House debates

Wednesday, 28 November 2018


Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018; Second Reading

11:54 am

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Schools) Share this | | Hansard source

) ( ): 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.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Jason ClareJason Clare (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, the amendment is seconded, and I reserve my right to speak.

12:08 pm

Photo of Bert Van ManenBert Van Manen (Forde, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As much as I like the member for Scullin and there are some things in his contribution I would agree with, there are other things I would readily disagree with. But that's the nature of this place. I will agree with the member for Scullin that vocational education and training is incredibly important for our economy.

As I go around my electorate to the various manufacturing businesses and other businesses in my electorate, I talk to many people in those businesses that have been there for many, many years. They all have one thing in common: they started in those businesses as apprentices. They did their apprenticeship, they built their skills, they built their knowledge and they gained a long-time profession as a result. We don't often talk about people with trade and vocational skills as professionals, but I think it's fair to say that we probably should, because there are many skilled and talented people out there with vocational training and skills that are highly qualified in their particular trade, and our economy wouldn't function without those skills.

This bill is the result of having to fix a mess that was initially created by those opposite with the changes they made in 2012. It's interesting to reflect on the comments from the Australian National Audit Office in its 2016 audit of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, in which they characterised the amendment made by those opposite in 2012 as 'heavily supporting growth in the VET sector, while providing insufficient safeguards for students from misleading and deceptive conduct and inadequate monitoring, investigation and payment controls for poor or noncompliance by those same providers'. So this is just the latest in a tranche of bills in this space which have sought to clean up the mess created by those opposite as a result of those 2012 changes. This bill is designed to ensure that we relieve those students who were ripped off by those dodgy providers, by having their debts cancelled so they don't have to repay those debts.

We should recognise that, whilst there are those who have done the wrong thing by students, there are still many high-quality VET organisations in our community and in our country. Our vocational education training sector is world class. It serves millions of Australians, providing them with valuable qualifications but it also contributes $5 million of export income to the Australian economy. But, disappointingly, all too often, the achievements of those in the sector are overlooked because of the small number of providers who have done the wrong thing by students and Australian taxpayers.

Sadly, there were one or two of those in my electorate of Forde. Equally, there are some great organisations, who work very closely with our schools to ensure that the students at school who have a desire to follow a trade or a vocational pathway have the relevant opportunities and training available to them. Far too often we speak about schools in the context of those who seek to follow an academic or tertiary education path and we don't speak often enough about the students in our schools who, if you put a screwdriver or a hammer or a tool in their hand, light up with joy at being able to do a vocational trade.

We see every day as we drive around our electorates the importance of those trade skills. Think about the offices in this building for example. If it wasn't for the skilled tradespeople in our economy, we wouldn't have buildings such as this. Think about the mechanics that repair our vehicles. Think about our electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, tilers, hairdressers—any range of skills and occupations that we see across our economy and across our communities every single day. We sometimes forget that they had to go through a training course to develop those skills.

That is why it's so important that, with the series of bills that we have passed over the past couple of years, we seek to ensure that this sector is well regulated and ensure that those students who want to follow those paths are not ripped off and get the training necessary to ensure they develop the skills to follow the profession that they wish to follow.

As I said, the bill will provide a remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt through the inappropriate conduct of those VET providers and their agents. It will introduce a new discretionary power to enable the secretary of the department administered by the minister administering the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to recredit a person's FEE-HELP balance where the person incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by a VET provider or its agent. In facilitating these amendments to the VET guidelines, a legislative instrument will be made by the minister. It will empower the Commonwealth to recover from the VET provider an amount that is equivalent to the debt remitted in circumstances where the VET provider treated a student as entitled to VET FEE-HELP assistance where they were not entitled to it.

At the end of the day, we're talking about students who have incurred a debt for no good reason, because they were ripped off. We're seeking to have these matters resolved by 31 December 2020—hopefully, I would say, before. An important feature is that the bill provides flexibility for VET guidelines to prescribe a later date which also allows appropriate management of costs and resourcing. As I said at the outset, one of the reasons why this is important is that we want to see and want to ensure that we have a robust, long-term, sustainable VET sector to ensure that those people who want to follow that path have the opportunity to do so.

Disappointingly, it's another example of having to tidy up the mess left by those opposite when they were last in government. Most importantly, we're ensuring that vulnerable Australians who were ripped off have their debts cancelled and can get on with their lives and have confidence in the vocational education and training sector. I commend this bill in its original form to the House.

12:17 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I start by saying that it was very good to see that the member for Forde agrees with this side of the House on the importance of the vocational education and training sector; the professionalism of those who have gone through that sector; and the importance of trades in the economic and social welfare of Australia. It was disappointing, however, to see the member for Forde blame the current situation and the current faults in the system on a previous Labor government, because the truth is that this government has, for the last five years, ripped the heart out of the public TAFE system and sat on its hands while unscrupulous for-profit providers have run rampant.

Australia has a very, very proud history of a world-class vocational education and training system. I want to take a little time to tell the story of a delegation that I attended in 2011. I had an opportunity to join an Australian delegation to the Gulf states. I wasn't just proud to represent Australia; I was particularly proud of my own history working in the vocational education and training sector as a TAFE teacher, because during that trip there were so many expressions of admiration for how Australia had structured its vocational education and training sector—its VET system—and, particularly, its TAFEs. There was so much discussion of the opportunities for Australia to export the expertise that we had developed here in our training systems through our TAFEs. That was back in 2011. Sadly, that is no longer the case. That is no longer the case, because since they were elected the Liberals have cut more than $3 billion from TAFE—from skills and from apprenticeships. In the last budget, as Treasurer, the current Prime Minister cut a further $270 million from apprenticeship funding over the next four years. For more than a year the coalition has failed to spend one cent—one single cent—of its flawed Skilling Australians Fund on an apprenticeship.

