SPEECH TO AEU NATIONAL TAFE COUNCIL 13 April 2018

13 Apr 2018

 

 

SENATOR THE HON DOUG CAMERON

SHADOW MINISTER FOR SKILLS, TAFE AND APPRENTICESHIPS

SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS

SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES

 

 

SPEECH TO AEU NATIONAL TAFE COUNCIL

ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

 

 

FRIDAY 13 APRIL 2018

 

MELBOURNE

 

***CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY***

 

Introduction

 

I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of land upon which we meet and pay my respects to elders both past and present.
I would like to acknowledge the union leadership, Federal TAFE President, Michelle Purdy, and thank Pat Forward for her tireless work as Secretary of your TAFE division.

I would also like to thank each of you for providing leadership on the critical importance of TAFE and the problems arising from the overzealous application of competition policy and privatisation.

Despite the enormous challenges and set-backs and the considerable attacks on the iconic institution of TAFE, your union have been unequivocal in its advocacy for the public provision of quality vocational education and training, and for the future of TAFE.

Your long running Stop TAFE Cuts campaign is something to be proud of and something that all Australians should be thankful for.

The importance of TAFE

TAFE is an iconic public institution that 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.

It has educated and trained millions of our citizens. 

It supports students who thrive in adult learning environments.

It delivers critical education and training services to regional and rural Australia.

It is the backbone of technical and trades training in this country.

It provides quality vocational training to the growing services and knowledge industries.

It delivers English language, literacy and numeracy teaching, smoothing the way for further education.

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

It plays these multiple roles across the network, reaching into diverse communities, in hundreds of towns and suburbs across Australia.

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

It is more than the sum of its parts.

The importance of TAFE teachers

Teachers lie at the heart of the success of TAFE.

There is no job like teaching.

It is highly skilled, demanding, intellectually exacting work.

It requires deep content knowledge as well as the mastery of specific occupations and crafts - to then be imparted to a diverse range of students – across all ages, from every type of background, each with their own aspirations for a fulfilling future.

Good teachers are smart, inventive, and down to earth; they cajole, mentor and inspire.

They have earned and deserve the recognition, social status, and financial security that other trained, skilled and responsible professionals enjoy.

The problem

The unfortunate truth is that policies that have driven competency based training, marketization and unhealthy competition in the VET sector, have diminished TAFE.

The system undervalues and degrades the role of teaching and pedagogy.

This is no more starkly represented than in the acceptance that a Certificate IV in training and assessment (delivered by a system with failing quality), is regarded as an adequate qualification for teaching excellence.

While the poor results of marketisation have primarily been in the for-profit part of the system – the pressures have also been applied to TAFEs.

This has led to TAFE campus and course closures and the loss of jobs. For students enrolling in VET, it’s meant cost shifting to them, fee increases, limitations on access, and unequal treatment across the post-school sector.

The critical role of TAFE as the public provider, and the professional role TAFE teachers play, is not recognised and supported in the current system.

My story

All of you would know that I am a trade unionist.

I am also 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 was one of those distracted young people at school and I didn’t have the patience for abstract, classroom learning. I had great teachers at school but it was not the right place for me.

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

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.

My personal experience of TAFE, and the education and lessons I drew from it, was far from unique - but I think it is fast becoming a more exceptional story. I am increasingly concerned that the 15 year old I was then would not   have those same opportunities today.

When I commenced my apprenticeship in 1966, my employer had an obligation to release me for formal off the job technical training and they were responsible for the costs of that training.

Fifty years later and the terms and conditions for apprentices have declined instead of improving. The commitment and investment from employers to train their workforce has declined instead of grown.

Young people, while being fed rhetoric about choice, are having their opportunities constrained by poor policies.

High rates of youth unemployment, growing rates of underemployment, and dropping numbers of apprenticeships, are just the headline evidence of the barriers to the labour market being faced today.

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.

The current vocational education and training system is flawed and it needs to be fixed – but the problems in VET are a manifestation of deeper ideological trends that have shaped policy development in Australia for far too long.

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.

It is my view that the rise in inequality has been exacerbated by the misuse and misapplication of competition policy – the slavish adherence to increasing competition, privatisation and outsourcing has done considerable damage.

Competition policy in the TAFE System

Competition policy has developed an almost religious quality whereby pro-competition activity is regarded as socially beneficial and anti-competition is automatically seen as detrimental conduct.

