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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 64

Senator HARRADINE (4:42 PM) —The Senate is debating the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004. I want to deal with the implications of the bill for Tasmanians. The legislation before us appropriates funds for state and territory TAFE systems. Despite Tasmania having had a strong economy in recent years, unemployment in my home state is still above the Australian average and there is a significant problem with long-term unemployment. Tasmanians also suffer the lowest average weekly earnings of all states and territories. One way to improve these factors—employment, income levels and levels of economic development—is to increase the average level of education of Tasmanians by making university and TAFE places more accessible.

Late last year I was involved, along with Senator Shayne Murphy, in negotiating with the federal government extra university places for Tasmanians because we were not getting our fair share. I pointed out that Tasmania received less than its fair share of student places per head of population. As a result, the University of Tasmania will be awarded over 1,600 new student places by 2008. These negotiations resulted in more than $200 million in benefits for Tasmania. Despite a tendency by some people to see vocational education and training as the poor cousin of university education, we should not discount its importance. TAFE education provides different skills to those provided by universities, but it is just as valuable as university education and in some respects is more so. Vocational education and training provides very valuable skills and training to students, who become the backbone of our economy.

There are almost 14,000 vocational education and training students in Tasmania. We know from statistics that vocational education and training is a very important step to employment. I will quote some of the statistics. Seventy-two per cent of Tasmanian TAFE graduates are employed after their training. Seventeen per cent of TAFE graduates who were not employed before their training were employed afterwards. So we know that this training is very important for employment. In fact, Tasmanian TAFE training gives the biggest boost in employment of its students of all states and territories except for Queensland.

The TAFE sector in Tasmania is undergoing significant growth. The latest figures we have show that the total number of hours of delivery of TAFE education increased between 2002 and 2003 by over 11 per cent. That is the biggest growth of any state or territory and double the growth of the next highest growth state—Queensland. The Australian average growth was just three per cent. There is a lot of other good news in the Tasmanian TAFE sector: per hour costs of delivering training have fallen by more than 20 per cent since 1999; participation is growing faster than the national average, which means that Tasmanian participation levels are catching up to the overall national average; the Tasmanian state government increased its dollar allocation to TAFE by 15 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2003-04; and 84 per cent of employers were very or moderately satisfied with TAFE graduates' skills.

But, despite this good news, there has been an impasse in negotiations between state and territory governments and the Commonwealth over future funding of the state TAFE system. In fact, the last two Australian National Training Authority agreements on funding have not been signed off. Commonwealth funding offers in negotiations on the latest ANTA agreement have not recognised the forecast growth levels or unmet demand in Tasmania. And Commonwealth funding is important—it makes up about a third of public funds spent on the national vocational education and training system. The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Commonwealth Bank produced a survey of business expectations for the March quarter this year which identified the availability of suitably qualified employees as one of the top three constraints on Tasmanian businesses. We need more skilled graduates to help the expansion of the Tasmanian economy. But, despite the importance of training to the state, the Commonwealth has insisted on linking industrial relations provisions—the construction code—to the funding, creating a barrier to resolving the negotiations.

The Commonwealth government has recently announced a number of Australian technical colleges, one of which will be based in northern Tasmania. I understand the initiative will provide training in a number of trades to 300 students in their last two years of school, but this will not address the funding problems in the state TAFE system and will only focus on the particular courses it will offer in one part of Tasmania. Whatever the arguments for and against the Australian technical colleges, they are only a small add-on to a much larger system of state and territory run TAFE colleges. We cannot afford to ignore the funding needs of the overwhelming number of students.

One of the effects of this impasse in negotiations has been a seven per cent increase in TAFE fees from 2005 for Tasmanian students. I do not pretend to know all the ins and outs of the negotiations between state and territory governments and the Commonwealth over funding for vocational education and training, but I do know that linking unrelated industrial relations requirements to funding will obviously make it impossible for state and territory Labor governments to come to agreement with the Commonwealth. And I do know that, by not granting adequate funding to state vocational education and training systems, the main people who suffer are the students. They do not deserve to bear that burden.