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Thursday, 15 October 2015
Page: 7830

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (16:14): I rise today as Deputy Chair of the Education and Employment References Committee to speak on its report Getting our money's worth: the operation, regulation and funding of private vocational education and training (VET) providers in Australia. If only the students of Australia could get their money's worth. This report draws on work the committee has done previously in this area. I would like to underpin coalition senators' absolute support for a vocational education and training system that delivers for our industries, that delivers a workforce that is capable, primed and ready to do the work that needs to be done locally and that delivers for students so that those students who choose to seek a vocational pathway can be guaranteed a high-quality education that is available at a place that they need to go and that is affordable for them.

If we have a student focus when we are talking about vocational education and training, we can clearly see that there are a range of providers in this space. Obviously, the state-run TAFEs are some of those providers and, indeed, RTOs out in the community are also providers of high quality. We heard evidence about the many providers of high-quality vocational education and training who are private providers and who industry say give them the skills in the workforce and the people—predominantly young people—who are ready to work and ready to get ahead in the industries that we need going forward in the 21st century.

It is so important to get this right. As Senator Carr said, it is not only important for our domestic students; it is also important because the vocational education and training system is going to be one of our key export areas. Prime Minister Modi in India made it very clear he wants half a million Indians educated in vocational education in the next three or four years. We have a fantastic system and some wonderful providers who can take advantage of that opportunity and then reinvest in their businesses, whether they are public or private, Senator Rhiannon, and actually employ more Australians as a result.

Coalition senators and, indeed, ministers have been very clear that we want an accessible system that works for industry and in which industry and students can have confidence. Coalition senators were appalled by some of the stories we heard about providers ripping off the most vulnerable in our community. No senator in this place should be backing those providers. Absolutely not. I think we need to actually get real about the issue we are dealing with and not play politics, and I look forward to the Labor Party supporting the bill that has just been put through the lower house and is on its way through to us, which actually addresses some of these issues.

I look forward to Labor and Green senators getting behind Senator Birmingham's very swift and effective action in this space because the coalition has been active in the last two years in actually dealing with this issue. Absolutely. We should not choose to make political points out of the most vulnerable. I cannot get those people from the Redfern housing district out of my head. That evidence we heard, Senator Carr—I think it was in Sydney—was actually chilling. The most vulnerable people in our society are being landed with tens of thousands of dollars of debt because they have been 'sold a pup'.

But this government has been very quick to deal with the issue. The government has acted to improve the quality of training by introducing tough new standards for all RTOs from April 2015. We have committed a further $68 million to the national regulator, ASQA, to maintain our strong reputation, both at home and overseas, for delivering high-quality training. We have introduced the National Training Complaints Hotline, and I will get to complaints later, because the complaints did not just start rolling in when we came into government. This a system and there has been a systemic failure. We have heard from both Senator Rhiannon and Senator Carr about issues with the system. It was a system that was set up by the previous Labor government. As Senator Carr has said in public commentary, that system was set up with the best intentions. But, as with so many of the former Labor government's best intentions, the tough policy thinking, the tough work, behind those press releases that used to come out quite regularly from the then Prime Minister's office and various ministers' offices was not done. They did not do the thinking behind it, they did not do the stakeholder engagement and they did not get the policy setting right. Given the unintended consequences of the Labor Party policy, which we are dealing with, we look forward to the Labor Party supporting our efforts so that all of us can have confidence in a system that is delivering not only for students and for industry but, indeed, for the nation.

One example of swift action that our government has introduced is that we have banned inducements to students. We heard stories during this inquiry about iPad inducements and students being told their degree or qualification was free, which was not true.

Senator Rhiannon: Nothing has changed!

Senator McKENZIE: I am sorry, Senator Rhiannon. I notice that at the time of the system changing under the previous government you were silent.

Senator Rhiannon: No, we were not!

Senator McKENZIE: You were silent. So was Senator Carr at the time. However, I appreciate that he recognises that the system—and I go to a Matt Knott article—was a mistake. Our government is working swiftly to deal with that so no longer can you offer inducements to sign students up. Our government is also strengthening the debt waiver and revocation process, strengthening the assessment criteria of all training providers and ensuring that, where student debt is incurred, it is in line with course delivery. Under the previous system, there were students who were racking up debt, yet they were not able to log onto their online course.

So we brought in a tranche of reforms, and we are bringing in another tranche of reforms this week. I am confident in this government's vigilance on this issue of the importance of a sustainable and high-quality vocational education and training system to our goals as a government in having a flexible workforce, fit for our economy, going forward. Also, young people and those who choose to change career midlife can be assured that the qualification they are doing is actually going to lead to a job—a job that will be fulfilling and actually assist them to provide for themselves and their families over a long period of time.

I know Senator Carr was looking forward to my getting to the part where I talk about the previous government's system and decisions. I will just briefly touch on that. The complaints did not just start when this government took office two years ago. There were over 30 complaints to the department between 2011 and 2013 when Senator Chris Evans and the current shadow minister, Sharon Bird, were in charge of the system—30 complaints and not one piece of legislation through this place to deal with them! There was nothing stopping the iPad inducements, nothing stopping brokers from heading out to tenements, knocking on doors and offering free education if you just sign on the bottom line and nothing stopping people from heading off to shopping centres to look for vulnerable people to sign up to courses. There was nothing that actually changed the incentives inherent in the system where providers got all the money at the start of a course. We have sought to spread that cost out over the period of the course so that students are working through the course before incurring the debt, and so the provider is incentivised to educate through the course for the qualification.

I will go to some details: in 2012 a student who wanted to change providers had already been charged the full debt up-front. Another student was enrolled in an online course but had no online access and got $20,000 worth of debt. These were actual complaints to the department whilst Senator Carr's colleagues were in control. Another student withdrew from a course before the census date but was still charged the full debt.

Labor was told about the problem over and over again but did nothing, so I commend the minister for dealing with this. I commend the ongoing work in this space. I would also like to commend the secretariat for their very, very hard work in this area and for the production of a comprehensive report and all those submitters who took the time out of their busy days to give us their evidence and to assist us all to get a fulsome understanding of the issue. I look forward to the support of the Labor Party and the Greens for the effort that our government is making to not only maximise participation in this space but also ensure a quality product is delivered to our students and that we are delivering high-quality graduates to our industries. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.