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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11819

Dr ALY (Cowan) (12:17): 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.