24/05/2012

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) -- The Education Legislation Amendment (VET Sector, Universities and Other Matters) Bill 2012 is not entirely what you would call an omnibus bill because it mainly amends the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. It also makes minor amendments to the eight university acts. I will start by commending the minister on his explanatory memorandum to the bill. The explanatory memorandums of most bills are not as thorough as this one. I would also like to thank departmental staff for the briefing they gave me on the bill and for answering the queries I raised about the bill. I also thank them for furnishing me with a marked-up copy of the bill so I could see exactly where the amendments fit into the bill. It would be good if other departments did that during briefings, as it does make it easier when looking at a bill to work that out.

As I said, the bill makes amendments to the Education and Training Reform Act and to the eight university acts. The bill provides that leave of absence can be granted to university council members; that is basically the amendment to the university acts.

Regarding the amendments to the Education and Training Reform Act, the major amendment is the transfer of the regulatory functions of the Victorian Skills Commission to the VRQA (Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority). During the briefing we were told that this is because the role of the VSC has changed to policy advice and development, hence its regulatory functions should be transferred. I think the Greens agree with the opposition that the scaling down of the Victorian Skills Commission is probably premature. I cannot really see the policy justification for that. The Victorian Skills Commission has performed its role for a long time, and I have not heard anybody suggest that it has not done that well.

Part 2 of the bill, which encompasses clauses 3 to 26 -- virtually half the bill -- is devoted to the issue of transferring the regulation of apprentices to the VRQA. We were told that this would not involve substantive changes to the existing regulatory legislation, only a change of the responsible agency. However, this would require the approval by the regulator of employers employing apprentices, training contracts being lodged with the regulator, arrangements for the apprentice to be enrolled in the appropriate training course and the determination of grievances between employer and apprentice. There are also consequent changes to the administrative powers of the agency, such as the register of apprentices to be transferred from the VSC to the VRQA, the ability of the VRQA to appoint authorised officers for the purposes of administration and enforcement of apprentice provisions under part 5.5 of the Education and Training Reform Act, and the inclusion of apprenticeship regulation in the VRQA functions statement. Ms Mikakos went to that matter in some detail.

I also took the opportunity to consult with the unions and the Victorian TAFE Association on this particular issue. I have to say that the VTA has expressed no issue with the legislation, but in terms of our consultation with the Australian Education Union, its view was that, considering the role currently undertaken by the VSC, it is arguable that the VRQA does not currently have the resources to handle the explosion of private RTOs or the regulation of the RTOs and that it should be focusing on that. As I mentioned during the debate on TAFE yesterday, there have been many cases reported in the media about some private providers rorting the system and some private providers providing less-than-adequate qualifications to students so that those students are left ineligible for further subsidised study. This is an issue that I raised with the minister as well, that the VRQA is not equipped to perform its role.

The second issue is that under part 2 of the bill the power to recommend removal of an unsatisfactory TAFE director would be transferred from the Victorian Skills Commission to the minister. We would prefer that function not to be in the control of ministers, but rather in a body removed from the minister, as it currently is. Our conversations with the National Tertiary Education Union were more equivocal and along the lines of yes, these things are happening. We are not quite sure whether they will be positive or negative, but certainly concerns are raised about the removal of the regulatory functions of the Victorian Skills Commission as proposed by this bill.

The next issue is that regional councils of adult education would no longer be incorporated entities as they would no longer employ staff or allocate funding. They would become advisory bodies. I asked in the briefing that if that were to be the case, how were they going to perform their functions as advisory bodies?

The answer was that they would still have a small secretariat staff provided by the department. That takes that function of providing advice to the department about skills from being at less than arms length away and into the department. We are not quite sure whether that is necessarily the best way to go, particularly now.

Under other amending provisions, the bill would be able to issue injunctions against registered training organisations (RTOs) for contravening irrelevant law; aiding, abetting et cetera a contravention or a relevant law; or being involved in any way in a breach of a relevant law. When I asked questions about that, I was advised that the provisions are based on consumer laws and the Australian injunctions could be made ex parte. I understand about those types of things in consumer laws and in other statutes as well; they are probably a good idea. As the minister has said, and as was pointed out in the briefing, some of those could be positive injunctions, such as to institute a training program, refund money to students, provide a service or a facility, make a facility available, disclose information or honour a promise made in the course of misleading or deceptive conduct. The idea is that currently the penalties for such contraventions may not bring about the desired outcome.

The bill also enables the sharing of information with the commonwealth regulators, the Australian Skills Quality Authority and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. ASQA regulates half the VET (vocational education and training) providers in Victoria, including the 14 TAFE institutes and the university TAFE divisions, and TEQSA now regulates all the higher education providers. Given that some of the regulations have moved to the commonwealth level, there is obviously a need to share that information. It also enables the VRQA to disclose information to provide records to commonwealth education regulators in accordance with a written request.

The extension of the Victorian student number to commonwealth-regulated RTOs in Victoria is an issue I raised with the minister. I remind the house that when the VSN was introduced in the previous Parliament, the Greens did not support its introduction as a unique identifier for two main reasons. One of those was that with the introduction of these particularly unique identifiers there is inevitably use creep, and we are seeing that here.

Instead of keeping the VSN within the Victorian public education system, which is what we were told would happen, that number is now going to be provided to commonwealth-regulated RTOs. We raised issues at the time it was introduced about other possible uses, particularly the requirement for students to produce their Victorian student number on request.

The other reason we did not support the introduction of the Victorian student number was because at the time, the then Minister for Education, Ms Pike, the former member for Melbourne in the Assembly, put forward the proposition that one of the benefits of the Victorian student number would be that it would enable the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to better track and follow up young disadvantaged students, students who were having problems at home or with their studies, or other students with life problems that meant they were having discontinuity and problems in their education.

