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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5636


Senator STEPHENS (6:25 PM) —I too rise to support the second reading amendment to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2002 and relate my comments to the impacts of the lack of funding for vocational education and training and the lack of support for young people in rural and regional areas. We know that it is in the regions where persistent unemployment is high and it is incumbent on us to do everything we can do to assist the regions, particularly in view of the effect on young people.

I want to address my concerns tonight in relation to two particular issues: vocational education and training in schools, and the role of TAFE in regional and remote areas. These are the two important providers of vocational education and training in the regions, where private providers tend not to be so visible, simply because of lack of numbers and lack of profitability. It is up to the public sector to provide those critical services for our young people.

In terms of vocational education and training in schools, we need to be aware of the importance of ensuring that the curriculum attracts more young people. This relates quite specifically to young boys in regional areas—getting them to participate further in their education, which is a relevant and contemporary issue. Importantly, through VET courses, they can develop important education, training and employment skills. They are able to find some kind of a balance between the academic programs that are a part of the new Higher School Certificate curriculum, particularly in New South Wales, and a non-academic strand where vocational education and training fits.

There have been some significant submissions to the Standing Committee on Education and Training inquiry into vocational education in schools, which is currently under way. Several of those have been commented on this afternoon. I would like to draw attention to particular submissions from New South Wales that have special relevance to the issue we are debating here. The submissions are quite extraordinary in terms of the simple message that has been included in all of them—that is, the critical issue is about the lack of funding to resource the rapid growth of vocational education and training and, significantly, the financial penalties in the TAFE funding formula for additional delivery hours within the budget. These are significant issues that need to be addressed.

I draw the Senate's attention to one important submission that came from the Vincentia High School on the South Coast of New South Wales, which is not too far from me. Mark Dodd, the vocational education coordinator at the Vincentia High School, outlined the importance of the VET program for a community such as Vincentia, which reflects very much an area of high unemployment; there are very few employment opportunities for young people in the region. I will quote from his conclusions in the submission. He acknowledges the importance of vocational education in schools and states:

VET in schools provides training opportunities for students in rural and remote communities that are vital to accessing career opportunities and transition to work in areas of high unemployment.

Vincentia is located in one of the highest youth unemployment areas of the state. He also concludes:

VET in schools complements existing training opportunities, and the seamless transition for students should be seen as a greater positive for the national training agenda.

We know that the national training agenda, which now incorporates a new apprenticeship and traineeship scheme, is struggling to find both structured training places and flow-on employment placements that are needed in the regions. A whole range of economic issues are part of the program that needs to be delivered there.

His third conclusion, about VET in schools increasing student retention by providing an appropriate curriculum, is a very important message when we think of the whole-of-community and whole-of-education approach that ANTA and all parties, both Labor and the Liberal government, are trying to promote in terms of lifelong learning and the importance of that for Australia's knowledge economy in the future. Student retention is an important priority and one that we need to be promoting. The way that we can promote that through vocational education and training is by supporting young people and by supporting and resourcing vocational education and training programs effectively. He concludes also that VET in schools has a funding imperative, from both state and federal governments, that must be recognised. I can say that, certainly, the New South Wales government has contributed significant funding improvements to vocational education and training programs. It has been disappointing to see in this legislation that that has not been reflected satisfactorily in the federal government's allocation, simply because of the rapid growth of vocational education and training programs and the take-up rates, which have been quite extraordinary and so successful.

The other issue is the integration of other government initiatives and the impacts that they are having on vocational education and training programs in schools. I am particularly thinking of students with special needs and of Indigenous students who are able to use vocational education and training opportunities and programs to complete appropriate HSC qualifications. That is an important issue, and we have to be supportive of those specific and targeted programs that provide a response to our access and equity responsibilities for those students.

If I can move on now to the issue of TAFE and the role of TAFE in the regions, which is such a significant issue for us, both in terms of the regional economy and where, particularly, regions are experiencing decline or economic stress due to the drought. We have some specific issues that need to be placed on the record. TAFE institutes in the regions play a critical role in the educational and economic infrastructure of regional Australia, and that is acknowledged everywhere. I do not think I have been anywhere in a country community in New South Wales where someone has not participated in a TAFE program of some kind. We need to acknowledge that there are difficulties and extra costs involved in delivering regional and remote courses, and that the institutes face significant burdens that are not sufficiently recognised in the current funding provisions. That message is very clear. It has significant impacts on the kinds of courses and programs that can be offered, particularly in vocational education and training or the preparatory courses that lead into vocational qualifications. It is essential that we have better funding provision and significant resourcing. We know now that institutes are being forced to reduce the hours of off-the-job training and to withdraw from delivering some of their programs simply because of thin markets and the distances involved in trying to actually get their students to participate in programs.

This is such an important issue because people living in rural and remote areas of Australia generally have lower levels of skilling and recognised qualifications. One of the outcomes of the New South Wales government's initiative relating to drought relates to the retention of rural skills bases in rural communities. One of the important initiatives is to fund the training and upgrading of qualifications as part of retaining skills in those regional communities at a time of drought when these people are not able to be employed. It is important to be able to maintain that kind of presence, and it is the role of TAFE to run most of those kinds of programs. That is a critical issue for maintaining the economic infrastructure of communities, and it seems not to be recognised in any of this legislation.

