Student Identifiers Bill 2014 Second Reading

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (11:43): It is a pleasure to speak on the Student Identifiers Bill 2014 and to indicate that the Labor opposition will be supporting the bill. Indeed, it is almost identical to the bill that we introduced into the parliament in March 2013 so it is probably no surprise to the House. That bill lapsed with the dissolution of the parliament. There are some slight changes in this bill, which I will address, but it is our intention to support the bill.

The bill did stand as part of a significant body of policy and programs that had been put in place by the previous Labor government in the VET sector. I just want to set it within the context of what was going on when the proposal in the Student Identifiers Bill was developed. Labor had made a record investment in skills and jobs because it was a critical area of priority for us. On coming to government there had been numerous reports by various agencies and peak bodies about two areas where bottlenecks were developing in the economy. One was the rollout of infrastructure and the other was the development of skills. These were two specific priorities for Labor in government. In total we invested over $19 billion in skills funding between 2008 and 2013, which was a 77 per cent increase on what was invested by the Howard government. Sadly, we have seen the Abbott government revert to under-resourcing the skills sector. It is clearly not a priority for the current government.

I have mentioned in this place before the interesting conversations I had after the election with a number of organisations and individuals with an interest in vocational education and training. They were asking, 'So who is the minister for skills?' because they could not quite work it out. It does not sit obviously with the Minister for Education, who has all the other variations of education. It has been left in the industry portfolio and it is not included in the minister's title so it creates quite some confusion. Indeed, in an earlier matter of public importance debate on vocational education and training and youth unemployment I challenged about 20 members of the coalition government who were sitting opposite to name the minister for skills and there was a deafening silence. I suspect it has been well hidden, and that is probably a reflection of why it has not got the priority it should have and why it has suffered significantly in the budget.

There are $2 billion of broken promises in the skills sector in the most recent budget. In this bill we are talking about providing the opportunity to record and track the participation of the Australian population in vocational education and training. I want to identify the significant cuts that have occurred to that very sector and the programs that have been abolished that provide opportunities for people to participate. The most recent budget has slashed the National Workforce Development Fund, a very well-regarded co-investment fund which organisations like the Australian Industry Group before the budget were calling for the government not to cut, and the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program, which again is a very important program that often worked in conjunction with the National Workforce Development Fund to upskill existing workers.

I had the opportunity in the previous parliament to visit a number of these programs in the manufacturing sector and in the aged-care sector. Companies were using these programs to bring together upskilling opportunities for their staff. A lot of the staff I met had done no training since they left school and most of them left school early and had not gone through to our equivalent of year 12 today. They had been very intimidated and frightened by the prospect of having to undergo training again and were absolutely thrilled to participate and graduate with certificates from these programs. But these are cut in the current budget.

In the apprenticeship sector there is the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program, a program that targets the most disadvantaged young people to get them prepared to be able to access an apprenticeship, and the Australian Apprenticeships Mentoring Program, the very program that works with young apprentices to provide them, and indeed their workplace as well, with support. Their employer is often a good person to work between the two to make sure they are able to complete their apprenticeships. Then there is the Accelerated Australian Apprenticeships program, which is a targeted program to look at ways and means by which we can accelerate people through the apprenticeship program. They were all cut in the current budget.

The national partnership agreement on training places for single parents has been cut. Then there is the alternative pathways program. The Apprentice to Business Owner Program is a very important initiative. As many in this House would understand, when apprentices complete their apprenticeship a lot of them are not kept on by the company they did their apprenticeship with. They use the opportunity to train up a new apprentice and give them an opportunity. Many set up their own small business. The Apprentice to Business Owner Program is specifically designed to give them the skills and knowledge they need to do that. That has been cut in the budget.

The Productive Ageing through Community Education and the Step into Skills programs are very critical and important programs. When Labor were in government they recognised that not only do we need to invest in the training opportunities to get into jobs but we also need to work with workplaces and employers to train and upskill existing workers and to provide opportunities for those who are most disadvantaged to get into training. So this is, I would argue, a very short-sighted decision in the budget. It is great to have the bill before us but, sadly, I think as a result of the budget there will be less work for this bill to do as fewer people will have opportunities to gain qualifications.

