PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 1 DECEMBER 2015
SUBJECT/S: Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP) Bill 2015
SENATOR KIM CARR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, RESEARCH, INNOVATION AND INDUSTRY: The Senate has commenced debate on the VET FEE-HELP Bill and at one minute to midnight this government has proposed a series of amendments to their own legislation reflecting the deep crisis within the vocational education and training system and the final recognition by this government that there is a desperate need for action by government.
Yet this Minister has chosen to treat the Senate with complete contempt by circulating amendments to a Bill which has been under discussion for a great deal of time in terms of the principals and in terms of the Bill itself which was referred to a Senate Committee and none of these matters were raised with the Senate Committee. It would appear to me then that it hasn’t been raised with too many Senators either.
So, just as I was to stand up to speak to the second reading debate, my colleague, Sharon Bird, had been contacted with advice from the Minister that they now have a series of amendments. Amendments which, according to the Parliamentary Legislation Office, appears to have been prepared on Saturday - so they have kept these secret for three days and chose to bring them forward as the Bill is being debated in the Chamber.
Now this does not all go well for proper discussion about the actions that the government is taking and highlights why it is necessary to accept the Labor amendments which actually turn off the tap to the rorters, the shonks and the sharks that are operating within this industry and have taken such abuse of so many vulnerable people and cost the Commonwealth billions of dollars in the process.
SHADOW MINISTER FOR VOCATIONAL EDUCATION, SHARON BIRD MP: Thanks Kim, it’s a really important debate that is occurring in the Senate today. It’s important because we have seen consistently over the last two years ongoing reports of the most vulnerable in our community being ripped off by really shonky behaviour in the vocational sector. Now these amendments, as Kim said, that have been brought forward at the very last minute, making it very difficult to have a good detailed look at what’s proposed, do not address a significant number of the issues that Labor has put forward in our amendments.
There is not a commitment to an Ombudsman for the system, a proposal that has been endorsed across the stakeholders, including by the private education sector.
It does not address the enormous amounts of money that are being charged for these courses, so that the size of the debt that students are being left with is so much more significant than it needs to be - diplomas where they are ending up with a debt over $20,000 for a single diploma and, realistically for many of those people not even ending up with the diploma because they don’t complete because they should have never been enrolled in the first place.
There are so many significant, critical issues that need to be addressed and it is very disappointing that we have to deal with these amendments at the very last moment when we have been saying to the Government, for all of that time, you need to take far more vigorous and far more serious action to stop these shonks because they are destroying the reputation of one of the most critical education sectors in this country.
JOURNALIST: So are these measures a step in the right direction though?
CARR: Of course they are a step in the right direction, this Bill is a step in the right direction, but this is a government that has been dragged to take this position. This is a government that made announcements in March about the way in which these courses are being marketed, that marketing and rip-offs continue right up until today. This is a government that has made a number of statements about their good intentions but the rip-offs continue.
This is a government that relies upon the capacities of the regulators and the Department when clearly that has been found wanting. Now the reality is the Government talks big but acts in a very small way and what we need to do is actually turn off the tap. Turn off the tap of the billions of dollars that are flowing to these shonks, these shysters.
The Government has failed to do that. Failed to deal with the question of the brokers, failed to deal with fundamental questions, as Sharon has indicated, in terms of providing a proper complaints mechanism for students. Failed to deal with the really big questions about why the system is in place and why it is that this government has allowed these rip offs to continue for so long.
JOURNALIST: You say you want to turn off the tap, one of the measures being put forward is that no new funding will be given to private colleges so that I presume is not enough…..
CARR: Nowhere near enough, you’ve got to limit the life-time debts that people can incur. $97,000 per person. What we are seeing is these rip-off merchants signing people up to double diplomas, $40,000 worth of diploma. Now a medical degree doesn’t cost you that much in this country yet we have got advanced diplomas in golf and all sorts of really shonky arrangements being presented as genuine training when they are not. They are clearly a scheme to transfer billions of dollars from the public purse to private companies and that is the real issue here.
