Standing Order 25(20)(b) provides for the committee to consider selected reports in more detail.
The following reports under the Education, Skills and Employment portfolio are discussed in this chapter:
Department of Education, Skills and Employment;
Australian Skills Quality Authority; and
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Following that, reports under the Education, Skills and Employment portfolio, including Industrial Relations are discussed:
Attorney-General's Department (Outcome 2 only);
Education, Skills and Employment portfolio
Department of Education, Skills and Employment
As a result of the Administration Arrangements Order of 5 December 2019, the Department of Education changed its name to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (the department). Under these new arrangements, the department gained responsibility for the employment and skills functions from the former Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business. The formation of the department took effect from 1 February 2020.
The department has four outcomes:
Outcome 1 – Improved early learning, schooling, student educational outcomes and transitions to and from school, through access to quality child care, support, parent engagement, quality teaching and learning environments;
Outcome 2 – Promote growth in economic productivity and social wellbeing through access to quality higher education, international education and international quality research;
Outcome 3 – Promote growth in economic productivity and social wellbeing through access to quality skills and training; and
Outcome 4 – Foster a productive and competitive labour market through policies and programs that assist job seekers into work and meet employer needs.
With regard to all four outcomes, the department's performance was positive overall, achieving or being on track to achieve 34 of the 53 targets measured. Two measures requiring results from the 2019-20 National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy survey (NCRIS survey) were unavailable following an agreement with Universities Australia to minimise reporting during COVID-19. There were 14 measures where targets were not achieved. Eight of the 14 measures not achieved belonged to Outcome 4.
The results for six of the eight measures not achieved in Outcome 4 were attributed in some way to the impact of either the 2019-20 summer bushfires or COVID-19. In response to the 2019-20 bushfires, the government made the mutual obligation requirements of job seekers more flexible. The mutual obligation requirements were totally suspended from March 2020, due to COVID-19, and were identified as the reason the department did not achieve the target number of provider appointments attended by job seekers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of job seekers using employment services sharply increased and the jobactive caseload more than doubled to over 1.4 million people by the end of the 2019-20 financial year.
Department Secretary, Dr Michelle Bruniges, noted in her review within the annual report, that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a significant challenge to the higher education sector. Within this context, the department considered it had done well to achieve all but four of the nineteen measures applicable to Outcome 2, noting two of those lacked the required data from the NCRIS survey, making their results unavailable. The committee does understand though that the effects of COVID-19 on the higher education sector may not be fully realised until the 2020-21 annual report. For example, the targeted 3-5 per cent annual growth rate in international education export earnings was achieved in the 2019-20 annual report but the results were calculated from 2019 data. The department's own analysis indicates the annual growth rate of the education industry is likely to contract from 2020 given the impact of COVID-19 and associated travel restrictions.
The unknown impacts of COVID-19 on Outcome 2 was also highlighted in reporting on the proportion of Higher Education Loan Program debt not expected to be repaid. The 2019-20 annual report identified that although the target amount was achieved, the Australian Government Actuary's modelling used to calculate the results 'does not take into account the July 2020 Economics and Fiscal Update or model the long term effects of COVID-19'.
Under Outcome 3, all targets measuring the performance of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector were achieved. This places the department in a strong position to help workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic get back to work quickly or connect with training opportunities that strengthen their pathway to work.
Although the department achieved its target of over 50 per cent of employers reporting to have used the VET system, it noted the proportion of employers using VET has declined over the past 10 years. In response, the department is supporting initiatives to design industry-relevant training products and simplify existing national qualifications to make the VET system more relevant to industry and employer needs. The establishment of the National Skills Commission will play an important role in ensuring the skills system can:
anticipate and rapidly adapt to address critical skill shortages;
respond to the needs of industries and business; and
support workers to upskill or reskill in areas of demand across the economy.
For the 2019-20 financial year, the department reported a surplus of $4.3 million after adjusting for unfunded expenses. Although this is a newly formed department, comparisons can be made with the former Department of Education which reported a surplus of $2.8 million in 2018-19 and the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business which reported a deficit of $7.8 million in the same year. The department administered $47.2 billion of expenses, of which $32.4 billion represented grants to schools and higher education facilities. In response to COVID-19, additional funding was provided to various programs, including employment services, Non-government Schools National Support, and Building Skills and Capability.
