Motion - TAFE, Regional Boards

Wednesday May 26, 2021

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (11:30): I move:

That this house—

(a) recognises the importance of TAFE as a major education provider in regional South Australia;

(b) moves to establish regional TAFE boards, similar to the model used for regional health boards, with financial and course autonomy; and

(c) ensures that these boards be accountable and responsive to their communities.

In preparing for today's private member's motion, my mind was drawn back to 27 October 2016—a fair while ago now—when the Statutory Authorities Review Committee held inquiries into TAFE. Members on that committee included the Hon. Rob Lucas and the Hon. Stephen Wade, both MLCs. When reading through the contribution I made back in 2016, it is quite interesting that many of the things I talked about have actually come to fruition.

Whilst I am talking about TAFE, it could easily be broadened out to vocational education in regional areas. I see TAFE as having a very important and specific role as a publicly funded entity. That role extends into areas that may not be profitable, from just a pure economics point of view, and therefore not picked up by other private RTOs and private providers.

TAFE has a wider importance to the fabric of a community and, in particular for me, regional communities. I guess I have been blessed in a way to have an educational background. I have seen TAFE certainly operate far more effectively than it currently operates, and that was operated under a campus board. In fact, one of the main chairs of that board was David Mezinec, who now runs Tenison Woods College, our Catholic secondary school in Mount Gambier.

At that time, the campus was certainly proactive and responsive to our community needs, but it also had a social element to it. It ran courses and looked after some of the most disadvantaged people in our community. Those courses would not have been viable, just from a pure economics point of view, and therefore would not have been picked up by private providers. Once you understand this space, you can see that private providers play a very important role. The compliance requirements they have to go through from the Australian Quality Training Framework are very onerous.

That is where I see a central role for TAFE, the compliance aspects of it, in making sure that the courses that are run are fully compliant, that the paperwork and checking and the administration of it is done at a central location. But what we are seeing with TAFE is quite honestly the complete destruction of the current publicly funded vocational offerings, in particular in regional areas.

I will go back to 2016 when I presented to this committee and I quoted from AEU Journal SA's edition of 25 May 2016. This is what I said at that time, directly from this:

We've seen it all before. How do you close down a service you no longer want, even when it ticks all the boxes? You change the conditions of delivery so that it can no longer meet expectations, you starve it of support and funding, you add a layer of management and bureaucracy and then you make it personal. You isolate the staff providing the service, caution them about speaking up or garnering external support. You pit worker against worker to compete for jobs. You talk it up publicly and suggest other options that are supposedly cheaper but you know will fail to deliver. The service loses its connection to business and the community and the knowledge, expertise and skills of professional practitioners. It becomes so ineffective that no one really notices it when the doors are closed.

If I look back to 2016 to what has happened here with my local TAFE, that is exactly what has happened at a local level. I have plenty of examples of it. Obviously, I cannot read the people's names because they are TAFE employees, but very clearly in any correspondence that I have had with TAFE staff, it has 'Please note', under this person's contract, they are not allowed to talk to anybody, in particular the local MP, about issues relating to TAFE.

This person's specific email wanted to make sure that I was aware—and this was from the end of last year—that there are massive cuts that are being made to Mount Gambier courses. Half of the courses at Mount Gambier are now gone. There are changes to the courses where there is meant to be consultation and none of this has occurred. They are increasingly moving to an online delivery platform which lecturer after lecturer tells me will not fit the expectations of business nor will it provide the quality outcomes for the participants at TAFE.

Then we go to the employers who are contacting me, saying that the offerings at TAFE are not fitting their needs. Their apprentices are online or now needing to travel to Adelaide to complete courses that were being offered in Mount Gambier. Again, there are a number of employers who are giving me this message loud and clear. If we go back to my comments just a couple of minutes ago, it is exactly what we have been talking about if you want to starve an organisation and perhaps have an ulterior motive of where you would like to see that go.

I touched on the point of courses that may not be economically viable but are intrinsically valuable to a community and the fabric of a community. That is where I see the importance of regional TAFE with a regional board which I would like to see incorporate the private providers because, quite frankly, we are not big enough to have duplication of services. So where there is opportunity to leverage off of private providers, we should be doing it. But TAFE needs to provide, I believe, that cornerstone of vocational education.

What I do not understand is that I saw the same characteristics in regional health over many years. The Liberal Party came to the last election with a plan for regional health boards. I would have to say from my own experience (and others may have quite different experiences) that my regional health board is a very high-functioning board, attuned to our community. It has brought the health advisory council on board and engagement with community is strong, and I firmly believe that it is the right decision to make from a regional health perspective.

I cannot understand why we would not be looking at a regional vocational board that would try to achieve the same outcomes and productivity for a community because, quite frankly, we are seeing a denigration of the quality of service and the people from my electorate having to travel further. The reason they are having to travel is that over the past 10 years 13 TAFE campuses have been closed.

These include Millicent, Naracoorte, Gawler, Bordertown, Tea Tree Gully, Morphettville, Roseworthy, Cleve, Waikerie, Renmark, Panorama, Marleston, Port Adelaide and Parafield. On top of that, there are efficiency targets of $11.5 million, efficiency targets being another word for budget cuts, which are seeing the vocational sector being starved of funds.

Unless you have local management that can engage with your business community, engage with the participants of your community and hold accountability for that campus and delivery, I think the current model is fraught with danger, and its path, unfortunately, is laid out for us all to see. We have to acknowledge that TAFE have some encumbrances that private providers do not have. Down in Mount Gambier, the TAFE building is a massive building, yet TAFE only use probably a third to half of that building. It would have to pay the rates on the entire premises, so there has to be some recognition of the disadvantage TAFE has.

Going beyond that, the thing that concerns me in not having a local board is the missed opportunities. I look at forestry as a key opportunity for vocational education: 30 per cent of our employment workforce is tied to the forest industry, yet the training is scattered all across this state and half of Victoria because nobody is coordinating the forest industry and the various players within it to centralise that training at Mount Gambier.

We are talking not just of what you would think of forest training but of diesel mechanics and safety courses—a whole range of vocational training that should be delivered in our local area, but there is no local board and no local connection pulling all those threads together to have the forest industry invest in vocational education in our region, which would benefit our entire community. That leads to more and more young people travelling, putting their safety at risk.

I remember being a little bit younger than I am now and what a week away training at the age of 18 or 19 would involve—in some cases, late nights and some frivolity perhaps. That training should and could easily be offered in a district as large as Mount Gambier for others to access. It is vitally important that we seriously look at this and establish regional TAFE boards or regional vocational education boards not only to deal with the current training but to project forward into our future needs the greater connection between our secondary schools, which are the feeder opportunities for vocational education. These were done. It is not rocket science.

All I am saying is that we go back to a model that actually worked, a model that was responsive to a community and a model that met the needs of vocational training in our electorate. I think probably one of the greatest mistakes was the Skills for All initiative. It totally distorted training and, in my opinion, watered it down to a point which has been hard to recover from. We need this cornerstone of vocational education. TAFE is that cornerstone and for regional areas it is the bedrock for other vocational training to leverage off.


Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (12:49): I would like to thank the members for Giles, Wright, Morialta, Hammond, Frome, Light and Unley for their contributions today on this very important topic. It is pleasing to see some agreement on moving forward, and that is the intent of this motion: to try to help pave a way forward that will improve TAFE but, more broadly, will improve vocational education, in particular for regional areas. With that, I have had negotiations with the minister involved and will be supporting the amended motion.