Second Reading: Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2015

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2015. The Greens will be supporting this bill, which will amend the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 to extend the powers of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) in relation to the financial viability of non-government schools. The bill also makes changes in relation to the powers of school councils to enter into licensing agreements.

The Greens strongly support the principle that the same accountability and transparency measures that are required of government schools should be required of non-government schools. The collapse of Mowbray College and the closure of Acacia College show that non-government schools that receive substantial amounts of public money need these transparency and accountability measures. Government schools are accountable for the funds they receive, and we believe that non-government schools should be similarly accountable. The welfare of students and families and students' education should not be placed in jeopardy in the instance of a school closure. In some instances students and parents were not informed that their school was in financial difficulty until insolvency was imminent. In some cases families were unable to recover school fees that were paid in advance of these closures. Mowbray College had 1200 students and 200 staff members — it was a relatively large-sized school. It closed with debts of $18 million. Acacia College had 540 students and 50 staff members, and it closed with debts reported to be around $40 million.

If we go back to bills previously brought before this house, the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Funding of Non-Government Schools) Bill 2014 passed this year. That bill went against the principles of Gonski and against the principles of needs-based funding. The Greens opposed that bill, but unfortunately the government and opposition supported it.

Mr Nardella interjected.

Mr HIBBINS — Many do. The Greens moved amendments to introduce transparency and accountability measures in that bill, but unfortunately those amendments were opposed by the government and opposition. It is good to see that the government is getting on board with this principle of accountability and transparency for non-government schools in order to help protect the interests of students and parents.

This bill extends the powers that the Victorian Registrations and Qualifications Authority has in relation to vocational education and training providers to non-government schools.

According to the minister's second-reading speech:

The bill will enable the VRQA to assess the financial viability of registered non-government schools and take action if the VRQA assesses the school as being financially unviable or at risk of becoming financially unviable. The VRQA may report to parents about the school's financial position or impose a condition on the school's registration requiring the school to establish a protection scheme for school fees, such as a trust.

The VRQA will also be able to use its enhanced powers to suspend or cancel a non-government school's registration if it is in the best interests of students and the public. The bill allows the government to report the VRQA's findings to the parents of students at a school that has been assessed. Given the high level of public funding that non-government schools receive, we should expect a high level of accountability and transparency.

It is worth discussing the role of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, particularly with respect to its role in vocational education and training (VET). The VRQA is the statutory authority that ensures that quality standards are met by providers of education and training. In Victoria we have a situation where the VRQA, the state regulator, regulates registered training organisations — RTOs — that are based and registered in Victoria. Unfortunately, we also have a situation where some RTOs are registered interstate or with the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), which is the Australian regulator. We have a dual system of regulation, and unfortunately we have found that the Victorian government seems to be somewhat unaware or powerless to deal with dodgy RTOs that are regulated by ASQA but not by the Victorian regulatory authority.

In the Prahran electorate we had a situation where, in an attempt to rort the system, one of these dodgy operators was trying to sign up public housing tenants to inappropriate courses with offers of iPads, laptops and whatnot. I looked up the address of the training provider, and it was registered not to an educational institute but to a residential house in suburban Sydney. When I wrote to the state Minister for Training and Skills about this matter, he said it was a federal issue because it was an ASQA-regulated RTO. We have also seen attempts to rort the visa system with the recent scam of fake training organisations set up to provide training for fake qualifications, but because this particular RTO was not regulated by Victorian regulators we have to rely on the federal government to step in.

We found out today from Sue Pennicuik, a member for Southern Metropolitan Region in the Legislative Council, through a question to the Minister for Training and Skills, that there are no communication protocols between the Victorian government and the federal government and federal regulators. We have a situation where we might have ASQA-regulated RTOs operating in Victoria, dudding Victorian students and ripping off the taxpayer, and the Victorian government is none the wiser. I make the case that there must be a way in which Victorian authorities are able to regulate RTOs that are registered with ASQA — —

Mr Nardella — And that are regulated in New South Wales.

Mr HIBBINS — That is correct. We cannot have a situation where you have Victorian students being dudded but the Victorian government either does not know or is powerless to do something about it.

Whilst we are on the issue of RTOs and the vocational education and training system, we know that these problems with dodgy RTOs have their genesis in the failed marketisation of the VET system introduced by the former Labor government and continued by the previous coalition government. I understand that this government wants to save TAFE. It is undertaking reviews into it, but the best way to save TAFE is to abandon this failed marketisation of the vocational education and training system.

Picking up on some of the remarks made previously by The Nationals spokesperson, it is one thing to have $1.2 billion for vocational education and training, but it becomes a problem when that money is going to for-profit private providers of questionable standard and being sucked away from our quality public TAFE system. The way to solve this problem is to send back to our quality TAFEs the large majority of that recurrent $1.2 billion in funding for VET. We can trust these quality TAFEs to skill up and educate Victorians — that is the key. We must end this failed marketisation of vocational education and training.

The bill makes a number of changes in relation to school councils and licensing arrangements which will enable a school to enter into a licensing arrangement in relation to any other land in accordance with any ministerial order or any guidelines issued by the minister. The explanatory memorandum states that the amendment will allow greater flexibility in school operations by allowing a school council to grant a licence to enable the installation of closed-circuit television cameras on school premises to monitor adjacent land and so on.

We have concerns about this particular provision. We feel that this should be the responsibility of the principal and not the school council. The role of the principal is to manage the school, including its facilities, on a day-to-day basis; the role of the school council is to set broad policies for the school within departmental policies and guidelines and in accord with the views of the whole school community. If this is going to be put in place, then departmental checks should also be put in place and school council members should have appropriate skills in this area.

Overall the Greens will support this bill. Given the considerable amount of mandated public funds that are now going to independent schools, it is critical that there is public oversight of how this money is spent to ensure that parents, students and families, who often pay considerable fees, are protected.