The bill, as I have generally indicated, will establish a unique student identifier for VET students and will make rules about obtaining access to the individual's authenticated VET transcript. When in government I often used to refer to this as the shoebox solution. Many members would be familiar with this experience. If you have any children who have completed school, you would have experienced the multitude of statements of attainment, certificates and qualifications that they get. When they go to apply for a job or want to get some recognition of prior learning for a further course, it is a matter of finding out the exact name of the course and finding the certificate to see whether it has a list of the modules and subjects that they did. In my house we kept all of those in a box so we could easily find them. I think many households would be the same. As the workplace has got more complex, people have many more of these documents. Given that a lot of training occurs through private RTOs or work based training, often they do not know who it was that provided the training, so if they do not have the records or the information it will be very hard for them to track it down. This bill will mean that there will be a single reference point for all of that registered training where they can get transcripts of what they have done. I think this is a great initiative that is much needed.

The reason that I would suggest it is particularly important in the VET sector goes to exactly those issues—the size, the scope and the complexity of the VET sector and the increasingly common participation by Australians in training and skill development. This will continue into the future. Lifelong learning, which we talked about when I first went into training, is in fact now a reality and it is something that is valued and important. But you do not want to lose the story of what your qualifications and skills are. So it is important to have an initiative like this in order to enable us to achieve that.

The main difference between this bill and the previous bill, which I actually introduced into the House in March 2013, is that the current government has decided to not proceed with the establishment of a stand-alone agency for the unique student identifier but is instead creating a registrar, with staff for that registrar to be provided by the department.

A government member: Hear, hear!

Ms BIRD: That seems to have stimulated some excitement over there. But I would say that it is important that the task is done and that it is done efficiently, and that is where the priority should be.

I want to put on the record a bit of a story. If I have any frustration with the national discussion about vocational education and training it is that I think too often in commentary at a public level—particularly in the media—and in some of the debates that happen in the community, people do not quite understand the size and scope of the sector. It is very important to understand what exactly it is that we are talking about when we talk about the vocational education and training sector. It is interesting that very often when you talk to people they simply perceive it as young people who have left school and are going to TAFE; yet it is so much broader than that.

If people are interested in having a look at the current state of the modern vocational education and training sector in Australia I would refer them to the report of the Productivity Commission entitled Report on government services 2014, which was released on 28 January 2014. Chapter 5 covers vocational education and training. It makes the point that VET programs can be a single module or unit of competency, which might be a very short course—and there are many of those—of around 10 contact hours in general. People would know those programs. People might do training in a particular workplace occupational health and safety issue, for example, or they might do a very short course on using a particular type of ICT application in the workforce. If those are recognised and registered, they can be fairly short courses with very narrow purpose. Of course, the programs range all the way up to associate degrees, and many of our public TAFEs now run associate degrees. The variation in course offerings is huge in this sector.

All of this training needs to be assessed, because, on many occasions, the students will complete modules or units of competency without intending to complete a course or qualification. So it needs to be consistently assessed along the way. The types of training delivery are diverse. It can be a formal classroom learning experience or a completely workplace-based learning experience. It could include flexible, self-paced learning and, increasingly, it could include online training. Often it is a combination of all of those. It includes apprenticeships and traineeships and it includes a significant amount of formalised and on-the-job as well as off-the-job training.

One of the more interesting developments over recent times—probably as a result of our improving technologies—is the amount of training that is provided through distance education. A lot of correspondence, internet study and interactive teleconferencing based learning occurs in this sector. It tends to be the sector that is at the cutting edge of a lot of innovative teaching and learning. Therefore, obviously, the institutions that are delivering it are just as diverse and significant in numbers.

