COMMITTEES;Education and Employment References Committee;Report – 26 Nov 2015

I would like to spend a few moments today talking about the Education and Employment References Committee report into funding of VET providers in Australia. As a former member of this committee, and as someone with a keen and very longstanding interest in vocational education, I would like to highlight some of the important points made in this report.

Maintaining quality and properly funding the VET sector is an issue of particular importance to my home state of Tasmania. Vocational education is an extremely important part of the Australian economy. It has a vital role to play in providing skills and qualifications to large numbers of Australians. So it is essential that we ensure this sector is working as well as it possibly can, to ensure that students get the best training available and that the taxpayer gets value for money, that employers get employees trained with the skills they need. It is clear that things can be improved in the VET sector and I thank the members of the committee for the majority report, which looked into this issue in detail.

Previously in this place I have mentioned reports by Tasmanians about being offered cash and other inducements for signing up for VET courses—quite often VET courses they have no chance of completing. Media reports say that these inducements are still being offered despite legislation being passed in this place earlier in the year outlawing the practice. There have also been a large number of reports about VET service providers provide substandard courses which leave students with a large tent and no worthwhile qualification. I know that my office has received information from constituents about allegedly unscrupulous VET providers providing substandard courses and training. I have written to the minister requesting he investigate these claims. However, I would not have to write to the minister if there were a VET ombudsman to whom domestic students could be directed to resolve their issues.

The addition of the dedicated office to assist with dispute resolution for students with complaints against RTOs would significantly improve outcomes for students. Recommendation 16 of this committee report calls for the this very action, with the committee recommending that an ombudsman focussed on domestic students in the VET sector be created and further suggests that this position be industry funded. The Consumer Action Law Centre supported the need for an ombudsman telling the committee:

A key feature of the student remediation framework should be a national industry ombudsman that with independently resolve disputes between students and training providers at no cost to students of the taxpayer. At the moment, disputes between private colleges and international students can be heard by the Commonwealth’s Overseas Students Ombudsman, but no such process exists for domestic students. We note that the review of quality assurance in Victoria’s VET system recently recommended the establishment of such a body.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training also supported the introduction of a VET ombudsman. They told the committee:

ACPET advocates for a national consumer focussed complaint handling process for students and providers to complement the new national training complaints hotline as existing Ombudsman arrangements focus either on government-owned providers or international student issues.

ACPET believes that such a scheme would result in a number of major benefits, improved industry image, cost-effective resolution option, improved communication, early warnings to regulators and market research for the sector.

To date, VET regulators have had limited capacity to focus on complaints and responses are limited to formal process of such as audits, informing risk assessments and strategic reviews for the sector, thus not directly resolving the complaint. The new national complaints hotline will not investigate complaints as it is a referral service to other agencies for their consideration. Further evidence of the need for a VET ombudsman for domestic students was provided by the Overseas Students Ombudsman, who found that the majority of the 2,150 complaints to the OSO were about the vocational training and educational sector.

Labor brought a proposal to parliament a few weeks ago to establish an industry funded VET ombudsman to help protect vulnerable students from shonky training colleges. However, the Turnbull government voted down this proposal along with two other strong common-sense measures including from the Australian National Audit Office audit into use of VET FEE-HELP and a requirement for students to opt into the department of education rather than private providers when applying for VET FEE-HELP loans.

The Liberals claim to care about students yet they refuse to support these common-sense measures. Those opposite have completely missed the point about the problems occurring in the sector and they are failing to act to fix them. As Senator Polley said, ‘Those on that side think they’re cruising. They think they’re having a great time just cruising along and no matter what they think they’re doing all right.’ Not only have they failed to fix the problems of the VET sector but also they are going to make it more difficult for VET students to study. How are they going to make it more difficult? By increasing the rate and the base of the GST.

Whenever we bring up increasing the GST, those on the other side jump up and say, ‘Scare tactics by the Labor Party, it’s not going to happen.’ Let me tell you, the Turnbull government says that everything is on the table in regard to tax reform. reported on 28 October that Mr Turnbull had stated that the GST would be part of a suite of tax reforms and an increase to the GST was on the table. So next time we get up and talk about the concerns we have with the increase in the GST, do not tell us that it is not up for conversation and that is not going to happen because we know it will.

Increasing the GST is the laziest option the government has before it and it will hurt those on the lowest incomes the most. The government has shown time and time again that they do not care about Australians on low incomes. On 12 November in question time, the Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Luke Hartsuyker, refused to rule out a GST, either at the current 10 per cent or the proposed 15 per cent, on vocational costs such as TAFE fees. Rather than answer whether the Turnbull government intends to put a GST on TAFE fees, the minister waffled on about the tax system of the future and, despite being asked again to directly answer the question, he chose to duck and weave and avoided directly answering the question. Those opposite have made it clear that under any GST increase they have no plans to protect students from paying an extra 10 or 15 per cent on their TAFE fees. An increase in the GST would make the cost of studying more expensive in other ways as well. Bus or train fees to travel to study would increase. Rulers, pencils and other stationery would increase. Laptops, printers and textbooks would all increase. Once in the workforce, tools such as protective clothing, workwear and materials will all increase under this government is designed to increase the GST.

I know that most people here all listening at home have had the experience of buying materials for the start of a school year or for the start of a degree or a training course. It is a pretty expensive time of year. The government’s desire to increase the GST rather than doing the hard yards on tax reform will only make things more difficult. All Australian VET students and their families should be very worried. They should be extremely concerned about the impact an increase in the GST would have on the cost of studying and their ability to start or to continue study. It is quite clear that this government does not care about the VET sector and it does not care about VET sector students and it should. It needs to. As I said the other day, they need to sharpen their pencils on that side and really start taking some note, because real people are being affected by problems in this sector and, once again, quite often it is those on low and middle incomes.

Going back to the report, the committee noted from evidence received that disputes between students and providers cause significant levels of stress and difficulties for students. If those government senators have ever had anyone come into their office distressed because their VET course has been a terrible waste of time and money, they would be moved to act. The Liberal government has had two years—two years!—to put measures in place to protect students, yet they have merely tinkered around the edges. This has allowed the shonks and sharks to continue to prey on vulnerable students. Labor calls on the Turnbull Liberal government to engage constructively and to use the expertise and knowledge of stakeholders in the sector to help restore the reputation of Australia’s vocational education and training sector.

There are 16 recommendations in this report for the government to consider and act upon, and I urge the government and the minister to carefully read this report and, for once, to act in the interests of VET students. They need to create a VET ombudsman for domestic students and to fix the other issues highlighted by this report, because so far this government has failed to act to protect students. They just want to slug them with an increase in the GST, which will make studying less affordable.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted. Debate adjourned.