In my electorate of Cowan the largest professional group is in the trades. Yet within Cowan, and indeed across Western Australia, we've seen a dramatic decrease in the number of TAFE enrolments in the trades and the number of apprenticeships and traineeships. I've said before here in this House that that cannot be attributed to natural attrition in that sector; it is a direct result of these cuts to the TAFE system by this government. The Liberals have provided no leadership on VET. They're ignoring the underlying flaws in the vocational education system. Instead what they've done is continue to cut funding and cut support to skills formation.

The Productivity Commission have called the current VET system a mess. The OECD reported that Australia doesn't have the skills to engage effectively in global value chains. A recent independent report authored by Terry Moran, one of the original architects of the national system, says that it is, 'fragmented and devalued'. He says, 'There is no effective governance; funding arrangements are chaotic,' and there is no national strategy. That is the current state of our once world-class, once world-envied VET sector and TAFE system.

Before us now we have a bill—the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018—to provide a framework and a remedy for students who have incurred debts from these unscrupulous providers under the previous VET FEE-HELP loans scheme. Labor welcomes this recrediting of the debts to thousands of students ripped off by dodgy for-profit training providers. More than 6,000 students have complained to the Ombudsman after being charged VET FEE-HELP for courses they didn't undertake. The member for Scullin outlined some of the unscrupulous practices, including the offer of iPads and make-up kits, to dupe low socioeconomic students into signing up for courses that they either didn't take or didn't complete. Only a small number of those 6,000 students who have made these complaints have actually received any relief from those unfair debts.

Students should never be expected to pay debts racked up by dodgy for-profit training providers that went rogue under this coalition's watch. This government knew how much was money was rolling out. They knew the great majority of students weren't graduating. The statistics were there. The reports were there. They knew how much money the rorters were making through these practices of duping young people with aspirations and with dreams of a vocational career. This has been an albatross around the neck of a dysfunctional government for more than five years, and finally we have a bill before us that is going to provide some remedy to those students who have been ripped off.

In 2014, then education minister Christopher Pyne was warned of the dismal completion rates under this scheme, and what did this government do? They just sat on their hands as providers continued to exploit vulnerable people and rip off students. It's particularly heartbreaking if you have children yourself. As a parent, the one thing that you want for your children is that they achieve their dreams. It's that they achieve those dreams they have for what they want to be as they get older and that they get the education and training that they need to be able to achieve those dreams. The most heartbreaking thing for a parent is when you see those dreams crumble before your very eyes and you feel helpless to do anything about it. So it's particularly disconcerting that so many young people in particular, so many students who had dreams of one day having a job, an education, a vocational career, were ripped off by these unscrupulous providers. Despite all the concerns about the appalling recruitment practices at Careers Australia that were raised publicly in 2015, this coalition government continued to provide them loans until they eventually collapsed of their own accord in May 2017, leaving thousands of students stranded, 1,000 workers without jobs and milking the coalition government of $600 million in taxpayer dollars.

From 2009, Labor provided the VET FEE-HELP scheme loans of $1.4 billion. We had costed that for $1.4 billion over five years. But, under the coalition, these VET FEE-HELP loans skyrocketed. They skyrocketed to $1.8 billion in 2014 alone and a staggering $3 billion in 2015, totalling $6 billion from 2014 to 2016. Overwhelmingly, that was to private providers. We'll hear a lot from those from the other side who are speaking on this bill about how this is all Labor's fault and how they're fixing up the mess, as the member for Forde put it, that Labor started with our original VET FEE-HELP scheme. But I'd like to remind the House once again that our scheme was costed at $1.5 billion for five years, but under this government's watch, over the last five years, that has blown out to $6 billion. And that's just the economic cost. Let's not also forget the social cost to families, young people, students and all of those people who had dreams of perhaps retraining or finding work in a changing work environment and in the changing nature of work. There was the cost to young people as they saw their dreams of having an education, of having some training, fade right before their very eyes.

We believe that all Australians should have access to education, skills and the training they need for decent jobs that allow them to live good lives and be active members of the community. I've been very fortunate in my life in that I've worked in all sectors of the education industry. I've worked in training and I've worked in higher education. I started out as a TAFE teacher and, by the end of my career, I was a professor at a university. I've always said that not everybody needs to go to university, not everybody wants to go to university and not everybody should go to university. All Australians should have access to the kind of higher education that they need, whether that be at a university or whether that be through TAFE and through training.

Labor believes that nobody should be excluded from access to vocational education and training, whether it's as a result of financial disadvantage or because of the costs of courses, the fear of debt or regional disadvantage. A skilled and educated workforce should be a national economic priority. It's important to recognise that TAFE is the lifeblood of our VET system. Because of that, Labor is committed to restoring TAFE as the major provider in the vocational education and training system. We've seen TAFE colleges close down. We've seen TAFE teachers lose their jobs. As a previous TAFE teacher, I still maintain a lot of contact with my colleagues who still teach at TAFEs and who tell me just how much more difficult it is to be a TAFE teacher in today's environment with so much money cut from TAFEs under this government.

We on this side of the House have always championed quality apprenticeships and we'll continue to ensure more Australians can follow that trusted path into decent work. The Labor inquiry into post-secondary education will build on the best of Australia's vocational education and training systems and repair the damage done by unscrupulous for-profit providers under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government neglect. But, in the meantime, we are pleased that the government has finally passed this bill and that finally those thousands of students who were duped by private providers can at least see some relief.

