Speech – Australian Education Union TAFE Council Annual General Meeting, Melbourne

Check against delivery

Thank you Michelle, and thank you for the invitation and opportunity to speak to you all today.

Everyone in this room is well aware of the value of vocational education and training. It is a critical and meaningful pathway both for young people looking for their first job and older workers looking to retrain or up-skill.

While I’m sure you are all up-to-date with the latest media commentary, this afternoon, my aim is to provide you with a guide for where the Commonwealth is headed on a range of vocational education and training matters.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and responding to your questions at the end of the speech.

The Federal Government invests around $7 billion in the VET sector each year through funding and student loans.

$1.8 billion of this is Commonwealth funding to the states and territories to support the operation of their training systems.

It is the states and territories which determine how this funding is distributed within the vocational education and training sector. It is the states who directly fund TAFE.

VET FEE-HELP is one of the few mechanisms the Federal Government can use to directly assist TAFE students.

The objective of VET FEE-HELP is to provide students with access to diploma-level and above training that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Over the life of the VET-FEE HELP scheme, TAFEs have been the recipients of more than $1 billion, paid via Commonwealth-assisted student loans.

Between 2013 and 2015, VET FEE-HELP loans for students studying at TAFE more than doubled.

This is an example of the Commonwealth respecting state and territory responsibilities, while at the same time supporting students.

No doubt, you will have heard commentary – and we just heard some then – from the Labor Party about an alleged planned Commonwealth takeover of TAFE.

Let me be clear that the Federal Government does not own nor run a single TAFE, and this will not change.

This is the perfect setting to set the record straight and kill a few myths that the Labor Party is intent on spreading.

In 2015, as part of the broader Federation Reform process, the Council of Australian Governments the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers – both state and federal across the Parties, not solely the Commonwealth – expressed an interest in looking at reform options for the VET sector.

Now, at the most recent COAG earlier this month, discussion of further federal involvement in the VET sector was not specifically considered.

On the same day as that meeting, I chaired the fifth skills session of the COAG Industry and Skills Council in Sydney.

During that meeting, there was a clear recognition that the national VET system plays a critical role in ensuring Australia has the skilled workforce it needs for economic growth, competitiveness and productivity.

All ministers present – from both sides of politics – discussed opportunities for further enhancements to the VET system to maximise benefits for students and employers across the country.

Our communique is publically available with further details of those discussions.

Repeatedly, I have publically stated that I do not believe a federal takeover will lead to better student outcomes. I have also repeatedly outlined that I am one of the least likely politicians in Canberra to propose such a takeover.

So let me be clear, there is no planned Commonwealth takeover of TAFE.

Personally, I instinctively favour diversity.

It is clear that student and industry needs differ between states and between regions.

I believe that the states and territories are sometimes, indeed often, better placed than the Commonwealth to determine what needs to be done to improve outcomes across a range of sectors, and I have not had a reason put to me why VET is any different in this regard.

I believe maintaining diversity is important.

And to take a brief reality check, even if I didn’t hold the views that I have just outlined, my experience has been that the states like to make their own decisions and maintain their autonomy in this regard. Although I hasten to add they like to do so with funds raised and disbursed by the Commonwealth.

However, there are areas where the Commonwealth can play a national leadership role, whether that be by coordinating activities across jurisdictions or even the use of the ‘bully pulpit’ and drawing national attention to matters that aren’t a direct Commonwealth responsibility.

One issue that I plan to continue to pursue is ensuring industry plays a central role our VET system.

The Government has delivered on its commitment to ensure greater industry leadership and engagement in the training product development system.

The new arrangements consist of the Australian Industry and Skills Committee (AISC) making decisions about the content of training packages, based on evidence and grass roots industry intelligence from Industry Reference Committees who are supported by their Skills Service Organisations (SSOs).

I realise there are some settling arrangements still to occur in these processes, and my door is always open to those who wish to raise issues or highlight potential risks.

Turning to TAFE, it is a statement of the obvious to say that it has an important role to play.

Across the country, so many TAFEs are innovating to better train students, support industry and show leadership in their communities.

These efforts are showcased each year as part of the Australian Training Awards.

But as I outlined earlier, I don’t plan to take over TAFEs and I don’t plan to manage them. They are a state responsibility, in my view appropriately so.

