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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 11828

Mr GOSLING (Solomon) (12:58): The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 is welcome, and we support it. It goes some way at least to repairing some of the damage that has been caused by, as my good friend the member for Herbert mentioned, some of those unscrupulous for-profit vocational education and training providers. As members are aware, these unscrupulous entities rorted the system and conned prospective students, who were only trying to better themselves by getting some training to improve their job prospects or acquire a new skill. In some cases, the victims were vulnerable people unaware that they had even been enrolled in courses. In other cases, they found they did not receive the training they were promised, but still incurred large debts—debts they were not even aware they were liable for. As one of the previous speakers mentioned, not only were some of these individuals—who were just trying to better themselves and get ahead—conned, but attempts were made to have them pay for courses that they didn't even enrol in. I'm sure all honourable members would agree that it was a great injustice that was done to those students, because they were caused great anxiety and financial hardship through absolutely no fault of their own.

The unconscionable conduct of these rogue operators, basically con artists and snake-oil salesmen, has really damaged Australia's reputation as an education provider. It's an important industry for our country, and that's why this has been so regrettable: not only did many Australian people get caught up in these rip-offs but overseas students got caught up in them as well. So Labor welcome this bill, which will recredit the debts of thousands of students, and welcome efforts to remedy what is clearly an ongoing problem.

I'll just briefly touch on the government's response. I don't want to be negative, but it was disappointing to hear the Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, the member for Higgins, say, in her very second sentence on this issue, that the bill is about cleaning up a mess left by a previous Labor government. She then launched into what can only be described as a diatribe about other supposed failings of Labor in government. There's nothing like taking a bit of responsibility after more than five years in government! People don't like this sort of negative name-calling. They're over it. They're not interested in blame-shifting and political pointscoring; they just want something fixed. So maybe the member for Higgins could have a chat to the fixer. Most of what's been put forward in this bill is going to assist, but the problem has caused a lot of anxiety, and that is obviously regrettable.

Australians want a government that gets things done, that takes a positive and optimistic approach. That's why we on this side are putting forward positive and constructive policies in a whole range of areas that are vital to our country, and this is one of them. To look at TAFE as an example, a Shorten Labor government will scrap up-front fees for 100,000 TAFE students who choose to learn the skills that our country needs. TAFE is the best place for young Australians to develop these skills in the communities that need them—in their own communities. Labor's policy to scrap up-front fees will make it easier for Australians to gain the skills that they need to get a trade, a traineeship and a quality job, and it will make it easier for businesses to fill skill shortages. It's part of Labor's $470 million plan to boost TAFE apprenticeships and skills for Australians. I can tell you that in my electorate of Solomon, in Darwin and Palmerston, this is very welcome. What has been unwelcome is that those opposite, in government for the last five-plus years, have cut more than $3 billion—that's billion, with a 'b'—from TAFE and training. Australia has 140,000 fewer apprentices today than it did when those opposite were first elected over five years ago. That's a bit of a problem. That's kind of a shameful record after five-plus years: 140,000 fewer Australians, whether they are young people or older Australians reskilling to get into the workforce in a different capacity, in apprenticeships.

However, luckily, those on this side have a plan and, in addition to our commitment to waive fees for the 100,000 students, we will invest $100 million in modernising facilities around the country. We all know that our workforce is changing. There's a greater reliance on technology to drive innovation, and our TAFE facilities need to keep up so there is going to be an investment in modernising those facilities . We're also going to guarantee that at least two out of three government training dollars go to TAFE because it is the bedrock of skills training in our communities. We've already announced that one in every 10 jobs on Commonwealth priority projects will be filled by Australian apprentices, which is a fantastic initiative. We will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeship programs for young people who want to learn a trade that will step up into an apprentice program. We'll also provide 20,000 adult apprentice programs for those older workers I mentioned earlier, who need to retrain for the emerging jobs of the future.

Investing in apprentices is important and an additional $637 million into TAFE and vocational education will, in effect, reverse the government's 2017 budget cuts in full. We on this side are guaranteeing at least two-thirds of vocational education funding for TAFE, as I mentioned, and will invest through the Future Fund to revitalise our TAFE infrastructure around the country.

These are all positive policies, constructive solutions to problems that I think Australians want to hear about. As I mentioned, they're over the buck-passing, the blaming. We just need to reinvest funds that have been cut out of this sector, because it is a massive problem. The cuts to apprenticeships, the cuts to the sector and the unfair dealings of some of these unscrupulous for-profit VET providers have meant that more than 6,000 students have complained that they were charged for courses they did not receive. Only a small number of those have received relief from those unfair debts. There was $1.4 billion from 2009 to 2014 in VET FEE-HELP loans. The quantum of these loans that were provided clearly ran out of control and, as mentioned, people were burdened with debt wrongly and unfairly. It was a symptom of a failed VET system that, as we've heard before, was described as a 'mess' by the Productivity Commission, and the OECD has said that Australia is lacking the skills to engage effectively in global value chains.

This bill is welcome, as it's going to offer some assistance in reversing this. It will recredit the debts of thousands of students ripped off by these unscrupulous training providers. The bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce a remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by VET providers. And the bill provides a secretary of a department with a discretionary power to recredit a person's VET FEE-HELP as a result of that inappropriate conduct. In recrediting a person's FEE-HELP balance, there must be satisfaction that the person did not complete the relevant units of study and that it is reasonably likely that the VET provider engaged in inappropriate conduct, which is fair. VET guidelines will prescribe matters which the secretary must have regard to in considering whether it is reasonably likely that the VET provider engaged in inappropriate conduct. And the VET Student Ombudsman will be able to make recommendations to the secretary in relation to the recrediting of the HELP balance.

This bill will give the Commonwealth the ability to recover from the provider an amount equivalent to the amount remitted. However, there are still two uncertainties with the bill. There is no detail about the definition of inappropriate conduct, but current guidelines for unacceptable conduct would appear to be a reasonable guide. Secondly, it is unclear how much this will cost. It is not possible to estimate accurately the total number of students impacted, and the amount of money involved varies in each case. There will certainly be cases where debts are recredited and cannot be recovered from the provider. Unfortunately, many of those dodgy providers are long gone, fly-by-night operators and so they may be difficult to track down. So that goes to some of the provisions in the bill.

In the time remaining I would just like to reflect on the VET provider in my electorate of Solomon, Charles Darwin University. It is the major TAFE provider, offering more than 160 certificate and diploma courses. I'm very proud of our university, Charles Darwin University. It's a great asset to our city and to the Northern Territory. Indeed, CDU has campuses throughout the Territory and does outreach programs from Darwin. The uni is ranked in the top two per cent of universities worldwide and provides a great space for Territorians, other Australians and international students to come and learn new trades and to garner the skills they need to pursue their profession or, indeed, to pursue their passion.

But, unfortunately, what we've seen from a succession of governments—whether it be former Prime Minister Abbott, former Prime Minister Turnbull or, indeed, the current Prime Minister Morrison and their governments—and what we've been left with in the Top End is a $30 million cut to Charles Darwin University. That is not helpful. That is not going to help us train up Territorians, Australians and international students. And those cuts to our university are unfair to young Territorians, not having the resources of some of our larger universities down south. Compared to other students in other parts of the country, that $30 million cut by those opposite is going to affect Territorians, who are already disadvantaged, disproportionately just by virtue of the tyranny of distance and the lack of resources when compared to other universities. However, I do want to acknowledge that the recently signed city deal contains funds for a new campus in the city. That is very welcome, as are the provisions in this bill.