Thanks very much for the invitation to join you today and can I start by paying my respects to the elders of this land, to those past and present and to any indigenous people who are with us today as well and make my own personal commitment to the ongoing commitment to the success and integration of our indigenous communities into our education system as well.
To Michelle and Pat, hello again and thank you for inviting me along, I would also like to, just before I get into some of the detail, thank many of your fantastic organisers and teachers across the country who have been running campaigns that they have very warmly welcomed us into in particular of course the Stop TAFE Cuts Campaign and some of the broader union campaigns that are running as we head towards the federal election. Phil, Rob and Maxine have been champions in NSW and have been driving them a bit mad and I thank my State Shadow Colleague, Prue Car, too for getting our Stop the TAFE Cuts message at the forefront of local community conversations and so I just wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has been helping us by participating in those campaigns - it has been really important.
Just to give you an idea in the last six months we have ticked off Belmont, Maitland, Lismore, Grafton, Murwillumbah, Randwick, Gosford, Blacktown, Melbourne Poly Technic and Gordon so I am keen to continue to get around to do that. It won’t surprise you in Victoria we were able to go into the colleges. In New South Wales we hang meaningfully out the front of the colleges because they won’t let us in but I think the message is just as strong wherever we are and its certainly, I think, a very effective campaign in that it’s not obsessed with what The Australian is writing, it is actually about local communities and talking to them directly and to local media. That has been the real strength, I believe, of the campaign and we saw that in the state elections as well where clearly across the eastern seaboard basically from Victoria, Queensland and NSW elections that the issue of TAFE was at the forefront of those elections. Bill Shorten has made it clear at the National TAFE Day event last year, that we had in Canberra, that he is determined to put TAFE on the agenda for the federal election as well and given what has transpired since that time in particular I think that’s absolutely where it should be.
Rather than give you all the ins and outs of the debate to date, because I respect the fact that people in this room are well across that, I just wanted to touch on some critical points of debate at the federal level in terms of the vocational sector more broadly and TAFE within that sector. You would be well aware of Paddy Manning’s most recent report on Background Briefing on ABC Radio National and some interesting subsequent events that transpired from that particular interview. It’s been an issue for Labor for the last two years at least that as some really solid work was done to expose what was absolutely appalling, unethical, shonky, simply cruel behaviour that was going on in the sector that we became increasingly critical of the government for its failure to respond in meaningful ways.
They kept running the line that it was just the odd unusual provider and it’s not a systemic problem and we were of the view that the evidence was pretty clear that it wasn’t the case. It actually sits within Kim Carr’s Shadow portfolio as it is part of the HELP scheme package which includes HECS and FEE HELP as well as VET FEE HELP but obviously it had serious implications across the whole sector and Kim and I worked very closely on our response and on dealing with the government on it.
Of course what we saw at the end of last year was the government get to the point where obviously it thought that all this tinkering they were doing was not actually resolving the problem and we have been criticising them for being asleep at the wheel. The size of the VET FEE blow out expanded dramatically from about the middle of 2014 and they had just not been effective in responding to it at all. At the end of last year they bought a Bill into the House to put a freeze on access to VET FEE HELP. They briefed us as they were putting the Bill into the Senate so we had about 15 minutes to consider it. We determined not to oppose it because obviously there were so many issues and it was so contentious that action had to be taken but we were critical of it and we reserved the right to raise the implementation role if we had any particular problems with it.
Why we were critical of it was because it fundamentally said whatever you have been rorting in 2015 you can continue to rort in 2016, that was our concern, and as it transpired, that that sort of elephant gun approach actually then impacted quite dramatically on the genuine providers. Last week, or the week before, Tanya Plibersek was in Tasmania, where TAFE was raising the issue that they had reached their allocation and so they were having to turn students away because they had a cap on their allocation. That, I would hope, was not what the government’s intention was to prohibit quality providers from accessing the scheme.
We have been very, very critical about what the government has been doing in that space and they have got their current review going on as well of course across the country. We have also been critical of how almost secretive that has been and we were particularly publicly saying are you making sure that the unions are involved because we have seen time and time again this government do consultations where they actually haven’t invited unions to participate. We had a big argument with them previously where they claimed they were inviting people who had written submissions and completely overlooked the fact that the ACTU had written a submission and had not been invited. We are keeping a very close eye on that to ensure that there is genuine and full consultation and people aren’t excluded because of the ideological perspective that they might have.
Because of the Government’s Bill and the short time frame we had we thought it was a good opportunity for us to put on the table what we thought needed to happen with VET FEE HELP in particular and there were a number of amendments we moved, some of which the government waved through and didn’t oppose but have actually done nothing about. The first one was we wanted a VET Ombudsman established. Now this is a proposal directly arising from some of the evidence to the various enquiries that have been held, and in particular the Consumer Action Law Centre, which made it clear that there is a real space and a need for students when they have expanded their capacity to follow a complaint through their training provider, and that could be TAFE too, that they actually need to have somewhere that they can go other than legal representation or somebody like the Consumer Action Law Centre to try and get some action.
