Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015

I rise with colleagues on this side of the House to support the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015 and to welcome some of the changes that are being addressed, but also to suggest further changes that may address a serious issue that has been highlighted in the press and in the chamber this morning as speaker after speaker has told stories from their electorates.One of the reasons we all are fully aware of this is not just because people have been walking into our offices to talk to us about it, because, bluntly, a lot of our most vulnerable are not big complainers. They do not necessarily have the assertiveness or the confidence to raise a complaint about these issues. I think that has been one of the issues as to why this has been going on for so long.

The report from the University of Sydney has certainly shone a light on the area of VET provision and some of the things that have been occurring. It has done so recently, and a Senate inquiry has assisted with that. The study by the University of Sydney shone a light on some of these practices merely through looking at the figures. The report identified businesses in the vocational education sector making super-profits of 30 per cent. That surely should be ringing alarm bells. Clearly it points to a problem. A 30 per cent profit is not usual, and one might argue that it is not possible if you are delivering quality education in any sector.

Another alarming statistic in that report concerned the TAFE sector in Victoria, which is the traditionally trusted provider of VETs—one that provides the quality we expect in our training and skills programs. It has been dramatically marginalised. In fact, it has gone from providing 70 per cent of VET training in Victoria down to 20 per cent. Both of those things clearly show that there is a structural problem occurring in this sector and it needs to be addressed. Of course, it would not be a problem if this Victorian reduction to 20 per cent were being replaced with high quality education. But, given 30 per cent super profits and the stories we are hearing that have been highlighted in the press of late, we now know that that is not true. We certainly know that these things need to be addressed. Therefore, I welcome the amendments in front of us this afternoon. This sector certainly needs reform. The market based mechanisms have no place in the case management of our most vulnerable on their journey to secure training and employment.

Last year, the shadow minister for vocational education, Sharon Bird, and I met with about 30 apprentices at the Werribee Plaza site in my electorate. This is a huge building project that is underway, employing 700 tradespeople. Pleasingly, there were a healthy number of apprentices employed. In the meeting with these young Australians—all proud of having secured an apprenticeship and a great start to their working lives—they were also keen to share some of their negative experiences. The conversation soon turned to the off-site training that they were going through. Two common topics were cost and quality. The apprentices told of starting with one RTO, which had lobbied their employer as a so-called cheaper option to TAFE, only to switch after a term because the quality was so poor.

These stories started to come through. The apprentices spoke of teachers with poor English and of assessment where the answers were provided. As a former teacher, I do not think that I need to lecture the chamber, but, if you are going to give a student a test, that is a test of your teaching more than a test of their learning, and you certainly do not provide the answers to give yourself a pat on the back when they get 100 per cent. They also complained of classes that were cancelled and never made up.

The apprentices and their employers were genuine in trying to gain real skills and real training—and they had a genuine desire to learn and improve—but this was not what they had found in the sector. Many of them had changed providers in order to find one with quality. Most preferred the TAFE options, as they felt the quality was so much higher and the teachers were genuine in wanting these young adults to acquire real skills. The employers could see the benefit of utilising a quality provider. We also heard similar stories about quality from the preceding member's contribution in this debate. The quality could be found if they went out to look, however, if you were an employer with less scruples or an apprentice that knew no better, would you go and look for it? That is the question. I did not ask at the time whether any of them attempted to make a formal complaint regarding the poor providers, but I suspect not.

Last week, I met with a community leader in my office, who is a representative of a growing ethnic group in my electorate. As part of that meeting, which was wide-ranging, he mentioned that he had been approached by several women in the community who had been placed in training. They were very proud and happy to participate in the training, and a large number were training in certificate courses that enabled them to become child carers. Although they had participated and qualified, they actually had limited knowledge about how to establish themselves as a carer. The training did not actually provide the skills they needed to lift themselves into employment and start making a valuable contribution to our society. I know that I will not be the first person nor the last person today to speak of this happening in communities. This also follows recent stories of various childcare centres refusing to take graduates from some RTOs who had a reputation for poor quality. I know that some will argue that this is the market doing its work. However, for those people who have done those courses, had that one-off opportunity and cannot do a course of a similar accreditation again in a different field and get that kind of support, it is too late.

As last year's high school graduates are weaving through the maze of options for post school education, there seems to have been an increasing number of media reports about these unscrupulous RTOs preying on vulnerable students. Again, we are hearing about that today. Students are being hoodwinked into enrolling for courses that are poor quality with no real job prospects at the end of them. Sometime these people do not even realise they have signed up to a significant debt. It is pleasing that this bill goes some way to address these issues. It builds on the work of the previous government, which of course established the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA, in 2011. We on this side of the chamber know and understand that strong regulation of the sector is important to ensure young people receive quality training and are not signing away for a large debt.

