JILL EMBERSON: Was great to hear earlier this morning from the baking team over at Hunter TAFE, that they are going gangbusters in order to try and compete on the international arena in France, meet with the French and show them just how good Australian baking is. Their view is that without TAFE they wouldn’t be able to compete on the international stage. There’s a lot of debate around TAFE and its future at the moment, given the big campaign that was shared by both Liberal and Labor over the past half a dozen years to introduce competition or contestability to the vocational education scheme in Australia.
It seems well, a number of changes, many making many of our listeners unhappy. We haven’t heard too many happy reports, I have to say. Let me share this which seems fairly typical from Nick. He says a girlfriend completed a diploma in beauty therapy through a private company. She spent $10,000 and a colossal effort, but it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. I’ve personally, says Nick, been in TAFE and training companies and received certificates. I’m currently in an undergraduate course at the University of Newcastle. TAFE or uni all the way. I now don’t even put my private training company certificate on my résumé as they are so often perceived negatively by employers.
I’m very pleased that Luke Hartsuyker, Federal Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, could be with us this morning. Good morning Minister.
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Good morning Jill.
JILL EMBERSON: I wondered if you could just give us a response to that text in from Nick, who says ‘I don’t even put my private training company certificate on my résumés anymore because they’re so often perceived negatively by employers’. That would seem the opposite outcome of what Government wants by way of privatisation of vocational training.
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well, I mean Nick’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but the reality is there are many fine, high-quality private training providers, and many are contracted directly by employers to deliver quality training. What we want to see is a diverse sector with many participants, including TAFE, and there will always be a strong role for TAFE going forward, that can deliver quality courses that meet the needs of students and employers, and drive Australia forward. Because the Prime Minister’s innovation agenda is very much predicated on the fact that we will need a highly skilled workforce going forward, and that those skills will evolve over time. So we need a system that’s responsive, a system that’s high quality, and it’s certainly my objective to achieve that for the VET sector.
JILL EMBERSON: Now the recommendations of the Senate Inquiry that wrapped up last week, how are you going to respond to them? And the key one was around fees that seem to have ended up costing the Federal Government a truckload, they went up by what, 150 per cent over the last year?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Fees are a very important issue, and that’s certainly something that I am giving a lot of thought. Certainly we’ve seen a rapid escalation in fees coming from a range of courses. Some courses in the past were under advice, but then there are a range of other courses that certainly appear to have accelerated in price rapidly. It’s something that I’m concerned about, something that I’ve been talking with my department about, as to strategies to ensure that we’re delivering VET training at efficient prices, and it’s something that I’ll certainly be having more to say on going forward.
JILL EMBERSON: Anything concrete? Because this rapid increase in pricing and the rapid indebtedness of people enrolling in a lot of these private courses – and TAFE, now that the course have gone up – is putting our young people into serious debt. So are we able to move a bit quickly on this?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well look, I’m moving just as quickly as I can. But it is important that we have a measured response. Senator Birmingham has introduced a range of reforms, which he announced back in March, which are rolling out. There’s currently legislation before the Parliament and new measures coming into effect on 1 January, additional measures have already come into effect on 1 July, aimed at providing better protection for students, more information for students. I think one of the challenges that we have in the VET market as opposed to the higher education market with universities is that I think the university market is one where students are much better informed about the relative costs and the relative players in that market.
In the VET sector, we have regrettably many students who don’t have the degree of knowledge about the offerings in the market, and certainly one of the reforms that we’ll be working through going forward is to ensure that we have a better informed market so that students can make an informed choice when it comes to VET courses.
JILL EMBERSON: But isn’t that also a by-product of the fact that there are so many of the new private registered training organisations in the market? When it comes to unis…I can’t recall the number off by heart, but off the top of my head I think it’s under 100. But when it comes to the new registered training organisations, there’s some 4000 that are out there nationally. So isn’t it just a by-product of the number of competitors as much as it is – you’re suggesting there – the ignorance of the students?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well look I think it’s an important factor that students are well informed, and…
JILL EMBERSON: [Interrupts] But to that question, the number of colleges that are out there as these new RTOs, how can people – and how can Government – possibly take on some form of responsibility about the kind of information that students get? How can you monitor 4000 bodies?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well, we are currently doing that, and certainly ASQA (the Australian Skills Quality Authority) has been active in this space, and certainly we’ve had a range of actions that have been announced by ASQA against providers who are substandard. But I mean, we do live in the digital age, and we can – when one is purchasing a product – purchase from a range of many thousands of potential providers. And students who have grown up in the digital age – many of whom are the students of the subject of this interview – are well versed in navigating the internet and looking at alternative offerings. That’s what’s happening in the 21st century.
