Sharon Bird - Transcript, Doorstop, Parliament House, Canberra, Tuesday, 1 December 2015

SUBJECT/S: Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP) Bill 2015   SENATOR KIM CARR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, RESEARCH, INNOVATION AND INDUSTRY:The Senate has commenced debate on the VET FEE-HELP Bill and at one minute to midnight this government has proposed a series of amendments to their own legislation reflecting the deep crisis within the vocational education and training system and the final recognition by this government that there is a desperate need for action by government.   Yet this Minister has chosen to treat the Senate with complete contempt by circulating amendments to a Bill which has been under discussion for a great deal of time in terms of the principals and in terms of the Bill itself which was referred to a Senate Committee and none of these matters were raised with the Senate Committee. It would appear to me then that it hasn’t been raised with too many Senators either.   So, just as I was to stand up to speak to the second reading debate, my colleague, Sharon Bird, had been contacted with advice from the Minister that they now have a series of amendments. Amendments which, according to the Parliamentary Legislation Office, appears to have been prepared on Saturday - so they have kept these secret for three days and chose to bring them forward as the Bill is being debated in the Chamber.   Now this does not all go well for proper discussion about the actions that the government is taking and highlights why it is necessary to accept the Labor amendments which actually turn off the tap to the rorters, the shonks and the sharks that are operating within this industry and have taken such abuse of so many vulnerable people and cost the Commonwealth billions of dollars in the process.      SHADOW MINISTER FOR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION, SHARON BIRD MP: Thanks Kim, it’s a really important debate that is occurring in the Senate today. It’s important because we have seen consistently over the last two years ongoing reports of the most vulnerable in our community being ripped off by really shonky behaviour in the vocational sector. Now these amendments, as Kim said, that have been brought forward at the very last minute, making it very difficult to have a good detailed look at what’s proposed, do not address a significant number of the issues that Labor has put forward in our amendments.   There is not a commitment to an Ombudsman for the system, a proposal that has been endorsed across the stakeholders, including by the private education sector.   It does not address the enormous amounts of money that are being charged for these courses, so that the size of the debt that students are being left with is so much more significant than it needs to be - diplomas where they are ending up with a debt over $20,000 for a single diploma and, realistically for many of those people not even ending up with the diploma because they don’t complete because they should have never been enrolled in the first place.   There are so many significant, critical issues that need to be addressed and it is very disappointing that we have to deal with these amendments at the very last moment when we have been saying to the Government, for all of that time, you need to take far more vigorous and far more serious action to stop these shonks because they are destroying the reputation of one of the most critical education sectors in this country.   JOURNALIST: So are these measures a step in the right direction though?   CARR:  Of course they are a step in the right direction, this Bill is a step in the right direction, but this is a government that has been dragged to take this position. This is a government that made announcements in March about the way in which these courses are being marketed, that marketing and rip-offs continue right up until today. This is a government that has made a number of statements about their good intentions but the rip-offs continue.   This is a government that relies upon the capacities of the regulators and the Department when clearly that has been found wanting. Now the reality is the Government talks big but acts in a very small way and what we need to do is actually turn off the tap. Turn off the tap of the billions of dollars that are flowing to these shonks, these shysters.   The Government has failed to do that.  Failed to deal with the question of the brokers, failed to deal with fundamental questions, as Sharon has indicated, in terms of providing a proper complaints mechanism for students.  Failed to deal with the really big questions about why the system is in place and why it is that this government has allowed these rip offs to continue for so long.   JOURNALIST: You say you want to turn off the tap, one of the measures being put forward is that no new funding will be given to private colleges so that I presume is not enough…..   CARR: Nowhere near enough, you’ve got to limit the life-time debts that people can incur. $97,000 per person. What we are seeing is these rip-off merchants signing people up to double diplomas, $40,000 worth of diploma. Now a medical degree doesn’t cost you that much in this country yet we have got advanced diplomas in golf and all sorts of really shonky arrangements being presented as genuine training when they are not. They are clearly a scheme to transfer billions of dollars from the public purse to private companies and that is the real issue here.   This is a government that is obsessed with privatisation, deregulation and a belief that somehow or another education can be best done by people who are registered on the stock exchange. Well that is simply not the way in which to run our educational institutions in this country. Continue reading

Safe Rates Campaign

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech   Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:00): Every day across this nation, thousands of truck drivers go to work on the roads that run through our communities—roads that they share with our families, our community and people either working or taking time to do social activities using our roads. The reality for too many of those drivers for too long has been the unconscionable pressure that is put upon them to do hours that are beyond what is reasonable.   For 20 years the Transport Workers Union, in partnership with its members and communities across our nation, has campaigned under the Safe Rates Campaign to call on governments to take responsibility for ensuring that we maximise the safety of our roads in our communities. As a result of that campaign, in 2012 the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was established and it is doing exactly that job.   A month ago, the International Labour Organization recognised drivers' rights to safe and fair remuneration and their right to form and join a trade union and to strike. In South Korea, transport workers have mobilised against antiworker legislation in that country as they fight for decent, safe working conditions in the transport supply chain. I share the views expressed by the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Transport Workers' Federation in condemning actions taken against these workers as they simply fight for fair and safe working conditions.  

