Release type: Transcript


Press conference - Adelaide


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training
The Hon Blair Boyer MP
South Australian Minister for Education, Training & Skills
Louise Miller-Frost MP
Federal Member for Boothby


LOUISE MILLER-FROST, MEMBER FOR BOOTHBY: Thanks for coming along. My name’s Louise Miller-Frost, I’m the member for Boothby, and I’m thrilled to be back here at Tonsley TAFE with Minister Brendan O’Connor and Minister Blair Boyer. We know that Fee-Free TAFE has been a major platform for the Albanese Labor government and rolling it out I have to say when I come and visit people here at TAFE it’s fantastic. The TAFE lecturers are thrilled, the students are thrilled – it’s a real winner for us. And I’m going to hand over to Minister Brendan O’Connor.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Thanks very much, Louise. It’s great to be here again at what is a centre of excellence when it comes to skill acquisition. And it’s really important that we invest in skills in areas of emerging demand, without which we won’t be able to grow the economy and we won’t be able to ensure that people have meaningful, secure work.

It was the reason why we convened the Jobs and Skills Summit last year bringing together industry, employers and unions, training providers, universities, the VET sector and state and territory governments, to work through what are national challenges to deal with what has been one of the most significant skills shortages in living memory.

And I’m happy to say that as a result of that summit and decisions made by the National Cabinet, we firstly announced 180,000 fee-free VET and TAFE places for 2023. That’s an additional investment in places which means that people can enrol in areas of emerging demand and existing demand which will mean that they can fill the gaps in our labour market, providing the skills that businesses are crying out for and ensure that workers have the skills that are in demand so that they have meaningful work.

At Tonsley TAFE you have some of the best examples of excellence when it comes to skills. And I’m very happy to say that of the 12,500 allocation, 10,500 of which were allocated to TAFE SA, approximately 8000, and probably more since we got the data, have already been allocated, which means that this has been a very successful investment by the federal and South Australian governments in this area in order to ensure we supply the skills that, as I say, are very much in demand.

And the other thing that’s really important to note, particularly at a time of relatively high inflation and cost-of-living pressures, is the amount of money that students are able to avoid having to find to enrol in these courses. And there’s no doubt that in some cases it exceeds $10,000 for some of the courses in the fee-free TAFE and VET list. That means that it does mitigate the impacts of cost-of-living pressures on families and students who are wanting to acquire new skills. But it also ensures that we attract people to enrol in these areas of emerging demand.

And I hear across the country and in South Australia in particular right now as I speak to apprentices and trainees and others that they have in some cases chosen to do this or were able to enrol in courses because they were fee-free. So, this is really an important investment, providing opportunities for workers to reskill, new entrants into the labour market to acquire important skills, skill that are in demand.

The investment has been successful. The data to date shows that there’s been a very strong take-up by students across the country, certainly here in South Australia. And that really augers well for the skills needs in this economy. As we know, wherever you look across the labour market, in South Australia or beyond, whether it’s in the traditional trades, the care sector, tech or cyber, wherever you look, there are gaps in our labour market that need to be filled, and they’ll be filled by those people that undertake training and education in those areas of demand. And that’s why it’s important that we continue to do this work.

Now, we have a National Skills Agreement that we’re negotiating this year with the South Australian government and all other state and territory governments in order to provide certainty for the VET sector over the next five years commencing January 1 next year. Those negotiations will continue the good work that’s been undertaken to make sure that TAFE and the VET sector is fit for purpose, that it’s supplying the pipeline of skills needed for our economy today and into the future.

So very happy to be here today. Happy to take questions, but can I first hand over to Minister Boyer, the Minister for Education, Skills and Training for this great state, to add to those words.

BLAIR BOYER, SA MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, TRAINING AND SKILLS: Thank you, Minister O’Connor, and great to be here with the federal minister and local member of parliament Louise Miller-Frost and some students behind us, most importantly. And Brendan, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this might be at least his third visit to South Australia in 11 months – I think it is almost 11 months today, in fact. It shows I think his commitment, to this area and his commitment to our state. And we been able to actually achieve really good things in that time, including being one of the first states to land the national partnership agreement for fee-free courses, 12,500, 10,500 of those to be delivered by TAFE, many of them right here in Tonsley.

And the news that we are here to talk about today is around the uptake of those courses – at least 8000 I think already, which is in very short time. I must say for me as not just the South Australian Minister for Training and Skills but Education as well, I’ve been really, really pleased about the areas in which that uptake has been because it is supporting projects and commitments the Malinauskas government has made in other important areas. Of course, we have the Royal Commission for three-year-old preschool. And I can say that one of the courses with the highest uptake in terms of fee-free TAFE across South Australia is early childhood education and care. We know we’ve made a lot of commitments in terms of rebuilding our health system as well and the diploma in nursing is also one of the courses with the highest uptake of fee-free TAFE in South Australia, but also things like cyber security, info technology and particularly here at Tonsley, building and construction, electro technology and plumbing.

