Interview on ABC Radio National Breakfast with Fran Kelly
VET Student Loans eligible courses; Vocational education regulation; Child care compliance; Same sex marriage plebiscite
08:06 AEST

Fran Kelly:       Well the Turnbull Government is pushing ahead with reforms to higher education, and today the Minister will reveal the 478 courses in the vocational sector that will no longer be eligible for taxpayer funding – courses including diplomas in circus arts, Pilates, stained glass and lead lighting, and the Government will also set up an expert advisory panel to work on reforming university funding. This follows the Coalition's previous attempts, you might recall, to regulate the sector – attempts that crashed and burned in the Senate.

Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training and he joins me in our Parliament House studios. Minister, good morning.

Simon Birmingham:    Good morning Fran, great to be with you.

Fran Kelly:       You announced changes to the scandal-plagued vocational education and training sector, the VET sector last week. Now you've come up with this hit list of courses that will no longer be funded. Four hundred and seventy-eight will be defunded, 374 will continue to be supported by the taxpayer. How did you decide what stays and what goes?

Simon Birmingham:    Well the primary basis we used for this determination was to have a look at the skills list that states and territories produce of courses and fields of study that they're willing to subsidise or think are a priority, and the benchmark we used was that a course should be on two of those skills lists. We then also applied a test in terms of some of the national economic priorities we have around STEM disciplines in particular as well as agriculture to make sure that they were all captured as well. This is a list that's going out for consultation over the next couple of weeks, so consistent with the consultative approach we've taken to redesign of the vocational loans programs in Australia. We want to get feedback on it, so it's not clear cut and dry today but I think it is sensible balance that focuses courses and taxpayer support on those areas of study most likely to improve employment outcomes.

Fran Kelly:       I might put my two cents worth in in a moment in terms of ones that could survive, but a course like butler service management, that's on the hit list, learning how to be a butler. How on earth did that get funding in the first place?

Simon Birmingham:    Well Fran it seems to me …

Fran Kelly:       [Interrupts] How many butlers are required in this country?

Simon Birmingham:    [Laughs] I – not too many, to my knowledge, but that course was, like all essentially eligible because once, under Labor's old failed VET FEE-HELP scheme, once a registered training organisation was eligible to offer courses there, they could offer and provide loans for any diploma against which they were entitled to train. So there was no test, essentially …

Fran Kelly:       [Talks over] Okay, so it got through initially, but why is it still there all these years later? I mean, you've been in government three and a half years; why have you allowed the butler course to stay there?

Simon Birmingham:    Well as I say, any diploma was actually eligible under that program. This is the step we've taken now to say we'll close down that program, start a new one …

Fran Kelly:       [Talks over] So there was no mechanism before this for the Government to say to colleges no, that course won't get funded.

Simon Birmingham:    That's right.

Fran Kelly:       Absolutely no mechanism?

Simon Birmingham:    Correct.

Fran Kelly:       Okay, so that's the major change, and now we see this list within it. There's also another one, advanced diploma of police witness protection. Why would a private college offer a course that the police should be training people for?

Simon Birmingham:    Indeed Fran, so the courses that are coming off the list, essentially, under the new proposals we're putting forward are either lifestyle courses, irrelevant courses, courses perhaps prone to rorting in a couple of instances, but also then courses such as that one which would basically be programs that you would expect employers to pay for, and indeed frequently employers to provide as well. So there are registered training organisations within the nation's police forces, and again, so you have a diploma that exists that's perfectly reasonable for those RTOs to deliver against, but it would be highly unlikely that any private college would actually have that on their scope of registration or be likely to be offering it.

Fran Kelly:       There's a couple that aren't ridiculous at all, I mean on the hit list is the graduate diploma of teaching students with autism spectrum disorder and advanced diploma of oral health, dental hygiene. Why would they be … the teaching students with autism spectrum disorder, there's not an employer who's going to sponsor that course, is there? And don't we need teachers to do that?

Simon Birmingham:    Well I imagine that there are indeed a number of state education departments and the like who would be supporting their teachers through those types of programs. Now these are some of the fields where I anticipate that we will get some feedback, and if there's a clear case that people need support in those areas and that they need the availability of a student loan to be able to undertake those studies, well then we'll listen to those arguments. But if they are overwhelmingly funded and supported by their employers, then we don't want to leave the scope that others may start to offer these services without them necessarily having that attuned focus to the employment outcomes that are needed.

Fran Kelly:       Another change you announced last week, you are going to introduce caps on loans. There's going to be three bands – 5000, 10,000, 15,000. One of the more valuable occupations, I would have thought, nursing falls in that middle band of 10,000. Could that cap stop people – are you worried – stop people signing up to study courses or people who don't have much money, from disadvantaged backgrounds perhaps accessing these courses? Indeed, how much does a degree, or – from one of these colleges, or a diploma in nursing cost?

