Speech: National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015 Second Reading
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:31): The National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2015 will provide greater transparency in the marketing of VET courses. There are some positives in this bill; we do acknowledge that.
Greater transparency in the marketing of VET courses by requiring marketers and salespeople to be explicit about which organisation will be responsible for issuing the qualification or statement of attainment is clearly needed. There are now so many examples on the record where companies that have moved into the private education sector have failed to do that, and they demonstrate the need for this. The bill also seeks to improve quality standards by responding to emerging issues. We again acknowledge that that is needed.
While the Greens will support these new measures, it is obvious that there is much more that needs to be done to improve the private VET sector and protect vulnerable consumers. There have been so many abuses in this area. We note that Senator Birmingham, who is responsible for this area, has publicly stated that there will be higher standards and more requirements put in place to try and tighten up on the shonky providers that are moving into this area.
This is something that the Greens have been warning about. We have watched closely what has happened in Victoria, and that really has demonstrated the dangers when for-profit companies come into the education sector. What needs to be reiterated in this debate is that high quality in our VET system comes about when we have an adequately funded public TAFE system which is free to focus resources on higher-cost training and education, which we know that the private operators are reluctant to address. Why are they reluctant to address that? Because their job is to make profits. If you are a for-profit company, then that is what you are required to do by the standards that those companies operate under. Their job is also to seek to increase their profits. They do that by cutting corners, by cutting costs, by running courses that may just go for a few days or for a few hours and, with free iPads or free laptops, by inducing people to sign up. We have heard from the minister that the government are going to tighten up on this, and that is welcome. But the Greens' concern remains that, as these companies have to make a profit, they will continue to look for loopholes and ways to cut corners. This is a challenging area. As I have said, the Greens certainly do not oppose these measures.
The growth in private VET providers in Australia has mainly focused on low-cost courses and program. That is how the private sector operates. This has detracted resources from the public TAFE system. We know that TAFE provides an enormous benefit to our society by delivering a great diversity in programs. We see pathways into learning. We see courses for second chancers. Those who missed out on gaining qualifications at school now want to re-enter the education system, and TAFE can assist them to do that. There are courses that require community infrastructure and expensive high-tech equipment, and TAFE provides those. TAFE provides this enormous diversity for people to come into the education sphere in a variety of ways, and that is a huge asset.
In a debate like this-particularly as we are essentially dealing with the issue of private for-profit companies that abuse the system, abuse the standards and so often get away with it-we need to look at what is going on with TAFE. TAFE is putting massive resources into training. We often have very high cost programs, which include the latter stages of apprenticeship training and high-tech digital courses. These are becoming essential to ensuring that Australian workers are well educated and well trained for the challenges that lie before them as individual workers and the challenges that lie before our whole society. Many of these workers will change jobs many times, and the skill base that they take out into the workforce will be absolutely essential in order to help keep them in well-paid, satisfying work that also benefits our community. Again, so many of those companies are not interested in providing courses that are based on complex infrastructure and need to be well funded to be able to provide the considerable complexity that is required to take forward this type of education and training.
In this debate, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of a robust public TAFE system. It is more important than ever to ensure that we have a sustainable economy. This is very relevant when talking about standards for private operators, because so many of these private operators are actually undermining our economy-because, when you undermine the standards in our training and education, it means that people may not even be able to enter the workforce because they have blown their opportunity to be able to gain a successful degree. So the consideration of the role of TAFE is very important here. There is a lot of work to be done, which means lots of jobs require technical expertise. Often that will only come by having a well-funded public TAFE system. I have to bring in the issue of climate change here. The challenges that we are facing and the need to transition to a clean economy require training and education to be provided in a very comprehensive, very thorough way. That is something that for-profit companies basically step away from. Yes, we are supporting this bill-the standards need to be improved-but just increasing a few standards is not going to address the problems that we have with how some of these for-profit companies are operating.
Again to emphasise: the Greens do recognise that at times there is a role for private providers, but that should not include for-profit companies. When you bring the for-profit motive in, you have immediately got problems with people cutting corners. How the Greens see it is that those private companies should only come into the running of the courses when TAFE is unable to provide the course itself, either because of the location or, in some cases, because of the resources that are available. We need to emphasise, when we are considering these matters, that private providers so often cherry-pick the low-cost courses, because that is where they can make more money. We need to ensure that TAFE is able to continue to deliver high-quality and higher cost training and is able to provide that diversity of courses.
The Greens have serious concerns about the direction the VET systems are heading in. This bill that we are debating now is a small step forward, but, as the ministers' comments just last week revealed, the problems with the standards with so many companies here are so enormous. This is something that needs to be dealt with much more thoroughly. We will clearly be revisiting this with much more legislation. But it needs to be injected into this debate that one of the best ways to handle the issue of the low standards that private, for-profit companies bring to vocational education and training is to ensure that we have a well-funded, publicly owned TAFE system that is the dominant provider of vocational education and training programs.