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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 55

Senator NETTLE (4:04 PM) —It makes me quite sad to speak to the Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004. It is a bit of legislation I would probably describe as pathetic, because it represents the failure of the government to achieve an agreement with the states to provide adequate—not generous, but adequate—funds for the provision of vocational education and training in this country. It represents a failure of the government to address the critical skills shortage that has been building for the past decade or more, and it represents a failure of the government to capitalise on the fabulous opportunities that our TAFE system offers. It does this by further undermining the funding that TAFE desperately needs to educate working class Australians, people from a non-English-speaking background and mature age students wanting a second chance at education, to name just a few of the groups that utilise our fantastic TAFE system. This bill delivers a small portion of the much needed funds to keep courses running and teachers employed at TAFE colleges around this country, and this is the only reason that the Greens will support the bill—but we do so grudgingly because the funds provided in this bill are entirely inadequate. The Greens have always been loud and vocal advocates of increased funding for TAFE, and we will outline our support for TAFE again today.

The context in which this bill comes before the Senate is important to understand. There is a political context, an ideological context and a socioeconomic context. Politically, this bill comes in the aftermath of an election in which vocational education and training got more attention than it has in the previous three years of neglect by the government, but unfortunately the publicity was not good. The frenzy of poorly conceived public policy and pork-barrelling that has come to characterise recent elections included the government's new initiative to introduce secondary technical colleges. This proposal came after the establishment of the Institute for Trade Skill Excellence and was followed by the abolition of the means by which state and federal cooperation is brokered with regard to vocational education and training—that is, the Australian National Training Authority, ANTA.

The technical college proposal has been roundly criticised, and rightly so. Firstly, we might very well ask, `What is it?' There has been so little information coming from the government as to how this proposal would work. All we know is that there is to be about $290 million spent over four years establishing technical colleges for teaching year 11 and year 12 students trade skills along with current curricula, and that they are to be run autonomously by the principals of the institutions and to be free of state government or union involvement. It sounds to me like John Howard is seeking to create his very own system of private TAFEs. That is the sort of approach to a problem that you would expect from a greedy kid in the schoolyard who cannot get their own way—they create their own system—rather than the sort of approach that we would expect from a Prime Minister who is entrusted with making decisions for the country's future educational needs.

As to where these new institutions will be—whether they will be on new sites or replace existing institutions—all this is unknown. Nor is it clear whether the funding will replace any proposed funding for vocational education and training in secondary schools. Another question is: where will these colleges fall constitutionally? All educational institutions currently fall under state jurisdiction. There is no capacity for the Commonwealth to establish educational institutions under the Constitution except perhaps using the corporations power. So how will it be done? We do not know.

The Australian Education Union has estimated that these colleges will cost taxpayers almost 10 times as much per student as it would cost to deliver the same service through existing publicly funded TAFE colleges. Pat Forward from the Australian Education Union pointed out, shortly after details of the technical colleges were released, that:

According to the Government's own figures, the 24 colleges would provide training for 7,200 students at a total cost of $147m in their first full year of operation. This works out at a cost per student of $20,444.

By contrast, figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research financial data establish a total average cost per student in TAFE of $2,235—and this cost includes capital.

Perhaps most importantly there are questions of quality and of need. Will these colleges provide the quality of education currently on offer in the TAFE system and will they provide the much needed boost to vocational education and training to address the burgeoning skills crisis? The issue of quality is under a cloud when we do not know what body will ensure that the qualifications issued by these private colleges are of any level of quality. We do not know this because quality control for vocational education and training is a matter for the states, and it appears that the Commonwealth is going out of its way to sidestep the need to enter into collaborative arrangements with the states regarding vocational education and training funding and provision.

The Greens also note the intention to exclude unions from industrial and professional representation in these colleges and from the new advisory body—the Institute for Trade Skill Excellence. This is a worrying sign that points to a lack of standards and a poor focus on teaching excellence. The Institute for Trade Skill Excellence is the second pillar of the political context in which this bill is set. Quietly announced earlier this year, its purpose was not fully understood until the abolition of ANTA was foreshadowed a month or so ago.

It now appears that the Institute for Trade Skill Excellence may be intended to replace much of the work of ANTA and in doing so replace input provided by unions, state governments and employers to the Commonwealth with a sole employer providing advice to the government in regard to the operations of these private institutions. That is because the Institute for Trade Skill Excellence has as its major shareholders the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the National Farmers Federation. There is no representation from unions, there is no representation on behalf of teaching staff, there is no representation from state governments and there is no representation from either parents or students of these institutions. This new institute will see industry being asked to provide endorsement of qualifications that are provided through public and private training providers. It will identify preferred providers, it will establish an industry reference group and conduct marketing type tasks to promote trade skills and distribute certificates for graduating apprentices.

This has all the hallmarks of a government, having failed to get agreement on its negotiations with the states through the ANTA process, taking the opportunity to quit the system altogether—being the greedy boy not getting his way in the playground. In reality, the government is attempting to establish its own foothold in the vocational education and training sector to encourage future growth to occur under a federal umbrella endorsing privately provided training sanctioned by industry. This, surely, is why ANTA has been abolished. The government has failed to get agreement with the states regarding the Commonwealth's share of vocational education and training funding, because the Howard government has always cut or underfunded its share. In the recent negotiations it again refused to stump up adequate growth funds. It also wanted to use its financial muscle to impose antiunion requirements and user-choice provisions. As a result, the agreement was never made, so the government is happily pursuing its own model—eagerly endorsed by the employers—of privately provided and privately endorsed training packages.