12:30 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have spoken in many debates in this House on this very important sector of the education system, vocational education and training. I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 today to support the amendment moved by this side of the House and to indicate that I would support the bill regardless. I do that because it is important that action is taken to provide a scheme that gives remedy to the many thousands of Australians who were the victims of very, very unscrupulous behaviour in the sector by far too many providers.

I was very active in campaigning on behalf of this side of the House on those issues post 2013. I take issue with the characterisation of the problem that we're addressing by those opposite, when they lay claim that this is somehow Labor's fault and that they're trying to clean up the mess. I was there, right at the front of that whole process. Labor did extend the access to FEE-HELP for VET students with the support of those opposite at the time—no crying about concerns with the system at the time those amendments were made—with the intention of making access to vocational training more readily available to more Australians. And in that construction, as my colleague has just pointed out, the cost of the scheme was about $1.4 billion over five years.

Then, at the 2013 election, we had a change of government and those opposite took government. At the time, I must say, I reflected in this chamber and more generally in public that I thought it came as much of a surprise to former Minister Macfarlane that education was in his industry portfolio. I thought it came as a shock to him. We then had a subsequent regular turnover of ministers responsible for vocational education. And it became very apparent in 2014 that those opposite really had taken their eye off the ball with what has happening in the sector.

There began to emerge reports of concerns about very dodgy behaviour going on in the abuse of this scheme. At the time, I took issue on numerous occasions with government ministers who tried to portray those reports as a one-off or an unusual circumstance and it just required an intervention with a particular provider and so forth. But it very soon became, over the next 12 months, glaringly apparent that the signal that had been sent, the hands-off approach by the government in education, had seen a massive ramp-up of the abuse of the scheme. What was playing out was not only a massive cost for the scheme but also a really appalling exploitation of many, many vulnerable people in our communities.

By 2014, the amount that the scheme had signed up in debts had absolutely ballooned out to $1.8 billion. The following year, it was $3 billion. If these were not alarm signals to the government that this was a scheme that needed its attention, I don't know what were. Those on this side of the House and many people in the community, including the media, the Consumer Action Law Centre and others, were starting to raise their deep concerns about the scheme.

What's important about this bill is the fact that it provides an easier and more reasonable opportunity for people who have debts under the FEE-HELP scheme in the VET sector to get those debts remedied. I've spoken to people across the country on these loans, and there are people who don't even know that they have a VET FEE-HELP debt until they get a job and they put a tax return in. That's the first time they know they've got a debt, because of the way these shonky practices are operating in signing people up for these training courses—and people don't even realise that that is what they are doing.

I heard stories from Western Sydney about a group of non-English-speaking women, an elderly group, who had a social group. They just wanted to learn some basic computer skills. This provider came in and said, 'Yes, I can do that,' and actually signed them all up to a diploma. All they wanted was some orientation, some basics, about using a computer. They all signed the forms, because they didn't know any better, and then discovered that they'd actually signed up to a diploma with a significant debt that went along with it. They were told, 'Don't worry about that, because you're all older and you'll never earn enough to have to repay it.'

Wherever you go, there are extraordinarily disgraceful stories about providers going in and ripping people off. It's all very well for them to say to people, 'Oh, you'll never have to repay it,' but, for many people, that feeling of anxiety that is caused by owing a debt of that size is real. It causes enormous distress in many communities. People go out and target remote Indigenous communities, with a car boot full of free laptops, and sign people up to diploma courses. It is just rampant.

It is important that the previous bills we've dealt with have tightened up that whole scheme, and now this bill before us will give some relief from that anxiety to people who have a debt, particularly those who never got any qualifications out of that process, who were misled in what they were signing up for and who may have got extremely poor service and support. All the time I talk to people who tell me that they tried to pull out before what is called the census date—that is, the date at which, if you haven't pulled out before then, you will incur the debt—but they couldn't get people to return their emails and acknowledge what they were trying to do. There are so many examples, and so it is important, given the anxiety that comes from having that sort of debt, that we take action as is proposed in this bill before us to give some remedy for that.

There is another side to what's happened in the sector. It sits alongside this problem of the nature of the VET FEE-HELP debts, and I want to cover it in the time I have remaining to me. Not only did we have the VET FEE-HELP blowout debacle playing out, along with the government's failure to respond, but, at the very same time, we had a government that, at every budget and every MYEFO midyear budget adjustment, cut funding out of programs in the vocational education and training sector. Under this government's watch, there were cuts to the sector that now tally about $3 billion. That meant that the opportunity to go to a reliable, trusted provider—some of them are some of the good-quality private providers out there, but most significantly the public provider, our TAFEs, where people know that what they're being provided is a quality product from a reliable provider—was absolutely decimated under this government's watch. Those opposite who get up and talk about how much they value the career opportunity and lifetime employment that comes out of vocational education and training would do this nation a service by telling that to their succession of ministers and treasurers, because we have seen no follow-through with actual investment into the sector.

The Skilling Australians Fund, which looks to fund apprenticeships out of the money collected by bringing people in under skilled migration programs, has just been a complete failure in addressing the massive decline we've seen in apprenticeships in the country. There have been over 140,000 fewer apprentices since those opposite came to government at a time when we know that there is demand out there for many, many trainees and apprentices in relevant fields and a great career opportunity, particularly for our young people but also for older Australians who might be looking to reskill and retrain, to undertake an adult apprenticeship. This is a really important pathway, and the government have completely failed to address the massive decline under their watch.

In my state of New South Wales, the combination of this government and the state Liberal government is seeing TAFEs close. So we're not just losing courses and we're not just losing teachers and expertise; we're seeing TAFE campuses closed. The Dapto TAFE campus sits in my colleague the member for Whitlam's seat right in the middle of a fairly disadvantaged community with high youth unemployment. They have shut that TAFE campus. It's an unbelievable combination of neglect at both the state and the federal level.

I have been critical of the state government, as have my Labor colleagues, but they are, I have to acknowledge, also dealing with the fact that their federal colleagues have been significantly cutting the funding that the federal government provides to TAFE—as I said, $3 billion over the term of their government. You can't say that you're serious about valuing apprenticeships, traineeships, TAFE and vocational training when all you're doing is slashing the funding that actually goes to providing those opportunities. We are seeing the outcomes in a massive decline not only in TAFEs and apprenticeships but in the numbers of people studying in the vocational education sector. Increasingly, we're seeing reports about that drop in the number of people, particularly in the higher levels of vocational training. This sector deserves better than lip service. It needs real action by government and real funding.

I'm very proud that Bill Shorten and the Labor Party team took a whole raft of policy initiatives to the last election, including requiring that for major Commonwealth projects, projects being built with Commonwealth funding, one in 10 of the employees on those projects be apprentices. That's government leading by example and actually ensuring that that opportunity is provided. They included providing funding for transitioning for older workers who are being restructured through an adult apprenticeship into new career paths and providing protection for our TAFE system and direct funding for our TAFEs. These policies continue on the table from Labor now, today. I hope that we get the opportunity to implement them, because I am quite honestly very concerned that if we have another three years of those opposite in charge of the sector it's going to be really, really difficult to rebuild after the decimation that we've already seen and how that could be compounded upon by more neglect and more cuts.

So I commend the amendment moved by our shadow minister, because it is important to make the point in each and every one of these debates that those opposite have, despite lip service, completely failed to deliver in either direct injection of funding or direct support for TAFEs, apprenticeships or traineeships. Our young people, our restructured workers and our communities are paying the price for that—particularly those in rural and regional areas of Australia. I have to say the National Party have a history of being great supporters of the TAFE system because, I take it, they understand how important it is in their local communities. I hope they can make their voice loudly heard in the joint party room so their colleagues get on board, because they need to be out there fighting for these services in their communities too. Perhaps it hasn't been loud enough yet, but maybe it will get louder, fighting within their own joint party room for better funding.

We need to back TAFE, we need to back our apprentices and we need to back traineeships. We need to be doing that in real and meaningful ways. That's got to be a commitment that is debated at the next federal election. I know communities want it debated. We saw in Victoria how significant TAFE was as a campaign issue in the Victorian election, and we saw the complete dismay that the conservatives in Victoria had no policy in this space. I look forward to having that debate at the federal election because I know it matters to our communities.

12:46 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018. The reality is that access to quality and lifelong education is really the lifeblood of this nation. It contributes to the prosperity of all Australians citizens, particularly our young people, and the nation in general. I am currently a registered teacher and a former TAFE teacher. I know firsthand how important vocational education and training is. It is particularly a critical component for this nation's future in the skills development and training for the industries of the future for our young people and for those people who are transitioning from one industry to another industry.

It is no secret that under the LNP government dodgy private VET provider numbers skyrocketed, leaving thousands and thousands of students with massive debts related to courses they have not been able to complete due to the collapse of said dodgy providers. I've had numerous constituents from my electorate in my office, some in tears, over the fact they have a debt and no qualification. This was bound to happen, especially when the government ripped money out of TAFE, which enabled the private market to flourish. In effect, this was privatisation by stealth, cutting public funding to fund the private sector—typical LNP ideologies. The bill before the House today is evidence of the Morrison government's attempt to clean up its own mess. It's a bill that recredits the debts of thousands of students who were ripped off by dodgy for-profit training providers. More than 6,000 students have complained to the ombudsman after being charged VET FEE-HELP for courses they did not undertake or complete, and only a small number to date have received relief from these unfair debts.

I witnessed this attack on vulnerable people by dodgy private providers in my own workplace, the organisation I ran on Palm Island. People without the capacity or the basic foundation skills to undertake diploma skills training were enrolled in dual diplomas with the hoodwinking, I guess, of the gift of a laptop with an internet connection. Sadly for those people, not only did they not get the training they needed but the internet connection they were given was an Optus connection on an island where only Telstra offers services. So that was a little bit of a worry.

Students would never have been expected to pay debts racked up by dodgy for-profit training providers that went rogue under the coalition's watch. The government knew how much money was rolling out. They knew the vast majority of students were not graduating. They knew how much money the rorters were making. This has been an albatross around the neck of this dysfunctional government for more than five years. Labor now welcomes the students getting some relief.

In 2014, the then education minister, Christopher Pyne, was warned of the dismal completion rates under the scheme. However, the government just sat on its hands as providers continued to exploit vulnerable people and rip off students. Despite concerns about appalling recruitment practices at Careers Australia, which were raised publicly in 2015, the coalition continued to provide them loans until they eventually collapsed in May 2015 leaving thousands of students stranded and thousands of workers out of a job after milking the coalition government of some 600 million taxpayer dollars.

From 2009 Labor provided VET FEE-HELP scheme loans of $1.4 billion over five years. Under the coalition VET FEE-HELP loans skyrocketed to $1.8 billion in 2014 and a staggering $3 billion in 2015, totalling $6 billion from 2014 to 2016—overwhelmingly to private providers. The Liberals have provided no leadership on VET, ignoring the underlying flaws in the vocational education and training system, and instead have continued to cut funding that supports skill development. The Productivity Commission have called the system a mess and the OECD reports that Australia doesn't have the skills to engage effectively in global value chains. A recent independent report authored by Terry Moran, one of the original architects of the national system, says it's 'fragmented and devalued'. He said, 'There is no effective governance; funding arrangements are chaotic,' and there is no national strategy.

