Only one year ago I had the opportunity to address your national council in Melbourne as the relatively recently appointed Minister for Higher Education and Skills and I am very pleased to be with you again this year, although now in the role of Shadow Minister.
The Federal Labor Leader, Bill Shorten, has asked me to take on the role of Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, and I am very pleased that he has entrusted me with such an important area of public policy and an issue that has been a passion of mine my whole working life. I started out as a high school teacher and then spent many years teaching at TAFE and I know I share a conviction about the power of education and the critical importance of a strong public education sector, with all of you in this room.
Last year I took the opportunity to make a commitment to you that I would continue to be a champion for TAFE and I am very happy to be with you again and to re-affirm that commitment to you.
I would like to share just one story with you of why such a commitment remains as important as it ever was – and it is a story I know each and every one of you could match many times over every year in your work.
Like many members of parliament I put out a local newsletter across my electorate to update people on issues affecting our local area and national policies of importance to them individually.
Only this week my latest newsletter was distributed and I included an item letting locals know about the two inquiries currently being conducted by both Houses of Parliament about our public TAFE. I knew that TAFE as an institution is well-loved and valued by locals throughout the Illawarra and many of them might want to make a submission or follow the hearings.
On Tuesday I received an email in reply and I would like to share it with you- at the request of my constituent I have removed her name but she is very happy to have the details shared publicly:
I would like to thank you for your informative newsletter. I read about the TAFE inquiry, and posted a submission… But I want you to know that I really value the opportunity to have a say in this Inquiry, as TAFE has been an important factor in our family. I fear the loss of such a flexible public service that provides quality training and LEARNING opportunities in even quite small towns throughout NSW. During the last few years of my working life I had the pleasure of working with people in social housing in the southern areas of NSW. Access to TAFE was a critical factor in enabling many of these people to improve their family circumstances, gain employment and life skills. All these things are critical to building resilient communities. I feel reluctant to include these issues in my submission as they are other people’s stories. But these are very important issues for rural communities and older people whose jobs are disappearing.”
The attached submission, instead, goes through this lady’s own life experiences and how important TAFE was to her when she became a single parent of four children. TAFE helped her retrain sufficiently to gain employment to support her family and then to articulate that qualification into a university degree which she did whilst working full-time and raising her family, or, as she puts it herself, “supporting 4 ravenous teenagers.”
Importantly, her example meant that her children had a great role model of the value of study. Two of the children completed apprenticeships through TAFE and another did a vocational certificate IV. Her eldest son went on to gain an honours degree from university.
TAFE has been there throughout life for them – she reports on how one son returned to TAFE following a workplace injury and was able to develop a completely new career. Her daughter returned to TAFE after having two children and upgraded her Cert IV to a Diploma and “is now the sole breadwinner in her small but resilient single parent household.”
She concludes her submission by stating:
“TAFE has opened the door to new skills, given us scope to change careers, and helped us build a resilient extended family that values education and training. My small grandsons all understand the importance of learning, becoming skilled, and seeking employment. TAFE has provided the base for this ethos. Please do not dismantle this wonderful system that opens pathways, teaches practical skills and is located in even the smallest towns throughout NSW.”
No words by any politician or policy maker can ever capture so powerfully the importance of our public TAFE system as the testimonials of the students whose lives are enriched and, very often transformed, by the energy, skills and professionalism of the teaching that takes place in them every day, every semester, every year.
It builds on the experience and culture of decades of delivering the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that are of worth and value to students and to the employers they go on to work with.
The power of TAFE flows from one simple concept at the end of the day – trust. It is a trusted institution because it delivers quality and ensures inclusion. Or, as economists might describe them, productivity and participation.
It provides a fair go and opportunity to anyone who wants to enrol and study and this is important to individuals, to their families, to local communities and - by a powerful extension of this across the country – to the growth of wealth and well-being of our nation.
The Senate and House of Representatives Committees that are currently completing inquiries into TAFE have received written submissions and public presentations, both in the previous parliament and now in the current one.
