All submitters to the inquiry supported the amendments proposed by the bill. In this respect, submitters observed that the amendments would enhance transparency in the vocational education and training (VET) sector, reduce the regulatory burden, and improve the integrity and efficiency of recruitment processes and applications for licenses in skilled professions and occupations.
This chapter will examine key issues discussed by submitters, including whether the proposed measures will impact on a person's ability to 'make a fresh start' and whether individuals' privacy will be adequately protected.
The chapter will conclude with the committee's views and recommendations.
Making a 'fresh start'
In referring the bill for inquiry, the Senate Standing Committee for the Selection of Bills identified a potential risk that the amendments proposed by the bill would limit a person's ability to 'make a fresh start'. Responding to this concern, submitters asserted that the measures proposed by the bill would not have this effect. In this respect, submitters pointed to the high level of control that a person may exercise over the nature and extent of access to their authenticated VET transcript.
For example, the Unique Student Identifiers Office (USIO) noted that students will retain full control over who may view their transcript, and over the level of information available. The USIO elaborated on this matter as follows:
In generating a transcript for an entity to view, it is completely up to the student to decide what parts of their training history to include and what parts to omit. This freedom to choose what parts of their training history to generate is clearly communicated to the student when they log in to their account and select the transcript generator function. An entity who receives permission is only able to view a static copy of the transcript generated by the student. The giving of permission to view does not give the entity access to the student's USI account and entire training records.
The USIO also noted that a student would be able to set the length of time for which an entity can view their transcript, and would be able to remove an entity's permission to view their transcript at any time.
The then Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business (the department) explained that the measures proposed by the bill only expand the range of entities that may request access to a VET transcript. As is presently the case under the current unique student identifiers (USI) regime, only the holder of the relevant USI may determine who may access the transcript.
The department also observed that individuals will continue to be able to choose how much of their training information is displayed in the transcript (or extract) provided to an entity for verification. The department emphasised that this keeps control of VET transcripts in the hands of the individual and, in doing so, maintains their privacy.
Protecting individuals' privacy
In pre-empting possible concerns in relation to privacy, submitters observed that privacy will be adequately protected under the proposed changes to the USI regime. Submitters pointed to the control an individual may exercise over access to their transcripts, as well to additional privacy safeguards that have been or will be implemented by departments and agencies.
For example, the USIO observed that at least some of the entities to which a student grants permission to view a VET transcript will be subject to the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act) and the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs). It also noted that where an entity is given permission to view a transcript, it will be asked to agree to conditions of use. This will include a condition that the entity only use the information for the purpose for which it is provided, and that the entity will not share information with third parties without permission from the holder of the USI.
The USIO also emphasised that it has a strong record of protecting personal information, as demonstrated by a recent review of its privacy management arrangements by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
The department stated that privacy was a priority consideration during the design process for the USI regime. It elaborated on this matter as follows:
A Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) was commissioned early during the legislative and IT system enhancements stages to ensure compliance with the Australian Privacy Principles and the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). All recommendations were agreed and built into the implementation model, pending the passage of the Bill in the Parliament.
The department and [the USIO] consulted with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Attorney-General’s Department in relation to the PIA and the proposed legislative amendments.
In addition, the department noted that the following privacy safeguards are key features of the USI regime:
before a third party can view a person's VET transcript, the entity must agree to the terms and conditions of that access;
a person must set a period for which their transcript is stored in the registry system, after which no-one will be able to view the transcript;
the individual can cancel access to their VET transcript at any time, with cancellation taking effect immediately; and
an audit log will be kept of access to VET transcripts so that any attempted unauthorised access can be identified.
Finally, the department noted that a communication strategy will be rolled out to businesses and other entities to support the implementation of the measures proposed by the bill. Further, the department and the USIO will review the measures on an ongoing basis, after they have been implemented, to ensure compliance and that the measures continue to meet the needs of individuals.
Master Builders Australia (MBA) similarly considered that there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that individuals' privacy is protected.
Enforcement of civil penalty provisions
Charles Sturt University (CSU) expressed support for the civil penalty regime proposed by the bill, noting that the regime is essential to maintain the integrity of Australia's occupational and professional accreditation scheme, and the admissions systems of tertiary education and training providers.
CSU also emphasised that the civil penalty provisions should be accompanied by a robust enforcement regime, with regulators and law enforcement agencies equipped with the resources to enforce the provisions once they are enacted. In this respect, CSU observed that:
Regulatory failures highlighted by the recent Royal Commissions demonstrate the importance of ensuring regulators and law enforcement agencies are adequately resourced to ensure the law is adhered to by sector players and individuals.
Extending the measures in the bill to the higher education sector
MBA drew attention to another bill before Parliament—the Student Identifiers Amendment (Higher Education) Bill 2019 (Higher Education Bill)—which seeks to amend the Student Identifiers Act to extend the USI regime to the higher education sector. MBA commented that the Higher Education Bill was not referred to a committee for inquiry, and asserted that this was a 'missed opportunity' to ensure consistency across the USI regime.
MBA also observed that the expansion of the USI regime is an opportunity to create a single digital database of transcripts for all post-secondary students, thereby maximising the benefits of the USI regime and the My eQuals platform for all stakeholders.
The amendments proposed by the bill will enable a greater number of entities to access individuals' authenticated VET transcripts, subject to controls set by the individual. In the committee's view, these measures are likely to improve transparency in the VET sector, reduce the regulatory burden, and enhance the integrity and efficiency of recruitment processes for skilled occupations and professions. The committee's views are bolstered by the unanimous support for the measures among submitters to the inquiry.
In relation to the issues concerning making a 'fresh start' the committee considers that an individual is likely to have sufficient control over access to their VET transcripts to ensure that the measures in the bill will not unduly limit their capacity to make a 'fresh start'. Moreover, the control exercised by a person over access to their transcripts, along with the additional safeguards outlined by submitters, are likely to ensure that individuals' privacy will be adequately protected.
The committee generally agrees with CSU's view that the civil penalties in the bill must be complemented by a robust enforcement regime, and notes with interest the proposal by MBA for a single integrated platform for the USI and My eQuals.
The committee recommends that the bill be passed.
Senator the Hon James McGrath