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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 107

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON (4:55 PM) —Today I wish to speak in strong support of the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 and bring to the attention of members the important role of vocational education and training in assisting young people to reach their full potential and to find their own place in the world of work. This government has actually made significant progress, despite the words we have just heard, in developing vocational education pathways for the 70 per cent of young people who do not go directly from school to university. Currently, 95 per cent of secondary schools across Australia offer vocational education and training programs. Certainly in my electorate of Bass in Northern Tasmania there is a level of involvement to varying degrees in every secondary school and college. I take this opportunity today to congratulate the teachers and principals in these schools who have had the foresight and the professionalism to introduce these programs into the curriculum. I especially commend them where they have used VET courses as a way of re-engaging difficult or at-risk students who stand to genuinely benefit from this extra option while at school.

There has been significant growth in the numbers undertaking VET in schools from around 60,000 in 1996 when the Howard government came to office to almost 203,000 today. That is rather a different picture to the one just painted for us by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Nationally that represents 44 per cent of all senior secondary students. There has also been a large increase in the number of young people undertaking school based new apprenticeships. There are now 14,000 young people in school based apprenticeships compared to just 1,500 in 1998. This is nearly a tenfold increase. Will we as politicians ever be really able to understand the good this has done for our families and our young people? I am confident that for every student who takes up this option with the support of their family and their school there is a success story of a satisfied, fulfilled young person very happy to be doing something worth while and looking forward to a real career with a real job.

These pathways provide young people with industry recognised qualifications and provide viable pathways for those young people who do not wish to go to university for whatever reasons they may have for not wanting a tertiary education. However, too often the message is sent to young Australians that a career in a trade is not as valued and not as valuable as a university qualification. This message has contributed to the growing skill shortage we are facing today and to the high drop-out rate of students in their first year of university. Australia's university drop-out rate is among the highest in the developed world: 40 per cent of students who begin university study do not complete it. Government analysis shows that 100,000 of the 228,000 people who got a HECS place at university this year will not finish that course and 40,000 will have left before the end of the year and will never come back. How can this be happening? It is because so many of them are striving for university entry but have no particular long-term purpose in doing so except to gain a tertiary award. Perhaps they do not really know what they want to do with their lives; perhaps some have virtually had the decision made for them by their family, by their college or school or by their peers. But, for whatever reason it is happening, it stands to say that so many people are missing the opportunity to reach their potential and to attain personal fulfilment in their lives.

What I will not dwell on today but would like to mention is that for those students who do drop out of university there is an enormous price to be paid: the accumulation of a HECS debt without reaching the goal that it contributes towards paying for; the social cost and embarrassment; and, more importantly, the months or years that are in many cases simply lost to that individual. Another price that we as a community pay is having a large number of young people who have been taught to feel that there is no prestige if they only want to leave school and get a trade, as if it were an inferior option to tertiary study. As a former schoolteacher of maths, science and IT at Kings Meadows High School, I impressed upon as many of my students as I could our school motto, `We have our part to play.'

We have all heard how the abolition of technical colleges by the states has meant that over the past few decades many young people have lacked clear training and skills pathways, particularly the 70 per cent of those who choose to not go directly from school to university. Unlike the previous speaker, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, I am excited about the Howard government's pledge to invest $289 million over four years to establish 24 Australian technical colleges. These will promote pride and excellence in the teaching and acquiring of skills at the secondary school level. These colleges, one of which is to be based in my own region of Northern Tasmania, will be open to talented year 11 and 12 students interested in gaining a trade, but while also being able to complete their secondary schooling. I am saddened, however, by Labor's negative, rhetorical approach to this important initiative. Repeatedly in the House of Representatives question time since the opening of the parliament, questions from members of the Labor Party on the subject of Australian technical colleges have uniformly described them as `overdue and insufficient'. We have just heard the Deputy Leader of the Opposition say also that the Australian technical colleges will make barely a dent in the skills shortages in Australia. What a sad comment.

The fact is that these select high-achievement colleges will provide tuition for up to 7,200 young people in years 11 and 12 every year. They will be implemented from 2006, within virtually one year from now—not the mystical four-year figure which is being used. Students at the colleges will be able to undertake academic, information technology and business courses. They will graduate from the colleges with trade, entrepreneurial and business skills, with the capacity to be self-employed in the future or to go on to further education and training. All students would have the opportunity to take up a school based new apprenticeship. Colleges will be endorsed and led by industry. They will be run autonomously by principals, who will be able to engage teaching staff on a performance pay basis.

Interestingly, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition referred fairly frequently to the Australian Industry Group. In a press release on 24 November, Ms Macklin stated that the government's Australian technical colleges were not a solution to skills shortages and that the government should address this issue immediately. However, this was not a view shared by industry. On the same day, a press release issued by the Australian Industry Group expressed strong support for the initiative and applauded the government's leadership in addressing the skills shortages issue. To me, these words from members of the Labor Party are a disgrace. If they secretly thought that the colleges were a good idea, good public policy and good for addressing the issues that we are all concerned about, then they could at least have kept quiet about it and let the bill go through. They could even have publicly supported it, reversing their predictable opposition from the time the policy was launched during the election campaign.