As you read these submissions it is clear that TAFE is very different now to that experienced only a generation ago – the facilities have evolved to more closely match modern workplaces, the technology has changed at an extraordinary speed – students carry the world with them in their phones, that didn’t happen only ten years ago. In the 90’s most people had a mobile phone and PDA’s were a special item. In the early 2000’s a few combined phones and PDAs with web browsing became available. The iPhone was released in 2007 – only 6 years ago.
This has meant that teaching methodology and the learning relationship has developed and adapted to remain relevant and effective. We know that TAFE is able to reform and adapt because this is what it has always done and I am confident it will continue to do so. But, it cannot be asked to constantly reform with less and less money, fewer and fewer teachers and resource staff and more pressured and stressed students. There must be a balance that guarantees the national value of a quality and inclusive provider is not lost in any rush for reform.
I am very concerned that this is exactly what has happened in Victoria and I know I share a real concern with all of you here about the savage cuts that the State Government has inflicted in Victoria and the damage these have done to TAFE in that state.
Here in NSW we face the same concerns. Only this week I hosted my State Shadow Ministerial colleague, Ryan Park with local MPs Stephen Jones and Anna Watson to get an update from Pat Forward, Maurie Mulheron, Maxine Sharkey and Rob Long about the national and NSW situations – Ryan and I made a firm promise to keep working together on the issues we face and in building a Labor response for the State and Federal elections as they approach.
At the federal level I have very serious concerns that the new Minister is intending to take away many of the protections of quality and equity that we were working to establish in government.
You would be aware that the portfolio of “Skills” is not mentioned in the Minister’s title – indeed many stakeholders were shocked to discover that vocational education had not moved into the education portfolio with universities but had been left behind in the Industry portfolio. There are some useful synergies in this but further education and training is not only about industry – it is unclear how emerging training and employment sectors such as aged care and disability care to name just two, will be served in this arrangement. It is unclear where adult literacy and numeracy will find a place, let alone any priority.
The Minister established a very secretive VET Reform Taskforce in the Department that started out on consultations with “invited only” participants with locations only disclosed to invitees once they accepted! It will not surprise you to know that no unions were included in these initial consultations. Until the week of Senate Estimates you couldn’t even find any reference to who was participating in the process or what was under consideration – in Senate Estimates week a very sketchy website suddenly appeared.
This week we have discovered by a process similar to the dance of the seven veils that the Australian Workplace and Productivity Agency (the successor of Skills Australia) has been abolished – until the CEO, Mr Robin Shreeve, appeared before the Senate inquiry in Sydney we only had speculation about its future – he confirmed its end and this was followed by a statement by the Chair of the Board, Phillip Bullock. No word from the Minister at all – despite the fact that the agency had only just released its significant report on the manufacturing sector. The Minister hid and left it to the Agency to announce its own demise with no thanks from the government for it significant work or explanation of how this task would be done in the future.
This does not bode well for the sector in the approaching budget – it does not bode well for any hope that the government won’t join its state colleagues in serious slashing of funding for the sector, and it does not bode well that the protection of quality and equity will survive in any form. The National Skills Standards Council is gone with no replacement announced, the National Vet Equity Advisory Council has been dissolved with no explanation of if, or how, its task will be continued.
I am fearful that the ideological obsession with “red-tape reduction”, beyond logical and reasonable efficiency, will mean that the Australian Skills Quality Authority will have its powers severely decreased. As anyone who has read its recent reports on Marketing Practices in the sector and its industry sector reports on training in construction and aged care would realise – it in fact needs to be supported to do even more of this important work. Quality assurance protects students from exploitation; it protects all providers from shonksters in the sector; it protects employers and their clients from poorly trained staff; it protects workers from useless qualifications and inadequate health and safety preparation; it protects the national, and international, reputation of our vocational education and training sector.
A vulnerable young person should not be seduced by free iPads in the middle of a shopping centre into signing up for a completely inappropriate course, leaving them with a significant debt and a worthless qualification – this is where this Federal Government’s obsession with dismantling the protections in place for everyone’s benefit could strand us in the future.
I know I started with an inspiring story – the type that lifts our spirits every day and I am concluding with an extremely grim assessment of our current position; but it is precisely because what we may lose is so valuable, and the threat is so real, that I want to be here and to commit to working at your side in this fight, because it matters so much.