GREG JENNETT, HOST: Low grade rip off merchants have a long and sorry history in the privately provided vocational education sector in Australia. They've used colleges to lure foreign students, in many cases, into the country, charging higher fees and barely providing tuition in some cases.
Skills Minister Brendan O'Connor's seeking Parliament's approval for tougher powers to police them, and he joined us here after Question Time.
Brendan O'Connor, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. It's always good to catch up, and you've got a bit on your plate at the moment. Vocational education and training is big business, it's also been plagued for some time by persistent shonks, or to use your words, bottom feeders, fraudsters and cheats.
Now you seem to have a good fix on exactly who are the rogue providers or institutions in this sector, yet in relation to fines and penalties you're taking a path here that puts an emphasis on that, rather than deregistering and driving them out. Why so?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Well look, we are doing both, we are looking at a combination of reforms, where we understand the VET sector supplies pretty much half the skills to our labour market in a very fast-changing economy, so many challenges; take the energy sector, what's happening there, we need to supply the skills, therefore our sector has to have high quality delivery of education and training.
And I just want to make it very clear, Greg, that overwhelmingly providers deliver very good education, excellent education and training for students. However, there is a significant proportion of providers in the VET sector that are not performing, they're sub standard; worse, they conduct themselves improperly, fraudulently, unlawfully.
Now it's a minority of cases, but it's significant enough for us to provide powers to the regulator, not only as to impose higher penalties if required, but also, yes, suspend, cancel and even change the registration if required.
GREG JENNETT: Yeah. I mean if they are so bad, what leads you to believe that quality is redeemable through fines in any case?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well, firstly, in situations where we believe the provider's not doing the right thing, there will be a cancellation.
I'll give you one very significant example. There's a very significant proportion of providers not training any students, not training or educating any students; they're sitting there with a registration and yet they don't provide any service. Well, what we're saying under this proposed legislation is if they continue not to have an ongoing business, an operation in the area that they've made the application, that within 12 months, if that continues, that registration will be cancelled.
We have over 4,000 providers, we cannot have these sort of empty shells of companies just sitting there not doing business, not providing education, and
GREG JENNETT: But if they're not providing, they're not doing any harm, are they, if they're just dormant?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: No, no, they can be possibly used for other purposes.
GREG JENNETT: Right.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: And they've registered on the basis I mean the bona fides is they've registered on the basis that they're about to conduct training and education, and so that's just one example that there are a lot of dormant providers that are not providing any service to the VET sector.
GREG JENNETT: And so you can yank their registration.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yep.
GREG JENNETT: No shortage of complaints and tip offs coming from the sector.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yeah, that's right.
GREG JENNETT: And yet there isn't a corresponding rate of action taken so far.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yep.
GREG JENNETT: You're trying to rectify that with this Bill today. How will the integrity officers follow up now? Will they investigate posing as students, unannounced visits, what exactly?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yes. So firstly, as you say, even before the legislation was introduced we invested in an Integrity Unit, we set up a hotline for people to tip us off on misconduct, and 28 providers were stopped from operating, and half of those were as a result of the information we were provided through that tip off line, that hotline to register complaints about misconduct, in some cases criminal behaviour.
So, what we're doing now is to make sure that students are better protected. So, for example, one of the provisions of the legislation is to not allow providers to misrepresent themselves. Too often providers suggest that they have facilities and amenities and resources that are almost like a sort of, you know, university-level sort of form of education, and yet when the student arrives, having already committed him or herself to paying fees, they realise that this provider does not have adequate amenities, does not have resources, and that type of behaviour has to be treated swiftly, and they will have to be deregistered if they're acting in that manner, or worse.
GREG JENNETT: What you're talking about there alludes to the fact that many victims, student victims at these institutions are international students, not exclusively, but in many cases. Is there anything in your clean up effort that targets the agents that sell those services overseas and they have a particularly bad track record.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: The VET sector has more than between two and three million students, that's how big it is, so overwhelmingly they are Australian students, and our focus is preventing exploitation of Australian students, but as you say, we have a very significant international education sector, and overseas students can be more often subject to exploitation.
But also there's a gaming going on, gaming of visas, gaming of immigration, so that conduct was investigated by Clare O'Neil's commissioned Christine Nixon Review, the so called Nixon Review, where what was clearly exposed was this sort of gaming of immigration and traducing our education reputation because you had providers working with labour hire companies to have people come here and be issued visas, when their predominant purpose of visiting was not to be a student, they were here to enter the labour market.
Now we have to crack down on that and stop that, and our focus will be any of those providers working with organisations overseas or labour hire companies that want to act unlawfully in terms of the immigration rules, that we're going to stamp down on that.
So, I'm working very closely with Andrew Giles, Clare O'Neil and Jason Clare in the other tertiary sector to clamp down on that behaviour.
GREG JENNETT: Okay. So that's ongoing.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: And this Bill will also help with that, because it provides ASQA the powers to cancel registrations. It also provides the Minister with a power to stop the flow of applications to register, and that's also an important power; it's a power of last resort, but it is important.
GREG JENNETT: All right. We'll keep across that. As you say, that is an ongoing project for other ministers.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yes.
GREG JENNETT: Including yourself. Just finally, Brendan O'Connor, because you've had many roles in governments over the years, the IR so called Loopholes Bill, it looks like going through the Senate, possibly this week. It includes this right to disconnect from our mobile devices. You've been around the labour movement a long while, longer than mobile phones, I hate to remind you, but why are these legislative powers absolutely necessary, particularly if they're already contained in many workplace agreements?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well certainly I think if you want to cover the field of workers in this country have a statutory – have an enactment, not just have enterprise agreements or awards covering certain parts of the labour market.
Secondly, and this is getting balance right, of course employers may well be able to contact an employee to see if they can do an extra shift. That can be reasonable. What's not reasonable, Greg, is basically saying to an employee, "You'll have to wait by the phone, we're not going to pay you a cent, and we expect you to come in when we give you a call". That worker, a mother or father, could have a family, and they need some time when they're not being paid, to look after their family or do other things they want to do, and so we want to make sure it’s a balanced approach where when employers are contacting people, that workers are not compelled to do things they shouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to do, or be given an on-call allowance which is what awards and agreements usually provide.
GREG JENNETT: Well look, couched in those terms with that explanation actually, it does sound quite reasonable. Thank you for clarifying that and for so much more, Brendan O’Connor, we’ll talk again, hopefully frequently throughout the year.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Thanks Greg.