National Vocational Education and Training RegulatorSpeech
I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020, and I support the amendment moved by the member for Cooper. As indicated by the assistant shadow minister, Labor will not oppose this bill. The bill amends the governance structure of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, the national VET regulator, and enhances information arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. The key amendments will revive ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory officeholder—a CEO—and will establish the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council.
It is intended that the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council will provide ASQA with access to expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator. It would also provide strategic advice to help ASQA's continuous improvement. The advisory council would consist of nine members and a chair. The legislation does not indicate the likely make-up of the council, including whether or not there will be representation of private RTOs, public providers, experts, employer groups or unions. It is important that all stakeholders are represented. Labor will push to ensure TAFE and union representation on the advisory council. It's crucial that the public provider has seats at the table—not just private providers.
I note the member for Sydney has written to the minister, Senator Cash, outlining Labor's concerns, including about representation on the proposed advisory council. It would be a huge conflict for the regulator to have an advisory body comprising largely only one part of that sector. It's a bit like putting the fox in charge of the chook pen. The member for Sydney has indicated that, if the government can't guarantee balanced representation, Labor will consider amendments in the Senate to correct this. I note that the minister has not given any guarantee of a balanced representation on the advisory council by including unions and TAFE teachers.
The second concern is that Labor isn't quite sure what defects the legislation is meant to remedy. As the member for Sydney outlined in her letter to the minister, the explanatory memorandum for the bill states the bill addresses a number of recommendations in the Joyce and Braithwaite reviews. However, neither review appears to make any recommendation concerning the proposed changes to governance structures. Yes, they do mention better connection to industry and providers but nothing specific as to governance arrangements. Labor has called on the minister to provide further background on the rationale for these amendments. However, I note that the ASQA rapid review by a consultant in April has confirmed the desirability of the governance changes and that there is general support for ASQA adopting an educative as well as regulatory role.
Labor support a fair and considered approach to ASQA reforms. We will support changes that improve ASQA's capacity to ensure responsiveness to students, communities and employers. But we will reject the attempts to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA's audit processes don't allow any drop in quality.
In the past, we've seen this government being slow to act on quality issues, and it has done serious damage to the sector. The relatively minor changes to governance proposed in this bill are just another attempt to distract the community from the lack of a real and genuine reform package in the vocational training sector. This bill does not come close to fixing the mess the Liberal government has made of Australia's TAFE and training system. More than six years of Liberal government has left Australia facing a crisis in skills and vocational training. It has spent six years ignoring the vital role TAFE plays in the growth of our young people and our economy. It has spent six years cutting funding whilst underspending the meagre amount it's promised the sector. The numbers are shocking.
As we learned last year from the federal education department's own data, the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. That's a $214 million underspend in 2018-19, a $202 million underspend in 2017-18 and a $118 million underspend in 2016-17. That is all sitting in the government's bank account. All of this underspend is in addition to the more than $3 billion already ripped out of the VET system. We've got TAFE campuses across the country falling apart. We've got state governments closing campuses and ending courses. And all the while this huge pile of money remains unspent. Why? The excuse is that there has been less demand than forecast every year since the Liberal Party came into government. That just doesn't stack up when underemployment is at record levels.
In January this year, before COVID-19 struck in March, the youth unemployment rate rose to 12.1 per cent from 11.6 per cent in December. It is now more than double that figure. At that time, employers were crying out for skilled workers and, as we move into the recovery phase, they will again. Under the Liberals, there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. The independent National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently found that, over the past year, 20 per cent fewer people have been signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. In my seat of Corangamite, there are 113 or 7.7 per cent fewer trainees and apprentices today than there were in 2013. In the Minister for Education's own seat of Wannon, there are 1,044 or around 28 per cent fewer apprentices and trainees than there were in 2013.
I'm not saying that training carers for our young and older citizens in aged care or child care or workers for retail isn't important. However, to build our infrastructure and our manufacturing and resource sectors, we need plumbers and electricians, bricklayers and carpenters. We can't continue to let this slide in traditional trades continue. The impact for our nation is just too great, especially after devastating events like the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 crisis, which mean years of rebuilding work ahead. Let's be clear: private sector RTOs outside major companies don't normally invest in facilities for complex trade skills. The private sector usually wants to take the cream without having to produce the milk to start with. It has been the TAFEs that have done the heavy lifting where courses require workshops, sandpits and labs. The government's preference for private RTOs—indeed, its insistence on contestability as the basis of funding agreements with the states and territories—has driven a race to the bottom with the TAFE system. This has exacerbated the move away from commencements in critical trades. Once, TAFE received 70 to 80 per cent of funds, and there was a cap on the amount of funds that were contestable. But that disappeared years ago. At the same time, there has been no focus on trade and technical areas for the allocation of funds.
