10 Oct 2018

I find myself in esteemed company – amongst Congress participants from all over the world.

It is company that invites considered reflection about the great strengths in vocational education – as well as the challenges that we face as policy makers, practitioners, students and citizens.





I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten sends his apologises and he has asked me, as the Shadow Minister responsible for Skills, TAFE and Apprenticeships, to represent him here today.

I find myself in esteemed company – amongst Congress participants from all over the world.

It is company that invites considered reflection about the great strengths in vocational education – as well as the challenges that we face as policy makers, practitioners, students and citizens.

I am an Australian politician – so you will need to bear with me as I view the issue of vocational and technical education through the prism of the Australian experience.

Having said that, based on what I see you have been discussing at the Congress, many of the themes and issues we face in Australia have global resonance.

There are two issues I will make clear at the outset:

Labor understands that TAFE is synonymous with a high quality vocational education and training system.

Labor is committed to having well-resourced, vibrant and relevant public TAFEs at the centre of the VET system.

To ensure Australians have access to world-class vocational education and technical training requires an open and honest assessment of our current system – to clearly identify the best of what we have and build upon it for the generations to come.

In July this year, the then Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Karen Andrews, in a prepared speech, expressed the view that that the Australian vocational education and training system, and I quote, “…is actually better than the German system”?

That assertion beggar’s belief given the magnitude of the challenges we face and the commentary from across the board that the Australian VET system is in need of reform.

The key economic adviser to government, the Productivity Commission, has called the system ‘a mess’.

The OECD has found Australia doesn’t have the skills needed to engage effectively in global value chains.

A recent independent report authored by Terry Moran, one of the original architects of the national system, says it is fragmented and devalued, that there is no effective governance, the funding arrangements are chaotic, and there is no national strategy.

A government that takes no leadership on the matter of TAFE and vocational education and believes workforce development will somehow look after itself through the invisible hand of the market - is abrogating an enormous national responsibility.

A government that asserts that our VET system is superior to the German Dual system and uncritically advocates for the further marketization and fragmentation of vocational qualifications through micro-credentialing - is seriously out of touch.

While it is widely recognised that our system needs serious reform – by everyone except the Government – there is less consensus regarding what a reformed system should look like.

That is why Federal Labor has engaged with industry, unions, academics and providers and committed to a comprehensive and independent review of our post-secondary education system if we win the next federal election.

TAFE sits at the centre of Australian life.

The contribution it has made, from its establishment as workman’s colleges and mechanics institutes in the 19th century and its evolution through to the modern TAFE network, has been immense.

TAFE has educated and trained millions of our citizens.

TAFE has supported students who thrive in adult learning environments.

TAFE has delivered critical education and training to regional and rural Australia.

TAFE should be the backbone of technical and trades training in this country. It is best placed to provide quality vocational training to the growing services and knowledge industries.

TAFE delivers English language, literacy and numeracy teaching, assisting migrants to engage in the community and the workplace it also assists many Australians access further education.

TAFE plays a vital role in our skill formation system - sitting at the forefront of 21st century challenges.

TAFE has the capacity to deliver on these multiple roles, reaching into diverse communities, in hundreds of towns and suburbs across Australia.

TAFE is essential to Australia’s future prospects and our domestic and international competitiveness.

TAFE is more than the sum of its parts.

A recent study by KPMG for the Victorian government shows that 40 percent of students at TAFE are from low socio-economic backgrounds. In universities it is 14 per cent.

That statistic alone establishes that TAFE is critical for ensuring access to post-secondary education for working class and disadvantaged Australians.

As such a strong TAFE network is essential to make sure that all Australians have access to quality post-secondary education and training, regardless of their background and how well they did at school.

I am a product of trade and technical training which I received at the equivalent of Australian TAFE in Scotland.

My highest qualification is a City and Guilds certificate as a fitter and machinist.

I am not sure what my life would have been without the discipline of my trade and the structure and focus my apprenticeship gave my education from the age of 15.

TAFE opened up academic and technical learning for me in a way that never happened in school classrooms. I had great teachers at school but ‘book-based’, ‘face-the-blackboard’ approaches to learning did nothing for me.

