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Thursday, 13 October 2011
Page: 7351


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:45): The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2011 answers a number of concerns previously expressed by the Greens. It inserts six objects into the act, a basic part of any act and one that stakeholders and the Greens did request should be present. The Greens had also pointed out that, as things stood in the original bill, people using qualifications that had been cancelled without their knowledge would be committing an offence—something that obviously could bring great difficulty to many individuals. Given that such people would already have been victims of shonky training providers whose qualifications had been deemed invalid, it was of course necessary to ensure that individuals would not be committing an offence in using their cancelled qualification unless they knew it had been cancelled.

The Greens are pleased the government has acknowledged and will address this shortcoming and a number of others. Accountability and quality assurance are vital in our VET system, where so much of our future skills training takes place, especially with the estimated future shortage of about 36,000 tradespeople by 2015. That is in only four years. It is an extraordinary number that was set out by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, when she spoke to the centre for economic development in February this year.

For over a decade, skill shortages have been recognised as a looming threat to meeting the future needs of our communities and our economy, yet what long-term planning investment have successive governments made? The rise of the private contractor or provider who cannot or will not invest in the full three to four years of apprenticeship training and in the task-specific training that is more and more insisted upon by private industry to save time and money has seen new generations of broadly skilled and fully qualified tradespeople diminish with every passing year. Add to that the factor of the megaminers sucking up the remaining skills base across Australia and collapsing everyday economies around the country and I question what exactly we are doing to ensure that Australia's communities and economy will be supported down the track. Who will have the skills to teach the new generations of tradespeople when the current older generation retires along with the rest of the baby boomers? This is a huge challenge that needs to be addressed much more thoroughly by all of us.

The implications of these questions are serious. They illustrate how important a well-planned and supported VET system is and how essential a strong and viable publicly funded TAFE system is. Yet, despite explicit knowledge of this looming crisis, we have federal and state governments diminishing investments in our public TAFE systems by privatising the vocational education and training market, where TAFE must compete against more and more private providers for contested funding.

I do want to put on the record that the Greens recognise there is a role for private VET providers, but that is where TAFE is unable to provide the training. In a price based framework, TAFE cannot compete with the smaller, more nimble private provider who can cherry-pick the cheap-to-run courses such as business training, special personal care and sales reps without the overheads of large community infrastructure and expensive high-tech equipment or a responsibility to permanent staff such as TAFE should and must support. Yes, it is the cheap-to-run courses that TAFE is dependent on to cross-subsidise the more expensive courses, such as the latter stages of apprenticeship training and high-tech digital courses. What will happen not so far down the track when TAFEs can no longer afford to run these essential courses?

If the trade-offs here continue, they will result in a really deskilled Australia. We are already seeing this happen in Victoria, where full contestability and a pure demand-driven publicly funded voucher system for diploma and certificate I to IV courses has seen a 110 per cent growth in enrolments in low-cost occupation-specific privately provided courses. At the same time TAFE enrolments grew by just two per cent in the higher cost specialised courses such as health care and trades. The reporting of a surge in publicly funded enrolments in privately provided fitness instructor courses in Victoria to the tune of 1,000 per cent since 2008 should sound very loud warning bells about Australia's willingness to skip down the path of fully contestable funding of VET at the expense of TAFE.

Let us not forget the lessons of New Zealand's doomed pure demand-driven tertiary system, where the polytechnics and private providers grew out of control, with bloated enrolments of students and commensurate unsustainable public costs, questionable qualifications for courses with little public benefit and rising student failure and attrition. Just across the Tasman there is another example of going into the private sector, and when we get the balance wrong the long-term sustainable and viable economy you need to build is damaged.

The Greens have serious concerns about the direction the VET systems are heading in. We are committed to a well-funded, publicly owned TAFE system as the dominant provider of vocational education and training. We are pleased with this bill. It is an area to which I look forward to giving more attention in the future.