(Private Members Statement, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
I speak about the importance of TAFE in my electorate and the wider State and the impact of current reforms, which may threaten this vital education sector. TAFE has been at the forefront of post-school education and training for over 100 years, with 10 institutes and over 500,000 enrolments in the State. It gives many students a second chance at education and the qualifications needed for jobs and to be contributing citizens.
TAFE is important for students who have been out of the job market raising children or those seeking retraining later in life, which is increasingly common. TAFE is inclusive: 20 per cent of students are born overseas, about six per cent are Aboriginal and nine per cent live with a disability. Access to new skills and qualifications adds up to $400,000 over the life of a worker, and certificate III level qualifications mean earning $180 a week above those with just a year 12 certificate. In 2012, 87.6 per cent of Sydney Institute graduates, about 62,900 students, were in employment or further study—a higher number than for universities.
Mercedes from Edgecliff provides an excellent example of TAFE's value. She found herself unemployed from administration jobs in her mid-fifties, and she retrained at Ultimo TAFE, studying part time with affordable fees, hands-on training, extra tutorials when she needed them, and support from professional counsellors. After her visual merchandising course, Mercedes is now doing a TAFE business course so she can start her own small business.
All State Governments planned a drastic overhaul of TAFE following the 2012 Council of Australian Governments vocational education and training agreement, though some are further along the process. Government funding will apply only to a few qualifications that promise direct jobs or which employers say are needed. Undermining retraining that can adapt to the economic and market changes, for-profit providers are encouraged to enter the vocational education and training sector. As a result, courses are being cancelled and students have to pay much more for basic training. The Vocational Education and Training FEE-Higher Education Loan Program [VET FEE-HELP] introduced student loans, but there is a 20 per cent administrative charge with no limit on what other fees can be charged.
In just a couple of years, Victorian TAFE colleges went from budget surpluses to what the Auditor General determined was financial unsustainability, with some about to close. TAFE's market share dropped from 70 per cent to less than 44 per cent; 2,400 TAFE jobs, funds for student support, facilities and counselling, and all community service obligations, were cut. One two-year diploma course that cost $1,100 now costs $27,000. Queensland tendered out the TAFE facilities, along with the courses, decimating TAFE. In New South Wales, the Smart and Skilled plan cut $1.7 billion from TAFE over four years. New South Wales students already pay nearly 10 per cent more for courses. Students with a certificate III who need to retrain will have to pay full fees. TAFE nursing course fees, for example, have increased from $1,432 a year to nearly $2,000, notwithstanding longstanding nurse shortages. Constituents report TAFE colleges reducing teacher hours and losing experienced staff to casuals—800 teaching jobs are expected to disappear.
Limited regulation of vocational education and training could encourage fly-by-night operators offering cut-price training that provides inadequate skills, requiring students to retrain at full price. In this free-for-all market, some new providers are already advertising inducements of four-day diplomas and free iPads and laptops. Constituents report being 'trapped' in courses that do not provide real qualifications and skills. The Government should not leave students vulnerable to exploitation.
Experience shows that some providers cherry-pick profitable courses leaving TAFE to run expensive courses. Private providers competing with TAFE do not have to provide a full range of education and student services. Specialist units such as multicultural, disability, Indigenous, numeracy and literacy, disability, counselling and outreach learning programs are at risk. Unlike TAFE, private providers have exemptions under the Anti-Discrimination Act, allowing them to refuse entry, expel or treat students differently because of their sex, age, marital or domestic status, or because they are homosexual or transgender, or have a disability. My Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Private Educational Authorities) Bill would remove this exemption.
Increased fees will reduce access for those most in need, and leave students with debts which may take years to repay. The July 2013 the Productivity Commission's report "Deep and Persistent Disadvantage in Australia" stressed the need to invest in education and jobs for those who suffer entrenched poverty and exclusion, stating, "Education is a foundation capability," and "Employment is the route out of disadvantage for most people of working age."
TAFE was set up as an investment in knowledge and education. I share community concern that the new system will focus on profit not education, will erode trust in our valued education system, and, when it fails, will require scarce resources for a new regulation regime. We need engaged citizens who can solve problems. Education has been a pathway out of poverty and into a contributing life, and we should ensure that it is available to those who can least afford it and who need it the most. I call on the Government to continue providing low-cost quality learning and equal access to students through TAFE.