I am pleased to see that the current government allocated a further $68 million to ASQA last year and that they have established a National Training Complaints Hotline. I am also pleased to see that new standards are being implemented next month. These are important because the stories are growing in our communities. They are growing because the fact is that, amongst the for-profit operators, there are unscrupulous providers hawking VET courses door to door or, worse, cleverly hiring community learning centres to add a level of legitimacy to their activities. They are preying on the vulnerable.

One story from my electorate, which has a happy ending but carries a moral with it, is about a young man. He was a jobseeker. He had not been unemployed for a long time. He had left school and had a couple of jobs. As with most young people, he was utilising the internet and the modern recruitment tools. He found a position advertised on SEEK to which he promptly responded. He sent in his resume and got an interview. He attended the interview, but he came home, not with the job, but with a course already signed up. He received no independent career guidance, which, you will understand, as a teacher I value highly. No-one had explained the regulations around certification and Commonwealth funding, and he had no understanding of the full array of options if he had seriously considered re-engaging in education. His story stunned me, not just for the fact that he had responded to a job advertisement and come away with a course, but also for the fact that he had signed up for a vast array of certificates. They all looked good on paper. He was going to do a 10-week course. He did; he attended. He was told during the eighth week that the last certificate would not be completed in the 10 weeks, but would occur when they got the numbers, and they would call him. He did not get the call. It will not surprise anyone in the chamber to know that this last certificate was the most expensive certificate and also the one that probably made him the most job-ready.

He pursued the issue by phone several times but the promised call backs did not eventuate. Some months later he saw the same ad in SEEK and he rang the number. He secured another interview and he got his 'gotcha' moment. He ultimately got the certification and the Commonwealth got value for money. He is employed and has been employed since gaining that certification. So it is a happy ending but a moral tale about unscrupulous for-profit operators.

Labor recognises the importance of quality assurance and today we have suggested what we think are some sensible amendments to go with the amendments being put forward by the government. We must free the regulator to chase the real dodgy providers, those making superprofits off the back of our taxes and vulnerable students. We have seen reports of RTO businesses making superprofits of 30 per cent in the vocational education sector and that clearly points to a problem. In the process, people are being exploited and that also needs to be addressed.

Senator Carr and shadow minister Bird have been fierce advocates in calling for action. They recognise that the market-based mechanisms have no place in the case management of these vulnerable people. The fact is that, amongst the operators motivated by profit, there are unscrupulous providers. So we have suggested some amendments that we think strengthen the bill and that take a few steps further to, importantly, improve the regulatory oversight of the sector but also provide support for those people who have been caught up in this system, the vulnerable individuals, who have possibly been left with large debts and, in some cases, with no qualifications or useless qualifications.

As a case in point, one amendment addresses the notion of extending the registration to seven years. Our amendment calls that that only be offered to low-risk providers, with the view that it sends the wrong signal to extend the period for registration and therefore the length of time without an audit, although we recognise that the intent of that part of this amendment is in fact to free up the regulator from doing continuous audits. We think that that measure would reverse that signal to the market and ensure that those low-risk operators are free to continue and would free up the regulator to do so some of that work.

However, we also call on the government to act with more urgency, to ensure the protection of students is prioritised in this process and to 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 in the sector. Labor supports the call for the Auditor-General to conduct an audit on the use of VET FEE-HELP.

This is obviously an area of passion of mine. I have left the most compelling argument to the end of my contribution and that is around schools. I will give you this example. These unscrupulous providers are not just knocking door to door; they are not just trying to engage people who have lost their job or who have been long-term employed. They are actively pursuing current secondary students. I will give you a scenario that might help you understand. In a high school such as the one where I worked for many years we have many vulnerable students —at-risk students—who have many things in their lives that make them at risk. One of the safest things for them to do is to maintain their enrolment and attendance at a school. To that end, schools put wrap-around support in place for some of our most vulnerable children, with a view of keeping them at school as long as they can. I know that, currently, in schools around the country some of those children are coming back to school, and saying, 'I'm here to exit because I'm going to do a course.' The course will not come with careers guidance and it will not come with welfare support. You will have a year 9 or a year 10 student, aged 14 years and nine months, heading off to do a course that they have signed up to and, unbeknownst to them, it will disconnect them from their education.


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