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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1546

Senator MARSHALL (10:50 AM) —Firstly I want to respond to a few things that Senator Nash said. Again we have a position where the opposition are saying they agree with the intent of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill but then scramble around to find some reasons to simply say no to it. I think that is what Senator Nash tried to do. She talked about a lack of consultation, and in a couple of moments I will take the chamber through the process of consultation and getting agreement through a COAG process. I think anyone who has been around this place for any length of time will know how difficult that is and the extraordinary levels of consultation that have to go into it. Senator Nash also talked about Western Australia having a number of concerns. They have one concern, and their one concern is that they want to continue to self-regulate their TAFE system. There are a number of reasons and on the surface you can mount a reasonable argument for that, but when you delve a little bit deeper into those issues there are very good reasons why state TAFE systems should also come under a national regulator. I will go into those couple of things in a minute as well.

As Senator Nash indicated, there were a number of concerns raised with the bill, but all the stakeholders—every one of them—throughout the Senate inquiry supported the bill. Some of them supported amendments and some of them suggested clarifications, but on the whole the bill was supported and its need was identified. The only opposition to it comes from the states of Victoria and Western Australia—of course, if they are not going to refer they do not have to. But the chamber should know that both of those states will implement mirror legislation anyway, in effect trying to establish a national standard for a national regulator, albeit it will not be a true national regulator without those states in it. If they are going to have mirror legislation, I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before they realise it is a bit foolish to spend lots of money having a state regulator doing exactly the same thing as a national regulator. I think through the natural evolution of these things the opposition from Victoria and Western Australia will diminish. I suspect it is more to do with a bit of politicking than any serious objections.

Senator Nash said this is rushed. This process started in December 2008 with the Review of Higher Education, led by Professor Denise Bradley, which recommended the creation of a national regulatory body responsible for accreditation and quality standards of all providers of higher education in Australia. The review also recommended the Australian government explore with the states and territories the option of expanding the regulator’s role to include accreditation and quality standards for vocational education. So the genesis of this reform was an independent review, the well-known Bradley review, and it started many years ago. This is not rushed. This is a proper, orderly evolution of an issue that has been identified in a review leading to a COAG process, which I will get to in a minute, leading to the legislation that is before the parliament now. It is not rushed.

On 20 November 2009, the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment reached a majority agreement for referral of powers to the Commonwealth for the establishment of an independent national regulator for the vocational education and training sector. Victoria and Western Australia did not support the proposal, instead recommending consideration of other models to achieve national regulation and the retention of the principles of state accountability. Then we go to December 2009, when the Council of Australian Governments agreed to establish a national regulator for the VET sector to drive better quality standards and regulation to strengthen Australia’s international education sector. The agreement envisages that the regulator will be established under Commonwealth legislation and will be responsible for the registration and audit of registered training organisations and the accreditation of courses. Victoria and Western Australia elected to retain responsibility for regulating RTOs in their jurisdiction. While retaining this responsibility, those states have agreed to enact mirror legislation to ensure the same standards of operation and accountability across Australia’s VET sector. So we are going to get a common national standard at least. We do not yet have a national regulator, but that is clearly the objective of this government. It is a logical evolution and it is a logical outcome.

The COAG agreement provides for the national regulator to operate in non-referring jurisdictions. As I said before, Victoria and Western Australia determined that providers wishing to operate in more than one jurisdiction or enrol international students at post-secondary education institutions will be registered through the national regulator. COAG also agreed to establish a standards council to provide advice to the Ministerial Council for Tertiary Education and Employment for the development of national standards for VET regulation, including registration, quality assurance, performance monitoring, reporting, risk, audit, review and renewal of providers and accreditation of their qualifications. It is hard work to get agreement across the states, and once we have agreement across the states—New South Wales has referred its powers—my understanding and the advice I have received is that that then locks us into the bills that are before us, but it does not mean they cannot be changed later on. Any amendment here simply renders the whole process invalid; it sends everyone back to the drawing board. That is not a desirable outcome. It is not a desirable outcome for the VET sector or for quality standards of training and education in this country.

I am disappointed that the opposition is not going to support these bills. There are some difficulties with two states, and there may be a bit of politics involved with that, but I think eventually we will evolve into a truly national regulator. The opposition should support these bills. By supporting these bills they do not lock their colleagues who are in power in Western Australia and Victoria into the legislation. If those states do not want to refer they do not have to refer, but the opposition should support this package of bills to get the outcomes we desire.

Western Australia says, ‘Look, we want to continue to regulate our own system.’ The TAFE system is a high-quality system. Once upon a time, when I went to TAFE to do my apprenticeship, TAFEs were very rigid. They were fantastic education and training facilities, and provided great training, but they were incredibly rigid. They were very highly regulated and controlled by the states. Over the eighties and nineties, the whole VET sector and vocational education and training system was freed up. We saw the evolution of RTOs—registered training organisations—that also moved into some of the traditional areas that TAFEs were responsible for. As a consequence, TAFE had to get a little bit more flexible, a little bit more responsive to industry needs and we saw a very positive evolution of the TAFE system.

But that has led to a lot of entrepreneurial activity by the TAFE systems. We have seen them go into joint ventures and move into areas they have not traditionally moved in. Given that they are going to be that flexible, especially if they are entering into joint ventures with overseas training organisations or private training organisations—and they have been doing so for a long time—there is a need for them to come clearly under a national regulator as well. It is not simply about the state saying, ‘We fund it, we control it and we will make sure that it is regulated,’ because it goes a lot broader than that now. That argument would have stood up in the late seventies when I did my apprenticeship in the TAFE system. It does not stand up now.