White Ribbon Day

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:50): This afternoon I want to take the House back 40 years. It does not take much maths to work out that I am talking about 1975. It was International Women's Year and there were events occurring across the globe and of course across the country. In my own area of the Illawarra there was a forum for International Women's Year to which my mum, Bev Reed, went along with her friend Anne Harrison. They participated in that forum and came back to a meeting of the Mount Warrigal Public School mothers group. Anne put forward a proposal that the group work to establish a women's refuge in the area. This was taken up by the women in the mothers group and they began the process. They applied to Shellharbour City Council and, under the leadership of Mayor Bob Harrison, the council provided a house as a refuge. It was not in great repair, so they had to run cake stalls, jumble sales and so forth to fundraise. Many of their partners, including my dad Kevin, did the maintenance work on the house, including putting in the sewerage system. They all pitched in to get it into a reasonable condition. A local company, Camarda & Cantrill, donated paint. A group of nuns from Warrawong volunteered to do the night shifts. The Seamen's Union pitched in for repairs and to put down second-hand carpet, the wharfies union had a fundraising amongst their members and raised money to assist, and the Department of Youth and Community Services, as it was then, provided support and were the referral source—referring women to the refuge. This refuge, sadly really, continues to operate today, although it is now in a new purpose-built facility. This brings me to a subject that many of my colleagues in this place have been addressing this week, and that is the significant importance for us as a community, for us as leaders, for families and for anybody out there who feels and understands the scourge that is family violence to take action. In my own area yesterday there was a White Ribbon walk, attended by about 500 people—a fantastic turnout. New South Wales policewoman Shelly Walsh addressed the crowd. She had survived an axe attack by her father after he murdered her mother and two children. She urged people to speak up. The group was also addressed by Lake Illawarra Police Commander Superintendent Wayne Starling, who said: White Ribbon Day is the world's largest movement of men and boys working to end men's violence against women and girls. It is also about creating a vision of masculinity where women can live in safety, free of violence and abuse. It is also an opportunity for women to be empowered and speak out against violence. Not only the physical abuse but the emotional abuse. The walk was organised by the Illawarra Committee against Domestic Violence, and I commend Maris Depers, who organised it, and all of the members who participated. The walk was also attended by a marvellous young woman who is a member of our Young Labor organisation locally, Alex Costello. Alex spoke to a Labor Party meeting on Sunday about these matters, and I want to share some of her words with the House Today I'll just be doing a quick talk on white ribbon, how I came to be a part of this cause and what this organization does. I am of the belief that to make real change people need to hear personal stories to hear the real effects of dv. I was abused for the majority of my life. I took a count recently and I have had 6 perpetrators in my life. 5 of which were men. They were from different walks of life, different ages, different educational backgrounds. It is an epidemic. It is a national emergency and more needs to be done. The lasting effects of DV on any woman, man or child's life are that, for life. I had a defining moment a few months ago. I thought I can either let it control my life or I can be proactive and make a difference. That is when I joined White Ribbon in their campaign to stop domestic and family violence. There are very few subjects of such significance and importance to each and every one of us as this issue. I commend all the organisations and the Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, in particular on the work that they have been doing. But let us not just make it a day or a week when we talk about these issues—let us make it a permanent conversation to stop this scourge in our communities.  

Question On Notice - House of Representatives

Click here to watch Sharon’s question on notice BIRD (Cunningham): Thank you Mr Speaker my question is to the Minister for Vocational Education, will the Minister rule out increasing TAFE fees with the GST?  HARTSUYKER (Cowper): I thank the good Member for her question and I must say Mr Speaker that I’m feeling the love, I’m feeling the love. Two years in the Employment portfolio and I got one question.  I’ve already got my first question just within a couple of months, Mr Speaker, so I’m indeed feeling the love from the Members opposite.  What I can say Mr Speaker is that we are committed to a tax system that is going to take this country forward.  We are committed to a tax system that is going to provide a growing economy and it’s a growing economy that is going to provide opportunities for Australians to get into work. You can see the fruits of the government’s efforts with the fall in the unemployment rate Mr Speaker. I don’t hear them asking about what the good news about the fall in the unemployment rate, we only hear them trying to mount a scare campaign on taxes.  Well we are about a tax system that is going to meet the needs of Australia in the 21st Century they’re about looking through the rear view mirror trying to mount the not so scary scare campaign, Mr Speaker. We want an education system that is going to meet our needs into the 21st century, we want a VET training…  SPEAKER: The Minister will resume his seat, the Member for Cunningham on a Point Of Order,  BIRD (Cunningham): Thank you Mr Speaker on relevance, if the Minister could go to the Education matters….  SPEAKER: The member will resume her seat. The Minister has the call…  HARTSUYKER (Cowper) : Thank you Mr Speaker, certainly we on this side of the House understand the importance of education, we have policies in education that will drive this country forward we have policies in relation to taxation that will take this country forward.  We are having a discussion with the Australian people, Mr Speaker, and we are aiming to come up with a tax system that will be to the benefit of all Australians. For those Australians on lower incomes a tax system that will support those Australians to provide them with the services that they need going forward and for those who are in business and for those who are striving to benefit themselves a tax system which will give them the incentive to increase their incomes and assist in the growth of the Australian economy. We on this side of the house are about driving Australia forward those on the other side of the house are about holding this economy back.  

