BILLS - Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018 - Second Reading

22 August 2018

I rise today to support the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 and related bill. The Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 will separate VET student loan debts from other forms of debt taken under the Higher Education Loan Program. Labor, of course, supports transparency relating to all government student loans and the ability to better track behaviour, to monitor performance and to regulate associated standards.

Those are the good outcomes from this bill and, as you can see, that has taken me a whole 30 seconds to get through. This is a small tweak to a complex and outdated HECS system which is now nearly 30 years old. Fiddling at the edges of the current system will not address the profound problems that undermine vocational education and training and, consequentially, the productive performance and international competitiveness of our economy. We have consistently called on the government to fix the profound systemic problems in the VET system, and this is the government's response: a tiny tweak. The Turnbull government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school system.

We shouldn't be surprised by the disdain this bill shows the VET sector. The Abbott-Turnbull government has ripped more than $3 billion out of TAFE, skills and training funding over the past five years. In his last budget, Malcolm Turnbull cut a further $270 million from TAFE skills and training over the next four years. The bill will not deal with the inequities that have grown as student loans have expanded and costs have been shifted onto young people, including apprentices and trainees, the young ones who can least afford the burden of this cost. Worse, the bill does not attempt to fix the mess caused by the privatisation of the VET sector and the consequent rorting of the VET FEE-HELP scheme by unscrupulous and profit-driven private training providers.

Like with so many things this government has turned its hand to, the assumption that a market-driven, privatised approach will build a better, more efficient sector has been proven false. This approach to vocational education has caused great damage. Coupled with a massive decline in government-funded training, the picture is bleak. Introducing VET FEE-HELP turbocharged rorting, where profiteering and dishonest private providers targeted students with inappropriate courses, provided poor-quality education and saddled them with unfair debt.

The marketisation and underfunding of the sector has led to TAFE campus and course closures and the loss of jobs. For students enrolling in VET, it meant cost-shifting to them, fee increases, limitations on access and unequal treatment across the post-school sector—not to mention poor-quality courses. So many young people, and not-so-young people, have also found themselves in the terrible situation of having a debt to repay after their dodgy provider has collapsed financially. So they have debt, no training and no qualification.

ASQA, the training regulator, openly recognises that the training market has created a race to the bottom with fast turnaround and poor-quality training putting enormous pressure on quality education and training providers like TAFE, the public provider. Unlike Labor, the government does not understand the critical role of TAFE as the public provider, the value in skills and apprenticeships or the value of hardworking and passionate public TAFE teachers. The effect of overzealous application of competition policy and privatisation in the sector, coupled with chronic underfunding, has had devastating effects on the sector. TAFE and vocational education funding, as well as the number of supported students, are lower than they were a decade ago, and this is despite an increasing number of jobs requiring vocational skills.

In too many towns and regional centres across Australia, TAFE campuses have closed, courses have been scaled back and fees have increased. Between 2013 and 2015, employer dissatisfaction with the availability of vocational education in regional and rural areas more than doubled, and investment in TAFE and vocational education capital infrastructure fell by almost 75 per cent. From 2016, hours of government-funded training delivered by TAFE fell by over 30 per cent.

These are not just statistics; this abject failing of the government has a real effect on people's lives. Young people in regional areas keen to stay near home and family, or unable to afford to move away to study, benefit greatly from regional TAFEs, gaining skills that give them a start in life close to home. Regional TAFEs provide employment for locals and inject money into the local economy. They are often the heart of the town—a hub for the community to gather and engage. Unlike those who sit opposite us, we value the role of an appropriately funded VET sector for the training, skills and apprenticeships it provides to so many Australians and its vital role in driving the economy and enhancing industry.

In my electorate, I'm fortunate enough to have the wonderful Melbourne Polytechnic, a vibrant and innovative campus providing nearly 300 courses, ranging from short courses to certificates, diplomas, bachelor degrees and master level qualifications. The breadth of their courses is incredible. They provide everything from bricklaying apprenticeships to a Master of Creative Industries. Melbourne Polytech is currently educating over 26,000 students. It's a hub in the north, for the north. Amazingly, they educated their millionth student in 2013, which was also the year they turned 100. Melbourne Polytech focuses on real student outcomes, particularly employment.

