Apprenticeship and Traineeship Amendment Bill 2017

September 12, 2017

Like my colleagues I am delighted to contribute in debate on the Apprenticeship and Traineeship Amendment Bill 2017. At the outset I commend the member for Londonderry and shadow Minister for Skills for her strong position to provide the people of New South Wales with alternative means. We oppose this bill in its current form and will move appropriate amendments to the Act for a number of purposes but most notably to abolish the Vocational Training Review Panel [VTRP] and transfer all of the panel's powers to the Commissioner for Vocational Training.

To fully understand the proposed amendment bill and the Government's motivation in seeking to amend the Act, in this way it is important to consider and reflect on the Government's approach to vocational and training more broadly. No matter which way you look at it the vocational education and training sector under this Government is in complete disarray. It is a shambles. Since the introduction of the Smart and Skilled changes in the last term of this Government, vocational education—and TAFE in particular—has been in a downward spiral that can be described as nothing less than a crisis. The statistics speak for themselves with 175,000 fewer enrolments, 5,700 teachers and support staff sacked and course fees up by 22 per cent. I am not talking about energy bills that are up more than 20 per cent; I am talking about fees for people to get the skills they need to get a good job to prosper throughout their life and drive their local economy. This is very important to members on this side of the House; however, it has been missed on the other side.

I refer to TAFE, our public provider. But when we look at the private training providers, which have profited and will continue to profit from this Government's destruction of TAFE, we see that the situation only gets bleaker. More than 8,500 students have been left high and dry with thousands of dollars worth of debt and no qualification to show for it as a result of their provider being suspended, terminated or going broke. These statistics are not just numbers on a spreadsheet: They represent real people who are unable to get the skills they need to get a good, stable job. This is particularly marked for young people who make up the overwhelming majority of Vocational Education and Training [VET] students in New South Wales. In my electorate of Campbelltown the devastating effects of the O'Farrell, Baird and Berejiklian government attacks on TAFE are clear.

When this Government came into office in 2011 youth unemployment, as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the outer south-west Sydney region—which covers my electorate as well as the electorates of Macquarie Fields and Camden and parts of Wollondilly and Liverpool—was 7.8 per cent. Fast forward to now, when there have been a few years for the full, devastating effects of Smart and Skilled so-called reforms to be felt, and that figure has shot up to 13.6 per cent. There are more than a thousand young people without work compared to when this Government took office. That is simply unacceptable. It says volumes about a Government that lacks the capacity to manage an economy and provide the skills young people need to prosper in our communities, and this is not surprising. When the world-leading public VET provider of TAFE is carved up, thousands of staff sacked and course costs increased, people are not able to get the proper skills and training they need to get a job.

Against that disappointing backdrop, it is not surprising to see a bill from this Government that is out of touch and lacks the capacity to deliver. On the surface, the bill would appear to be innocent enough, with increased penalties for breaches of the Act and greater transparency in the industry. These are worthwhile pursuits, but they are not what is wrong with the bill. The clause in this bill which seeks to abolish the VTRP and transfer its powers to the Commissioner for Vocational Training is the latest instalment in this Government's regime of death by a thousand cuts for TAFE. Currently, the Vocational Training Review Panel [VTRP] has representatives from across the vocational education industry, including representatives from TAFE. One of the panel's primary functions is to resolve disputes between vocational education training providers and students, as well as providing trade recognition to people who have extensive experience working in a particular field but lack formal qualifications. This process was put in place to recognise and acknowledge that experience.

The Government's intent in this bill is clear. It wants to strip TAFE of its representation on the panel and transfer all the power of those representatives to a government-appointed bureaucrat. It is another step in the privatisation agenda of this Government. It is hell-bent on flogging everything off. This Government wants to privatise everything. The message to those opposite is: Just because Government members are hopeless at their job, it does not mean that everyone else is. The Coalition will not be there for much longer and Labor will once again fix it when it is in government. This side of the House will not stand for this Government's relentless and continued attacks on TAFE. We know that TAFE is important not only for the skills it provides young people but also for its broader economic significance in our State.

Skills are critical to economic growth and social wellbeing. Although initial vocational training during a student's high school years provides useful skills in many jobs where demand is fast growing, including healthcare workers, technicians, administration staff, junior managers, and industrial trades, such basic vocational training is no longer enough and higher level professional, managerial and technical skills are increasingly required in other global economies. For example, in the United States it is estimated that one‑third of all job vacancies by 2018 will call for a post-secondary qualification but not necessarily the completion of a bachelor degree. Based on a series of 20 country studies, the Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] synthesis report of "Skills beyond school" looks at how countries are responding to this growing demand for skills and the further steps they need to succeed.

The report underlines many challenges, including that some countries have thriving post‑secondary vocational sectors while others have found it difficult to find a place for shorter, one- or two-year programs in competition with university level academic qualifications. The engagement of social partners, employers and trade unions is as vital as it is elusive. Vocational training qualifications are sometimes outdated or lack currency in the labour market. This is world's best practice and other countries are motivated to make amendments that ensure students have every opportunity to achieve the skills that they need. That is not what this Government or this bill provide. We know the truth. We know that TAFE is important and that the Government should be investing in public vocational educational training [VET]. Instead, it continues with its agenda of cuts and the destruction of an institution that has provided so much to so many for so long.

The contrast between this side of the House and those opposite could not be demonstrated more clearly than with TAFE. On that side, there are funding cuts, privatisation, campus sell-offs, fee hikes and staff sackings, with plummeting enrolments as a consequence. We only need to refer to the figures regarding youth unemployment to know it is true. Labor has committed at least 70 per cent of all government VET funding to TAFE. That will end the race to the bottom which has come about from the contestable funding model under Smart and Skilled. Labor has committed to boosting the number of apprentices in New South Wales by mandating that all New South Wales government contracts worth more than $500,000 will require at least 15 per cent of workers to be apprentices and trainees. That is government for the people, not for an expanding unemployment rate. The Labor Party leader and the shadow Minister and member for Londonderry are 100 per cent committed to restoring TAFE to its rightful place as a world-respected public vocational education provider.

My colleagues and I will not take a step backwards. We want to ensure that TAFE provides amazing opportunities for young people from disadvantaged or low-income backgrounds to undertake further education and provides them with the skills they need to gain long-term employment. TAFE also provides opportunities for older people to learn new skills, particularly in situations of forced redundancy. Let us not overlook them. Only this side of the House has a comprehensive plan to rescue TAFE for the people of Campbelltown and indeed the good people of this great State. TAFE is in crisis. The Government does not recognise it but we do, and the people of New South Wales are living it. The only way we can change the Government's priorities in TAFE is to change the government.