Federal Parliament - National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020

June 15, 2020

Dr ALYIt is, indeed, always a privilege to stand here and speak about vocational education and training and higher education, a topic that I'm very passionate about. I begin by acknowledging the excellent contributions by the member for Cooper and the amendments that she's moving here, but also the excellent contribution of the first four minutes and 10 seconds of the member for Fisher—particularly the nice little jab at the member for Swan that he included in there—and there were about 30 seconds towards the end of the member for Fisher's contribution as well.

I've spoken before about the need for governance in vocational education and training, and the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment (Governance and Other Matters) Bill 2020 certainly goes towards ensuring that we have regulation and governance in that space, so I don't want to speak too much about that today. What this bill actually does has been covered by my colleagues who spoke previously. But the member for Cooper, the member for Fisher and other members who have contributed to discussions about VET and about higher education have spoken about the need for reform. That's where I want to focus my contribution this evening, because I really want to talk about what reform might look like and how we might move to actual reform.

I think other speakers have acknowledged that our vocational education and training system is in desperate need of something. It desperately needs to be revived to its once former glory. That's something that I've certainly spoken about before. But I want to talk about a different kind of reform that brings together a framework of higher education and that looks at the opportunities both in vocational education and training and in university. To do that, I think we need to start by understanding the fundamental difference between VET and university.

A VET degree focuses on skills and what's called 'competency based' training. So as an instructor in vocational education and training, for example, you don't give your students essays as exams; you give them a practical test in which they have to demonstrate a capability to carry out a certain number of tasks. These tasks are essential to tick off so that they can perform a task and therefore have that particular skill. So it's about demonstrating an ability to carry out a task by demonstrating an acquisition of skills. That's competency based training.

University degrees, on the other hand, focus on cognitive, academic skills—for example, the ability to think critically, the ability to analyse a piece of literature or the ability to approach a contemporary issue through different theoretical lenses. Each set of skills is suitable in different areas and has different applications. Competency based training is suitable for trades and those sorts of skills, whereas academic training is more suited towards skills that require creativity and critical thinking. But, in speaking about reform, I'm thinking of a framework where we integrate these two approaches to the acquisition of skills and knowledge and where we integrate training with university—work skills with academic skills; and competency, competency based training and the ability to demonstrate competency based training with the ability to demonstrate critical thinking about particular issues.

I'm thinking that TAFE could play a larger role, for example, in providing competency based training to industries to upskill their workforce or to reskill their workforces in areas of transition and to address knowledge gaps and skills gaps. We could use the TAFE system for post-university competency based units—for university graduates entering the workforce. I'll give some examples of where we could have this integrated higher education system.

We all know that sometimes we get university graduates who can, like I say, analyse a piece of 19th century literature but can't write a briefing note. So what if, post university, a system within TAFE was set up to teach those competency based skills—to teach communication as a skill? Another example could be university lecturers undertaking workplace teaching and training units in order to be able to teach graduates to communicate—because that's essentially what university lecturers do; they teach through communication—all that knowledge that they've acquired through their university years.

I've spoken before about the potential for having people who work in law enforcement trained in cybersecurity. Where law enforcement has a difficulty in retaining graduates with cybersecurity qualifications, if we had people who were already in law enforcement who showed some aptitude for cybersecurity, we could get them trained through vocational education and training, for example.

When we think about skills and the workforce of the future, when we think about employment in the future and what work is going to look like in the future, with artificial intelligence and with increased automation it's very likely that regular physical activities or tasks associated with work are going to decrease as machines take over. What's going to increase, what's going to be more needed in the future, are tasks that are creative and service oriented—the kinds of things that you need humans for: creativity and the delivery of service. These skills in creativity and in service are both academic and vocational. An integrated approach to higher education, where you had academic and vocational skills working in tandem with each other, would prepare our future workforce and look at both the needs of industry as well as the needs of students and future workers.

In order to do this, we need investment. We need investment and we need a real commitment to reform and a real commitment to innovation in this space. A good example of what I'm speaking about is education hubs. Just north of my electorate of Cowan there is an education precinct in Joondalup, where Edith Cowan University, my alma mater, built their Joondalup Campus alongside one of the largest TAFEs in Western Australia. Included within that precinct is the Western Australian Police Academy. So you have the police academy, the TAFE and Edith Cowan University. When I was working at Edith Cowan University, lecturing in counterterrorism, security and intel, we often did a lot of work with the police academy as well as the TAFE, to the point where we started developing courses where you could start off doing a TAFE degree, acquire some of those competency based skills in security and then undertake a couple of units at the university in criminology, psychology or computer security, getting those cognitive academic skills up as well—research skills, writing skills and those sorts of things.

When I think about the future of a quality higher education system, this is what I would like to see. I'd like to see more of these education hubs around Australia where you have universities working in tandem with TAFEs and other training institutions as well, like, for example, law enforcement academies like the police academy. If we invest in this, this is how I think we can achieve real reform in our VET sector.

I also think that this is an opportunity for us to reclaim our ground in Australia and our reputation as being world class and world leading with a vocational education and training sector that responds to industry needs—particularly if, as I say, we think about not just the jobs of the future but the kinds of tasks and the kinds of skills that are going to be required in those jobs and if we ask ourselves, frankly and openly, the question: how do we equip a future workforce, not just with knowledge, which they can get through an academic university degree, but with the skills to apply that knowledge and demonstrate competency, which they can get through vocational education and training?

I see a future where vocational education and training isn't just about carpentry or electricians and isn't just for tradies, as the member for Fisher said, or chefs and the acquisition of those kinds of skills. I see a future where we have a vocational education and training system which is actually about competency and a range of skills across a range of industries and which works coherently with other higher education providers and other provisions for higher education.

That's my contribution this evening with regard to this bill, which I note is specifically on the governance of ASQA, the national VET regulator. As I said at the beginning, I think it is important that we have regulation, standards and governance in this space, but I reiterate what the member for Cooper said with regard to this reform not going far enough. I don't think it's good enough that we stand here and talk about reform without having a deeper conversation about what reform might look like and without having those big ideas about how we can have a higher education system that has, at its heart, both university and vocational education and training on an equal footing. For too long we've seen vocational education and training as second rate compared to a university education. It's not and it shouldn't be. In fact, there are some areas, as the member for Fisher acknowledged and as I have acknowledged before in this House, where a university degree just won't do and where you need to have competency based training and to demonstrate an acquisition of skills.

I started by pointing to what this bill does. We are not opposing this bill, but I do hope that we continue to talk in this place about vocational education and training. I hope that we continue to talk it up and that, as we move forward with this bill and with some of the other bills that have been presented in parliament over the last week and the last time we sat, we can work towards a national vocational education and training system that isn't just about better governance but is about quality of delivery and is a system that addresses the needs of industry, students and a future workforce.