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Thursday, 29 November 2018
Page: 9027

Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:26): The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Student Protection) Bill 2018 will provide a much needed remedy for students who have been burdened with a VET FEE-HELP debt due to the unconscionable behaviour of some unscrupulous registered training providers. The bill amends schedule 1A of the Higher Education Support Act to introduce a broad remedy for students who incurred a VET FEE-HELP debt as a result of inappropriate conduct by vocational education and training providers or their agents. The bill will also give discretionary powers to the secretary of the Department of Education and Training to recredit a person's FEE-HELP debt.

After five years of government, finally the Liberals have taken action, and it is absolutely overdue. There are too many students, many of them very vulnerable, who have fallen victim to scandalous behaviour by dodgy VET providers. The scheme's costs exploded under the Liberals—$1.8 billion in 2014 and more than doubling to $3 billion in 2015. In fact, before the government finally took action, a staggering $6 billion in loans was issued over the course of just three years. According to the government actuary, $1.2 billion of the loans has been inappropriately raised. It's unknown how many individuals have been affected by the rorting of dodgy private providers and now hold unfair debts, but it is highly likely that the 9,000 complaints currently lodged with the VET Student Loans Ombudsman represent just the tip of the iceberg.

The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has an abysmal record on vocational education and training. Australia's TAFE and vocational education system is under enormous pressure as a result of their poor and incoherent policy development and cuts. Since they were elected, the Liberals have cut more than $3 billion from TAFE, skills and apprenticeships and, in the last budget, as Treasurer, Mr Morrison cut a further $370 million from apprenticeship funding over the next four years. The scheme has been damaged by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy competition, which have diminished quality and damaged the reputation of quality providers in the system. Marketisation of vocational education has opened the way for the unscrupulous providers, the worst of which we have seen under VET FEE-HELP. As a result, we have seen an overall decline in outcomes for students. Enrolments are dropping, completion rates are low and costs are shifting back onto students as fees increase. Under the Liberals, TAFE courses have been cut back, campuses are closing, TAFE teachers are losing their jobs and dissatisfied employers continue to complain about skill shortages and skill gaps.

On this side, we understand the importance of vocational education, and we truly understand the importance of TAFE in our communities. We will restore public TAFE as the major provider of vocational education and training. We've now committed to ensuring that at least two-thirds of government funding for vocational education will go to TAFE. The balance will go to not-for-profit community and adult educators and only the very best of the private providers with demonstrable links to specific industry requirements. Labor will waive the up-front fees for 100,000 TAFE places and upgrade and refurbish TAFE campuses with a $100 million building TAFE for the future fund. Labor will fund 10,000 pre-apprenticeships and 20,000 advanced entry adult apprenticeships. Under a Labor government, at least one in 10 jobs on all major infrastructure and defence projects will be filled by an Australian apprentice.

We're living in a time of rapid technological change, and it's impacting on all aspects of our lives. Now more than ever we need a post-secondary education and training system that responds to those changes and works for every Australian. All Australians should have access through their working lives to the education, skills and training that they need for a decent job. Labor believes no-one should be excluded from access to vocational education and training as a result of financial disadvantage—course costs, fear of debt—or regional disadvantage. That is why Labor has made the commitment that, in the first 100 days of government, if elected, we will establish a once-in-a-generation national inquiry. It will examine all aspects of Australia's post-secondary education system and it will make recommendations about how our vocational and higher education systems address the country's economic and societal needs. The inquiry will build on the best of Australia's vocational education and training system. It will repair the damage that's been done to it by unscrupulous for-profit providers and the neglect of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government.

Labor supports this bill. It is essential that these unfair debts are expunged. But we also call on the government to take vocational education, TAFE and apprenticeships seriously and work with Labor to make the Australian VET system truly excellent.