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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness

WHITE, Ms Linda, General Manager, Industry Workforce Branch, Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

CHAIR: Welcome. I remind witnesses the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asked for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of the policies or factual questions about when and how they were adopted. The committee has received a submission from the department. Because of recent machinery of government changes, you have been called to give evidence as experts on tertiary education and vocational education and training. I invite you to make a short opening statement at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Ms White : We had not planned to make an opening statement other than to point out to the committee that when the DEEWR submission was put forward, information from Mr Warburton and my areas of the department were included in that submission. So we will be able to answer your questions and will be delighted to take your questions on the areas in which we have expertise. We may not be able to answer questions that are in other parts of the DEEWR portfolio and I am not sure whether other officers from that department are appearing before the committee. We will do our best to answer what we can for you, but we certainly contributed to our parts of the submission.

CHAIR: Thank you. Should there be gaps, I am sure they will be picked up in a later hearing. Senator Gallacher, would you like to commence the questions for the department.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you, Chair. In your submission there are a number of areas where you indicate significant investments over three years: $19.1 million on page 142, $42.5 million also on page 142. Can you give us an indication of the success, the participation rates or the improvement in participation rates from unemployment to employment in those regions?

Ms White : We are not in the area of the department that deals with the labour market statistics. That is actually still in DEEWR.

Senator GALLACHER: We have heard all day that there is low engagement in the agricultural workforce. Is there anything that you can point to where there is progressive improvement in participation or education?

Ms White : I certainly have statistics here for vocational education and training and participant numbers and so on. Would you like me to—

Senator GALLACHER: We would certainly like to hear the government's view, the actions taken and the success thereof.

Ms White : I am looking at data here for the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the agency which provides information on the vocational education and training sector. I could probably provide this to the committee because it is public data and it can be collected from the NCVER. I have some figures here for the certificates that are in the agriculture sector. There is a range of them from animal care certificates through to agriculture, horticulture, conservation and land management for instance. Probably the main one is the certificate that does deal specifically with agriculture. If I look at the student enrolments there, I can see that from 2002, which is the first year of statistics I have here, there is a total of 9,913 enrolments in the various certificate levels from certificate I right up to diploma and higher. If I look at 2011, which will be the latest data, I can see 11,793 enrolments. So we can see that the number of enrolments in vocational education and training has increased and if I look at the trend I can see that it increased into 10,000 or so up to 2006, went down slightly in 2007 and 2008 and then continued to increase from 2009.

Senator GALLACHER: On page 138, paragraph 5, it says the government has committed $690 million to regional higher education, training and research infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund, which provides support for regional students. Can you describe the outcomes there and in particular has there been any improvement in Indigenous participation in that commitment?

Mr Warburton : The $690 million is expenditure from the Education Investment Fund. There has been a range of different funding rounds of different orientations. By and large they are funding infrastructure collaborative arrangements between the VET and higher education sectors, so there is a range of things. I could take on notice and give to you details of the projects that have been funded. They will all be at different stages. With some of them when the government has committed to those projects the expenditure can occur over several years, so for some of them it would be difficult to indicate what their outcomes might be and what impact they might have had on student participation. It is not in my branch but I can get you some additional details and, where possible, information on the outcomes of those projects if that would assist the committee.

CHAIR: In that same vein and on that $690 million, could you indicate in the information that you provide back to the committee, Mr Warburton, whether any of that $690 million was actually earmarked for regional higher education in agriculturally related areas or whether it was $690 million for higher education training and research in regions generally.

Mr Warburton : Yes.

CHAIR: Secondly, for those that you are able to tell us about that have or are to be funded, could you give us some indication as to any of those that actually have been approved to provide that in the agriculturally related disciplines.

Mr Warburton : Yes, no problem.

Ms White : Chair, I have just realised that the figures that I quoted before for the agriculture students are for Australian apprentices, so they are the NCVER figures for the trend in Australian apprentices in agriculture.

CHAIR: So those were those 2002-on figures?

Ms White : Yes, that is correct. I apologise. I have just noticed 'Australian apprenticeships' on the top of that page.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms White.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there data indicating that we are facing a critical skills shortage in the agribusiness area?

