Speech To The TAFE Directors Australia Conference, Vision 2020, Sheraton On The Park, Sydney

Thank you for the invitation to join you today to participate in your national conference with a focus on the vision of our public TAFE system in the Year 2020. I know that your program has been ambitious, covering questions such as identifying where the jobs of the future will be and the competitive advantages we have as a nation from which to build these jobs; including the emerging focus on the role of technology and government in this task. Many of your forums are exploring the nature of the partnerships that will build that future – with students, communities, industry and business and government at all levels.

It is clear to all of us, I am sure, that the role of TAFE as our public provider has been under sustained pressure and I commend you for the focus on developing innovative approaches to sustaining a vibrant and relevant public provider in the vocational education and training sector.

It is my view that this is critical to the strength and viability of our overall sector and I look forward to working with you on this task in my current role as the Shadow Minister in keeping the government to account on its policy proposals and funding decisions.  Of course, I am also ambitious to work with you in the future – as near a future as possible – in a Labor federal Government and, in that regard, I look forward to working with you in the development of Labor’s policy positions for the next election.

I would like to explain the value I place on our VET system with reference to my own electorate, based in Wollongong.

Many of you would be aware that the Illawarra is a region that has strong historical connections to the mining industry, indeed I come from five generations of coalminers myself.  Being a coastal community it is not surprising that in the twentieth century a thriving manufacturing industry grew up to maximise the opportunities of accessible coal reserves and port facilities.  The Hoskins steelworks established and then was bought out by BHP in the twenties and still continues today as Bluescope Steel.  Many small and medium manufacturers grew in the region to service the coal and steel industries.

However, since the 1980’s we have seen waves of restructuring across these sectors, until as recently as 2010, when Bluescope undertook another significant restructure that lead to hundreds of workers being made redundant.

There are many regional communities, like mine, going through the same process. I believe that the critical role that vocational education and training plays in ensuring workers are well equipped to adapt as the businesses they work for look to adapt to changing market circumstances; the initial post-school courses that young people undertake to get a start in the workforce; the women who have been out of the workforce raising families and seeking to re-establish themselves in work; or the workers made redundant through restructures who look to have established skills recognised and to add to them or to strike out in new work directions; all of these people in all of these circumstances so often look to our VET options to provide these opportunities in an accessible, affordable way and with the assurance that the content and quality are sufficient to be valued in the jobs marketplace.

As Government’s work to support these transitions and to ensure the people and communities affected are well-equipped for their futures it is even more important to have our public providers, our TAFEs, strong, affordable and accessible.  In my own area there would not be a local forum on industry redundancies and restructuring; a local working group on youth unemployment or a local business chamber or labour council event on future business and job opportunities; where our TAFE Institute have not been an absolutely essential leadership player.  The “common good”, “community obligations” or whatever you choose to call it, that TAFE carries as our public provider must never be lost.  I would like to publicly acknowledge here the efforts in this regard of Di Murray and many of her team as well as the TAFE Teachers’ Association who have sat around many of those tables with me.

I know that the voice of management and unions are most often heard in their disagreements but I am extremely thankful for the dedication and professionalism that both groups bring to the table in their determination to maximise the well-being and success of students and our community more broadly.

I think the decisions of the current Federal Government to increasingly lock-out forums where union voices in tripartite groupings are heard – witness the appalling decision to disband AWPA – are bad enough; but I have also been critical of their recent decision to lock out voices such as TAFE Directors as well – witness the recently announced VET Advisory Board.

The reason why I feel so strongly on these issues was clearly described in July this year when the Illawarra Mercury ran a weekend article on the restructuring occurring in our industries and they featured a gentleman called Shane Szabacs. Shane is 39 and was one of the 80 workers who had been made redundant from the manufacturing company, MM Kembla.  Shane has applied for jobs as a production supervisor, plant operator, sales assistant and storeman and his applications in customer service, construction labouring, fence building and pizza delivery had also been unsuccessful.

He has had some success with labour hire work and is keen to learn new skills and would like work that is more based on working with and helping people.  Shane’s own words to the journalist are powerful:

“You’ve got to think outside the box” he said.

“I’d love to go to uni, I’d love to do a social services degree, or get a Certificate 3, Certificate 4, and basically be a case manager for DOCS.  That would be my ideal job. I want to give back, I want to help people. But you can’t just jump into that sort of stuff.

“The advice that I would give? I should have continually upskilled. I should have continually been doing tickets, TAFE courses, not rested on my laurels. That’s the mistake I made.”

At the same time as people like Shane; sectors like manufacturing; and regions like the Illawarra; are in the process of significant structural change - the nature of work and the relevance of knowledge and skills are also changing. This is also reflected in the nature and structure of businesses – the expansion of contract work, small business operations, home-based entrepreneurs and so forth; all providing new and significant opportunities and real innovation that contributes to the growth of the nation’s productivity, wealth and well-being.

Given how significant, therefore, the VET system is to this national task and how critical it is to the success of individuals, businesses, communities and the nation; I feel very strongly that we must be vigilant in protecting the system as a whole.

