Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015 - Consideration of Senate Message

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Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:09): It is the case that the opposition will be supporting the bill before us. I want to put on the record that we had some frustration about the fact that this original bill was significantly amended at the last moment. The minister did give me a briefing, but it was sadly only 15 minutes before the shadow minister in the other place had to speak on the bill. I am sure that the minister will understand if we retain the right to continue to vigorously raise any issues that arise out of the changes that the government is putting in place.

It is the case that I remain disappointed that the government did not accept our amendment to put price caps on courses. One of the great problems within the VET FEE-HELP sector has been the quite unacceptable level of price increases that have occurred for training courses. Given that that will continue for another 12 months, pending a redesign of the VET FEE-HELP system, I do think it would have been good for the government to accept that particular amendment. However, I acknowledge the government did accept other amendments from the opposition. We look forward to working together to progress those—in particular, to establish an ombudsman for the sector. A voice for students must put in place; there must be a place where they can go to raise their concerns and have them mediated. The regulator, ASQA, does the job of enforcing standards and auditing the particular providers that are approved. But it does not fulfil an individual role for students. That is very frustrating for many students who report to ASQA. Their expectation is that that will be resolved for them individually. But it is not the case; it is actually just intelligence for the regulator. I think it is really important recommendation. It has come from a variety of stakeholders calling for an ombudsman to be put into place. I do acknowledge that, in the other place, the government accepted that amendment. We look forward to working together to progress that.

Hopefully, over the next 12 months all of these measures will work to drive the shonks and spivs out of the sector. The way they have been exploiting young people has been appalling. We have seen report after report of young people signing up to courses that, firstly, they really did not have the capacity to undertake. Therefore, we have seen very disappointing completion rates. Secondly, they are quite often unaware of the size of the debt that they have been left with. That, of course, creates real issues for them in their longer term studies. Thirdly, as a result of being poorly recruited, very often by brokers who have no educational experience, many of them are unable to complete their courses. So quite often they have ended up with a debt and without a qualification—which is, potentially, the worst outcome.

We should also acknowledge that, for some people who have finished courses, the courses have been of such poor quality that the industry has blacklists of providers. Child care is one outstanding example where some employers have gone public. A young person has a qualification and is applying for jobs in good faith, unaware that they are not succeeding because the qualification is poorly regarded in the industry. So it is absolutely critical that we take stern action to make sure that this is weeded out.

It is not just young people who are being affected, as the minister, I know, is aware. Providers have been trawling aged-care sector and signing people up, saying, 'Because you're on the pension, you will never have to pay the debt back.' A program that should be there to support people who want a vocational qualification at the diploma level, in the same way that we support university students, ends up being trashed by that sort of behaviour. It is being trashed to the point where not only the funding stream is being discredited but also the whole sector, potentially, is being discredited. So we are a bit frustrated.

We are glad to see that, in a moment of panic, the government did some last-minute reform to its own legislation. We will support that. We do appreciate that the government has adopted some of the amendments that we put forward. I think it will pay for all of us to remain very alert and agile—to borrow the government's terminology—to make sure that this behaviour is absolutely stopped in the interim 12 months and that we can work together to establish a better scheme for the longer term.