Education Legislation Amendment (TAFE and University Governance Reform) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (TAFE and University Governance Reform) Bill 2015. I will preface my comments by saying that there has been a bit of back and forth, a bit of counterclaim between government and opposition, on who is to blame for TAFE, which is a good reason we need a different perspective in this place, because it really is a pox on both their houses when it comes to what has happened to our TAFE system. I will get to that in a bit.

This bill amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 in relation to the composition and means of appointment of boards of TAFE institutes and councils of universities. It will ensure that at least one elected student and one elected member of staff is on every university council and one elected staff member is on every TAFE board, and a CEO. In addition, TAFE institute boards will be able to appoint their own members and elect their own chairperson. The appointment of board members will be in line with the government's commitment that 50 per cent of all appointments to boards be women. The bill will make other amendments to various acts in relation to the constitution of councils and universities, and it will make related technical and consequential amendments. The Greens will be supporting this bill.

Back in 2012 the Greens opposed the then government's Education Legislation Amendment (Governance) Bill 2012, which abolished staff and student representation on university councils and TAFE boards as well as abolishing the right of boards to elect their own chairpersons. In Parliament Sue Pennicuik, a member for Southern Metropolitan Region in the other place, raised serious concerns about this bill and the increasing corporatisation and commercialisation of universities and TAFEs. Those amendments to the governance structures of TAFEs and universities acted to reduce transparency and accountability and were unnecessary, undemocratic and counterproductive.

Universities and TAFEs are not big businesses selling education research projects. They are some of our oldest and most trusted public institutions, and their autonomy is critical to the proper functioning of our education system. While it is clear that higher education and TAFE institutes are complex entities —

Ms Ryall — A lot of money.

Mr HIBBINS — that deal with large sums of money, as pointed out by the member for Ringwood, they also provide much more than that. They must ensure that the education needs of students and staff are met and are given consideration in any decision-making process. It is absolutely vital that universities and TAFE boards represent the diverse communities that have an interest in their activities.

The best outcomes for our TAFEs can only be met by having staff and student representation on the governing bodies. It is a pity that the government's bill does not provide an elected student representative on TAFE boards. It is also in the interests of universities to have elected staff and student representatives on councils.

Chris Nyland, an international business expert at Monash University, has cited public concern about regular reports of universities sacrificing standards and English language requirements in order to attain full-fee-paying international students. This is just one example of the systemic problems caused by financial pressures, and it is a situation where staff and students can be an important counter voice to that of others. Staff and students should have the right and opportunity to take part in governing bodies and to criticise the functioning of higher education institutes, including their own.

This reform of course is important because we need strong and active voices in our TAFE system. This is at a time when our TAFE institutes have had millions of dollars cut from their budgets, which has resulted in staff losses, campus closures and courses being lost. This of course all began under the failed marketisation policies initiated under the former Labor government. Those polices have been an absolute disaster for TAFE and for the vocational education and training (VET) sector. It was not just an adjustment difficulty, as some have tried to spin it, but a fiasco — an absolute fiasco. These reforms that deregulated our VET system were implemented in 2008 and turned it into a demand-driven system and turned our vocational education and training system into a market where entitlements followed the student rather than having a capped number of course places on offer. The big question of course is: why? Why did we even need to do this? That still has never actually been explained.

These changes led to a budget blowout, with a big jump in the number of private providers and enrolments, with some offering second-rate and low-quality qualifications that would not even be recognised out there in the workplace. What did the coalition government do in response? It did not change the marketisation approach and it did not reverse it; it threw fuel on the fire by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from TAFE budgets. It put our TAFES, these institutions that go to such great lengths to ensure that they are providing courses for their communities, on an equal footing with registered training organisations (RTOs) — for-profit private providers, some of whom are basically operating out of their bedrooms. These RTOs are not putting in the same commitment to course quality or their local communities.

Now, incredibly, this government is sticking to the same policy — there is no change. It is incredible. This policy has led to a massive shift of funding away from our TAFEs towards these for-profit public providers. At one stage TAFEs held 70 per cent of the market share; that has dropped to well below 50. TAFEs were formally in a strong financial position; they are now in a weak financial position. The federal government's VET FEE-HELP scheme has only added to the problems. Every month we see examples of this get-rich-quick scheme that our training system has become — shonky operators and profit-driven providers are popping up to cash in on this government-created market and signing people up to inappropriate courses that the vast majority will never complete, leaving them saddled with debt. These providers are offering freebie incentives such as iPads and laptops, using brokers to target vulnerable communities and making off with taxpayers money and not delivering what they are supposed to.

We had this happen in Prahran at our local public housing estate. When I raised it with the Victorian minister he said it was a matter for the federal government and the federal regulator. When I raised it with the federal regulator it said the RTO was not held accountable because they used a broker. The system is a mess, and there is no accountability. There is clearly a business model that benefits for-profit providers, that lifts course fees and that reduces training quality to increase providers' profit margins, some by well over 30 cent.

The government's response has been to tip money into regulating a broken system whilst having a funding review, all the while sticking to this market-based approach to vocational education and training funding. The opposition, would you believe, is still sticking to its failed policy, arguing that it was an adjustment that was the problem rather than the marketisation itself, but the TAFE Structural Adjustment Fund was not put in place until 2013, two and a half years after the coalition won office and one year after it announced its own cuts.

There was concern that the coalition did not get a good TAFE story out there; that is because there was none. The solution — the response to this crisis — is clear. There is $1.2 billion of recurrent funding for vocational education and training. The lion's share — the majority — around 60 to 70 per cent, must be returned to TAFEs and be guaranteed to TAFEs. TAFEs must be at the centre of our vocational education and training system. The federal government must stop allowing for-profit providers to access the VET FEE-HELP scheme. It must ban the use of private brokers to sign up students. Training quality must be mandated. Subsidised courses must have a mandated number of hours of course delivery to prevent RTOs from offering courses in ridiculously short time frames or cutting corners on practical course delivery.

Finally, we have the Victorian Training Guarantee, which puts a limit on the number of subsidised courses that a student can access at a qualification level, meaning that students have to be constantly going up a qualification, regardless of what type it is, in order to access a subsidised course. Our workforce is constantly changing. New industries are popping up, others are changing. It is imperative that workers are able to train and retrain regardless of the level of qualification. The Victorian Training Guarantee is placing a barrier and its limit on subsidised places for students is placing a barrier on workplace participation.

The Greens support this bill, and we welcome student and staff representation back on TAFE and university boards, but our TAFEs and our VET system are in crisis. They cannot be fixed by tinkering around the edges or regulating a broken system, but rather the government has to change the system, end the failed experiment with marketisation and restore funding for our TAFEs.

In Prahran of course we have Melbourne Polytechnic. Formerly Swinburne offered TAFE courses at the site it now occupies. The cuts came in, and of course Swinburne left. Melbourne Polytechnic has moved in. It is focused on the creative industries.

They offer good courses down there, but like all TAFEs they are under pressure. It is certainly my vision to see that campus back up and running as a thriving centre for education in Prahran. It will make the Prahran community all that much better. The key is that we need to restore the lion's share of the $1.2 billion in recurrent vocational education and training funding. We need to guarantee that and restore that to our quality public TAFE system.