Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading
It's good to be able to do something to support TAFE in this House. I think this is one of the first opportunities that I have had in the two years that I have been here to focus purely on vocational education and not just on fixing a mess. It is rather timely that, as I rise to speak, the 'TAFE meets parliament' event is getting underway in this place. I hope that MPs and senators will take the chance to go and speak with the TAFE people here to really understand the diversity of things that TAFE is bringing to our community.
Unfortunately, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and related bill merely tinker around the edges of vocational training, and that is disappointing. The bill places VET student loans second in the hierarchy of repayments after HELP debts. On the positive side, this certainly allows for greater transparency of repayment rates of VET student loans, and that should enable governments to better model those loans. So it is practical in that sense. It also lays the groundwork to be able to specify courses eligible for VET student loans to be referred to on the national register of courses, which ensures that students aren't disadvantaged when a course is replaced. So it is minor administrative work that we are happy to support.
But we on this side of the House know that there is an urgent need to make changes, so that we have a world-class post-high-school vocational education and training system that is designed for the 21st century. This legislation fails to address the inequalities that have grown as student loans have expanded, as profit margins of providers have increased and as educational costs have been shifted onto young people, including disproportionately onto apprentices and trainees.
One of my local TAFEs, Richmond TAFE, held its open day last weekend, and what a privilege it was to speak to teachers, administrators and students about the courses that are offered there: child care, horticulture, computer skills, equine and animal care—it has a huge range. Actually, you can learn to do everything from shoeing a horse—in fact, learn to be a blacksmith—to caring for cats as a vet nurse or carving a feature stone wall and creating a water feature in the garden. Their horticulture courses are designed to skill workers to care for a racetrack or landscape a public space or propagate plants. So Richmond is an amazing TAFE. It's part of an educational precinct that we have in the Hawkesbury, which includes the campus of Western Sydney university.
The Wentworth Falls and Katoomba TAFE, in another part of my electorate, in the Blue Mountains, skill up workers for a completely different set of jobs. They focus on hospitality and on outdoor adventure work, which, of course, is very fitting for the Blue Mountains. Disability support and beauty therapy are among the many courses that are available. The point I want to make is that there is huge diversity in courses in my electorate alone. They're surviving in spite of, not because of, government policy at both the state and federal levels. It's time we had policy from a federal government that helps the sector, rather than nobbles it.
One of the worst things that we would all be aware has happened to vocational education students in the private sector has been the government's failure to stem the corrupt practices of unscrupulous for-profit training providers. They allowed the ripping off of students and the ripping off of taxpayer dollars long after it was clear there was a problem and clear that the system was being abused. And it does seem that it's not over; a recent report showed that the VET Student Loans Ombudsman received over 5,000 complaints about dodgy private training providers in nine months. That really should have been a wake-up call. Alarmingly, the ombudsman expects this number to increase as students lodge their tax returns, only to find they've been charged for courses they haven't done. I have to say that one of my own staff has experienced this just recently. The ombudsman's report states:
… many complainants first discover they have a student loan or discover that the loan amount is larger than they expected, when they submit their tax return.
It's described as one of the biggest rorts in Australian education history by newspapers and commentators. It is feared that many students still remain unaware that they have been charged and therefore haven't reported it.
The failure to act has meant that VET students have really suffered and that the whole sector has got a bad name, which is really disappointing—and enrolments continue to drop. I want to point out that it isn't every private provider that deliberately sets out to rip off taxpayers or students. We know that. We know there are quality providers, and they should be absolutely congratulated on what they do. Quality private providers have a really key role in vocational education.
I also want to talk about the specialist providers, some of whom still have students being excluded from eligibility for VET FEE-HELP loans. As an example, these are the private colleges that are teaching music, dance, acting or filmmaking. For example, they're providing professionally focused training, often using professional-standard equipment. They have small groups and a very large number of teachers to students. They certainly don't deserve to be tarnished by the same brush as many of the dodgy private providers. Their courses may not meet the criteria that are demanded from the more online delivery-focused courses on offer, but they provide a really vital role in skilling up our actors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers to tell Australian stories. I note the recognition that places where pilots study also fitted into this category, and that they were given an exemption. So I really think that we have to make sure we don't just brush all of them into the same category when they really have quite individual characteristics. But be in no doubt: any abuse of the system in place by any provider should be acted on fast. The vast majority of training should be delivered, we think, through the public system.
