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Australian and SA Governments sign landmark skills agreement

The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Interview – ABC Sydney with Sarah Macdonald

SARAH MACDONALD, HOST: Did you go to TAFE or have a son, or a daughter go to TAFE? Perhaps they’re doing a course now. We know that TAFE has been through the wringer over the past decade with massive funding cuts. But we also know we have a serious skills shortage. The Minister for Skills, federally, Brendan O’Connor, announced yesterday that the Federal Government has already filled its target of 180 thousand Fee-Free places earlier than expected, and with many more people taking up the offer than anticipated, and Brendan O’Connor joins us now. Good morning to you. 
MACDONALD: So where have these courses been really popular, which area? 
O’CONNOR: Well, across the economy, around a third of those courses that have been taken up are in the care economy, disability care, aged care, childcare, areas where the labour supply is in much demand. And there are other areas too; 20,000 at least in construction, 17,000 in IT. One-third of the courses are also in regional areas of the country and 60 percent of the enrolees are women. So, it’s been a really, really great take up. We’ve met our targets well in advance of our goal, and as you said, we’ve exceeded 180,000 enrolments and hit 214,000 and we are now looking beyond this year. 
MACDONALD: So, you might get to a quarter of a million by the end of the year by the look of it? 
O’CONNOR: Well, it could we’re still staying within the fiscal $1.1 billion. That was a combined investment by States and Territories and the Commonwealth, and that’s the good thing, we’re really getting bang for buck here. Also, we’ve got another offer. I’ve written to all State and Territory Ministers to have them consider signing a deed of agreement for a further 300,000 Fee Free TAFE and VET places starting next year. 
MACDONALD: So, this would be in the same areas that they’ve already been taken up in, where there are the shortages? 
O’CONNOR: It will be, but as I’ve said the shortages are as wide as they are deep. The traditional trades, retail, hospitality, construction, and the care economy. Wherever you look across the economy there are shortages, that’s why we’re investing in areas, and that’s why we’re removing cost barriers for courses that are ensuring that students are acquiring skills in demand today and tomorrow. 
So that’s the real focus here, and that’s why this policy has worked so well. It is in areas of demand, which means that when people finish these courses, the chances of employment are very good. 
And what are you finding in terms of people finishing those courses? You mentioned construction, childcare, and keeping going. Are they finding jobs straight away? 
O’CONNOR: Most people are still completing the courses, but what we’re hearing firstly from the TAFEs, and other providers, is that the enrolments have been in record numbers in areas where there is demand. So industries are pleased knowing that they are getting people into the economy, into their businesses where they are most needed. 
The test will be how well this goes through once people are through the courses and are going into these sectors of the economy. Another thing we’re looking to do is to ensure we increase completion rates of trainees and apprentices which has been historically too low. 
When we were elected we found that completion rates of apprenticeships were between 50 and 60 percent in most trades. That is too low. We want to make sure we provide the right incentives for employers and apprentices so that they complete this training. To have these skills is absolutely vital for those workers, for the businesses that are crying out for the skills, and for our economy at large. 
MACDONALD: So just to be clear, you can afford to keep it Fee Free for areas such as construction, childcare, that you mentioned; disability care? 
O’CONNOR: Yes. So, we’re identifying where there are shortages in the economy, and those are the areas that we’re looking to encourage people into, and yes, the courses that are providing skills in areas of demand today and tomorrow will be those areas that are more likely to be Fee Free. 
We have to target this so that we’re fiscally responsible. I mean these are taxpayers’ dollars, but we understand it’s in everybody’s interests that we supply the skills to our economy for economic growth, and improvements in productivity. 
That’s good all around. It’s good for students, it’s good for workers and businesses, and as I said earlier, for the country. 
MACDONALD: And how long can you afford to keep it Fee Free? 
O’CONNOR: Well, we’ll just continue those discussions with States and Territories. We made a commitment before the last election. The Albanese Government committed to 480,000 places, now we’re looking at beyond 500,000, if you look at the 214,000 already enrolled, the proposed 300,000. That’s more than half a million courses for Australians to acquire skills in demand. That’s our commitment to date and we’ll continue to look at what else we can do. 
We’re also negotiating a National Skills Agreement with all governments to provide greater certainty and bring about some of the reforms that are needed for the VET sector, so it’s fit for purpose. 
It doesn’t work perfectly, it’s not entirely responsive to our economy, to business needs, and we need to make sure that it’s working well. And it needs to collaborate very effectively with higher education. 
O’CONNOR: Increasingly it’s more important that the two tertiary sectors work hand in hand to deliver the skills to our economy. 