To those urging a greater Commonwealth role in TAFE, or confecting a little outrage as part of a political campaign in the lead-up to an election, I have a few pieces of advice.

First, be careful what you wish for. The history of joint Commonwealth-State management or involvement in this country doesn’t inspire one with hope of the removal of red tape, more the interference of two jurisdictions, two sets of bureaucrats and two levels of politicians.

Second, if it is access to Commonwealth funding, be even more careful. Commonwealth funds always come with strings attached.

Finally, campaigns importing state issues to the federal political scene do the sector no favours. The constant cry of crisis in a sector does nothing to inspire public confidence.

It is important, that both private and public institutions rely on a range of funding, not just taxpayer funding, to support their operations.

I support a contestable market in vocational education and training, with appropriate safeguards. And I am pleased, at least until what I just heard that there was bipartisanship on this.

The states and territories signed up to a national partnership under Labor. Contestability is in that agreement that Labor instituted, and all governments agreed to have contestability in funding.

While the Turnbull Government believes that contestability leads to better student and business outcomes, we also believe that the right checks and balances must be put in place.

Now, when it comes to VET FEE-HELP, it is as obvious and uncontestable that the then Labor Government did not put these safeguards in place when the scheme was expanded in 2012.

A world-leading VET system needs to provide a quality education for students. Funding and thereby limiting choice to a sole monopoly VET provider does not do this.

As we count down to the next federal election, I will rebut and contest attempts to confect a state issue into a federal campaign.

My election promise to you is that the Coalition will continue to quality vocational education. You don’t have to take my word, instead look at the record. While the Coalition has been in government, funding to the states and territories for VET has increased under the national partnership I mentioned earlier.

My other election promise to you is that the Coalition will restore integrity to VET FEE-HELP.

As I said earlier, it is uncontestable that the previous Government did not put sufficient safeguards in place when the scheme was expanded in 2012. And students, educational and training institutions and taxpayers have borne an unacceptable cost for this failure.

The VET FEE-HELP scheme, introduced by the previous Labor government, was demand driven, uncapped and had insufficient student and taxpayer protections in place.

Since been sworn in as minister, I have made it my priority to aggressively defend the rights of students and taxpayers who have been hurt by this scheme, and put the unscrupulous providers and predatory brokers out of business.

It is deeply concerning to me that a few dodgy providers have tarnished the reputation of the sector as a whole. Sadly, there has been reputational damage and that is why I have made moving on this my highest priority.

I welcome Opposition’s acknowledgement that the VET FEE-HELP system is broken, but note that they are not owning up to the fact that it was there legislation that created this broken system in 2012.

Labor’s newly announced review will see no reform to the sector for a minimum of two years, and potentially longer.

This is a sector that needs reform now.

More than a dozen reforms have been put in place by my predecessors in the Coalition Government and we have already seen action taken to stop the dodgy practices of some providers.

The Commonwealth has joined the ACCC to recover payments from wrongdoers and we are working with the Australian Federal Police on investigations.

These changes have already begun to address unscrupulous behaviour. But that’s not the end of it.

I am focussed on rebuilding VET FEE-HELP.

I have just concluded a series of consultations around the country and been presented with a number of ideas to restore confidence and integrity in VET FEE-HELP.

I am pleased that many TAFE representatives have attended these roundtables, which contrary to the confected outrage and commentary from the Labor Party, have not been held in secret and no one was denied the right to attend.

The feedback from these consultations will form the basis of a discussion paper. This paper will be published ahead of the election.

In exchange, I will be seeking comments from you, and all training providers, students and industry to develop a flexible, effective and sustainable VET FEE-HELP scheme.

We will build a better system that delivers the best outcomes for students, providers, taxpayers and Australia.

All of us here today know the enormous benefits reaped by those who complete an apprenticeship or vocational qualification.

We know that those who choose these pathways find employment, start businesses and train the next generation of employees.

We often hear how VET is delivering improved employment outcomes, higher productivity, national competitiveness and stronger economic growth. Most importantly for me, VET is delivering choices and opportunities for individuals and families across Australia.

I appreciate the work you all do, even though I am sure we have a number of differences, and I am happy to discuss that with you now. But this sector can be made stronger and in doing that it will benefit all Australians.

Thank you

(ENDS)

Author: senatorryan

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