Telecommunications - 2508+ Disconnect

  Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (10:38): Members may recall that I recently spoke of the internet issues being experienced by many of the constituents in the northern suburbs of the Illawarra. In particular, I reported to the House a community group called 2508+ Disconnected, which was organised by the McKenzie family of Stanwell Park and the Oliver family of Helensburgh and which runs a very active Facebook site. Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that since my last report the inclusion of postcode area 2508 in the three-year new NBN rollout plan has been announced. The inclusion of this area is warmly welcomed by the locals and me, particularly given the ongoing issues that they are having with substandard internet services—although I would point out that they will be getting the rollout that includes copper to the house. With significant rain experienced in our area recently, the Facebook site of this campaign team has been inundated with people experiencing extensive dropouts and problems with their service because of the well-known problems that occur when water meets copper. It is a bit bemusing as to why nbn co is going to replace poor quality copper with new copper, when they could just lay fibre in that process. Anyway, at least they are now on the program. I have assured representatives of the community that I will continue to monitor the progress of the project. However, given that the works will not commence for another two years, the residents have real concerns about addressing the serious problems they are experiencing with service provision in the meantime. They are often experiencing very poor services, with download speeds typically less than one megabit per second and upload speeds below 0.2 megabits per second, around 30 per cent of what is commonly referred to as acceptable internet speed. The services in the region are slow, they are subject to frequent dropouts and indeed they are completely unusable during periods of wet weather. In fact one member of the campaign recently reported on the Facebook site that Telstra had advised her service was in the bottom eight per cent of the country—that is, 92 per cent of services across Australia had better quality service than she was getting. This is constraining small business productivity in the area. It is making it difficult for students to get basic school and university assignments done. There are many home based business owners working in this area who find it impossible to manage and run their businesses. Indeed the local Coalcliff Surf Life Saving Club has no connection, which means that they find it very difficult to provide the community service. The campaign will continue. I will continue to support them in their calls on Telstra to lift their game, get on board with the issues that people are facing and find solutions, because in the time to the rollout to the NBN they need their service improved.

Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015 - Consideration in Detail

  Click here to watch Sharon’s speech   Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:09) I indicate to the House that Labor had foreshadowed these in detail amendments during the second reading debate. I have listened to the contribution by the minister in his summing-up debate in which he referred to some initiatives that the government is pursuing in a similar vein to what was envisaged when I put them in detail amendments forward. However, I am persisting with the amendments in this format for two reasons and I would just like to explain those to the House.   Firstly, as I understand it, the proposition of the minister is not a legislative proposition. It is Labor's view that, given the extreme and damaging nature of the sorts of rorts and behaviour that are going on, it is a stronger and therefore better position to have this new process actually embedded in the legislation.   Secondly, the proposition put by the minister that is being developed, I still think needs another step and that step is envisaged in the amendment. So I understand from the minister's comments that the amendment will not be supported by the government but I would like to indicate that I am keen to work with the minister as that process is developed to perhaps build in some of what we envisage.   The concept behind the amendment in detail for the interests of the House is to address what has become, I think, the key danger point and where the most damage is being done in the VET FEE-HELP sector in particular. In addition, a further intervention needs to happen by government as the provider of the loan that becomes the lone responsibility of the students.   There has been extensive evidence and many media stories of individuals coming to all of our offices from their constituent case load and through much of the research and work by the regulator, ASQA. I note their report was only released in October on their targeted audit of VET FEE-HELP providers, including an indication of their significant concerns about some of the practices that have been going on. Also, of course, most recently we have had the ACCC publicly indicate it was pursuing one legal case but they had foreshadowed more to come.   What happens is that the student gets cold-called, pulled up on the street or in a shopping centre or doorknocked, and these practitioners—I call them that kindly—are targeting the most vulnerable people on purpose. Often they are targeting people who are unemployed, have English as a second language, have a disability and elderly people in community centres—all of these sorts of cases. They are targeting them specifically, because they use high-pressure sales tactics. They get all the forms signed and all the paperwork done—in fact we have heard examples of providers actually filling out the language and literacy tests for people and saying 'Open this email' and telling people what to put into it and so forth. They use a high-pressure, sign-up and do-it-now sales tactic.   It is Labor's view that we need to break the basis of that model for these sorts of practitioners. It must be an opt-in system, and I think that is where the government's indications are in the right direction. Our view is that that that occurs outside that original contact. So the provider gets the paperwork for both the enrolment and the VET FEE-HELP system. They send that to the department. By that stage, the person is free of their iniquitous control and has gone home or wherever. They then get from the department—the government—a notification by whatever means saying: 'You have applied for this loan. This is how much it will be. These are the terms and conditions'—the normal sorts of things a loan provider would do. 'In order to activate this loan, you must now come back and respond to the government that you understand that you wish to activate it.'   I acknowledge that that activation process is probably what is envisaged and what the minister is talking about. I will seek just a few more minutes to conclude my comments.    Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (18:15): I thank the minister for that indication. I will put on the record that we will pursue this particular issue—though I understand the amendment will not get up—to specifically have that capacity for the person to let the sign-up student go, because they cannot take any further action until they submit the paperwork to the department. That is a conversation I am very happy to have with the minister. My concern with this proposal to date from the government is that there does not seem to be any opportunity, as yet, to stop a provider sitting with the student as they log in and do it. That may be something we can address, and I appreciate the intention of working through that.   I honestly believe, and I get the impression the government believe, that a significant part of this potential bad debt—which is debt accumulated by people who never really understood, if they even knew, they were signing up for a debt—is most unlikely to be recouped by the government, and would never occur in the first place if someone has to come back and say: 'Yes, I did understand that debt. Yes, I do want to proceed with it.' They simply will not come back. That is what will happen. They get these sorts of contacts, and go: 'I don’t want that. 'I'm not going to do anything with that.' By not coming back, they deny the training provider the funding in the first place.   All those reputable quality providers, who are out there trying to do the right thing, will manage this sort of system very effectively, and those who are building a business model on the rip-offs—and, sadly, we have to design this system for the ones who intend to not do the right thing—will find this system undermines and destroys their model. I am firmly of the view it will help towards a significant decrease in potential bad debt for governments. I still would like the government to support the amendment because I would prefer it was legislated, but I will indicate that I will continue to work with the minister to build those principles into an opt-in system.

Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015

Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (15:24): It is my pleasure to indicate my intention to support the bill but to move the amendments to the bill tabled in my name. The Higher Education Amendment (Vet Fee-Help Reform) Bill 2015, which is before the House, is in addition to previous changes made to the Vet Fee-Help system. Given the detail of the bill, which I will just cover briefly, the opposition has no problem with supporting the bill and its intentions. I have indicated that I have a second reading amendment for the House in order to put in place some options which we believe are critically important to strengthening the issue that this bill seeks to deal with. The bill before us has a number of changes to provide protections for both students and taxpayers in the operation of the VET FEE-HELP system, in particular dealing with debt cancellations for inappropriate signups, stronger requirements around the registration and trading history requirements of providers, infringement notices and penalties in regards to breaches of the guidelines, and a range of technical amendments. I want to firstly put before the House the context of recent developments of the VET FEE-HELP operation across the VET sector in recent times and then, out of that, outline to the House the amendments that Labor is proposing in this debate. I believe these are sensible amendments and I hope the government decides to support them. I should indicate that Labor, as I said, intends to support the bill as we believe it does propose useful changes to the operation of the scheme. However, we believe that they would be significantly strengthened by the adoption of our amendments. It cannot have escaped, I would suggest, anyone's notice over the last 12 months that there have been consistent and serious public and media reports about what could only be described as shonky and unethical behaviour by too many registered training organisations and brokers acting on their behalf. The report started with concerns about the marketing and recruitment practices that were targeting mostly disadvantaged people with the clear intention of luring them into training qualifications that were all too often inappropriate for either the person's learning level or their employment needs. Indeed, as a member of the House of Reps committee inquiry into the operation of TAFEs—and the parliamentary secretary at the table was a member of that committee as well at the time—I heard, along with other committee members, many stories of undercutting the TAFE provision of courses by some private providers who were recruiting students with such things as offers of free laptops, shopping vouchers and other inducements. The evidence that we heard was broadly beyond the very strict terms of reference of the inquiry but the committee was concerned enough about the frequency and the nature of this material to include a recommendation seeking action by government regulators to address the problem and that made up the fourth recommendation of the report, which stated: The Australian Government should continue its current actions through the Australian Skills Quality Authority, other regulators, national Training Standards and any other involved parties, to take suitable action to address loopholes that are allowing high-risk and unscrupulous practices to endanger the experience of students and the reputation of training provision. I would point out that despite this being a bipartisan report of the committee, the government has not yet responded to the report even though it was in tabled in November last year. In June this year, the Senate committee tabled its report into the operation, regulation and funding of private vocational education and training providers in Australia, which made extensive recommendations regarding the operation of VET FEE-HELP scheme and it reflected the significance of the issue in the vast number of submissions that were received to the inquiry. A significant piece of work also was completed by the regulator, ASQA, on the marketing and recruitment practices in the sector. That report, titled Marketing and advertising practices of Australia's registered training organisations, highlighted a number of concerns. It said: It has been found in this national review by scrutinising their web sites that 45.4% of RTOs investigated could be in breach of the national standards required for registration as an RTO under the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 and of the Australian consumer law and/or state and territory fair trading laws with respect to their marketing and advertising. These potential breaches range from relatively minor concerns that can and should be rectified quickly and easily, to more serious breaches that could involve major sanctions being applied, including a loss of the RTO’s registration. The report then went through some specific examples of the types of marketing and recruitment activity that had been causing ASQA some concern. The report made a series of recommendations about increased ASQA auditing, strengthening national standards—including the use of brokers and other third parties—and greater transparency measures to provide information to students. I have to say that the government has acted in many of these areas and Labor has supported these actions. However, the reality is that the behaviours have continued despite these actions. They have been insufficient to stop the shonky and unethical behaviour, and as a result the rip-offs and the damage to the reliability and reputation of the whole sector has continued to gather pace. Extensive evidence was provided to the Senate committee by the Consumer Action Law Centre of the types of cases they continue to see. They said: It has been widely acknowledged that there has been misuse of the Commonwealth government’s FEE-HELP loan scheme, misleading advertising, soliciting students for unsuitable courses, and inappropriate use of brokers to recruit students. Their report indicated a particular area that was the centre of complaints they received. It said: The profit maximisation principles of private VET providers mean low cost delivery modes are increasing, particularly the provision of online training … We have received reports of students enrolled in online courses being provided with no physical materials, faulty learning software and little ongoing support, while still incurring significant VET FEE-HELP debts. I just want to share one example from that report with the House because it would not be unfamiliar, I would suggest, to most of us, as we see these sorts of reports coming in in our own electorates. The example is about a student called Luke that they dealt with. The report said: Luke enrolled in an online course with a private VET provider, via an education broker. He was confused by the online format of the course, and says there were no help buttons. Luke called the education broker about his problems. The sales representative told Luke that he would follow up with the provider, but Luke never heard back from the provider. Luke could not complete the course as there was minimal support or information to assist him. He eventually withdrew from the course. This is the sort of case example that I am hearing consistently from colleagues on this side of the House—and I am sure that it is no different for the minister—from their experiences. The Consumer Action Law Centre submission details a range of issues with the provision of details about the nature and size of the debt that students are incurring under the scheme, and they raise issues of unfair contract terms and general consumer protection measures. The report also contains evidence of the problem that persistently arises with students being unaware that they have not only been signed up to a course but also to a VET FEE-HELP debt, often under high-pressure sales tactics. The report says: We have heard reports from students that they did not understand the VET FEE-HELP debt they will incur, census dates, cancellation