Simon Birmingham:    The fee levels we've set have been set on the basis of evidence provided to the New South Wales Independent Pricing Authority. We believe that these fees, in terms of the loan caps that programs sit within align pretty broadly with the cost of delivery for different programs, but again, I'll be going back to the states and territories to in a sense, sense test and road test the proposed cap bands in those areas.           I see some criticism today from some private providers of nursing services in particular that their courses cost significantly more than the loan caps that are proposed at present. So I’ll get the test from the states and territories about how much the think the genuine cost of delivery through the TAFE systems are but we want to make sure that as much as possible we’re driving prices down in a sector that has seen incredible inflation of prices in recent years. 

Fran Kelly:       There’s a lot going on in your portfolio but just before I leave these announcements today, a key question has emerged since you announced last week you’re going to make some changes. It’s about how the new system will be regulated because there are all these rorts going on we now know and you do wonder who’s been regulating it, we spoke last week with Martin Riordan from the TAFE Directors Australia who says the main regulatory body, ASQA, which is Australian Skills Quality Authority, has been sidelined. Is ASQA going to be in charge? Is it going to be left to your department, what’s going to be the regulation of this?

Simon Birmingham:    Well ASQA remains the primary regulatory body for training organisations.

Fran Kelly:       Is it up to the job given what’s happened? Has it been resourced enough?

Simon Birmingham:    Well ASQA has had significant increases in resources under our government and I think it is well-resourced to do the job. We will have a look at the act under which ASQA operates over a period of time to make sure that that provides ASQA with all of the relevant powers to do its job, the loans program itself will be managed by my department, that is to ensure that we have in a sense a separation between the management of that financial support which is consistent I say with exactly what happens in the higher education sector where student loans are managed by the Government department but the tertiary regulator, TEQSA, sits independently overseeing the actual activities of universities and other higher education providers.

Fran Kelly:       Okay Minister, I’m going to leave this one now. We’re speaking with Simon Birmingham, he’s the Minister for Education and Training, you also have responsibility for child care and problems persist within the family day care system, providers look after children in their own homes, that’s the system, $1 billion has been rorted in the past two years, last week we spoke with the Victorian Minister Jenny Mikakos she says she wants a pause in funding and an independent review, will you agree to that? Seems like a good idea.

Simon Birmingham:    Yeah look I’ve said to Jenny that we’re very open to an independent review, that I want to see us though prioritise the things we can already do which we have been doing, there are new regulations in a number of areas in relation to family day care and child care services that come into effect today, which I announced only a few weeks ago, they come on top of others that have saved $420 million plus that have been enacted by the Turnbull Government, so…

Fran Kelly:       But what about the $1 billion – I mean here’s an example – one Canberra man, his name is Ruben Majok Aleer Aguer who ran a family day care business from his Canberra home, in 16 months, he received $1.6 million in federal government money… seems like their was very little oversight of that.

Simon Birmingham:    And so we and look, Fran, it’s an appalling case and I’ve asked my department to take every possible step to recoup funds if they can legitimately be reclaimed from him. We have as a government increased six fold the number of inspections and audits that are undertaken since we came to office so we’ve taken the issue of compliance very seriously, there are millions of dollars that we have recouped, there are a range of prosecutions that are underway and we have tightened the rules, as I say, such that we have already delivered upon savings of around $420 million through tightening restrictions and closing loopholes. The measures that come into effect today will save an estimated $27 million in addition to that. State and territories are working with us to come back by December with other measures that we could put into place and then if we need a broader review and taskforce we’ll absolutely have a look at it.

Fran Kelly:       Minister before I let you go, I need to ask you about same sex marriage, you have been an advocate in your party room for marriage equality, it looks like D-Day is tomorrow for this debate, Labor caucus will decide to almost certainly block the enabling legislation for a plebiscite. As a moderate voice in the Liberal Party room and as a strong supporter of marriage equality, if that is blocked will you go onto push for a parliamentary vote?

Simon Birmingham:    Well Fran I’m not countenancing plan B I really hope that the Labor…

Fran Kelly:       [Talks over] It’s going to go down, Minister.

Simon Birmingham:    I hope the Labor Party sees good sense in actually supporting the plebiscite, the Coalition wants to deliver on our election promise which is what we took to the election to undertake this plebiscite and I think if we have a plebiscite and it secures a yes vote, as I am confident that it would, that will provide a very positive endorsement for change in Australia.

Fran Kelly:       And if we don’t have a plebiscite? Are you happy for it to go off the boil? As a [indistinct] issue for you?

Simon Birmingham:    We have many things to progress as a government and of course progressing our election promises and policies are the real priority for us and the plebiscite happens to be one of them.

Fran Kelly:       And the plebiscite was an idea that came from the conservative wing of your party, they’ll be happy with this, is this a win for the conservatives?

Simon Birmingham:    Well I think it is a loss for Australia if the plebiscite is voted down because it could be a very positive way of resolving this issue and ensuring that the Australian people own and endorse the outcome of it.

Fran Kelly:       Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham:    Thank you, Fran.

Fran Kelly:       Simon Birmingham is the federal Minister for Education and Training.