TAFE Inquiry Report

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Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:11): I rise to speak today in support of the committee's report TAFE: an Australian asset. This report by the House of Representatives committee was convened to finish an inquiry that was started during the 43rd Parliament, referred by Labor minister at the time, the Hon. Chris Bowen. The 44th Parliament committee was re-established in November last year, and in February this year Minister Ian Macfarlane referred the issue to the committee again with amended terms of reference.

There has been some comment about the decision of the Senate committee to also take up the commenced inquiry of the previous House committee and to conduct their own inquiry, which tabled its report in May this year. It is my view, I have to say, that the critical point we have reached in many states regarding the need for support of TAFE into the future means that the dual inquiries should only be viewed as a positive, as they have allowed multiple opportunities for stakeholders to put forward their issues and their concerns.

The 172 submissions and transcripts from the previous parliament were brought forward for the current inquiry, and the current committee held eleven hearings and inspections across capital cities and regional areas. I would like to also thank the committee for taking up an idea I had to conduct an online survey. This ensured the maximised opportunity to hear directly from students—current and past students as well as those who may plan to study in the future. This was a significant task, and I would particularly like to thank the committee secretariat for their work in undertaking and assessing that survey.

The survey was launched in May and closed at the end of July. It received a total of 6,635 responses, which covered both quantitative and qualitative feedback.

The report title very appropriately identifies that TAFE has a broad social and economic task that is unique to a public provider and that this has made it an important national asset for decades. In the report's introduction it references the Kangan report. The Kangan report underscored the recurrent nature of the themes that recur with TAFE. In 1974, the Kangan report said:

The main purpose of education is the betterment and development of individual people and their contribution to the good of the community. Technical and further education should be planned accordingly. Emphasis on the needs of the individual should lead to easier access to learning, to better physical conditions of learning, to suitable student and teacher amenities, to welfare facilities, and to the highest standards of health and safety in workshops and laboratories.

It went on to say that the demand for education throughout life can be expected to grow, not simply because of changes in technologies and social organisation but also because people will become increasingly aware of the practical advantages that it gives an individual in respect of employment and livelihood. Forty years later, it would be hard to argue that those themes are not as important to communities now as they were in the seventies.

The committee took extensive evidence of the value and trust that many individual learners and employers place in TAFE and heard many examples of situations where TAFE was the critical provider in ensuring, in particular, that thin markets were covered and accessibility and affordability were ensured.

The first identified task in the committee's terms of reference was to consider 'the development of skills in the Australian economy'. The committee concluded:

While the COAG framework broadly recognises the important role of public VET providers, the crucial position and role of TAFE within VET is not explicitly recognised. For the Committee this is integral to the issues raised in the inquiry and is a deficiency that should be rectified. As stated above, it became evident to the Committee over the course of the inquiry that a foundational articulation of the role and function of TAFE is necessary.

The first task was obviously a particularly important one to the committee, and the evidence pointed quite clearly to the need for a nationally recognised agreement on the role of TAFE. This is encompassed, I would argue, very effectively in the first recommendation of the report, which says:

The Australian Government should, through the Council of Australian Governments, make a value statement comprehensively defining the role of TAFE within the VET sector together with its future direction in the competitive training market, from a national perspective.

This statement should recognise that the affordability and accessibility of the training market is underpinned by a strong public sector provider and acknowledges the following functions that TAFE, as a major and significant not-for-profit public provider, can uniquely bring to the VET sector …

It then goes on to outline nine specific, unique contributions that TAFE, as a public provider, makes and that need to be protected. The importance of this recommendation is that it identifies the unique role that TAFE, as the public provider, plays. It begins the task of identifying, from the evidence presented to the inquiry, the efforts that would be lost if TAFE were only required to operate simply as another competitor in a privatised market. I have said before—and I will put it on the record in this debate—that there would be nothing more tragic than for all of us, at all levels of government and across community and industry sectors, to only appreciate the true value of TAFE once it was lost.

The first recommendation calls on the federal government to take responsibility for coordinating an agreed national statement—between federal and state governments—that defines this role and outlines the future direction for TAFE in any competitive market with a view to protecting, if not enhancing, the capacity of TAFE to do the many public-good tasks that we ask of it. It is, therefore, critically important that the minister and the government accept all the recommendations of the committee and urgently seek to implement them.

The second and third terms of reference required an investigation of the pathways that TAFE provides for further education and employment. The survey of students, in particular, contained powerful evidence of the transformative role that TAFE had played in connecting vulnerable learners, or those who needed a second chance at education, with appropriate courses and significant support services. The report contains much evidence directly from students on this issue. This is, in itself, a good reason for many of those listening to take the opportunity to read the report of the committee.

It would be fair to acknowledge that, in many of these submissions, survey responses and direct evidence to the committee, the affordability of TAFE—and more recent changes to fee structures—was consistently raised as a barrier issue for students. This led to recommendation 3, which encourages governments to look at how these price structures might be acting as barriers.

The other persistent theme that came consistently through the evidence was the negative impact of aggressive behaviours by some private providers in the sector who are using unscrupulous marketing and recruitment practices and delivering poor-quality training and assessment. While the private sector was not a referred issue in the terms of reference, the committee did feel that the evidence directly impacted the fourth term relating to the role played by TAFE in 'the operation of a competitive training market'.

This led the committee to recommendation 2, providing options for tightening the content and assessment of national training packages; recommendation 4, supporting strengthening of the role of the regulators; and recommendation 5, where the intention is to be able to identify through an independent source, such as the NCVER, the funding efforts of all governments for the VET sector but TAFE in particular.

TAFE is a highly valued and trusted provider of education and training across all communities and states. Its importance can be seen in the significant place it fills in current debates in pending state elections—in particular, Victoria on Saturday. I am pleased that the Labor shadow minister in Victoria, Steve Herbert, has outlined a strong Labor policy for the election on TAFE, in particular the important task of rebuilding the TAFE system, which has been decimated under the Napthine government. On the weekend the Labor shadow minister in New South Wales, Ryan Park, also outlined a very strong TAFE policy to also take to the next election there.

I would like to finish by thanking the committee chair, the member for Herbert, Ewen Jones; the deputy chair, the member for Perth, Alannah MacTiernan; and all my committee colleagues who worked in a very bipartisan way to produce what I think is an excellent report. I would also like to sincerely thank the committee secretariat—secretary, Dr Glenn Worthington; inquiry secretary, Mr Robert Little; research officer, Ms Rebeka Mills; and administrative officers, Ms Katrina Gillogly and Ms Jessica Ristevska—for their dedicated and professional work. (Time expired)