Matters of Public Importance

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (15:50): I start by thanking the member for Lyne for putting this particular item up as a matter of public importance and it is, indeed, a matter of importance. As I reflected in a debate on legislation yesterday, he and I have spent quite a bit of time on the education committee of this parliament and from that experience I know of his personal commitment to education and training, given that we reflect similar areas for young people who need access to vocational education and training to transform their lives.

I will acknowledge in particular that the member in his contribution, which I listened to closely, made the point about the national partnership and that it should be used for good and not for evil. I can assure him that this government uses everything for good and not for evil. It is a standard operating practice for this government across all portfolio areas and I would argue none more so than in the education area.

The member went to the issues of the wellbeing and strength of the technical and further education area as an issue not only for those in the sector or indeed its client group—the people in our own regions who we talk about and who need access to this training—but also more broadly for the economy as a whole. That is reflected in the concerns that have been expressed, as he indicated, by people like Innes Willox in August at the National Press Club about what is happening to this sector up and down the eastern seaboard.

In addressing the issues that the member has raised in his speech on this matter of public importance, I want to put on the record where we are at with the vocational education and training reform agenda and to reflect on some of the things that he has raised about the response of the Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland governments to the vocational education and training sector. Finally, I will raise my concerns about what a change of federal government would mean to this sector.

It is the case that we have been driving some real reform in the skills and training area. It has been in fact a $15.6 billion investment over four years. Many members of this House have been particularly encouraging of the government to continue with that investment, recognising how important that sector is. It would be no surprise, having gone from a TAFE teaching background, that I am never going to argue that the vocational education and training sector is not a critically important link between secondary education and tertiary education at university. Indeed, we see more and more people not only graduating from their TAFE and vocational training providers to university but doing the reverse trick—picking up university qualifications and then going back to TAFE to get some on-the-tools experience. It is a critically important sector to our economy and our communities.

As part of the reform agenda, there is on the table $1.75 billion over five years for the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform that the member referred to. There is $1.4 billion allocated to the states each year for that reform agenda. Thirty-five per cent of the funding under the national partnership agreement will be provided for increases in VET outcomes, which will be measured by an overall increase in completions of qualifications. We want people to get the qualification at the end of the investment of government money and of their time, energy and effort. That is a particularly important commitment.

We signed that national partnership agreement through COAG in April of this year, as the member indicated, to progress those reforms. The reforms included improving course completion rates, improving the quality of training and fixing some of the issues that the member touched on. It is critically important that the quality issue is addressed. We need to ensure that we address some of the concerns that the member raised about the diversity of providers that might be out there. We need those providers to deliver what people entering into training want. There needs to be a robust quality system in place.

We also want to improve access to training through the provision of a new entitlement to a funded place up to certificate III and through the provision of HECS style loans for diplomas and above. We also want to improve transparency for students and employers to ensure that they have good quality information on courses and on providers.

Under the agreement, the states are asked to provide implementation plans to the Commonwealth. They are asked to set out in those plans their methods of delivering on those undertakings. The reward funding under the agreement—that is, the $1.75 billion over five years—will only flow to states when they have an approved implementation plan in place and are meeting the required milestones. It should be indicated that the Commonwealth has approved an implementation plan from the Northern Territory and is in the process of looking at finalising agreements with a number of states.

It is important to recognise that there have been some more recent developments which have triggered the concern behind today's motion from the member for Lyne. In particular, in the 2012-13 Victorian budget, which they announced in May, major changes to the funding of VET were made, including very significant cuts of $300 million to their 18 TAFE institutions and a reduction in funding rates for approximately 80 per cent of their VET courses. The full impact of those funding cuts will hit from 1 January 2013, when the new funding rates will apply. We are seeing significant concerns in Victoria about those impacts.

An independent TAFE reform panel was convened to consider the transition plans of individual TAFE institutions and to make recommendations to the Victorian government on how to manage the changes. The panel has reported to the Victorian government. A summary of the proposed Victorian TAFE transition plans appeared in the media in September of this year. It reveals significant potential changes to the structure of the TAFE system in Victoria, including significant reductions in course offerings, large increases in student fees, significant loss of staff, industrial issues to do with the funding of enterprise agreements with TAFE teachers and amalgamations and campus closures. What the impact will be in Victoria is of great concern to us and in particular—and this is a point that I have made on numerous occasions—the impact in rural and regional areas. While we talk about competition, in many of those areas a public provider is the only provider. Cutting away the foundation of the TAFE system in Victoria is a real attack on the only provider in many of those regional and rural areas. Also, TAFE is often the only provider able to meet the needs of students with a disability. It is more broadly an important provider of training for those people with a disability who want to get skills so that they can get into the workforce.

