providing work placements for students undertaking VET in Schools courses, not only to give them the structured workplace learning experiences and to improve their skill levels but also to make those connections which often will lead to jobs post school. The point is this: this government is strongly committed to supporting and strengthening the vocational education and training system in Australia, both in school and post school. Under this act, funding next year will be close to $1.2 billion, up from $778 million in 1995. That is an increase of around 50 per cent since this government has been in office.

This government's commitment, in terms of both initiatives and funding, is working. Since coming to office, the number of people in training has grown by 35 per cent, up from 1.27 million to 1.72 million. The number in new apprenticeships has grown by 195 per cent. It is worth pointing out that we now have 416,800 people in traineeships and apprenticeships in this country—treble what it was under Labor—up from 141,400 in 1995. As I said before, under Labor apprenticeships in this country had fallen to a 30-year low. This government has reversed that decline not gradually but dramatically. We now have treble that number in apprenticeships and traineeships. The number of women in VET courses in Australia has increased by 30 per cent. The number of Indigenous students in VET courses has risen dramatically. We now have 95 per cent of Australian schools offering vocational education and training courses.

For too long in Australia the focus of education really had ignored the needs of less academic students. For too long we had high school graduates dissatisfied with their school experiences and inadequately prepared for post-school options. For too long we had undertrained young people existing side by side with serious skills shortages, side by side with employers unable to find appropriately qualified and experienced staff. The new initiatives of this government and the increased funding that we have already seen and are committed to will help address these vital issues. I commend this bill to the House.