Mr Warburton : DEEWR, the department that we were formally part of, does a range of research into skills shortages that it keeps on its website and there is a reference there. It certainly has identified specific shortages in agricultural areas. For instance, for agricultural scientists and consultants it has clearly identified that there are shortages. For agricultural technicians the picture is somewhat less clear because of the very wide diversity and the different sorts of tasks that are undertaken. I think that research also helps inform matters such as the skilled occupations list, which is used for immigration purposes in the areas of skills shortage. For instance, you will find on that list, and it is also available on the website, items such as agricultural engineers, environmental engineers, agricultural consultants, agricultural scientists, foresters and veterinarians. Criticality is not a matter that I can comment on, but the employment department has clearly identified shortages in those areas in the more qualitative material that it gets, so when it identifies shortages it then tries to contact employers. The sense that it was ascertaining from that more qualitative work was that shortages occurred not so much for entry-level people into occupations but in areas where employers' needs were for experienced staff.

Senator GALLACHER: Can you describe the process associated with the funding to deploy 34 regional education and jobs coordinators and what stage it is at? Is it fully functional?

Ms White : That sits in the other part of DEEWR; it is in the regional area of DEEWR. I do know that the RESJs, as we call them, are on the ground and working in regional Australia. My understanding is that they are departmental officers—people who are in regional areas and who work with stakeholders in those regions to address regional needs. They have quite a broad remit which goes from looking at early childhood right through to schooling and into skills and higher education, so they have quite a broad scope of function.

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps, Chair, it would be appropriate if we got a briefing note that from the respective department.

CHAIR: I think it would be.

Ms White : We could get information for the committee from our colleagues in DEEWR for you.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you.

Senator McKENZIE: We have some lists for completion rates for domestic students for 10 years around ag and enviro et cetera. I am just wondering about the number of international students who are studying those, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, given that our higher education system over the last 10 years has now swung heavily to demand-driven and the importance of international students on the decision-making processes of universities in terms of the dollars they bring in.

Mr Warburton : The tables in the submission are the domestic students. I have total students, which includes those domestic students as well as—

Senator McKENZIE: So, if I take one from the other, I will get the international students?

Mr Warburton : Absolutely. I have them for 2010. In 2010, there were 18,464 students enrolled in that broad field of education. There were 3,773 completions in 2010. I do not have the commencers; I only have the total enrolled.

Senator McKENZIE: That is fine.

Mr Warburton : No, hang on—I think we do have the commencers for 2010. It is 6,893.

Senator McKENZIE: Is it possible, on notice if required, to have that broken down from postgrads, such as doctoral students? As I am out on the ground, I am hearing that there are a lot of doctoral international students in ag and enviro, and I am just wanting to see some information about that.

Mr Warburton : We could give you—

Senator McKENZIE: I just want the breakdown between undergrads and postgrads.

Mr Warburton : Would you like it for total or domestic?

Senator McKENZIE: I would like domestic and international.

Mr Warburton : Okay, we will give you full figures.

Senator McKENZIE: You do the sums, and I will get the data. Are you able to comment on the trades training centres?

Ms White : That sits in our schools area, but would you like us to take something on notice and get some information for the committee?

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, the trade training centres—how many are in the regions and the types of courses being offered specific to the areas our committee is looking at.

Ms White : No problem.

Senator McKENZIE: Ag units of study received the highest rate of government higher ed funding. We also give HECS breaks to those studying it, and what we have heard today and in our submissions is that it is not making a lot of difference in terms of uptake. I was wondering whether we had looked overseas at what is working over there in terms of attracting young people to agricultural science and environmental science.

Mr Warburton : Just a comment, you said we give HECS breaks.

Senator McKENZIE: What is it called now? Is it HELP?

Mr Warburton : HELP, yes. So in terms of the subsidy under the Commonwealth grants scheme?

Senator McKENZIE: Yes.

