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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5625

Senator ALLISON (5:16 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 provides funding to be distributed by the Australian National Training Authority to the states and territories for capital and recurrent purposes and for national projects. The bill increases funding for 2002 by $24.3 million, appropriates $992 million for 2003 and provides up to $101 million for growth funding in 2003. The Democrats will be supporting the bill. I notice that the opposition is moving a second reading amendment, which we will also support—although I am not altogether sure, Senator Carr, why we should. The ALP wants to condemn the government for failing to address youth unemployment. Some of us in this place have longer memories than perhaps you assume.

The real interest in the opposition's amendment, we say, is not the failings for which they condemn the government but, rather, the failings for which they do not. The opposition ignore the real problems, including the Howard government's lack of commitment to TAFEs; its overreliance on simple-minded competition, including user pays; its refusal to engage with the states and territories to address the very real problems of excessive casualisation of TAFE teaching; its overemphasis on short-term training at the expense of breadth in post-compulsory vocational education; and its marginalisation of the TAFEs in ongoing innovation debates. We are saying that these are real issues of concern because it is these, in combination with inadequate resourcing, that are driving the problem.

I am not sure that the TAFE sector will be able to take anything away from this second reading amendment. It certainly will not be thinking that there is a government in waiting bursting with ideas, energy and commitment. There are serious problems in the TAFE sector, as I have already alluded to. The current triennial ANTA agreement covers 2001-03, and we certainly hope that the negotiation period leading up to the next agreement results in a far more sophisticated approach to vocational education.

It is important to note that the bill does not restore funding to levels commensurate with 1997. This is particularly important when we consider the increasing participation in vocational education and training and the high level of unmet demand. The government has effectively reduced vocational education in TAFEs and VET to a second-rate instrument of employment policy through concentration on training courses, many of which are short term and do not prepare students well for ongoing work, education and training; and which, moreover, have poor completion rates.

At the heart of the government's approach to vocational education are rewards for throughput and cutting corners—in other words, churning—and this is a dangerous false economy. Nominal hours create incentives to separate techniques from the generic skills and context that make sense of their use. Skills acquired in environments geared to fast tracking desensitise institutions to the diversity of needs of students. Superficial and narrow training also means that such skills run the risk of rapidly failing to be of value in a changing employment environment. Despite myriad press releases over the past few years from this and previous ministers, New Apprenticeships disguises real shortages in fair dinkum areas of technical and engineering apprenticeships. Indeed, in these crucial areas, numbers are falling. I am aware that the question of incentives for private providers is currently being reviewed. The key issue in the review of incentives will be successful completions. Current arrangements effectively only reward recruitment of trainees—churning people through the front door, in other words.

With a more sophisticated funding mix, including incentives for completions, we might see the very high attrition rates in New Apprenticeships—currently, about 50 per cent, I understand—begin to fall as providers becomes more interested in offering proper student support, mentoring and pastoral care. However, success in post-compulsory education, as indeed for other levels of education, is predicated upon good teaching. It is hard to see any real scope for shifting the current approach forward until we develop proper strategies to end the long-term trends of casualisation and deprofessionalisation of teaching. That is of course a fundamental role for the states and territories. On this issue alone, I do not think the states deserve Senator Carr's second reading amendment.

We need to provide additional resources to ensure a professional layer of full-time and qualified teachers delivering the main core of TAFE programs. That and shifting the focus away from the excessive concentration on narrow training programs towards stronger education values are the two great challenges that this government needs to overcome.