BILLS;Education and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2017;Second Reading – 27 Mar 2017

I am pleased to be able to stand up today to support the Education and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2017. A quality education is the best opportunity anyone can get to improve their life. While for some it is a university education, for many others it is a vocational education at TAFE or other training organisations. However, over the past few years we have heard numerous stories about dodgy and unscrupulous providers who have taken large amounts of funds in payments yet have delivered little meaningful training. Students and the Labor Party have been crying out for a VET Student Loans Ombudsman to act on the complaints of students and to bring some fairness back to the sector.

Education is an issue that I have had a particular interest in for many years, firstly through my employment background as an early childhood educator and currently as a member of the Senate Education and Employment References Committee. When I worked for the Australian Services Union, I was also their Tasmanian representative on a number of industry training boards. I wrote curriculum for early childhood education. I helped implement traineeships into local government in Tasmania for the very first time. So I have had quite a broad interest in education for many years.

This bill consists of two schedules. The first schedule amends the Ombudsman Act 1976 to insert a new part IIE, establishing the office of the VET student loans ombudsman. It also makes consequential amendments to the Ombudsman Act and the VET Student Loans Act 2016. The second schedule amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001, the ARC Act, to update indexation against appropriate funding caps for existing legislated amounts and includes an additional forward estimates amount.

Back in November last year, I spoke in this place on the VET Student Loans (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2016. I welcomed the government’s commitment to creating a VET student loans ombudsman. Labor have been calling for a VET ombudsman for a long time and we took a policy of establishing an ombudsman to the last election, because we know that students need someone in their corner to stand up for their rights and to fight back against bad practices and the dodgy providers. Labor have always stuck up for students and we are glad to see the government adopting another one of our policies to this end. Unfortunately, an unfair system was allowed to flourish because those opposite were simply not paying attention to the VET system and were too busy changing ministers—I think we are up to No. 5 at the moment. While we would like to believe that dodgy providers do not exist, unfortunately we have heard too many stories, including in my home state of Tasmania. Back in March 2015, when speaking on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015, I told the story of a Tasmanian student, Jake Wright, and his experiences with a registered training organisation. Jake was pretty excited when he signed up for a double diploma of business and management with Careers Australia, but he was completely out of his depth and contacted a tutor, who advised him to watch YouTube videos. Jake said:

I found them quite hard to understand and when I actually asked him if he could assist me at all he just told me to watch the videos and I said, ‘I’ve watched them, I can’t do the work.’

Jake’s mother, Lexia Brown, helped him unenrol, but not before he had racked up a VET debt of more than $8,000. His mother said:

Even under supervision he would not be able to do it. He can do many other things but not a double diploma in business and management.

Unfortunately, there are many thousands of stories like Jake’s from around Australia.

So, as I said, we are very pleased that, finally, the government are putting in place the systems and the resources to help students who have been victims of dodgy private VET providers. Fifteen months ago, Labor moved to establish a VET ombudsman in the Senate. At that time, the minister said he would look into it and promised to ‘progress’ the idea. Late last year, when the government introduced the VET student loans bills, the assistant minister said in her second reading speech that the government would establish an ombudsman. Unfortunately, though, the government had not included the establishment of an ombudsman in those bills. Who knows why? In November last year, it had been a year since the government promised to ‘look into it’, and so surely they could have done it then, but at least they are doing it now, so we are pretty happy about that. We know the idea of an ombudsman is an extremely popular one because students, providers and consumer advocates have all been calling for an ombudsman for quite some time. So it fell to Labor to move an amendment to establish an ombudsman, at which time the government again gave an undertaking to come back to the parliament with standalone legislation.

The government have been dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing, but, as I say, Labor are pleased to see the legislation in the parliament today, and we will keep leading the broader debate on skills and training. The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, hosted a national summit in March to bring business, government, TAFE, unions and providers together to work on long-term policy solutions for opportunity, jobs and the economy. Through Senate inquiries and in public debate, stakeholders have strongly supported the idea of an ombudsman, from consumer law advocates to providers and, of course, those most affected: the students. Many have argued strongly for an ombudsman with a broad remit beyond the loans scheme or with powers of arbitration. I believe these ideas have merit and should remain under consideration as part of the longer term reforms to the VET system that are so needed to make sure it better meets the needs of students and businesses. Labor believes that the government has brought this legislation forward in good faith and that both the government and the department will use the powers available to make sure the ombudsman operates effectively. And we expect to see the recommendations of the ombudsman respected and heavy punishment for any providers who do not cooperate—because students have to come first. The government is on notice. There are many thousands of students who have been treated wrongly in recent years and Labor expects to see results. Labor has always said that effective implementation will be what makes or breaks the government’s VET reforms. It owes it to students and to all the providers who are working hard and doing the right thing to make the changes work.