But these new Australian technical colleges need to be supported, they need to be championed, and Labor ought to spell out right now what they would do when the Australian technical colleges are progressively opened from 2005. Will they support them then? They need also to say what they would do to them if they won office after the next election. Would they mothball them? Would they still describe them as insufficient? Or was it a Freudian slip for them to describe them as `overdue' and they do actually believe that they may have some merit?

Also, during question time today I heard the answers to the questions asked by the Labor members that I have referred to. I listened to Minister Hardgrave's answers when on each occasion Labor members were interjecting with calls such as, `You have had eight years to fix this,' or, `You have done nothing for eight years,' and other claims that somehow the government had been asleep at the wheel. This is breathtaking hypocrisy. Are the Labor members claiming that the government has missed its opportunity to address a skills shortage that existed in 1996 after they had left office after 13 years in government? No, I do not think they are saying that.

The fact is that Australia is, in a way, a victim of its own success. Strong economic management, responsible decisions, not being beholden to unions, effective employment programs, industrial relations reforms and welfare reforms have rescued Australia. Today we have a strong and growing economy, consistent budget surpluses, lower income tax rates, evaporating government debt from the $96 billion debt left to us by Labor, more people in work, higher participation and an unemployment rate that is virtually half what it once was.

The growing economy has caused the higher demand for skills. The demand for skills has employed more people, which means that the pool of people left to take up new skills and provide them has been reduced. In short, under Labor we had people looking for jobs; under the Howard government we have jobs looking for people. This is, with due respect to the seriousness of the challenge, a good problem to have.

Also during the previous speech we heard of unmet demand in Australia. In fact, as the previous speaker correctly identified, today we have unmet demand in TAFE colleges in Australia at around the 40,000 level. I think it is important for me to remind members that, on the government's coming to office, that figure was 89,000, so there has been quite a dramatic turnaround since that time. It also has to be said that the government, with the leadership shown in the past and even today from the Minister for Education, Science and Training, have turned a spotlight on the issues and we are actively doing something about them. In contrast, Labor have sat on their hands. The Minister for Education, Science and Training reported on Labor's sudden interest as recently as August this year, prior to the recent election. He said in the chamber on 11 August:

In the almost three years I have had the privilege to be this country's Minister for Education, Science and Training, I have had 59 questions in question time. Fifty-four of those questions have been about universities, and five have been about training—and in those five questions the word `apprenticeship' appeared once, as an afterthought.

In relation to funding for TAFE colleges through the ANTA agreement, I say this: if Labor were serious about TAFE, then during the failed ANTA agreement negotiations earlier this year and even prior to that, when the federal government offered ongoing increases of 2½ per cent on the condition that states would increase their own funding to their own colleges by just 1½ per cent, they should have picked up the phone and told their Labor colleagues in the various states and territories to sign on the dotted line.

This government has also taken steps to strengthen careers advice. Earlier this year the Minister for Education, Science and Training announced two initiatives to address this issue. One was a professional development package for careers advisers, including a best practice resource for all careers teachers in secondary schools, an accredited online course to enhance the skills of career and transition advisers, and an elective course in career education to be offered as part of Bachelor of Education degrees. Another initiative was the Career Education Lighthouse Schools Project, which aims to support the leaders in career education programs in schools and promote best practice models to other schools.

These measures will assist students to navigate their way through their career options, make the most of their vocational learning experiences and make a smooth transition from school to work. Raising the profile of the benefits of VET in Schools pathways is also of major importance. The challenge is to ensure that both students and their parents recognise the value of VET qualifications and the pathways they can offer. To acknowledge the achievements of those students who have chosen VET in Schools pathways, a national student prize for VET in Schools students and school based New Apprenticeships students, consisting of a cash prize of $2,000, will be awarded to 450 VET in Schools students and 50 school based New Apprenticeships students each year across Australia. This initiative will support students in exploring a variety of options when they are making crucial choices about their futures. The national student prize will also encourage parents to talk to their children about the importance of VET in Schools programs and the career opportunities that are available to them in a broad range of industries. This bill will provide further funding for the development of strategic initiatives to expand the range of VET in Schools programs and enhance transitions to employment and further education for students.

In reply to the previous speaker I only have one further comment, and that is in relation to the description of this bill as somehow being a reduction in money to the states and territories. This plainly ignores or disregards the fact that during the breakdown in negotiations toward the next ANTA agreement, where the states declined the offer of increased funding because presumably they did not wish to dip into their own coffers, the government's response was to take the additional money which was being pledged and to simply tender it out to the local community. That tender process created 7,500 places around the country.

In conclusion, the Howard government's commitment to vocational education and training is strong. It is illustrated by the significant funding provided through this bill and the new initiatives announced this year, particularly in addressing skills shortages. Since 1996 the coalition government has reinvigorated vocational education and training with record numbers in training, record numbers in new apprenticeships and significant progress toward developing a high-quality, truly national system.

Today, 12 per cent of Australia's working age population is in VET training. This year the Australian government will spend a record $2.1 billion on vocational education and training, which will underpin this nation's strong economic growth and low unemployment. We have also announced new measures in our election commitments to a total of $1.06 billion over four years. This is one of the most significant boosts to vocational education and training ever undertaken by any government. This bill will provide the Australian government funding required to support Australia's world-class vocational education and training system in 2005, and I commend it to the House.