After the election, I was particularly keen to see how the new government would manage the Skills portfolio. They had said very little about Skills in opposition so there weren’t many pointers as to what direction they would be likely to go in, I think the only pre-election commitment was the one regarding the apprentice loan scheme. Like many people when the Ministry was announced, I presumed that the Skills portfolio had moved with Higher Education into Minister Pyne’s portfolio and was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t there. Like many people I had to go hunting for it, there was no Minister for Skills identified by title in the Ministry. That was probably the first sign that I was correct to have real concerns about what the new government was going to do with the portfolio.

Following that we saw the release of the Government’s Commission of Audit and, again, that caused me very great concern, it recommended that the federal government fundamentally abandon the field on Vocational Education and Training and I think that is absolutely the wrong way to go. What Federal and State Governments of all persuasions have been doing now for decades is in fact getting together to better co-ordinate a national approach. People move around the country and they do expect that there is a more consistent national approach to the portability of their qualifications, so I think the Commission of Audit very much reflected a failure to understand the national significance of the Skills area and the Vocational Education Training path that so you are involved in delivering.

The Commission of Audit was followed by the Federal Budget and there are areas that are of real concern for Labor in the significant cuts from the Skills Portfolio.

This includes firstly what has happened with apprenticeships. The government did move to introduce its Apprentice Loan scheme but  we were quite angry on behalf of apprentices that the Government before the election gave them no indication that this program would be at the cost of the Tools for Your Trade payments which provided direct financial support to all eligible apprentices to get the tools they need for their trade and to assist with other costs.

Just as importantly for me were other very significant apprenticeship support programs that have been abolished in the Budget. The first one is the Apprenticeship Access program which particularly targeted very disadvantaged young people to get them the skills and appropriate knowledge to get access to apprenticeships. Another program that was abolished is the Apprenticeships Mentoring program. Many of you would be aware that there has been a consistent concern about the number of apprentices that are actually completing their training and this program was very much appreciated, not only by the apprentices, but also by employers and so I really am at a loss to understand why that in particular has also been abolished.

The other more recently introduced program that has been abolished is the Apprentice to Business Owner Program. Labor started this program as we quite clearly understood that across a whole lot of industry sectors people finish their apprenticeship and then go out and operate as a sole trader/small business operator and the AtoB program was a good initiative to provide them with the sorts of skills they might need that you don’t get in your apprenticeship, those sorts of small business type skills. So we had nearly $1 billion over three programs plus the incentive payment of Tools for Your Trade that were cut in the Budget, I think was a very short sighted action and apparently quite contradictory to the Governments increased “Earn or Learn” requirements.

The other area I just want to mention about the Budget cuts is some of the co-investment programs, in particular the Workplace English Language and Literacy program and the National Workforce Development Program. Both of those have been instrumental in providing opportunities in the up-skilling of existing workers – exactly the sort of programs that could assist workers such as Shane. One great example that I saw when a Minister was when I visited some aged care facilities where people were getting a program that combined the language and literacy skills within a digital skills course and for many of these aged care workers it was a first time they had done a qualification since their time at school and they were really proud of what they had achieved.

I would point out, for example, that the Australian Industry Group, in its own Budget Submission to the federal government, indicated their support for those programs continuing. Now I acknowledge there are some replacement initiatives in the Budget. There was a new Industry Skills Fund, it’s half as much money as the abolished programs and it is very specific and narrow in its targeting to small and medium enterprises and to a small and very specific range of industry sectors as well. I acknowledge that the Discussion Paper has been released and remains open until 7 September and I am sure that many groups, including some of you here today, will be raising the importance of upskilling workers more broadly.

All of this occurs in the midst of the Minister’s initiated VET Reform Review and the changes proposed by the Higher Education Minister (introduced finally into the House of Representatives last week) with no indication that funding will even be restored to previous levels in the Skills Portfolio.

The role of TAFE in the national task and where it sits in the current review process is of great importance.  You will be aware of the concluded Senate Inquiry and the current House of Representatives Inquiry into the role and future of TAFE, indeed the TAFE Directors have been instrumental in providing both written and verbal evidence to those inquiries.

The Senate Report was not bipartisan and the Dissenting Report of Government members gives further concern about how this government will approach the public provider’s role.  The Dissenting Report has a section titled “TAFE is a State Responsibility” and it states: “The ability for TAFE to tailor their services to the local community they are based in, and to react to emerging issues in that community such as re-training workers from particular industries or addressing specific shortages, is another advantage of the system being owned and operated at state level. If the federal government had any direct responsibility for service provision in the VET sector, this local knowledge and agility would be lost.”

The foundation for much of the criticism behind this conclusion relates to specific evidence about real or perceived “lack of flexibility” and “lack of responsiveness to industry”.  This perspective is consistently re-affirmed in the Minister’s and the Government’s commentary on VET and TAFE.

I too believe that the voice of employers and industry is invaluable and critical to effective policy-making and funding decisions. However, I also believe that the voice of RTOs, in particular TAFE from all States, are also invaluable and critically important.  The expertise on skills analysis, program design and delivery, assessment and quality assurance must never be lost.