Mr Warburton : They get the highest rate of subsidy. A student studying agriculture is in the band 2 HECS contribution and there are circumstances in which some students who are working in some areas of agriculture can get a HECS-HELP benefit. That is a bit of a mixed picture. If they have done science and maths, agricultural science is not included in that. They can get the benefit but the benefit applies if they are working in some areas of agricultural science.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes. What I am trying to say is that we do all these things to try and assist this to happen and to make it happen. What we have heard is that it is extremely expensive to run these agricultural science courses. I am wondering about it internationally and if we have looked overseas to see if they are having similar difficulties and to see some of the solutions that they might have adopted to address their workforce issues in agricultural training.

Mr Warburton : We are not aware of any specific research along those lines. It could have occurred and we would not have been aware of it. But, off the top of my head, I cannot help you; I am sorry.

Senator McKENZIE: That is all right. I might type that one up and submit that on notice, if that is okay. I now refer to the priority occupations list.

Mr Warburton : Is that the skilled occupations list that I was referring to before and that is used for skilled immigration purposes?

Senator McKENZIE: I knew what that one was. I have underlined this one as I was reading the submission and was thinking about if this was a different thing or the same thing. It is on page 140 of the submission and it is at the bottom paragraph at 'National Workforce Development Fund'.

CHAIR: It is on page 4 of your submission, Mr Warburton.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, it is on page 140 of our papers. So I am referring to the bottom paragraph.

Ms White : Yes, Senator, I have found it. The National Workforce Development Fund does have a rather long list of qualifications on it. It is an occupational list and it is for recipients to put forward applications under that list. I did not bring a copy of that list with me but I can provide that to the committee. It is a public list. It is up on our website. It is based on the research from that labour market area of DEEWR and the surveys that Mr Warburton talked about before, so it is certainly based on that analysis.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay and thank you, Ms White.

CHAIR: Can I go back, please, to the agriculture units of study that receive the highest rate of government higher education funding, being $19,542 per Commonwealth supported place in 2011 through the grants scheme. Can you explain what that means? Does that mean that in each of the years of agricultural science a full-time student attracts $19,500 in funding to the institution where they are studying? Is that what that means?

Mr Warburton : That is correct. All of these rates are in equivalent full-time student terms, so using 'full-time student' is good. The direct government subsidy is worth $19,542. That is what we pay the university. That student would have a maximum student contribution amount. As for the student contribution amount, it is up to the university to charge whatever they choose between zero and the maximum. Most tend to charge at the maximum. The maximum is $7,756.

CHAIR: Is that figure a figure over the $19,500?

Mr Warburton : Absolutely. That means the total funding envelope for a full-time student—or otherwise called a student place—is $27,298.

CHAIR: The balance of that figure over and above the $19,500 is presumably the tuition fee that the student pays.

Mr Warburton : Yes. With Commonwealth supported places we call it the student contribution to distinguish it from a full-fee-paying place, but effectively it is the fee. The student can pay it directly or they can take out a HELP loan to that value. If they take out a HELP loan to that value we literally pay that amount for the student to the institution, so the institution receives the $27,298.

CHAIR: Would there be on a web page somewhere that equivalent figure for different university courses? If it is available we do not need to be asking you to provide it, but I would just be interested to know what the fee is for a student studying law or accounting or arts or veterinary science or whatever.

Mr Warburton : You could quite readily find the maximum fees on the Going to University website. You would be able to download a table that gave you the—

CHAIR: Would that total fee identify the Commonwealth supported figure: the equivalent of the $9,500?

Mr Warburton : We can provide you a table. That might be—

CHAIR: If you could, it would certainly save—

Mr Warburton : We will give you that across all the disciplines.

CHAIR: Thank you. Did the MyUniversity website hit the target of January? Is it up and running or not yet?

Mr Warburton : It will be in March.

Senator McKENZIE: I see how you can search on the MyUniversity website, but geography and regional location is not one of those. So if you want to study at a regional—

Mr Baigent : It will have information by campus, as I understand it, and by what courses are available at each campus, so effectively it covers regional areas.

CHAIR: The bottom of page 2 of the submission says that the 2010-11 budget had a provision of $20 million under the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund. Are you able to tell us or take on notice whether or not that sum of $20 million was actually taken up, and can you tell us what the application number was? In other words, were there many more applicants than there were funds available? I would be most interested in knowing the extent to which those funds did provide assistance to the students in the target group. If you could do that, I would appreciate it.

