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Speech: National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 24 Aug 2020

I rise to make a contribution to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020. The bill makes substantial changes to the Australian Skills Quality Authority's governance structure, establishes the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Advisory Council and revises arrangements for data sharing and access pertaining to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. The Greens will not oppose this bill, but we are not without concern.

Any regulator should be empowered and resourced to do its job without interference from the government. As I've said before in this chamber, ASQA's ability to operate effectively relies on having the resources that it needs and on having strong independence. The bill before us, like past changes to vocational education and training regulation, is concerning in that it expands the scope of directions that the minister can give ASQA. We must not open the door to the kind of ministerial interference we saw in Minister Birmingham's Australian Research Council meddling with recommendations or the Prime Minister and former Minister McKenzie's rorting of sports grants. This bill also continues the government's disquieting pattern of avoiding appropriate scrutiny of executive decisions in this chamber by adding to the number of non-disallowable legislative instruments under the act.

This is from a government that is allergic to scrutiny, with a history of mismanagement of vocational education and training and utter disrespect for the public training system it's worked systematically to undermine. Any such move is alarming. We'll be watching closely how these changes play out over the next few months as the government pursues its purported skills reform.

The establishment of an advisory council in this bill is welcome, although it is unsurprising from the Liberals that the sensible thing hasn't been done upfront by making sure the voices of our public training providers and our trade unions are included in the council, so we will join our Labor colleagues in supporting an amendment to that end. I urge my crossbench colleagues to support us in this.

It was extraordinary, I must say, to watch a Liberal prime minister attack the very vocational education and training system that they created. They created the system by destroying TAFEs and public training in Australia with the help of the Prime Minister's state Liberal colleagues. And yet the Prime Minister offered no new funding at the Press Club earlier this year. There were more than 4,000 words and not one single mention of TAFE, the bedrock of our training system.

We need free TAFE and uni for all and new investment to rebuild publicly delivered training in our TAFEs. Those would be the crucial first steps of any skills overhaul. Instead, all we got from the Prime Minister was hot air, a push to renegotiate funding without offering a single extra cent to the system he is underfunding and all the language of competition and marketisation that will rightly send a shiver down the spine of Australians, who know public education and training are the closest thing we have to a ticket to a more fair, equal and just society.

We saw that language again from the Productivity Commission's interim report, which urges more of the same marketisation that has led the VET system into disarray and scandal, while suggesting that little priority to TAFEs be given and that state funding should be unwound. What's more, the total of government loans repaid to students who have been ripped off by shonky for-profit VET providers has now surged past $1.2 billion, but the government is once again entertaining extending loan programs to private providers—the same kind of extension that got us in this mess in the first place.

The importance of TAFE and the risk we run in neglecting it cannot be overstated. A report from The Australia Institute released on National TAFE Day this year tells us the system creates $90 billion in economic benefits annually and well-funded TAFE is essential for delivering the workforce needed for post-COVID reconstruction. Altogether, the benefits that come from TAFE are 16 times more than the investment. How amazing is an investment that gives you 16 times more than you put in? That's our TAFEs and that's why we must support them. These are enormous benefits for Australia, yet, as the author of the report, Alison Pennington, puts it, that house is now crumbling from neglect and policy vandalism.

The report also finds that the TAFE system increases employability and lowers unemployment. TAFE graduates enter the labour force with better employment prospects and skills. The increased labour force participation and employability of TAFE graduates correspond to additional employment of 486,000. The report finds that the TAFE system promotes wider social benefits critical to addressing inequality. TAFE helps bridge access to further education and job pathways in regional areas and for special and at-risk youth groups. TAFE students are more likely to come from low-income households and identify as Aboriginal, compared with students of private vocational education and training providers.

The lesson we should have learned once and for all in the debacle of the Labor-Liberal VET loans program is that, as with all stages of education, in vocational education and training there is no place for private profit. For the future of young people seeking training—indeed for the future of our country—we need to understand that their skills should not be the domain of profiteers seeking to juice what they can from the taxpayer while meeting their minimum obligation to students and then banking the difference for their profits. Time and again we've seen the exploitation resulting from that business model. Nearly 40 per cent of young people don't have a job or enough hours of work. Youth wage growth is the flattest it has ever been. Those figures are only going to worsen, and enrolments in education and training are going to skyrocket as the economy continues to deteriorate. If we are to help them and if we are to build a more socially and economically just society after the pandemic, we need massive investment in a Green New Deal, including making TAFE and uni free and providing significant new government investment to make sure that we don't leave whole generations behind.


Support for Advisory Board amendment

As I highlighted in my second reading contribution, the Greens will be supporting Labor's amendment. The amendment requires the minister to include representatives from TAFE, from unions and from employer groups on the advisory council that is established by this legislation. This will make sure that the voices of our public training providers, as well as our workers, are heard in any VET policy that is made.


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