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Speech: The Damning Report on Private Vocational Education

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 15 Oct 2015

Here I speak on the recently released report on private vocational education and training providers, which reveals the dire need for a well-funded public TAFE system. We must get rid of the contestability model introduced under Labor and supported by the Coalition, and reintroduce public investment in TAFE, a system which gives people a second chance at good, vocational education. 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (16:05):

The report on private vocational education and training providers is a very important report that is also very disturbing. It is disappointing that the recommendations do not go far enough. We are dealing here not just with the education of individuals; we are dealing with the very fabric of our society. If we do not get it right in regard to education-the standards and how it is delivered-then we really are in for big problems. We are seeing those problems play out in a very unfortunate and damaging way. We are seeing scandals in regard to education standards and abuse of public money. Students and their families are losing confidence in the public education system, the overall education system and the way it is delivered by this government. The damage to reputations is considerable across the board. This inquiry was timely, and I think it is excellent that the Senate agreed that it go ahead. It is the second inquiry into different aspects of our vocational education and training system

I put on record yet again that the Greens are deeply committed to a strong, well-funded public vocational education and training sector, and that needs to be a public TAFE system. We really need to turn around how the current system works. While Senator Carr is in the chamber, I would like to pick up on one of his comments, because he made the very important point that the government of the day needs to take responsibility. That is absolutely the case. But we also need to change some aspects of what Labor introduced when they were in government, because it is under this umbrella of contestability that so many of these problems arise.

Back in 2012 the then education minister, Julia Gillard, came forward with what is often known today as the contestability model. It was officially called the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform. We often hear Senator McKenzie interject on these issues and put the load back onto Labor. But who signed up to this agreement that came from the former education minister and subsequent Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, but the then Liberal-National opposition. That was a very, very damaging document; it remains damaging to this day and it must be reformed and changed. It created a set of training entitlements that students could cash in at TAFE or private providers and it resulted in low-cost, low-quality education. This is what the inquiry looked at, and it heard many disturbing examples.

I want to make some comment on the earlier inquiry, because in many ways you need to see these two inquiries together. The 2013-14 inquiry into technical and further education in Australia looked at the major and continuing cuts in government funding to the TAFE sector. We took some amazing evidence in this inquiry. I learned so much, and I believe my colleagues did too, about the difference that the public TAFE system makes to people's lives-the second chances. People who had fallen out of the education system had the opportunity to get back into education and to gain qualifications so that they could go on to other degrees through TAFE or university. We heard from people with disabilities, particularly from the deaf community, who gave outstanding evidence. They said that in the early stages some of their education may seem expensive, because they need a note taker and they need somebody to translate for them into Auslan. But they set out the difference that it made to their lives. It allowed them to get full training in a range of different levels of skills and then they could go on and get jobs in the workforce. We heard from people who were profoundly deaf. One young refugee came from Africa, heard about the courses, gained the training, was able to be taught Auslan and then became apprentice of the year and manager at a factory, and his wife was able to join him. There were wonderful stories. He explained, as did TAFE teachers from Wollongong, that if he had come to Australia a year later there would not have been the funding to allow him to get that training and to take full part in our society. This is what is being lost under this very damaging policy that absolutely needs to change. Labor needs to go on the record and say that that contestability model will no longer be allowed to continue when they form government.

The Greens have long suspected that the contestability model of funding for VET provision is the cause of so many of these problems. The evidence that has been presented certainly does demonstrate that. The committee's majority report does correctly note that the VET provision should be designed in the name of social justice, and we certainly agree with that. However, the committee's report also notes that the current VET FEE-HELP funding arrangements are probably not achieving the objectives of the VET sector. Again we agree with these assessments but we argue that the recommendations do not address the root causes of the problem. That is what I have just been running through and we need to come back to it time and time again.

There was some excellent evidence given to the inquiry, as I mentioned. The National Tertiary Education Union made reference to the Victorian experiment. Their submission stated:

While the deregulated system has led to very impressive growth in student enrolments, it also has had negative consequences, particularly in terms of meeting skills shortages and in workforce training and productivity.
There was an interesting submission from the University of Sydney Workplace Research Centre. They pointed to tensions between the incentives of the VET FEE-HELP scheme and sound educational choices. They said in their submission:

The profit maximisation principles of these providers (and the primacy of shareholder and owner interests) provide strong incentives to offer training which attracts the highest subsidy, at the lowest cost.
I draw attention to that because this was a theme that you started to pick up when you looked into how vocational education and training was playing out. The job of these private, for-profit providers is to make a profit. They cut corners, they look at how they can cut their margins and make a profit. That is their job. That job should not intersect with education. This is a great tragedy that this parliament needs to deal with for the very future of our country. There is a massive contradiction. It is an antagonistic contradiction and it cannot be resolved. There is no place for for-profit private providers in delivering education, and that is what the contestability model allows.

I certainly agree with the previous speaker, Senator Carr, that ASQA is just not doing its job. And it cannot do its job; there are so many RTOs out there. There are just not enough people or enough resources to do it, because there is such a flood of RTOs. We have heard from Senator Birmingham, who says that he has got tough on the sector, and free iPads can no longer be delivered, and they are not going to knock on the doors of people living in public housing and take advantage of people who may not be equipped to make decisions about whether they should sign on for these courses.

We now know that those RTOs do not take any notice of those standards. How can that be policed in areas where there is no ASQA looking over their shoulder? This is the reality of what is going on. The education standards in this country are being so deeply damaged. The contestability model must go. I strongly congratulate the TAFE sector of the Australian Education Union and the National Tertiary Education Union. The work that they are doing in terms of the submissions and evidence that they have provided and the organising that they are undertaking to throw this damaging model out is outstanding. I am sure it will be successful; we have just got to win sooner rather than later.

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