Education and Other Legislation Amendment
(VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018,
Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018
It's good to be able to do something to support TAFE in this House.
I think this is one of the first opportunities that I have had in the two years that I have been
here to focus purely on vocational education and not just on fixing a mess. It is rather timely
that, as I rise to speak, the 'TAFE meets parliament' event is getting underway in this place. I
hope that MPs and senators will take the chance to go and speak with the TAFE people here to
really understand the diversity of things that TAFE is bringing to our community.
Unfortunately, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation)
Bill 2018 and related bill merely tinker around the edges of vocational training, and that is
disappointing. The bill places VET student loans second in the hierarchy of repayments after HELP
debts. On the positive side, this certainly allows for greater transparency of repayment rates of
VET student loans, and that should enable governments to better model those loans. So it is
practical in that sense. It also lays the groundwork to be able to specify courses eligible for VET
student loans to be referred to on the national register of courses, which ensures that students
aren't disadvantaged when a course is replaced. So it is minor administrative work that we are
happy to support.
But we on this side of the House know that there is an urgent need to make changes, so that we have
a world-class post-high-school vocational education and training system that is designed for the
21st century. This legislation fails to address the inequalities that have grown as student loans
have expanded, as profit margins of providers have increased and as educational costs have been
shifted onto young people, including disproportionately onto apprentices and trainees.
One of my local TAFEs, Richmond TAFE, held its open day last weekend, and what a privilege it was
to speak to teachers, administrators and students about the courses that are offered there: child
care, horticulture, computer skills, equine and animal care—it has a huge range. Actually, you can
learn to do everything from shoeing a horse —in fact, learn to be a blacksmith—to caring for cats as
a vet nurse or carving a feature stone wall and creating a water feature in the garden.
Their horticulture courses are designed to skill workers to care for a racetrack or landscape a public space or propagate plants. So Richmond is an amazing TAFE. It's part of an educational precinct that we have in the Hawkesbury, which includes the campus of Western Sydney university.
The Wentworth Falls and Katoomba TAFE, in another part of my electorate, in the Blue Mountains,
skill up workers for a completely different set of jobs. They focus on hospitality and on outdoor
adventure work, which, of course, is very fitting for the Blue Mountains. Disability support and
beauty therapy are among the many courses that are available. The point I want to make is that
there is huge diversity in courses in my electorate alone. They're surviving in spite of, not
because of, government policy at both the state and federal levels. It's time we had policy from a
federal government that helps the sector, rather than nobbles it.
One of the worst things that we would all be aware has happened to vocational education students in
the private sector has been the government's failure to stem the corrupt practices of unscrupulous
for-profit training providers. They allowed the ripping off of students and the ripping off of
taxpayer dollars long after it was clear there was a problem and clear that the system was being
abused. And it does seem that it's not over; a recent report showed that the VET Student Loans
Ombudsman received over 5,000 complaints about dodgy private training providers in nine months.
That really should have been a wake-up call. Alarmingly, the ombudsman expects this number to
increase as students lodge their tax returns, only to find they've been charged for courses they
haven't done. I have to say that one of my own staff has experienced this just recently. The
ombudsman's report states:
… many complainants first discover they have a student loan or discover that the loan amount is
larger than they expected, when they submit their tax return.
It's described as one of the biggest rorts in Australian education history by newspapers and
commentators. It is feared that many students still remain unaware that they have been charged and
therefore haven't reported it.
The failure to act has meant that VET students have really suffered and that the whole sector has
got a bad name, which is really disappointing—and enrolments continue to drop. I want to point out
that it isn't every private provider that deliberately sets out to rip off taxpayers or students.
We know that. We know there are quality providers, and they should be absolutely congratulated on
what they do. Quality private providers have a really key role in vocational education.
I also want to talk about the specialist providers, some of whom still have students being excluded
from eligibility for VET FEE-HELP loans. As an example, these are the private colleges that are
teaching music, dance, acting or filmmaking. For example, they're providing professionally focused
training, often using professional-standard equipment. They have small groups and a very large
number of teachers to students. They certainly don't deserve to be tarnished by the same brush as
many of the dodgy private providers. Their courses may not meet the criteria that are demanded from
the more online delivery-focused courses on offer, but they provide a really vital role in skilling
up our actors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers to tell Australian stories. I note the recognition
that places where pilots study also fitted into this category, and that they were given an
exemption. So I really think that we have to make sure we don't just brush all of them into the
same category when they really have quite individual characteristics. But be in no doubt: any abuse
of the system in place by any provider should be acted on fast. The vast majority of training
should be delivered, we think, through the public system.
