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Monday, 9 November 2015
Page: 12471

Mr McCORMACK (RiverinaAssistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister) (19:14): Strong words indeed from the member for Charlton. I do commend him for those comments he made towards the end of his speech about the fact that the blame does lie specifically with those unscrupulous merchants who want to take advantage of, as he put it, 'some of our most vulnerable people'. I also commend him for the work that he has done in his own electorate office to help those people who have been victims. That is what good local members do. But he did get a little bit political and so I cannot let him go completely unscathed. I cannot just give him praise entirely without pulling him up—

Ms Butler interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: but I am not going to, member for Griffith—about the fact that Labor did have the opportunity to do something about this and Labor chose not to. We, as a coalition government, are getting on with the job of fixing what Labor did not.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015 amends Higher Education Support Act 2003, strengthening the protections for students in the vocational educational training sector and pushing unscrupulous training providers out of the market. The member for Charlton understands that those unscrupulous training providers need to be pushed out of the market. He called them scum—he is probably right, it is a little bit strong——but he is probably right. They are taking advantage of vulnerable people. They are ripping off money from government coffers that could otherwise be spent far more wisely—indeed, far better in the entire education sector.

Why is this bill necessary? Well, VET FEE-HELP has undergone higher than expected growth since Labor axed the credit transfer arrangements between VET FEE-HELP, funded qualifications and university qualifications back in 2012. If you look at the figures, in 2012 nominal loans for VET FEE-HELP were $225 million, with 55,115 students and 119 approved providers. If you look at the figures just two years later, in 2014 nominal loans were $1.757 billion, with 202,776 students and approved providers numbering 254. That is massive growth. Much of this expansion is because of the unscrupulous behaviour of—I would like to say a minority—providers and agents who aggressively market the scheme.

They target vulnerable people, as we have heard from the member for Charlton, members on my side and other opposition members as well. What the unscrupulous providers do is leave those on whom they prey with a significant debt, but no benefit from training—absolutely no benefit. The system under the former Labor government failed to put in place the necessary safeguards to protect students and taxpayers from the rorting and from the rip-offs. Do not just take my word from it. The chief commissioner and the chief executive officer of the Australian Skills Quality Authority, Chris Robinson, had this to say in The Australian on 17 July this year; that the expansion:

precipitated unprecedented examples of unethical student recruitment practices and astronomical fees as dodgy operators jumped into a new and easy government-supplied pool of money.

As the member for Lalor quite correctly pointed out, they were gaming the system—absolutely gaming the system.

But Labor had a chance to act in 2013 when the first complaints were made to the national training regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority. What did Labor do? Nothing. They did not do anything. They did not act. That is why it has taken the member for Cowper, the minister responsible, the Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, to come into this chamber on 15 October—

Ms Butler: Two years later.

Mr McCORMACK: No, it is not two years later. You should have done something about it back in 2013. I appreciate you were not here then. The minister is doing something about it. The member for Cowper was the assistant minister for employment for two years and four days before taking on his new role, and he understands the need for jobs.

Not only will this bill weed out and eradicate those unscrupulous operators; it will, ultimately, with funds being better distributed to where they ought to go, I believe, lead to an increase in jobs. That is what training, vocational education, TAFEs and universities are all about: getting people into the workforce and getting people better paid jobs. That is why this bill is important.

On 18 September, the shadow minister for higher education, research, innovation and industry, Senator Kim Carr, finally acknowledged the need for stronger measures and, as reported in Melbourne's The Age, he said:

Labor introduced VET FEE-HELP with good intentions but the scheme contains 'fundamental weaknesses' that need to be fixed.

And he added:

… and regulators were not given enough power to crack down on rogue operators.

They should have been given enough power and could have been given enough power when Labor was in power, but they were not. On 12 March this year, the Assistant Minister for Education and Training at the time, Senator Simon Birmingham, announced a series of measures to finally target that unscrupulous behaviour which has left some students with debt but, unfortunately, no qualifications. That is the great sadness about this. Young people—many ofwhom are young, some are not so young—think they are doing the right things by themselves and by their future career prospects are going into debt and taking the inducement of an iPad or a laptop or whatever else. And all they left with is just a huge debt and no qualifications and no improved prospects for a better career, which is what they hoped to do in the first place and what got them in the first place.

Senator Birmingham said that these measures, which he talked about back in March, would seek to stamp out unscrupulous behaviour, which will assist in restoring integrity in the sector. We heard the member for Robertson earlier talking about the need to restore integrity to the sector. These measures have been progressively introduced since 1 April this year, and they are already—I am pleased to report to the chamber—having the desired effect. They are having a good impact.

This bill provides the laws necessary to implement specific measures from 1 January next year, and it needs to be passed as a priority. We have only three weeks of parliament left. It needs to pass through this House. It needs to get through the Senate. It has to be passed as a priority.