While competition policy is beneficial in dealing with the anti-competitive behaviour of business and in particular monopolies, competition should not be mindlessly imposed on non-commercial activities, such as TAFE that are needed to promote social causes and social benefits.

Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, the myth that competition is always good has been an incredibly resilient idea in modern Australian mainstream policy making.

This is despite the evidence of competition policy having negative impacts on the TAFE system.

Does competition always benefit society?

The Australian training market provides a three decade long salutatory lesson in how market competition in education has failed us as a society.

The proponents of competition policy in VET say that it drives down prices. They argue that consumers, in exercising their choice, put pressure on producers and providers to become more efficient and improve quality.

Economic theory doesn’t distinguish between price and value. Regulating for the cheapest petrol is light years away from regulating for the best quality education and training system that is possible.

It is not choice when the best providers are de-funded and the worst are rent-seekers.

In developing the training market, simple principles were applied to a complex system.

Consequently, even by the logic of orthodox economics, and Transaction Cost Economics in particular, the application of a competitive market system in vocational education and training has been a failure.

The evidence shows that the training market in Australia has led to:

  • an overall decline in the outcomes for students - the latest official annual survey of VET students taken in mid-2017 found that of students who graduated during 2016 and were employed, just 30% were in an occupation group related to their training.
  • a decline in quality– the government’s own regulator has called the training market “a race to bottom” – which has placed enormous pressure on providers like TAFE working to maintain quality
  • the proliferation of wasteful and rigid bureaucratic processes  - that have seen the development of 17,000 units of competence and 1,400 different qualifications, many of which remain unused
  • dissatisfied employers continuing to complain of skill shortages and gaps  – despite being given the authority to lead the system
  • cherry-picking and rent seeking by for-profit providers
  • insufficient investment in infrastructure and in teacher qualifications and resources
  • money wasted on marketing, promotion and advertising
  • the development of a market for low quality courses
  • and, at its very worst, the defrauding and exploitation of citizens trying to improve their lives through gaining education and qualifications.

Our minds invariably turn to VET FEE HELP when we think about rorting - Careers Australia and its $600 million dollars of government funding, 1,000 sacked workers and thousands of students saddled with debt and nothing to show for it.

It is important to remember that rent-seeking and rorting in the VET market pre-dates VET FEE HELP and has outlasted it.

There is a line of people coming to me as a Shadow Minister with stories of poor quality training, and equating this to the  business models that are operating in the sector.

Operating in the training market is a lucrative business if you don’t care about quality.

Dr Phil Toner has meticulously described the growth of what he has called “the low quality training market”, and the conditions that have created ‘perverse incentives’ for students and employers not to demand quality training and for providers to supply this low quality training. 

As we meet here today there are private for-profit RTOs forging qualifications, taking large sums of money for training they don’t deliver, turning out untrained people, and destroying trust in VET qualifications.

The ramifications of this can be dire in high-risk sectors. Dangerous to workers and to the communities they serve.

Even when ASQA closes low quality or shonky RTOs - after the couple of years it takes to catch up with them - there is nothing to stop another such provider taking their place. In the five years to 2015 the annual combined rate of provider exits and entry was 13% - so barriers to entry are low.

Low quality provision is a pervasive problem in the system if RTO compliance measures are anything to go by. According to ASQA’s last annual report only 1 in 4 RTOs are compliant after their initial audit. Even more troubling, after RTOs are given the time and information to rectify the problems, half of them are still non-compliant.

The problems in the system have not been fixed by changes to the student loans regime; the problems have not been addressed by the endless tweaking of regulations – arguably they have exacerbated them; because the problems are written in to the design of the system.

It is a system that fails to assure quality.

As Phil Toner concludes,

“…the training market created both the opportunities and incentives for malfeasance and quality diminution on a grand scale.”

The whole system needs reform. This idea will meet opposition – including from the greedy vested interests that are free to make extraordinary profits.

The commodification of education is summed up by the words of a capital investment adviser spruiking the money-making benefits of education, as quoted by Phil Toner:

‘Education is a beautiful business when it works. Fat fees, hefty annual increases, recurring income and high switching costs are just a few traits of high-performing education providers. Investors who have understood the sector’s potential have done exceptionally well...The sector has excellent long-term potential. Not-for-profit education providers...look like sitting ducks as technology eventually reshapes the sector’ (Featherstone 2014).