Neither the Joyce review nor the recent Productivity Commission review into the funding arrangements looked at this issue of contestability. It is the ideological bedrock of the VET system and it is untouchable. The problem is that until it is fixed we're going to have the continuing disaster we have now in trades and technical training, as thousands of very small training providers compete each other into the ground. The states are, certainly, also to blame for this shocking state of affairs. From the height of their contributions in 2012 they have dropped the ball in terms of funding to the tune of $1 billion a year collectively. The states have also agreed, even promoted, contestability as the basis of the funding system.
Worse than the poor commencement dates, the failure-to-complete rates are horrendous. Completion rates for apprentices and trainees who completed training in 2014—the last year for which figures are available—have decreased to 56.7 per cent, down from 59.9 per cent for those commencing in 2013. The completion rates for individuals who commenced in trade occupations in 2014 decreased to just 54.5 per cent, down 4.7 percentage points compared with those commencing in 2013, and it decreased to 57.7 per cent for non-trade occupations, down two per cent. This doesn't happen by accident. The Liberal government's $1 billion underspend included cuts to incentives for businesses to take on apprentices, cuts to support which helped people finish their apprenticeships and cuts to a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need.
While the Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need, there are several million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We are simultaneously experiencing a crisis of youth unemployment and a crisis of skill shortages. One of these is bad enough, but to be faced with both at the same time is hard to comprehend. While businesses are struggling to fill the skilled positions they have on offer, we have young people desperate for work who can't fill those positions because they haven't been given the chance to gain the skills that the roles require. That is not only bizarre, it is a huge drag on our productivity. With states like Victoria in the middle of an infrastructure boom, this is a disaster. Many civil and engineering construction projects are being pushed back because the necessary skilled workforce isn't available. So it's not surprising that after the summer bushfires the government's silver bullet to rebuild economies was to amend the rules around working holiday visas to enable backpackers to take up work in affected areas. Now, with an even more urgent need to rebuild post-COVID-19, we need a considered and strategic investment in skills and TAFE, and real workforce training including skills acquisition. However, the government's response isn't to pump money into training for young people in the building trades. Pre COVID, the answer was to try to fill the labour shortages through short-term overseas visitors. That option is off the table for the foreseeable future.
Why isn't this coalition government training local people for jobs in industries where there is a shortage of workers? It's because the Liberals have cut funding to TAFE and training; that's why. Young people have been clear about what they need: they need a skills training sector which is properly funded and properly resourced, and which has educators who are properly trained and able to skill these kids up for a pathway to meaningful employment. They need training in skills that are actually linked to their local economy and the potential growth in that local economy.
This government hasn't delivered on a single element of those requests. As always, the Prime Minister would rather hide from problems than do the hard work needed to solve them. As with his JobMaker launch last May, he would rather blame the states and territories than look at this government's performance over the last seven years. He would rather spin and deflect, or bring in marketing teams, to distract from the real issue. Remember Scott Cam, the celebrity appointed as National Careers Ambassador late last year? Mr Cam was being paid $345,000 of taxpayers' money for 15 months work. Have we heard of him since? No, and we won't, as he has, thankfully, relinquished the remainder of his salary because of COVID-19 and, I expect, any motivation to promote the trades. Up until that point in April, he had done one event and a few social media videos.
Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the significant problems that undermine our woeful vocational education and training performance. By implication, it also adversely affects the productivity and international competitiveness of our economy. Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as the public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the value of hardworking and passionate TAFE teachers. We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary-school education, either at TAFE or university. We urgently need to increase participation in both our universities and our vocational education sector to make sure that our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is evolving very quickly.
If we do not value the role of an appropriately funded VET sector for the training skills and apprenticeships they provide, or its vital role in driving the economy and enhancing industry, then we are in for a very rocky road indeed. This third-term government simply refuses to deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the sector and properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the services that their students need. It's about time they did.Share Tweet