Sharon Bird - Transcript - ABC Illawarra, Thursday, 3 December 2015

SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education and Training, VET FEE-HELP, Maldon-Dombarton Rail Link


JOURNALIST:  We’ve been hearing the stories about private vocational education providers and some of the more shonky ones who have been employing practices such as offering free lap tops to people to entice them to sign up to courses that they actually have no intention of doing and getting VET FEE-HELP student loans from the government to pay for them. Apparently it is costing the government billions of dollars and in this week, the last Parliamentary sitting week of the year, the government has moved about thirteen pages of amendments to its own legislation to do what the Training Minister, Luke Hartsuyker says, was turn off the tap of taxpayer funding.


Joining me now is Sharon Bird, of course the Member for Cunningham, but also the opposition spokesperson for Vocational Education, good morning to you…


BIRD:  Good morning.


JOURNALIST:  Now look it seems these stories of, pretty much, shonks in the system are becoming more prolific recently, how do we rein this system in and surely this is a sign that the government has decided actually we do need to do something because the system is being rorted?


BIRD: This has been a big issue that I’ve been pursuing the government about for at least eighteen months now. Labor has been calling for the regulators to take serious action that includes the national vocational regulator, ASQA, it includes the Department and it includes people like the ACCC.  So it’s been welcomed in recent months.  In particular for example, the ACCC is taking legal action against a number of these sorts of providers and we will see what the outcome of that is.


More importantly we have been saying to the government everything they have done is tinkering around the edges.  When you are dealing with sharks who are running a shonky outfit you need to come down like a ton of bricks on them. They are ruining younger people’s hopes of getting a job by selling them dodgy qualifications. They’re exploiting mature and elderly people in the community telling them you can have a free lap top but not fully disclosing that they will end up with sometimes a $25,000 debt.


All of this sort of stuff requires much more urgent, much stronger action and so it was no surprise that the government’s latest Bill, which again we argued was not strong enough, finally they accepted that argument and, literally as the Shadow Minister in the Senate was on his feet, they introduced thirteen amendments to try and toughen it up. I have to say Labor still doesn’t think they go far enough. We did put up a proposal that there must be an Ombudsman which the government has now accepted but we also wanted them to put price controls in place and they wouldn’t do that, I think that is a big mistake.


JOURNALIST:   What can you do when people themselves don’t seem to be concerned about signing up to these courses and they are saying “Yeah sure I will accept this free lap top” and enrol in a course that they envisage will never have to pay back as they will never earn enough to pay it back, or being unaware of their responsibilities or their obligations. How do you stop that behaviour?


BIRD:   There has been a variety of situations occur under this so basically the training organisations are hiring these people called brokers who are out there treating it purely, if you like, as a door to door sales opportunity, pushing people in high pressure sales tactics to make on the spot decision about things that they really need a lot more advice on.


They use that mechanism to sign up thousands and thousands of people, some of those people sort of go “oh well I am getting a free lap top and it won’t matter whether I do the training or not”, but pretty quickly when they discover it’s not a free lap top it’s actually leaving them with a debt that can be in the tens of thousands of dollars they get pretty cranky about it. Other people I have spoken to thought they had just signed up to a training course and they didn’t even know they had signed forms to apply for a loan and if you are on a pension, for example, and you don’t interact with the tax office you might not find out for years that you have this debt.


It is a really serious issue for people out there and those sort of high pressure sales tactics should not be the way people get into training courses it should be based on sound advice and a professional assessment of their skill level and what courses are the most appropriate for them and with their best interest at heart not the profit margin of some company.


JOURNALIST:   One particular private education provider has taken the step of taking out a full page ad in the Sydney Morning Herald today to say a fair go for quality VET providers. You would have to concede that there are some people who are out there doing the right thing, providing quality education, via their own private company, to people. Has the government now gone too far so that some of these people who are actually high quality training providers are being impacted by this and will eventually kill off these programs as well.



BIRD:  I have always made the point, in fact I spoke at a conference of the peak body of the private training providers, and there are many providers out there in the private sector who have been working, often for decades, doing really good work, usually in their specific expertise area that they train in, and they have been telling me that they want the shonks shut down as well.


They don’t just attack our great TAFE institutions and undermine their viability, they also attack the viability of the genuine, ethical private sector providers as well. I think the problem that many have is that the government’s very eleventh hour, knee-jerk panicked reaction, with the introduction of these amendments at the very last minute when the Bill was before the House yesterday, has caused that sort of concern that you see in the example you’ve talked about.


Our problem was and we made the point to the government, while we would support their amendments, because we literally have had no time to look at them and we didn’t want to stand in the way of taking action against shonky providers, but putting the cap on in the way that they did basically sort of means that if you have ripped off a hundred million this year you can go off and rip off a hundred million next year.


They have just put a cap on how much existing providers can sign up for VET FEE-HELP next year and that is why we thought it was insufficient and we put forward the other amendments, such as capping how much they can charge in the first place to make it unviable to rip students off and have them pay thousands of dollars that go to brokers who are just walking around doing a sales job.

JOURNALIST:   Sharon Bird, I think I hear the bells ringing for a division in the Parliament, I don’t know if it is possible to just take thirty seconds more of your time about the Maldon-Dombarton rail link, and we’ve heard yesterday of course that an independent committee within the Department of Transport, within the NSW government has rejected two expressions of interests from private providers which means that again it would seem that the Maldon-Dombarton rail link will be put on the back burner. What’s your response to this news?


BIRD: It’s very frustrating and I know people right across the community will be feeling that. I have the letter from the Minister.  It is very vague on what the actual issue was with the proposals. It sort of hints that they might be looking at other funding avenues.  So Stephen Jones and I have now written and said ‘well what exactly are your proposing?”.  This is a critical piece of infrastructure the freight task is not decreasing it is increasing. Our port is growing and we need a solution.


If you are looking at infrastructure money from the government well do you want the feds on board? We will go and lobby them, what are you guys at the State level proposing?   So we are not going to give up on this because it is just too important and Minister Macfarlane, when he came down and had the BlueScope round table, said to our region that we are on board for some big transformative investments in your area to help your local economy well here’s one they could make a start with.



JOURNALIST:   OK Sharon Bird, I would hate for you to get a slap on the wrist from Anthony Albanese so you better run off.


BIRD:    Thank you.