To Bill Shorten, the leader of the opposition, Senator Rhiannon when she arrives, and those other Parliamentary guests who are here tonight who are far too numerous to mention. Chris Robinson, the Chief Commissioner of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, thank you for being here. Chris I understand, I think somewhere Malcolm White, hopefully, the acting CEO of TAFE Directors Australia, thank you for being here. Many distinguished leaders of the Australian Trade Union Movement, I acknowledge you all, too numerous to mention. A couple of familiar faces who I see from the AMWU and the ACTU who were in my office just the other week having a discussion about skills and policy development in that area, and I do acknowledge coming here the role that the union movement plays, as do many other key stakeholders in skills development in Australia.

National TAFE Day is important. It's important to celebrate TAFE because it is such a critical part of our education system. Around one million Australian students annually gain skills via TAFE in some way, shape, or form, and it's a very important contribution that TAFE plays alongside the range of other post-school education providers. 

The Australian Government is committed to continuing to support TAFE well into the future. Our support for TAFE and vocational education and training overall stands at record levels through funding provided directly to the states, through funding that we provide as a Government via various programmes and mechanisms, and through support to get students in the vocational sector via income contingent loans – an increasingly important part of supporting the vocational education and training. Australian Government support will soon surpass $6 billion per annum for vocational education and training. 

In terms of contributions directly to the states, around $1.8 billion is being provided this year in support to state and territory governments to operate their training systems. Once again this is funding that has continued to grow in its support for state governments, and is complemented by the reality that VET FEE-HELP funding in particular flows through to support training in those states as well. 

I particularly might give the case of New South Wales; that the New South Wales TAFE Commission is one of the highest recipients of VET FEE-HELP funding from the Commonwealth Government, and has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the growth in VET FEE-HELP. In 2013 the New South Wales TAFE Commission received around $90 million in VET FEE-HELP funding to support students studying diploma courses through New South Wales TAFE. In 2014 that figure rose to around $190 million – a $100 million increase in support going to New South Wales TAFE direct form the Commonwealth Government as part of the income contingent loan programme through VET FEE-HELP.

So we're acutely aware of the need to provide strong support to the vocational education and training sector, provide a mechanism that has been established through the states, and through a commitment to students to be able to access student loans in a proper way.

We're also acutely aware of the importance of the power of choice. The National Centre for Vocational Education Research has demonstrated through their research that by giving students and employers greater choice in relation to how and where they access training, you do need to improve completion rates so that you can actually improve employment outcomes as a result of that training. 

So it's important we have effective choice in our vocational education and training sector because choice lifts the standards, lifts outcomes, and TAFE is a very important part of this.

TAFE of course has long co-existed alongside the variety of other long-established training providers in Australia. We have long had training providers operating from the community sector, from the private sector, from employer organisations – indeed from organisations supported by the unions or others as well. TAFE is but one of many, but it of course has been a big one – remains the big one, and it's critically important that it continues to work well.

I’ve, in my time, since being appointed as the first dedicated Commonwealth Minister for vocational education and training in around seven years enjoyed the opportunity to visit many TAFEs. So I recall not that long ago spending a day in Melbourne, starting off at Holmesglen in Chadston, going to Kangan in Docklands – two incredibly different TAFE campuses and TAFE facilities that provide exceptional outcomes for their students, that demonstrate the real diversity of quality and opportunity that the TAFE sector provides, as does indeed the entire vocational education and training sector.

In my time in this job I've focused very strongly on things around jobs and ensuring that vocational education and training is linked as closely as possible to jobs and employment outcomes, around quality and ensuring that courses that are taught are of high quality and that registered training organisations are of high quality. And ultimately around the status of VET, and making sure that we do promote vocational education and training pathways as an equivalent alternative for young people and mature-age Australians to choose as against necessarily thinking that they must go through the university sector.
All three of those things – jobs, status, and quality – are of course interlinked and drive each other. I was particularly concerned to find there were issues in quality across the sector, and in the six months that I've been in the role we've taken some significant action to try to address some of those quality concerns. We passed changes to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act – and I acknowledge that it passed with bipartisan support through Parliament – to make sure we have stronger powers to target unscrupulous training providers, to make sure that our regulator is better equipped to direct more resources to risk-based approaches that target those training organisations who might be doing the wrong thing, whilst allowing those who are doing a good thing to get on with teaching their students.

We introduced new standards for registered training organisations, which came into effect on the first of April. We committed some $68 million in funding to ASQA, the Australian Skills Quality Authority – funding that allows them once again to better target their agency needs and the risk-based profile of certain training providers; rather than, as had been the case, focusing their activities on operating on a cost-recovery basis. 

So by providing that additional funding to ASQA, we're making sure they are free to focus on doing their job, not having to raise revenue, and of course by doing that we're equally helping to keep fees down for students around Australia.