Unfortunately, the system has fallen into crisis under the Liberals’ watch. In 2014, the graduation rate for the 10 largest private providers was under five per cent, with $900 million in federal money spent, or over $215,000 for every graduate. Students have been tricked into racking up massive debts for courses that offer little hope of leading to a job. We all heard about students being signed up to a course with the promise of a new iPad or a laptop without knowing or understanding that they were actually signing up to thousands of dollars worth of debt. Around 10,000 qualifications were cancelled in Victoria alone because they were not worth the paper they were written on. We have seen an explosion in short courses and online courses and, I am sorry to say, a decline in quality. It is estimated up to 40 per cent of VET FEE-HELP loans will never be repaid, and much of this is because of the government’s inaction. Most ridiculously, there have even been reports of students being offered online training as a jockey, without riding a horse—we can see how successfully that might work out—and students have been signed up to loans without even knowing they had been signed up. The vocational education sector has been mismanaged by this government. VET FEE-HELP loans have blown out from about $700 million in 2013 to a staggering $2.9 billion in 2015. Unfortunately, the government just let this explosion happen. How can they possibly justify to taxpayers their failure to do anything about it?

As I said earlier, Labor is the party that is committed to the vocational education sector. We have fought for it over many decades. Late last year, the Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Ms Andrews, the member for McPherson, questioned whether the national partnership for skills agreement was even needed in the future. She said she was meeting with the states ‘to determine whether there are reforms to VET that warrant a new agreement’. This is very concerning. The current national partnership, put in place by Labor, expires in the middle of this year. Over $500 million a year in Commonwealth support for TAFE and skills is on the line, and the minister does not even seem to know whether a new agreement is needed to continue supporting TAFE. We must rebuild TAFE for the future.

Between 2013 and 2015 the Liberals oversaw a 21 per cent decline in TAFE enrolments and an almost 75 per cent decline in TAFE and VET capital investment. Apprenticeship numbers are in freefall under the Liberals. Since the Liberals came to government, those numbers have gone down by 30 per cent—that is, 130,000 fewer apprenticeships. Let me remind you: we have been very clear on this side that we back public TAFE. That is why we took a TAFE funding guarantee to the last election and why Bill Shorten committed at the Press Club earlier this year to put quality TAFE back at the heart of our VET system. TAFE is where people get the technical and semi-professional skills they need for growing industries—the skills that are being demanded by industry and the skills Australia needs to be competitive with other countries. TAFE is the backbone of our apprenticeship system.

Generations of Australians know how important TAFE is for our economy, and they know the first-class skills and opportunities that going to TAFE can provide—but the Liberals just don’t get it. At a state and federal level, the Liberals have an ideological problem with TAFE. Before the last election, Labor promised to undertake a comprehensive National Vocational Education and Training Sector Review to build a stronger VET sector and weed out dodgy providers and student rip-offs. Labor’s review will ensure that the VET sector is properly equipped to train Australians for the jobs of the future, proper standards are enforced and the central role of our public TAFE system is recognised.

Our national skills and training sector used to be the envy of the world. I remember back in the mid- to late-seventies, when I left college, TAFE was such a great place for people to go to increase their skills, to get an apprenticeship and to have jobs into the future. One of the interesting things I see now is that all of the people who did apprenticeships back then—all the builders, plumbers and electricians that I know—have all got more work at the minute than they know what to do with. I think that is great but it shows us—as they all say to me—that we do not have enough apprenticeships and that we need to make sure that there are more apprenticeships. Our national skills and training sector, as I said, used to be the envy of the world, but since the election of the Liberal government it has been significantly damaged by shonks and sharks ripping off vulnerable people. People’s livelihoods are being destroyed and their job prospects ruined. It is an absolute disgrace, and action has to be taken.

Having a strong VET sector is an important part of Labor’s plan to tackle inequality. The vocational education and training sector deserves a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to policy-making to ensure it is fit for the critical task of preparing Australians for the jobs of the future. While schools and universities have had full reviews into funding with the Gonski and Bradley reviews, the vocational education and training sector has been left behind. The sector has not undergone a full review since the Kangan report in 1974. It is time for a full review of the operation of the sector, including quality, funding and access. As new jobs emerge and existing industries go through extensive restructuring, the nation will rely on an effective, quality vocational sector to provide the qualifications to enable people to enter the workforce, upskill or retrain.

As I mentioned earlier, the second schedule of this bill amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001. The amendment updates the funding profile for major Australian Research Council grant programs and is supported by us on this side of the chamber. Previously, this kind of basic, administrative change was held up by the coalition’s attempts to pass its unfair and unpopular $100,000 degrees legislation. One of the drivers of Australia’s success in research has been the provision of both competitive grant funding and programs and a long-term, stable block grant that allows universities to invest strategically in research in ways which foster its future development. Research funded by the Australian Research Council allows Australia’s thinkers to produce outcomes that will help our country become more creative, productive and resilient and also better equipped to face and understand the challenges of the 21st century. Labor knows that economies and societies which invest more in research will generally show faster rates of growth in output and human development. The Abbott-Turnbull government sought to cut almost $900 million from science and research in its first budget. This included $75 million from the Australian Research Council.

In closing, Labor has been calling for the introduction of a VET ombudsman for a long time. Students in our VET sector need the support of an ombudsman in their court if they fall prey to unscrupulous training providers. I urge this chamber to support the Education and Other Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2017.