Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC Radio National Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas


The Hon Brendan O'Connor MP
Minister for Skills and Training


Subjects: Quality control for vocational education sector, paid superannuation for maternity leave.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: This week the government will release its response to a major report into how the migration system is being exploited by criminals. Ahead of that, today new funding is being introduced for the vocational education and training sector, that includes TAFE, to crack down on dodgy providers trying to exploit international students with fake or below standard courses. It will also introduce a tip-off hotline to report them. 

Brendan O’Connor is the Minister for Skills and Training. He’ll be announcing these changes today at the Press Club. But first he’s my guest right here on Breakfast. Brendan O’Connor, welcome. 


KARVELAS: How many international students are impacted by dodgy vocational providers? 

O’CONNOR: Look, it’s hard to say. There are 4,000 providers in the VET sector, some of which, of course, provide education and training to overseas students. But what we do know that over time we’ve seen some egregious conduct by providers abusing students, exploiting them, not providing education and training and of course other transgressions that need attending to.

And for that reason last month the ministerial council of state and territory governments and the Commonwealth strengthened the fit and proper persons arrangements – that is for owners and operators of Registered Training Organisations, they had to be of sufficient quality and of integrity to run those organisations.

And now we’re looking to make sure we strengthen the response to the dodgy providers, if you like, by having an integrity unit set up in ASQA, which is the regulator for the VET sector, in order to allow people to, you know, whistle-blow on bad conduct. And I think that will, of course, ensure a greater level of response to this behaviour. 

KARVELAS: You are announcing as you’ve kind of described it a compliance blitz to weed out bad providers. 

O’CONNOR: Yeah. 

KARVELAS: Will every single provider be looked at? 

O’CONNOR: Look, that’s not necessary. And 4,000 providers in the VET sector – overwhelmingly those education and training providers, including TAFE of course, do an excellent job in providing education and training, supplying the skills to our economy and skills to workers and businesses that are crying out for those skills. But there is a significant enough element, there’s a significant proportion of those providers that need to be focused upon.

And to do that you need to have a myriad of options available. One is to make sure that we don’t have disreputable providers, owners or operators. Another is to make sure we can have people inform on such bad conduct. And that's what today's about. We'll set up an integrity unit – that is ASQA will – from tomorrow so people can inform on such conduct. 

That’s really important because our sector is critical for supplying the skills for this domestic market, our labour market. But it’s also, of course, a remarkable export industry. Overseas students acquiring skills, returning home with those skills is of great benefit to Australia’s economy, great for the – our engagement in the region with countries who send overseas students here. So for that reason, if we don’t have that level of integrity and quality then we’re not going to – that’s going to be a bad thing all round. 

KARVELAS: Okay. So how exactly then will these unscrupulous providers be punished? I mean, you can crack down but what are the consequences? 

O’CONNOR: Well, we can do all sorts of things. If it’s a sort of lower level of transgression we can suspend a provider, we can remove them from the sector. Obviously if they commit criminal offences that will invoke criminal sanctions, but, of course, quite often the conduct may fall short of criminal behaviour but yet should be still removed from the sector. 

So ASQA will be given powers, it has powers now to deal with some of these matters, but we will make sure it can suspend or compel a provider to act in a certain manner or, indeed, ultimately expel that provider, deregister the organisation. And that will also send a message to others contemplating acting in the same way. 

Now, again, I want to make it very clear, overwhelmingly education and training providers do a very good job, but we need to make sure we have a strong reputation as a sector. We need to deliver the skills. We’re at a time of one of the shortest skills we have across our economy, as broad as it is deep. You know, we’ve got so many occupations on the shortage list that we need to have a sector that’s delivering to students, to workers, to businesses and to our economy. And we can’t be distracted by this conduct and we can’t allow students to be exploited in the way they have been historically. 

KARVELAS: Last week the government introduced the skills passport as part of the Employment White Paper. There are calls from some experts to include some informal training that employees might do, like company-specific training. Would you consider that? 

O’CONNOR: Of course. We’re open to any good ideas. Jason Clare, the Minister for Education, and I have announced the scoping of a skills passport to make sure – that is, that’s really looking at a way we can ensure people have a digital passport with their accredited skills so it’s easier for them to present themselves with the competencies, you know, the qualifications that they have. That’s something that we’re undergoing now. Of course, it would make it easier for people to move through the economy, the labour market from industry to industry, if you like, with those – with that passport. 

But there needs to be quite a lot of work first, and that is to make sure that we have the qualifications that are measurable and are recognised beyond one sector of the economy. There is a lot of work being undertaken, but certainly that is a very good idea, and that’s why we announced that just recently. 

KARVELAS: How would you ensure that training is of a high enough standard to recognise? 

O’CONNOR: Well, you mean in terms of providing the training to students? 


O’CONNOR: Well, that’s always an issue, but we need to make sure – we’ve currently got a qualifications review undertaking, identifying and measuring the quality of accreditation that occurs in the VET sector. We do agree that if you look at the VET sector, PK, you see units of competency in the thousands, but often even if a unit has 80 per cent of certain skills, it’s not recognised by another sector of the economy. 

So we need to not only make sure that these qualifications are of high quality, which is what we’re reviewing now, we want to make sure that they’re portable. That a person acquires a given skill set in one sector, at one workplace, say for example, who may want to move into another sector but use that skills, that those skills are not only of high standard but they’re recognised by the employer.

Too often you have to relearn something you’ve already undertaken earlier because it’s not being recognised by certain sectors of the economy. And that is, I think, a recipe for disaster where people are having to repeat learning, even though they have the skills acquired. So there’s a lot of work to be done to make portable the skills that are fulfilled by a particular worker or student. And we’re undertaking that now. 

KARVELAS: There’s a really good question from someone – from a listener – who says, “What will be done for students who have been ripped off? Will they be helped?” 

O’CONNOR: Well, of course if there’s been misconduct, if people have been treated in an egregious manner, then of course we would hope they’d have some relief. It depends on the circumstances. But, of course, if the Commonwealth is in a position or feels in some way culpable for that conduct, that might be open to – there might be a pathway open to that student. 

But, look, the reality is students can well be a vulnerable class in our community. Most often young people, not always aware of the potential risks that they might be confronting, in dealing with people of bad character. And, therefore, that’s – it’s important that we prevent such action happening. And our focus has to be to reduce the likelihood of a student being ripped off. 

Now, as for the circumstances as to whether they have some relief if they are indeed, in some way exploited, that will depend on the circumstances. 

KARVELAS: Just finally on another issue before I let you go, Minister, are you prepared to agree to the Greens’ demand to pay super on maternity leave in exchange for passing your tax changes for people with more than $3 million in superannuation? 

O’CONNOR: Well firstly, I’ll be very surprised that the Greens Party would not support the bill that is actually – 

KARVELAS: They say they want to, but they think that super should be paid on maternity leave. That’s what they’re pushing for. 

O’CONNOR: Look, that’s an aspiration of ours, to expand maternity leave in a way that the Greens is proposing. I think that’s something that’s worthy of consideration, but in this instance, this is a commitment we made prior to the election. It’s something we believe should be passed. And we would hope the Greens would not hold up a very good measure that I know they agree with, just to add on another measure.

We are looking to have that legislation pass the Parliament. It affects only 0.5 per cent of superannuants – that is the highest – you know, those that receive the largest superannuation, 0.5 per cent. It’s a measure, of course, that will bring in revenue to the government. And it’s a good bill and we would hope that the Greens Party would see fit to support the legislation. 

KARVELAS: Thank you for joining us this morning. 

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much, PK. 

KARVELAS: That’s the Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor.