Sharon Bird - Transcript - ABC Illawarra, Thursday, 4 February, 2016

SUBJECT/S: Vocational Education


JOURNALIST: People are already speaking out about it and the Government has not said much apart from the fact that this is simply a draft plan, but joining me now is the Shadow Minister for Vocational Education and Training, Sharon Bird, good morning to you.


BIRD: Good morning.


JOURNALIST: Look maybe there is something to be said about a national approach to Vocational Education and Training, what is wrong in principle with the Federal Government taking over?


BIRD: Well for starters I wouldn’t trust this government with our TAFE system, only yesterday, not long before we heard this news about this draft document for a takeover we saw the NSW Minister in an extraordinary attack on his federal colleagues saying how badly they have managed the Vocational Education and Training sector over the last two years.


JOURNALIST: That doesn’t mean that in principle it is a bad idea for a national approach to be taken?


BIRD: The problem with this proposal that they have put out is that its funding model makes it very clear that all training providers will be treated exactly the same, the Federal Government would hold the purse strings and then all training providers would be treated exactly the same and bid for training dollars.


The problem with that is that TAFE is not just another training provider, it’s our public provider, and it has responsibilities, and we quite rightly have expectations of it, that are far beyond what you would expect from a private training provider. Including ensuring that there is availability in regional and rural Australia, access for students with a disability, programmes that support Indigenous students. All of these sorts of additional responsibilities would be lost and the reality is TAFE would just compete on a race to the bottom with private providers.


Now there are some good private providers out there, I meet them regularly, but we have seen massive shonky behaviour in the sector for two years and a Federal Government that has just reacted too slowly, made the wrong calls, seen the rip offs continue. They have no real interest and dedication to the sector, in fact they have been appalling in their management and their cuts to programs.


JOURNALIST: I guess the Government’s argument would be that increased competition would lead to lower fees and potentially better quality of courses as various providers compete to offer the best product to students, what is wrong with that argument?


BIRD: This Government has evidence before it right now about how their proposed structure and model works and that is where VET FEE Help is being made available for diploma level courses. No one I’m sure could have missed the disasters that have been occurring over two years where prices have not gone down in fact they have blown out. We have people with debts of $20,000, $25,000 sometimes being signed up to two diplomas and having a $30,000 or $40,000 debt, so there has been no evidence of a decrease in price, exactly the opposite has occurred.


The quality has been appalling, there has been constant complaints the ACCC taking action, media reports day after day of people being signed up who weren’t able to do the course, had language and literacy problems, getting qualifications that the industry has said are so poor they don’t even recognise them. That is the evidence before this government on what their sort of model actually is already delivering.


JOURNALIST: So does the onus for that lie with the government to adequately regulate the private providers, it doesn’t mean that the private provision of Vocational Education in and of itself is a bad thing?


BIRD: There is absolutely no doubt they have been far too slow to act on what should have been nipped in the bud in terms of these sort of really shonky, aggressive behaviours but also the model that they are proposing, in this document, makes it quite clear, that government will provide some subsidy and students will carry a part of the cost of training.


Now that model will see the VET FEE Help potentially extended to all qualifications, for example if they are doing a Certificate II level course the provider can charge whatever they like and you top up the payment by taking on a debt. This is why Labor is very worried about the proposal in that it could push debt right across the sector and we’ve seen some real problems. They have got enough on their plate at the moment with all the problems they have I would suggest their energies be better directed at resolving those before saying “we have made a mess over two years let’s just take the whole system over”.


JOURNALIST: So just finally, Sharon Bird, what’s Labor’s view of the role that private providers can play in the Vocational Education landscape and would Labor continue to allow the States to have responsibility for Vocational Education and Training?


BIRD: In the first question you asked, I think I made it clear earlier, there absolutely is a role for private providers and there has been for decades and there are some out there who have been filling particular roles, with particular expertise in some industry sectors for example doing a great job. When I talk to them they are horrified by the really shonky, unethical, low quality activity that is going on as well.


JOURNALIST: But would Labor support further deregulation of fees to allow for a more level playing field?


BIRD: I think the deregulation of fees is a real problem in the way that it is being proposed in this model. I would say that we have made an announcement already on TAFE about a COAG agreement based on a TAFE funding guarantee because we do believe the public provider is absolutely, critically important and we have to stop the attacks that have occurred from conservative governments at all levels, to be honest. Basically what we have said is we want COAG to reach a national agreement about what the role of TAFE as the public provider is and then how it will be funded to ensure it can deliver on that role and we will remain committed to TAFE, it has delivered very well for communities for many decades and to see it under this sort of threat and potentially lose it, would be to lose a national asset.


JOURNALIST: Alright, Sharon Bird, thanks very much for your time this morning.


BIRD: Thank you.