It wasn’t until I went to Tech, when I understood what algebra, geometry and equations could be used for, that I applied myself to the rigours of formal learning.

Importantly, my employer, like most employers in Scotland at that time, recognised that funding skill development was not a cost but an investment in the future of the company, and the nation. This is why they supported, valued and invested in my learning at Tech.

When I commenced my apprenticeship in 1966, my employer was obliged to release me for formal off the job technical education, and they met the costs of that training.

Unfortunately, too many Australian companies rely on government subsidy or other companies to train the workforce of the future.

My personal experience of my apprenticeship and TAFE - the education and lessons I gained from them - was far from unique - but I think it is fast becoming a more exceptional story.

I am increasingly concerned that the young person I was then would not have those same opportunities today.

I am concerned that young people are having their opportunities constrained by policies based on failed neo-liberal principles, privatisation, competition policy and an increasingly unequal society.

Inequality is growing. Trickle-down economics - and relying on the good agencies of rich corporations to share wealth – always a delusion - has now been comprehensively discredited.

High rates of youth unemployment, growing rates of underemployment, and dropping numbers of apprenticeships, are just the headline evidence of the barriers for entry to the labour market being faced by many young Australians.

What lies beneath the aggregate figures are the increasing numbers of contingent and precarious jobs people are compelled to work in; and growing uncertainty about what work in the future will look like.

Wage disparities between the unskilled and the highly educated have widened.

Workers who have been forced to move from unionised, well paid manufacturing jobs to less unionised service sector jobs have seen their incomes fall significantly.

More than 1.8 million Australians are looking for work or for more hours.

Profits are up, the share of income held by the top 10 per cent of earners is at a 70-year high and the wage share of the economy is at a record low.

Industrial legislation has made it increasingly difficult for the trade union movement to effectively represent workers and even the IMF has noted that the decline in wages has links to the decline in union representational rights.

Inequality and low wage growth also mean reduced taxation revenue which makes it harder for government to pay down debt and deliver the infrastructure and services necessary to drive further economic growth and improve our society.

The housing crisis is making, for many Australians, the opportunity to own a home or find affordable rent almost impossible - affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of households, curtailing their life prospects and potential.

The International Monetary Fund is reporting that high levels of inequality lead to greater instability and increase the likelihood of economic crisis.

We know inequality is a risk to social cohesion. Eminent economists such as Stiglitz, Piketty, Atkinson and James K Galbraith have identified inequality as a driver of political and social instability.

While education alone cannot dismantle the structures of advantage and disadvantage – or undo what Richard Sennett has called ‘the hidden injuries of class’ - we know that quality education and training is a strong and necessary force in reducing inequality.

We also know the design of the system has to be right or it can have the opposite effect - whereby poor education and training systems deepen inequality and perpetuate social exclusion.

It is my view that the rise in inequality in Australia has been exacerbated by the misuse and misapplication of privatisation and competition policy.

The slavish adherence to increasing competition, privatisation and outsourcing has done considerable damage - and it has been no more apparent than in the national training market and the commercialisation of vocational education.

The marketisation of vocational education has led to an inexorable slide to cheaper, faster, lower quality (and in some cases non-existent) training by some private providers operating business models predicated on profit rather than for the public good.

Today TAFE is treated in the training market as just one provider amongst many, undermining the capacity for public TAFEs to operate as the anchoring institutions. 

Qualifications have become tradable commodities – too often fragmented and narrowed to the specifications of short term jobs or simplistic employability frameworks.

Whether the design of our VET system is fit for purpose is an increasingly important question given how the occupational landscape of Australia has changed enormously over the last 40-50 years.

We know it will change more given the potential effects of automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things, additive manufacturing and synthetic biology.

We need to seriously be asking whether the tight tailoring of our qualifications to narrow and specific jobs roles is providing students with the breadth and depth of education and training that will serve them best into an uncertain future.

I will say one final thing about structural inequality and the way work is conceived.

There is a deep and abiding bias in how we view different types of work – and by extension, assumptions are often made about the knowledge, skills and capabilities required of the workers to do that work.

