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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5627

Senator CROSSIN (5:31 PM) —I rise this afternoon, perhaps when Senator Tierney comes to order, to provide a contribution to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002. Let me provide a bit of background to the funding of VET. As we know, in 1996-97, when this government came to office it reneged on the Commonwealth commitments in the original agreement with the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA, signed by Labor prior to 1996, to have growth funding going into the training sector. We know that the landscape in funding this sector of education has dramatically changed since that time. In fact, since 1996 there has been a cumulative reduction of over $200 million in the Commonwealth funding of VET and a massive cut in the labour market programs.

The impact of these funding cuts on the TAFE system has shown a dramatic decrease in the ability of this system to function effectively since that time. Two years ago, the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee conducted an inquiry into what was happening in the vocational education and training sector. The outcomes were very similar, really, to what is happening in higher education—that is, these days TAFE colleges and institutions and the staff in those institutions are expected to do much more and operate much more efficiently and provide a much broader range of courses and outcomes for their students, with significantly fewer funds.

In 1998, when renegotiating the new agreement with ANTA, we saw the end of this government's commitment to growth funding. Those in the sector will well remember the new concept of `growth through efficiencies' that emanated from this government—that is, in return for growth through efficiencies, the Commonwealth promised and was to maintain funding in real terms to the VET system. Those who have been working in the vocational education and training system since the Howard government came to office are still scratching their heads and wondering what `growth through efficiencies' actually means. We now know that it means that you put in significantly more effort and longer hours, with larger classes and an expectation that your courses are more diverse, more responsive and more flexible to the needs of industry. But of course the funding from the government has been reduced, funding that in real terms did not address the unmet demand or the growth in student numbers.

This is an aspect of the training sector that the Labor Party has revealed year after year through the estimates process. In fact, we were able to demonstrate a significant unmet demand in this country, a significant increase in the number of students who want to access vocational education and training—and they have—but institutions, providers and staff have had to accommodate that unmet need without any real increase in funding from this government. The 1997-2000 revenue from this Commonwealth government fell by $112 million, which neutralised the $150 million that had been put into the system by the state and territory governments during that time. So, all up, there has been a cumulative reduction in Commonwealth revenue during this time, to the tune of $386 million.

We have a recent report from the Productivity Commission entitled Skills and Australia's productivity surge. As a result of that report, we know that the growth in skills that people need to possess in order to meet the demands of industry, be responsive to industry and meet the expectation that industry has on its future operational needs and output has dropped under the Howard government. Those skills had accounted for over 28 per cent of productivity growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s but accounted for only 2.9 per cent of productivity growth in recent years. When there is such a dramatic drop in the contribution that skills are making to the economic growth and the productivity output of this country, from 28 per cent down to 2.9 per cent, there has to be a dramatic change in the way in which this country operates and the way in which this country responds to what industry wants and what the international markets demand. Certainly we are seeing a deskilling of this country. The Productivity Commission report, through its figures, has shown that that in fact is the case.

This afternoon I want to specifically look at the impact on this system from the neglect of the Commonwealth government because of its lack of commitment to funding in this sector—the impact that that has had not only on the youth of our country but also on the way in which rural and regional Australia can respond to the demands of students and industry. The TAFE system has 1¾ million students enrolled in the vocational education and training system. We know that at least one in every 10 Australians acquire some sort of educative or broader skills or work related skills or lifelong learning experience through the TAFE sector. It has become a sector that has been integral to the education environment in this country. Earlier in the year, the minister made some fairly disparaging remarks about the TAFE sector, referring to it as being a sector that people use as a backdoor means of getting into higher education—implying that, if you were not good enough to have an academic career and go to the universities for your education, the second and probably the least preferred option you had was to go through the VET sector or the TAFE sector. That view shows a complete lack of understanding of what the TAFE sector in this country does and what it provides. In fact, there are some people— obviously 1¾ million students, which is many more than those in the higher education sector—who choose to take the vocational education and training sector as the sole means for providing their education, their skills and their background in this country. They would have been quite upset— certainly staff in this sector were quite upset—to learn of this minister's views earlier in the year.

I want to turn now to a report that has recently been released by the Dusseldorp Skills Forum. The report is titled How young people are faring—key indicators 2002. It is an update about the learning and work situation for young Australians. It is a very significant report, and I think it should serve as a wake-up call to the government that one of the ways in which they can address the situation regarding young people in this country is to inject more funds into the VET sector to accommodate the needs of these people. The accompanying letter to the report says:

The findings are sobering. There has been a small increase in the number of teenagers not in full-time education or full-time employment (15.4 per cent or 211,000 young people) in May 2002 compared to the same time last year. And still some 25 per cent of young adult women and 19 per cent of young adult men were at considerable labour-market risk in that same month.

The chair of the forum continues in the letter:

... our research continues to display significant variations across States and Territories.

