Parliamentary speeches

Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill

November 28, 2018

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018. This bill will provide much needed redress for students who have taken on VET FEE-HELP debts from unscrupulous providers. It amends schedule 1A of the Higher Education Support Act to introduce a broad remedy for students who incur a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by vocational education and training providers or their agents. The bill will also give discretionary power to the Secretary of the Department of Education and Training to recredit a person's VET FEE-HELP debt.

After five years in government, the Liberals have finally taken action. This is absolutely overdue. There are too many students, many of them very vulnerable people, who have fallen victim to unscrupulous behaviour on the part of dodgy VET providers. We want to see students have those unfair debts removed as soon as possible. No student should be expected to pay an unfair debt. Under Labor, the VET FEE-HELP scheme provided loans totalling around $1.4 billion over five years, yet the scheme's costs have simply exploded under the present government. They went to $1.8 billion in 2014 and more than doubled, to $3 billion, in 2015. In fact, the government, before they finally stepped in to close this scheme, had been in power for three years while a staggering $6 billion in loans were issued.

Disgracefully, this is but one part of a broader pattern of neglect. We now know that more than 9,000 Australians have complained to the Ombudsman after being charged VET FEE-HELP for courses they never took. Far too few of those students have received relief from these unfair debts. The measures contained in this bill, which we do support, are way overdue, and that needs to be acknowledged. These students should never have been expected to pay debts racked up by dodgy, for-profit training providers that were allowed to go rogue under this government's watch.

For years we've seen no action from the government while the government knew that this was happening. Way back in 2014, the then Minister for Education, the member for Sturt, was warned of the dismal completion rates occurring under this scheme, but he sat on his hands in this area of his portfolio, as he did in others. In 2015, the government again refused to act while further reports of appalling recruitment practices emerged. Private colleges and their brokers were targeting vulnerable Australians, misleading them about training's cost and, indeed, its utility to them. Unscrupulous providers were using incentives such as free iPads and make-up kits to lock young people into debts that averaged nearly $20,000 a time. They were signing up people twice to courses they didn't even intend to deliver. People with no internet connection were duped into signing up for online courses. Tuition fees skyrocketed. The ultimate disgrace—and this is according to the government's own discussion paper from 2015—is that the poorer you were, the more you were paying. Debt holders from low socioeconomic backgrounds were charged an average of $3,359 more for a course than students from more affluent backgrounds were. Indigenous Australians were paying $5,649 more for a VET FEE-HELP course than non-Indigenous Australians were.

The government failed to deal with the problems of these unfair debts despite all the mounting evidence. Instead, they kept giving hundreds of millions of dollars to companies like Careers Australia. In 2015, Careers Australia were exposed by the ABC for cold-calling vulnerable Australians to flog their dodgy courses. They were charging $23,250 for a double diploma in business management—$23,250!—when the same course at TAFE Queensland South West cost $6,800. In 2017, after receiving around $600 million in Commonwealth funding, Careers Australia collapsed, leaving 15,000 students stranded and a thousand workers without employment. Of course, the government like to perpetuate the myth that this was nothing to do with them, but, let's be clear: they knew exactly what was happening and they chose to do nothing.

All the Liberals have managed to do is to make vocational education more expensive and less accessible. Consequently, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:

(1) the Government has slashed:

(a) more than $3 billion of funding for vocational education and skills; and

(b) in the last Budget, a further $270 million over the forward estimates in funding for apprenticeships; and

(2) there are now 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than when the Coalition Government took office".

This legislation does not exist in a vacuum. In considering its terms and adopting it in those terms, we must consider the wider context. Young people, older workers and, perhaps most especially, apprentices have every right to feel ripped off because of the actions and inactions of this government. Through the Liberals' time in power, thousands of students have been ripped off, billions have been slashed from TAFE and vocational education, and more than 140,000 Australian apprenticeships have disappeared. It's appalling. It's not good enough.

Since they were elected, the Liberals have cut more than $3 billion from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships. In the last budget the Treasurer, now the Prime Minister, cut a further $270 million from apprenticeships funding. For more than a year the government failed to spend one cent on an apprenticeship out of its flawed Skilling Australians Fund—not a single cent. You can't stabilise a system that has been deeply damaged while you ruthlessly cut back funding. Of course, this system needs much more than simply stabilising. As a result of this chaos, inaction and neglect, we have seen an overall decline in outcomes for students. Enrolments are dropping, completions are low and costs are shifting onto students as fees increase. Under the Liberals, TAFE courses have been cut back, campuses are closing and TAFE teachers are losing their jobs. Dissatisfied employers continue to complain of skills shortages and skills gaps. There isn't enough investment in important infrastructure.