I was speaking to Melbourne Polytech teachers the other day and they told me about one student, and I think it says everything about the value of VET education. Lisa won the 2015 Melbourne Polytechnic Student Photographer of the Year award. She decided to study photography at Melbourne Polytechnic because the flexibility of the class allowed her to study part time while caring for her two young, adopted Ethiopian children. This flexibility is one of the crucial reasons people decide TAFE is right for them. Lisa says it took her a while to come around to study. She always found an excuse to put it off, but she kept saying to herself, 'When my kids are in school, I'll study.' So she put her money where her mouth was and enrolled at Melbourne Polytechnic.

She decided to focus her career because she was inspired by her volunteer work with young African-Australians at Collingwood's The Social Studio. This is an organisation that empowers young refugees and migrants from a diverse range of backgrounds to realise their dreams. Lisa said that she didn't feel like she was the right fit for a qualification, but believes that Melbourne Polytechnic offered her a unique perspective, especially studying with and learning her skills from the wonderful teaching staff. She said, 'You aren't just coming here to learn. You're mixing with peers, people who have won big photography awards, people who are living and breathing all things photography. For someone my age, 48, this was integral to my confidence and success. Not for one minute was my age an issue. The teachers never made me feel like I'd gone too far artistically. The teachers constantly told me that my goal was completely possible. Having those teachers made me realise these possibilities.' Lisa now owns Liberation Images, a Melbourne based fashion and portrait photography business that specialises in African-Australian and multicultural models and clients. That, my friends and Deputy Speaker, is what education is about: having your whole life turned around by amazing teachers, by your learnings and by a TAFE sector that is flexible, invested in outcomes and invested in students and not in profits. All of us in this place should be working every day to ensure that every person in Australia has access to a fantastic education.

Let's not forget the wonderful teachers in the VET sector, particularly TAFE teachers—skilled instructors who are experts in their trade and who are prepared to pass on that knowledge to future generations. The vast majority, however, are employed on less than optimal terms and conditions. Short-term or casual contracts mean they live insecure lives, and this gives them and their students little assurance of continuity.

The contrast between Labor and the coalition when it comes to the VET sector could not be more stark. We know it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow for the education and training sector to continue as it is currently designed. It is abundantly clear that this bill does not even consider the challenges that exist in the sector. Labor gets it. That's why the member for Sydney, the member for Griffith and Senator Cameron have announced that Labor will instigate a once-in-a-generation inquiry into the post-secondary education system, to commence within the first 100 days of a Shorten Labor government. There has never been a national review that considers the full gamut of post-school education, and it is time to have one—and the whole sector welcomes it. I believe the review must seriously and rigorously consider alternatives to the competitive training market model.

Now, more than ever, we need a post-school education and training system that works for every Australian. We know the progress we need isn't being delivered in the system that is operating today. Labor will place TAFE at the centre of our agenda for vocational education and training. Labor's commitment to TAFE is unequivocal. TAFE is the backbone of our skills and training sector. Labor has guaranteed secure funding for skills and TAFE and has made the commitment that at least two-thirds of public funding will go to the TAFE network. Only Labor will guarantee secure and stable skills and training funding. Labor is waiving the up-front fees of 100,000 TAFE students and investing $100 million into rebuilding TAFE. Labor will ensure that at least one in 10 jobs in a Commonwealth-funded project is done by an apprentice. Labor is committed to working with unions and industry to have better industrial relations laws that help address the issues of job insecurity.

A government without a plan for education and training has no plan for Australia's future. So, while we are happy to support this small tweak, I call on the government to adopt Labor's policy and support our undertaking of a root-and-branch inquiry into the post-secondary education system. Only then can the underlying problems in the vocational education and training system and the associated funding inequities be brought to light and resolved.