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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12208

Mr HAYES (Fowler) (16:56): This is a bill that I very much want to speak on because VET, vocational education and training, is very important to our nation. Previous governments have, regrettably, taken their eyes off the ball, and I have seen firsthand what that has done with respect to the development of skills in our workplaces, which is something that we need to stay focused on and not simply take for granted. The vocational education and training industry has certainly become highly competitive, and Australia is very well placed to do well in exporting our training to overseas students. That is why the whole notion of vocational education got onto the national agenda.

The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2011 makes significant amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000. The amendments to the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 include making the national vocational education and training regulator, known as the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the single designated authority for VET institutions providing services to overseas students. The legislation sets up the new statutory authority, which will have powers and responsibilities to register and audit in order to monitor those training institutions providing vocational education and training to overseas students studying in Australia.

The concept of a single regulatory body clearly simplifies the regulatory arrangements to assist in monitoring the quality of services provided to international students. This will assist in providing confidence in Australia's VET system and in its service providers, which have come in for a lot of criticism over recent years. We have seen the damage that has occurred, quite frankly, as a result of nine different regulatory regimes pulling in different directions. As a consequence that damage has occurred with respect to not only student outcomes but also the overall reputation of Australia as a deliverer of vocational education and training. That is something that has to be seen as very much in the nation's interest—to have that level of coordination, not to pick and choose winners in the delivery of vocational education but to ensure that what vocational education we do sell is of sufficient and consistent quality. That is what this legislation is designed to do.

A single regulatory body will also allow for appropriate and timely intervention where there is poor-quality education and training of providers, particularly with respect to international students. That is important. In recent years we have seen a number of VET providers simply close their doors. Not only is that very bad for those students who have enrolled; it is extraordinarily bad for the reputation of this country when many of those students are foreign based and this is reported internationally. That reflects not only on the particular VET provider but on this country as a whole in delivering vocational education and training.

The amendments in this legislation also provide for the establishment of nationally agreed intensive English-learning courses for overseas students to ensure that there is national consistency of standards and protocols. This will assist in ensuring that international students studying at Australia's VET institutions receive the appropriate level of English language training, which is one area that has come in for some criticism over recent years.

It is highly significant for Australia to uphold high standards in the services provided to international students. International students as a group are highly significant to Australia's economy and, quite frankly, our global positioning in education and vocational training. The very perception of our image, in many instances, is reflected in the quality of education we give to overseas students. In the broad, economic figures suggest that, due to their volume, international students form a very high proportion of our export earnings. In 2010 there were 470,000 international students enrolled in education programs in Australia, which was an increase of over 16 per cent on the previous year. Of those 470,000 international students, close to 150,000 were enrolled in the vocational education and training sectors. International students in VET courses therefore comprise almost 30 per cent of international students studying in Australia. The proportion is high, considering the overall financial contribution of this group. According to the International Development Program, international students contribute a little over $5.5 billion to the Australian economy. That is significant.

International students also make a significant contribution to the Australian culture. I briefly indicated the image that is portrayed overseas when things go badly, but when things go well that is also reflected when people choose Australia as their appointed destination in which to study. That positive imagery of Australia is significant not only in attracting further students here but also in how Australia is perceived abroad.

Looking at both the universities and the VET institutions, Australia is one of the preferred providers of education. As a matter of fact, it is the third most popular English-speaking destination for overseas students. Asia is clearly one of our biggest markets, with almost 75 per cent of overseas students studying in Australia coming from the Asian region. We need to ensure that our educational institutions, including those providing vocational education and training, uphold the highest standards of quality, and the establishment of a single regulatory body will help achieve consistency across the board. It will be significant in being able to assess, monitor and apply those regulatory skills to ensure that there is that degree of consistency in those courses that are offered and are registered with the body.

This was recognised by the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory Reform of Vocational Education and Training when they set the objects of ASQA. It has been on the drawing board for some time. Those who are intimately involved in the VET sector have foreseen the need for having such a body. Regrettably, it has not met entirely with the support of each of the state and territory bodies to date. However, the amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 will deliver and foster a sharing of information between the established national VET regulator and those states for the purposes of deciding whether to approve an institution as a VET provider or not.

As I have just indicated, not all of the states have signed off on this. As I understand it, Victoria and Western Australia are still standing somewhat aside. There is no doubt that there has been a broad measure of in-principle agreement in the intergovernmental approach to regulatory reform at the VET level. At the Commonwealth level, there is considered to be a need to have a body which in principle has authority and can act in each of the states and territories to set these standards. When ASQA was established, it was on the basis, principally, of the referred powers—powers that were going to be referred constitutionally by the states and territories. But, regrettably, to date, as I understand it, only New South Wales has actually passed the necessary legislation. It is expected, however, that the remaining states that have agreed to refer their powers—namely, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania—will enact theirs by the end of the year. However, whilst the Victorian and Western Australian governments have not signed up and have indicated that they are not proposing to sign up to the same national VET regime, they have undertaken to enact legislation that will mirror what is being established, but to apply, hopefully, on the same terms and conditions within each of those states.

That is at least a step in the right direction. It is not quite what I think all those who participated in the original discussions were looking for, but it will help ensure that there are appropriate safeguards built in, in terms of applying national, consistent standards across the board. We would expect that between each of those organisations we will have consistency and a measure of dialogue, but I would hope that in due course both Western Australia and Victoria, after the operation of the national regulatory system, will see fit to subscribe to the operation of that body.

The bill will focus on strengthening our national regulatory and quality framework, which is essential for retaining Australia's reputation for being a high-quality vocational education and training provider both nationally and internationally. I have spoken on a number of occasions about my passion for vocational education, as both my sons are tradespeople. One is an electrician and the other a carpenter; as a consequence, they have extensively used the VET sector—principally New South Wales TAFE. Whilst universities are very, very important to us, an academic pursuit for everyone is simply not realistic. In fact, we do need tradesmen and we need those tradespeople to have their skills constantly upgraded. This means that the VET sector, as it applies throughout the country, stays equally important.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Miller TAFE. Oddly enough, it was the very TAFE that both my sons attended. It is in my electorate, and it was a good opportunity to go out and attend a number of the classes and workshops that were being conducted. I spoke to a number of the staff there as well as the students, who were undertaking vocational education in a range of different trades and other courses. Ms Rabia Lodhi, the college manager, and Phil Chadwick, one of the teachers from the electrical trades at Miller TAFE, together with Mr Chris Pittaway from NSW TAFE certainly showed me around all sections of the TAFE.

There were activities such as the stonemasonry course which, by the way, is the only stonemasonry that is being taught throughout NSW. It is good to see a number of people travelling from all over the place to Miller, in my electorate, to attend instruction on stonemasonry. There is also the electrical section, carpentry units and, importantly, the childcare vocational education facility. It is certainly one of the state-of-the-art childcare facilities which are delivering such an important course. Miller TAFE is certainly changing the lives of many in my local community. These are real pathways to employment, ensuring the development of skills for local employees and, significantly, playing a role in helping local industry attract the people they need to generate skilled employment for future. (Time expired)