Since they were elected, the Liberals have cut more than $3 billion from the TAFE training sector for skill development and apprenticeships. In my own community, we have seen a decline in 46 per cent of apprenticeships. In his last budget the then Treasurer, Scott Morrison, cut a further $270 million from apprenticeship funding over the next four years. What has been the impact of these cuts on apprenticeships? Fewer apprenticeships of course. Australia now has 130,000 fewer apprentices and trainees than we did when this government was elected. As I said, in Herbert that's a decline of 46 per cent. That's 1,554 fewer apprentices in Townsville since the LNP was elected. Jobs are cut and apprenticeships are cut. Funding for public hospitals, schools, TAFEs and universities have all been cut. The LNP is always the government of cuts. They hit workers, families, veterans and pensioners the most.

The LNP's feather in the cap is the top end of town as they try to pass on tax handouts for big banks and big business. To do this they are making massive cuts to publicly funded institutions. I think shadow minister for infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, said it best when he said, 'This is a government who clearly doesn't like the public,' and I couldn't agree more. And who was the person who was the architect of these cuts? Who was the person who took an axe to TAFE funding? Who was the architect behind Townsville losing half of our apprentices? It was the then Treasurer and now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the face of the cuts, but the person who designed the cuts, who gave his official sign-off, was now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. The people of Townsville are not fooled by the faux, bus-driving Prime Minister, whose bus is as empty as his promises to Townsville. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has destroyed jobs and apprenticeships in Townsville and across the country.

In the Australia today, TAFE and vocational education and training funding as well as the number of supported students are lower than they were a decade ago. This is despite an increasing number of jobs requiring vocational education and training skills. In too many towns and regional centres across Australia TAFE campuses have closed and courses have been scaled back, but fees have been increased. Employers are also feeling Prime Minister Scott Morrison's cuts. Between 2013 and 2015 employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education and training in regional and rural areas more than doubled. Investment in TAFE and vocational education and training capital infrastructure fell by a staggering almost 75 per cent. The hours of training delivered by TAFE fell by over 25 per cent.

The Turnbull-Abbott governments have presided over seven consecutive quarters of decline in trade apprenticeships. There are 41,000 fewer trade apprentices in training, while employer groups are reporting shortages in trades and technical occupations, in particular in construction and engineering. In 2015-16 alone, 10,403 temporary migration 457-type visas were granted to fill trades and technical jobs, the very occupations where we see apprenticeships in steep decline. Can you believe the nerve of this government, cutting jobs and apprentices whilst increasing the number of 457-style visas? There are two things in Townsville that have grown under the Morrison government and the LNP: unemployment and 457-style visas.

Australia's economy is changing rapidly. As a result, the skills Australians need to get well-paid and secure jobs are changing as well. For many, these changes have not been easy. Underemployment is at a record high and unemployment is far too common, particularly among younger Australians in the regions and retrenched workers. At the same time, more than one in three employers report difficulty in filling jobs. It's clear the jobs exist; we just need to ensure that Australians have the necessary skills to get the jobs. Australia needs to invest in vocational education, skill development and training now more than ever. The LNP don't seem to care about skilling Australian workers, as evidenced in their failure to spend one cent of the flawed Skilling Australians Fund on an apprenticeship.

All Australians should have access throughout their working lives to the education, skills, and training that they need to acquire and secure quality jobs that enable them to live good lives and be active, contributing members of our communities. Labor believe no-one should be excluded from accessing vocational education and training as a result of financial disadvantage, course costs, fear of debt or regional disadvantage. A skilled and educated workforce is a national economic priority, and TAFE is the lifeblood of our vocational education and training system. Labor will restore TAFE as the major public provider in the vocational education and training system. Labor's plans for apprenticeships and traineeships and TAFE are very simple.

Labor will fight this government's cuts, and invest in skill development and apprenticeships by reversing the LNP cuts to TAFE; guaranteeing that at least two-thirds of public vocational education and training funding goes to TAFE; investing in a new Building TAFE for the Future Fund to revitalise TAFE campuses and facilities in regional and outer metropolitan areas; setting a target of one in 10 apprenticeships on all Commonwealth priority projects, including major government business enterprise projects; expanding preapprenticeship programs for young jobseekers; and investing in advanced adult apprenticeships for workers in transition.

Labor have always championed quality apprenticeships and will continue to ensure that more Australians can follow that trusted pathway into decent work. The Labor inquiry into postsecondary education will build upon the best of Australia's vocational and education training system and repair the damage done by the unscrupulous for-profit providers and the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government's neglect. Delivering jobs and apprenticeships is the ALP way. Labor is the party that always delivers for apprentices. We will continue to protect TAFE and Australian apprenticeships from this LNP government, because vocational education and training has a major and significant role to play in Australia's future.

12:58 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 is welcome, and we support it. It goes some way at least to repairing some of the damage that has been caused by, as my good friend the member for Herbert mentioned, some of those unscrupulous for-profit vocational education and training providers. As members are aware, these unscrupulous entities rorted the system and conned prospective students, who were only trying to better themselves by getting some training to improve their job prospects or acquire a new skill. In some cases, the victims were vulnerable people unaware that they had even been enrolled in courses. In other cases, they found they did not receive the training they were promised, but still incurred large debts—debts they were not even aware they were liable for. As one of the previous speakers mentioned, not only were some of these individuals—who were just trying to better themselves and get ahead—conned, but attempts were made to have them pay for courses that they didn't even enrol in. I'm sure all honourable members would agree that it was a great injustice that was done to those students, because they were caused great anxiety and financial hardship through absolutely no fault of their own.

