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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13739

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (15:35): I thank the members who have risen to support this matter of great public importance and I thank the member for North Sydney for making it a little bit easier to choose this as the issue of importance today. I can see that there is good work going on in many areas in education. I am particularly pleased to see the work in the university sector and tertiary sector in the areas of improving equity and access for students from regional Australia and from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I am particularly pleased to see over the last couple of years significant increases in the uptake of tertiary degrees and related courses by people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.

Likewise, I am very supportive of the legislation brought into the House today to do with what is known as the Gonski review. Principles similar to those which came from the Bradley review and the reforms in the tertiary education sector are now being put to the House for the secondary education sector, where funding is on a more equitable basis and is attached to the goals of greater engagement and greater education outcomes for those who in the past have missed out. Again, it is those three key area where the data tells the story: those from a low socio-economic background compared with their richer counterparts; those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent compared with others; and those from regional and rural Australia, compared with their metropolitan cousins. The data is clear and therefore the model of funding for equity and fairness is right to place a particular loading on those sectors to get greater outcomes and to lift the education outcomes for all of us and therefore build a better standard of living for all and more resilient communities.

However, the reason for putting an MPI before the House today is that in the middle of this work in secondary and tertiary education is a vocational education sector that is directly under threat in Australia today. I do not think it is too strong to use the language that we have a skills crisis in Australia today. I think it should be of great concern to all members of all political persuasions in all parliaments that we have allowed ourselves to have this unholy war of the moment between the Commonwealth and the state governments, particularly on the eastern seaboard, where we are seeing money either withheld or cut from the delivery of vocational education in Australia. This is not just some wont to keep public sector jobs and to keep TAFEs alive in Australia. I will certainly come to a point in relation to this. This is an issue being raised by peak business and industry bodies, as well. It is an issue of the moment and it must be resolved as a matter of urgency. I quote directly from the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, who said the following in August at the National Press Club when referring to the closure of dozens of courses at regional TAFEs in Victoria:

It is of significant concern to industry that we won't be able to then drive that skills pool into the future and kids in regional Australia will miss out on opportunities to gain skills and then get into the workforce.

This basic point being made by AiG is backed up by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or ACCI, the peak body, the Business Council of Australia and all who generally support the key principles behind vocational education and training reform in Australia. However, they are flagging deep concerns about the speed of the cuts and the adoption of some pretty dramatic measures by various state governments, post the signing of the interim National Partnership Agreement in April this year, I think it was. That was a key moment that has started to see this issue go off the rails. In early 2012, COAG agreed a National Partnership Agreement for skills reform should be delivered and said it will:

… contribute to the reform of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system to deliver a productive and highly skilled workforce which contributes to Australia's economic future, and enables all working age Australians to develop skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market.

If only today those words were true and could be upheld as being gospel about what is being achieved on the ground, in practice and in the lives of many who are either currently trying to gain access to vocational education or are in vocational education. That is sadly not where we have ended up, six months post that agreement being reached.

The agreement identified a number of reform directions. There are five of them. The first is the introduction of a national training entitlement and the increased availability of income contingent loans. I know there are some who have concerns about that, but I do not. I think that is a sensible reform, if delivered in the appropriate way. Secondly, improving participation and qualification completions at high levels. Again, that is something I endorse. Third, encouraging responsiveness in training arrangements by facilitating the operation of a more open, competitive market. Again, that is something I support. The fourth is recognising the important functions of public providers in servicing the training needs of industries, regions and local communities and their role that spans high-level training and workforce development. Again, I think you would struggle to find someone opposed to that.

Ms Bird: Liberal state governments.

Mr OAKESHOTT: I am sure that is a point you will make! The fifth point is assuring the quality of training delivery and outcomes. It is one that, again, I hope is broadly supported. So, all five, as individual items, are ones of support. The issue of the moment, which is one for all governments, is the conflict between several of these points and the lack of clarity, particularly around the fourth point: recognising the important functions of public providers. Six months after this agreement was reached they do feel like they are swinging in the breeze, that they are being attacked by a greater investment in a competitive marketplace and in private providers, and a lack of support from their owners, which are, I accept, another level of government. But I do not think the Commonwealth entered into this agreement trying to encourage state governments to monster their public providers, through their own actions, yet that is the agreement entered into by the Commonwealth and that is why this is an issue of conflict before the House.

So, I understand the market based philosophy: seeking economic growth and seeking to provide students not with vouchers—that is a dirty word—but the equivalent of vouchers, and choice between public and private providers. That is sitting at direct odds at the moment with the actions we see of attack on public providers, even though that is explicitly written into the principles of the national partnership agreement.

We have a real problem. It is having a real and material impact on the ground in communities such as the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. In talking to many members in this chamber, conversations around the real impacts of TAFE cuts in their communities are alive and well in this building. We need to deal with the issue and we need to apply pressure not only on state governments to increase their defence of their own public providers, and recognising the important functions of those public providers, but also through this place and this chamber to keep pressure on the Commonwealth, the executive and the particular ministers and parliamentary secretaries responsible to make sure that this national partnership agreement is used for good, not evil. It has to be used to deliver market reform for greater outcomes in the training and education sector that makes more people industry-ready, makes us a more entrepreneurial nation and builds more resilient communities. It cannot be used in the context of reform designed as destroy which then destroys the public sector and the place of public providers. That is the reason for raising this matter today.

I notice in my TAFEs that there is a great deal of concern. It is not only amongst the student body, which is facing increased fees. I represent a comparatively lower socioeconomic community, so the fee impact is something that does shape decisions about their futures. It is not only from the teacher body, which is facing significant cuts to hours or job security more generally. Of more interest in this debate for the Commonwealth is the strategic decisions that each of the TAFEs are now faced with and have to make at the director and executive level. Along the eastern seaboard we hear of closures. Along the eastern seaboard we hear of great frustration from executives who feel like their hands are tied behind their backs in this national partnership agreement process. They are facing enormous structural adjustment. They look over the fence and see funds that go to universities for structural adjustment, yet for the vocational education sector they are told that they have to do it alone. There is no structural adjustment support in what is an environment of major change and they have to do it on the smell of the cliched oily rag.

As well most states—I know certainly in New South Wales—create the added burden where decisions around capital are difficult because, if you decide to sell anything, a fair slice of that money goes back into the state coffers into consolidated revenue. Strategic decisions around the moving of assets or the downsizing of assets are decisions that are limited and are limiting the business model decisions that TAFE strategically is being asked to make.

In the final minute and a half I will put several issues on the table. Firstly, in relation to point 4 of the agreement, state and federal governments have to explicitly state whether they stand by this agreement and recognise the important function of private providers. If so, how? If so, when? Secondly, there is the role of pathways and collaboration. I see vocational education as the critical link between secondary and tertiary education, yet we are doing things in those two areas that we are not doing in vocational education. We are almost making it the missing-out link rather than the missing link between the two. Investment in pathways and collaboration is needed. Thirdly, there is consideration around structural adjustment and, fourthly, there is the vocational education sector. Both of those areas are around financial support and some creative thinking to free up their ability to make business decision in an increasing business environment.

Co-investment strategies from the Commonwealth and the state in these implementation plans have to happen and have to happen soon before we go down the paths of withholding big money at the expense of students. The Commonwealth use of power is available to stick up for point 4 and public providers. That withholding power of the Commonwealth is one that I would ask to be considered. We need the capping of private providers. There are 5,000 private providers in the market in Australia and they are absolutely monstering the public sector. When is enough, enough? When do we have a fully competitive market? Basically, can we stop the education wars in Australia today? This matters. (Time expired)