SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well thanks so very much Craig for that introduction, and to NCVER for having me along today. It's wonderful to be with you today, it was particularly wonderful though to start the day enjoying the kind hospitality of Qantas for an extra couple of hours this morning. 

So, I loved it so much getting to spends two-thirds of the time it took me from getting on the plane in Canberra to getting off the plane in Sydney sitting on the tarmac at Canberra Airport. And the view out of that window of the Canberra Airport was sensational.

So, apologies to you all for causing that rescheduling of the program, but of course the benefit of that rescheduling was that you got to hear from the wonderful and erudite Peter Shergold first. We are indeed fortunate to have as Chair of NCVER somebody with the intellectual capabilities, the analytical skills, with the future outlook, with the understanding of public service and of the educational sector that Professor Peter Shergold brings.

Thank you Peter for serving in that role as Chair of NCVER, and thank you very much for the uplifting address you delivered today.

To our hosts, not just Peter and Craig and the NCVER team, but of course Professor Barney Glover, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. Of course Peter Shergold is here wearing dual hats in some ways – he has Craig Fowler seated to his right, in his direct report at NCVER, and Barney Glover seated to his left, Peter being the Chancellor here at UWS and Barney being the Vice-Chancellor, but Barney also was current Chairman of Universities Australia.

To our other co-hosts, it's really great to see UWS teaming up and partnering with TAFE New South Wales, particularly the Western Sydney Institute and the South West Sydney Institute of TAFE, a wonderful sign of the collaborative approach to learning and education in that post-school environment that happens throughout Western Sydney, and of course exactly the type of thing that Peter just finished speaking about in terms of that recognition of tertiary learning in its entirety, and you see that happening in real life here already in Western Sydney through the partnership approach that UWS takes with TAFE New South Wales.

This of course is the 24th such NCVER conference, and that's a reminder of the history of the organisation, and the importance that governments have long put on NCVER and placed on the work of NCVER to inform good public policy. But today, more than ever, NCVER has a role to play in a much broader landscape than just reporting to governments. And Peter, erudite, we touched on that before, in his presentation about that much broader perspective. And it's certainly something that I want to add to today.

I particularly welcome the theme for this year's conference, the no-frills theme that works hand-in-hand with our government's approach of wanting to make sure that what we're achieving in vocational education and training, and in skills, apprenticeships, is about outcomes, is about ensuring that all of our investment, all of our energies is delivering the best possible outcomes for students, for employers, for training organisations of whatever nature they may be, ultimately of course for the Australian economy, and the benefit of all of Australia in the future by having the most productive, well-trained workforce and population best able to take advantage of and capitalise on the developments in our economy, wherever they may go in the years and decades into the future.

At the heart of our national competitiveness agenda, centred around four pillars, one of those key pillars is the recognition as a government of skills development, and having relevant skills. Especially skills that are relevant to changes in our region, where having signed free trade agreements as we have with China and Japan and South Korea, and currently negotiating with India, it's a real demonstration of the fact that if we view the Australian economy as being open to the world, particularly open to our region, and with that there's an importance that we seize that opportunity, take advantage of that openness, and in taking advantage of the openness to the region that we are developing people with skills to be able to capitalise on providing the goods and the services that the region demands, and being able to ensure that Australian businesses are well placed to operate not just here in Australia, but throughout the world in our increasingly globalised and highly technological environment.

I want to particularly welcome the three things that this conference will be addressing. Firstly, the outlook and perspective around youth. We do have a continuing problem in Australia around youth unemployment, and there is no point burying our head in the sand, more needs to be done to make sure that young people are able to transition from school through whatever learning pathway is appropriate and most relevant to them, to access the skills that will help them secure improved employment prospects in the future. 

The Budget of the Government has as a centrepiece a $5.5 billion small business package. A package that also had sitting within it $330 million to invest in particular youth employment strategies, and that of course is complemented in the VET portfolio by our annual $6 billion contribution that we've made for the Vocational Education and Training. And it's my job as the dedicated minister of this space to try to ensure that every dollar of that contribution, whether it's made through direct Commonwealth investment or expenditure, whether it's made by contributions to the states and territories, whether it's made by income contingent loans that students apply through their choices, that every dollar of that expenditure is delivering the best possible outcome for taxpayers and the best possible outcome for our economy. 