But I would also like to raise with you a perspective that I am increasingly concerned is getting lost – and that is the perspective of Shane – the student or potential student who seeks to build a lifetime of work from the knowledge and skills they gain from their education and training.

In the national debates, the perspective of the RTO generally covers what courses they are running, what student groups they are dealing with, what government demands and regulator requirements they are managing, their cost base and so forth; so it’s a perspective based in the issues of the “here and now”. Similarly with the employer groups, businesses who are looking at training, considering what their current business model is, what the established skills of their existing workforce are, what new knowledge or skills they need to bring in so they can change a production process or to update a service delivery model – again very much an immediate term view of their needs of the training sector.  But what is often lost is the longer-term needs of the person who is the direct target of the training - that is the student.  I am not intending to claim that either RTOs or employers are not concerned for the lifetime well-being of the student; but, of course, their priority will be on a much  shorter term horizon.

My view is that the best protection for that student, that jobseeker or that worker is the rigorous maintenance of the quality of the sector.

The vocational sector is extremely diverse. The Productivity Commission report released in January this year showed 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 Australian aged 15-64. 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.

The types of training included formal classroom learning, workplace-based learning, flexible, self-paced learning and/or online training, often in combination. Also included are apprenticeships and traineeships and a variety of other combinations of employment and competency-based training, including both formalised training and on-the-job training. The availability of alternate and distance education options has increased, with off-campus options such as correspondence, internet study and interactive teleconferencing.

The types of training organisation include: institutions specialising in VET delivery, such as TAFE  institutes, agricultural colleges and private training businesses; adult community education providers; secondary schools and colleges; universities; industry and community bodies with a RTO arm; and businesses, organisations and government agencies that have RTO status to train their own staff. Group Training Organisations who are RTOs and some RTOs may also be Australian Apprenticeship Centres. Schools and universities provide dual award courses that combine traditional studies with VET, with an award from both the VET provider and the secondary school or university.

With such a large, diverse and critically important sector we all share in the benefits of quality training and we all suffer when the sector’s reputation is damaged. Federal Labor in government established a national regulator, ASQA, as one mechanism to provide the assurances that are needed to protect the quality and reputation of the sector.  Recent reports by the regulator have shown exactly why this task is needed. These include the broader report on Marketing and Advertising Practices and the Industry-specific reports covering the aged and community care sectors and the White Card in the construction sector.

These two industry reports combined with the report into Marketing and advertising practices indicate that some VET providers are combining the demand for qualifications with unethical marketing practices; unscrupulous enrolment procedures; manipulation of funding options and/or poor quality delivery to take advantage of students.

There is discussion about the nature of the regulator’s task and how this can be best achieved, particularly following the release by the Minister of the ASQA Process Review in June.  No doubt there is some capacity, as there always is with any new authority, to review and seek efficiencies in its operation. 

However, I would be very concerned by any consideration of seriously watering down ASQA’s role - to the contrary, it is my view that ASQA’s’ recent reports indicate that too many providers are seeking to recruit students through incorrect and sometimes unscrupulous marketing and enrolment procedures and I continue to hear of examples of this type of activity as I am sure many of you do.  As this most often involves quite vulnerable learners, the impact, financially and educationally, can be devastating for the individuals.

In the vocational education sector all participants have one common interest and that is quality.  Whether you are a funding provider, a registered training organisation, a student or an employer; Federal Labor understands that the quality of the outcomes in vocational education have significant implications for you.

Rigour in quality control should start with the recruitment and enrolment procedures, through training delivery and most particularly at the point of assessment.  No point along the way should be neglected – failures have financial costs but they also strike at the confidence and long-term participation of students and employers.

And that is why we will continue to pursue this vital agenda with you.

In 2020 it is my hope that we see a vocational education and training system that is the envy of the world.  I believe that for decades many other countries have looked to the strength and depth of our TAFE system to learn from our world-class vocational training and our students have been snapped up on the international market.  There would be nothing more tragic than to only fully appreciate the true value of our TAFEs when they had been lost.

We have always had many strong performers in the private training sector also; as well as large and medium employers who have developed their own training sections.

There is always room for improvement and there is always an imperative to move.  The world brings new challenges to our doorstep such as the pressures on our manufacturing sector – and these challenges can become real opportunities if we get the education and training right.  Emerging innovations in technology bring us great new business and industry opportunities and we need to match them with the people ready to grab them and build new futures.

Our schools and universities are central to this task and alongside them sits our vocational education and training system – an equal partner as critical to this task as the other two.  Increasingly people will move between them in different ways adding the pieces of knowledge and skills as and when they need them.

This is why I am pleased that the new Government has continued with the Total VET Activity project and the Unique Student Identifier.  The information these will provide to individuals, employers, RTOs and policy makers will be invaluable.

I know that TAFE is up to the job the future demands – I believe it has to be and all governments must take responsibility for ensuring it is supported.  I know you are determined to step up to the task also and I sincerely thank you for the partnership I have had with you over recent years and I look forward to continuing that engagement into the future.