Today we have a VET system that delivers too many qualifications that are narrow, rigid, slow to adapt and simply not fit for purpose, and there is a complete lack of leadership from the present government. The failures in current skills and vocational education policy are there for all to see, and many have commented on this. The Productivity Commission called the system a mess. The OECD has been reporting that Australia simply doesn't have the skills to engage effectively in global value chains. The skills quality regulator, ASQA, has described the training market as a race to the bottom. A recent independent report authored by Terry Moran—someone who knows quite a bit about this, as one of the original architects of our national training system in Australia—says it is fragmented and has been devalued, that there is no effective governance, that the funding arrangements are chaotic and that there is no national strategy underpinning this.

The unfortunate truth is that this government is incapable of developing policies to address these issues. Incapable? That's unfortunate. But it's unforgivable that the government seems unwilling and uninterested in addressing this. Maybe it is because the government are simply so divided and so dysfunctional that they can't formulate a response. While this government have been busy tearing each other apart they have turned a blind eye to what is glaringly obvious to those of us on this side of the House and elsewhere in the community. This is a vital sector to the Australian economy and to Australians—young Australians and older Australian workers—but all it has been getting under this government is funding cuts, on the one hand, and neglect, and sometimes platitudes, at best, on the other.

In contrast, Labor value our vocational education and training system as we value education generally. That is why the Deputy Leader of the Opposition determined to take this portfolio responsibility in opposition and has led the debate in that regard. At the centre of our vision for vocational education is a strong and revitalised public TAFE. TAFEs are, of course, critical anchors in our communities. They have educated and trained millions of Australians since they were formed in the 1970s. They support those students who are thriving in adult-learning environments and they deliver critical education and training to regional and rural Australia, education that is fit for the employment needs of those communities. TAFE is the backbone of technical and trades training in this country, and it has to continue to be. Once you lose a critical institution like a TAFE it is very hard and very costly to get it back. We simply cannot afford for TAFE to be underfunded while private firms engage in rent seeking and make profits of up to 50 per cent. Labor will restore public TAFE as the major provider in vocational education and training. This is why Labor has committed that at least two-thirds of government funding for vocational educational will go to TAFE. The vocational education and training gravy train will end under a Labor government. But we are committing more than this. We have also committed $100 million to the building TAFE for the future fund, to commence a program of revitalising campuses around Australia.

Generations of Australians have followed the trusted path into decent work through apprenticeship. These provide young people with the opportunity to build prosperous working lives, as well as retraining for experienced workers seeking to re-skill over the course of their careers. Labor has always championed quality apprentices. That is why a Labor government will boost apprentice numbers across the country on government funded projects. At least one in 10 jobs on all major infrastructure and defence projects will be filled by an apprentice under Labor. We will only fund projects where major contractors have an apprenticeship and training plan that links in with local TAFEs and provides skills to workers who live locally. Labor will also work to deliver one in 10 apprentices on priority projects already underway like the NBN and in government enterprises like the Australian Rail Track Corporation.

Knowing what you want to do before you start work is tricky. It's a big challenge for individuals and a huge challenge for our national government. It's also one of the reasons why so many young apprentices don't finish their apprenticeship, and Labor is responding to this challenge. We will do so by helping 10,000 young jobseekers choose the best apprenticeship for them by providing nationally recognised, industry endorsed 20-week pre-apprenticeship training. Places will be available to young people through TAFEs where local employers are on board and there is an opportunity for ongoing work.

A trade apprenticeship takes three or four years to complete. That's a long time to spend on training wages for workers who want or need to change jobs. So a Shorten Labor government will fast-track quality trade apprenticeships for up to $20,000 for adults who need to retrain because of changes in the economy. Workers will be given credit for existing skills and knowledge and provided with training at TAFE to consolidate their knowledge and fill skills gaps. These apprenticeships will be available in trades that are in demand.

All Australians should have access through their working lives to the education, skills and training they need for decent jobs and which our economy needs. Education and training allows them to lead decent lives and be active members of their local community. Labor believes that no-one should be excluded from access to vocational education and training as a result of financial disadvantage, course costs, fear of debt or regional disadvantage. That's why Labor has made the commitment that in the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government we will establish a once-in-a-generation national inquiry to examine all aspects of Australia's post-secondary education system, to examine and make recommendations about how our vocational education and higher education systems address the country's social and economic needs. Critically, this inquiry, championed by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, will examine the role of TAFE, which under a Labor government will be at the centre of Australia's future vocational education system as it always should have been, as it should be, as it needs to be. Labor has already met, through the work of the shadow minister, with a panel of eminent experts—educators, unionists and members of the business community—so that they can provide their advice on the scope and terms of reference of this inquiry. This will be the first time a national inquiry puts TAFE and universities on an equal footing, and it will repair the damage done by unscrupulous for-profit providers and the neglect of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments.

Returning to the bill which is before us, we hope that the changes contained in this bill, which Labor is pleased to support, will go towards helping the many students who have been ripped off. More profoundly, we hope that we can see a system where so many vulnerable students are never able to be ripped off by unscrupulous providers and where young Australians and older workers get every opportunity to get the skills they need, deserve and are entitled to.

WE'LL PUT PEOPLE FIRST