Australian Skills Quality Authority
The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) is a non-corporate Commonwealth entity operating under the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011. Its purpose, as defined in the ASQA Corporate Plan 2019-20, is 'to provide nationally consistent, risk-based regulation of VET that contributes to an informed, quality VET sector that meets Australia's needs'.
During the reporting period, reforms to ASQA were significantly progressed with the National VET Regulator Amendment Act 2020 being legislated on 13 February 2020. A subsequent Rapid Review of the Australian Skills Quality Authority's Regulatory Practices and Processes (Rapid Review) was completed in March 2020. The Rapid Review recommended a shift in the authority's regulatory approach to focus on provider self-assurance and excellence in training.
Noting this period of substantial change both within ASQA and across the VET sector, combined with a challenging year due to the summer bushfires and COVID-19, ASQA judged itself to have performed reasonably well against its performance criteria. Of the six criteria, three were assessed to have been fully met and three were assessed to have been partially met.
ASQA Chief Commissioner, Ms Saxon Rice, reflected on the authority's performance during the 2020-21 Education and Employment Budget estimates (2020-21 Budget estimates), saying:
The three criteria that were partially met related to the way that we support quality as part of our risk based regulation. We performed well in identifying and managing risks; managing the registration of providers and the accreditation of courses; undertaking audits; and making appropriate and proportionate regulatory decisions. It was predominantly in relation to the timeliness with which we were delivering audit reports in particular that we fell a little short in relation to those outcomes.
An example of timeliness issues described in the 2019-20 annual report arose when VET providers applied for registration renewal. Between 2018-19 and 2019-20, the benchmark for a decision to be made by ASQA was changed from six months to, any time prior to the expiry date of the providers' registration. As providers are required to submit an application 90 days prior to its expiry, ASQA is often left with only three months to propose a decision. In 2019-20, ASQA typically had difficulty meeting the timeframe of this revised performance standard for renewal applications. The annual report notes that, as part of the reform program mentioned in paragraph 2.14, ASQA is 'changing both the process for conducting audits/assessments of performance and [their] internal approach to application processing'. ASQA anticipates that these reforms will improve their ability to better meet Performance Criterion 2 which it only partially met in 2019-20.
Performance Criterion 3, relating to ASQA's role in applying scrutiny and compliance actions to VET providers, was also only partially met in 2019-20. As in Criterion 2, timeliness was identified as a factor in the result. ASQA also noted in their annual report they needed to improve the perceptions of their regulatory decision-making after results from their VET provider survey did not meet the 70 per cent satisfaction benchmark.
Performance Criterion 6 measures ASQA's input and advice on strategies to improve VET regulation and the VET sector. The 2019-20 annual report deemed the measure was only partially met due to the results from their VET provider survey not meeting the benchmark of 70 per cent positive responses. Only 64 per cent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that 'ASQA engages effectively to strengthen the VET sector and VET sector regulations'. On a positive note though, ASQA made significant steps in 2019-20 to progressing the recommendations of the Rapid Review regarding how ASQA can improve its regulatory approach. Since April 2020, a Reform Implementation Steering Committee within ASQA has been meeting weekly to oversee the implementation of these recommendations.
ASQA considered it had met the standard required for Performance Criterion 4 which measured their engagement with stakeholders to better understand risks in the VET sector. During the reporting period, ASQA accepted speaking invitations at 35 events, with the majority attended at the Commissioner or General Manager level. ASQA also held regular formal meetings with stakeholders such as DESE, state-based VET regulators, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, and peak VET provider representatives bodies including, TAFE Directors Australia, Community Colleges Australia, Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia, Enterprise RTO Association, and English Australia.
The revenue collected by ASQA for fees and charges related to managing the registration of VET training providers and accredited courses was significantly impacted by the events of 2019-20. COVID-19 particularly impacted the final quarter of 2019-20 as audit activities and initial registrations for providers declined. ASQA also announced it would waive some of its fees and charges from 1 January 2020 through 30 June 2021 as part of government measures to relieve financial pressures of COVID-19 on VET providers. During the financial year 2019-20 ASQA waived $4.404 million in fees and charges.
