National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015

It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak tonight on the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015. People who have listened to my speeches in this House over the years that I have been here, since 2010, know that I am a big fan of vocational education and training. I am a graduate of the wonderful Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. I was union president of that much-loved institute. 

It was established over 100 years ago, when access to education was limited really to the wealthy, so it is the oldest workers college in the world. It opened up opportunities to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, from working-class backgrounds, not just in terms of trades but also in terms of access to opportunities for broader learning. It is a wonderful institute that is now offering world-class education in engineering, architecture, visual arts, fashion design, communications and journalism—which is what I did. Then you have the TAFE sector, where you have the trades being taught in an ever-decreasingly funded environment—trades such as electricians and a range of other areas. It is a fantastic institution.

Not only did I study at the wonderful RMIT but I also had the opportunity, prior to this life, to tutor at the University of Canberra. I tutored both undergraduate and postgraduate students in a range of communication areas, and I absolutely loved that role—seeing the benefits that students get from vocational education, in terms of the confidence that they gain from actually having a skill that they can go out and get a job with, as well as getting a bit more of the arts, a bit of English, a bit of a language, a bit of thinking time as well, in addition to vocational education. The University of Canberra, again, is one of our great institutions here in Canberra. It was wonderful to be associated with those students and that institution and also to tutor there. I miss it terribly. I keep running into the students when I go out to events. They are all very flattering about my tutoring abilities, which is good, but I miss the joy that you get from passing on your knowledge. I had 20 years of experience in a particular industry, and it was wonderful to impart my lessons learnt to those students. That is the beauty of vocational education—you are giving people valuable, tangible skills that they can take on and learn and then use to get a great job and have a wonderful career.

Members in this place do not just know about my passion for vocational education and training but also know about my passion for education more broadly. I have spoken many, many times about how education allowed my sisters and me to escape a cycle of intergenerational disadvantage. My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother all lived timid lives, because they did not get the opportunities they wanted because of their lack of education. My great-grandmother left school at about 11. She was a domestic in the western district of Victoria. My grandmother left school at about 13 and, as many people in this chamber know, worked at three jobs just to keep food on the table and to keep the state away. She was a single mother like my great-grandmother, and the state was knocking on the door because, essentially, she was poor. My mother had to leave school at 15 because there was no money in the house. My working class matriarchy was denied choice and opportunity as a result of a lack of education. Fortunately, my sisters and I, thanks to the tenacity and commitment of my mother, had the opportunity to be educated. It is a powerful transformer. I am not just talking here about schools and universities; I am talking about vocational education and training. It not only generates macroeconomic benefits for Australia; it empowers people: it gives them skills and trades that they can go out and get jobs with, make money and be a contributing member of the community. Education allowed me to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage, and that is why I am keen for children, adults and even mature age students to gain skills so that they can choose their own paths, so that they can get an education and have a choice in their lives.

We all know that skills and trades are the backbone of our economy. Anyone in this place knows that if you try to get an emergency plumber on the weekend, particularly here in Canberra, it is a very difficult task. I have my Canberran friends here, and they are acknowledging this in their smiles. It is a very difficult task and also an extremely expensive task. But it is not just in Canberra that we have skill shortages, even though we do have a lot of skill shortages here in the national capital. We have skill shortages in many parts of Australia. We need more skilled tradespeople across a range of sectors, so we need to do everything we can to strengthen our vocational education and training sector.

This bill seeks to do that. The bill is designed to improve regulatory oversight of the sector, and that is why Labor is supporting the bill. However, led by my colleague the member for Cunningham and the shadow assistant minister, Labor is seeking to make a number of amendments to the bill, because currently the bill does not address the damage to individuals that has already occurred; nor does it propose action to engage with the community to minimise future problems. The actions of unscrupulous registered training organisations—shonks, sharks, we have heard all the language—and their brokers have had a serious impact on vulnerable individuals. We all know the stories; they are horrendous. The reports of people being left with large debts and no qualifications or useless qualifications have to be addressed.

I think everyone in this place would agree on the need to strengthen the integrity of our VET sector. We have heard some absolute horror stories come out of this sector recently where RTOs have preyed on vulnerable students and signed them up for large VET FEE-HELP debts. In some cases the students are not even aware that they have signed up for a course, let alone a significant debt often around $20,000.

