Second Reading Speech – AUSTRALIAN TECHNICAL COLLEGES (FLEXIBILITY IN ACHIEVING AUSTRALIA’S SKILLS NEEDS) AMENDMENT BILL (NO. 2) 2007

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (4.00 p.m.)—I seek leave to incorporate my speech in the second reading debate on the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2007. I failed to do this in the debate earlier today.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Mr President, I rise to speak to the second reading of the Australian Technical Colleges (Flexibility in Achieving Australia’s Skills Needs) Amendment Bill (No.2) 2007. This bill establishes a further three Australian Technical Colleges, bringing the total number funded by the Commonwealth to 28.

The Opposition will not oppose this bill. Given that we already have 25 ineffectual, mostly failing ATCs, there seems no reason to oppose the establishment of three more.

And, frankly, any move by this Government to get off its tail and do something to train more skilled tradespeople would have to be welcome.

Despite our criticisms of the ATC program —and they are many and cogent criticisms —Labor in government will not close down the ATCs.

What we will do is to make them work —by bringing them closer to state and territory school and TAFE systems, and by ensuring that their operations are coordinated in harmony with those existing systems.

That is the rational way to go.

The Government, by contrast, has established these outrageously expensive new colleges as a political fix to a policy problem – the dire shortages we find in the skilled trades, the shortages that are holding this country back.

Virtually every one is in a Coalition or a marginal seat. The ATCs represent yet another way for the Government to try to buy its way out of trouble and back into power at the coming election.

The ATCs are the Mersey Hospital writ 28 times. They are a blatant political ploy of a desperate government.

Expensive and wasteful

And it’s an expensive ploy. This Parliament will be appropriating more than half a billion dollars – $550 million – to graduate 10,000 tradespeople by 2010.

That’s $55 000 per graduate! That’s over twice the cost of turning out a student in a similar program in a government school. On top of that, since most of the colleges are actually in the private school sector, the students will pay fees, like at any private school. So whether a student from an ordinary working family would be able to get into one of these lavish colleges, I doubt very much.

At the moment these colleges aren’t working. they can’t find staff: they can’t find students.

The ATC planned for the Pilbara in WA can’t open because it can’t attract teaching staff.
The Lismore-Ballina college hasn’t even got off the ground – no tender has been let.
Two other colleges have also failed to open so far.
The Eastern Melbourne ATC has only 86 students, against a planned enrolment of 180, Senate Estimates was told. And it’s costing the taxpayer $15.4 million to under-achieve like this, by over 50%.
The college in Northern Tasmania has only 120 students, when 175 were projected. That one is costing you and me and other Australians even more – $16.7 million.
Several other ATCs are also significantly under-enrolled. Only two colleges have met their target enrolment for 2007.
Only one-third of the colleges are legally registered in their own right to provide training. The majority of the training actually provided by the ATCs is outsourced to TAFE and private VET providers.

Robb’s remarks in the House 13 September

And yet on 13 September, we had the Minister, Mr Robb, claiming at Question Time in the House that the ATCs were “an unqualified success”! In the face of all the qualifications I’ve just listed, and many more – he has the hide to describe the Government’s farcical initiative, its failed initiative, as “an unqualified success”!

He claims that parents and prospective students – some of the kids still only in primary school – have been flocking to ATC information nights in their hundreds. So how come only two of the colleges have met their target enrolments? The Minister says that students in ATCs are telling him that “for the first time in their lives they feel motivated, they feel understood, they feel valued.”

He says “We are restoring with these Australian Technical Colleges a great sense of pride and confidence in these young people.”

How can that be? What kind of a difference can the ATCs be making to the education of young people when the majority of their teaching is contracted out to existing TAFEs?

The Minister is talking through his hat. What he says has no connection with the pathetic reality of the situation. This is irony in the extreme—the whole idea, we were told, was that these new colleges were going to be showcases that were ultra-responsive to local industry needs. They would be state-of-the-art establishments that would inspire the stick-in-the-mud states and territories to lift their game.

The Prime Minister himself said, on 26 September 2004:

“The creation of 24 Australian Technical Colleges will promote pride and excellence in teaching and acquiring trade and craft skills at the secondary school level…. All Australian Technical Colleges will be run autonomously by their principals, who will also engage teaching staff on a performance pay basis, attracting teachers of excellence with up to date industry and skills experience.”

Far from being “run autonomously by their principals” and “attracting teachers of excellence”, the colleges are in fact being run by someone other than their principals and the students taught by existing TAFE and private VET college teachers!

In my own state of Victoria, the Howard Government admits that 5 out of the 6 ATCs have actually outsourced their teaching to TAFE colleges—the very colleges suffering from funding starvation under the current Federal Government’s policies.

I am sure the TSFE colleges and their staff are doing a fine job, but that’s hardly the point.

Only nine of the existing 21 ATCs have no relationship with the established TAFE system. So much for a ground- breaking new model! So much for a new broom for trade training!

The spin that accompanied the establishment of these colleges assured us that all the students would secure apprenticeship placements. This would happen, it was said, because the ATCs would have much better and closer relationships with local industries and employers than other VET providers have.

Yet students at many of the ATCs have been unable to find apprenticeships. At the Illawarra ATC, for example, against a targeted enrolment of 50 only 35 students have enrolled. Of these, only 20 have been given apprenticeships.

