Release type: Speech


Annual Australasian VET Research Association Conference 2023


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training

Good morning, and thank you to the Australasian VET Research Association for hosting me here today.

I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands we are on today, the Wurundjeri people. 

I pay my respects to elders past and present, and do so on behalf of a government fully committed to the Uluru Statement, including the Voice.

Today is an opportunity to thank you all for your hard work, and for the valuable insights you share as VET researchers and experts.

Sectors improve when they are self-reflective and learn based on evidence, experience, and expertise.

VET is no exception – and you play an important role in helping us recognise where there are opportunities for improvement and what we might do about them.  

I will have more to say about some specific opportunities for improvement a little later.

I know I am talking to converts in this room who deeply understand the role of VET in providing people with the skills needed for work and life, supporting them in meaningful and well-paid work, and equipping them to participate in their communities.

Without skilled and knowledgeable workers, industries cannot be as innovative, economies are not as resilient, and the global challenges of our time, like climate change, go unmet.

The better skilled we become – from foundation skills through to creative and highly specialised technical skills - the better off we are as a nation.

$4.1bn for a National Skills Agreement and more Fee-Free TAFE 

Australia is facing acute skill shortages, cost of living pressures and declining productivity growth.

This creates both challenges and opportunities.

Strategic investment in vocational education and training is critical to lifting the opportunities available to all Australians.

Since coming to government, I have worked closely with state and territory Skills Ministers on how we can jointly ensure our VET system provides high-quality, responsive and accessible education and training.

Later today, and in advance of National Cabinet tomorrow, I will be announcing that the Commonwealth government is offering the states and territory governments an additional $4.1 billion to negotiate and agree upon a 5-year National Skills Agreement – boosting the overall Commonwealth investment to $12.8 billion.

In the agreement I will be seeking a new collaborative decision-making process between the Commonwealth and states and territories to marshal VET investment towards agreed national priorities and agreed reforms.

And to ensure our respective efforts come together to be more than the sum of their parts.

I am seeking an agreement that enables more Australians, especially those who have been excluded and under-represented in the workforce, to gain the skills needed for secure, well-paid work, and to reach their full potential.

Importantly this offer includes a further 300,000 Fee Free TAFE and vocational education places.

I will seek an agreement that puts TAFE at the heart of the VET sector, including by directing at least 70 percent of Commonwealth funding for VET to TAFE.

I will work with states and territories to support high-quality vocational education, research and innovation. 

I will propose to states and territories establishing new centres of excellence in our TAFEs, in partnership with industry, universities and students.

I hope we can introduce a landmark foundation skills commitment, where every Australian who needs it, can access literacy, language, numeracy, and digital skills – a “no wrong door” approach to accessing the supports that Australians need.

And in light of the Government’s commitment to the Voice and to Closing the Gap, we are seeking in this agreement to deliver a step change in the way we approach skills development for First Nations Australians.

Research and evaluation will be critical to the success of this new agreement. Evidence will inform our planning and priority setting and the reforms we make.

The agreement we are seeking to make is ambitious – but essential.

It recognises that our governments share similar goals – but accepts we may have different ways to achieve them. All indications so far are that we agree far more than we don’t. And when we don’t, we work constructively to find solutions.

There is a lot to be hopeful about.

What we’ve done so far

In the meantime, we haven’t been wasting time.

We’ve created Jobs and Skills Australia, providing much-needed data about the challenges we face… and how we best position ourselves to overcome them.

We’re already delivering on our election promise to put TAFE at the heart of our VET sector.

Our 12-month skills agreement with the states and territories is adding 180,000 Fee-Free TAFE and vocational training places in 2023.

We’re making courses more accessible for future nurses, future early-childhood educators, and future aged care and construction workers.  

And we all know that Australia is transforming towards a clean energy future – with the Albanese Government’s commitment to net-zero by 2050. 

Our commitment is vital to slowing the effects of Climate Change, but also presents us with a unique opportunity to create new jobs, well-paying and secure jobs that will benefit our industries and our economy.

Different areas of focus

The role of VET is expanding as more people look to TAFEs for an education – whether they are seeking to skill, re-skill, or upskill.

Our transformation to clean, reliable and affordable power is a standout example.

An army of skilled workers will be required to build and install the infrastructure needed to achieve a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

So, we’re investing $95.6 million over nine years to support 10,000 New Energy Apprentices to help with cost-of-living while they get high quality training.

We’re rebuilding our manufacturing capacity through the $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.  This investment will support new and emerging industries.

We need to keep pace with the rapid growth of technology.

There are currently 935,000 tech related jobs in Australia – with this figure only forecast to grow.

So, I’m happy to report that we expect around 32,500 students will enrol in Fee-Free TAFE and VET places in technology and digital courses in 2023 alone.

And thousands more Fee-Free places to those who care for the most vulnerable in our community.

The last three years have reinforced how important our care and support economy is – and how vital it is that we encourage people to enter it.

Despite its importance, the care and support economy has been overlooked and undervalued for far too long.

Jobs and Skills Australia

But we’re changing that – and as Minister for Skills and Training, I am committed to improving VET for the care sector.

I was in Adelaide last week, where 8,000 students have already signed up for Fee-Free TAFE in the first quarter of this year alone.