In contrast to the government's approach, Labor will ensure that at least two-thirds of all
government funding for vocational education will go to the trusted public provider, TAFE. The
balance will go to not-for-profit community and adult educators, and then only high-quality
providers with demonstrated links to industry so that there is less opportunity for bad operators
in the private sector to take advantage of students and to give the sector a bad name. We need a
robust inquiry into vocational education in Australia, which Labor is committed to doing.
The Abbott-Turnbull governments have stripped $3 billion from vocational education since being
elected. The vocational system has been damaged by privatisation, poor regulation and unhealthy
competition. So, in our first 100 days of office, Labor will establish this inquiry into
postsecondary education. Ensuring secure consumer protections for students will form a key part of
our review. Foremost, the inquiry will build a postsecondary education system focused on ensuring
sustainable, quality provision in the first place, with TAFE and universities at its centre.
When you think about the data on what has happened to TAFE and the VET system in the last five
years, it is a sad tale, with $3 billion taken out of TAFE skills and training funding and a fall
of more than 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships—and still falling. In towns and regional
centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back, fees have
increased and teachers have lost their jobs. There was a 30 per cent drop in government-funded
training happening at TAFE just between 2013 and 2016. The numbers are damning.
There have been so few initiatives by this government that have helped TAFE or vocational training,
but the one it has tried is the lamentable Skilling Australians Fund. This is the fund that depends
on visas being issued to foreign workers in order to get money into it. If the number of visas goes
down, so will the funding for much- needed skills development for Australians.
There is absolutely no commitment by this government to training young people or retraining older
workers. Now, if we just think about the role that TAFE has, yes, we think about it for young
people. They might not have thrived in a school environment, but once they can get their hands on
something tangible—whether it is in Richmond TAFE, where they can get their hands on a horseshoe
and they can be looking after the animals in the small-animals-care area, or it is being able to
learn the skills to be a childcare worker, which involves interacting with young children, as
opposed to the high school students that they have spent many years with; whatever it is that
changes the dynamic for young people—TAFE seems to be able to offer a range of different
experiences that can transform young people's lives. That's why it is such an important
But it isn't just young workers. I have spoken to so many people who have said that they got their
second chance from TAFE. They may have left school early, raised a family as a mum or a dad, had
time out of the workforce or never really had a career that they were really inspired by, but they
were able to go back to TAFE and try something new. The thing that really is telling is that it's
not always the first course that someone tries at TAFE that they end up doing forever. But those
small courses that give people some skills, even if it's just the confidence that they can actually
do it and have the ability to complete a short course—it might be the only course they've ever
completed in their life—are the sorts of things that we need to make sure TAFE can still do.
Wednesday, 22 August 2018 HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
We also need to make sure that support is there for people who have disabilities for them to be
able to expand their skills and their knowledge and really be workers who can contribute to
society. For me, that's what's so important.
You can't do that if you don't have teachers who can be fully committed to TAFE. What has happened
to teachers? I'm very fortunate: the Blue Mountains have more teachers per head of population than
any other place in the country. Not only do we have schoolteachers in the public system, in the
independent system and in the Catholic system; we also have TAFE teachers. Over the years, hearing
the stories of how the system has let them down and how many of them have walked away from it has
been really dispiriting and disheartening. Those who have stayed deserve an enormous thankyou from
us. They have kept with the system, even though it has been crumbling around them, and they've been
determined to make sure that students have not felt the pain of the disaster that has been
There are many things that we need to do to rebuild TAFE, to take it back to what it was. In New
South Wales, TAFE was considered one of the world-leading vocational education training systems. In
the first 100 days of government Labor will establish its once-in-a generation review into
post-school education, with TAFE and universities at its centre. Labor's commitment to TAFE is
unequivocal. It is the backbone of our skills and training sector and is needed even more as people
move through not just one or two careers in their lifetime but several careers.
Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made a commitment that at least
two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and
stable skills and training funding, by reversing the $637 million cut to the skills budget and
investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. As I look around the campuses in my electorate,
they're not crumbling but they haven't had a lot of updates to them. You can certainly see the
opportunities to equip these teaching institutions with the tools people need to use in their
professional working lives. We'll be doing that around the country.
The other thing that will really make a difference for apprentices and trainees is our commitment
to ensuring that at least one in 10 jobs on Commonwealth funded projects is done by an apprentice.
It is too easy to think that we can find already skilled workers from somewhere else. I have real
fears that the international agreements we have signed, which free up and get rid of labour-market
testing, will mean that we see even fewer apprentices and trainees being given that chance they
need on big projects. We will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs is for an apprentice.
The difference is that without a plan for education—as those opposite don't have a plan—and without
a plan for training you have no plan for the future. It's only Labor that has a very clear vision
of where our future lies— in a skilled and educated group of people, flexible in their skills, who
can adapt to the changes that we know
are coming and we need to be ready for.