We particularly need to see greater success in transitioning young people, as I say, from school into work. And our youth employment strategy, as a part of the recent budget, we're really targeting disengaged young people, helping them get the skills, the motivation, the support necessary for them to re-engage with education, with training, or with employment outcomes. 

The second thing around pathways is an equally important one, especially in terms of understanding the changing environment to the education landscape. That pathways are no longer [inaudible] that people choose, different stages of life opt in and out of learning. That they will choose to mix up their own different courses. We heard that from Peter Shergold before. Make people understand and appreciate the very different environment in which today's students and tomorrow's students will access education. 

Whatever the nature in the tertiary sector, they will be pursuing a different environment from a linear pathway – entering the course at one point, exiting at another point, and enjoying a career based just upon that sole [inaudible]. You very much need to talk about people having many different careers or jobs during their lifetime. That of course necessitates that having many different training opportunities and education opportunities during their lifetime to be able to fulfil those career-employment potentials. 

And the third thing: skills. And that's very much central to the approach our government is taking in looking at Vocational Education and Training reforms today- that skills much be relevant to job outcomes. That what is being taught in relation to the competencies, skillsets that people should be achieving when undertaking the Vocational Education and Training qualification must be competencies and skillsets that employers value. Must be competencies and skillsets that will make the individual more employable. Must be competencies and skillsets that evolve and adapt with the changing nature of jobs as technology, demographics impacts upon the changing nature of what those jobs may be. That's why we're reforming the way training packages are developed. It's why we're reforming who is responsible for the management, maintenance and development of those training packages. It's why we want to put greater emphasis on wherever possible on having quality assessment processes in place, because if it's really that assessment point then we should be able to guarantee that competencies have been met, that skillsets have been met, and that we are genuinely delivering qualifications that are reliable for employers, for industry, for the Australian economy and into the future. 

Of course, at the heart of considering why we're here today at the NCVER Conference is to understand and realise that the key to good decision making is always the evaluation of the available information, and that holds true of all the stakeholders in the VET sector – policy makers, students, their families, the employers, the training organisations. All of the require quality information to be able to make good decisions. And the key to having reliable information is of course having accurate data and well informed analysis that underpins that. And NCVER is the [inaudible], the key institution for all of those stakeholders in bringing together quality data, quality analysis that results in high quality information that can enable stakeholders in the VET sector to make and undertake well informed decisions.

Today I really want to encourage you as you go through the different discussions on the conference agenda, to focus on three particular questions that I hope will help to inform the recommendations and suggestions that come out of the deliberations. 
Firstly to ask the question very clearly: are we collecting the right information, the right data. Now, you just heard from Peter Shergold that NCVER is currently- holds around 73 million individual records. It's a vast amount of data but is it the right data? 

Now in this brief today, of course we have people, some of who helped to design what the data is that's collected, some of whom are filling out the forms and providing that data, all of you will have your own perspective, some of you are relying upon it to actually make decisions and through each of those different perspectives and prisms, I hope and trust you'll be able to critically assess is it the right data, how can we improve it? There's no point collecting data for data's sake, it must be data that empowers information development, empowers analysis of that information and ultimately it powers very poor decision making.

Very poor decision making by the 3 million students who access vocational education in training each and every year, we want them to be able to make well informed choices, a topic that I'll come back to shortly. Better informed decisions by employers who are often the drivers behind somebody accessing and utilising vocational education in training. We're shooting in the VET space in particular though it equally applies to a degree in the university sector as well. Remember that employers are often that key driver of deciding what type of training somebody is undertaking and that they need to be able to ensure that they're accessing the right frame and the right qualification and the right course provided by the right provider for their business needs and for their employee.

We should not underestimate the importance of the data and analysis that's available to our regulators. That they equally require good information to be able to be making risk based assessments of who to be auditing, when to be auditing, what qualifications to be auditing, that regulators require the type of information that is being provided and NCVER will become an increasingly important source of information for those regulators.

