Senate Inquiry Into Vocational Education Could Shake Up Coalition's Deregulation Push

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Concerns about the rorting of Commonwealth and state funding and the supply of poor quality courses are behind a new push to investigate the operations of private vocational education and training (VET) providers in Australia.

The Federal Senate will today vote on whether to establish an inquiry into private VET providers, with supporters of the move arguing lax regulation has allowed shonky providers to flourish, and that problems in the sector should serve as a warning to the Coalition government as it forges ahead with its plan to deregulate universities.

The broad ranging inquiry will put the VET sector under the microscope and examine regulation, quality of training provided, marketing and promotional techniques, political donations from the industry, and the cost of services provided.

The motion to establish the inquiry was lodged by the Greens last night and Labor and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon have confirmed to New Matilda they will support the move. It is understood that support from the Palmer United Party will ensure the motion passes the Senate.

Shadow Minister for Education, Research, Industry and Innovation Kim Carr told New Matilda the inquiry would have implications for the Government’s plan to deregulate the university sector, a key plank of which is to open an $800 million pool of public funding to private providers of higher education courses.

Carr said he was particularly concerned about the Victorian VET experience, where deregulation of the sector by Labor Premier John Brumby allowed private providers to massively expand and take advantage of public funding.

He attacked the Liberal state government for moving further towards a system more advantageous for private providers and suggested federal legislation may be needed to bring the private providers back into line.

“This is so important for individuals and for the country. This is not just an isolated set of allegations now and I’m concerned to see there is quite strong action taken by the parliament,” Carr said.

Training company Vocation announced new job cuts yesterday as it battles to recover from a Victorian government investigation.

In April, investigations began into NSW-based Australasian College, which allegedly collected government funding for “phantom students”.

The Terms of Reference for the inquiry initially singled out three colleges by name, but the references were removed at Labor’s insistence. The groups are still likely to be called before the Committee to give evidence, should the inquiry go ahead.

Greens Higher Education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon said there was evidence a number of private providers had been involved in rorting public funds and using “underhanded marketing tactics” to prey on vulnerable students.

“Governments across Australia are ripping hundreds of millions of dollars out of TAFE funding – leading to hundreds of job losses and massive fee increases for students,” Rhiannon said.

“At the same time, state and federal governments are collectively delivering more than $1.3 billion in public funding to private education providers.”

Carr also said concerns existed about international students being signed up to courses to help them obtain visas, rather than for legitimate educational reasons.

Rodd Camm, CEO of the Australian Council of Private Education and Training, welcomed the inquiry, but denied rorts in the VET sector were “widespread”.

“You can’t be opposed to [the inquiry]. We’re willing to have the sector scrutinised,” he said.

“I do not think there is widespread misuse [of public money], I think it’s at the margins of the sector, but not withstanding that there have been some fairly high profile failures. We have to stamp it out.”

Camm said it was “a bridge too far” to link problems in the VET sector to the higher education sector, which he said had higher benchmarks and barriers to entry.

Asked if he was concerned Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s budget cuts to higher education regulatory body TEQSA could limit its capacity to enforce standards he said: “you’d have to ask TEQSA that question”.

A statement provided on behalf of Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the government had taken appropriate action where evidence of industry wrongdoing had emerged, and had provided an extra $68 million in funding to the VET regulatory body ASQA.

“Work is underway to establish a National VET Complaints Hotline for students and the public to raise any concerns about training practices, including concerns related to VET FEE-HELP,” Macfarlane said.

“I am also working closely with Minister Pyne on related matters, including key consumer protection issues.”

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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