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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 25199

Senator BUCKLAND (12:31 PM) —The aim of this Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2001 is to amend the Vocational Education and Training Act 1992 to supplement funding for vocational education and training provided to the Australian National Training Authority for distribution to the states and territories in line with real price movements. The Australian Labor Party has released its plans for a knowledge nation and has a strong belief in the need for such a policy. This will place a heavy reliance on a strong vocational education and training sector.

It is only through investing more money into education, training and research that Australia will achieve such a knowledge nation. Investing more money in education is about not only having exceptional universities as well as well-heeled category 1 schools but also providing all Australians, despite their circumstances, with accessible, high quality vocational education and training. This is absolutely imperative in the current workplace environment, where the pace of change requires people to update and to learn different skills to ensure employment longevity. It is essential, therefore, that there be more training opportunities made available so that workers in their current employment can upgrade their skills so as to make themselves, and indeed their employer's enterprise, more competitive in the ever changing and more technologically demanding world.

It was under former Prime Minister Paul Keating that Australia experienced revolutionary funding for vocational education and training. The Keating government committed to provide an additional $450 million for just over five years in funding for ANTA and VET. The Howard government, on the other hand, is seeking to put back $230 million, having already taken out $240 million. Labor is concerned that the government has failed to provide the appropriate support for the VET sector by cutting funding and contributing no growth funding over five years. This, consequently, is restricting training opportunities and damaging the quality of VET training. The Howard government has also allowed the Australian National Training Authority agreement to lapse by failing to make a realistic offer of funding.

At the end of the day the government did make an offer, but that offer was for an amount of funding which is even lower than the amount of previous funding cuts and which, as a consequence, fails to address and meet the needs of Australian vocational education and training. This is not to mention that the initial offer from the government to the states was absolutely no growth in its initial negotiations with ANTA. This was a deal that the South Australian Liberal government signed up for. Other states applied pressure to the federal government that resulted in a significant increase in the offer over a period of three years. Accordingly, the South Australian government was perceived to be not only weak but also apathetic towards its own state in this most important issue of vocational education and training.

The benefits to Australia through quality vocational education and training are prolific, and these benefits are experienced by small business. I note with some interest that Minister Reith has used the importance of helping small business as his excuse for putting forth in parliament some of his unreasonable and inequitable bills. It is not only small business that benefits; industries in general gain from a strong VET sector. Most recently in the debate on the dairy bill we heard how one of the concerns faced by dairy farmers is the lack of skilled workers. If the reports are correct, information technology is also an area that appears to have severe shortages of skilled workers.

More specifically, I turn to the federal funding freeze over the last three years. This has expanded the quantity of training but at the expense of quality delivery and resources. The resources go beyond just providing classroom training and opportunities within the classroom. Resources must go to distance delivery of different programs that are run by the various institutes and TAFEs throughout the nation. Additional to that, it must take into account the very long distances that are required to be travelled by the lecturing staff so that proper delivery can be achieved in these outlying and remote areas.

The abolition of growth funds amounts to a loss of some $240 million. That, along with the explosion of private RTOs—from 400 to 4,000 in five years—and the duplication of TAFE's more profitable programs, has created unfair and burdensome competition. The enrolment growth, funded through TAFE, higher class sizes and restricted course offerings, particularly in regional and remote areas, has added to the difficulties now confronting the vocational education sector. Since 1994, the VET system has expressly sought to achieve a more demand-side orientation. This single-minded policy direction must be rebalanced by considering the supply side if better quality training is to be achieved. In a world where competitiveness depends on collaboration and relationships, narrow or idealogical conceptualisations of purchase driven provider competition will not achieve significant further improvement in the quality of training.

We need, then, a more balanced view of workplace learning. Workplace learning has always been highly valued within the apprenticeship and traineeship system both by employers and by apprentices and trainees. Commendably, its value has been more widely appreciated within the VET sector in recent years. Many workplaces are clearly less than exemplary, offering inadequate opportunities for planned learning—either on the job or off the job—where training is not central to achieving the firm's business objectives and where the apprentice or trainee is viewed as little more than a subsidised worker in a traditional master-servant relationship. In that case, skills development is more likely to be narrow, firm-specific, not readily transferable and, more importantly, the initial underpinning knowledge gained by the worker is not likely to be developed. This is more so in the manufacturing industry and in the new industry, if you like, of aquaculture, where skills can no longer be tied to the individual point of manufacture or the individual enterprise. Skills need to be acknowledged throughout the nation on an equal basis so that a worker can, as the need is fast arising these days, move from one job to the next very quickly and require the minimum of training when they get to that new job. There needs to be portability of job training.

The positive concept of flexible learning is in danger of being reduced to the negative practice of `anything goes' training. In many businesses today, sadly, we still have this attitude of `Anything will do. As long as we can say we've trained them in a few things, that will do.' The days of `rough enough is good enough' no longer stand as a way of doing business or operating a business in this country. When the price paid for training is very close to, or even below, the cost of delivery, where the margins are low and competition is ruthless, provider survival depends heavily on cost savings. An increasingly popular cost-cutting mechanism in the traineeship system in particular is to replace teacher facilitated training at the workplace or within the institution with self-managed learning. It is my view that there will always be a place for self-managed learning, but the core training of any worker or any young person leaving school to enter the work force requires a very focused, teacher facilitated, training mechanism. This method looks very like the old-style correspondence lessons disguised as `flexible learning'. Flexibility is good, but not if it is achieved at the expense of a quality learning experience for the individual apprentice or trainee.

The challenge that the Howard government has not faced up to is to protect those characteristics that have enduring value and leave behind those that are no longer relevant in this period of sophisticated technology. It has not protected the integrity of the vocational qualification. What needs to be the focus for 2001 is the renegotiation of the ANTA agreement. The focus needs to be on adequate funding for TAFE as a public VET provider. This needs to be underpinned by the abolition of growth through efficiency and user-choice policies. The agreement needs both base and growth funds for TAFE and a national plan for TAFE, including assurances of access for all and, in particular, access for women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people living in regional and remote areas. The agreement needs to recognise its community service obligations and it needs to recognise the disparity that exists at those TAFE campuses that have all, or a high proportion, of their delivery focused on small and remote sectors.

Debate interrupted.