Standing up for Canberra

Higher Education Support Amendment: VET FEE-HELP

I want to commend the Member for Bass on that speech. I want to commend him for the fact he actually underscored the fact that TAFE is there for various parts of your career.

It is the journey of life, in many ways, in terms of education. I know this from my father, who was an electrician. He studied at TAFE in the 1950s, and then he decided he wanted to go back and get a further qualification and so moved from being an electrician into becoming an accountant. It was TAFE or technical colleges, as they were called then, that trained him as an electrician and it was TAFE technical colleges that trained him as an accountant.

That's the beauty of TAFE: it can provide you with an entry point into a career and then it can provide you with a pathway into a new career. It can provide you with an update on your current skills. It can provide an endless range of opportunities throughout the course of your life. As the Member for Bass said, it provides lifelong learning opportunities, which is why I am a huge fan. It's not just because of that story of my father but because I did go through the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology myself. I did my second degree there. I was also union president there. I also tutored out at the University of Canberra before I went into politics. Again, I'm a huge fan of vocational education.

Just yesterday, I met a group of 18 amazing young women from regional, rural and remote Australia. They were in Canberra as part of the Country to Canberra 'power trip'. These women had come from all over Australia, from Nhulunbuy, Tasmania, Victoria, remote parts of New South Wales, remote parts of WA and Queensland. I met two young women whose stories really stuck with me.

The first was Chloe. Chloe is really excited about taking part in this program. Chloe has been going through her own personal journey in trying to work out what she wants to do. She's in year 11 in north-western Tasmania. She has finally settled on studying hairdressing, and so she's going off to study that. She's choosing to use it as an opportunity to move from her home town and to forge a new path in a new town. I commend her for that.

Also, I met Hannah, who works on a fourth-generation dairy farm and naturally wants to go into dairy farming. So, next year, she's also heading off. They are both of them in year 11 and yet they're going on a new pathway next year. Hannah is going off to study a cert and then ultimately a diploma in farming and agriculture, and she's really excited about that. That's the beauty of TAFE: it opens up so much opportunity for people right across Australia.

That is why the Nationals should get behind TAFE and the endless possibilities it provides for those two Country to Canberra women—Chloe from Tasmania and Hannah from down in Camperdown, Victoria. The Nationals should be behind the endless possibilities and range of learning opportunities that TAFE provides. If anyone in this country is going to be behind it, it should be the Nationals.

Labor welcome any opportunity to strengthen the integrity of the vocational education and training sector because we are great fans of VET and apprenticeships. The original intention of the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme was to enable a pathway to higher education for eligible students. We have since learned that lifting restrictions on what type of provider could arrange credit transfers with universities essentially opened the system to the market and made the system vulnerable and, worse, made thousands of VET students vulnerable.

According to the Department of Education and Training, between 2009 and 2015 the number of students accessing VET FEE-HELP jumped from 5,262 to a whopping 272,000. This is a 5,000 percent increase.

In the same period, the average course cost tripled from around $4,000 to $14,000. This resulted in debts to students. It has Commonwealth borrowings blowing out from $26 million to $2.9 billion. They're extraordinary jobs in figures—a 5,000 percent increase. Because of these impacts, a number of changes were implemented to the system in 2015, including banning the use of inducements to encourage students to enrol in a course—and who could forget the enticement of iPads?—limiting allowable marketing and recruitment practices, clarifying students' rights and obligations, and introducing stricter provider eligibility and charging requirements and a civil penalty regime.

In 2016, the VET FEE-HELP scheme was replaced with VET Student Loans, again tightening provider eligibility requirements and lending controls. The new VET Student Loans scheme has shown an improvement in course completion rates of 16 per cent not because of a program name change and not because of whatever government was in charge at the time but because we're starting to get the regulatory settings right.

We still have some way to go, unfortunately. The OECD Survey of Adult Skills examines the strengths and challenges facing the skills system and what can be done to enhance basic skills through education, training or other workplace measures. It's relied on by governments, academics and advocates for research and to inform policy development on skill formation.

The outcome from the 2017 survey identified a number of policy recommendations for Australia, and these included increasing women's participation in STEM fields—I know from my own experience in the cyber security area that only 11 per cent of the cybersecurity profession are women—addressing underperformance of postsecondary VET students and preventing dropout, improving pre-apprenticeships, enhancing mathematics provision within secondary education and tackling poor access to childcare facilities for young mothers. These recommendations were made using internationally recognised, quantifiable data analysing the literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of Australians.

But, just last week, Labor shadow minister for skills, TAFE and apprenticeships stated he had received advice that the Morrison government has withdrawn Australia from this Survey of Adult Skills. Why? It's absolutely staggering. If Australia withdraws, there will be no way of benchmarking Australia's skills internationally or assessing whether we are actually meeting national targets. Why would we want to avoid scrutiny on how our skill base is developing, particularly when we have a skill shortage in this nation in nearly every profession? There's a skill shortage, particularly in the trades. I can tell you right now we have a skill shortage of 19,000 in the cyber security industry, and that's just for next year.

