I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (TAFE and University Governance Reform) Bill 2015. I am extremely pleased to make a contribution with respect to this bill because it is an election commitment that the Labor Party took to the last election. I recall when the former government brought a bill into the house when it was in government, it was exceedingly unpopular. I recall speaking quite strenuously against it, and I was very pleased to see that the Labor Party also listened to what a whole range of people were saying in the education community and supported the restoration of democracy in the higher education sector.
This bill is a further response by this government to repair the damage from the previous government’s attack on the TAFE system. It is very important to remember that the previous government inflicted over $1 billion worth of cuts to the TAFE sector. These cuts had devastating effects on a range of communities right across the state. I have spoken many times of the devastation from the cuts that put the South West TAFE in a very precarious situation — all three campuses — and indeed the Gordon TAFE and the University of Ballarat TAFE. These were attacks that were unconscionable in terms of regional Victoria. We also saw, right around the state, a whole range of campuses that were closed, but also there were mergers that were foisted upon many institutions. It is also important to remember that over 3000 jobs have been lost in this sector as a result of the attack on the system.
There are now 30 000 fewer government-funded students in Victoria than there were prior to the previous government’s attack in 2011. It cannot even be said that these attacks restored fiscal responsibility or fiscal discipline. The defunding of TAFE moved the TAFE sector from a $109 million operating surplus to a $72 million deficit. The cost of training has skyrocketed and hundreds of courses have been cut. In short, the previous government’s cuts had, and still are having, an effect on our communities. It has been a disaster for the TAFE sector. All of this is extraordinary when it is remembered that the previous government knew that tens of thousands of Victorians were set to become unemployed over the next few years, and the car industry is just one example. Of course these workers will need retraining. Not only have car workers’ livelihoods been sacrificed on the ideological altar of the federal Liberal government, the state Liberals have also made sure that life will still be tough post the car industry departure with its cuts in the TAFE sector.
The Andrews government refutes the assumptions that underpinned these decisions. It will not stand by leaving tens of thousands of families without the help and retraining opportunities that they deserve. Yesterday the Minister for Industry, Lily D’Ambrosio, made a significant contribution in this area.
Since coming to government we have set about repairing the damage done to our TAFE system by setting aside $320 million for the TAFE Rescue Fund. This is for reopening campuses, upgrading buildings, workshops and laboratories and is the sort of support the TAFE sector needs from government. There is also the $50 million TAFE Back to Work fund to help TAFE better meet the training needs of businesses hiring unemployed youth, the long-term unemployed and retrenched workers. TAFEs are also starting to open their skills and jobs centres as part of the $15 million program to have a one-stop shop for skills and information.
The contrast in approach is stark. The previous government saw the cost of everything and the value of nothing. The Andrews Labor government rejects that approach. We see the value in higher education and the TAFE sector in particular. This bill continues to highlight those differences. The bill gives TAFEs greater control of their boards and makes them more representative. The bill also brings Victoria’s eight universities into line with common practice around Australia by bringing democracy back to our universities through elected student and staff council members on all university councils. The TAFE and university governance changes made by the previous government were doomed to fail. They prioritised commercial practise and efficiency ahead of the educational and social functions of TAFEs and universities. These reforms start to repair that loss of focus.
Governance of our institutions is important. The bill reflects the expectations of the government in regard to the governance of our universities and TAFEs. We believe the appointment and remuneration guidelines have been updated to reflect government policy, such as our commitment that 50 per cent of board appointments will be women. The revised guidelines also clarify who is eligible to receive payment, what mandatory probity checks must be performed and the authority to remove an appointment.
The bill addresses the key risks identified in the 2013 Ombudsman’s report A Review of the Governance of Public Sector Boards in Victoria. Essentially greater care needs to be taken when recruiting and selecting board members. This will be done via selection criteria and position descriptions for board vacancies. Chairpersons will maintain a skills matrix to inform vacancies and assist in succession planning. The government will also require appropriate induction processes to allow new board members to participate fully and effectively in the workings of the board.
As seen by the devastation foisted upon South West TAFE, it is essential that boards understand the issues affecting staff, students and the community. The previous government’s reforms removed staff and student as elected board members. CEOs were also removed from boards, and boards were no longer able to elect their own chairperson.
TAFEs will now add at least one staff director and the CEO to the board. They will also be given more independence to appoint their own directors and will elect the chairperson from the board. This will result in TAFE institutes being governed by boards of between 10 and 15 members. At least half of these board members will be appointed by the minister. As stated earlier, these new boards will adhere to the government’s commitment to 50 percent of appointments being women. Eligible elected staff members will be entitled to remuneration and will be directly elected. They will also be supported with appropriate training. The training will emphasise the importance of confidentiality of board decisions and documents and how the rules of conflict of interest apply to them.
Obviously the staff-elected director’s responsibility as a board member will be to consider the best interests of the relevant TAFE when making board decisions. The reforms will have a six-month transition period. All existing board members will have their terms extended until July next year, when the Andrews government’s reforms are implemented. The reforms will retain a reserve power for the Governor in Council to remove the entire TAFE board on the advice of the minister.
In respect of universities, the reforms do not make any change to the maximum size of a university council; that will remain at 21. The bill restores the rights of staff and students to be directly elected to university councils. As I mentioned, this right was removed in 2012 by the previous government as part of a wholesale attack on the higher education system. The minimum size of university councils will increase from 11 to 13 to accommodate new elected members.
As with the TAFE sector there will be a six-month transition to these arrangements. This will allow universities to make or amend statutes to provide for election processes. As I said before, the elections will be direct elections. The terms will be for a maximum of three years for staff and two years for students. The council will have the flexibility to determine the length of elected member’s terms. This is to allow for semester breaks, casual vacancies and the election of representatives by new students to represent them. Universities will be given the power to make statutes to provide for the adequate training and support of elected members of council.
The government is clear: it expects that it will be mandatory for all elected members to receive appropriate training. The minister will be writing to the universities to make this expectation clear. The vice-chancellors have agreed to this as it serves all parties’ best interests to have trained councillors. Eligible staff and student councillors will be entitled to remuneration. The bill also requires university councils to include a minimum of two members with financial expertise and one with commercial expertise from either the government or council-appointed members. Currently this requirement must be met by government-appointed members. This reform will give greater flexibility to university council appointments.
This bill delivers on an election commitment. It restores the voices of students and staff to the institutions they cherish. The previous government looked at education as a commodity. It is not; it is far more than that. It is an investment in our human capital. It gives people chances in life. It works best reflecting on the unique needs of the communities that make up the organisation. These reforms will restore democracy at TAFEs and universities to allow those institutions to reflect the communities they are part of and give a voice to those concerned about the delivery of education. These changes are not radical. Staff and students are a valuable asset to the TAFE and university systems. The Andrews Labor government believes their voices are vital in decision-making relating to how TAFEs and universities are run. They are not merely special interest groups, as the previous government believed; they are people who care about their institution and education.
Unlike the previous government we have consulted widely on these reforms. They are backed by the relevant sectors, they are another election commitment honoured and, most importantly, they are another vital step along the road to repairing our TAFE system after the economic vandalism of the previous government. They restore democracy to our higher education system. I completely commend this bill to the house.