Mr Warburton : That is fine. That remains in DEEWR—it is coming with us—so we will take it on notice and get back to you.

CHAIR: All right; I will not be asking it in estimates, I suppose! In some evidence given earlier in the day, comments were made that in many trades and other disciplines apprenticeships are the most appropriate and best form of training, be it a plumbing apprenticeship or hairdressing or whatever. The point made by several witnesses was that, in agriculturally related disciplines, apprenticeships are not appropriate in the sense of the seasonality and the need for actual skills training in a certain area. In fact, we were told by one of the witnesses that there is a completion rate of about 20 per cent in many formal traineeships because the person enrols, they get the skills that were actually needed for the task at hand and then they tend to drop out because other components are not of interest to them at that stage.

Is there a trend in funding—and I am not asking you for policy development but for what is happening, if you are able to tell me—towards more formal apprenticeships in the allocation of funds, or is the allocation of funds still along the lines of apprenticeships where they are most appropriate and traineeships where they are most appropriate?

Ms White : Certainly apprenticeships and traineeships is a model where a person does theoretical training coupled with on the job training. You were talking about the traditional trades where a person is in an automotive workshop and they are learning to be a mechanic and they go off to a provider and do classroom based study or simulator study and then they come back and practise it on the job. Traineeships are probably much more flexible and usually go for a much shorter period of time although everything is competency based these days and has been for a number of years. I have read most of the submissions and I can see that the industry is saying—and this is what you referred to, Senator—that people are appearing to want to do building blocks, and I think that is the sort of terminology that was used in some of the written submissions. If we think about the COAG targets, what we are trying to do is get people full qualifications, so we actually do want them to finish and get a full certificate III and above. That is certainly where we are wanting to go in terms of COAG and of halving the number of people who do not have a certificate at that level.

In terms of funding, people call it skill sets and I do not know whether the term skill sets has been used in the hearings today. There are different sorts of skill sets. Certainly there are endorsed skill sets that sit in training packages. If we have a look at the ones that are in the agriculture industry that sit under the agrifoods skills ISC, we see there are 109 endorsed skill sets within their training package. They are things where people are doing a number of competencies. This is where people in industry have sat with the Industry Skills Council and said, 'Look, here's a grouping of units that we think sit together and are short, so you are not doing a full qualification.' In terms of funding, some states and territories who are the main funders of the delivery of vocational education and training may fund skill sets. In our new National Workforce Development Fund, which is the one where we referred to the priority list earlier, we do fund skill sets, those ones that are in training packages. We fund them in cases where people already have a qualification, because we are looking for people to get the certificate III qualification. I actually have in my folder the list of all the ones in the agrifoods package, and they are in all the training packages. You can do something like manual handling, for instance, or basic chainsaw operations. They are those sorts of things and they are endorsed units that have been through a process. So there is funding available for those, but it would be targeted at people who already have skills.

CHAIR: Can I ask you this as an extension of that, and it is certainly in line with what the questions were this morning. Does it exist now or is there the capacity for somebody in the agriculturally related disciplines to actually undertake an agreed number of these skill sets, complete them successfully—presumably they are given some sort of a rating in terms of their complexity and the number of hours et cetera—and, having achieved a certain number of points or hours of the skill sets, be then entitled to some degree of certification? As a rider to that, I can understand a scenario in which the authorities might say that 'included in that module or approach we require a certain number of core or essential skill sets or modules but the candidate can actually complete the certificate by successfully completing a multiple of other skill sets'.

Ms White : The vocational education system is based around units of competency and there is no reason why theoretically a student cannot go and enrol in several units of competencies and do those competencies and be deemed competent. A registered training organisation would issue them with what is called a statement of attainment. So over time they could build up units of competencies in a particular qualification and they would get credit for the statements of attainment that they had and be awarded that qualification. That could be over a long period of time. In terms of skill sets themselves and those ones in endorsed training packages, I am certainly not an expert on training packages and I am not sure yet whether they are aligned to the AQF, which is what all the units of competency would be aligned to, but an RTO would need to have on the scope of registration the qualification that sits behind those skill sets. So these endorsed skill sets that I spoke about are linked to the training packages and my understanding is that an RTO would issue something to that person to say that they have completed that skill set.

