The Australian Greens thank all of the submitters to the inquiry.
Impact on TAFEs
A publicly owned and properly funded TAFE system plays an essential role in building an economically and socially just society by offering lifelong educational opportunities and skills development. We believe vocational education and training (VET) should be provided primarily through the public TAFE system.
While recognising stakeholders’ support for tuition protection arrangements that appropriately safeguard students, the Australian Greens are concerned about the impact the expansion of the Tuition Protection Scheme (TPS) will have on TAFEs.
The Australian Greens share the view expressed by the Australian Education Union (AEU) in their submission that:
[S]tudents taking out loans to undertake vocational education should be protected and assisted in the case of provider or course closure, but TAFEs should not be punished for the failures of the mass privatisation of vocational education in Australia nor for the lack of quality and rigor of some private RTOs.
The Australian Greens believe the cost to providers of participating in the TPS should match their risk of default. This is reflected in the exemption of low risk Table A providers from the administrative levy. TAFEs similarly low risk of default means they are unlikely to default in a manner which triggers the TPS. As such, TAFEs participation in the scheme will be primarily as a second provider, accepting students from providers who have defaulted on their obligations to students. We note the evidence provided by TAFE Directors Australia (TDA) that participation in the TPS is 'going to cost TAFEs around $670 000 a year just in administration'. This amounts to TAFEs using funding that could otherwise have gone to training to subsidise a scheme their students are unlikely to benefit from.
In light of their similar risk profile to Table A providers and the burden of TAFEs subsidising the scheme, the Australian Greens believe it is inappropriate to require TAFEs to pay for the administration of the TPS. As such, the Australian Greens support the recommendations of the AEU, TDA and the National Union of Students (NUS).
The Australian Greens recommend the Bills be amended to exempt TAFEs and government-owned providers from the administrative levy.
Composition of the Tuition Protection Fund Advisory Board
The role of the VSL and HELP Advisory Boards is to provide advice and make recommendations to the corresponding Director in relation to setting the VSL Levy and HELP Levy. TDA expressed to the committee that:
Current members with education background, apart from the chair, are not experienced in tertiary education, especially vocational education and would not be alert to the inherent risks in the sector’s schemes and volatility around closures.
Recognising their long-standing expertise in tertiary education and role as second providers to students from providers in default and long-standing expertise in tertiary education, the Australian Greens believe the Advisory Board should have one or more representatives of TAFEs among its membership as well as other members with experience in the sector.
The Australian Greens recommend the Bills be amended to require the inclusion of at least one TAFE representative on the TPS Advisory Board.
The Tertiary Education Context
The Bills are best considered in their context of Australia’s complex tertiary education environment. The Australian Greens thank submitters to the inquiry for their broader feedback on the Liberal-National Government’s approach to education and training and their neglect of VET in particular.
It is clear, as the NUS submitted, that '[f]or vocational education to become a more secure and attractive option for students, more must change in the public discourse and national strategic policy spaces'. No expansion of tuition protection measures can wholly mitigate the systemic risk introduced by the ongoing shift of public funding for training from low-risk TAFEs and public institutions to high-risk for-profit providers, as detailed in the AEU submission. It’s vital the Parliament be mindful when extending tuition protection to not give students a false sense of security in commencing education with for-profit providers at greater risk of default.
These Bills do nothing to address the destruction the Liberal-National Government has wrought on public VET in Australia: skills and training have been underfunded by tens of millions of dollars, the $4 billion Education Infrastructure Fund was recently abolished and the number of students in nationally-recognised programs dropped 16.2 per cent from 2015 to 2018 while we have a national shortage of skilled workers in 27 of 33 technician and trades categories. Even with new tuition protection arrangements in place, students will continue having to handle prohibitive loan fees and the severe disruption that any provider closure entails.
To support students and build a socially and economically just society, the Government must reverse its underfunding of skills and training and restore publicly owned, fully funded providers to the centre of the VET system.
Senator Mehreen Faruqi