rights or cooling off rights. We have also received complaints from students who claim that their VET FEE-HELP debt has been incurred without their knowledge, or that barriers were placed on their ability to withdraw prior to the census date. Some claim never to have studied at the institution and cannot remember signing a Commonwealth Assistance Form. Like a significant number of submissions, the CALC submission makes the point that there needs to be a dedicated external dispute resolution scheme in place to resolve disputes between students and providers. In their supplementary submission to the inquiry, they specifically recommend that there be a national industry ombudsman. It is important to also recognise that the peak body for private providers, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, or ACPET, in their submission to the inquiry also advocated that there be a national training ombudsman scheme established. The argument in their submission was: The second concept proposed following the ACPET industry summit on 30 October 2014 is the introduction of a national industry ombudsman scheme for the Tertiary sector. ACPET advocates for a national consumer-focused 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. They make the point that they believe the scheme would result in a number of major benefits. Specifically, they argue a national ombudsman would improve industry image, be a cost-effective resolution option, improve communication, provide early warnings to regulators and provide market research for the sector. The proposal that Labor are putting forward in our amendment is that there be a national VET ombudsman established—an industry based ombudsman. We would argue it has been well canvassed in submissions from various stakeholders across the sector. In just the two examples I have given, you have had a peak, important and influential consumer rights organisation talk about the importance of the need for an industry ombudsman, as did the peak organisation of the private sector. Only recently I spoke at the ACPET conference and made the point that I recognise they have taken actions themselves to try to have their members sign up to a national code of conduct and practice—to give commitments about the way they will operate in the market. But, despite their actions and activities as a peak body on behalf of the private sector, they still feel that there needs to be an industry ombudsman for the sector. Labor absolutely agrees that that is a necessary outcome. So the first part of our amendment, recognising that this bill is targeted at addressing some of the issues specifically with VET FEE-HELP, is to suggest to the government that they look to establishing a national industry ombudsman. There are of course important differences between the regulator and the role that an ombudsman would fill. The regulator certainly do, in their intelligence gathering across the sector, receive reports of complaints and concerns about providers and courses. They do use that—in particular, I would acknowledge the work that they do in their strategic reviews for particular sectors, most recently the childcare sector, aged care and so forth—but they do not directly deal on a one-to-one basis with complaints. The government has established a National Training Complaints Hotline, but again that hotline is about directing people to another existing avenue in which to seek to have their complaint resolved. As we have seen in public discussion, too often the only outcome that students feel they are able to achieve is to go for legal advice or a legal process, and that of course is prohibitive for many people. That is why people like the Consumer Action Law Centre end up getting so many of the representations and concerns. There is obviously a need for somebody with the expertise and the power to work on solving complaints that come from individuals. We are not proposing that the ombudsman only deal with VET FEE-HELP. They should be an ombudsman for domestic students across the sector. But it is well over time, I think, that they have that option put in place for vocational-education-and-training students. So I hope that in the first part of our amendment the government will hear not only our voice in the opposition in putting the amendment forward but, as I say, a significant number of stakeholders across the sector concerned about the reputation of their sector and seeking to have those issues resolved. The second part of our amendment calls on the government to support Labor's proposal to have the Australian National Audit Office also look at the operation of the VET FEE-HELP scheme specifically. Of course, the VET FEE-HELP scheme is administered by the department, so I think it is an appropriate option to have the ANAO have a look at all the systems that are in place through that process and to be quite rigorous about providing the government and indeed all of us in the parliament and the community with advice on how that system might be improved and ensure that we are not seeing RTOs who should not be doing so get access to VET FEE-HELP and also that the systems for managing those communications with students are improved. This is the reason that Senator Kim Carr, as the shadow minister, and I wrote to the Auditor-General in November last year, nearly a year ago. We had seen the significant number of reports from the media, industry and indeed the regulator, ASQA, and the concerns about unscrupulous behaviour, in particular the misuse of VET FEE-HELP. So we asked the Auditor-General to fully investigate VET FEE-HELP to ensure that skills funding is being used in accordance with the intention of the legislation—legislation that had bipartisan support at the time—and is not being squandered by unscrupulous behaviour and providers. I am pleased to tell the House that in January we were advised that the Auditor-General had requested that a performance audit of VET FEE-HELP be included in their 2015-16 work program. It is of course imperative that taxpayers' funds are spent on quality training and that students are not incurring debts for either poor-quality or unsuitable courses. Consistently we hear examples where students firstly have a debt—and let us talk about the size of these debts. For some of these diploma courses that are being offered, people are being charged anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000—for a diploma. Some people are paying more for a one-year diploma than you would pay for a university degree. They are significant and sizeable debts. Often, as we have now seen in more recent media reports and public debate, they are not completing the course. The completion rates in too many areas, whether it is at a particular provider or it is in particular student cohorts, are extraordinarily low, unacceptably low. Add to that the fact that, if people do not complete their course, it is unlikely and much more difficult for them in any reasonable time frame to reach the income level at which you repay the debt. It then has a real potential to become a bad debt for government—that is, in effect, the taxpayer. There is an emerging and very important debate going on publicly about how sustainable that is. I think we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the scheme works—as I said, it is legislation that had bipartisan support throughout the time of its introduction—in the way that it was intended to work. We do not want students who have a debt and have no qualification that is recognised in industry as quality. We already have heard, for example, in Victoria, childcare providers saying they fundamentally have black lists of providers because they know that the quality of the training is just not up to speed. We do not want students having qualifications that actually do not give them an opportunity to work or to do further education, whichever option they are seeking to achieve. But, really importantly, we do not want students to have a debt and no qualification because they should never have been enrolled in the course in the first place. Continue reading