This bill seeks to prevent inappropriate enrolments and debts by doing the following: introducing a two-day cooling-off period, as it is called, between enrolment and application for a VFH loan; introducing minimum prerequisites to ensure that students can complete the higher level VET courses, diploma and above, for which VET FEE-HELP is available; and requiring a parent's or guardian's signature before a student who is under 18 years—and there are many of those—can request a VET FEE-HELP loan, with exemptions for minors considered independent under the Social Security Act 1991. This bill will further protect students and taxpayers because it will make it easier for a student to have their debt cancelled where they have been signed up for a loan inappropriately, and the costs will be recouped from providers to protect taxpayers. It is important to protect the taxpayers because it is all our money that is being ripped off here.

This bill will introduce minimum registration and trading history requirements for new VET FEE-HELP provider applicants to ensure that those approved have a proven history of delivering quality training. So there will be checks and balances and measures to make sure that those people who are approved providers are in fact just that. It will also introduce infringement notices attached to civil penalties for breaches of the VET FEE-HELP guidelines, and let us hope those penalties are high and severe. They need to be. It will introduce technical amendments to strengthen the department's administration of the scheme and its partnerships with the Australian Skills Quality Authority to monitor and enforce compliance.

Minister Hartsuyker, in introducing this legislation on 15 October, described it as 'a very important and timely bill', and he is right, of course. He is very right. As he said at the time:

This bill will strengthen the protections for students in the Vocational Education and Training sector and push unscrupulous training providers out of the market.

It absolutely has to.

I am pleased to represent the Riverina electorate, where we have so much training going on. In fact, I have described my home town of Wagga Wagga as 'Australia's learning capital' because it is. This is why not only will this legislation strengthen the national effort but certainly, in the Riverina, the improved benefits are going to flow right through. I am not saying that there are unscrupulous providers in the Riverina, but the money that will be gained because it is not going to unscrupulous providers will provide benefit for the entire system and hopefully flow on and trickle down to those regional areas, one of which is the Riverina, where so much training is done.

I will give a bit of a snapshot for the benefit of the House of the sorts of things that we do in Wagga Wagga. The Riverina is blessed that its two cities are such important regional hubs and leaders in their fields of expertise, Griffith being the irrigation capital and the centre of the nation's food basket and Wagga Wagga, as I said before, being Australia's learning capital. We have Charles Sturt University providing both on-campus and many offshore international courses for many, many students, including my son Alexander at the moment, who is doing a business course there as a cadet accountant. My daughter, Georgina, also studied there. She studied her English and drama teaching as a high school teacher. Wagga has a wonderful TAFE college. My youngest son, Nicholas, who is starting out as an electrical apprentice on 18 January, will no doubt reap the benefits of what they do at Wagga Wagga TAFE.

Every Royal Australian Air Force person at some stage or another, if they have an extended career in the Air Force, will end up at Forest Hill, Wagga Wagga. Wagga Wagga is also the home of the soldier, with every Army recruit being trained at Blamey Barracks, Kapooka. I know that the member for Canberra, opposite, in her shadow Defence role, knows well—she has been there; I have been there with her to witness the passing-out parade—just what a great job the commandant, Colonel Steve Jobson, and his officers do in putting the polish on those fine young recruits, men and women, who go out to serve this nation and do it so very well, continuing on that long line of khaki which stretches right back to 25 April 1915.

Wagga Wagga has a Navy base, an important training and strategic facility. It is many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest drop of sea water, but we have a Navy base at Wagga Wagga doing important training with HMAS Albatross at Nowra.

The Regional Express Australian Airline Pilot Academy, out at the airport, in Don Kendell Drive, is a truly outstanding facility run by people who demand the best. They are inspiring the new breed of young pilots. You can add two rural clinical schools, Notre Dame and UNSW, providing medicine courses for the training of our future doctors. You have so many training opportunities and so many places of teaching excellence at Wagga Wagga that it deserves the title of Australia's learning capital. Indeed it does.

I will just get back to this bill. The Australian government are committed to ensuring that we continue to have a strong VET sector which helps students to develop the skills that they need for the jobs of today and to take advantage of being in the most exciting time in Australia's history. As the Prime Minister has pointed out, it is an exciting time to be in Australia. We have new ministries in innovation and in productivity. I am glad to see that science is back as a portfolio. Certainly we are doing the sorts of things that are benefiting business. We are getting on with the important task of fulfilling the three most important things in Australia, and they are (1) jobs, (2) jobs and (3) jobs. That is what we need to do as a government. That is what we are doing as a government. Jobs are so very critical to our future prosperity and our future growth.

We need Australia's best and brightest going to our colleges and our universities. They do not deserve to be ripped off. They will not be ripped off under this higher education support amendment bill, and that is why I commend this very important legislation to the House tonight.