It can be seen in pay rates in the labour market – particularly in the chronic under-valuing of low-paid female dominated occupations.

It is also embedded in our education and training structures.

We need to better understand and recognise the remarkable intelligence deployed every day by the occupations supported by vocational education and training - by skilled electricians, fitters, plumbers and hairdressers; the incredible aptitude, understanding and intelligence exercised by homecare workers and early childhood educators; the conceptual leaps made by interactive media and IT workers who apply digitised solutions to everyday problems.

Mike Rose describes what he calls this ‘cognitive richness’ in his book The Mind at Work.

He shows us that what people are paid in the labour market, or how they are treated in their jobs, should never be confused with the intelligence, skill and knowledge they exercise in their work when it’s done well.

Where this is understood in Australia is in our TAFEs.

It was the understanding implicit in Meyer Kangan’s seminal report back in 1974 that technical and further education should be for the ‘whole person’ and should not be narrowed to a means of achieving ‘manpower’ targets.

The false idea that there are types of work that are ‘less of the mind’ – is structured into our labour market.

It exists in the fragmentation of jobs as ‘tasks’ -  and in how they are broken down into short hour contracts, casualised, subject to labour hire, and auctioned on the digital platforms for so-called independent contractors in the gig economy.

It is easier to casualise and pay low wages to a job you define by ‘tasks’ rather than the intelligence, knowledge and skill that is required to do it well.

If the ‘market’ could discern and value the ‘cognitive richness’ of complex care work, we wouldn’t have aged care workers being paid $20 an hour.

That bias is reinforced and perpetuated in the hierarchical design of our post-secondary education system and our qualifications framework– with Vocational Education sitting somewhere below Higher Education.

It exists in the fragmentation, narrowing and commercialisation of our vocational education and training system.

By redefining ‘occupations and vocations’ as jobs made up of atomized tasks – we are de-skilling them. We are making them less desirable and less productive.

We create a system where workers are expected to endlessly reinvent themselves for the next iteration of a job – and, cruelly, any failure to manage that seamlessly becomes the responsibility of the individual – it is their fault for not keeping up.

If we want people to choose these important jobs in our society – and we want those jobs done well - for there to be adaptation, evolution and innovation - then they need to be part of occupations and vocations that are socially and economically valued.

We need to ensure that the intelligence, skills and knowledge for those occupations is reflected in the design, value and resources we contribute to the systems that educate and train them.

That recognition and commitment needs to be echoed in the investment made by employers in their workforces. It beggars belief that there is no attempt made in Australia to measure the financial contribution of business to building the skills required to succeed in an increasingly globalised economy.

A vocational education system predicated on just-in-time training, constant short term skill upgrades, the fantasy of ‘building your own qualification’ – will not serve us well.

It ensures that working class people, those people that tend to more exclusively rely on TAFE and the VET system for their post-school education and training – don’t get the access to the broad, deep, transferrable and reflective education that is made available to people with more resources.

It entrenches and perpetuates inequality.

Education should be transformative – it is my belief that the commodified and marketised version of vocational education and training works against that possibility.

We have an obligation to ensure that TAFE is excellent – that it provides the environment in which students can flourish, to achieve things that they may never have imagined – and reach goals that they may not have felt possible given their personal experience.

This cannot be achieved if the VET system continues to be treated as the poor cousin of the University system and is continually the subject of cost-cutting by governments.

We have all seen the results of when education and training is transformative – and the difference that it makes to individuals lives and the communities in which they live.

I have experienced it in my life.

We need a VET system that equips people more appropriately for a rapidly changing world.

More than that – we need a VET system that encourages and enables people to take part in shaping that world.  That is essential to our democracy.

Finding the best way forward will be complex. It will be both intellectually and practically challenging.

We need to analyse what is working in other nations, take the best of what we do, and build a responsive system in Australia that meets the challenges of a globalised and transforming economy – building the wellbeing and prosperity of our nation with a highly knowledgeable and skilled workforce.

I look forward to working with you to make sure Australians get the post-secondary education and training system that will serve them best.