BILLS: Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Reform) Bill 2015

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (20:44): In areas like the one I represent from Western Sydney, we not only need good educational opportunities in primary schools, secondary schools and universities but also, importantly, in vocational education. We do need to be able to train up people for the massive skill shortages that exist across a number of industries, and we need to have the confidence that when students take up a course in a vocational provider, be it public or private, that they are getting a good quality course. There have been concerns for some time, particularly with the private providers, whom I do support existing within the system because they do provide an opportunity for us to increase the number of pathways open to people who want to engage in vocational education. There have been concerns about the way in which people are being lured into particular private providers and the methods that are being used and the consequence of bringing people into courses and not delivering the outcomes that are required.

Back in March, ABC via 7.30 detailed some of these cases. It was brought home to me in very stark terms, because the people that were involved or whose experiences had been covered by that particular report came from Mount Druitt, a suburb within the Chifley electorate. When I heard some of the stories, I was astounded at what was occurring. One former teacher at Evocca College, Mount Druitt, detailed to 7.30 the types of instances where people would, literally, get off the train at Mount Druitt, walk down to a Westfield shopping centre and they would go straight in and there would be Evocca set up in a stall in the shopping centre—day after day. They had been there for nearly two years according to this report. The representative spruiking on behalf of Evocca College would say: 'Oh, just take the iPad. Just sign up, just take it. It's all good. It doesn't cost anything, it's free.' But it is not free, for reasons I will detail later.

And what would happen? Some of these students hard pressed for income would take the iPads down to local pawnbrokers and try to sell them. The pawnbrokers know they cannot accept the equipment because the equipment is still the property of the college until the student graduates. There would be reports, as detailed in this 7.30 report, where some pawnbrokers were getting five students a day attempting to sell their iPads. This is not the worst of it. It was deemed by the teacher that I quoted earlier, Steven Fogerty, who was on the report, that it was:

unscrupulous, absolutely unscrupulous. Zero interest in education and training, it is all about getting these people in, keeping the number up and churning them through—churning them through.

What is happening as a result? These students are then forced to shoulder huge, huge debts. The coalition government claims that this type of case is a minority. But this minority, in Evocca's case, was one where they had received nearly $150 million in federal funding and were enrolling students to courses where the students doubted they would be able to hit the income level to be able to start repaying the debt. The concern has been—again, detailed in this report—that most of the students struggle with basic reading and writing and it was unfair of Evocca to sign them up for courses they did not have the skills to complete. So they are lured in, they are not tested properly to see whether or not they have got the capability to go through and complete the course and they then get, debts that are in staggering amounts. In one case, one student whose story was detailed in this 7.30 report, owed nearly $30,000 for a diploma he is not sure he will ever finish. As another branch manager of Evocca said:

It's just dishonest. I'm unhappy that students have so much debt for either nothing or for very little outcome.

This, at its heart, is the massive problem that is being created, particularly for young people who feel the guilt of wearing a debt that they doubt very much they will be able to repay.

I spoke about this back in March in the Federation Chamber. I raised the point that we need to be able to see more people undertake vocational education and we need more skilled people in our economy. I certainly want more young people from our area involved. In fact, I was proud to be associated with the launch of Evocca Collage in Mount Druitt a few years ago because it is good to see more opportunities present for young people to be able to build up their skills base.

I have also seen some great students from Evocca in my area. In fact, on the weekend I was out at the Shalvey PCYC at the Festival of Hope, an initiative designed to raise funds for the PCYC in helping people in our area who are doing it tough and need to get their lives back on track. The PCYC has had a long-standing commitment to doing just that in our community. A lot of the event was organised, supported and run by Evocca Collage students. They are a great asset to our local area, but these students should not be tarred by the misdeeds and the 'unscrupulous', as it has been labelled, decisions by people within the management chain who are quite happy to lure people in, and not make sure that the people who are in can complete the course or do complete the course.

I had people from different parts of the country contact me after they had heard my criticisms of Evocca and they said that they were stunned at the way they had been treated. In fact, they had written to Evocca about their incompetencies and unprofessionalism, and one student: 'to which I address to Evocca to announce my cancellation after many issues with them and have since found out so many more discrepancies with this college I am completely appalled with. I have been lied to by course consultants, student service officers, tutors and now compliance managers—possibly more than I have found evidence of yet.'

Another person who wrote to me detailed, over a six-page letter, a series of concerns that they had—for example, that Evocca had failed to weed out students who honestly did not have a chance of finishing the course; that they had even been expected to google required answers or assistance if they needed it; that they would get tutorials sourced off YouTube; and that the course structure had been changed midstream. That was in one letter from someone from Queensland who wrote to me, from Deception Bay. This person—and this is the human toll—said: 'All this time I have felt that I am a failure, that I am the one who is stupid for struggling so badly. Today my eyes were opened when I researched Evocca to find out how many people in gaming have had the same issues as I've had.' People should not have to feel that way. People should not have to feel that they have been in some way, shape or form to blame for this.