This is a government that is obsessed with privatisation, deregulation and a belief that somehow or another education can be best done by people who are registered on the stock exchange. Well that is simply not the way in which to run our educational institutions in this country.
BIRD: If I can just add to that too, one of the important capacities of Labor amendments was that it was targeted at creating a real opt-in system because what the evidence has shown is that many students are completely oblivious to the fact that they’ve actually signed up for a debt in the first place. So we have put forward, in our amendments, in the detailed process, a requirement that the Department, on behalf of the Government, who at the end of the day are the people lending they money, from taxpayer money, actually are intervening and they’re the person who writes to the student and says you’ve applied for a loan, this is how much it will be. And then the student has to reply back and say yes they understand that and I want to undertake a debt.
We need that mechanism in place in order to prevent what is going on, which is people being signed up to courses and oblivious to the fact that they are being signed up to debts. That’s where the danger, as has been identified, of a potential bad debt for the taxpayer is growing and developing.
JOURNALIST: Regardless of whether these measures go far enough, will Labor still support them in Parliament?
CARR: We’ll have a look at the detail and we want to know what it actually means. This is the problem about dropping amendments of this complexity on the table at this hour. What you need to do is actually consider the full range of implications. That’s why the Government should treat the Senate with a bit more respect and Senators with a bit more respect when it comes to actually looking at the detail of their proposals.
You simply can’t slip this through in an act of panic as a reflection of the deep chaos that’s within this Government to try to actually get a Bill through the Senate when the Government hasn’t consulted properly, despite the opportunities now of two Senate inquiries now, despite the enormous array of public attention that’s been on this issue.
The Government, in an act of blind panic, drops these amendments on the table at one minute to midnight.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the Government should just have a separate Bill for regulating the industry as a whole rather than piecemeal kind of pieces of legislation that come through every three months?
CARR: We’ve got a really big problem here that doesn’t just relate to VET FEE-HELP. There are some serious issues emerging within the regulation of higher education more generally and that includes the VET sector as a whole. This is a Government that’s relied upon regulators that are not fit for purpose. It has had no examination of the capacities of the Department, which has been whittled away because of the budget cuts that they’ve imposed on the public service and now, of course, even though they have increased money for this agency, ASQA, we can’t be certain that they are capable of actually administering the system. I’ve indicated before, I believe that ASQA couldn’t track a bleeding elephant through snow and the events that have occurred around Vocation which just this week closed its doors, put 150 staff on the scrapheap, 12,000 students thrown into limbo. This is a body which was registered with the national regulator but it took the Victorian Government to actually get on to the rorts that were occurring.
And, of course, it was not ASQA that took the action – it was the Victorians that led to the clean-up of the industry in Victoria. So you have got to ask yourself, has ASQA got the capacity to do the job that this Government is placing so much trust in them.
JOURNALIST: Just on universities, Labor’s agreed to back two of the Government’s legislative measures. So that’s the scrapping of the discount if people pay upfront for university and also the start-up scholarships. They have now become loans. Why did Labor believe it was necessary to support these measures?
CARR: Well because we will not support the cuts to the University system – the billion dollar cuts that they were trying to slip through this week and it is my understanding that the Government will now produce a separate set of arrangements which deal with the scholarship arrangements.
We believe that they are necessary in the circumstances where we’re committing, in gross terms, to $22 billion worth of extra funding for the university system. In net terms, considerably less than that and we need to ensure that we are able to provide ongoing security of funding for student places, the predictability and sustainability for the funding of our University system at a time when many people said there wasn’t the political will in this Parliament to actually fund universities properly.
Well Labor says there is. We will fund it properly. That’s why we are spending so much more money on universities.
JOURNALIST: Some of those measures in that Bill were actually Labor policy. The Government says that they were Labor measures so therefore you should support them. Is Labor backtracking?
CARR: No, what we’ve said is that the money that we put aside to funding the school system, and which this Government reneged upon, made it entirely appropriate for us to say we’re not going to support the cuts to the University system.