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Committees: Education and Employment References Committee report

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 14 May 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:52): This was a most important inquiry with significant findings. I would like to thank the chair of the Education and Employment References Committee, all the senators who worked on this inquiry and certainly all the staff that did such outstanding work in organising our many visits across the country and assisting with the report in all its detail. I also want to thank all colleagues in the Senate, because there was unanimous agreement when I put this up last November that this inquiry should go ahead.

I remember at the time, because we were coming into the end of the year, meeting and talking with a number of young people who are thinking about their future and their plans for 2014. Many of them were looking towards courses at TAFE. But equally they spoke of their concerns and their uncertainty because of what they could see was happening to TAFE in many jurisdictions. It certainly underlined again the need for this inquiry.

It is clear from the evidence presented to the committee that the TAFE sector has been under enormous pressure following decisions to open up government funding to competition from private providers. This was certainly a theme that came through in so many of the hearings. These themes of concern were around continuing cuts in government funding to the TAFE sector, and that has occurred both under successive Labor and coalition governments. Unfortunately, the contestability model that Labor pushed through in those COAG reforms has really allowed so many of the destructive developments that we are seeing play out at a state level.

Other concerns were to do with the diversion of substantial public funding from TAFE to private for-profit RTOs under the contestability model. This has resulted in underfunding TAFE institute in many states, with major losses of staff, resources and infrastructure. The issue of casualisation was something that I found very disturbing in terms of the impact it has on the individuals, because of their uncertainty in terms of their future employment and their workplace conditions but also the quality of the education. I am in no way reflecting on the teachers there, but when you have a highly casualised workforce the quality of the work that comes through is certainly under a cloud.

But what we saw in so much of the evidence with the funding cuts was the enormous impact it is having on the lives of individuals, whether they be staff or students or people who really hope that they could go to TAFE but now often find that that is not possible. The funding cuts are also affecting, as I mentioned, the education standards and also the very fabric of our society. I do not say that lightly. I really learned so much of this inquiry in terms of the huge contribution that TAFE makes to our society in helping bring people back into having confidence to be part of society, gaining training and in many cases then going on to employment. I did find it a great irony, because we are hearing so much from the coalition government about people getting back into the workforce and at the same time they are undermining to such a huge degree an organisation—our TAFE system—which has this myriad of pathways bringing people literally back into society. We heard examples, met and heard evidence from people who were feeling so insecure that in some cases had not left their homes for years and years because of disabilities suffered at work and because of various circumstances that had arisen with their own wellbeing. But through either being introduced to TAFE or meeting TAFE teachers accidentally they were brought back. In one case a man met a TAFE staff person through his disabled child and that person recognised that this man could benefit enormously from TAFE. He went on to not only gain an education but to become a TAFE teacher in graphic design. The stories were just so impressive. That is what I mean when I talk about the damage that is being done to the very fabric of our society.

We heard a great deal of evidence that the affordable, quality vocational training and further education to individuals, communities and industries across Australia is being compromised or even, in many cases, made not possible. Serious concerns were raised about these accessible pathways. Again I really want to emphasise how impressive the evidence was on this issue from both staff and students. This came from so many of the sites that we visited—from Perth to Wollongong. It was very comprehensive inquiry and the evidence from so many people was so beneficial to our considerations.

Other issues that came up strongly were the increase in student fees and the imposition of limited once-only publicly funded training entitlements for each student and how that has put qualifications out of the reach of many students. Then, as I said, there was the evidence about people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, people with disabilities and how they had benefited so much. So many of the staff who teach these people with disabilities, teach these people with special needs, set out the difficulties under the changes that are coming through at a state level—again, allowed because of the contestability model and the weakness of the regime that we have federally.

I take the example of my home state, New South Wales, the so-called 'smart and skilled' approach to vocational education and training—certainly those words are far from an accurate representation. But what a number of staff explained was that under 'smart and skilled' the money allocated for the assistance many people need will not cover the notetakers, will not cover the translators for people who need an Auslan interpreter if they are deaf. While that does sound costly—it often runs to about $80,000 over four years—when you consider that out of the training so many of those people go on to full employment, paying their taxes, not being on benefits for the rest of their lives, that $80,000 is in fact a most important and worthwhile contribution. That will not be available under the new way that vocational education and training is being rolled out by conservative governments. It was quite moving to hear the stories of some of the deaf students and people with disabilities. The current conditions made a difference to their lives but, they said, if they had enrolled next year it would not have been able to happen.

This was an incredibly worthwhile inquiry. The Greens were pleased to support the report; however, we were disappointed that some important recommendations that came through from a lot of the evidence were not adopted. I would like to thank the many teachers, the staff, the Australian Education Union and many other organisations that gave evidence.

Some of the recommendations that the Greens put forward which we think should have been included in the report are: an end to the current model of competitive tendering of government vocational education and training and a comprehensive public examination and review of the consequences of full competition on TAFE, including the impact on the quality of vocational education, levels of student support and teaching infrastructure, and a reassessment of the case and justification for a competitive training market.

We also put forward a further recommendation for a complete and rigorous examination of the real costs of the provision of high quality vocational and further education, including technical skills for work, adult literacy and numeracy and a number of other key factors. A third recommendation that we included in our part of the report was for guaranteed funding for the public TAFE system based on the actual costs of providing education and on a funding model that supports a strong and increased base for capital works, maintenance, infrastructure and equipment, and which properly recognises the important role of TAFE in providing vocational and technical education in areas of high and low demand, in rural and remote areas and improved access and participation for disadvantaged learners.

We cannot afford to lose TAFE. TAFE is an integral part of how our society works—not just in terms of education but in bringing dignity and respect for people across the board who have had varying opportunities. (Time expired)

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