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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 1550


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (11:10 AM) —I rise to speak to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill and associated bills. I am happy to have heard both sides of the argument before putting forward the Greens position.

First and foremost I would like to point out that the government’s objection to amendments to this legislation, regardless of people’s position—that is, that the legislation cannot be amended because, through COAG, we have already gone through a referral of powers process with the states—really does question the government’s wisdom. The government want to put forward legislation and to get the parliament’s backing but are attempting to pre-empt what the parliament should be doing because, through the COAG process, they have gone through a referral process behind closed doors and away from the parliament. While I accept that that process has happened, perhaps on these types of issues it would be wiser not to do that first. We have seen this done by the government on a variety of issues, not just in relation to these bills.

The legislation provides for the establishment of a national regulator for the VET sector and a regulatory framework within which the regulator will operate, including providing the regulator with administrative and enforcement powers. The Greens, like most stakeholders in the vocational training sector, welcome the commitment to the National VET Regulator. Most people from the opposition, the government, the Greens and the sector agree that there should be a national VET regulator. It is the process we go through to get there which is the sticking point.

I have spoken many times in this place about problems which have arisen in the sector in recent times, particularly for international students. We have all seen the negative international media coverage of Australia, for example in India, and also in our own domestic media. We know that young people who have come to Australia have received a pretty raw deal from some of the institutions they have studied with. We agree with the government that national consistency and regulation will help to ensure that appropriate standards will protect Australia’s reputation for excellent higher education services. That is what this is all about. If a student from anywhere else in the world wants a good quality education or wants to take their opportunities to the next level, why would they not choose Australia? It is a wonderful place to study. We have a wonderful array of institutions which do the right thing, which treat their students with respect and ensure their qualifications are world class. We need to protect that reputation and the National VET Regulator will ensure consistency and will protect the standards which we all agree should be upheld.

We are supportive of the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Bill, which sets up the National VET Regulator, but we do have some concerns. These concerns have been raised by the sector at large, particularly in relation to consultation. We understand the government is prepared to further consider matters of concern which have been raised during the various Senate committee hearings as well as through other forums and we welcome the government’s commitment to consider future amendments to the legislation. My understanding is that, when the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations speaks to this legislation, a government commitment will be given to introduce amendments in August this year. It seems a roundabout way to go about this. I guess that comes back to the wisdom of getting referrals before allowing the parliament to debate the substantive legislation, but here we have it.

We are concerned with the process undertaken by the government in developing the legislation. There was clearly insufficient consultation with key stakeholders. This has come up time and time again, as it did with the university sector as well. Senator Mason, you would remember that in the discussion of the TEQSA Bill there was a lot of concern that the consultation was not right, so the government went back to the drawing board and consulted properly. Unfortunately, with the VET sector that has not happened, and the government do need to accept that that has been a flaw in their process.

There really did need to be more extensive consultation on the draft of this bill. You can see that through the evidence given to the Senate inquiry. It does highlight the importance of the Senate’s ability to review legislation and to give stakeholders and those who are going to be directly impacted by any piece of legislation the ability to feed into the process. We know the Senate has that responsibility and we relish the responsibility to get feedback on legislation, to refine, to fix, and to amend. Sometimes we do that in the vain hope that, even though they may have overlooked their role in consulting while drafting legislation in the first place, the government will listen to the concerns and the issues raised through those various Senate inquiry processes. Many of the concerns that remain with the text of the bill before us could have been resolved much earlier in the process with improved consultation, but I am thankful that the government are acknowledging that this will not be the end of the process. Passing this piece of legislation will not be the end of the process. They will commit to further amendments as needs be further down the track.

I will talk briefly about the referral of powers issues. The establishment of a national VET regulator relies on the referral of powers by the states. Of course, that is where we find ourselves in a tricky situation today. Given the New South Wales parliament has already passed their referring legislation, the government now tells us in this place that the bills before us cannot be amended without putting that referral at risk. I do think we need to consider the wisdom of putting the cart before the horse. While the Greens are supporting this legislation at this time, the government does need to consider a much cleaner, simpler and better way to make sure that states do not override the primacy of the parliament. The government needs to ensure a much better process for similar arrangements in the future. I think that is the key point here. We have spoken about the issues and the coalition have obviously highlighted those. While the Greens will support the legislation, our concerns remain the same. This is not just because the Greens believe the legislation should of course be put to the parliament for discussion and that it should be the parliament that decides; it is also because the stakeholders have said there are concerns.

