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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5631

Senator BUCKLAND (5:51 PM) —The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 is an imperative piece of legislation for the training needs of young people in this country. This is particularly important for those at greater risk of being marginalised by education and training and employment. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 makes available the maximum amount of vocational education and training funding for distribution by ANTA to the states and territories for capital and recurrent purposes and for national projects. The purpose of this particular bill is to amend the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 to supplement the funding which was appropriated in 2001 for vocational education and training, and was provided to the Australian National Training Authority for distribution to the states and territories in the year 2002. This is in line with real price movements and the Commonwealth's commitment under the 2001-03 ANTA agreement to maintain its level of base funding in real terms.

The main provisions are as follows. The effect of item 1 of schedule 1 is to amend the amounts payable to ANTA under section 9 of the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 in the following manner: increasing the amount of base funding payable for 2002 from $956.158 million to $978.781 million and providing a base funding appropriation of $992.295 million for the year 2003. The effect of item 2 of schedule 1 is to amend the amounts payable under subsection 9AB(2) of the Vocational Education and Training Funding Act 1992 to ANTA for allocation to states and territories, by increasing the amount of funding payable for 2002 from $75 million to $76.725 million and providing funding of $101.725 million for 2003.

This all sounds well and good. However, the government has failed to develop adequate policies and programs that ensure successful transitions to adulthood. It has become apparent in the latest report of the Dusseldorf Skills Forum, entitled How young people are faring, that there is a great constant increase in the number of young people in the age range of 15 to 19 years who are neither here nor there on any form of education or training and are not in full-time work. This, of course, translates into over 200,000, or approximately 15 per cent of all young people in that particular age category, who are not in any form of education or employment that will result in a worthwhile job in the long-term future.

This is a troubling issue and one that has not been adequately addressed by the Howard government. The disastrous reason for this situation is that more than 40 per cent of young people who left school before year 12 were involved in at-risk activities within six months of leaving school. These at-risk activities include drug taking and other illegal activities. From my experience, this is more prevalent in country areas and areas where there are fewer opportunities for young people to find work of any nature. It is pure commonsense, then, that the best way to distract young people in the most constructive way from at-risk behaviour is to provide them with education and training and give them opportunities for employment. How often have we heard young people say, `You can train me but can you give me a job?' The answer to that, in the majority of cases, unfortunately, is no, because there is no focus by this government on the long-term future of our young.

We are also well aware that Australian businesses frantically need more skilled workers. They are constantly telling us that. The government's reaction to this was the New Apprenticeships Access Program, which focused on the low-paid and low-skilled instead of on the high-growth, high-paid, high-demand skilled workers that were required by so many industries. The consensus from industry groups has been that the government program has in fact produced a severe skills shortage in high-skilled technical areas. Some of the examples include those in medical services, engineering, and mechanical and electrical trades—and that is just to name a few.

What we now have is these apprentices being forced down to the other end of the scale—`You can train me; you cannot provide me with the work.' The skills and training that are offered in the TAFE and VET institutions will provide those much-needed opportunities at the high-skill, high-wage end and prevent what has been happening. But the question is: what is the Howard government doing about the dilemma that we face?

What we have is a scheme that is a source of cheap labour rather than a constructive measure to assist the unemployed. The government have reiterated what they believe is the success of this program, with the doubling of numbers of apprenticeships and traineeships. What is not being reiterated is the expense this has cost the vocational education sector with quality training outcomes. And that is what counts—quality training with true outcomes and jobs at the end. There are many employers out there who are simply exploiting the scheme as a de facto wage subsidy program. They see it as nothing more than a cheap way of getting labour for a period of time. It has gotten to the point that in many cases trainees have had their chances of getting a job hindered if they have already undertaken a traineeship.

The other disturbing fact is that there is a consistently high noncompletion rate among trainees. Almost 50 per cent of trainees participating in the scheme do not complete their course of training. That is a cause for real concern. The latest ABS figures illustrate that between 20 and 30 per cent of those who do continue their traineeship receive inadequate training. Between 1997 and 2001, the average training hours per employee fell by 15 per cent.

The key to developing a successful transition for young people into jobs is to provide a strong, vital TAFE sector. Consequently, TAFEs need to be well funded in order to provide the incentives and support for these young people leaving school that will eventually lead them to work and prevent at-risk activities. It is all interwoven. If you provide no real outcomes you have young people at risk, and that is when we pay the price.

This bill does not address the massive funding cuts the vocational education and training sector was hit with in the Howard-Costello budgets of 1996 and 1997. The Commonwealth contribution to vocational education and training operating revenue fell by $112 million between 1997 and 2000. During the last election, the Howard government promised young people a future action plan for young Australians. The government said that it would provide a comprehensive response to the report in the 2002 budget, but while this government is big on inquiries and reports it does very little to implement the findings of those inquiries.

Instead, we have government policies that have given very little assistance to the young people of Australia and have consequently caused a great deal of negative self-esteem. Low self-esteem caused by the inability of young people to fulfil their potential can be observed every time you walk down the main streets of any city and down the streets and malls of any small or medium sized town in this country. To add to this negative self-esteem that young people are experiencing, the government is more interested in massive funding increases to wealthy private schools. The attitude of this government is to look after one and forget about the other: `Don't worry too much about the needy. They can't look after themselves—they won't cause us problems.'

Young people have also had enormous rises in HECS fees and consequently have no time to study and enjoy university because they are working record hours to pay the rent and buy food. If you are in vocational education or at university you spend what time you have working—if you can get work— simply to pay the rent and pay for your food. The GST has increased the cost of living, and there are record levels of youth homelessness. These issues are not addressed by the government.

To add insult to injury, the government's new apprenticeships scheme has created a warped subsidy for crooked employers. All of these issues need urgent attention. The answer to creating opportunities for the young people of Australia is to encourage more students into TAFE, into vocational education. This can be achieved only through investment in the future. This government needs to develop a plan that gives it a reason and a vision for investing in our young people's futures.