To anyone familiar with the Howard government's record in education policy, this looks eerily familiar. Just as in the schools sector and in higher education, the Howard government has come in, has slashed public funding and strangled public institutions. It has created a crisis in the delivery of services and has then turned to students to deliver more funding to the sector by addressing demand through increased private provision—provision which has been encouraged by government subsidies to private providers and more access to the so-called education marketplace. In the meantime unions are attacked, the working conditions of teaching staff are threatened, and students, parents and families are asked to pay more for education of an inferior quality.

This is the ideological context in which this bill is set. The Howard government clearly believes that the best people to provide and manage vocational education and training in Australia are representatives of industry. If not, why would it create a replacement for ANTA that is made up of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council, the Australian Industry Group and the National Farmers Federation? But the sad fact is that this approach simply does not and will not work. Firstly, the role of ACCI must be seen as compromised because they have as vocal members of their organisation private vocational education and training providers who have a profit based interest in the direction of government policy which has nothing whatsoever to do with addressing skills shortages or long-term skills planning, let alone any higher ideals about the benefits of well-rounded public education provision in the country.

Secondly, industry involvement in the Howard government's vocational education and training policies to date has not addressed the skills shortage that we see today. Most of the growth in the New Apprenticeships scheme over the last few years has happened in areas where there are no skills shortages. It has been reported that over 20 per cent of new apprentices do not get proper training. I understand that half of all new apprentices leave their apprenticeships early because they feel exploited as cheap labour rather than having any opportunity to gain genuine training and apprentice experiences.

The Australian Industry Group has said that the number of traditional apprenticeships has been fairly stagnant since the Howard government came to office. That is eight years of neglect in addressing the burgeoning skills shortage that we are seeing at the moment. We find ourselves in 2004 with a shortage of around 20,000 skilled workers in areas including carpentry, construction, manufacturing and mining. There is, for example, a major crisis in the number of bricklayers in Australia.

This skills shortage is an appalling state of affairs. But what makes it so appalling is that the means to address the problem are so obvious: fund our marvellous and publicly funded TAFE system. TAFE is an amazing resource which is the envy of many comparable countries. They are numerous, they contain well-trained staff and they offer comprehensive learning environments and courses which are affordable and accessible. But TAFEs are currently struggling because the federal government has consistently refused to back the system with the generous funding that it needs and deserves; generous funding which, when you compare it to the secondary and tertiary education sectors, results in TAFE being the poor cousin. The amount of money needed to be put into the TAFE system is not large in comparison to the amount of money needed in our public secondary and higher education sectors.

The Greens have been campaigning for years at both state and federal levels in support of the interests of TAFE students and teachers. We do this because we recognise the vital role TAFE plays in delivering training and education to millions of Australians, often Australians with very limited resources, and it provides these opportunities in an accessible, affordable and equitable way. If the government shared the Greens' support of these millions of TAFE beneficiaries then it could have done what we and others have been calling for for years and made the necessary investment to allow TAFE to grow to meet the demands that exist in our community for the services provided by TAFE.

The Greens went to the last election with some costed commitments in the area of TAFE. We are committed to reversing the destruction of TAFE by such things as automatic, indexed for inflation increases in federal funding of TAFE by at least $32 million for each one per cent of growth in demand. This would make sure that every qualified Australian who wanted to improve their skills would have access to an appropriate TAFE course. It would cost little more than $1 billion over 2004 to 2006. We also support a `save TAFE' restoration package of $600 million spread over three years to redress damage to staffing levels, casualisation and the rundown of equipment; $200 million per annum to remove all student fees for educational services; and ending the funding of private providers that directly compete with our publicly funded TAFE system. This package would cost at least $2.8 billion in new money for TAFE over three years. As I said, it is a small amount of money by comparison with the investment that is needed in the secondary and tertiary education sectors.

But this government actually does not want to save our TAFEs. It is happy to let them dwindle. This is obvious from the Howard government's appalling track record of hostility to TAFE, which includes a 15 per cent cut in real terms in federal funding of TAFE and a refusal to fund growth in student numbers, resulting in an unmet demand of 50,000 students. That is 50,000 Australians who are qualified and wanting to attend TAFE but cannot because of a shortage of places.

From 1995 to 2002, a 77 per cent growth in the funding of private providers that compete with TAFE has occurred under this government. Private providers now teach about 15 per cent of vocational education and training hours in this country, up from an almost negligible number in 1995, thanks to the legacy of this government. Tragically, the problems that have been caused for TAFE have been exacerbated by the penny pinching of state governments. In my own state of New South Wales, TAFE teachers are currently involved in industrial action to win a fair pay deal for senior TAFE teachers, a claim that would simply bring them into line with their secondary school colleagues. The Greens support this action and condemn the state government for failing TAFE in its hour of need.

This action in New South Wales comes in the wake of dramatic rises in TAFE fees in New South Wales as well as other states. People who were paying $260 for a one-year course are now paying $300 per module—that is, between $3,000 and $4,500 for a full TAFE course. The effect of this is predictable: fewer people are enrolling at TAFE, and they are spending less time there. For some sections of the community the opportunity to access the second chance at education that TAFE provides is completely taken away.

This can only be bad news for our skills base and bad news for equity in education. This bill is a tragically wasted opportunity to turn this history of neglect around. It is a wasted opportunity to finally do something meaningful to address the chronic skills shortage unfolding in Australia today. The Greens condemn the government for this manifest failure to protect the interests of job seekers and industry. We call on the minister to recognise the value of the great TAFE system that we have, and to come back to this chamber with some alternative legislation that backs TAFE colleges and TAFE staff and enables them to meet the burgeoning need for training and education that the public TAFE system can and should be empowered to deliver.