We were not convinced by that argument. The minister said at the time that we would be able to track them by their address, which would be linked to their student number. It seems to me that the very students who are falling through the cracks because there are troubles at home or any other sorts of troubles are the least likely students to worry about updating the address that is associated with their Victorian student number (VSN). In fact it is the students, or their parents, who are not having problems who will contact the department to update their address details et cetera attached to the Victorian student number, and it is the students who are having problems who are not likely to do that. The Victorian student number is not going to be able to assist in keeping track of those students and assisting them when they get into trouble.

I asked the minister for an update on that particular question, and I thank him for the letter he gave this morning with regard to that.

Hon. P. R. Hall -- Yesterday.

Ms PENNICUIK -- Yesterday, I should say. Mr Hall gave the letter to me yesterday. I asked if he could provide me with information about what is happening in other states, and without reading all of it into Hansard, it seems that in one way or another most states -- although possibly not to the extent of Victoria -- have some sort of a student number, but I think Victoria's is probably the strongest. I also asked whether any evaluation of the VSN, including compliance levels and its success or otherwise in enabling student records to be traced, had been undertaken. The minister informs me that:

No formal review of project outcomes against success (or otherwise) measures has been conducted, though levels of compliance against regularity of data submission, and data quality and volumes have been regularly monitored in an operational capacity.  

The project has also complied with Victorian audit requirements. To date, very little has being carried out in relation to tracing student records. In terms of the Victorian student number achieving its aim, the minister can furnish me with no evidence in the positive or the negative. It seems that it has not achieved that aim, or we certainly cannot say that it has, and for the reasons I just outlined I would be sceptical about whether it has.

The bill also provides that if full-time public officials serve on TAFE institute boards, they will not be able to receive additional payment. That is obviously sensible; it is something which could be applied in the Parliament so that if people serve on committees, they do not get any extra payment for doing so. I have been through the amendments to the university acts, and the rest of the amendments in the bill are more technical and machinery-type amendments.

I have mentioned before the issues involved with the abolition -- as it seems will happen; certainly it is abolition by stages -- of the Victorian Skills Commission and its role in particular in overseeing apprenticeships. That is premature to say the least and probably not well advised. The issue that has been raised with us is that of the VRQA having the resources and the wherewithal to undertake this task and what negative impact that might have on apprenticeships over and above the negative impact that the budget cuts are already having on the TAFE sector.

Referring back to the debate yesterday, I read into Hansard a list of TAFE institutes that have provided information regarding the cuts that are going to be applied to the budget and the fact that they are going to lose staff and close some courses. I also said in the debate yesterday that the previous government shares part of the blame for starting this problem back in 2008 with its philosophy of market contestability in the VET system. I raised it in the Parliament at the time and spoke with the minister about the problems associated with going that way, and obviously it has resulted in problems.

I raised with the minister in the previous Parliament the issue of the problems with some private providers falling over, not providing the courses they were meant to provide, taking money from students and leaving them in the lurch. That was a problem which I described in 2009 as a 'complete mess'. There have been longstanding problems in the TAFE system arising from that move to market contestability for which there has really been no rationale or justification.

Since then we have seen the share of training in Victoria of TAFE go from 75 per cent to 48 per cent. I know Mr Hall will talk about that, but generally the TAFE sector conducted about three-quarters of the VET training for decades prior to this. It has been the bedrock of training for Victorians because the fees were low and there was accessibility to concession fees. It was very accessible for people from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, people returning to the workforce, single parents et cetera. That is where they gained their qualifications, as Ms Hartland said so eloquently in her contribution yesterday.

Along with what the government is doing with the Victorian Skills Commission, it has also removed funding from the 16 industry training advisory boards (ITABs) that have been around for a long time. They vary in size from small organisations to larger ones. They have been providing independent advice on training needs and skill shortages and encouraging the training of workers by giving a consolidated view of industry needs, taking into account union as well as employer views. They have served the community well in that way.

The minister has said that the new arrangements for the industry skills consultative committees will be drawn from peak industry associations and employers, but that leaves out the other section, which is the associations representing workers. That is where the industry training advisory boards were very valuable, in that they were able to present a view to government about the skills needed in the Victorian community, and they have done that for a very long time. It was a very unfortunate move for the minister to remove the support funding from ITABs, and it appears that some of them, if not most of them, will not be able to survive.

It is estimated that around 80 people will lose their jobs. Not only will those 80 people be affected personally but they are also people with a lot of experience and a lot to offer in terms of providing advice to government about skills requirements. Given the small amount of money that is required for the government to support the ITABS, I would certainly urge the minister to reconsider that decision and ensure that the ITABS keep going and are able to provide advice as they have done for a very long time.

The question is: are we able to support the bill? When you are presented with a bill that has some good features in it -- and I think this one does, such as the injunctions and the changes to the university acts, which are not that huge but are certainly positive changes -- it is difficult to make a decision. You have to weigh up some positive aspects of the bill against the negative or questionable ones.

As I mentioned, part 2 of the bill -- basically half of the bill -- is related to the transfer of apprenticeship regulation from the VSC to the VRQA. I agree with the opposition on that particular point.

The other point that I have raised and that I still have concerns about is the Victorian student number. Obviously it is there. We have never supported being there. It is now being expanded, which is what we predicted would happen with it. That is another issue that the Greens have with the bill and have had with that particular subject ever since it was introduced into the Parliament several years ago under the previous government. You could amend a bill to take out a whole part of it; in this case, that would take out basically the guts of this bill.

After weighing up the pros and cons of that, the Greens will not support the bill.