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is a non-corporate Commonwealth entity guided by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011. Its purpose is to protect interests and the reputation of Australia's higher education sector.
TEQSA has a single outcome which is to – 'contribute to a high quality higher education sector through streamlined and nationally consistent higher education regulatory arrangements; registration of higher education providers; accreditation of higher education courses; and investigation, quality assurance, and dissemination of higher education standards and performance'.
To achieve this outcome, TEQSA's Corporate Plan 2019-23 sets out four objectives:
Objective 1 – Quality assure and regulate the sector in a timely, transparent and risk reflective manner;
Objective 2 – Support providers to deliver quality higher education, protect student interests and enhance the reputation and competitiveness of Australia’s higher education sector;
Objective 3 – Provide advice and information to inform decisions about the appropriateness and quality of Australian higher education; and
Objective 4 – Taking prompt and effective action to address substantial risks to students or the reputation of the sector.
Results for all four objectives were largely positive as TEQSA were able to achieve the majority of their performance indicators. Objective 1 was the exception with only achieving 50 per cent of the actions required. One target TEQSA failed to meet was regarding the completion of renewal of registration applications from low-risk providers within six months. The annual report outlined that this was due to a higher amount of adverse outcomes than previous years, one in particular involving Murdoch University which took considerably longer usual. That particular case was named in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners report and raised in the 2020-21 Budget estimates hearings.
TEQSA was able to respond positively to the obstacles COVID-19 created for higher education providers who were forced to transition to online learning. In creating a repository of online learning resources, which had more than 12 000 unique page views, TEQSA considered it had achieved the required level of performance of communication for Objective 2.
Objective 3 was judged to be fully achieved after a year of consistent stakeholder engagement. Two meetings were held during 2019-20 with the Student Expert Advisory Group where key issues and strategies relating to the regulation and quality assurance of higher education were discussed. The National Register of Higher Education Providers (National Register) and the TEQSA website, which both play vital roles in ensuring the transparency of regulatory decisions, were updated regularly whilst work was commenced in 2019-20 to further enhance the National Register. Attendance at TEQSA's annual conference, held in November 2019, was higher than in previous years which TEQSA says reflects strong support for the conference by all groups of TEQSA stakeholders.
Between July 2019 and March 2020, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) undertook a performance audit of TEQSA's regulation of higher education. Reasons for the audit listed by the ANAO include; significant public interest regarding the integrity of admissions standards, academic misconduct (including contract cheating), the integration of international students into Australia campuses, and high amount of Government funding the education sector receives. The audit made five recommendations, agreed to by TEQSA, that relate to the development of a comprehensive compliance monitoring framework supported by appropriate operational processes, and improving the documentation, timeliness and public reporting of some of TEQSA's compliance activities.
For the 2019-20 financial year, TEQSA recorded a deficit of $2.14 million compared with a surplus of $0.75 million in 2018-19. TEQSA primarily attributes the deficit in 2019-20 to increased employee expenses relating to operating and project activities and the effect of the transition to the new lease standard AASB 16.
Education, Skills and Employment portfolio, including Industrial Relations
As mentioned in Chapter 1 of this report, the Administrative Arrangements Order of 29 May 2019 (May 2019 AAO) resulted in a number of industrial relations and workplace safety functions being transferred to the Attorney-General's portfolio. Consequently, this is the first year the Attorney-General's Department (the department) have reported against measures, targets and key activities under Purpose 2 of their corporate plan – 'to facilitate jobs growth through policies and programs that promote fair, productive and safe workplaces'. Previous years' performance results for these measures, targets and key activities can be found in the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business 2018-19 Annual Report. Purpose 1 of the departments corporate plan is concerned with Australia's law, justice and security measures and is therefore not considered in this report. Examination of Purpose 1 can be found within the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee's Report on Annual Reports (No. 1 of 2021).
In 2019-20, the department considered it had achieved 90 per cent of its targets under Purpose 2. This was a 10 per cent improvement from 2018-19 which they attribute to administrative improvements implemented during the reporting period.
