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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8620

Vocational Education and Training

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (15:07): My question is to the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham. I refer the minister to the report in The Australian on 20 November 2015 concerning legal proceedings against Phoenix Institute by the ACCC for engaging in misleading and deceptive and unconscionable conduct. Phoenix Institute, a private provider, has received more than $106 million this year in loans under VET FEE-HELP. Minister, why has it been left to the ACCC to take this action and not the Department of Education and Training or the national regulator, ASQA?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training) (15:08): I thank Senator Carr for the question. Indeed, we have been making sure as a government that all relevant agencies of government take responsibilities that are appropriate to them for cleaning up the mess in the VET FEE-HELP system that was created by the former Labor government. We have acknowledged that there are problems in this system. Earlier this year, when I was directly responsible for vocational education and training, I wrote to the ACCC asking them to undertake investigations in areas of their responsibility. The ACCC are of course the responsible entity when it comes to misleading and deceptive conduct, whether you are a training organisation or any other business acting in the Australian economy. In other areas, the Department of Education and Training are responsible for how VET FEE-HELP is administered, and they indeed have been undertaking, along with the Australian Skills Quality Authority, separate investigations into the Phoenix Institute.

This government has introduced a range of reforms to try to clean up the very open-ended mess that the Labor Party created in establishing VET FEE-HELP. We acknowledge that there appear to still be wrongful activities occurring out there in the marketplace. Legislation is before this parliament at present to bring into place new reforms and additional reforms that would further tighten up the sector, commencing from 1 January next year, and we are looking at further measures to make sure that we stamp out the type of unscrupulous, unethical behaviour we have seen from some vocational education and training providers. We will work, absolutely, through the ACCC, through ASQA, through the department and through any other relevant authority that we need to to make sure we stamp out these practices. The government warmly welcomes the fact that the ACCC has undertaken these investigations, has instigated such proceedings, because it is the right thing for the ACCC to do, working with all other agencies. (Time expired)

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (15:10): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given that the minister has acknowledged that there are continuing abuses of the system despite the government's new measures and given that today, for instance, The Age reports that there are further examples of dodgy marketing agents, despite the announcements that the government has made, why has the minister not been more agile and nimble in cleaning up the sharks and shonks that are ripping off so many Australians?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training) (15:10): At the end of 2014 the then minister, Ian Macfarlane, took steps to make sure that we had new standards introduced in relation to vocational education and training providers. I then took steps as the minister, earlier this year, to ban, from 1 April, the provision of laptops and other inducements for sign-ups to the VET FEE-HELP scheme. Further reforms took place on 1 July, and others are scheduled to take place from 1 January, which will dramatically change the incentive arrangements and end the system of up-front payments that the Labor Party put in place. The Labor Party put in place a scheme that was driven entirely on the basis of signing people up to VET FEE-HELP loans. We actually want to have a scheme where providers are paid for progression through the training system. That is in part what the legislation that is before the chamber is doing. In terms of specific action for places like Phoenix, on 12 October this year the department issued a notice of intention to suspend Phoenix as a VET FEE-HELP provider. (Time expired)

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (15:12): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given that the minister has acknowledged that these dodgy practices, including the use of computers as inducements, are still continuing, why has the minister not been more agile and more nimble in cleaning out these shonks and these sharks?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South AustraliaMinister for Education and Training) (15:12): I am pleased for Senator Carr to come in here and shine a spotlight on the failures of the Labor Party in their establishment of this scheme. I am pleased that he gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that, throughout the course of this year, this government has continuously implemented measures to clean up your mess. We have actually demonstrated real action and real reforms in this area that are absolutely starting to make a difference and will make a profound difference from 1 January next year, when the incentive arrangements will dramatically change for providers.

As I have indicated, we are contemplating and looking at further measures that we think may be necessary to address the mess that Labor left. Labor's sole policy on this is that they want to establish an ombudsman. They think that a new public sector official might be the answer to this. We think we should get the multimillion-dollar program right. We think we should fix the guidelines in it. We are proposing changes to the legislation, and we will make sure that we clean up the mess we inherited from those who had no idea how to structure a program. (Time expired)