Doorstop - VET FEE-Help Legislation, Trade Union Royal Commission, GST , Parliament House, Canberra. Monday 9 November, 2015

Click here to watch Sharon’s doorstop  E&OE TRANSCRIPT, DOORSTOP, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA. MONDAY, 9 NOVEMBER 2015  SUBJECT/S: VET FEE-Help Legislation, Trade Union Royal Commission, GST  Good morning. There’s important legislation before the House today on the issue of VET FEE-HELP and the debt that is arising for far too many vulnerable students who are ending up with too much debt, quite often with a qualification that’s not recognised by employers because of quality issues or even worse students that end up with large debts and no qualifications because they have been enrolled most inappropriately in courses that were never going to meet their needs.  To date the government has taken some actions, Labor has supported those actions, but we feel that they are far too slow of the mark in addressing this matter so today I am going to be moving amendments to the Bill before the House.  They will have three affects.  Firstly we are calling for the establishment for an industry Ombudsman.  This is being proposed and supported by various stakeholders it’s time to give students a direct access to a complaint resolution process, somebody on their side to get the issues resolved for them. Secondly we will be calling on the government to support the call that Labor has had in place for over six months now, to have the Australian National Audit Office look closely at the operation of the VET FEE-Help scheme and thirdly in the in-detail part of the debate I will be moving an amendment which I think is critically important.  The way these loans operate is that the RTO, the training provider, signs the student up to their course and signs them up to the loan but the loan is provided by government. We now will be proposing that the government must directly contact and communicate with the student making it clear to them that they have undertaken a loan, what the conditions of that loan are and the amounts that are to be involved and that the student must then reply to the government saying they understand the loan and they agree to undertaking it. I have heard stories, and my colleagues are repeating this, of people who have no idea they have signed up to a loan that could be $20-$25,000 until they get their tax done and if they are somebody that doesn’t do a tax return then that could be in a couple of years before they even discover they have a loan.  My view and Labor’s view is that given this a government loan, that’s not acceptable and we need to put in place measures to make sure that those people are making informed decisions and understand the debt that they are undertaking.  It’s our belief that this will take an important step towards stopping the shonky shark-like behaviour that is going on in the sector, protect students but also protect the economy. We need to know that job qualifications and training certificates have meaning and quality and protect the tax payer because at the end of the day if these debts are no re-payed it’s a bill that the tax payer has to pick up.  I will be moving those today and I hope the government sees the sense, we think they are very reasonable propositions and are able to come on board with supporting our amendments.  JOURNALIST: Have you talked to the government at all about what their response might be?  BIRD: I have had a number of conversations, we have had three Ministers in two years so it’s a matter of keeping up with each Minister as we are dealing with them but the Bill before the House today is something we will support but our view will be put very strongly to the government, and I know that there is media speculation that the government is looking at actions themselves, so what we will be saying to them is that these are very reasonable propositions that we are putting forward and we think that they will have real impact. Out hope will be that they support the amendments.  JOURNALIST: Just to go to the process of it is there a risk that this could delay loans being given or people starting courses, it seems like a bit of red tape?  BIRD: I think at this point in time the really important issues for the sector, and I hear this not just from students but also from private providers that are quality ethical providers, who are very concerned about what is going on.  We have to protect the reputation of the sector and the qualifications that they are issuing. I think that this sort of situation where you are dealing with what is a crisis for the sector, that it is important to have confidence in the way that the finances are operating and in particular when it’s a loan.  I don’t see any reason why an RTO doing the right thing can’t enrol students and indeed have them commence their studies while they are waiting if there is any sort of delay. It’s not my view that there should be a delay, it’s a matter for the RTO they need to quickly provide the information to the Department about what the loan application is, the Department gets a statement out to the student and the student replies. Now if RTOs are doing the right thing I would suggest they would be probably saying to students, you will get communication from the government, its asking if you want to take this loan on and it will give you the details, get it back as quickly as you can.  I really do believe that ethical RTOs will manage that system, those who are out there just to rip people off to get access to these loans without full disclosure and proper process, they may struggle but I think that is the intention of cracking down on that sort of behaviour. Continue reading