MACDONALD: Brendan O’Connor is with us, the federal skills minister. Yeah, I have got a text about that: “My daughter left school in Year 11. She’s now planning to do a Nursing Certificate III at TAFE. She plans to do her nursing diploma at TAFE and then her Bachelor of Nursing for the final two years at uni with those free TAFE courses taken up by her. Why don’t the schools let students and parents know there are other pathways than the ATAR’to get into uni and getting a degree?” So what kind of – I bet you’d love that text. 
O’CONNOR: That’s a very good point. I do like that text because it really reminds us that historically we have not understood how critical the VET sector is for good jobs, secure employment, and career progression. The Prime Minister and I were at a TAFE college in Perth yesterday. One of the reasons why the Prime Minister visits so many TAFEs is to really remind people that it is as good a pathway to the labour market as higher education. Ninety percent of future jobs will require tertiary education and half of those will come from the VET sector. 
So, in the case of the person who texted you, their daughter obviously can find a pathway by going through TAFE and then on to university. We need to make those links between the VET sector and universities better, and we’re looking to create Centres of Excellence that will ensure that there is this collaboration between TAFE and universities, in order to really ensure that people have the right skill set in certain sectors of the economy, especially those going through transformation; for example, the energy sector, a very significant transformation underway in that sector. We do need to see universities and TAFE working collaboratively. 
MACDONALD: All right. Someone else is happy. “My son’s having a career change, going to TAFE and enjoying it, he expects to be there for two years, and he’s very positive about his career prospects. His course was originally expensive but it’s now free.” 
And I’ve got a caller, do you want to hear a caller about this? Have you got time? I know you’ve got to give a speech soon. 
O’CONNOR: No, it’s okay. 
MACDONALD: A few happy customers for you about this change to TAFE and freedom away from the costs. Priya’s here from Five Dock. Hello. 
CALLER: Hey, how are you? 
MACDONALD: Good. You’ve been to uni, and you’ve worked, and then you went back to TAFE? 
CALLER: Yes. I’m looking for a career change from marketing, and have a university degree, and I’ve got to say I’ve signed up for community services, and I’m loving it. It is so different from uni, the teachers want everyone to pass, and they do their best to get everyone there. It’s so welcoming, it’s a different way of learning, and it’s awesome. So yes, thank you to the government for giving us this opportunity. I’m looking forward to being able to put it into practice and work. 
MACDONALD: So where do you want to work, Priya? 
CALLER: I’m thinking of some sort of NGO, maybe something to do with homeless people, but still up for debate, or with children. 
MACDONALD: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your call. 
CALLER: No worries, thank you. 
MACDONALD: All the best. Brendan O’Connor, I did get another text saying, “But other fees for other courses that are not free are still very expensive. So, fees as a whole, my daughter’s just done the fitness and now she’s doing Certificate IV under the Fee Free. The total cost would have been $20,000, $9,500 for six months, and $10 for a Certificate IV.” So, those that are not free are expensive. Are you subsidising across, or are the States doing that? 
O’CONNOR: Well, the States and Territories have been working with the Commonwealth for these Fee Free places. From next year the removal of the fees in areas of shortage will be Commonwealth investment working with each State and Territory government. 
I wrote to all State and Territory Ministers last Friday, and I am negotiating with each jurisdiction to deliver. On this occasion, this is Commonwealth investment, so the future investment for Fee Free TAFE will be Commonwealth investment, but we really think this is working. 
We are investing in areas that are needed, it helps workers, it helps businesses, and it’s critical to our economy and we’re going to continue to invest in such an effective manner.
MACDONALD: What about the teachers though? There’s been a shortage, a lot of teachers left the TAFE sector when it was driven down. How are you going to make sure there are enough teachers to impart the knowledge? 
O’CONNOR: We are looking at delivering more teachers and trainers to the VET sector, that’s something that’s underway now, and I know Jason Clare’s looking to do that as well across the board. 
We do have issues with either teachers leaving the profession or shortages, and we need to make sure we attract and retain teachers; that is a priority of the government as well. Because you cannot deliver the skills if you don’t have those people that are training and teaching students and workers. So that is a focus of the government. It’s a separate project that we’re doing that will lead to the implementation of policies in the near future. 
MACDONALD: “Go TAFE. Katoomba’s been utilised after many years of no art design, painting, the teachers are amazing,” says another text that’s come in. I’ll let you go. Thanks so much for your time this morning. 
O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, Sarah. 
MACDONALD: That’s Brendan O’Connor, who is the Federal Minister for Skills in Australia.

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