That was the first proposition we put up, the government didn’t oppose but we have not yet seen any action on that. It would be an industry funded ombudsman, which was the proposition we put forward, and I have to say, even in the private sector, the genuine providers who are very concerned about what some of the others in the sector have been doing, are supporting that sort of action. Their concern is that their own reputation is being trashed by that sort of behaviour.
I think very importantly we also propose that you have to put a cap on course costs. Now the HECS scheme in the university sector works on the basis that there is a cap on how much you can charge. We didn’t think it was inconceivable or unachievable to put a cap on what you can charge in the VET sector if you want to access VET FEE HELP and you would know that a lot of the problem is not just whether people were appropriately recruited therefore capable of completing or even if they completed whether what they got was of sufficient quality to have value, it was also about the size of the debts that they were being saddled with as a result of that. We thought that there needed to be a cap on course fees plus a lowering of the cap on the amount you can borrow. So it’s currently around $98,000, I see the ads and I am sure you do too on Facebook and so forth, saying you can borrow up to $98,000 that I think feeds into less well informed decision making by students who are signing up so we thought at the minimum you could at least also of cut the loan available by about half for that.
We wanted the government to look at banning, or at least restricting, brokers. So the thing that baffles me, as an ex-TAFE teacher is on enrolment day and the students turn up you engage and talk with them about what the most appropriate course for them would be and give them some realistic advice on what they should be looking at enrolling in. Well that actually requires you to understand vocational training to do that properly and many communities like mine, people are standing in shopping centres with the advertising banner and they have been employed purely as a recruiter. They don’t have a teaching background and so their capacity, and people tell me you know that they have gone up to them and talked to them, “oh I can’t answer any of those questions, well sign up and someone will call you”. The concern with brokers is that people, I’ve met them, who think they have signed up for information and so forth, don’t then follow through, this generation is classic they get emails to them from a provider and they think “I’m not interested in that anymore” and they just delete them and don’t actually engage with reading the detail and seeing that if you don’t take action you will actually be signed up past the census date and have a debt.
Those sorts of matters I think have been exacerbated by the brokers system and so that was another suggestion. We also very strongly believe that there should be an intervention step by the Department in that loan arrangement. At the end of the day, somebody signs you up for training, you fill out a form applying to utilise the loans scheme to pay for that training, that is an agreement between you and the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth pays the money to the training provider but the loan is between you and the Commonwealth and so it is our view that there had to be someone at a Departmental level who fundamentally writes back to you and says “You’ve applied for a loan from the Commonwealth, these are the details and this is how it will operate and it won’t be activated until you actually reply back to us and say ‘yes I understand that is what I have signed up for and yes that is what I want to do’”. I think that was something again that the Minister said that they would be looking for and I am hoping that is going to form at least part of the considerations of the review because I do think that as the provider of that loan, the Commonwealth, should take that responsibility for directly engaging with those students about that.
That is where that current debate is at but I have to say to you that when we spoke on National TAFE Day last year announced Labor’s TAFE policy it was off the back of some pretty damning evidence out there in the public about the fact that the market had failed and I think that we have got to the point where there are very few people now who would argue that that is not clearly the case. The system has failed and part of the way that we need to repair the sector is, I would argue it’s in crisis, reputational crisis, it’s in participation crisis. Part of the way that you fix it is to back your public provider and I’ve said time and time again that the public provider, our TAFE system is the ballast in the system.
It was the part that provided you the standard against which you can measure any other part of the sector. It provided the quality standards it provided the pricing standards it provided the teaching standards and the more you trash it the more you leave the whole sector open to imbalance, to the exploitation, to poor quality, to reports of employers complaining that they can’t find people with qualifications that mean anything all of those problems that flow on, at heart you have to have a public provider dominant in the sector setting the standard and setting the agenda and we were, as we saw here in the state of Victoria, at a very, very dangerous point for TAFE before the election where it’s capacity to not only deliver what it needs to deliver as a public provider but to be the ballast in the system had been severely undermined.
So what the policy was that we have announced, and you will see Bill Shorten talk about it, he is really great he does his town halls and there is nearly always a TAFE student or someone who jumps up and asks him questions and Bill has made it very clear, and he says it time and time again, the whole thing has swung far too far towards private providers, that we have to reinvest in TAFE and that is what the TAFE funding guarantee policy is about. For those of you that haven’t had a chance to have a look over it, I just want to recap.
Fundamentally what we are saying is, if we are elected, the first COAG meeting of the Skills Ministers will be to develop a National Agreement between state and federal government’s about what the role of a public provider is and it may seem crazy but we have never actually, for a long, long time had that discussion and so over time there’s developed this view and we see it consistently that TAFE is just another provider who happens to be owned by state government.
That is not our view. Our is view that it is a public provider and therefore it has a different set of responsibilities and you need to actually start to talk about what they are andto get agreement around those. The classic things that come obviously to mind are any thin market issues - so industry sectors where it is not going to be either marketable or profitable for a private provider to be in that sector, capital intensive training sectors, and we have seen that already with the most recent report by the TAFE Directors had commissioned, talking about areas like plumbing. It’s also about access and equity, you know you can put a requirement in about access and equity but the trusted reliable way for people to ensure they got access across Australia is to actually have public providers available and also importantly coverage. Regional and Rural part of our country in particular rely very heavily on their public provider because they have not got the numbers to actually attract some sort of profitable private provider anyway so if there is not a public provider there then they don’t get service provision at all.