And this is in large part because we’re making it more accessible.

A student studying a Diploma of Nursing at TAFE SA saves more than $10,000 on fees, while students studying Aged Care, and those studying Early Childhood Education don’t need to find thousands of dollars extra.

By removing the barriers to TAFE, we make the pathway into vital sectors like the aged, disability and veteran care, and early childhood education and care, more accessible to more Australians – made more important in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. 

The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator (Data Streamlining) Amendment Bill is another important step as we work to galvanise our skills sector.

The Bill supports change that will modernise the way TAFEs and other RTOs submit VET activity data, and reduce the lag before that data is available for the sector, governments and researchers, many of whom I’m sure are in this room today.

VET data streamlining aims to deliver "better data, faster" and enhance transparency of changes and developments in the VET market.

But the job at hand is more than just collecting and analysing data.

It’s about working closely with our stakeholders and learning from their insights, so that the data and analysis are meaningful and relevant.

That’s where Jobs and Skills Australia comes in.

You’ve already heard from Peter Dawkins this morning who has set out the progress he and his team have made since they were established in November, and the exciting plans they have to go further.
JSA will complement the NCVER in its role of collecting, managing, analysing, and communicating research and statistics on the Australian vocational education and training sector.

And I cannot stress enough how important this work will be.

As Minister, along with Skills Ministers in states and territories, I need to have a detailed picture of the situation on the ground and the challenges we face.

But it’s not just for governments.

It’s essential that we all have that data, so we can all ensure the health and progress of our skills sector, and plan in the right way to meet the needs of Australians, and a future Australian economy.

It was no accident that JSA was the first announcement Anthony Albanese made as Opposition Leader.

And it was no coincidence that JSA was the first piece of legislation introduced once we formed government.

Evidence is critical to inform good public policy and so is collaboration. 

We recently introduced the JSA Bill, which includes the establishment of a tripartite Ministerial Advisory Board, consisting of representatives from state and territory governments, unions, employers, and experts… such as yourselves.

This Advisory Board is an important step in building collaboration and engagement into JSA’s DNA.  And the Advisory Board needs great evidence and intelligence to inform its input, to ensure that the decisions we make are informed and effective.

Valuing our VET researchers

To those here this morning, I want to emphasise the importance of your work, and the work of AVETRA.

Having a strong, engaged, vocal network of practitioners and researchers is fundamental to getting this right.

The work of the NCVER, as well as JSA, is invaluable.

And so are our independent researchers.

We need more VET researchers like you to help lift the quality and profile of the sector.

It’s one of the reasons I initiated a House of Representatives inquiry led by Lisa Chesters to do exactly that – lift the status and perception of the VET sector which is skilling millions of Australians.

For too long, it has been a default position to only associate research with universities. Of course, university-based academic research is critical.

But we also need VET practitioner researchers, and more of them.

We need you to inform our once-in-a-generation opportunity to set clear goals of national reform, through the five-year agreement and its implementation.

We know there are major challenges facing our skills and training sector – reflecting problems in the sector, as well as difficulties in our labour markets.

What keeps me up at night?

To solve them, we need first to understand them.

Given I am in a room of researchers and VET experts, I’ll take the opportunity to outline what I see as some immediate challenges where good research and analysis could make a real difference in informing how to improve VET.

These are the opportunities for improvement I referenced a little earlier.

First, we need to understand why half of the students and workers that start a VET course don’t finish – and how to turn that around.

Of all the apprentices and trainees that commenced training in 2017, the latest figures show that just 55.7% reached completion.

Second, getting more women into male dominated occupations, where they can earn better, fairer wages, is another big challenge.

Gender imbalance is a feature of many occupations in skill shortage. For more than half of occupations in national shortage, women make up less than 20 per cent of their workforce.

Third, there are about 4,000 RTOs in Australia. We know there is great variation in what they do and how they do it.

They range from state-wide public TAFEs providing comprehensive technical and further education to many thousands of students and workers each year – through to small business RTOs dedicated to providing narrow, specialised on-line short courses in responsible service of alcohol or first aid.

It is essential that we know more about how different types of RTOs operate, their relative strengths and weaknesses, the public and private value they provide, the business models used, and the various markets they operate in.

Fourth, how do we best support and sustain the central role of public TAFE and what should the next iteration of a world-leading VET sector look like, in an Australian context? And, importantly, how do we get there?

Fifth, we need to understand how to ensure a high-quality VET workforce.

If we don’t have enough teachers and trainers - in classrooms and workplaces - with the right knowledge and skills, we will struggle to address any of our skills challenges.

That is a taste of the things that keep me awake at night.  These are the issues where I am looking for evidence informed actions to give people the skills they need.


As a government we are working on these challenges – but it is not the job of government to have all the answers.

We listen to the experts, to stakeholders, and respect the facts. And that’s particularly true for the challenges we face in the VET sector.

My role is to advocate for the skills sector, to direct funding where it’s needed most, and to ensure that as many people as possible get the training they need for good, secure jobs, and great lives.

Thank you for your tireless work and passion.

Together, we’ll ensure that the skills sector delivers for each and every Australian, now and into the future.