It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2011. Vocational and skills training represents a very important part of Australia's education system. As everyone in this place knows, and anyone in Canberra knows, if you try to get an emergency plumber on the weekend here in Canberra, it is a very difficult task, because there is currently a massive skills shortage for tradespeople in Canberra and right across Australia. It is also, as I have mentioned in this place before, a very expensive task in terms of the costs, because we have so few plumbers and they can charge.
This skills shortage is having a massive inflationary effect on our economy, particularly in Canberra, and it is also a major barrier to improving our productivity. The government understands this, which is why we are investing a great deal of energy and considerable funding in improving access to education, particularly vocational and trades education. This is a government that understands the transformative power of a quality education. It understands that, by educating and training a person, you not only generate macroeconomic benefits for Australia but also have a massive positive effect on the person who has actually received the education. Jobs and trades represent a significant and important part of our identity, and all the research shows that the better educated a person is, the happier they are and the healthier they are. Having a skill represents being able to make choices rather than having choices thrust upon you. This was a lesson I learnt in my own life from my family. My greatgrandmother, my grandmother and my mother all lived lives not of their choosing because they did not get the opportunities they wanted because they lacked an education. They did not get a chance to lift themselves out of their relative poverty and to live a comfortable retirement. In fact, my grandmother lived only to the age of 54, due to poor health and having to do three jobs just to keep seven kids fed and watered. That is why I am such an advocate of education—because it is only through education that the poverty cycle can be broken, it is only through education that kids can choose their own paths and it is only through education that you can really make anything possible.
So I am proud to be part of a government that is investing so much in education—in infrastructure, trades, apprentices, vocational and tertiary education —and research. I am particularly pleased with the large investment in skills training. The $3 billion we have provided for the Building Australia's Future Workforce program will provide some 130,000 new training places for apprentices. We are also funding mentoring programs to make sure apprentices stay in their trades. As it stands, less than 50 per cent of apprentices complete their first year, so this program is vital to skilling the country.
It is also worth noting that few women engage in trades. In fact, I believe that in the manual trades women make up only two per cent of apprentices. It is a point that was underscored for me just recently when I went to a women in construction event here in Canberra, where I met a number of fantastic women who are out there doing amazing work in trades. One of them, who actually won an award, did a science degree and then moved into a trade because she decided that that was where she wanted to go in terms of her future. She is an impressive young woman. She is a great asset to Canberra, to trades and to women in trades.
We are also providing tax-free payments to apprentices to support some 200,000 apprentices, some 4,000 of whom are in my own community here in Canberra. However, while these programs represent a significant leap forward, all of them are predicated on the ability of Australia and its training providers to offer a highquality education system. If we fail to protect and assure the quality and integrity of our system, we risk our ability to train young Australians in the skills they need for the future.
Further, we also place at risk one of Australia's largest export industries: who could forget the revelations a few years ago now that were aired on the ABC about young international students who paid large sums of money to come to Australia to learn a skill only to find their experience was not what was promised? I remember well the stories of catering colleges that lacked kitchens and of pilot training schools that would not let students fly a plane. While I have no doubt that those operators are outriders, that they are unique in the system and do not represent the vast bulk of training providers, the damage they do to our economy and our international reputation is enormous. Their behaviour affects not only the quality of education received by the students but also the reputation of any qualification offered by an Australian provider. This untenable situation was a direct result of the interplay between different federal education and immigration laws, and the different laws governing vocational education in the states. While these laws were designed to ensure that such situations did not occur, it is clear that they did not do their task.
That is why this government instigated the Baird review of education services for overseas students and the Bradley review of higher education. We closed immigration loopholes that promoted some truly abhorrent behaviour by providers. We made amendments to the ESOS Act and the Higher Education Support Act. We are also establishing the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator through the bill of that name—amendments to which we are discussing today—to close some of the gaps that exist between the state and federal regulatory environments. These amendments bring a national and unified approach to quality assurance in the vocational sector. While 20 years ago it may have been okay to have state based regulations to govern these sectors, this does not represent the current state of play. Today, vocational education, as I have said, is a multibillion-dollar national and international industry and as such requires a national approach.
We have a national economy, and I believe that we must as much as possible ensure that the regulatory environments align. Such alignment reduces compliance costs and means that we can focus on what really matters, not on red tape. The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator was agreed to by COAG in 2009 precisely for these reasons, and most states agreed that there was a great need for consistency in the regulation of the sector. This consistency will mean not only better protection for all students in Australia's VET sector but also a reduced regulatory burden for providers, as they will no longer have to comply with, potentially, nine different systems. This not only reduces the cost of their compliance but also means one set of laws and one regulator more capable of monitoring the industry and ensuring compliance. The amendments in this bill make further enhancements to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act to provide further clarity.
As a former student president of the oldest workers college in the world, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, I appreciate that this government continues to examine the laws governing quality assurance in education, particularly in vocational and trades education. Quality assurance is a task that is never quite finished and must always be examined, because the failure to regularly monitor and update assurance and regulatory processes has the potential to place the entire sector at risk.
By taking the actions we have, this government has made great leaps in making sure Australia's regulatory and quality assurance processes are up to the task. Today we make further amendments to these processes to make them even tighter and more effective. I encourage the government to continue to monitor the VET sector and to continue to make further improvements where required. These changes show that we are a responsive and responsible government that routinely monitors what is an evolving system and an evolving sector. Through this bill we will ensure that Australian students get exactly what they deserve: the opportunity to get high-quality education and highly valued training to make sure that they live a life of their choosing, not a life chosen for them by a lack of education or skills. I commend this bill to the chamber.