House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Grievance Debate

Vocational Education and Training

5:53 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week terror spread through a variety of Liberal Party state governments when they heard conjecture that the TAFE sector should be taken over by the Turnbull federal government. The relevant state minister in New South Wales, John Barilaro, commented:

I have little confidence that they could run a national vocational education and training sector …

…   …   …

Whenever you put tax dollars on the table, the cowboys rise to the surface.

Tasmanian minister Jeremy Rockliff was not to be outdone. He commented:

We do not support a Federal takeover of our VET or TasTAFE.

He commented that the system was 'doing a wonderful job'.

Whilst it was, according to federal sources, similar to the GST—a 'work in progress'—this did not allay the concerns of Liberal state governments. Of course, they have reason to be concerned. We see a situation now where 75 per cent of VET FEE-HELP assistance goes to private providers, predominantly with a 30 per cent profit margin. At the national level we see that 100,000 awarded qualifications have been withdrawn. However, I do not think that the federal government is without an argument with regard to its view of the performance of the New South Wales government. There we have seen a drop of 43,000 students in TAFE in 2014-15 and 83,000 from 2012 to 2015. We have witnessed a fee rise of 9.5 per cent above CPI, which led to a New South Wales government decision to freeze fees in 2016—a questionable late reaction to fees that are too high. One example of what is happening is in the early childhood sector, where $4,190 fees in 2014 have grown to $6,500. We have a situation where 4,600 teaching and support positions have disappeared. This is part of a situation which has seen VET fees nationally move from $700 million to $1.7 billion.

Conceding that the federal government has a point about state Liberal government performances, I return to the federal sphere. We see that in 2014, of the top 10 recipients of VET FEE-HELP loan funding, five private colleges have found their way into the media because of issues with either ASQA or the ACCC. They are ACTE Pty Ltd—Evocca—the Careers Australia education institute, the Australian Institute of Professional Education, Unique International College and Cornerstone Investment. They have VET FEE-HELP that ranges from $46 million to $250 million. This is typical of the proliferation of private sector involvement in this sphere, which has seen continual stories of illiterate, disabled and poor-English-speaking citizens of this country having their doors knocked upon. They are receiving cold calls advocating that they should sign up to these courses. They are given laptops and they are offered this and that. Most of these degrees do not lead to the outcomes that they are advised will occur—in one case, there was an offer of $2,000 in return for the person being part of a conspiracy to steal $25,000 from the federal government.

I do not want to see this manifest itself in areas like Macquarie Fields in my electorate, where currently 3,000 students participate in 100 different courses ranging from aged care, clothing application, disability, fitness, mental health et cetera. The renowned Macarthur Building Industry Skills Centre is also part of it. But I question how far away we are from its decline. On my Christmas holidays I was on the South Coast and I heard on the local radio station the fact that Daptowill close. It is being closed because the state government has deliberately made sure that the numbers of students and courses have been reduced so that they can then go to the public and say, 'Oh well, it's a failure. Let's sell it off.'

I want to also note that in a few of the debates on this subject last week we had a variety of government spokespeople saying that they have fixed up the crisis, that Senator Birmingham has acted and it is all the fault of the previous Labor government in going towards privatisation, deregulation and expansion of this VET assistance. I went back to the 2009 debate to see the massive criticism we must have received from the Liberal Party opposition at that time. If you believed what their speakers last week were saying, they alerted us to this, they made sure that we understood the wrongness of our ways and they made sure that they exposed all the possible weaknesses of our approach.

I note the member for Boothby has just walked in. It is worth recalling his comments at that time. He said, 'We supported broadening of the definition of students who would be able to receive VET FEE HELP.' He went on to say:

At this stage it applies specifically only to VET reform states or territories, and at present there is only one, and that is Victoria. There is provision there for other states, should they go down the same pathway that Victoria has gone down in the vocational education and training sector.

He also said:

This is a straightforward piece of legislation. We do support the extension of income-contingent loans, in this case to Victoria, and any other states or territories that go down that track.

The former minister for vocational education, the member for Goldstein, said when he introduced another bill in this policy area that the operation of the scheme will be monitored carefully and that he was of the general view that this introduction was a success. Finally, the member for Boothby commented on behalf of the opposition, 'As a consequence, this is a simple machinery bill, the result of some earlier pieces of legislation.' I do not think he was too critical of the road the Australian government was going down. I do not know whether these newer members of parliament are aware of that kind of history in this particular policy area. All of these dreadful, dire outcomes eventuated—I do not think the member for Boothby was too helpful in alerting us to what he already knew about this disaster.

  I want to turn to one of the individual cases, Unique International College, which is in the suburb where I reside. It was exposed by Eryk Bagshaw in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 October 2015. I want to put on the record some of the details of this specific example. They have a graduation rate of 2.4 per cent—in other words, one in every 40 students they sign up manages to graduate. The ACCC is seeking $57 million from this organisation, and in the past year they received $42 million from ASQA. They have nonexistent diplomas, and they have made $2,000 payments and given free laptops to students. Their campus is a single room above Silly Willy's $2 shop at 60 South Street, Granville. The website containing the article for the Sydney Morning Herald,shows a property owned by this company. It is a private house with a 12-car garage in Kenthurst. I suspect it might be the home of this Mr Amarjit Singh or Mr Amarjit Khela, the proprietor of the organisation. This house is many, many, many times larger than the entire campus of the company. Last year—at the time of the writing, so this would have been back in 2014—they had profits of $11 million. They have been deregistered, but I understand it is under appeal.

  This is typical of what Michael Bachelard described on 6 September 2015 as 'the biggest get-rich quick scheme in Australia'. He therein spoke of call centres, door to door knocking, aggregations et cetera. I gather that some of the companies he examined have moved from giving away laptops to allegedly now only lending them to people who joined. A major person cited in that article had said on record that he had to 'cross the boundary' in this area. He said, 'As long as I don't get a complaint in my ear.' He said to the people working for this company enticing people to sign up for these VET-HELP offers that they could go as far as they wanted as long as he did not hear any complaints back. It has been articulated. They target the illiterate, the unemployed, people in housing department properties, people with minimal English. As I say, it is a matter of grave concern. I understand the state government is concerned, along with the federal government.