We have as the backbone of the system—and one would hope it continues to be a strong and effective backbone of our system—our public TAFE institutes across the country. We also have agricultural colleges and private training businesses—people who specialise in things in the music industry or the film industry. There are also adult community education providers. These have been around for a long time. In fact, in my electorate, we have the Workers' Educational Association and just last year I went to their 100th anniversary. So they are in the sector as well. We have schools, colleges and universities crossing over into the sector in what they offer as courses. We have registered training organisations, private-for-profit operators and large employers themselves registered as RTOs delivering training. So it is a huge, diverse and very, very dynamic section of our economy.

For the House's information, the Productivity Commission reported that recurrent expenditure on VET by Australian, state and territory governments—not private expenditure; just government expenditure—in 2012 was $6 billion. That was equal to $397.77 per person aged 15-64 across Australia in that year. In 2012, 32.2 per cent of Australians aged 15-64 held a certificate or diploma as their highest level qualification and approximately 1.9 million Australians were reported as participating in VET programs at 22,486 locations across Australia. Of that 1.9 million, 1.5 million students—nearly 80 per cent—were government funded.

It is really important to understand the size, complexity and significance of the sector, not only as an industry sector in and of itself and the massive employment opportunity, growth and productivity it provides but also in its significant connection to community. Many of us in this place who work in rural and regional Australia well know the importance of vocational education and training not only to our communities and local economies but also to the whole task of participation and productivity in the nation.

There are so many areas where there is a particular industry or a particular geographic region undergoing transformation into a modern Australian participant in the economy and they will need upskilling of their existing people. This is the sector that does the heavy lifting. Our university sector is fantastic. It is important for many of those tasks. But the driving force for that is a quality, accessible and affordable vocational education and training sector. That is why it is so significant and why in particular in opposition I am really pleased that we have a shadow minister specifically for vocational education and training. It is such an important part of not only participation and equity but also economic growth and productivity. That has been shown time and time again across many, many studies.

In recent times we have seen another report on the importance of meeting the challenge faced by many of our workplaces that English language literacy and numeracy skills are not at a level required for a modern workplace. Some of that is obviously a challenge that we sought to deal with in our schooling system. Our Gonski reforms were significantly targeted at providing opportunities to lift those who were missing out most significantly on foundation skills such as language literacy and numeracy. But we also had a focus on supporting people who had arrived in this country without those skills and people who had been out of the workforce for a long time and were seeking to re-enter it, which is something that I think all governments would encourage, by providing language literacy and numeracy either through what is now known as the SEE program or, if they were already employed, through the WELL program. I think that is a particularly important task for this sector.

I want to finish up by saying that I am pleased that this particular bill has been reintroduced. I commend the government for doing so. As we all take on the challenge of ensuring people are able to gain the skills they need, one of the really interesting things for policymakers—whether those in government departments, those who sit in the parliament or those who operate within the business sectors of our community—will be to have a good idea of what actually happens with people's skills development. The NCVER has done some great work on that, but we have not really had a way to effectively track and analyse the movement of people throughout their post-secondary education and skills experience.

I am sure many of my colleagues here have had similar experiences to me. For example, I recently went to my local TAFE. I visited a class in the engineering section. Probably 20 per cent of the students sitting in that class actually had a university degree and were coming back—by and large sent by their employer but some off their own bats—to get on-the-tools experience at TAFE and to match their university qualifications with some very vocationally based skills. It is hard to quantify and understand what is happening in that space because the systems do not talk to each other. There is no tracking of that sort of data. So what is the size of this sort of activity? How should policymakers respond to that? Some universities and TAFEs are already proactive in the space, joining together and offering qualifications that encompass part training at TAFE and part training at university.

I think the other great advantage of this unique student identifier will be its capacity to, within the provisions of protection and privacy in the bill, provide good data and information about the movements of people in their post-secondary education to policy makers so that we can be more effective at the sorts of decisions we make. I commend the bill to the House and I hope that it might be the start of a new focus by the government and a reinvestment in the skills of the nation rather than the cuts that we saw in the most recent budget.