Under VET FEE-HELP, students are able to access up to $97,728 in total for most courses offered by eligible RTOs. In other cases, incentives such as iPads, laptops and shopping vouchers are being used to target disadvantaged communities in Western Sydney—and many of my colleagues who represent those communities have spoken about the shonkiness of these sharks who are taking advantage of vulnerable people and leaving them with a worthless qualification or no qualification at all.

In May last year, The Daily Telegraph reported $200 spotter's fees were being paid to people to sign up to courses costing up to $25,000. The problem is exacerbated by RTOs employing brokers to recruit students on their behalf and then attempting to distance themselves from the actions of the brokers. This bill takes some steps to put the responsibility on the RTO for the actions of their brokers. There is also a change to allow more a rapid response to quality standard issues by the minister and the regulator.

Growth of VET FEE-HELP has exceeded all projections with more than $1.6 billion allocated last year. The Grattan Institute has warned that 40 per cent of vocational loans will never be repaid. This becomes a financial burden to the Commonwealth and needs to be addressed.

I want to briefly mention the features of this bill. It contains, as many speakers have outlined, amendments to the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 that support ongoing reform measures including protecting the integrity of the VET system; giving the regulator capacity to respond to emerging issues; and technical amendments to improve the efficiency and operation of the act and, consequently, the regulator. It also contains no specific consumer protection provisions.

While this bill is designed to improve regulatory oversight of the sector, it does not address the damage to individuals that has already occurred or propose action to engage with the community to minimise future problems. In Labor's view, the government must act with more urgency to ensure the protection of students is prioritised.

This bill creates a new offence of prohibiting a person from advertising or offering to provide all or part of a VET course without including the name and registration code of the responsible RTO. It extends the period of registration able to be granted by the regulator from five to seven years, and this should be amended so that the extension from five to seven years is granted only to existing low-risk providers at renewal of registration. It also makes a condition of registration that an NVR registered training organisation must satisfy the quality standards set by the minister by legislative instrument.

I have only got a short amount of time left, so I want to focus on Labor's proud achievements when it comes to vocational education and training, because we have a very proud track record. The $3 billion we provided for the Building Australia's Future Workforce program provides some 130,000 new training places for apprentices. In 2011, Labor established a national regulator—the Australian Skills Quality Authority. Labor then amended the legislation in 2012 to increase the coverage of VET FEE-HELP to all diplomas, associate diplomas and to conduct a trial to extend VET FEE-HELP to certificate IV courses. This meant that any Australian could have access to vocational training, no matter their background or financial position, which is particularly important —access for all.

Everyone in this place should want to improve the integrity of our vocational education and training sector. Last year our shadow minister Senator Carr and the shadow assistant minister called on the Auditor-General to investigate VET FEE-HELP to ensure that skills funding was being used in accordance with the intent of the legislation. The Auditor General has requested that a performance audit be included in the Australian National Audit Office's 2015-16 work program, and we support that.

It would be remiss of me, while talking about vocational education and training, not to mention the $2 billion worth of funding that has been cut from the skills portfolio by the Abbott government since the budget. I want to begin with something that is dear to my heart: trade training centres. We are talking about nearly $1 billion of investment in trade training centres gone as a result of the Abbott government's cuts. It is not just here in Canberra where we saw planned trade training centres evaporate into thin air—gone—even though the ACT senator ACT had great joy and was actively engaged in opening the trade training centres that Labor had funded. It was appalling that so many trade training centres had their funding cut here and so many young Canberrans have been denied the great benefits that flow from those centres—and not just Canberrans but right across the nation.

We have a suite of trade training centres—thanks to Labor—in Tuggeranong in the south of Canberra and we have a sustainable learning centre. We have a number of trade training centres at Catholic schools and colleges. They are providing fantastic opportunities for students to learn carpentry, computer skills, plumbing and building while, at the same time, learning French and English and continuing with year 12. Not only do they do year 12 but they also get a cert III in a trade—fantastic—and the parents whose kids are undertaking this training through trade training centres absolutely love it. They are quite envious of their children and the fact that they have the opportunity to gain a trade while completing year 12. It is extraordinary. Trade training centres are fantastic idea, and it is an absolute outrage that the Abbott government chose to discontinue funding to those centres.

Labor has a strong record on investing in skills and helping students and workers to obtain the skills they need to participate and compete in the modern workforce. We also have a strong track record on quality assurance. Sadly, the actions of unscrupulous RTOs and brokers have had serious impacts on vulnerable individuals.

The government should immediately seek a consumer protection information campaign by the ACCC, including advice for people who need to seek redress and consider other mechanisms available to strengthen consumer protections.

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