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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 25196

Senator LEES (12:13 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2001 gives effect to the new ANTA agreement for the years 2001-03. As the minister's second reading speech points out, this is the first time under the ANTA agreement that the Commonwealth's contribution to vocational education and training will be over $1 billion, but before the government gets too excited about that and boasts how proud it is, I point out that, given this government's record in this area of continuing underinvestment and disinvestment in post-secondary education, there is nothing to be proud about once you put it into context.

The Democrats will support the bill because it represents a long overdue recognition by the government that its funding freeze and `growth through efficiencies' policies are untenable—indeed, they never were. I stress, though, that the growth in funding of $50 million allowed for in this bill is significantly lower than the amount that state and territory ministers and the Australian Industry Group believe is required. They have argued very strongly—and they have very legitimate arguments—that it should be roughly double. If you add it all up in dollar terms, it means that in effect there is a funding shortfall of $100 million in just the first year.

We were cosignatories to the comprehensive majority report Aspiring to excellence, which was put together after the Senate inquiry into the quality of vocational education and training, and we remain committed to its recommendations. But obviously, as we look at what the government is doing, we can say only that we are very disappointed with its response to it. In effect, the government's response is a mixture of simply ignoring it and being complacent.

I have had this portfolio for only a couple of months, but in that time I have been able to travel around my home state and visit a number of TAFEs. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the system is in crisis. In particular, in rural and regional areas there is very inadequate access for students, and that has exacerbated the difficulties being faced by the institutions themselves as well as by students. The crisis was brought about largely by the funding freeze over the last three years, the emphasis on cuts and more cuts, the need to make more and more efficiencies, the dilution of funds as resources were shifted over to the private sector—the VET sector—and the large amount of cost-shifting down to students. Basically, TAFEs are being asked to do more with less. That has undermined their ability to deliver high quality services and high quality education and to meet the current and future needs of students.

One of the biggest issues that came up as I talked with staff and students in TAFEs from the Barossa Valley and the Riverland up to Ceduna was the emphasis on the cost to students and the fact that many students from low income families simply cannot afford it. Unfortunately, some of those students do not succeed at secondary school but, after a couple of years of the run-around and the treadmills of trying to find unemployment benefits mixed with casual work, they make the decision—for many of them it is an important decision that is difficult to stick with—to go back into study. There are courses for them. Some of the entry level courses may not be too expensive, but once you start looking at the courses that will really deliver a job you are looking at thousands and thousands of dollars, and the students simply cannot raise that sum. For some of them, it means trying to work extensive hours in casual and part-time jobs, and that leads to failure—they cannot keep up with their study requirements as well as the hours that they are expected to work to get the money to study. We see increasing failure rates and withdrawal rates at TAFEs under this government.

Also, institutions are under enormous pressure. There are crumbling and inadequate facilities and facilities that urgently need upgrading. I have found some evidence that facilities for hospitality training have recently been improved. In one TAFE, facilities for apprenticeship training, particularly in the building industry, have been improved, but generally there is a lot of stress on physical facilities—ranging from no airconditioning through to, in some cases, buildings that look like they are on their last legs.

The pressure on staff from all of that is enormous. They have increasing workloads and increasing casualisation. I am amazed to find that even in some areas such as IT, where there is an enormous shortage of qualified people, there are teachers on six-month-by-six-month contracts, if that. People are put under enormous pressure and eventually they just give up—they either go out and start their own small business or they go out into industry, and yet another TAFE course collapses because there is nobody left to teach it. Unless we address the issue of casualisation and pressure on staff in TAFEs, the potential of the sector will never, ever be achieved.

The continuing underfunding and resource pressure in this area basically point to the need for an urgent policy shift in the government's attitude to what education is. Education needs to be seen as an investment, not something that we have to find a couple more dollars for because it is a cost. There must be a genuine commitment by government to equitable access. The issue of public funding comes up time and again. It is a public responsibility to ensure that Australians have at least basic access to adequate education. We urgently seek from the government a reaffirmation of the primacy of public funding.

The first substantial point made in the Aspiring to excellence report is the omission in the five objectives of the National Strategy for Vocational Education and Training 1998-2003 of an objective that recognises the fundamental importance of VET in `equipping Australians effectively to enable them to fully participate in society'. The government must address that as a matter of urgency. Barriers to education and training are made worse by overly restrictive access to income support measures. I point again to the age of independence, which is 25. The government's insistence on that makes it virtually impossible for many students in rural and regional Australia to access Austudy. We staunchly oppose that. Unfortunately, the ALP has not supported us in our attempts to get rid of it altogether.

I should note also the absurd anomaly in the tax system whereby people can claim self-education expenses for the job that they are currently in, but if they see that job coming to an end or if they aspire to a job that they know has a better future, they cannot claim expenses for a job that they would like to move into in another area. With increasing mobility, the likelihood for many people in Australia today is that they will have four or five different careers, and they will have to stop and start as businesses come and go and as new industries start up. They want to be able to take opportunities that are there, but at the moment the constraints are such that many Australians are simply unable to do so. If you look at the unemployment issues in rural and regional Australia and at the number of skilled people we are searching for in rural and regional Australia, you will see the need for ongoing education opportunities.