Another important issue that we need to consider is that the TAFE system has over 1,100 campuses and covers geographically diverse cities and towns throughout Australia. The university system, by contrast, has a much smaller network of about 100 campuses, and these are mostly in the larger population centres. So there is a real imperative that we support public vocational education through the TAFE system: they are so often the only provider of post compulsory and vocational education and training in the regions, and their presence means young people can stay in the local community for their pre-employment education and training. We know, again, that it is an important issue contributing to the social capital and the social infrastructure of our regional communities to keep our young people there, to keep them educated and employed, and hopefully to have them take up some capacity-building roles within their communities as they grow older.

We need to recognise that the TAFE institutes make a very significant contribution to regional economies. They are often one of the major businesses and employers in their towns and cities, and they generate significant income for the area. They also work closely with the industries in their region to identify upskilling needs, and they develop the skilled work force that is essential for attracting industry to the regions and enabling regional enterprises to operate successfully. Earlier today we were hearing about an initiative that Senator Abetz addressed, about small business development and its application in the regions. If we do not have TAFE as a presence in regional communities like that, we do not have the capacity to deliver programs under a whole other raft of legislation and government departments. So there is the need for a whole-of-government, whole-of-community, lifelong learning approach, and for an integration of the kinds of programs that we offer in regional communities, to sustain those communities and make them resilient in times of economic stress.

A critical issue for us is that TAFE institutes are being expected to meet wider community expectations. Regional TAFE institutes provide a significant source of leadership in their communities. That is a very important community development role, particularly in rural, remote and Aboriginal communities. TAFE is the centre of learning; very often it is the first second-chance opportunity that people have for educational access and it is where people are drawn back into a learning environment and have a supportive learning environment to continue their education. This is a significant issue for us. We also have an expectation in regional communities that TAFE institutes will provide for disadvantaged groups. This is not the case for private providers who are providing contracted training, and it highlights the role of TAFE as the public provider and the importance of maintaining their role and presence in communities. They offer services such as library services, counselling services, community services, distance learning opportunities and a range of programs of study in areas, including those of relatively low demand which for private training providers tend not to be profitable.

There are significant challenges and difficulties in servicing regional and isolated vocational education markets that need to be recognised in the legislation. We know what these are. We have heard them in many, many submissions to different parliamentary committees and inquiries about education and training. They are things like the fact that small numbers of students mean that delivery costs and overheads are proportionately higher in regional areas than in urban areas; it can be significantly difficult to attract appropriately qualified teaching staff; the distance from major centres can add considerably to the costs of materials, equipment, staff and other essential services required for the delivery of programs; there are high costs involved in serving geographically distant campuses and in travelling long distances to undertake workplace assessment; nearly 10 per cent of TAFE students nationwide live more than 100 kilometres from their TAFE college; many students need better access to information and communication technology infrastructure, and TAFE at the moment is very often the only provider of some of those broadband communication technologies in rural communities; in many cases there is no explicit funding for community service obligations or for offering low-demand programs which nevertheless provide important skills for local industry, and it is often the responsibility of TAFE as part of community development and planning to look for regional skills needs to initiate employment and vocational training to meet planned growth of regions.

There are two very important examples of TAFE meeting regional skills needs. The first is the Illawarra Institute of TAFE, which encompasses the South Coast of New South Wales, which has been involved in a range of information and communications technology training to meet the growing need of the region in terms of employment opportunities and investment. It is quite innovative. On the South Coast things like virtual campuses have been established and programs have been developed to link vocational education in schools and TAFE and industry in quite innovative ways.

A second example which is also a very useful example for us in terms of looking at recognised skill shortages is the work that the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE have been involved in. They have been looking at the shortages in light metals and processing industries in the central Queensland region. They have also been looking at how they can initiate a range of training programs to provide the pre-employment skills training that will ensure that the major infrastructure development that is going on in the central Queensland region of the country will not have significant skill shortages. In the central Queensland region the programs that the TAFE institute have been specifically involved in have been projects of national significance, including the aluminium and magnesium smelters proposed for the area. They have identified through a regional planning approach that there are going to be significant skill shortages in the construction and light metals processing industries. TAFE are taking the lead in that region to ensure that industry is able to be accommodated and is able to respond in terms of employment and skills needs in the future for the region. The Central Queensland Institute of TAFE recently won ANTA's training provider of the year award for the second time running. They are obviously responsive and critically tuned in to the industrial and economic needs of that region.

I wish to place on record the impressive number of submissions to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training inquiry into vocational education in schools. I spent quite a bit of time reading those submissions. I congratulate those people who are involved in vocational education and training in schools and TAFE on their incredible enthusiasm. I recognise that the importance of supporting this amendment bill relates to the fact that vocational education and training is highly significant in regional Australia. We need to do much more than provide rhetoric. We need to provide real resources to support vocational education and training in our schools. I congratulate all of those involved in programs in schools and in TAFE on their efforts.