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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 69

Senator LEES (2:36 PM) —My question is addressed to Senator Vanstone, the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Minister, I acknowledge that the Commonwealth and the states are initiating a number of measures to ease the shortage of tradespeople across Australia—establishing technical schools, VET in Schools et cetera. However, two of the main inhibiting factors that prevent young school leavers from acquiring these skills are the cost of the courses at TAFE and the adequate funding of TAFE so that courses can actually be offered. So I ask: what is the federal government planning to do to improve access for those who wish to attend TAFE but who have very limited resources?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Senator Lees, I do have two answers on file here and I am not sure that I can give you both of them in the time available. But what I am not able to get to I will subsequently send you, in any event. One question relates to the funding of TAFE. There seems to be something wrong with this file, so that is the one I will send you because it is not in the file. Another one here deals with another issue.

Senator Carr —That’ll do. Why don’t you read that out?

Senator VANSTONE —Senator Carr is a bit short on amusement at the moment, Senator Lees.

Senator Carr interjecting—

Senator VANSTONE —I am glad about that, Senator Carr. I am very happy to keep you amused; it does not take much, of course. Senator Lees, I will give you these answers in full, because there is a bit of riffraff here taking up a bit of time.

An issue has been raised as to whether we would look to extend some sort of HECS to TAFE courses. I assume that is the sort of thing you are referring to in asking about access to TAFE because of the cost of the fees. Higher education, nonetheless, is our responsibility; however, under the Constitution, the operation of VET, including the provision of any HECS type scheme, is a state responsibility. We so often see this—the states having responsibility for something but not necessarily pursuing it. I understand that some states are looking at introducing a HECS style scheme, which may be of assistance to young Australians who want to do TAFE. But that is a matter for the state governments.

I am told that Access Economics last year revealed that fee increases—reported at 300 per cent in New South Wales, at 50 per cent for new apprentices in South Australia and at 25 per cent for all students in Victoria—would dissuade 97,000 students from enrolling in TAFE between 2004 and 2006, which includes 74,000 in New South Wales and 20,000 in Victoria. In most instances, those increased TAFE fees are not passed back to the TAFE and instead are returned to consolidated revenue for the states. That, Senator Lees, as you would be aware—it is probably why you have raised the issue—is a very important issue. In a number of areas—and this is just one of them—the states collect revenue and then do not spend it in an appropriate fashion. One example is the stamp duty that states are now collecting as a consequence of a property boom; nonetheless, they are not doing enough for low-income housing—for people wanting to buy a house by way of concessions and for people who buy houses in the lowest quartile. We have here an example of tremendous increases in TAFE fees, which one might accommodate if the money were going back into TAFE education, but, as I am advised, in most instances—so clearly there are some exceptions—the money is going back into general revenue.

The Australian government has increased overall VET funding by nearly 60 per cent—about 58 per cent—since 1995-96. This year it will spend a record $2.1 billion on vocational education and training. By contrast, in 2004-05 most of the states and territories cut their training budgets: New South Wales by 2.4 per cent in real terms and other states in another fashion. Unfortunately, the states and territories rejected the Australian government’s offer of a new agreement, with a 12.5 per cent increase. That offer, if it had been accepted, would have created up to 71,000 new training places. All states, as I am advised—and this information was updated on 9 March—have refused the offer.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer. Minister, given the recent comments by the federal government—in particular, comments from the Prime Minister about getting students to leave school at year 10 to go to TAFE and comments from other ministers regarding skilled immigration—and given the level of interest in this area, isn’t the Commonwealth prepared to at least look at a scholarship system for students from low-income families? In particular, I point out to the minister the unemployment rate of teenagers in the southern and northern suburbs in our own state, which is over 30 per cent. So I ask again: Minister, given the Commonwealth’s recent acknowledgment that a serious issue facing this country is that we do not have enough tradespeople, is the Commonwealth government prepared to do something else about it?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —Thank you for the suggestion, Senator Lees. I will pass it on to the minister and see whether he will give you a direct response.