Transcript - Radio National - VET Sector, 29 April, 2016


FRIDAY 29 APRIL, 2016 



KARVELAS:    See you next week in Canberra, I’m going to be there for the Budget. 

RYAN: See you for the Budget. 

KARVELAS:    That’s Senator Scott Ryan, the Minister for Vocational Education and Skills. To continue the discussion on reforming the VET sector I want to bring in the Shadow Minister

For Vocational Education, Sharon Bird, welcome to the programme thanks for your time. 

BIRD:           Hi Patricia, thanks. 

KARVELAS:    Scott Ryan and you working right to the end on a Friday night, I appreciate it. Before we get too political you were listening to Scott Ryan just now, how much support will you give this process? 

BIRD:           I have now dealt with four different Ministers and we started making our concerns known about this with Minister McFarlane, who was the original Minister. Obviously at the end of last year we had very late legislation put in, that Scott Ryan referred to, putting the freeze on. At that point in time we moved amendments and tried to get the government to support a range of actions that we thought they could take that would actually deliver something on these really devastating issues. 

Now we have a report out five months later that actually pretty much outlines exactly what Labor said at the time. We asked for a National VET Ombudsman, we asked for a cap on the amount of course costs, we asked for a reduction in the loan amounts and we asked for action on the use of Brokers and having read the discussion paper today it pretty much comes to the conclusion that we tried to offer to the government five months ago. 

KARVELAS:    But don’t you owe the government some good will given that actually it was Labor’s decision to extend FEE HELP loans to the VET sector which has been a really big part of what the problem is? 

BIRD:           A little history lesson as it was actually John Howard who decided to extend the loan scheme to the VET sector but there were changes in government that we made in 2012, that the Minister referred to, which was supported by the then opposition who actually made the point that it was good to get rid of red tape. It is a system that I think we both agree needs important urgent action. 

Our criticism of the government, to be honest, is that it has been two and a half years that the alarms have been going off now and now we have a discussion paper out for comment for another discussion. We just think that, you know, they know what is wrong, there has been ample evidence a number of enquiries of the House and the Senate, then they have come to some conclusion that we already told them about five months ago. We just think they need to get on with it and take action on these sort of real concerns because they are damaging the whole reputation of the sector. 

KARVELAS:    You’re taking credit, as you just did for a number of the suggestions in the discussion paper, as reforms that Labor proposed last year. Given that, which of the reforms would Labor commit to supporting through the Parliament if it remains in opposition, if you are still in opposition after July 2, what would you actually give the government support to get through? 

BIRD:           We offered bi-partisan support for amendments last year and they included firstly the establishment of a Vocational Sector Ombudsman. One of the big problems for students is that you have got a regulator but it is not their job to resolve complaints and you’ve got nowhere else for students to go other than to somebody like the Consumer Action Law Centre. We felt there needs to be an Ombudsman in place and we have put that forward at that time. 

We also put forward the proposal that, like in the University sector, if you want to access VET FEE-HELP there is some control over how much can be charged. The report out today indicates some fairly astonishing differences between how much people are being charged. A lot of these private sector providers charge anything for $14,000 to $33,000 for a diploma and in NSW they use as a comparison the IPART Report that had the most expensive one at $8,980. We feel there is real price gouging there. We put forward that proposition to the government in an amendment. We also proposed decreasing the amount that people can actually borrow it is now up to nearly $100,000 and that is an awful lot of money for many people who won’t ever reach an income that will allow them to pay it back and we thought that that needed to be addressed. 

We have already put these forward and given the government the opportunity to come on board with them. I suppose our frustration, Patricia, really just is that it was nearly five months ago now and now we have another discussion paper out saying basically what we were trying to get them to take action on five months ago. 

KARVELAS:    Do you agree that fixing the FEE-HELP system for VET is the first priority? Or would you like to see a kind of broader structural changes being developed at the same time? 

BIRD:           It’s a really great question. I do agree with the Minister that the damage that has occurred with the rapid growth since about the middle of 2014, when many media reports started to occur, about really unscrupulous targeting of disadvantaged students, cannot be left unaddressed. Our argument would actually be that it has dragged on for too long as it is.

More broadly than that there are two other initiatives that we have already announced in this sector, one is our great concern that TAFE, as the public provider, has to be dominant in the sector because it is like the ballast in the system. It provides the quality benchmark, it provides the good way to assess what are reasonable charges, it covers all regions so that people are able to access training. 

We actually announced a policy last year of a TAFE funding guarantee to ensure that our public providers are supported and more broadly we have also announced that we need an overall sectoral root and branch review. We did Gonski for schools and got a really solid proposal for the long term future of funding schools. We did Bradley for the University sector and we believe it is well past time that we had a look at the Vocational sector. What do we want it to do for this country? What are we requiring of it and how do you structure and fund it to ensure you can achieve that? 

KARVELAS:    Sharon Bird many thanks for joining us tonight. I am really interested if you do win government to see how a TAFE version or VET version of Gonski would end up looking like. 

BIRD:           I would be happy to come back and talk to you Patricia.