Now, we know that we’ve got a big challenge with AUKUS, and Minister O’Connor has been here on other occasions to talk about that opportunity. And we know that it’s not just around those advanced manufacturing skills that we need once the work on the subs themselves begins, but it is also the preparatory work that we need to build the facilities, build the subs, and a lot of those are traditional trades. So, things like electro technology, so sparkies, building construction, plumbing. And we are seeing uptake in huge numbers of fee-free TAFE here in South Australia.

For those it gives opportunities for young people like the ones standing behind us in terms of providing access at a time when cost-of-living is a concern to make sure they can get the training they need to get one of these jobs. And there are, of course, many available because we are at an historically low unemployment South Australia. But is also about making sure that we provide those pathways for people into the areas where we have the highest skill shortages and where we have real opportunities for our state like AUKUS and like three-year-old preschools, just as examples.

I’ll hand back to Minister O’Connor, and also happy to take any questions that you might have for me.

JOURNALIST: Minister O’Connor, to you, can you talk us through – obviously South Australia has signed up to the national partnership agreement for the free vocational training places. Where is this at on a national scale and how many places have been rolled out nationally?

O’CONNOR: Look, it varies. We’re getting the data in from each jurisdiction. All I can say is every time I visit a state or territory there’s very positive signs. There’s no doubt, when you talk to students or the training providers, whether it’s a TAFE or VET provider generally, there’s no doubt there’s clear evidence that without the investment in the fee-free approach to these areas, particularly those in very acute demand for our economy, the pickup rate would not have happened. We’re certainly engaging with students, many of whom say that they were very interested in this area but were not able to afford to actually enrol because of the costs.

Now, not all the costs are covered, because there are some other incidental costs, but it’s also the costs of having to forego paid work to enrol. So it’s not easy for students even with the support of their families, if they have the support of their families, to enrol in very important courses.

Across the country we have been pleasantly surprised by the speed in which the enrolments have occurred. And if you look at it against the backdrop of recent history, the take-up rate has been faster relatively to the recent past. And that’s very important, too, because upon election in May last year we found that, yes, we had inherited a large public debt, but we were surprised by the scale, the extent and nature of the skill deficit across the labour market. 
Now, I think in part that’s because of the pandemic, we understand that, and the sort of suspension of skilled migration pathways had some adverse impact on the labour market. There were other reasons, too. But what we knew was that we had to move quickly by attending to the skill deficits by investing in areas that would encourage people to take up those opportunities.

JOURNALIST: Okay, and obviously in the South Australian context about 8,000 places already taken up as part of the fee-free program.

We know commencements are one thing, completion is another thing. So, what can the federal government do to make sure that those 8,000 which will be eventually 12 500 go all the way through to the end of their courses?

O’CONNOR: The completion rate of certain traineeships and apprenticeships is lower than it should be. And that’s the truth of it. One of the things we’ll be discussing – and I’ll be discussing with Minister Boyer and all other ministers of state and territory governments in negotiating the National Skills Agreement – will be how do we improve the completion rates of courses, whether they be apprenticeships or otherwise.

Now, one thing we do know is that if you invest in areas of emerging and existing demand, there is a greater likelihood of completion because people can see a line-of-sight between their training or education and that job. 
We also know that if we engage more with industry and industry engages more with training providers, like TAFEs, then there is, again, more chance of finishing that apprenticeship because they feel a greater confidence about using those skills in the labour market.

So, there’s a number of ways we have to look at improving it. With the energy apprenticeships that we’ve recently announced, we’ve actually looked to increase support for apprentices and for employers because the energy sector is going through the most significant fundamental transformation in recent memory, and we do need a pipeline of skills.

So, we are going to look at a myriad of ways we can improve the completion rates. It’s going to be subject to discussions with all state and territory governments and industry when we are negotiating the National Skills Agreement. I’m inviting people to put forward their views as to how do we improve the approach because to date the just over 50 per cent completion rate, which has been around now for close to a decade, is not acceptable. And we need to find a better way because it’s investing taxpayers’ dollars. We want to make sure we get value for dollar. We want to make sure the student gets the skills the certification that he or she needs, and we want to make sure employers can find the skills that they are after as well. And if we don’t have higher completion rates, we’re going to have more challenges into the future.

JOURNALIST: And on those challenges, what role do you think skilled migration has to try and fill some of those shortfalls in key sectors?

O’CONNOR: It’s a very significant role. It’s not a binary choice between supplying the labour market in education and training or skilled migration pathways. We’re a country built on immigration and we will require skilled migration to – in conjunction with very significant investment in education and training - supply the labour the skills that our labour market and economy need. So it’s not one or the other.

Clare O’Neil and Andrew Giles are looking at more effective ways of ensuring that those skilled migration pathways exist. But I want to make it very clear that the focus of the federal government is ensuring that Australians get their opportunities in the labour market. And people understand the need for skilled migration, but it’s not at the expense of locals; it’s actually additional to the needs of locals getting jobs. And it's that combination of effort – restoring skilled migration pathways so they actually fill existing demand and investing in education and training for locals – that will actually provide for a better economy and a more inclusive society.

