National VET Regulator Amendment - 16/06/2020

16 June 2020



I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. Labor will support this bill because we believe that students studying in Australian TAFEs deserve to study high-quality courses. The pandemic and associated economic downturn have made it clearer than ever just how important education is not only for the individual but also for the nation. The VET system is fundamental to the Australian economy, but it has been neglected under this government. The changes proposed by this bill, while possibly helpful, are relatively minor and certainly don't deliver the significant level of reform that the TAFE system needs.

The bill amends the governance structures of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national VET regulator, and enhances information-sharing arrangements between ASQA and the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Key amendments will revive ASQA's governance structure, replacing the existing chief commissioner, chief executive officer and two commissioners with a single independent statutory office holder, a CEO, and establish a National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council. The advisory council is intended to provide ASQA with expert advice regarding the functions of the regulator.

The lack of TAFE and union representation on the advisory council is a serious oversight by this government and, as usual, is a sign of ideology, rather than prioritising the provision of the best advice to ASQA. Union membership is strong within the industries typically trained by TAFEs. They clearly understand the work that construction workers, care workers and other heavily unionised industries do, and, as such, the training they need. With TAFE staff also strongly unionised and TAFE teachers clearly expert in the provision of VET courses, why on earth wouldn't they be at the top of the list for a place on the TAFE advisory council? When it comes to the VET sector, their views should be heard and considered. That's why we'll seek to move amendments in the Senate to ensure the public provider has seats at the table.

Labor supports 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 changes that attempt to weaken ASQA's regulatory framework. We need to ensure that reforms to ASQA audit processes do not allow any reduction in quality. In the past, we've seen this government be slow to act on quality issues and this has done serious damage to the sector. Quality is vital in the VET sector. Lives and safety depend on it. A poorly trained builder or carer can do serious damage.

TAFE creates skilled workers who build our country and keep it operational, but it hasn't been delivering what we need it to for a long time. Australia has a crisis in skills and vocational training after seven years of a conservative government. Australia has experienced a 73 per cent drop in the number of apprenticeships advertised. The system has been cut to the bone; $3 billion has been removed from TAFE and training sectors. We need this funding restored and we need serious investment in vocational education and training, a sector that will be vital to the economic recovery our nation is about to embark on.

We had skills shortages before COVID-19. As we recover, we will need a strong and well-funded vocational education and training system to train and upskill our workforce so they can participate in the new economy. If people are unemployed because of this crisis—and we know one million Australians who weren't unemployed at the start of 2020 will be by the end of the year—then we need to enable them to easily access new training opportunities and skill them for work.

But not only have the government cut VET to the bone, they have has also failed to spend money they have budgeted for skills. The federal education department's own data shows the Liberals have failed to spend $919 million of their own TAFE and training budget over the past five years. With acknowledged skills shortages in this country, how is an underspend possible? With high youth unemployment across various parts of Australia prior to COVID-19, how is there an underspend? Where is the strategy from this government to skill Australians and get them into work? And why are TAFE facilities crumbling across Australia with almost $1 billion unspent? Why aren't we offering quality courses, taught to anyone who needs training, in high-quality facilities across Australia? It's a serious lack of vision on the part of this government.

Now the Prime Minister has announced his intention to maybe improve the way the Morrison government funds TAFEs, but only if the states agree to do the heavy lifting, and then, maybe, if they come to the table, the Prime Minister will restore some of the billions he has ripped out of the TAFE system. There is no commitment to improve skills training during the first recession in almost 30 years. There is no commitment to stem the haemorrhaging of apprenticeships that has occurred under this government. It is all talk, no action.

This lack of action is alarming considering that unemployment has doubled since COVID-19 began. Under the Liberals there are 150,000 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 were signing up to trade apprenticeships and traineeships. This was even more extreme in a number of essential trades. The number of Australians studying an apprenticeship or traineeship in construction, including carpentry, bricklaying and plumbing, dropped by an alarming 40 per cent. There are more people dropping out of vocational education training courses than finishing them. These numbers must get better—not only for the economy but also for the young people who a decade ago would have been undertaking this training but are not today.

As Anthony Albanese outlined in his vision statement on emerging from the shadow of COVID-19, we need to support people to train too. For many young people, this will mean a liveable youth allowance payment. I have been contacted over the last few months by many students who have been unable to access anything from this government's COVID-19 package and who are desperate for assistance. What makes a government exclude young people during this crisis? I've heard from students who obviously had not been working in their casual jobs for a year, many because they had moved to Canberra in January to start studying, who were, of course, unable to access the JobKeeper payment. Then, because they're students, which means they're not unemployed, they have been unable to access the jobseeker payment. And, because this government has refused to relax the parental income test on youth allowance, they have not been able to access youth allowance, even in this time of crisis. A further issue on that point is that the parental income test is based on the parents' income from the previous financial year. So, if their parents have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, have had their income massively reduced or have lost their business, that is not accounted for in that income test, and the government has refused to heed Labor's calls to do something about this and ensure that some support can be provided to these young people.

It is this mindset that has led to this government failing to adequately support the training of our young people. They have failed to acknowledge that not everyone has family who can support them while they train or study and that, with the increased cost of living, it is increasingly unrealistic for middle-income families to support their adult children. There is a further assumption that it's easy for parents to support adult children and that students who are trying to study can do it because their parents can help them. That is exactly the sort of thing we as a nation want to address. We want everyone to have the chance to study at TAFE or university. Clearly, they can't with costs of living as they are and no support from this government.

It's time that we saw youth allowance as an investment in young Australians and in the future of our nation. For over a month now, Labor has been calling on the government to increase access to youth allowance, and the minister has refused to act. The Labor Party called on the government to waive the parental income test on a case-by-case basis, but they have refused to act. We must invest in our young people and set them up for success. The Morrison government has failed to do this during the pandemic, and this bill demonstrates the lack of ambition they have for our TAFEs, our young people and, in turn, the future of this nation.