Why would you want to avoid scrutiny of this skill shortage? We should be getting a greater understanding of how skill bases are developing and identifying areas where target assistance may be required. It should beggar belief but it is so typical of those opposite. Those opposite—and I count the Nationals in on this—have cut more than $3 billion from vocational education and skills, which is just staggering. Those opposite have cut a further $270 million over the forward estimates in funding for apprenticeships. Those opposite, including the Nationals, are now 140,000 apprentices fewer than when they took over government. And those opposite, including the Nationals, have cut 75 percent from the infrastructure budgets for TAFE. Those opposite closed down the Workplace English Language and Literacy program. They've cut funding to the Skills for Education and Employment program.

Those opposite wasted $24 million on a bungled apprenticeship IT system and failed to meet their apprenticeship targets. For more than one year, those opposite failed to spend one cent of its flawed Skilling Australians Fund on an apprenticeship. Those opposite have provided no leadership on vocational education and training. Those opposite have ignored the underlying flaws in the system and instead continued to cut funding and continued to cut support to skills formation.

Contrast that to Labor—and this isn't just Labor's opinion either—in terms of what those opposite have done, in terms of the decimation of the VET system in this country.

The Productivity Commission called the system 'a mess', the OECD has found Australia doesn't have the skills to engage effectively in global value chains, and an independent report by Terry Moran, one of the original architects of the national scheme, says that it's fragmented and devalued, that there is no effective governance, that the funding arrangements are chaotic, and that there is no national strategy.

VET plays a vital role in our skill formation system. It is essential—absolutely vital—to Australia's future prospects and to our domestic and international competitiveness. We have an obligation to ensure that VET is excellent. We used to be world leaders on VET. We were one of the few countries that had a really sophisticated VET system going. There was the polytechnic system in the UK, the Germans, and us—we were the world leaders. And now this is a world-leading system that has been starved in every way, thanks to those opposite, including The Nationals.

We have an obligation to ensure that VET provides an environment where students flourish, where they achieve things they've never imagined, and where they reach goals they may never have felt possible given their personal circumstances and experiences. This cannot be achieved if, when it comes to cost cutting, VET continues to be treated as the poor cousin of the university sector and the scapegoat of governments.

We need a VET system that equips people more appropriately for a rapidly changing world, and encourages people to take part in that world and continue that process of lifelong learning. The way forward will be complex and challenging, intellectually and practically. And a clear example of the need to equip people for a rapidly changing world is evident in the area of cyber security. As I've mentioned, we have only got 11 per cent women in the cyber security industry, and we are screaming out for skills. We will need 19,000 cyber security experts for next year alone. There is an international and national cyber security skills shortage—six million jobs in cyber security globally, and only 4½ million people with the skills to fill those jobs next year. We need cyber security experts yesterday, and we need them in a broad range of fields, from coders to policymakers.

So how do we get them quick smart? We need to think creatively and we need to think laterally. We need to learn from other nations. We need to think about compressing undergraduate degrees into two years, including industry experience. We need to think about intensive degrees, where the student studies throughout the year with no break, completing the degree in 12 months. We need to think about pathway degrees, diplomas and certificates, that can be completed in a summer school.

We need to think about pathways through primary school and secondary school to cyber security careers, identifying that talent early and fostering and nurturing it through the education process.

We need to think about managing the security risk of newcomers awaiting their positive vet: getting them into the workforce but keeping them on less sensitive work until they're cleared, or graduating them up the scale as their positive vet progresses.

We need to think about starting the positive vetting process during high school, or TAFE, or university, so graduates aren't stringing a living together through a series of part-time jobs for two years while they're waiting for their clearance. And we need to think creatively and laterally about how we accredit these courses, certificates, diplomas and degrees.

Cyber security is the new black. It is the Y2K of the 2000s, and there is not a day that goes by where an institution doesn't come up with a new cyber security course. But at the moment we only have an assurance mechanism to accredit some of these courses, not all of them, which means we have quite a large blind spot over the skills and quality and readiness of many of our cyber security graduates—and I say 'not all' these courses because, while I understand the Australian Computer Society accredits undergraduate and postgraduate ICT courses, the push now is for cyber security graduates from multidisciplinary backgrounds, across a range of disciplines—that is, those with a combination of ICT and international law, or risk management and coding, or psychology and ethics.

We now have a national curriculum in TAFE on cyber, and that is being rolled out, and I applaud that. That said, we need more of this, and we need it now, and we also need to be assured that the courses that are rolling out across TAFEs and across institutions right throughout the nation are actually accredited.

Labor believes no-one should be excluded from access to vocational education and training as a result of financial disadvantage, course cost, fear of debt or regional disadvantage. The inquiry into post-secondary education will build on the best of Australia's vocational education and training system and repair the damage done by shonky providers and the neglect of those opposite, including the Nationals. Labor has always championed quality apprenticeships and will continue to ensure more Australians can follow that trusted path into decent work.