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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 9597

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (11:55): I indicate my strong support for Senator Carr's amendments. I think we need to put these amendments in context. They simply give the power to the secretary of the department to cap fees. They do not mandate the capping. It is an additional tool in the tool kit to sort out the rorting in this sector. With the Chairman's indulgence, I wish to read a brief opinion piece by Natasha Bita in The Australian this morning which I think sums up beautifully what has occurred here. I think it is worth putting on the record. It is called 'Reform dog's breakfast fails to fix VET flaws'.

The Turnbull government has pulled its punch in the fight against financial rorting by private training colleges.

In a belated admission that its planned reforms fall short, the government yesterday introduced 13 pages of amendments to its own legislation in the Senate.

The result is a dog's breakfast of stopgap measures that freeze the status quo while failing to fix basic flaws in the structure of vocational training in Australia.

Training Minister Luke Hartsuyker yesterday declared he had "turned off the tap" of taxpayer funding that will total $2.75bn this year alone.

The government plans to freeze funding at existing levels, to the very same colleges that are pocketing fat profits at taxpayer expense.

Despite two Senate inquiries this year, the government will spend another year consulting with the industry about ongoing reforms to start in 2017. In April, the government banned colleges from offering "free" laptops, smartphones, cash or meals, after The Australian revealed how some colleges were bribing students to enrol in costly courses billed back to the taxpayer through the VET Fee-Help student loans scheme.

The current bill, which the government hopes will take force on January 1, would ban colleges from charging full fees upfront, give students a two-day cooling off period and require parental consent for teenagers to take out student loans.

But it fails to treat a financially cancerous system that combines open-ended public funding with poor quality control.

The government must regulate the price of training courses, which have trebled in the three years since university-style student loans were made available to vocational training students. It is outrageous that colleges can charge as much for an acting diploma as a university does for a medical degree.

Until the government controls costs — by capping course prices or limiting how much students can borrow for each course — colleges can continue to binge on public funding while schools and universities go begging.

Well said by Ms Bita at The Australian.

I understand the minister's dilemma here. The minister has had to pick up an absolute mess. Without incurring Senator Carr's wrath, I think there was a complete mess of the system. The way the Gillard government handled this was a complete mess that opened up the floodgates to rorting. I understand the government is trying to do something about it, but for the life of me I cannot understand. I believe Senator Birmingham and Minister Hartsuyker genuinely want to do the right thing. I do not feel sorry for Senator Birmingham. I do not want to say that in a patronising way; I actually think he is diligently trying to sort out a mess that he has inherited. I am sorry that he has that role, but—I say this as a compliment to Senator Birmingham—I think he has easily the capacity to deal with this. I have confidence that he will be able to deal with this. I do not understand why the government will not support Senator Carr's amendments—unless there has been a change of heart.

I do not get it. Why wouldn't you have this sword of Damocles hanging over the head of those dodgy private training colleges where you could say to them: 'We can cap fees. We can go through this process'? You do not even have to use it; simply having that mechanism in place would fundamentally assist the intent of this bill. I commend Senator Carr for moving these amendments.