Of course for public policy we face the particular questions of what to subsidise in the VET space, by how much to subsidise it, in what volume to subsidise it or how long to subsidise it. These are very significant questions that state and territory governments in particular grapple with year after year and when we all get frustrated as I do as the Federal Minister, with constantly changing it seems parameters of how the states and territories chose to fund or subsidise training. We probably need to recognise that one of the problems they grapple with is sometimes a paucity of quality information on which to make their decisions. It's not easy to decide what to subsidise when you have a finite budget as we all do at all levels of government and to what extent you invest in those subsidies so quality information is critical for those public policy making outcomes.

And of course trade organisations themselves benefit greatly from being able to compare and contrast their performance against the performance of their competitors of the rest of the sector to be able to assess from the data better ways in which they can innovate or they can lift and improve their student satisfaction. 
So are we collecting the right information to enable all of those different and diverse stakeholders to be able to make well-informed decisions and choices? 

The second question that I'd ask is of course are we collecting the most information in the most efficient and least burdensome manner possible. As a government we've been committed overall to try and reduce red tape, trying to reduce the cost of regulation across businesses and we've stripped some $2 billion it's estimated worth of regulatory activity out of business costs around Australia per annum.

The principle we've been trying to drive towards in the VET sector through our time in government and as we do elsewhere in data use and analysis is the principle of provide once, use many times. That people should have confidence that they don't need to provide different arms of government with the same information in different ways over and over again.

Now you're all well aware that Peter touched a little bit on the two central reforms that are being pursued at present. Total VET activity reporting and unique student identifier and these are critical reforms that should enable us to be able to reduce over time the burden on paying providers, on employers, on students and to have to provide ever increasing amounts of information.

In the total VET activity reporting we're going to now enjoy the most comprehensive national output in terms of analysis and data richness of RTOs and around Australia. in that first round I understand some 3800 providers submitted data, 1400 of them did so for the very first time through to NCVER a huge proportion of people providing information that they never have before to help inform that decision making by all the different stakeholders.

On the USI side of the ledger, we've managed to deliver more than 2.5 million unique student identifiers just in the space of this year. And on both of those big policy reforms, I want to thank and congratulate the training providers in particular, but all of those who have been so central to ensuring their uptake in success to date. I've been amazed, having stepped into the portfolio in December that we've been able to roll out something like the USI, deliver it to more than 2.5 million people in the space of this year, and I've barely heard a whimper of complaint.

It's been an incredible success in that sense, and I know that that is in no small part to the efforts of those on the ground making it work. And I'm sure there have been frustrations, I'm sure there are still some frustrations that we can improve, but it has been incredible to see the roll out of that and the success of doing so.

And the USI will be, as you've heard from people, particularly important in us being able to in future track the personal journey of the student. To understand in that theme you're looking at today of pathways. To understand how they opt in and out. To understand where they choose to access certain competencies rather than an entire qualification. To have a far better appreciation of what is actually happening within the VET sector, and from that of course, to be able to make much better decisions around public policy.

But I do believe that it's critical, and that we do have a mutual obligation as such as governors that when we increase, as we have through TVA and the USI, when we increase the regulatory burden on different sectors, that we find ways to make sure it is as streamlined and efficient and harmonious as it possibly can be. And so [inaudible] requirement is to absolutely ensure that in getting more data, we are also doing so more efficiently, for [inaudible].

Now I have a vision for NCVER that is very clearly NCVER becoming a one stop shop for data collection in the training and vocational education sector right around Australia. That they are the clearing house for all the needs, whether they be the needs of the Commonwealth Government, the needs of state and territory governments, or the needs of regulators. That we should be able to have a pathway where the relevant information can be directed and reported through the one mechanism, and then utilised by ways we may need it for different purposes.

And that's certainly a vision that I would pursue with my state and territory counterparts. To see us continue to take steps where we ensure that [inaudible] needs, state and territory government needs and our needs are all combined, where possible, into that single portal, such that people are recording once, and it is used many times wherever and however possible. 

The final question that I hope that we can ask today, having assessed whether we're collecting the right data, and then assess whether we're collecting it in the most efficient way possible, is it cause to assess whether we are making it available in the right place, at the right time, and in the right format to best enable the choices and decisions that people need to make. As I've tried to tackle some of the problems I've faced in terms of quality in the VET sector since coming in, and especially some of the problems I've faced in the way VET FEE-HELP loans have been accessed, and rorted in some instances.