ANAO report

Recently the Australian National Audit Office released a report on the ATC program. This report confirmed the litany of problems I have outlined today. It found that, in the tendering process for the Australian technical Colleges:

Insufficient attention was paid to state and territory governments;
Initial tender applications were weak and inadequate; and
There was little choice among applicants.
The ANAO found that, with respect to nearly half of the

initial 24 colleges, tenders were awarded based on only

one or two applications. The ANAO said that:

“… an option… may have been to return to the market to develop more industry and community interest… “

A sad but wise comment, especially given that the Government’s ATC website assured us that the colleges would be established in:

“… areas where there are skills needs, a high youth population and a strong industry base.”

It would seem that the clamour from industry and the community for these Howard Government new-style colleges was so deafening that no one could hear it!

This whole program is a miserable embarrassment for the Government. This is expensive and wasteful.

It is not far short of a farce. Labor in government will move swiftly to repair this idiocy. We will sit down with the states and territories and sort out some rational and sensible way out of this mess. As I say, we won’t close the colleges down, but we’ll get them running on a reasonable and efficient footing.

Context –trade skills shortages, and funding The whole comic tragedy of the Australian technical Colleges needs to be seen in the context of the serious shortage of skilled tradespeople that Australia faces.

We sorely need more qualified tradespeople. It’s a pity that this Government chose to set up a political stunt, rather than to be serious about redressing the funding shortfall in public TAFE and in public schools.

In 1997 the Howard Government cut funding to public TAFE. Commonwealth funding decreased by 13% over the years 1997 to 2000. The increase in the subsequent four years was a miserly 1 %.

The Government’s own estimates put the projected shortfall in skilled workers over the next five years as high as 200 000.

A large proportion of existing tradespeople are due to retire in the next decade or so –they are baby-boomers.

Over 400 000 workers in the statistical category “tradespersons and related workers” are aged over 45.

These valuable skilled workers have to be replaced. We are not turning out nearly enough of them. The Government seems to think it can get away with importing skills through use of the 457 visa program but that is not a sustainable long-term option.

Australia needs to train up our own young people for careers in the trades.

Comparison with Commonwealth funding for TAFE

I have said that the ATC program borders on the farcical. Just take a look at these figures and tell me I’m right:

The Government says it’s going to fund 10 000 students at Australian technical Colleges. Over four years, that will cost the taxpayer more than $550 000.
At the same time, it has announced that it is funding 128 000 additional training places in the TAFE system.
How much will the Commonwealth contribute to funding those 128 000 students? Just $215 million – less than half the amount it’s shelling out for just 10 000 students in ATCs.

This beggars belief. It proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Australian Technical Colleges program is no more and no less than a shabby political stunt – and a mighty expensive one at that.

It is irresponsible to waste taxpayers’ money like this. It is hollow vote-grabbing. The Government should hang its head in shame.

Labor’s plans for trades training

In contrast to the Government, Labor is serious about addressing the magnitude of the current skills crisis for all Australians.

Labor believes that Australia must focus on areas of maximum impact, including:

TAFEs, which remain responsible for the substantial majority of post-secondary VET;
VET in Schools; and
On-the-job trades training.
Labor has already announced a 10 year, $2.5 billion Trades Training Centres plan aimed at the 1.2 million students in Years 9, 10, 11 and 12 in all of Australia’s 2,650 secondary schools.

By contrast, I remind you, the Government’s own estimates show that a maximum of 10,000 students are expected to graduate from the ATCs by 2010.

The Labor plan will provide secondary schools with between $500,000 and $1.5 million to build or upgrade VET facilities in order to keep kids in school, to enhance the profile and quality of VET in schools and to provide real career paths to trades and apprenticeships for students.

As well as providing infrastructure to improve vocational education and trades training in secondary schools, Labor has a plan to introduce a Job Ready Certificate for all vocational education and training in school students.

This Certificate will assess the job readiness of secondary school students engaged in trades and vocational education and training.

Students will obtain the Job Ready Certificate through on the job training placements as part of Labor’s Trades Training Centres in Schools Plan.

The Job Ready Certificate will be a stand alone statement of a student’s readiness for work and will be in addition to a Year 12 Certificate and any separate vocational education or trades training qualification.

The certificate will provide students who complete secondary school with an increased awareness of the skills necessary in the modern workplace.

It will also provide employers with a tangible reference, indicating whether students are capable and ready to work.

The Job Ready Certificate will demonstrate that students possess basic workplace skills, including:

Communication
Initiative & Enterprise
Self-management
Technology
Team Work
Problem Solving
Planning & Organisation.
At present, there is no requirement for education and training providers to issue a formal statement of employability skills.

This has been an ongoing issue for industry, with repeated calls from the Business Council of Australia (BCA), the Australian Industry Group (AiG), and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCT).

Federal Labor is committed to making education and training more responsive to the needs of industry.

The Job Ready Certificate is a key part of Labor’s 10-year $2.5 billion Trades Training Centres in Schools Plan – which includes $84 million to ensure students involved in trades training received one day a week of on-the-job training for 20 weeks a year.

It will be implemented in cooperation with industry, States, Territories and schools.

By making VET a viable option for all secondary students, Labor’s plan will make a real and significant dent in the current skills shortage.

Conclusion

As I noted at the outset of my remarks, despite our serious misgivings about the ATC program, a Labor Government will not close down existing Australian Technical Colleges. We will honour all current contracts with providers.

But we WILL move to transform this misguided stunt of a program into a genuine part of Australia’s education and training system. We will work with the states and territories, and with private providers, to achieve this.

We will put an end to the waste of taxpayers’ money that characterises this program.

At the same time, as I have outlined, we will take definite and concrete steps to improve the supply of skilled workers —to provide the skills that are essential to Australia’s future prosperity.

We will educate and train Australians so that all can play a part in the great enterprise of creating a future for our nation based on innovation. That’s Labor’s vision for tomorrow’s Australia.

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