We're introducing a new contestable model for training packages, to ensure the training packages in the future remain relevant to our changing economy, to the changing jobs of the future, and that they can be quickly and rapidly updated according to employer and industry needs wherever possible. And again, in that space, I recognise that there is a role – and I've discussed with many union representatives – for unions to be playing a critical role in helping with the adoption of new training packages where there are workplace skills and knowledge that they can pass on.

Perhaps most importantly from the Commonwealth Government's policy perspective, we've rolled out very significant changes to the VET FEE-HELP programme. The programme VET FEE-HELP was changed radically in 2012 when access to it was opened up quite widely without having effective safeguard [indistinct] in place. We're putting those safeguards in place now to ensure the programme is not rorted, to protect vulnerable Australians from being signed up to unnecessary student loans, to protect the taxpayer from having to pay the bad student debts, and to protect the reputation of the overall vocational education and training sector form the actions of a few unscrupulous providers. 

We've already banned the use of inducements to sign people up, we'll be making it easier for students to have unfair or inappropriate debts waived, we'll be making it clear that the only reason somebody should be signed up to a VET FEE-HELP loan in future is because they have an intention to complete a quality training course that enhances their employment outcomes. That should be the sole reason people are signed up, and that's the way we're restructuring VET FEE-HELP. 

But as I flagged before, it is critically important that we make VET FEE-HELP work, as it is an increasing funding stream across the vocational education and training sector, but particularly for TAFEs, who are the some of the largest beneficiaries of it.

We're also seeking support to continue broadening and understanding of new areas of curriculum development, particularly in the STEM subjects. A $12 million investment in STEM in schools, which will help to develop innovative online resources in that space, enhancing computer programming skills across the curriculum, providing seed funding for innovation-focused P-TECH styled initiative, that will be carefully focused and localised to fit in the local context, and increasing student participation through Summer Schools for STEM subjects.

There's also $3.5 million to support the introduction of computer coding and other [indistinct] thinking across different year levels in struggling schools and support the implementation of Australian Curriculum through technologies. 

One issue that I do want to particularly address today because it has been raised in the media during the course of today is the Federation White Paper. There seems to be much discussion about a discussion paper on the Federation White Paper and I acknowledge my colleague Sharon Bird, the shadow minister for vocational education and training here today and I will quote you if I can Sharon from your press release today because I think it's important to take a look at the issues that may arise. The press release says “according to the Federation Green Paper, the Government's secret plans to abandon debt altogether would see a further $1.8 billion cut”. It goes on to quote from the discussion paper: “the Commonwealth would no longer provide $1.8 billion to the states and territories through the national skills and workforce developments special purpose payment”. That's an accurate quote from the discussion paper. It is. It's an accurate quote from option two of the discussion paper. Equally let me quote from option one of the discussion paper: “based on current funding levels, this would increase the Commonwealth's expenditure by around $4.1 billion a year”.

The discussion paper canvasses various scenarios and options. It canvasses a scenario where the Commonwealth takes complete funding responsibility of vocational education and training, which would be a vast increase in Commonwealth expenditure. It canvasses scenarios where the states take that responsibility. 

Importantly though, to reassure you all, whether we are talking vocational education and training, schools, health, homelessness or any of the other areas under discussion, the Federation White Paper process is an holistic approach and its terms of reference also include looking at the revenue capacity of legitimate jurisdictions responsible to meet its obligations. There is no intention to see reduced support of vocational education and training or schools in the future as a result of this process purely to ensure we have streamlined responsibilities in future so that you all know which level of government to hold to account for which activity.

In closing I want to finish on a positive note – I want to acknowledge the role that TAFEs play, the fact that TAFEs are adapting so well; adapting to two significant changes that they're facing. Adapting to increased contestability and competition in some states and TAFEs have shown great resilience in doing that in ensuring that they actually are achieving a great outcome for students in the future. And adapting to, of course, the changing workforce profile that we have and the reality that we will need to train students in different ways in the future to make sure that they are job-ready for the future. 

But more importantly I want to give an optimistic note overall about the vocational education and training sector. Around three million Australians each year choose to participate in vocational education and training – as I said before, around one million of those through the TAFE sector, demonstrating its scale of importance. Around half of those three million are publicly subsidised in some way shape or form, but the other half are not. Around 1.5 million Australians each year choose either out of by digging into their own pocket or through employer contributions to go and study a VET course without a cent of taxpayers’ money involved in it. Those Australians are very clearly voting with their feet in the quality and the status of the outcomes of our VET sector. It's a demonstration that we have much to be proud of at present, much to build on to make sure that it works well into the future and on this National TAFE Day, I'm extremely confident that TAFE itself will be a critical part of that VET sector well into the future. 

Thank you very much for chatting to me tonight.