Critical to ensuring the sustainability of a program like VET FEE-HELP in the future is that we do have a well-informed market. Because if governments of the future aren't continuing to back demand-driven programs like VET FEE-HELP that are uncapped, that allow the sector to regulate itself in terms of pricing, and allow the sector to regulate itself in terms of the number of places offered, then we must have confidence that we're getting high quality outcomes from that investment.

And the best way to get high quality outcomes is to have confidence that everybody who is choosing to access income contingent loan like that, through the VET FEE-HELP scheme, is making that decision because they have made an informed choice on the basis that it will improve their life. It will improve their employment prospects. It will improve their knowledge in a way that will enhance their capacity to make a bigger and better contribution to society.

To ensure we have that informed market is critical, and all of the data, all of the information, all of the analysis must then of course be accessible, and be easily comparable, and enable people to sit down and make the relevant comparisons between different qualifications. To know what is in need in our economy now, or in the future, it might help provide the withered hearts employment prospects. 

But then when they know what's in need, and what might be of interest to them to study, to also then be able to make the comparisons, not just do the cost of the course, important though that is, or of the price of the course, important though- oh, of the duration of the course, important though that is, but also to know of course the satisfaction of the students who have gone through, the employment outcomes for those who have gone through, the satisfaction levels of the employers who have taken on students from those courses.

People need to be able to make those types of comparisons, and to make them easily. To be able to make informed choices. I'm pleased that today we're making live the updated version of the My Skills website, the central portal that provides capacity for students and employers, for teachers, for traders to be able to compare apples with apples wherever possible in the training sector.

The latest changes are significant review of the site and include new features such as identification of the courses that are linked to jobs or skills that are in demand by state and territory so that teachers, students and families and employers can identify where there's actually demand for skills and what training might be valued [inaudible] take. We're able to provide now overall student satisfaction including outcomes for the 230 most popular courses. That's a step in the right direction. There's still a long way to go to be able to provide that at a far more comprehensive level but for those courses, it will allow people to make more direct comparisons of those student and employment satisfaction [inaudible].

There's a VET fee [inaudible] calculator to help people understand their potential future debt. We will be flagging those RTOs who have had adverse findings made against them by ASQA so there is an element of name and shame that comes into the system so that students, when they're making those comparisons can be more aware of providers who may not have done the right thing in the past and may be under watch for certain reasons. And we provide – and it's provided in a modernised, tablet-optimised, home page design that allows people to go access it on the go as you would expect.

I hope and trust that we will be able to make far greater enhancements to the My Skills website that will ensure much greater comparability by students and their families of student – employer satisfaction outcomes in particular. These future upgrades must make sure that we enhance people's capability to make those informed choices around cost, duration, satisfaction, and employment outcomes. Importantly they must not only help to make those informed choices for those accessing [inaudible] but in doing so they can help to inspire excellence amongst our training providers.

I'm someone who's firmly committed to the view that competition enhances quality but competition must be competition of people who are aspiring to offer the best, aspiring to offer the most high quality training at the best available price that is most relevant to employment outcomes to Australians. That's the type of training market that I want to see operating and by giving people the information that empowers them to make informed choices, we can then have confidence that a competitive training market will also see training providers aspiring to be that provider of choice, aspiring to be the ones recognised for their excellence and the relevance of training that they're providing.

So, you have a critical role today in assessing where we go in the vocation, education and training sector in particular where NCVER goes in terms of the data it collects, the way it collects that data and the way we present and use that data and information that it's gleaned from. That critical role is something that I and all future ministers, Commonwealth, state and territory, will rely upon together with our public services, together with the regulators to be making the types of informed decisions that will impact the following, your jobs, your businesses, the organisations that you all represent today. 

I value the work that NCVER does but I place real importance on the work that it can do in the future, to help to ensure that ministers like me and all the other stakeholders in the VET sector can make the most informed decisions possible, that's the heart of the NCVER's work and that's at the heart of the challenge for you all today. 

I wish you well and look forward to hearing the outcomes of your deliberations. 

Thanks everyone.


Media contact: Caitlin Keage 0427 729 987