In contrast to the government's approach, Labor will ensure that at least two-thirds of all government funding for vocational education will go to the trusted public provider, TAFE. The balance will go to not-for-profit community and adult educators, and then only high-quality providers with demonstrated links to industry so that there is less opportunity for bad operators in the private sector to take advantage of students and to give the sector a bad name. We need a robust inquiry into vocational education in Australia, which Labor is committed to doing.
The Abbott-Turnbull governments have stripped $3 billion from vocational education since being elected. The vocational system has been damaged by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy competition. So, in our first 100 days of office, Labor will establish this inquiry into postsecondary education. Ensuring secure consumer protections for students will form a key part of our review. Foremost, the inquiry will build a postsecondary education system focused on ensuring sustainable, quality provision in the first place, with TAFE and universities at its centre.
When you think about the data on what has happened to TAFE and the VET system in the last five years, it is a sad tale, with $3 billion taken out of TAFE skills and training funding and a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships—and still falling. In towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back, fees have increased and teachers have lost their jobs. There was a 30 per cent drop in government-funded training happening at TAFE just between 2013 and 2016. The numbers are damning.
There have been so few initiatives by this government that have helped TAFE or vocational training, but the one it has tried is the lamentable Skilling Australians Fund. This is the fund that depends on visas being issued to foreign workers in order to get money into it. If the number of visas goes down, so will the funding for much-needed skills development for Australians.
There is absolutely no commitment by this government to training young people or retraining older workers. Now, if we just think about the role that TAFE has, yes, we think about it for young people. They might not have thrived in a school environment, but once they can get their hands on something tangible—whether it is in Richmond TAFE, where they can get their hands on a horseshoe and they can be looking after the animals in the small-animals-care area, or it is being able to learn the skills to be a childcare worker, which involves interacting with young children, as opposed to the high school students that they have spent many years with; whatever it is that changes the dynamic for young people—TAFE seems to be able to offer a range of different experiences that can transform young people's lives. That's why it is such an important institution.
But it isn't just young workers. I have spoken to so many people who have said that they got their second chance from TAFE. They may have left school early, raised a family as a mum or a dad, had time out of the workforce or never really had a career that they were really inspired by, but they were able to go back to TAFE and try something new. The thing that really is telling is that it's not always the first course that someone tries at TAFE that they end up doing forever. But those small courses that give people some skills, even if it's just the confidence that they can actually do it and have the ability to complete a short course—it might be the only course they've ever completed in their life—are the sorts of things that we need to make sure TAFE can still do.
We also need to make sure that support is there for people who have disabilities for them to be able to expand their skills and their knowledge and really be workers who can contribute to society. For me, that's what's so important.
You can't do that if you don't have teachers who can be fully committed to TAFE. What has happened to teachers? I'm very fortunate: the Blue Mountains have more teachers per head of population than any other place in the country. Not only do we have schoolteachers in the public system, in the independent system and in the Catholic system; we also have TAFE teachers. Over the years, hearing the stories of how the system has let them down and how many of them have walked away from it has been really dispiriting and disheartening. Those who have stayed deserve an enormous thankyou from us. They have kept with the system, even though it has been crumbling around them, and they've been determined to make sure that students have not felt the pain of the disaster that has been happening.
There are many things that we need to do to rebuild TAFE, to take it back to what it was. In New South Wales, TAFE was considered one of the world-leading vocational education training systems. In the first 100 days of government Labor will establish its once-in-a generation review into post-school education, with TAFE and universities at its centre. Labor's commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. It is the backbone of our skills and training sector and is needed even more as people move through not just one or two careers in their lifetime but several careers.
Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made a commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills and training funding, by reversing the $637 million cut to the skills budget and investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. As I look around the campuses in my electorate, they're not crumbling but they haven't had a lot of updates to them. You can certainly see the opportunities to equip these teaching institutions with the tools people need to use in their professional working lives. We'll be doing that around the country.
The other thing that will really make a difference for apprentices and trainees is our commitment to ensuring that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects is done by an apprentice. It is too easy to think that we can find already skilled workers from somewhere else. I have real fears that the international agreements we have signed, which free up and get rid of labour-market testing, will mean that we see even fewer apprentices and trainees being given that chance they need on big projects. We will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs is for an apprentice.
The difference is that without a plan for education—as those opposite don't have a plan—and without a plan for training you have no plan for the future. It's only Labor that has a very clear vision of where our future lies—in a skilled and educated group of people, flexible in their skills, who can adapt to the changes that we know are coming and we need to be ready for.