The unconscionable conduct of these rogue operators, basically con artists and snake-oil salesmen, has really damaged Australia's reputation as an education provider. It's an important industry for our country, and that's why this has been so regrettable: not only did many Australian people get caught up in these rip-offs but overseas students got caught up in them as well. So Labor welcome this bill, which will recredit the debts of thousands of students, and welcome efforts to remedy what is clearly an ongoing problem.

I'll just briefly touch on the government's response. I don't want to be negative, but it was disappointing to hear the Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, the member for Higgins, say, in her very second sentence on this issue, that the bill is about cleaning up a mess left by a previous Labor government. She then launched into what can only be described as a diatribe about other supposed failings of Labor in government. There's nothing like taking a bit of responsibility after more than five years in government! People don't like this sort of negative name-calling. They're over it. They're not interested in blame-shifting and political pointscoring; they just want something fixed. So maybe the member for Higgins could have a chat to the fixer. Most of what's been put forward in this bill is going to assist, but the problem has caused a lot of anxiety, and that is obviously regrettable.

Australians want a government that gets things done, that takes a positive and optimistic approach. That's why we on this side are putting forward positive and constructive policies in a whole range of areas that are vital to our country, and this is one of them. To look at TAFE as an example, a Shorten Labor government will scrap up-front fees for 100,000 TAFE students who choose to learn the skills that our country needs. TAFE is the best place for young Australians to develop these skills in the communities that need them—in their own communities. Labor's policy to scrap up-front fees will make it easier for Australians to gain the skills that they need to get a trade, a traineeship and a quality job, and it will make it easier for businesses to fill skill shortages. It's part of Labor's $470 million plan to boost TAFE apprenticeships and skills for Australians. I can tell you that in my electorate of Solomon, in Darwin and Palmerston, this is very welcome. What has been unwelcome is that those opposite, in government for the last five-plus years, have cut more than $3 billion—that's billion, with a 'b'—from TAFE and training. Australia has 140,000 fewer apprentices today than it did when those opposite were first elected over five years ago. That's a bit of a problem. That's kind of a shameful record after five-plus years: 140,000 fewer Australians, whether they are young people or older Australians reskilling to get into the workforce in a different capacity, in apprenticeships.

However, luckily, those on this side have a plan and, in addition to our commitment to waive fees for the 100,000 students, we will invest $100 million in modernising facilities around the country. We all know that our workforce is changing. There's a greater reliance on technology to drive innovation, and our TAFE facilities need to keep up so there is going to be an investment in modernising those facilities . We're also going to guarantee that at least two out of three government training dollars go to TAFE because it is the bedrock of skills training in our communities. We've already announced that one in every 10 jobs on Commonwealth priority projects will be filled by Australian apprentices, which is a fantastic initiative. We will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeship programs for young people who want to learn a trade that will step up into an apprentice program. We'll also provide 20,000 adult apprentice programs for those older workers I mentioned earlier, who need to retrain for the emerging jobs of the future.

Investing in apprentices is important and an additional $637 million into TAFE and vocational education will, in effect, reverse the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. We on this side are guaranteeing at least two-thirds of vocational education funding for TAFE, as I mentioned, and will invest through the Future Fund to revitalise our TAFE infrastructure around the country.

These are all positive policies, constructive solutions to problems that I think Australians want to hear about. As I mentioned, they're over the buck-passing, the blaming. We just need to reinvest funds that have been cut out of this sector, because it is a massive problem. The cuts to apprenticeships, the cuts to the sector and the unfair dealings of some of these unscrupulous for-profit VET providers have meant that more than 6,000 students have complained that they were charged for courses they did not receive. Only a small number of those have received relief from those unfair debts. There was $1.4 billion from 2009 to 2014 in VET FEE-HELP loans. The quantum of these loans that were provided clearly ran out of control and, as mentioned, people were burdened with debt wrongly and unfairly. It was a symptom of a failed VET system that, as we've heard before, was described as a 'mess' by the Productivity Commission, and the OECD has said that Australia is lacking the skills to engage effectively in global value chains.

This bill is welcome, as it's going to offer some assistance in reversing this. It will recredit the debts of thousands of students ripped off by these unscrupulous training providers. The bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce a remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by VET providers. And the bill provides a secretary of a department with a discretionary power to recredit a person's VET FEE-HELP as a result of that inappropriate conduct. In recrediting a person's FEE-HELP balance, there must be satisfaction that the person did not complete the relevant units of study and that it is reasonably likely that the VET provider engaged in inappropriate conduct, which is fair. VET guidelines will prescribe matters which the secretary must have regard to in considering whether it is reasonably likely that the VET provider engaged in inappropriate conduct. And the VET Student Ombudsman will be able to make recommendations to the secretary in relation to the recrediting of the HELP balance.

This bill will give the Commonwealth the ability to recover from the provider an amount equivalent to the amount remitted. However, there are still two uncertainties with the bill. There is no detail about the definition of inappropriate conduct, but current guidelines for unacceptable conduct would appear to be a reasonable guide. Secondly, it is unclear how much this will cost. It is not possible to estimate accurately the total number of students impacted, and the amount of money involved varies in each case. There will certainly be cases where debts are recredited and cannot be recovered from the provider. Unfortunately, many of those dodgy providers are long gone, fly-by-night operators and so they may be difficult to track down. So that goes to some of the provisions in the bill.

In the time remaining I would just like to reflect on the VET provider in my electorate of Solomon, Charles Darwin University. It is the major TAFE provider, offering more than 160 certificate and diploma courses. I'm very proud of our university, Charles Darwin University. It's a great asset to our city and to the Northern Territory. Indeed, CDU has campuses throughout the Territory and does outreach programs from Darwin. The uni is ranked in the top two per cent of universities worldwide and provides a great space for Territorians, other Australians and international students to come and learn new trades and to garner the skills they need to pursue their profession or, indeed, to pursue their passion.

But, unfortunately, what we've seen from a succession of governments—whether it be former Prime Minister Abbott, former Prime Minister Turnbull or, indeed, the current Prime Minister Morrison and their governments—and what we've been left with in the Top End is a $30 million cut to Charles Darwin University. That is not helpful. That is not going to help us train up Territorians, Australians and international students. And those cuts to our university are unfair to young Territorians, not having the resources of some of our larger universities down south. Compared to other students in other parts of the country, that $30 million cut by those opposite is going to affect Territorians, who are already disadvantaged, disproportionately just by virtue of the tyranny of distance and the lack of resources when compared to other universities. However, I do want to acknowledge that the recently signed city deal contains funds for a new campus in the city. That is very welcome, as are the provisions in this bill.

1:13 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 is a really important bill. I am very pleased that, finally, this House is able to do something to support the students who have been ripped off by dodgy providers and been left with very significant debts. It is good to be able to do something to support vocational education here. I think this is probably one of the first opportunities I've had in the 2½ years I've been in this place to really focus on this issue in a positive way.

Just to be clear about what this bill does: it allows there to be recrediting of a person's FEE-HELP debt when it's established that there has been inappropriate conduct by a VET provider or their agents. That is something that has caught many students. Sometimes only when they've done their tax returns have they found out that they have a debt which they didn't realise they still had.

It is sensible that the secretary who makes this decision has to be clear that the student did not complete the requirements for the relevant VET units of study and that it is reasonably likely that the VET provider engaged in inappropriate conduct towards the person in relation to the unit or course. I will talk later about some instances in my own electorate of Macquarie where people have come to me, where clearly there has been inappropriate behaviour in terms of people applying for courses and signing up for courses. It was certainly a case of 'buyer beware' for many of them.

The core of this is a commitment to ensuring we have a vocational education system that has integrity, and that's something that has been sorely missing for many people. What this also does is raise the issue of the urgent need we have to make changes, so that we have a world-class post-high-school education and training system in this country. Sadly, what this legislation or any other legislation by this government fails to do is address the inequalities that have grown. As student loans have expanded, profit margins have increased and educational costs have been shifted onto younger people, including apprentices and trainees.

Earlier this year, researchers at the Mitchell Institute in Victoria warned that Australia faces a severe shortfall of educated workers by 2030—a little more than a decade away—unless there's a radical change in university and vocational education sectors. They found that, if enrolments in the VET sector stay on trend, there will be 66 per cent fewer people in vocational training, despite a huge rise in demand for trades. That is setting our economy up for a terrible shock. So the researchers at the Mitchell Institute have called on the government to urgently address falling VET enrolments and also to boost growth in the university uptake—something, of course, the Labor Party is very committed to doing. They say we need to do this so that we have the skills in our workforce to offset the costs of an ageing population. So what is the Liberal government's response to studies like these? And this isn't the only one; there has been a lot of research looking at what we're facing. And their response? Nothing. They have no sense of urgency. Well, in fact, it's clear that they are so completely obsessed with themselves at the moment that, as we have seen on energy policy, we have total policy inertia.

I had the opportunity to visit one of my local TAFEs—Richmond TAFE—a couple of times this year for its open day and for a visit with the shadow minister, Senator Doug Cameron. What a privilege it was to speak with the teachers and administrators about the courses that they offer there in the public TAFE system, which include child care, horticulture, computer skills, equine and animal care—a whole range of things. Actually you can learn to do everything from shoeing a horse—in fact, being a blacksmith—to caring for cats as a vet nurse, carving a feature stone wall or creating a water feature in the garden. They provide a lot of practical skills. Their horticultural courses are designed to skill workers to care for everything, from a racing track to landscaping a public building to propagating plants. Richmond is an amazing TAFE and, like so many TAFEs around the country, it would benefit from capital investment in its facilities to bring them up to current industry standards so that students are well prepared for the conditions that they will face.

The courses at Wentworth Falls and Katoomba TAFEs, which skill up students for hospitality, outdoor adventure work, disability work and beauty therapy work, among other things, are also highly regarded in our community. The point I want to make is that there is a huge diversity of courses and they are surviving in spite of, not because of, government policy at the state and federal level, and it's time we had policy at a federal level that helps the sector rather than nobbles it—and that is the public sector of vocational education as well as the private sector.

So let's talk about the VET-FEE rorting that this legislation is designed to try and undo. Students should never have been expected to pay debts racked up by dodgy for-profit training providers who went rogue under the coalition's watch. But that is exactly what happened. The government knew how much money was rolling out, they knew that most of the students were not graduating and they knew how much money the rorters were making.

In 2014, then education minister Christopher Pyne was warned of the dismal completion rates under the scheme. However, the government just sat on their hands as providers continued to exploit vulnerable people and rip off students—people who were trying to get themselves a better future; people who were taking the time out of an existing career to develop their skills and train themselves up; people who were somehow juggling their childcare responsibilities or their caring for elderly parents to get some skills. The fact that nothing was done and that it's only being done now is an absolute outrage.

Under the coalition, VET FEE-HELP loans skyrocketed to $1.8 billion in 2014 and a staggering $3 billion in 2015, totalling $6 billion from 2014 to 2016—overwhelmingly to private providers. There has been absolutely no leadership on the VET rorting. I think that one of the worst things that has happened to vocational education students in the private sector has been this government's failure to stem the corrupt practices of unscrupulous for-profit training providers. Obviously not all private providers fell into this category, but there was a serious chunk of them who did, and we're seeing court cases and evidence of that playing out.

This government allowed the ripping off of students and the ripping off of taxpayer dollars long after it was clear that there was a problem and the system was being abused. It's sad to think that it's not actually over yet. A recent report that the Ombudsman received over 6,000 complaints about dodgy private training providers in the last 12 months should have been a wake-up call about VET student loans. Alarmingly, the Ombudsman expects this number to increase as students lodge tax returns, only to find they've been charged for courses that they haven't done. 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 a very rude shock. Described as 'one of the biggest rorts in Australian education history' by TheSydney Morning Herald, we certainly fear that many students remain unaware that they've been charged and have therefore not got around to reporting it yet. Let's remember what some of those practices were: signing people up without them even realising it and offering inducements, like laptops and iPads, to get people to sign up to a course that they may not have had the capacity to complete and that may not have been a course that was going to further their professional development.

One local Blue Mountains woman told me that she signed up for a counselling course with a private provider. She became suspicious of the quality of the provider, concerned when the materials that she was promised weren't provided and that there was very poor student service right from the start. She decided not to proceed with that course. It took weeks and weeks of multiple attempts before she was able to withdraw from it, and months later, when she was doing her tax return, she found she had a $12,000 debt for a course that she had not even started.

Another Hawkesbury local was one of more than 700 hair and beauty students caught in The Australasian College Broadway's collapse in 2016. Not only did the students lose their access to study as a result of the college's going into liquidation with a long list of creditors, none of the students could get access to their academic records to show what work they'd completed. The system had reportedly been hacked and student records were deleted and passwords changed. This meant that they were unable to transfer their credits to other colleges to study, and therefore couldn't complete their course. That was compounded by the fact that they ended up with a big VET FEE-HELP debt for an uncompleted course.

Sarah from Bilpin, who was in her late teens at the time, summed up her situation beautifully and brutally to me. She said, 'It's hundreds of students in limbo with huge fees, no qualifications and only half of their student records.' Two years on, she still had a debt of $24,000 related to her collapsed course. So, through no fault of her own, this young woman carries a debt. I really hope that this legislation means that that will be able to be reversed. Another Winmalee resident had a similar problem, with a debt for a certificate III in aged care with a registered training organisation that had shut its doors and left this older man with a debt.

The Ombudsman's report earlier this year showed 5,193 complaints, of which half were yet to be resolved. The government's failure to act on these matters means many more people were affected than ought to have been. When an initial problem occurs it is our responsibility to act fast. It also resulted in a loss of confidence in the entire sector and has led to VET student enrolments continuing to fall.

I want to point out that it is not every private provider who deliberately sets out to rip-off taxpayers or students. Quality providers, quality private providers, have a role to play in vocational education. I want to particularly talk about the specialist providers who are still being excluded from their students being eligible for VET FEE loans. For instance music, dancing, acting and film schools that provide professionally focused training, often using professional standard equipment, with very small groups and high teacher/student ratios—a large number of teachers to students—do not deserve to be tarnished by the same brush as the dodgy mass providers. These courses may not meet the criteria that you need to demand from the more online delivery focused courses on offer, but they provide a vital role in skilling up our actors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers to be telling Australian stories.

Be in no doubt any abuse of the system in place by any provider should be acted on fast, and the vast majority of training should be delivered, I believe, through a 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 only high-quality private providers with demonstrated links to industry should be able to access it. There would, therefore, be less opportunity for bad operators in the private sector to take advantage of students.

We need a robust inquiry into vocational education in Australia, which Labor has committed to doing. We need to look at how the sector—the TAFE sector, the vocational education sector—interacts with the university sector as we prepare people for the careers of the mid-21st century. The Abbott-Turnbull government—and I should now add Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, because the practice continued—has stripped $3 billion from vocational education since they were elected. The vocational education system has been damaged by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy competition.

In the first hundred days of office Labor will establish a comprehensive inquiry into postsecondary education, ensuring secure consumer protection for students will be a key part of our review. When you think about the data on what's happened to TAFE and the VET system in the last five years it is a sad tale: $3 billion out of TAFE skills and training funding and a fall of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships, and that is 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 has been a 30 per cent drop in government funded training happening at TAFE between 2013 and 2016 and the data keeps coming out and continues to be damning.

There have been so few initiatives by this government, but the one they have tried is the lamentable Skilling Australians Fund that depends on visas being issued to foreign workers. As the number of visas goes down, so will the funding for much needed skills development for Australians. There's absolutely no commitment by this government to training young people or retraining older workers.

TAFE needs to be many things. It needs to be financially and geographically accessible to people, it needs to be providing well-skilled people that meet employers' needs and it also needs to provide secure work for teachers. These aren't easy things and only Labor has the belief in TAFE and its importance to see it through.

1:28 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill and Labor's amendment put to the House to make note of the federal Liberal government's woeful record when it comes to vocational education. I'm pleased to follow the member for Macquarie and her well put contribution to the House on this legislation.

None of us will ever forget the vision we saw on our television screens of people heading to northern Australia in cars with boots full of laptops ready to sign students up to courses that either didn't exist or were sold to students who either didn't have an interest in, or weren't capable of, completing their course. This bill goes some way to correcting some of the ills of that era. The ills that we speak of today are those—

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, when the member for Lalor can seek continuation.