The reality for TAFE and its own viability is if you only ask it to do and you only ever allow it to do and you structure your funding so it can only do those things then that is not a viable model. It needs to be able to offer a comprehensive range of courses and so from that National Agreement what we want is a funding guarantee that says the States and the Commonwealth will fund TAFE directly to enable it to deliver what it is we are asking it to do and that will be an important down payment on re committing to a guaranteed direct line of funding for our public providers in the TAFE system.
On top of that we have also announced that we want a sector wide review. We want the equivalent for the vocational sector that we have had with the school sector and we know the significance of Gonski, we know how significant the evidence that it presented was for governments and the overwhelming drive it created to invest in that sector. We did the same for Bradley for the university sector. It’s been decades since we have done a similar process for the vocational sector and so to start saying, instead of just having bandaids and single interventions. what do we actually need vocational education to deliver for this country, for the individual students, for the employers, for the national interest? What do we need to deliver? Why are we in this space? Given how much the workplace has changed and the way training has changed its well past time we did that and then how do we build a system to actually deliver on that and the TAFE agreement that we have reached through the COAG process will be a direct contribution to that overall process.
It was interesting that the government, when it had its COAG meeting, we didn’t hear much about the proposed federal takeover that had previously been covered by Fairfax media as a leaked document on the COAG process. There was a change of Minister in between that time, so I don’t know where the government will go with that but we had some real concerns about the structural implications within that leaked document, in particular the fact that it clearly did not treat TAFE as any different to any other training provider, and it actually specifically said states can only put additional funding in for certain things such as enterprise agreements, heritage buildings and things that weren’t directly related to the training and delivery. So we had some real concerns about that but what was released out of the COAG process was the ACIL Allen Review on the National Partnership and the interesting thing about this, and I think it’s important for us to have a look at what it says in detail, but the National Partnership did require states to ensure that TAFE was supported to function effectively and to thrive in a more competitive environment. It’s quite clear in the ACIL Allen report, and the evidence they have given, that that has not happened and that they requirement around supporting TAFE as a public provider, not treating it as just another provider, in the review’s own words, has not been delivered on.
The first few recommendations of that report say that you need a road map. You need to start to address overall sectional issues and start to come to terms with what it is an evidence based approach to what you are trying to achieve and that is exactly what both of our propositions are aimed at doing.
I just want to cover off for you too that the importance of the TAFE sector is very broadly supported across the Party but I want to make it very, very clear that it’s not just about supporting the policy, we actually want to make it a federal election issue. Why do we want to do that? Because we do have concerns that at each federal election it is never really dealt with, not just TAFE but the whole sector more broadly. Before the last election there was only one policy item that the then opposition, now the government put forward, which was Trade Support Loans for apprentices. There was nothing else and yet if you think what has happened to the sector since that election it is a clear indication that we need to have that conversation before an election because the sector is so critically important to so many people.
We want it to be a contest of ideas at this federal election. We want people to be talking about what do we need out of our vocational sector? What do we want to be put in place to support our TAFE system? What do we want to be achieved with apprenticeships and traineeships? We have lost about a quarter of our apprentices since the election in training, is that acceptable? So these are issues that I think need to be debated, we need to be held to account, we need to engage with all of the stakeholders and talk about what it is we are doing and why we are doing it. I will be very honest with you in terms of our TAFE funding guarantee, it is well supported even across the private sector because people understand that the public provider is a critical functioning role of the sector and it needs to be there. We would argue that it needs to be dominant and it needs to be directly funded. That is a difference in terms of the approach in saying you can compete for funding with everybody else.
We also need to make sure that we have avenues and pathways in place, traineeships, apprenticeships. We need to work out how we are going to support people in high youth unemployment areas to get access. We have got to make sure that those avenues and steps are in place and that they are discussed in the communities before they make a decision because I don’t know if the government doesn’t do that and if it doesn’t have a clear platform laid out before the election who know what they will do after the election because we certainly wouldn’t have necessarily foreseen what they did after the last election, which is now rolled out.
From my perspective it’s been two and a half years of review for Labor. We have had a good hard look at our own policies and have taken some new directions and some new decisions and we have laid them out there. Our TAFE funding guarantee has been out there for nearly 12 months now so we are not trying to hide anything. We are being upfront with everybody about where we stand on these issues and we need to have that debate at the federal level.
I just want to go through the terms of reference for our overall VET Sector Review but what I will do is let you know it is on my website and the other thing is that every press release and every speech and everything I do is on my website. Alison who works with me, this is us - our whole team - is fantastic at getting stuff up really quickly, and if you want to be added to my endless list of media releases and things I send out by email just let us know and we are happy to add anyone on to the list. The detail of that overall VET review is there too, that people can go through and if you want to give us some feedback on that as well.