Education Minister Simon Birmingham has indicated he will take a more hands-on role in fixing the country’s scandal-plagued vocational education system following Malcolm Turnbull’s frontbench reshuffle. In his reshuffle, Mr Turnbull appointed Queensland MP Karen Andrews as assistant minister for vocational education, making her the fourth person to hold the portfolio within a year.
The high turnover of ministers – and the demotion of the portfolio to an assistant ministry role – caused some concern in the sector because the government has promised to redesign the troubled VET FEE-HELP loans scheme before next year.
Previous vocational education and skills minister Scott Ryan, who launched a major review of the loans scheme, has been moved to the Special Minister of State role after five months in the portfolio.
“We’d like to see some continuity for a while,” Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) chief executive Rod Camm said, noting he was “disappointed” there had been another change in minister.
TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Martin Riordan said: “The VET sector has undergone a period of significant upheaval in recent years and what is now needed is certainty and stability so that confidence can be restored to the training sector.” With Parliament not to resume until August 30, the government will have to move quickly to legislate for a new loans scheme to take effect in 2017. The government last year placed an emergency freeze on payments to private colleges after the cost of the scheme tripled to almost $3 billion over two years and many stories of rorts and rip-offs emerged.
Senator Birmingham, who began the clean-up of the vocational sector last year before his promotion to cabinet, said: “I look forward to playing a leading role in finalizing the redesign of Labor’s failed VET FEE-HELP scheme, seeking where possible to ensure consistency of approach across the tertiary education sector.”
Both the private and public VET sectors said Senator Birmingham had a strong understanding of the portfolio.
He will have to balance overseeing reform of vocational education with university reform, trying to get the government’s childcare package through Parliament and schools funding negotiations.
The government’s VET FEE-HELP discussion paper, released earlier this year, proposed major changes, including a ban on brokers promoting courses to students, enforcing minimum student completion rates, and only funding courses that meet industry demand.
The paper also said it would be “reasonable” to consider whether the government should specify the maximum fees providers can charge for each course or unit.
In its submission, ACPET said the loans scheme had “fundamental failings” including rising tuition fees and low completion rates for many courses. But it said the government should avoid “arbitrary” caps on student fees or limiting the scheme only to certain courses with high industry demand.
“Governments are notorious for being unable to set prices,” Mr Camm said. “The key is to limit the scheme to high-quality providers and monitor them closely.” Only institutions with a “clean bill of health” from regulators and who perform well in student surveys should be able to access the HECS-style scheme, he said.
Labor’s education team may also receive a shake-up, with vocational education minister Sharon Bird at risk of losing her frontbench spot to fellow NSW right MP Ed Husic. Higher education spokesman Kim Carr is also expected to lose his frontbench spot after senior left faction colleagues turned against him.
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