SABRA LANE: The Federal Government's been promising a crackdown on dodgy vocational education colleges and today it will introduce the first of its planned Bills to do that. There'll be tighter checks on registering colleges, a five fold increase in fines in some areas, and an attempt to shut down businesses that aren't focussed on training, simply on exploiting students, providing cheap labour for unskilled jobs.
Brendan O'Connor is the Federal Minister for Skills and Training, and he joined me earlier.
Brendan O'Connor, thanks for joining AM. In a nutshell what is the aim of today's proposed laws?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: Lifting the quality of the VET sector, lifting the quality of education and training for students. Two million, or more than two million students working full time in the VET sector requiring the skills to supply a modern economy.
What people don't always understand, Sabra, is that pretty much half the skills that supply our labour market come from the VET sector and we need to elevate the standards in an economy that is changing rapidly. The transformation of the energy sector, supplying skills to the care economy, the traditional trades, cyber security, wherever you look there are great demands and there's an urgency about lifting the standards and so that we can have good jobs for workers, that businesses can have the skills they're crying out for and we look after industry and serve the economy.
SABRA LANE: One change is a five fold increase in fines. What will the quantum of that be now, for what, and just sorry to bunch this all together, but how confident are you that that will actually deter bad behaviour and encourage operators to do the right thing?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well look, it's a combination of the reforms that will lead to the change of behaviour and that will also capture those dodgy providers. So, yes, you're right in saying that we've seen a five fold, proposed five fold increase in penalties.
The advice I've received in engaging with stakeholders, it's become clear that they see some of these current penalties as the cost of doing business. Some of the providers are willing to pay a fine and continue with their practice of acting, if not unlawfully, acting improperly.
And then of course you've got egregious conduct which can be unlawful, and we know by increasing the penalties significantly it will deter the behaviour and it will capture those that are transgressing and are breaching their requirements as a registered organisation.
So, it's a combination of the penalties, but also the powers to the regulator, to ASQA, to be able to suspend or cancel a registration. These powers are important, and I want to be very, very clear here, Sabra, the overwhelming proportion of providers do an excellent job, but this sector is undermined, and its reputation is besmirched by dodgy providers, and we need to see the end of them.
SABRA LANE: So in fines how much are we talking about?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Yes. So the maximum fine for conduct where it's, you know, we're talking civil fines here, but this could also lead to criminal sanctions where people are acting unlawfully in a criminal manner, but we're talking about $993,000 as a maximum penalty for a transgression. And so they range from, they really have gone five fold on all the penalties.
Now obviously that's at the higher level. There are lower penalties for lower transgressions. And I think this increase in penalties will deter bad behaviour. We have to look after the vulnerable students who are subject to exploitation. Many of these students are making sometimes their first, you know, economic decision as an adult. They end up being induced into enrolling in courses, sometimes they're subject to fraud and we need to make sure we protect their interests but also protect the standards of our education and training in this country. As I say, millions of students are engaged in the VET sector, we need to look after them. Ultimately though it's critical for industry, for our economy, for our labour market, that we have the highest possible quality education and training sector.
SABRA LANE: Now you mentioned ASQA before, it's the Australian Skills Quality Agency, it's pretty much the skills watchdog. You gave it $40 million last October to conduct a blitz on non-compliant operators, including a tip off line for people to dob in questionable colleges. What has happened since then?
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Well look that's led to some very important actions taken by ASQA on 28 providers, and 28 providers have stopped operation as a result of those actions, and over half of those providers, the action was stopped on half of those providers because of the intell, because of the information provided on the tip off line by complainants who have been subject to, you know, bad behaviour or fraud or whatever.
So, there has been action taken but we know it's a more significant number than 28 providers. There's well over 4,000 providers in the VET sector. As I say, overwhelmingly the providers do a good job, an excellent job. But there are too many beyond the 28 that we need to deal with and we need to stop new entrants coming in, because quite often there's a lot of, again, look at the history of the VET sector, you see quite a bit of phoenixing, providers being caught out doing the wrong thing, disappearing and then coming back in another sort of guise to again continue bad practice, you know, fraudulent behaviour and we need to really stamp that out.
SABRA LANE: Brendan O'Connor, thanks for talking to AM.
MINISTER O'CONNOR: Thanks very much, Sabra.