TOM TILLEY: Alright, imagine you're out of work. Someone knocks on your door and they say, if you sign up for this course, not only will you get a qualification, you won't have to pay any fees until you earn a decent salary. Oh and by the way, here's a free iPad if you sign. And oh, actually if you do need help getting into this course, I'll help you do the test. Well that's what some recruiters for private colleges have been doing to sign people up. Now, these colleges make up part of the education sector that the Government want to support with more Commonwealth money. That's part of its education reforms for the university sector. Now today the Government have announced a crackdown on dodgy recruiting practices and dodgy colleges. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Assistant Minister for Education and Training. Simon Birmingham thanks for joining us.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure to be with you Tom.

TOM TILLEY: Simon, tell us about these dodgy practices that have led to the crackdown.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well this is really disturbing and in my few months in this portfolio, since around Christmas last year, I've been very worried to hear about these practices where we have people being signed up to do training courses in return for getting free iPads or laptops or giveaway meal vouchers or even cash giveaways, where we have vulnerable people being targeted, be they people who are poorly educated, or stalls being set up just to sign people up outside of Centrelinks without people really understanding what course they're signing up to in the first place. And most importantly for the individuals, without them understanding that they are signing up for a Government debt program, VET FEE-HELP, in the process.

TOM TILLEY: Yeah, tell us more about that side of these dodgy practices, because I believe some colleges would charge all the fees up front, so they'd sign up for a whole lot of debt instantly.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That's right, mate. VET FEE-HELP is essentially HECS for vocational education and training. So it operates in the same way, it's an income-contingent loan and they don't have to pay it back until they reach a certain income level, around about the $53,000 mark. Now we've got too many training providers, it seems, who are encouraging people to sign up for the wrong reasons and then when they do get them signed up, they are banking all of the costs of the course, all of the fees, against them in one hit at the earliest possible opportunity. Now, the changes we're putting in place will ban all of those inducements and incentives from being offered at the outset and secondly will make sure that there are multiple units of study and that fees must be levied against those multiple units of study so that it's impossible for all of the fees to be banked in one fell swoop at the start. Many of the people who are being wrongly signed up are also highly unlikely to actually complete the qualification they're being signed up to. The completion rates in some of these courses are appallingly low, struggling to get close to 20 per cent. Because it's a debt, it affects their credit rating. It impacts on their capacity to get a credit card or a car loan or a home loan through their life. The debt, though, is not paid back and therefore the taxpayer loses out and loses out to significant sums.

TOM TILLEY: You said it's mostly about ensuring that the framework is solid across the board, whether it's private or public, but here you are in March 2015 announcing a crackdown on dodgy private education providers, but it was back in May that you announced the higher education reforms which included extending government support for these programs. Is it a bit concerning that you're announcing this crackdown now? I mean, if it was all about getting the framework right, shouldn't you have done that before you were trying to get the proposals through to extend support for students studying at these colleges?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I would rather, of course, that back in 2012 when VET FEE-Help was opened up, this framework was gotten right at that stage and that we had the right regulation in from the start. But we weren't in government then. We have basically confronted this mess. I've now stepped into the role and it's clear to me that we need to do more that is specific to the VET FEE-HELP providers. There are more than 4000 registered training organisations around Australia. Only around 270 of them are licenced to provide VET FEE-HELP loans. So, we want to focus in particular on those 270 where the excessive profiteering and the really unethical marketing behaviours seem to be most prominent.

TOM TILLEY: You're listening to the Assistant Education Minister, Simon Birmingham. On the text line: take away the giveaways and it sounds a lot like uni. A course, no job prospects and a massive debt. That's from Jay in Gippsland. Now, let's talk about the Government's funding of university research. The biggest eight universities, the Group of Eight, have actually taken out advertisements this week that say shutting down research facilities is such a dumb thing for a clever country to do. Now, that's in response to the Education Minister Christopher Pyne saying that $150 million in university research funding won't be approved unless the Government get their university reform package through the Senate. Now, Nat Harris is a guy who likes to rap; he's also doing a PhD in cancer research at the Garvin Institute and Wollongong Uni and he's written a bit of a rap about his research:

[Excerpt from song]

NAT HARRIS: I work on cancer of the breast, the pancreas, anyone who's ever donated, then I'm thankin' yas. See we try to understand just how these tumours work, looking at all your genes, there's even one named JRK. Different cell pathways…

[End of excerpt]

TOM TILLEY: Nat joins me in the studio. Nat, congratulations on a very strong rap there.

NAT HARRIS: Thanks mate.

TOM TILLEY: Very great film clip if you want to check it out online, Nat's cruising around the corridors of a hospital in Wollongong dropping some sick raps all over the place. Now obviously you're passionate about rapping and research.


TOM TILLEY: What concerns do you have about the future of research funding?

NAT HARRIS: I'm concerned about my own career and also that valuable research projects won't be able to be undertaken because the funding just isn't there and it's just really sad that people have worked so hard and have gotten themselves into these positions where they're great researchers, they're churning out really great data and producing high-impact papers in big journals around the world and they're not getting looked after like they should be.

TOM TILLEY: Okay, so are people like you and some of your friends who are also doing PhDs rethinking your careers?

NAT HARRIS: Yeah, it's something that we definitely worry about. A few of my friends that have finished PhDs and were in post-doctoral studies have left science research in order to do other careers. One of my friends has become a lawyer and another two have studied medicine and surgery because there's just a lot more security in their career in terms of knowing that they're going to get a pay packet at the end of the week. I mean, I would love to be doing research for the rest of my life if I could, but at the end of the day, you've got to put bread on the table for yourself and your family.

TOM TILLEY: Alright. Great to speak to you Nat. Let's go back to Simon Birmingham, the Senator and the Assistant Minister for Education and Training. Simon Birmingham, we've just heard Nat's point of view and some of the key things he was saying there were that young people in research are scared that they won't have a career if these funding cuts go ahead. What do you say to those concerns?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We want to make sure the funding is there for the long haul for research. As a government, we inherited a situation where major research programs all had funding cliffs where the funding was due to run out. We of course recognise that these are valuable programs and we've found ways to be able to fund them into the future, but we do need to get the higher education reforms through the Senate to be able to do that.

TOM TILLEY: But why does the money have to be tied to your deregulation programs? For example, at the Budget last year, you announced a $20 billion medical research fund. The money that the unis are asking for these research programs in question is only $200 million, which is one per cent of that $20 billion fund. Why not take the money from there?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And that medical research fund is paid for by health policy reforms. Ultimately, each portfolio across the government has had to say, where there are priorities, we have to find the funding from somewhere. The Health portfolio has done that for the medical research fund. The Education portfolio has done that by saying, we can restructure higher education funding for the future, universities are meant to be the centres of excellence around Australia. If anybody should be able to run their businesses without government dictating every minuscule of how they operate, surely it's a university.

TOM TILLEY: But those same universities, who do support, by and large, your deregulation plan, are saying that it shouldn't be tied to research funding. They say shutting down research facilities is such a dumb thing for a clever country to do. What do you say to those people who have been supporting you so far?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I appeal to them to keep supporting us to work with the crossbenchers. Let's have the constructive conversation over the next couple of weeks to try to get legislation through the Senate that gives some certainty to the university sector overall and indeed to research funding as a subset of that.

TOM TILLEY: Haven't you been doing that for the last 10 months?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We have been trying, absolutely. And we will continue to try. We are obviously reaching a very pointy end of this discussion, we need to get a result in the next couple of weeks and I hope that's what we're able to achieve.

TOM TILLEY: And what if you don't? Because this research funding is due to run out in June. Will that be the end of it? Are you 100 per cent committed to not supporting that research if you don't get your reforms through the Parliament?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we're determined to do everything we can in the next few weeks to get the reforms through the Parliament, Tom…

TOM TILLEY: [Interrupts] But if you don't?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And – Tom, the only way we have at present to fund the research programs in the future is for the higher education package to pass through the Parliament in some way, shape or form.

TOM TILLEY: Alright. Well, we'll look forward to seeing how that goes in the Senate when it comes up for voting later this month. Simon Birmingham thanks so much for joining us on Hack.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: My pleasure mate, any time.