What have we had in response from the government? I have heard a number of speakers because I have been following this with keen interest. A number of government speakers have said: 'Oh, Labor knew about this in 2013.' What happened in 2013? In 2013 we had a federal election, a change of government. You have known since that time that there has been a problem. What was your response? Your response was to continually blame Labor the whole way through. In fact, in early January this year, Minister Birmingham was again going out blaming Labor. It took a 7.30 report in March, and now, nearly at the end of the year, we get some legislation to deal with it. How many students have had to go through this process of wearing the extra debt, being saddled with something that they cannot possibly repay and feeling guilty that they will be unable to pay it back? They want to repay the government. They have not been able to complete the course, but they have the debt hanging over their head.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr HUSIC: Accept responsibility, Parliamentary Secretary. You do not need to go and read quotes and go back. You have had two years to do it. It is on your watch, Parliamentary Secretary. You and him and him and all of your side have had two years to fix it up. It has been on your watch, and what have you done on it? What have you done?

Mr Chester: Be honest, Ed.

Mr HUSIC: No, you be honest, Parliamentary Secretary. Stump up. How many times have we had to sit in this place and listen to the coalition use the disgraceful term 'man up'—' man up and accept responsibility'? Well, why don't you take your own advice? Man up and accept that under your watch the amount of money that has gone to VET FEE-HELP has nearly doubled from—what is it?—nearly $600 million to $1.7 billion. You have known for ages that this has been a problem, and all you have engaged in is to blame, to distract, and to try to make other people look the other way. When you have always claimed that you think you have the answers, you have been unable to step up and put forward a solution. Instead of playing the blame game, why don't you work out what is going on?

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr HUSIC: Well, it is nice that you can sit there and read that. Why don't you go and talk to the students who are saddled with the debt? Why don't you talk to the students in the two years of your administration, more and more—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Irons ): I remind the member that he is speaking through the chair.

Mr HUSIC: Chair, through you, why doesn't the parliamentary secretary go through and talk to the students that are being saddled with the debt, maybe even in his own electorate? Instead of sitting there and reading quotes, why doesn't he step forward with a solution—or the other minister at the table, who has finally got round to something?

Mr Hartsuyker: I've only been the minister for six weeks!

Mr HUSIC: Well, your government has known about it for ages.

Labor have put forward—and I am proud to see that we have put forward—a series of important amendments. I want to commend the shadow minister, the member for Cunningham, on coming forward and thinking of a range of areas where we have put forward amendments that we think will strengthen the response to what has occurred. We have, for example, said that there should be an industry funded, national VET ombudsman to go through and to provide a greater degree of protection. We have said, for example, that the Auditor-General should do an audit of the VET FEE-HELP scheme. We have said that the department should write to people—that we should have measures in place to avoid people being saddled with this debt, that they should be made aware of the likelihood of the debt that they will assume and that they should respond. It is not enough just to send the letter out and let people know. The prospective students should respond, come back and say that they acknowledge the likelihood of the debt that they are going to be taking on board. We have also called, for instance, for examining the options to cap tuition fee levels and lower lifetime limits on the size of the loans.

These are all practical, sensible suggestions being put forward to ensure that there is greater integrity in this system. A number of us have been concerned to see the types of trials and struggles that people have had to undergo, particularly in my area, as a result of the misdeeds and, as people have called them, the shonky operators. It is not good enough to just sit on our hands and believe that this situation will resolve itself. The sector has in fact, I think, not moved quickly enough to deal with this.

My biggest concern is that it undermines confidence in particularly the private providers of vocational education, who do have a role to play—a definite, concrete role to play—in providing vocational education. We should not have to put up with this. Particularly in my area, I feel strongly that students in Mount Druitt should be able to get a top-quality vocational education. They should be skilled up. This is an area where we have unemployment higher than the national average, and we have the scourge of youth unemployment affecting us. We know that there are jobs there. I know from the employers that I speak with in my area, where there is massive job growth expected. I do not want to see those jobs necessarily going to people outside the area when we have a massive issue that we need to deal with in terms of unemployment.

We need to train people up. We need to have them ready for those jobs. We need to be prepared for those requirements and make sure that employers can have the confidence that people have been trained up properly. We do not need people sitting in debt; we need people working in jobs, and they need to ensure that they have the skills to do those jobs. I certainly commend the amendment that Labor, the opposition, have put forward because we believe that this will provide a stronger response to something that has been a massive issue for people, particularly the people I represent in this place.

Debate interrupted.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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