2015 E-Oz Energy Skills Australia Annual Conference, Hyatt Hotel, Canberra, Tuesday, 27 October 2015

I want to thank you for the opportunity to join you today – as the daughter and sister of electrical engineers who trained as apprentices, I retain a great interest in your work.  My Dad finished his career as a Mines Safety Inspector and instilled in all of us a profound respect for the significance of safety, skills and professionalism.   The theme of your conference this week, “Your Future and the Energy Space” has plenty of emerging challenges and opportunities to cover as we see continuous change in the sector and the need for a training sector with the capacity to, not only respond, but seize the opportunities by pre-emptive action.   Although it is not only in your industry sector that we see this – it crosses all industry sectors.   In August this year we saw public media reports of the significant impact that emerging and ever-evolving technology will have on how we work and, therefore, how we train the workers of the future.  It is abundantly clear that innovation will be key to how we teach, how students access education and training and how businesses utilise the innovative capacities of their workforce to grow and succeed.   Most of you would be aware that the Foundation for Young Australians at that time released their report, The New Work Order: Ensuring young Australians have skills and experience for jobs of the future, not the past”.   This report showed that approximately 71 per cent of young Australians currently in VET courses are preparing for occupations where at least two-thirds of the jobs will be automated over coming decades.   CEO, Jan Owen, said:   “We need to provide our young people with a different set of skills – to allow them to navigate their way through a diverse employment journey that will include around five career changes and an average of 17 different jobs.  We must start thinking differently about how we back young people for the jobs and careers of the future, so they don’t get stuck in the past.”   I couldn’t agree more.  Before too many young people in training start wondering if they should drop out because their course won’t be worthwhile, I should say that I believe the challenge is to build into our course content and our teaching methods an increased focus on critical thinking and problem-solving and digital literacy and utilisation.   What we actually need for innovation is learners who, to use a very old phrase now, are “self-empowered” learners.  What we should be ensuring is that they graduate from your courses able to assess their need for further knowledge and skills and know-how to gain these.    The automation that will disrupt so many current jobs will be accompanied by globalisation and an increased focus on collaboration that can open new doors to these very workers, new jobs, new careers, even new small businesses, if they are equipped to take them up.   Labor federally is also very aware and focussed on developing policies to ensure the nation is prepared for these changes.   In his Budget Reply speech, Bill Shorten outlined significant policies to support the extension of science, technology, engineering and maths skills across the education sector.    In an address to the Australian Workplace Practitioners Network in March this year I discussed with them the importance of emerging literacies, alongside the importance of language, literacy and numeracy as we traditionally defined them.  I said at that time:   “The world of work, and indeed, the ability to participate in civic and community life is increasingly requiring a population with new literacies – including in financial and digital knowledge and skills.   Our personal and work life is increasingly complex and people will require better understanding of the financial sector to be a more informed consumer.  It is critically important to developing this literacy that people have a solid grounding in both literacy and numeracy from which to build their expertise in financial literacy.   This more complex world also encompasses a more digital life – for work and play, for solitary reading and family skype catch-ups, for shopping and submitting health claims.  Each of you could easily add to this list to reflect your own daily life I am sure.   Like financial literacy, being digitally literate is increasingly a requirement for full and meaningful engagement in economic, social and civic activities.” These developments demand of us all that we ensure all of our education and training enables the next generation to have the underlying knowledge and skills they will need in all employment sectors to, not only manage change, but to grasp it and utilise its benefits.   In a Matter of Public Importance debate in the Parliament in June on “The Government’s Failure to Plan for the Jobs of the New Economy”, I referred the House to the critically important environmental scans that are done each year by Industry Skills Councils such as your own, (who have sadly been defunded by the Federal Government), and I particularly quoted from the most recent scan released by Innovation and Business Skills Australia which said:   “The impact of technology broadens each year as it is felt in all aspects of business operations, all sizes of business and all industries. Customer service is being enhanced through data analytics which are providing complex analyses of consumer behaviours, paper based printing is being subsumed by mobile electronic options, finance and business services are operating anywhere and anytime using cloud based applications on a wide variety of devices. Nationally and internationally, convergence and collaboration are occurring in the workplace and between and within industries, suppliers and clients.”   E-Oz’s own environmental scan for 2014 describes a significant shift, or “disruption” as the more trendy version is described, in the energy sector.   In the section “An Internet of Things” we see a great description of this major shift in the energy grid network from ‘behind the meter’:   “Each of the technologies… can become parts of an internet of things which together provide new ways for the various players in the energy market to interact … the combination of smart metering with intelligent consumer appliances and systems will extend the networks to another layer, bringing the local ‘intranet of things’ from behind the meter, into the internet of things.”   The report identifies further that:   “Via the internet of things consumers will seek optimisation and maximise benefits by being able to (either automatically or by human intervention) take into account how all elements of the consumer’s local ‘intranet of things’ for example, a home, business or factory, work together. This will be facilitated by the consideration of historical, actual and predicted costs and usage data to inform consumer choice.” The report rightly concludes:   “The deployment of these technologies require that new technical and service skills to be available, within applicable regulatory frameworks, to support the installation, calibration, interconnection and synchronisation of intelligent appliances and systems at various scales, both within and between networks.”   This is no small challenge for each of you and it points us also to the importance of dedicated and well-trained professionals driving the VET sector, capable, themselves, of adapting and deploying innovation to meet these challenges. As stated in your environmental scan:   “Leading developed nations are now establishing ‘early warning systems’ to quickly detect the onset of trends and building agile vocational training systems capable of responding once issues are identified.”   I absolutely agree with this assessment but I am very sorry to report that the current government does not seem to share this view. Continue reading

Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra - 40th Anniversary

  Click here to watch Sharon’s speech Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:55): Before I go to the topic of my speech, I associate myself with the comments that the member for Gilmore, my colleague, has made about the importance of the Save our Voices campaign. It is absolutely true, as she said, that we seem to have spent increasing time in our local areas fighting to stop the loss of jobs, whether in our local radio stations, at the ABC, at Fairfax Media, where, sadly, only the other weekend we saw a gathering of journalists, photographers and editorial staff—years and years of experience going out the door, and we certainly do not want to see that happen—or at our local TV stations. So I associate myself with her comments about how important that campaign and the saving of regional voices are. As a strange segue from that, I will share a local story about a local organisation. Hopefully, members like me and the member for Gilmore standing in parliament will not be the only way these local stories get told into the future. Only the other weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a celebration of the Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra 40th anniversary dinner. It was a tremendous event. Many people gathered to fill the room where we celebrated the 40 years of this community organisation. It was a great meal, with a few drinks and lots of catching up with friends. Many of the churches were represented, as were other multicultural organisations that operate in our area, MPs—the state members for Kiama and Keira and me—and the mayors. All came together to recognise what a significantly important organisation this is and what a contribution it has made over 40 years. It was formerly known as the Illawarra Ethnic Communities Council and has more recently become the MCCI. It was established in 1975 after the disbanding of the good neighbour councils that had previously operated. It originally operated in a small fibro home in Stewart Street; then it relocated to Corrimal Street in Wollongong as it expanded its service offering. It was put together to do very effective advocating and lobbying, in particular around aged care issues for the multicultural community. In 2009, it relocated to the Wollongong CBD—as, again, the suite of services it offered was growing—and changed its name at that time. It has expanded beyond the aged care services that it originally began its advocacy on. It not only has a number of aged care and day care types of activities for people from a wide variety of migrant communities in our region; it also works in important areas with young people, doing a lot of great work with our CALD communities. The MCCI is governed by a 12-member volunteer management committee, who are all elected. I acknowledge the outstanding work of those committee members and their predecessors over 40 years. They represent a wide variety of cultures. I would like to put on the record of this place the current committee membership—and I know the member for Gilmore knows many of them too: Mr Ken Habak, who is the chairperson of the organisation; a very good friend of mine, George Bartolo, who is the senior vice-chair; Joe Alves, the vice-chair; Sabine Hauth, the secretary; Peter Noveski, the treasurer; and their committee member colleagues Leissa Pitts, Lazo Gorgiev, Nixon Hanna, Rima El Rage, Nadia Sneyd-Miller, Rudi Horvath and Dr Husayn Al. All contribute to such great activities for our local community. The staff team, the employees, are led by the amazing Terrie Leoleos. They are all excellent examples of people who work in the community sector, taking great pride in their work. The organisation is supported by a very large group of dedicated volunteers. Often they will cook fabulous meals for great functions, and it is always a tremendous pleasure to participate with them. As the organisation celebrate 40 years, I am sure we wish them a happy 40 years to come. We can only hope that future generations inherit this spirit of community dedication that the 40 years of predecessors have demonstrated and the current committee very well represents.