Consequent upon the Victorian experience, the New South Wales government has now announced cuts to the TAFE system. A reduction of $16.1 million in capital was announced in the 2012-13 budget. In September they announced a further reduction of 800 permanent staff over the next four years, an increase in course fees of 9.5 per cent from 1 January 2012 and an increase in student concession fees. I note that there has been a significant amount of discussion and concern about how this is going to impact on areas across the state.

Indeed in my own local paper, the Illawarra Mercury, just today, there is a story with the headline: TAFE quality to fall under 'disastrous' cuts. The New South Wales opposition leader, John Robertson, was visiting with the Shellharbour state MP, Anna Watson, to address some of the issues that will impact on TAFEs as a result of the cuts in this area. I am particularly concerned to see that the Dapto TAFE will lose its campus library, for example. I think the actual impacts and how this is going to affect the TAFEs across New South Wales will begin to unfold, sadly and not positively, over coming months.

We add to that the circumstance in Queensland. The Queensland government is now looking at potentially shutting in effect half its TAFE campuses across the state. It is an extraordinary story up and down the eastern seaboard of state Liberal governments undermining the capacity of the public providers in their states. It is a real concern. We will be looking very closely at the national partnership agreement in terms of the commitment they are making to support public providers.

More broadly, one might say that perhaps those who are sitting in this chamber on the other side are sending a strong message to their own colleagues at the state level to stop this madness. Perhaps that is what they are saying, 'Stop this madness and reinvest in the public provider.' Sadly, I have seen no evidence of that. Indeed, each time we have debated these matters in this House, they have had to twist arms to get people to actually speak on the matter. I would encourage those opposite to take messages back to their state colleagues about how short-sighted this is.

I am ever an optimist. The opposition leader today released a book of his speeches. The words of the opposition leader, in the foreword, say:

If you want to know what the next Coalition government will be like, you should read this book. It's the plan for government that the Coalition has been developing to give everyone the hope, reward and opportunity that Australians deserve.

I thought, 'Great, this might be encouraging. They might be going to send a message to their state colleagues.' It is a free book. You can download it. I thought I would go and download it and have a look at it. I did a search on the word 'education'. People will be encouraged to know I had four results. In 191 pages, the word 'education' appeared four times. Do not get too excited just yet. The first use of the word 'education' was in the section: A Plan for Stronger Communities. It said:

We are going to work with the states to make public hospitals and public schools more accountable to their communities with local boards and councils.

So there is one sentence there on policy about education. The second reference was in the Commission of Audit chapter. It says:

The commission of audit will ponder issues such as whether the federal education department really needs all 5,000 of its current staff when the Commonwealth does not run a single school.

So the second reference was about cutting public servants. The third reference was in the chapter A Fair Dinkum Paid Parental Leave Scheme, which indicated, 'Childcare enables more parents to participate in the workforce but is an important means of early childhood education.' There was no following policy, just a statement. Fourthly, 'education' appears in the chapter Sound Economic Management, which criticises the Gonski education changes of $6.5 billion a year and says, 'Many of these are worthy projects but they should only be promised when they can be paid for.'

Sadly, you are not going to find much about how important education is for the future of the nation in this book. I thought, 'Okay, fair's fair. I will search for the word 'training'. Perhaps I will not focus on education more broadly but on "training".' I found eight matches for 'training'. The first seven were all in one paragraph though, so do not get too excited about that. The first seven were from the chapter Better Employment Programs for Indigenous Australians and they all related to Andrew Forrest's Australian Employment Covenant. I have to say, seven of the eight were simply in one paragraph about one program.

Mr Tehan interjecting—

Ms BIRD: I would encourage the member to download the book for himself and to have a look. It does not cost anything. You can download it for free. The eighth reference to 'training' was in the chapter on Australia's Infrastructure Challenge. It says:

The current government is more accustomed to link productivity with training than investment in transport infrastructure.

That is a paragraph about transport infrastructure. Persevering, I thought, 'I will try searching for "TAFE".' How many matches? None. I thought, 'All right, I will try "technical and further education".' How many matches for the future of Australia? None. I thought, 'I will go broad. I will try "skills".' For 'skills' I got one match, you will be pleased to know. It related to the fact we need a more skills focused immigration program.

I would say to those who are interested in the future of the nation and in the important matter that the member for Lyne has brought before the House that we are developing our technical and further education sector to match the challenges and needs of the future to provide real opportunity for people in our communities to be part of the economic growth and employment opportunities. Do not look to those opposite for any encouragement for investment in education, in training, in skills or indeed in the future of our young people in these opportunities.