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Monday, 6 December 2004
Page: 15

Senator SANTORO (1:35 PM) —Education, science and training minister Brendan Nelson's program to establish 24 Australian technical colleges across the country—including four in my home state of Queensland—is one of the most progressive and forward-thinking proposals to come before the Australian parliament. It underlines the total commitment of the Howard-Costello government to skilling Australia in precisely the way we need to skill our nation. It gives practical vocational education the same weight in terms of policy commitment as university training. It recognises that pursuit of a university degree is not for everyone and that high trade or technical skills are just as valuable and should ultimately be just as rewarding.

My career in politics and outside politics has had a focus on training and vocational education as a crucial element in national life. So it is especially pleasing that the government's effort in this area has been allocated to my friend and Queensland Liberal colleague the member for Moreton. I want to place on record my view that Gary Hardgrave will be a fine success in the portfolio of vocational education and training. He is a very energetic man who focuses strongly and proactively on the job at hand—as he did in the third Howard ministry as Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, another great interest of mine.

I come to this debate with great optimism—indeed with total confidence—that, despite what we have heard during this debate, the proposed network of Australian technical colleges will do the job. They will give high-achieving young Australians a great start in their chosen trade. By refocusing the national effort, by bringing the real requirements of business and industry and individual employers fully into the mix, the national network will offer vocational education and training opportunities to young Australians that will set them up for life.

In my own state of Queensland we have a great opportunity to boost future work force skills through the establishment of four federally funded Australian technical colleges at Townsville, Gladstone, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. As a former Queensland minister for training, I know that the new colleges will create fresh opportunities for our young people to acquire excellent trade skills of which they can be rightly proud. It is essential that we provide high-quality tuition in both academic and vocational education for students in years 11 and 12 who want to pursue a trade. We must do all we can to help provide skilled entry level workers in key trades with shortages in those disciplines. That is what the Australian technical colleges will do and that is why they are a really good idea that deserves—and, in my view, has won—widespread support throughout the VET community.

The colleges will be linked to, and endorsed by, industry and run autonomously by principals, who will engage teaching staff on a performance pay basis. That is an important development in its own right and one that brings into the equation the principle of reward for excellence. It is my view that excellence is very much needed within the VET system, a system that, despite what we heard from Senator Allison, is run almost exclusively by the states and is very heftily funded by the Commonwealth at record levels.

The government wants to move Australia away from the mistaken belief that success for young Australians can only be equated with a university degree. It wants to eradicate any residual feeling that new apprenticeships and vocational education are second best to university. Our commitment as a government is to build an even stronger economic future and provide opportunities for all Australians. That is what the new technical colleges will help achieve. As part of their training, students at the new Australian technical colleges will be able to undertake academic, information technology and business courses. This will mean they will graduate with the necessary trade, entrepreneurial and business skills for self-employment and will have the choice to go on to further education and training.

This is a positive and progressive development that stands in stark contrast to the political game playing of the states over the Australian National Training Authority and funding. ANTA has now been scrapped because the states would simply not play the game. They played the politics and ignored the legitimate rights and aspirations of young people, particularly the young people who wanted to progress through the VET system. The Vocational Education and Training Funding Amendment Bill 2004 provides for immediate funding mechanisms to replace the old agreement made redundant by the states and for negotiation of a permanent agreement. The states must realise that when spending federal dollars they have a responsibility to spend them wisely and in accordance with national aims and objectives. The Australian technical colleges are a key element of the national vision for training and vocational education and are institutions that I believe will serve our young people very well.