The department notably achieved results well above target for performance measures relating to the Fair Entitlement Guarantee (FEG). The FEG provides a safety net for workers who have lost their jobs and entitlements through the liquidation or bankruptcy of their employer. During 2020-21 Budget estimates, the department fielded multiple questions surrounding the FEG and the expected increase in employees applying for entitlements to be repaid through the scheme. Analysis within the annual report shows that overall, claimants and insolvency practitioners were satisfied with the current processes. This leaves the department well positioned as the number of claims are forecast to increase rapidly in the next one to two years.
The department also found 95 per cent of FEG payments were correct after auditing 280 out of 8,420 claim decisions made during the 2019-20 reporting period. This satisfied their target claim payments measure.
The department performed strongly in all measures relating to the timely processing of applications and claims. Within the reporting period, 89 per cent of effective FEG claims were processed within 16 weeks, well above the targeted 80 per cent. The department also achieved an average processing time for claims almost six weeks shorter than the targeted 14 weeks. Also, 100 per cent of accreditation applications to the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner were assessed and contacted within ten working days. This is a solid result for the department which demonstrates their client-focused approach to applications and claims helping them maintaining high levels of accuracy and stakeholder satisfaction.
The only performance measure not achieved by the department saw a decrease in the number of current enterprise agreements and the number of employees covered by current agreements. Analysis in the department's annual report doesn't specify exactly why there has been a decrease in the number and coverage of enterprise agreements, but did comment that the 'measure can be influenced by a range of factors including those outside the department's direct control but reflects the industrial relations framework to which the department's policy and legal advice have contributed'. COVID-19 was also identified as a likely contributor to the decline in enterprise bargaining and ordinary business operations.
The transfer of employees associated with industrial relations functions from the former Department of Education, Skills, Small and Family Business has contributed towards increases in the department's expenditure and revenue from the government for both departmental and administered items in the 2019-20 financial year. Total administered expenses for 2019-20 was $897.952 million compared to $413.222 million in 2018-19. Major expenses in 2019-20 include $385.543 million in grant payments and $147.349 million in subsidies associated with Coal LSL.
Comcare is a corporate Commonwealth entity established under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. Comcare also manage claims in relation to the Asbestos-related Claims (Management of Commonwealth Liabilities) Act 2005 and the Parliamentary Injury Compensation Scheme, which was established under the Parliamentary Entitlements Act 1990.
Comcare's sole outcome is to 'support participation and productivity through healthy and safe workplaces that minimise the impact of harm'. To achieve this, the five strategic priorities detailed in their 2019-23 corporate plan are listed as:
driving innovation and better practice;
leading workers' compensation insurer;
effective national regulator;
excellence in scheme design and management; and
efficient and effective operations.
The 2019-23 corporate plan established 28 targets to be met across the five strategic priorities. Comcare achieved 18 of those performance targets. Three were unable to be assessed due to delays in the conduct of external surveys due to COVID-19, leaving seven performance measures not achieved.
All targets for priority one were assessed to be achieved or partly achieved. Helping to accomplish this, Comcare partnered with Beyond Blue in introducing an innovative and prevention-focused initiative called NewAccess workplaces. This is an early intervention service helping employees who may be experiencing poor mental health.
During the reporting period, Comcare identified that while Australian Public Service employees were delivering essential services to many Australian communities during COVID-19, they were also exposing themselves to increased mental health pressures. NewAccess workplaces promote and protect the mental health of this essential workforce and this initiative is currently offered to 15 federal agencies in the national scheme.
Comcare reported strong results for strategic priority four concerning the design, implementation and management of workers' compensation schemes and the improvement of WHS and rehabilitation outcomes. During the reporting period, Comcare published new Guidelines for Rehabilitation Authorities 2019, which allow employers to tailor rehabilitation practices to achieve positive recovery and return to work outcomes for employees.
Unfortunately, the committee has noticed a pattern of unachieved targets since Comcare's annual report was considered three years ago in the Education and Employment Legislation Committee, Annual reports (No. 1 of 2019). In that report the committee noted the following criteria for Comcare had not been met:
increasing the proportion of employees who have returned to work, measured by duration of incapacity benefits to facilitate recovery and reduce liability;
high levels of satisfaction and engagement with Comcare services; and
timeliness of claims resolution.