A large number of providers shouldn’t be seen as a problem, the quality of those providers and ensuring that they are delivering high-quality courses that deliver for students, deliver the skills that employers need, and ultimately result in improved employment outcomes, that’s the focus that we should be looking at rather than specifically the number of providers.
JILL EMBERSON: But it does seem to bear some have some bearing on it because if government is going to have to guarantee that these are quality providers, if there’s 4000 small players out there, doesn’t it by definition open up the possibility for disreputable bodies to get in there? Just because there’s so many for you to monitor?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Very much, there is the possibility for disreputable providers to get in there as you put it. Firstly I would say that I have visited a number of very small providers delivering absolutely first class, excellent service to the people who they have been servicing and I visited a range of larger providers doing that same thing.
The thing that we have to focus on as a government is to ensure that we chase down those dodgy providers and I can assure your listeners that my number one objective as the incoming minister is to pursue those dodgy providers and I can promise them that I am after them and I will be chasing them down and if you are a dodgy provider, you will be run out of the system.
JILL EMBERSON: Well the ACCC as we know is investigating at least 10 training providers for misleading and unconscionable conduct ad there’s legal actions as we know, class action against one the Evocca College. All of that’s going to end up costing government dollars isn’t it?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well regrettably when there are providers who are alleged to have acted improperly there’s the potential, there is the potential for it to cost government money, absolutely but what the commitment I can give as the new minister in this space is I’ll be continuing the work of Senator Birmingham, I will be pursuing dodgy providers, I will be looking to ensure that we enhance the quality of the VET sector and that we deliver high quality training at an appropriate admission price that meets the needs of students and employers and leads to more productivity and more job outcomes.
JILL EMBERSON: As someone who grew up in this region, you’d be aware I’m sure of the concerns expressed by Joel, or perhaps you’re aware of the concerns that are quite particular to regional Australia when private court players when the field is privatised and then that is the chance of those small courses previously offered by TAFE which might not make a might not be profitable end up then disappearing and not being available at all. For example, in Muswellbrook, or in Scone. How does the new system ensure that regions aren’t prejudiced against in this new arena?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well I think the important thing here is that we develop a system that is innovative and flexible and those areas in regional Australia where the market is thin are a problem now. They’ve been a problem for so many years, they’re something that we need to address. There are a range of delivery models that are being consideration going forward. Quite clearly there are models underway now which combine an element of face-to-face with an instructor and also distance learning. There are block placements but the whole sector is looking at how we can become more efficient. I’ve had a range of discussions with players in the sector looking at ways in which we can be more innovative in structuring the sorts of skills development that can work in a regional area as well as in a major metropolitan area. There are challenges but it’s not impossible and the technology of the 21stt century makes it that much more possible.
JILL EMBERSON: And in the mean time, as courses close down at TAFE in Scone and Muswellbrook, what do you stay to those families who have got students that they desperately want an education?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Well what I can say is that I am working with my state counterparts and Minister Barilaro with regard to the future of VET training and how we can deliver quality skills training experience, wherever you live. Regrettably with highly complex equipment and very expensive equipment, that can’t necessarily be rolled out everywhere. That’s just a fact of life.
JILL EMBERSON: So bad luck for regional Australia then?
LUKE HARTSUYKER: No not at all, but what we do say is that we can use a range of technologies and a range of course delivery methods to ensure that we can develop the skills that are needed for the people of regional and rural Australia. It’s impractical to stick your head in the sand and pretend that the world is the way it was in the 50s. The world is moving quickly, we need a flexible efficient VET sector that is delivering the training that is needed, where it’s needed, through a range of delivery options.
JILL EMBERSON: It’s great to have you, access to you on this one, Minister, because every time we talk about it, we it’s very key to our region as you would no doubt be aware. So thanks for your time this morning. I’m sure we’ll speak again as you come up with some of those solutions to some of the problems that have been identified.
LUKE HARTSUYKER: Pleasure Jill.
JILL EMBERSON: He’s the Federal Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, Luke Hartsuyker.