JOURNALIST: If we reflect back on recent events in South Australia early this week we had an interim report released by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard into the state’s early childhood education sector. Obviously it’s looking to provide three-year-old preschool in South Australia from 2026. As a part of that, she’s recommended that there needs to be at least 808 additional employment qualified educators in South Australia to fulfil demand. Is there scope to make even more free places available in the vocational and training sector to try and meet that particular target?

O’CONNOR: Well, I haven’t read the report handed down by Julia Gillard, and I know that’s something that obviously the state government and perhaps Minister Blair Boyer are in a better position to respond to more broadly. 
But in relation to fee-free VET places, that is certainly on the table in the negotiations we’re having with state and territory governments. Frankly, we wanted to see how it would work in 2023. The first decision of the Jobs and Skills Summit announcement was actually the 180,000 fee-free places for 2023. Given what’s happened, we believe it’s certainly something that should continue. And we made commitments before the last election – that is the federal opposition then, the federal government now, the federal parliamentary Labor Party – made a commitment to focus on fee-free TAFE and VET places. 
We’ve got more to do there. Our commitments went beyond 180,000. But it will mean also negotiating with states and territories because it’s matching funding – very significant commitments by the South Australian government and other governments with the Commonwealth to go down that path. But I’d have to say, given success to date, it would be very much our intention to continue to invest in that manner.

JOURNALIST: Can I just go to the Education Minister, if you don’t mind. Minister, that’s got to be welcome news, you’re looking for an extra 800-odd educators we were told were needed. The federal government is very hope to maybe extending the fee-free places?

BOYER: Absolutely, it’s going to be a vital part of how we deliver on our election commitment for our universal preschool for all three-year-olds in South Australia. I just confirmed then with the Chief Executive of TAFE in South Australia, David Coltman, who is here with us today that we’ve deliberately allowed space within our 10,500 allocation of TAFE fee-free places so that if one course was more popular than others there was space to grow that complement within the whole envelope, which is good because, as I said before, overall in terms of the most popular courses in South Australia in fee-free TAFE early childhood education and care is there.

And the position is, as you said, Roy, we need to build those 880 new childhood worker positions as part of three-year-old preschool. So it is welcome news and I think we’ve proven in almost the year we’ve worked together we’ve got a good track record of making sure that we do the things we need to deliver on the election commitments that the federal government has made and the state government has made.

And one thing I would point out to you after asking a very good questions about completions, South Australia is leading a national piece of work on how we improve that. But one of the things I fought for at the national skills and training roundtable with Minister O’Connor and each minister pleasingly agreed was to make sure that in the bundle of funding that we provide to TAFE when we reach 10,500 places there is scope there for TAFE to be able to offer the additional supports that it does so well to people who might be struggling to get through their course.

So the money is not just there for the subsidy, which is considerable for a course like diploma of building and construction. It could be as much as $10,600, but there is also the money there to allow TAFE to do the great work it has done for years and years to support young people through from commencement to completion, because that’s the key thing. It’s taxpayers’ money. We need bang for buck; we don’t just people starting, we need people finishing and going into jobs.

JOURNALIST: You say you are doing a piece of work in that particular space.


JOURNALIST: Can you give us any early feedback as to what sort of recommendations they might be or what sort of ideas that have been looked at?

BOYER: I can. Mental health support is a big one. Mental health support is a really big one that comes back every single time. With every training provider I visit, whether it’s public like TAFE, whether it’s not-for-profit like, say, Peel or MTA or for-profit providers, the first question I always ask now as minister is, “Tell me your experience about the challenges that you’retrainees are seeing in terms of why they might not finish their course.” And it always comes back to issues at home, issues around mental health.

Now, there’s been a change in that over 20, 30, 40 years. I think it’s fair to say we’re seeing a lot more of that. And I have to be honest that I don’t think all our training providers are geared up to be able to address that. And that’s understandable, because the world has changed, but we need to pivot towards making sure – but I think there is a role for governments, federal and state, to be stepping in there and making sure that our training providers, whether it’s TAFE or another one, have the supports on board to, you know, help young people in particular overcome the challenges around mental health. It might be financial stress at home, it could be things like domestic violence in the home, whatever it might be.

JOURNALIST: But isn’t there a bit of a chicken and egg relationship here, because we already have a shortage of mental health workers across South Australia, let alone nationally, and yet you’re going to be calling on more to potentially work in this particular space?

BOYER: That’s right.

JOURNALIST: So how do you balance that?

BOYER: And that is the challenge, particularly in a small state like South Australia. You’re exactly right – the issue is that when we seek to fill spots or grow the provision of something like mental health workers – keeping in mind we’ve just put 55 in as part of our election commitment in education into public high schools – we have to be very careful that we aren’t just cannibalising the workforce of other areas, whether it’s health or something else. We actually need to grow the workforce.

But, you know, that’s why we’re looking at things like fee-free positions, and I think I flagged with you up at [indistinct] earlier in the week – I think Andrea might have asked a question around whether or not we were looking at some kind of subsidy rate with university courses for early childhood teachers and there would be mental health as well. All those things from a state perspective are absolutely on the table because that’s what it’s going to take.

O’CONNOR: Thank you.