Dr JOHN KAYE [6.21 p.m.]: Yesterday I was handed a document produced by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Working Group on its so-called productivity agenda. The September 2008 discussion paper titled, "Skills and Workforce Development" is a blueprint for State and Federal governments to collude to ram through Australia's biggest privatisation program since Telstra, with no public debate. All public funding of TAFE programs is to be thrown open to the private sector for bid by competitive tender. TAFE will have to go begging for its current funding of more than $4 billion to pay its teachers and support staff, to run its libraries and computer rooms, to staff its equity and outreach programs, and to develop curriculum materials. Any recognition TAFE might enjoy as a public agency in competition with private providers will be removed.
Vocational education and training is to be exposed to the full force of the chill winds of national competition policy. The COAG proposal also advocates a HECS-like income contingent loan, which will discourage people from disadvantaged backgrounds from seeking to access training. Further, apprenticeships are to be undermined by moving training packages beyond occupational standards. These standards are to be redefined by developing appropriate definitions of competency. This is nothing but code for moving from education and training a workforce for the future to preparing workers for a specific employer. COAG no longer wants Australia to train electricians; instead, public funds are to be used to provide employers with willing workers fit to a narrow range of tasks, possibly specific to that work site or corporation.
Taken as a whole, these reforms will drive TAFE and its focus on quality education out of the market. It will be a bonanza for the cheap and nasty private providers. Forcing TAFE into competition for its own funding will drive down course durations, destroy education and increase class sizes. It is a recipe for dumbing down the workforce. TAFE is to be made to struggle for its survival against narrowly focused, cherry-picking private providers who do none of the heavy lifting of equity, students with disabilities, youth at risk, or ensuring that all Australians are educated as well as trained. Despite all the reassurances, it is an unfair competition with only one possible end point: TAFE hollowed out to feed a bloated private sector.
It is conceivable if the State and Federal leaders get their way that TAFE will be nothing but a brand name and a set of buildings leased out to private providers. If that is allowed to happen, working people and Australian society as a whole will be the losers. This proposal is about short-term cost cutting at the expense of losing an educated workforce and driving cheap, employer-specific training that will de-skill Australia and take away this nation's ability to innovate. COAG wants State and Federal governments to be able to boast about the raw numbers of training places, but this will be nothing but an illusion. While the number of certificate holders may increase as private provider sausage factories turn out industrial cogs, the underlying skills and education base of Australia will be undermined. Our quality of democracy and culture will suffer.
The reality is that ideology and cost cutting are combining to sell out the future. At a time when the rest of the world is learning about the limits of market-based solutions, COAG wants to hand over the future of the skilled workforce to the same forces that brought the economy to its knees. Kevin Rudd's education revolution is unmasked as COAG drives Australia's training sector towards a voucher-based, user-choice and user-pay model, without the consent of the voters and without fully considering the long-term consequences. This is all happening behind closed doors. The discussion paper was only forced into the public because the Greens released the paper. COAG has asked the working group to develop a national partnership proposal for consideration at its meeting on 17 November. This will be where the States are expected to sign up for the privatisation of TAFE.
The Greens are calling on New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees and his education Minister, Verity Firth, to lead the charge to protect TAFE from Julia Gillard's privatisation agenda. Minister Firth should reject the COAG paper and start again on negotiations for a new funding deal that allows TAFE to expand to meet the skills needs of New South Wales and Australia. The future of TAFE can only be developed in consultation with the real stakeholders of vocational training: teachers, students, employees and the wider community. A publicly funded well-resourced vocational training sector that is focussed on the needs of students and other needs of society as a whole must be a priority of all levels of governments.