I want to particularly highlight in this report the dramatic figures in relation to the Northern Territory. We know that 15.4 per cent of teenagers were not in full-time education or employment in May 2002. However, in the Northern Territory the figure is more than double that number. In the Northern Territory, 32 per cent of teenagers were not in full-time education or full-time employment in May 2002. That is a startling figure, compared to the rest of the nation. This report also shows that the proportion of teenagers at risk has been rising gradually since 1999 and in May 2002 it stands at 15.4 per cent, which is higher than the prerecession years of the late 1980s. The report states:

It is likely that without significant and lasting reforms to develop more effective learning and work transition strategies—

and one of those key reforms, I believe, is to ensure that the TAFE sector gets the funds it needs and deserves to be able to operate properly and effectively—

during these relatively good economic times young people will be especially vulnerable during the next period of recession.

The report says:

The situation in the Northern Territory, with close to a third of its teenage population in `at risk' activities, should be a cause of national concern.

And so it should be, because those figures are startling; they are nothing to be particularly proud of. That goes to my point of the failure of this government to respond to a report that was commissioned in 1999 to set up a Youth Pathways Action Plan Taskforce to examine young people's transitions from school to work, further education and active participation in community life. When you have a situation in the Northern Territory where at least 32 per cent of teenagers are not in full-time employment or in full-time education, that sort of report from the task force should have been the basis for crucial action on the part of the government to look at addressing and reducing those statistics. That report was due to be released in March 2000; however, it was not released until May 2001—some 14 months later. It was a comprehensive and far-reaching report and set the scene for radical new approaches to addressing the needs of young people, particularly those who are disconnected or who are at risk of becoming disconnected from society.

The Howard government promised that there would be budget measures in response to that report, but we know from this year's estimates process that nothing substantial was made available in the budget, and we know that this government has not announced any new initiatives at all as a result of the Youth Pathways action plan. The department in fact informed us during the estimates process that they had not been instructed to investigate the introduction of any new programs as a result of this report.

Is it any wonder then that we have TAFE Directors Australia—a body that I met with quite recently when they had a meeting in Darwin—emphasising how critical the role of the TAFE sector is in this country? In a kit that was released prior to the federal election last year, `Skilling Australians for the future', TAFE Directors Australia took the opportunity to emphasise the critical role that the TAFE sector must play if Australia is to have a world-class vocational education and training system. In fact, in a letter to me they went on to say:

It underlines the need for adequate funding and a curriculum approach that would enable TAFE Institutes to perform that role. It also emphasises the importance of recognising the TAFE sector as a full and equal partner with other stakeholders—

something that the federal minister, Brendan Nelson, has failed to realise as yet—

in working towards an improved national vocational education and training system.

Of course, during that time TAFE Directors wanted a range of changes that they believed were necessary to improve the TAFE sector. The first of those—and the key recommendation coming from TAFE Directors—was significantly increasing the national investment in TAFE to fund unmet demand, which this government does not do; then providing places in emerging industry areas—which this government does not recognise there is a need to do—and teacher professional development, improved student services, and computers and high-tech facilities in institutions. This government believes that institutions should be able to find all of that through its old `growth through efficiencies' policy, but there is no new or additional `growth' money for people to be able to do that.

On the brighter side, though, there has been one slight change that I want to report on to the Senate, and that is that at least you can have some small gains in this sector. The Australian National Training Authority had a VET Infrastructure for Indigenous People Program. Back in 1999, through the Senate estimates process, I highlighted that in the Northern Territory, where a number of training facilities had been built under this program, there was no provision for these facilities to actually set aside room for a trainer to stay—there was no accommodation attached to these facilities. So a trainer would go out from Darwin for three or four nights at a time to a new facility that had been built with ANTA funds, under their VET infrastructure program, and all that the guidelines approved in those days was just the classroom. So you would have a situation where a trainer was having to sleep on the floor in a classroom for the four nights or two weeks of the block training that they delivered in those communities.

I am pleased to say that ANTA listened to and looked at what was needed in those remote communities, and those guidelines have now been changed. Those guidelines now do accommodate the extra three or four square metres that were needed to make a trainer's life comfortable when they went to remote communities. I had the pleasure of being at Titjikala community, which is a couple of hundred kilometres south-east of Alice Springs, when the new training centre, the Paulus Wilyuka training centre, was opened. This centre has been named after an Indigenous pastor from that community who committed his life to improving training outcomes for his people. That centre was built by a local Indigenous building team and it not only has a classroom for VET and training facilities but also accommodates the trainer.

It was probably a very small change to ANTA's program guidelines, but it means an awful lot to those trainers who do not have to sleep on the floor anymore in those remote communities but are provided with a bed, a bathroom and some kitchen facilities so that life is a little more comfortable. So there can be light at the end of the tunnel when bureaucracies actually listen to and take notice of what is needed out in those communities. I was very pleased to attend the opening of that training centre, and I congratulate ANTA and the ANTA board on recognising that their guidelines for the infrastructure program were too narrow and inflexible and needed to change.

In closing, let me say that there has been another significant change in the training program and the way in which this federal government has approached training in this country this year. That of course has been the decision to cut funding to industry training bodies at the state level—to cut the funds that state and territory governments can access to provide training advice at that level. I notice that my time is diminishing, so perhaps I should leave this for another time. But this is another example of the government's neglect of the VET sector and the TAFE sector since it came to office in 1996.