The investment adviser makes an important point –because most egregiously the training market has undermined the viability of the public provider, TAFE.

The flow of funding to the VET sector has reduced in real terms – and within that shrinking envelope, a much lower proportion is going to the public provider.

In 2015 a total of $4 billion, or 42 per cent of total operating expenses for publicly funded VET, went to non-TAFE providers.    (NCVER 2017b: 6). 

In 1996 98 per cent of students receiving publicly funded VET were in TAFE (with 83 per cent) or not-for-profit community education providers (with15 per cent) but, by 2016 this had fallen to 52 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.    (NCVER 2017: Table 11).  

Labor Policy

TAFE is the anchor for a quality vocational education and training system.

Once you lose a critical social institution like TAFE it is very hard and very costly to get it back.

We cannot afford for TAFE to be a ‘sitting duck’ while private firms make their profits of between 30-50 percent.

There is an immediate and urgent need to protect, stablise and rebuild TAFE.

That is why Labor have already announced we will return the $637 million the coalition stripped from VET in the last budget and why we have committed that at least two thirds of all government funding for vocational education will go to TAFE.

The balance will go to not-for-profit community educators and only the very best of the private providers with demonstrable links to specific industry requirements.

In every Labor VET delivery program TAFE will be given a key role.

The vocational education and training gravy train will end under a Labor government.

We have also committed $100 million to the Building TAFE for the Future Fund to commence a program of revitalising campuses across Australia.
Post-secondary commission of review

It is also abundantly clear that we cannot afford for the education and training market to continue as it is currently designed.

That is why Tanya Plibersek, Terry Butler and myself have announced a once in a generation commission of review into the post-secondary education system to commence within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government.

There hasn’t been a national inquiry into TAFE since the Kangan Review in 1974. It is well overdue.

There has never been a national review that considers the full gamut of post-school education. It is time to have one.

The terms of reference are currently under consideration – your union has already made a very thoughtful submission outlining views on the scope and focus of the review.

Without pre-empting the specific terms of reference, I do want to say something about some key matters the commission should be charged with.

In its consideration of how quality and trust can be returned to the vocational education system it should start by examining the critical role TAFE plays as an educational and social institution – in our communities and in local, national and global economies.

The review must seriously and rigorously consider alternatives to the competitive training market model.

And it must also consider alternatives to the current pedagogical framework being delivered under the auspices of competency based training.

We are living in a time of rapid change driven by globalization, artificial intelligence, robotics and digital transformation and the Internet of things. It is impacting on all aspects of our lives.

Now more than ever we need a post-school education and training system that responds to those changes, and works for every Australian.

We need a system built on quality, collaboration, depth, reliability and transferability that:

  • equips people with knowledge and education for good working lives;
  • skills the workforce for existing and emerging jobs;
  • produces skills that power innovation and good jobs;
  • provides greater social engagement and inclusion by guaranteeing access to quality lifelong learning and further education;
  • in apprenticeships, provides a contract for employment and a contract for training with nationally recognised portable skills; and
  • recognises the importance of highly skilled TAFE teaching professionals.

While the progress we need isn’t being delivered in the system that is operating we have a great opportunity before us to change that – not for the sake of change but in the national interest.

Finding the best way forward will be complex. It will be both intellectually and practically challenging - but it needs to be done.

It is also abundantly clear that the only way it will happen in under a Labor government.

TAFE and its people

I would like to pay tribute to the people who make up the TAFE Network – all of the dedicated educators and teachers.

Your professionalism - your capacity and willingness to collaborate and innovate - will continue to help students and communities navigate the challenges that lie ahead.

Just as you always have done.

You deserve our unreserved and enduring gratitude for enriching the lives of so many Australians.

You have been the custodians of the idea of TAFE – and its great potential – as well as the practitioners of TAFE - and all it can and should be.

I look forward to working with you to make sure Australians get the education and training system that they need.

ENDS

References

http://www.afr.com/leadership/management/business-education/forprofit-education-sector-about-to-get-a-shakeup-20180405-h0yedx

 

(2017a) Australian Vocational Education and Training Management Information Statistical Standard. Data element definitions Edition 2.3

 

(2017b), Australian vocational education and training statistics: government-funded students and courses 2016, NCVER, Adelaide.

 

(2018) Historical time series of government-funded vocational education and training in Australia, from 1981, NCVER

MEDIA CONTACT: LUKE WHITINGTON 0422 275 775

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra