Senate debates

Monday, 16 March 2015


National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015; Second Reading

5:40 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the National Vocational Educational and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015. Vocational education and training covers the provision of education, training and assessment exercises leading to accredited qualification offered by registered training organisations. It may occur in workplaces, TAFE and higher education institutions, colleges and schools, trade training centres and adult and community education providers. Vocational education and training is practical, hands-on learning with an industry and trade focus. It is vital for ensuring that Australians receive the required qualifications to achieve an acceptable standard of living and provide for their families.

In Tasmania, most of the vocational education and training is undertaken by the Tasmanian Academy, the Tasmanian Polytechnic and the Tasmanian Skills Institute. The Tasmanian Academy incorporates the eight senior secondary colleges and provides a wide range of vocational educational training, including institution based apprenticeships and enrolment in trade training centre courses. The Tasmanian Polytechnic is Tasmania's largest registered training organisation and offers over 300 courses in areas such as disability services, community services, building and construction, metal trades, agriculture, engineering and mining, and automotive building and maintenance. The Tasmanian Skills Institute provides training for employers looking to up-skill their employees. It provides a wide range of training opportunities targeted to industry needs.

Vocational education and training can be the key to unlocking the door to a range of new opportunities in life. I see the benefits that people, particularly in my home state of Tasmania, get from vocational education. It gives them the confidence they need to go out and get a job with. It also gives them knowledge and skills and empowers them in life to be positive contributors to the community.

Australia has some great education providers who have built up reputations both domestically and internationally as offering the world's best education. These are excellent examples of vocational training and education providers. There are many others as well, such as the Australian Apprenticeships Access Program, which provides vulnerable job seekers who experience barriers to entering skilled employment with nationally recognised prevocational training, support and assistance, or the Australian Film Television and Radio School, with new opportunities for emerging writers and producers to develop their skill sets and prepare themselves for the workplace.

Unfortunately, though, the standard of training in the national vocational education and training system has been allowed to deteriorate. This sector has often been populated by dodgy providers who have harmed Australia's education and training reputation. There have been an enormous number of cases of unscrupulous registered training organisations preying on vulnerable students and signing them up to large VET FEE-HELP debts. They have fundamentally damaged the people who took up many of these dodgy courses. Students have had their careers hurt, or they have even been so discouraged by their treatment and the debts that they have accumulated that they have become less employable. These represent wasted and missed opportunities. That is a great tragedy for the Australian community. Often the students are not even aware that they have been signed up for a course, let alone VET FEE-HELP debts running in to the tens of thousands of dollars.

The problem is made worse by registered training organisations employing brokers to recruit students on their behalf and then attempting to distance themselves from the actions of the brokers. The brokers usually come in the form of door-to-door salesmen, employing aggressive sales tactics to con people in disadvantaged areas into signing up. This is a particular problem in some parts of my home state of Tasmania, and I am sure there would be others from other parts of the country who could make contributions as well. As reported on 7.30 earlier this year, one institution in particular billed taxpayers for approximately $110 million in VET FEE-HELP loans.

One of the victims was a Tasmanian single mother of three, Nola Smith. She was talked into signing up to a $20,000 double diploma of counselling and community services by a salesman from Careers Australia last year. The salesperson then gave her a 'free' laptop before completing the entrance requirements on behalf of the victim. In another case reported on ABC News Jake Wright, from another of Tasmania's poorest communities, was talked into signing up to a double diploma of business and management, also with Careers Australia. He thought it would be a chance to make something of himself and to get out of his current set of circumstances. Unfortunately he was unable to complete the work. After being pushed away by the institution, he dropped out. Now all he has left is an $8,000 debt.

Labor has been warning about shonky operators for almost 18 months, but our warnings and calls to action have been largely ignored. Last week, the Abbott government voted down our amendment calling on this government to act with more urgency to ensure the protection of students is made a priority, to support tougher measures including an investigation by the Auditor-General into the misuse of VET FEE-HELP, and to introduce an education campaign by the ACCC. Shame on those on the other side for not supporting those amendments.

In addition to this, the Abbott government recently axed $43.8 million and over 10,000 training places from the Skills for Education and Employment program. The Skills for Education and Employment Program helped job seekers to develop speaking, reading, writing and basic maths skills to improve their chances of getting, and keeping, a job. These cuts represent an enormous blow to the vocational education sector. The Abbott government has also abolished the Workplace English Language and Literacy program which provided English language and literacy training to help workers with their current and future employment and training needs.

Now Jake, along with many people just like him, will be unable to find a training place and will struggle to build a future for himself. We are now seeing a greater amount of short courses and larger class sizes, with very little support for struggling students or those students who have disabilities. I know that some private training companies are making huge profits and sometimes these profits are made from cutting corners on quality.

In 2011, in order to maintain quality in the VET sector, Labor established the national regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority. Since its establishment in 2011, the Australian Skills Quality Authority has received more than 4,000 complaints and conducted 3,000 audits. That is 4,000 complaints in less than four years—an astonishing record of failure. Since the Abbott government came to power teachers, advocates and other institutions have claimed that the complaints being directed to the authority seem to be falling on deaf ears. The Abbott Liberal government has taken its eye off the ball and lost control of the vocational education and training sector.

It is not the only policy area where we have seen evidence that they are just not up to governing. The Abbott government has also removed many other forms of support for students in the vocational education sector. This chaotic government has taken the axe to the skills portfolio, cutting $2 billion since the last budget. Programs such as Tools For Your Trade are now gone. Also cut under the Abbott government are the mentoring and access programs, with the Joint Group Training program in the process of being abolished. Each of these programs helps apprentices start and complete an apprenticeship.

I ask those opposite: how are our apprentices now supposed to establish their careers? How are they supposed to provide for their families? How are they supposed to live? Shame on the Abbott government. It goes to the record of the Howard government, which never invested in the skills; that is why we ended up with the skills shortage after 11 years of the Howard government. Without skilled people able to enter the workforce, how are we to build infrastructure for tomorrow? How are we supposed to build the roads, the schools, the bridges and the hospitals for tomorrow? This demonstrates yet again how this government has abandoned the Australian skills training sector and the future of this country. Skilling our workforce is not a priority for this chaotic government.

Tony Abbott keeps talking about how he cares for and supports small business. He even made an election promise. Through measures such as supposedly cutting red tape and abolishing the carbon tax, the Prime Minister claimed he had the best interests of small business at heart and that he wanted to grow small business to build a better future. But this broad narrative runs against what has been allowed to take place under his watch in vocational education. It therefore represents yet another broken promise. It is another example of how what Tony Abbott said before the election is very different to what he has done since he has been in government.

Small businesses know they have been let down by this government. I have spoken to many small business employees in Tasmania who are outraged that many of their apprentices will drop out of their trade because vital government funding support has gone under this government. These small businesses feel betrayed by Tony Abbott and his government. The Prime Minister is abandoning vital trades in this country and leaving enormous skills shortages at a time when many people are struggling because they are on an apprentice's wage and need support to maintain a reasonable standard of living. For apprentices of a mature age it is even more difficult. Older apprentices have been dealt a crushing blow by the Abbott government which has abolished their payments under the Support for Adult Australian Apprentices program, a program which was put in place to encourage upskilling for adult workers over the age of 25. Adult apprentices studying a certificate III or IV could receive $150 per week, up to $7,800 per year, in the first year and $100 per week, up to $5,200 per year, in the second year of their apprenticeship. This investment assisted those who wanted to continue to build on their skills so that they could continue to make a contribution to our economy.

The government also cut the Apprentice to Business Owner program, which provided training in a nationally recognised qualification in small business management and included business mentoring and support for up to 12 months. Many tradespeople operate as subcontractors, sole operators or small businesses. To establish a successful business in addition to their trade-specific competency, they also need to develop small business management skills to ensure they meet business and employment regulations.

It is extremely important that the Abbott government understands that support for vocational education and training is critical to ensuring that we are skilling our workforce. We do not want to go back, as I said before, to the bad days of the Howard years when there was no government investment in skilling. Labor believes in skilling our workforce and we on this side believe in appropriate regulation of all education sectors to ensure that there is integrity in the system. Labor believes more must be done to protect students and young Australians to provide them with the proper support they need to improve their knowledge, to get a better job, to contribute to the future of their families and communities and, ultimately, to ensure that our nation becomes more productive because all of this helps our economy and it makes us a stronger community.

As I previously stated, education is the key to unlocking the door to a range of new opportunities in life. On that basis, Labor supports these increased transparency and regulatory measures. We believe that there should be greater fairness in the marketplace so people can decide which course is right for them. Growth of VET FEE-HELP debt has exceeded all projections with more than $1.6 billion allocated last year. The Grattan Institute has warned that 40 per cent of vocational loans will never be repaid.

This government seems determined to strip funding from the higher education sector at the same time. This is not the sign of a government that knows what they are doing. This is a sign of a government that are more concerned about governing for themselves and in protecting their own jobs than in governing for all Australians. This has in turn threatened the viability of our TAFE sector. Our TAFE sector has played an invaluable role in educating our community and has been responsible for producing some superbly qualified tradespeople whether in the building sector or in the manufacturing sector. But if they have to compete with a registered training organisation offering courses at a fraction of the price then obviously the registered training organisations will win out. That is why we need the adjustments made in the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015.

We have an opportunity to start again and weed out the dodgy providers who have made themselves a lot of money posing as vocation education and training providers in our education sector. It will extend the registration period for registered training organisations from five to seven years but we will not have to wait until their re-registration before we can look closely at how they are performing. We will be able to look at their performance, their quality, the experience of their students and their courses well before they are up for re-registration.

We are going to enable the Australian Skills Quality Authority to focus its attention on investigating and acting upon high-risk and poor quality providers. The authority will be given additional resources and focus to do that. It will be empowered to ensure a greater level of standard. We are going to be able to protect the community and ensure that it does not fall victim to these unethical salesmen preying upon the weak and the innocent.

We cannot rely on this government to properly administer the vocation education sector in its current format. As I said before, this is not the only policy area that the government has taken its eye off the ball since it has been in government. We have had a change in the responsibility of this sector but we need to do more. This legislation will assist us in ensuring that those who have the skills, those that provide the quality courses will be there to ensure that we are able to invest in the skills and upskilling of the Australian workforce, which we all know goes a long way to support our economy. That strengthens our economy so productivity increases—all are very good measures to ensure the prospective this country.

We on this side will always speak up for quality in education. We will stand up to this government when they try and tear down the education sector as they are trying to do currently, which we are debating in this place this week. But the Australian people will stand firm and oppose the Americanisation of our universities in this country. So while those opposite are trying to tear down the sector of higher education, we cannot afford on this side and on the crossbenches to take our eye off the ball and allow them to further run down the TAFE and vocational education sector of this country because it is an essential element of our education sector. It is vital to the prosperity of this country. It is vital to the people I represent in Tasmania and I want to do everything I can, along with my colleagues, to ensure that there is transparency.

Senator Bilyk interjecting—

Yes, Senator Bilyk, you are very strong on this legislation. You know first-hand from the sector from which you came—that is, early childhood education—how important this sector is to our community. As you say many times in this place, there are times when those opposite act like the children that you used to care for. In fact, I think those children were better behaved than those on the opposite side.

We on this side are always going to stand up for the weak and the innocent in our community, for those who are vulnerable, for those who are desperate to have a new start in life. We will ensure that those people that are working and educating through the vocational education sector are of the highest standard. I support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015 because it actually supports each of those things I have outlined in my contribution today.


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