I also think there is a bit of an issue when the state says, ‘This is our system—we fund it, we control it and we will regulate it, but we will also monitor it.’ I think that it would be preferable if the state systems actually acknowledged that having an independent national regulator is actually good public policy for them. It is better that an independent national regulator regulates the state systems rather than the states doing it themselves. I do have a problem where a state says, ‘This is ours—we will regulate it, we will monitor it and we will be the final arbiters of whether it is doing the right thing or not.’ I do not think that is a good reason. I think the positions of the Western Australian and Victorian governments in wanting to continue to play that role are poor public policy. So we do not support those positions.

I do not know, because I was not there, what was actually said during the COAG meetings. Sometimes in discussions people say things to each other and the two parties come away with different views of what has been said and what has been agreed. All I know is that, in the committee’s inquiry, there was no evidence of any agreement being broken. Western Australia clearly say they had an undertaking from the Commonwealth that they would be able to exclude their state TAFE sector, but there was a complete absence of any written agreement or anything to back that claim up. I do not say for one second that they do not genuinely think that that was the agreement reached at COAG. But often, as I said, there can be disagreement after the event if there is no written documentation of what was agreed. I thought, given that it was such an important thing, that there would be such a record—and maybe there is. But certainly there was no evidence presented to the committee that indicated that there had in fact been a breach of agreement, apart from WA saying that that was the case. I am not going to dwell on that issue. I just make the point that I do not know. So I am not going to comment further on the matter, but WA claim that that is the case.

As I said, the purpose of the bills is to provide for the establishment of a national regulator for the VET sector and a regulatory framework within which the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator will operate. The NVR bill will establish the National VET Regulator and provide the National VET Regulator with administrative and enforcement powers. Further, the bill creates offences and civil penalties relating to the conduct of RTOs and others involved with the VET sector. The bill also allows the use of infringement notices and enforceable undertakings as an alternative to criminal offences and civil penalties.

The need to regulate this industry is well established. This is an incredibly important industry for this country. These are the vocational skills that drive and underpin our economy. We already have a very high standard in the VET sector, compared internationally. It is high quality and it is important that we maintain that high quality. We have seen what happens when there is a lack of regulation and a lack of enforcement in the training sector. We saw some terrible things happening with international students and some colleges, some of which existed for reasons that I think were very dubious. I think some of these colleges were actually set up as immigration centres as opposed to training centres.

Through a lack of strength in the regulation and a lack of enforcement of what regulation there was, we saw the international standing of our whole education sector diminished—significantly diminished in some countries. We understand there were even protests in India about some of the things that were happening and that is of deep concern to this country. We understand why international students would want to come and utilise the Australian VET sector—it is one of the highest quality VET systems in the world. We encourage that. It is good for this country, it brings in money and it is good for our relations with other countries that people can get high-quality skills, Australian skills, and take those skills back to their own countries to utilise. So there are many and varied reasons why this is a very important sector to us.

But if we do not have a national regulator with teeth and good standards and good laws to back it up, we will potentially see failures such as those we have seen in the past and we cannot afford to let that happen. This government has a responsibility to protect this sector from rogue operators. The states in the past have shown that they are not always 100 per cent on the ball on some of these issues. I do not want to name anyone in particular or blame anyone, but the facts are there—the history is there.

Senator Mason interjecting—

Senator MARSHALL —There has been a failure in the past and I know Senator Mason acknowledges that. But through the Bradley review and through the consultation and getting COAG agreement, this government has worked very hard to get us into a position where we are going to have a top-quality regulator, a national regulator, to ensure, hopefully, that we do not have the same sorts of problems that we have seen in other parts of the education sector. It is too important to this country; it is too valuable. We need to maintain the highest quality standards and we cannot afford to have our reputation trashed.

I am a little bit surprised and disappointed that the opposition is not supporting the government’s legislation. I have a lot of respect for Senator Nash but, as I said earlier, her contribution sounded to me as though she was scrambling around to find reasons to justify the opposition not supporting these bills more than having any genuine policy reasons. That is very disappointing given that, even though Western Australia and Victoria are not referring their powers, they are going to introduce mirror legislation so that at least we have the same standards.

The government want to get on with it. These bills are important to us. Sure, there could have been improvements in some elements of the legislation. In fact, the government senators’ report indicates a number of those areas. Overwhelmingly, on balance, the position to support the bills outweighs a thousand times any of the problems that could have been fixed. There is a serious technical problem about amending a bill when we already have the referral legislation from New South Wales. It would in fact make the whole process unworkable and send us right back to the drawing board. That is not necessary.

Government senators also recommend in the report that we have another look, after all the referrals have been taken, to see whether there are areas where it would be desirable to tidy up things or clearly, after the legislation has been operating for some time, to have another look at it and, if necessary, to revisit the legislation down the track. I am sure the government will accept those recommendations. The government senators’ report is very clear. We outline all the arguments for and against and mount a strong and compelling argument about why these bills should be supported in their current form. I am sorry I beat Senator Hanson-Young to the jump. I know she was before me on the speakers list but she was a couple of seconds late getting to her seat. I look forward to her contribution.