I will start by thanking those who made considered and sensible contributions to the debate today. There were, however, a number of remarks made by some of the members opposite that I would actually like to correct by putting some facts clearly on the record. The Turnbull government is clearly committed to vocational education and skills. I would dispute the remarks from the previous Labour government because when they were in office they implemented nine successive cuts to employer incentives, totalling $1.2 billion. The result of that was that in their last year in office there was a significant decline in the number of apprentices—a drop which I believe is the single biggest drop in numbers. The number of apprentices dropped 110,000 in their last year in office.
We as a government have had to take some fairly considered and direct action to reverse those terrible cuts and the damage that those cuts made to vocational education and to apprenticeships in particular. The previous Labour government negotiated a deal with the states and territories: a national partnership agreement that ran from 2012 to the end of June 2017. It was a $1.75 billion agreement of which $1.15 billion went to harmonisation of structural issues within vocational education. Only $600 million of that went to direct training outcomes. During that time, we saw a significant decline in the number of apprentices. So coming off the 22 per cent, there was upwards of a 45 per cent drop in the number of apprentices in training. That was as a direct result of the action that the former Labor government took. It's important to note that, under that national partnership agreement, contestability was introduced into the system. During that time, TAFE enrolments declined from about 60 per cent to the high 40 per cents—a direct result of the action Labor took under the agreement they negotiated with the states and territories, the 2012-17 national partnership agreement.
I have heard Labor talk about VET-FEE-HELP. It is fair to say that what we inherited was a dog's breakfast, that there were significant problems with the system that Labor designed and implemented. Over a number of years, we sought to make some changes to VET FEE-HELP to try and stop the rorting of the system that had been implemented by Labor. We did that until it became very clear that what he had inherited was actually so poor that we needed to replace the system in its entirety, which we have done. I am very pleased to say that the changes negotiated by the Turnbull government and specifically under the leadership of Senator Simon Birmingham as the minister responsible have meant that issues of integrity are being increased within the vocational education sector and there is now an optimistic outlook for a sector that had been gutted by the former Labour government.
The bill that we are debating today is the Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Integrity and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I'd like to put some comments on the record specifically in relation to that bill. Students looking to expand their skills and capabilities are fortunate to have a diverse range of high-quality higher education providers from which to choose. Continued demand from students, both domestic and international, is a vote of confidence in the opportunities afforded by Australian education providers. However, the system is only as strong as its weakest link and, as we have learned from the experience of the poorly designed VET FEEHELP scheme, there are those who would seek to exploit students and taxpayers for their own gain.
The recent increase in interest from providers seeking to enter the higher education sector underpins the importance of acting now. The Turnbull government took decisive action to stop the VET FEE-HELP rorts and has decided to act now to apply similar measures to the higher and international education sectors. These measures will ensure we are able to identify, monitor and prevent the sorts of unscrupulous behaviours exhibited by some VET FEE-HELP providers. Together they will enhance protections in place for students, strengthen the monitoring framework for international education providers and non-university higher education providers, and act to limit the risk to taxpayers. For the majority of providers who operate with integrity and in the best interests of their students, these measures will require little change and they will be free to continue to do what they do best. But the few who seek to gain at the expense of students should be on notice. We will not tolerate unscrupulous behaviours that harms students, exploits taxpayers or tarnishes the reputation of the Australian international and higher education sectors. I commend the bill.