CHAIR: A statement of attainment or achievement?

Ms White : Attainment. Only a registered training organisation can issue such a certificate.

CHAIR: As you say, they have got to be aligned with the AQF, which I understand. That would appear to be a mechanism that this committee could look at further and get some further advice on. It may well end up serving the needs of the employees and the employers and at the same time maintaining the integrity of the overall VET sector in terms of qualifications.

Ms White : I think there are lots of skill sets in the agriculture one. I can see the sorts of ones the industry have said that they need. They are in peak reproduction and all sorts of things. Other people want to do things like just pluck a unit of competency from one particular qualification and one from another and they may not join up to eventually form a certificate as such, but if it is a proper unit of competency they will have a statement of attainment that is recognisable across Australia.

CHAIR: That is right. I understand that. I have no other questions.

Senator McKENZIE: I have a question on the Primary Industries Education Foundation. On page 2 of your submission you say it was established in 2008 and brings together the education and training sector, some industry and some government bodies to try and pull together, at the primary and secondary school level, this conversation that we are trying to have. We know what it is and you have stated what it is. Can you flesh out that paragraph a bit more for us in terms of the department's perspective on it?

Ms White : I am not personally familiar with the organisation but I thought their submission was interesting so I did ask for a bit of information about what the organisation is. It did look like an organisation that is a foundation and has a number of industry partners. I notice that the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture is one of their stakeholders and also Meat and Livestock Australia and so on. It appeared to me when I read their submission that it looked like they may have originally have had some Commonwealth funding, perhaps through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

CHAIR: That is correct.

Ms White : As far as I am aware it is not funded from vocational education and training, nor higher ed by the sounds of it.

Mr Warburton : No.

Ms White : Whether it does receive some funding from our schools area, I am not sure. Do you want us to see if we can find that out?

Senator McKENZIE: It would be fantastic if you could find that out.

CHAIR: It seemed to me that there was a tremendous opportunity for synergy between these 34 regional education skills and jobs coordinators and this Primary Industries Education Foundation, which is obviously very thin on the ground.

Ms White : We will find out when we talk to that regional area whether there is some link between those two programs if you like.

Senator McKENZIE: And the RDCs, because I know they have got some RDCs involved and it would seem that a variety of RDCs have identified industry skills shortages for their own industry and are taking a variety of approaches on how to address that.

On industry collaboration, we have heard a lot today about PICSE. Enid Blyton references aside, I was interested, as a Victorian senator who is passionate about regional areas, that Victoria is actually not one of the places in our Commonwealth where PICSE is active. It obviously collaborates with universities, regional communities and local primary industries to do exactly what we want, which is to attract people to tertiary science. We have seen in my home state a retraction in the number of ag colleges et cetera over time. Is there some way to flesh out the whys and the wherefores of that fact that I do not know about?

Mr Warburton : The whys and wherefores of why Victoria is not involved?

Senator McKENZIE: Of why it is currently active centres located in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. I am sorry I am being parochial but I am a senator.

Mr Warburton : I have a recollection of asking this question last year, but I cannot recall the answer.

Mr Baigent : I suspect it is a matter for the PICSE organisation and whether anyone from Victoria has either asked to be involved or been invited to be involved by the PICSE group.

Senator McKENZIE: Is your department in charge of the funding of PICSE?

Mr Warburton : We did provide the funding. It was one-off project funding under the Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund. That funding ran from 2009 to 2011. My recollection of the response that I got last year when I inquired as to why there was nothing in Victoria is that, broadly, there had been attempts to have parties in Victoria involved but they had failed to get an interested party to work with. I can see if we have something on file that might flesh out for you, but we may not. I will check.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you.

CHAIR: That concludes our questions. I thank you for your appearance today and answering questions and for agreeing to take on notices those questions that are now in other areas. We are most appreciative. I also thank other witnesses who have appeared today. That concludes today's proceedings.

Committee adjourned at 16:17