Another fundamental policy shift we believe is essential is to substantially enhance the critical place that TAFEs play in their communities. I do not think any education sector is better placed to build linkages with local students, local schools, families, local businesses and local government, and I think there should be far greater emphasis on the capacity TAFE has to work hand in hand with the school sector in particular. In some parts of the country I have found that happening, particularly again in rural and regional Australia, where students can in fact swap between the two and where there are actually now co-located secondary schools and TAFEs. But there is an enormous amount of work to be done. Building up students' skills and keeping them in secondary school is enhanced by giving them a taste of what TAFE is like and by giving them a taste of various courses and of what the opportunities are if they actually can hang in there and keep studying.

As we look at this government's innovation drive, we see yet another reason why we have to strengthen the TAFE sector. No-one can doubt the reality of the rapid change that we are undergoing as we become more and more a part of the global economy. This massive transformation means basically that people have to keep up their skills and their knowledge base. It is critical for individuals and communities generally, as well as for business. It is more than just a money issue; it is about helping people keep up with what is happening in the world around them. I suggest to this government that there would be far less discontent in the community generally with the rapid pace of change if more Australians had access to an adequate tertiary education system that better prepared them for that change.

The two key documents that underpin the innovation debate are the Chief Scientist's report and the Innovation Summit Implementation Group report. There was a crucial—though little commented on—difference between the two. For the Chief Scientist, innovation was the process that took R&D through to successful commercialisation. The Innovation Summit report had a broader and richer view. It talked about innovation in terms of culture—as in a culture of innovation. It talked about creativity, in particular graduates' creativity. It talked about the centrality of ideas, both creating and acting on ideas, and about valuing human capital including, for instance, formal recognition of intangible human capital assets in accounting practices. While the ISIG concept of innovation was not coherently reflected in many of its recommendations, it is this view of innovation—as distinct from the narrow commercialisation view—the Democrats defend. The Democrats defend the concept of innovation in its broadest sense. That is not to say that the commercialisation of ideas is not important—it certainly is—but we must take a broader and longer term view. The Democrats fully support the emphasis on building an innovative society, a knowledge nation, a clever country, whatever you like to call it, but the focus has to be on innovation and human capital development and it must be broadly based and long term. It must flow through to all sectors, including to our established industries and to the service sector, and should not just be focusing on the top end of IT and biotech applications. That is why, for instance, we strongly oppose the government's intention to narrow the eligibility criteria for R&D tax concessions.

The Democrats believe, as I have said, that the TAFE sector has a crucial part to play in innovation. Strong institutions with highly developed community, business and student linkages are best placed for rapid local responses to what the community needs and desires. It is why we are particularly concerned to emphasise the relationships and interplay between equity, community and innovation. We are most concerned, however, that the current system does not serve students and industry well. New Apprenticeships, as the Dusseldorp Skills Forum found, are not providing sufficient depth of education and skills to be a good base for ongoing employment. We are also profoundly sceptical of the medium- and long-term value of the shift to nominal hours in TAFEs. I have found that there is pressure to basically give longer and longer reading lists and shorter and shorter contact hours, which puts enormous stress on both students and staff. It is driven by the funding shortages; it is driven by the lack of resources. It is leading to fewer skills and certainly to a lower skill base being acquired by students. It is also leading to some of the increasing drop-out rates that we see in our TAFEs.

Central to developing our education system and developing human capital is good teaching. Proper support for qualified teachers is yet another area where this government is basically not interested. It is basically providing no leadership whatsoever. A significant problem that undermines the quality of TAFE is the casualisation of the teaching work force and the increasing workload on those who do stick it out and continue to teach in the TAFE sector. As I have said, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and is particularly stupid in areas where there are already significant shortages and where we have trouble even establishing courses because we cannot find qualified teachers to teach them. We then bring people in on short-term contracts and we simply roll them over, contract after short-term contract.

We must have a professional layer of teachers who are committed to teaching as a career. We have to support them. These must be the people who deliver the core programs. Obviously there is also room for people to come in as advisers giving additional support. I see this working particularly well in the hospitality area where people from the local community who actually run local restaurants come in and are part of the courses. But the core courses have to be delivered by qualified teachers. Thus we endorse the recommendations in Aspiring to excellence to establish national professional teaching standards and a registration body.

I will conclude my comments today by focusing for a moment on students. The capacity of young Australians to enter and to take advantage of the chances in the Australian labour market is largely dependent on the quality of the education that they are able to access, what they are able to tap into and the support they get as they attempt to complete these courses. Young people today, if they are going to get anywhere, will have to spend more time in education than we did. They will have to put more effort into training and retraining than those of our generations did. If, as a caring country, we are going to help them to do that, the current way in which we are supporting our TAFE system is certainly not the answer. The continuing underinvestment in education from the public sector and the overly restrictive way in which young people are forced to be put through as far as any income support is concerned mean that we are really running the risk of undermining our capacity to engage in the global economy. We are certainly leaving behind a larger and larger group of young people.

My concern as a former teacher is that in particular we are leaving behind those young people who have not finished secondary schooling—those who wander off at perhaps 15 or 16 and do not realise until they are 18, 19, 20 or perhaps a bit older that they will have to do something. Unless we have a TAFE system that is affordable, accessible and supportive, their future is very bleak indeed. Their future is basically on the unemployment queue for much of the year, between irregular periods of casual work. That is unacceptable for Australia in this new century. I call on this government not just to put a realistic level of investment into the TAFE sector but also to look at its structure and in particular to look at greater support for the teaching work force.