One of the key issues that stakeholders have is that there is no objects clause to this piece of legislation and there should be. Many pieces of legislation like this have an objects clause. The Senate has gone through a consultation process with the Senate inquiry to find out what the stakeholders actually think. The stakeholders, the AEU and TAFE Directors Australia, are asking why there is not an objects clause similar to that in the TEQSA Bill, which of course we will be dealing with in this place in due course. The objects of this legislation would include: (1) to provide for national consistency in the regulation of higher education; (2) to regulate higher education using a standards based quality framework; (3) to protect and enhance Australia’s reputation for quality higher education and training services and our international competitiveness in the higher education sector; (4) to encourage and promote a higher education system that is appropriate to meet Australia’s social and economic needs for a highly educated and skilled population; (5) to protect students undertaking, or proposing to undertake, higher education in Australia by requiring the provision of quality higher education; and (6) to ensure students undertaking, or proposing to undertake, higher education have access to information relating to higher education in Australia. They are six objects that this bill is obviously trying to achieve and should be directly highlighted so that everyone knows what this is about. It makes sense to me. It is good practice for bills of this nature to include an objects clause and we would urge the government to consider including such a clause in the amendments they are committing to make in August this year.

More significantly, the Australian Education Union and TAFE Directors Australia have also called for this legislation to incorporate minimum standards into the VET quality framework. The standards suggested are common-sense requirements, such as that registered training organisations have as their proper or significant purpose the education and training of students, while also recognising enterprise RTOs. A basic standard for registered training organisations is that they believe their purpose is the education and training of students—pretty simple. If we want to have some national standards and a national regulator, why would we not set the most basic requirements? A second requirement would be that registered training organisations are required to act in the best interests of their students—pretty simple, pretty commonsensical. When we are talking about the need for a national regulator, let us make sure we put those standards in. A third requirement should be that RTOs are able to demonstrate the adequacy of their physical and human resource infrastructure and educational viability—again, pretty basic. If we are setting up a national regulator, let us make sure they are all sticking to those basic standards. We think that is the purpose of registered training organisations. It is preferable for standards such as these to be reflected in the legislation and we urge the government to work towards that outcome, but at the very least the practice and policy of the regulator should clearly reflect these matters. That is something I would like the government to go away and have a think about.

A further concern is that, unlike the regulatory scheme for universities, the VET Regulator does not allow for the development of provider categories of registration or provider category standards. In the VET context this means that the TAFE system—the public providers of vocational education and training—have no ability to be recognised as pre-eminent providers in the sector. I think due respect needs to be taken into consideration there.

Of course, again, because the Senate did its job and did the consultation that the government neglected to do, the report on the bill from the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations raised a number of concerns with the offence and penalty provisions and with the enforcement powers accorded to the regulator. I do not need to repeat all of those concerns as I think that everyone can have a read of the report and the various submissions. It is important for the Greens to say that we share these concerns and urge the government to work with stakeholders to modify the provisions. There is still a lot of tweaking that needs to happen to this legislation.

In particular I note the need to amend sections 60(1) and 60(2) to ensure that a student does not commit an offence if they do not return cancelled VET qualifications or statements of attainment in circumstances where they did not know the qualifications had been cancelled. I think we need to ensure that we look after the best interests of students in this area. So, those are some more tweaks that this legislation clearly, clearly needs.

In conclusion, the Greens will support the passage of this legislation with a very clear commitment from the minister that these issues need to be dealt with in a common-sense manner, and that there will be a commitment to legislation amending this bill in August this year. That is what we want to see, and we would like the minister to commit to that in the speech today.

Students in the VET sector deserve high-quality education and training services, and a national regulator is an important step to ensuring higher standards. I will just reiterate that this process would not be looking so messy if the government had gone through the proper consultation that the sector deserved in the first place. Thankfully, that is what the Senate does well. We run inquiries into legislation, we review and we look at the direct impact that legislation would have. Thankfully, the Senate did its job. Unfortunately, we are in a messy situation because the government put the cart before the horse and neglected to do their job in consulting the stakeholders.