The same three criteria were not met in Comcare's following annual reports of 2018-19 and 2019-20. Of particular note is the criterion concerning 'timeliness of claims resolution (i.e. percentage of primary asbestos claims resolved within 180 calendar days)'. In the most recent reporting period, Comcare reported a result of 57 per cent, consistent with the 58 per cent achieved in 2018-19 and well below the targeted 80 per cent. In response to this, Comcare considers they are completing actions to resolve claims quickly, however processes outside their control, particularly during complex asbestos-related claims, mean many claims are not resolved within 180 days.
Comcare recognised that they must improve the way they work with employees, employers and other stakeholders within the claims ecosystem. A program of initiatives is currently underway to help improve those outcomes.
Comcare met its performance targets relating to premium scheme financial sustainability and funding. Although a slight decrease from the previous year, Comcare still exceeded its target funding ratio range of 100-125 per cent, by achieving 128 per cent. The positive funding ratio represents a surplus of premium funds of $471.9 million available to settle claims liabilities. Net premium liabilities for the reporting year matched its target of $1.71 billion.
Safe Work Australia
Safe Work Australia is a non-corporate Commonwealth entity established under the Safe Work Australia Act 2008. Its primary outcome is for healthier, safer and more productive workplaces through improvements to Australian work health and safety (WHS) and workers' compensation arrangements.
SWA measured its performance against this outcome during the reporting period using two performance criteria:
Performance criterion 1 – activities in the operational plan are delivered to the expected quality, on time and within budget; and
Performance criterion 2 – reductions in the incidence of work-related death, injury and illness through:
an improved and reformed WHS framework;
increased WHS awareness and skills;
developing and maintaining an evidence base which informs policy and practice;
reduced exposure to work-related hazards causing injury and illness; and
improved quality of workplace controls.
Safe Work Australia considered it had achieved the targeted 70-80 per cent satisfaction rate for Performance criterion 1. A survey of Safe Work Australia Members and the Chair indicated 91.6 per cent were either satisfied or very satisfied with the delivery of activities outlined in their operational plan. Members and the Chair also indicated a high level of satisfaction that COVID-19 was appropriately prioritised.
A significant achievement that contributed to the high stakeholder satisfaction rates reported was the redevelopment of the Safe Work Australia website to serve as a central hub for COVID-19 WHS information. During the 2020-21 Budget estimates, Ms Jody Anderson, First Assistant Secretary at the Attorney-General's Department within the Industrial Relations Group, reported that since 30 April 2020, Safe Work Australia had released a range of COVID-19 guidance and materials on its website covering roughly '37 industries as well as 22 work health and safety related topics'.
A new COVID-19 Response branch was also stood up during the reporting period to help the agency proactively engage with and provide guidance to Members and Government Bodies. The guidance covers a range of health and safety topics affecting Australian workplaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the annual report notes was 'very well received by all stakeholders'.
Regarding Performance criterion 2, Safe Work Australia considers it is on track to reach the targets set by the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2010-2022 (the Australian Strategy). The latest data compiled by Safe Work Australia indicating these targets will be achieved show a:
36 per cent decrease in the number of traumatic injury fatalities;
26 per cent decrease in the rate of serious injuries resulting in one or more weeks off work; and a
31 per cent decrease in the rate of musculoskeletal claims.
Achievements by Safe Work Australia in tackling the high priority areas identified in the Australian Strategy include:
a published report outlining the current knowledge of work related musculoskeletal disorder (WMSD) hazards and risk factors, statistics on incidence and impact, and a review of WMSD interventions in Australia and internationally;
further research into the agriculture industry;
progressed research with the Monash University Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health on occupational lung disease in Australia;
undertook work to assess the application of the model WHS laws in the gig economy for consideration by Safe Work Australia Members in late 2020; and
drafting guidance on sexual harassment for consideration by Safe Work Australia Members.
Safe Work Australia has also commenced planning for the development of the next national WHS strategy.
In 2019-20, Safe Work Australia received $21.041 million in funding and had an operating surplus of $933.000.
Senator the Hon James McGrath