My speech in Parliament on Registered Training Organisations, 22nd Feb, 2016

Ms VAMVAKINOU (Calwell) (20:17): Since the opening of the training provider market to the private sector and the extension of student loans to the vocational sector, we have seen a massive number of registered training organisations set up shop right across the country. Currently, according to the Australian Skills Quality Authority, there are about 5,000 RTOs in Australia offering certificates I to IV, diplomas, advanced diplomas and vocational education and training courses in hairdressing, beauty services, community services, digital media, English language classes, aged care, and child care services, to name a few.

In 2014, I was asked to attend and officially open an RTO, Keystone College, which opened in Broadmeadows. My electorate has very high youth unemployment, as high a 25 percent in some suburbs, and we also have a very large number of long-term mature unemployed people on disability support looking for work, as well as many new migrants and refugees who are seeking opportunities to skill or reskill themselves in the hope of getting a job. So Keystone came offering training opportunities for people in my electorate. Instead, in less than two years of operation, they have provided nothing but stress and frustration and have now left many students with large debts and no qualifications following Keystone's decision last week to enter into voluntary administration.

My grievance, therefore, is about the manner in which my most vulnerable and disadvantaged constituents have been treated by Keystone. I begin with Ms Birsel Akbulut, who began a hunger strike on Monday, 26 January outside Keystone College protesting the ruthless recruitment tactics and subsequent unacceptable treatment and exploitation of students, who have now been left high and dry without qualifications but with significant debts. I visited Birsel during her hunger strike and it was she who first told me about the conduct of Keystone College. Birsel had initially been employed by Keystone's now defunct marketing arm, National Training and Development, to effectively spruik for students. In turn, she would be paid $300 for each student at the sign-up stage and another $300 once the student passed the census date. 'Good money,' she thought for a worthwhile service. Birsel knew many people in the local Turkish-speaking community and was happy to promote the Keystone College's training courses. She was successful in recruiting 61 local residents to undertake a community services diploma and a diploma of beauty services. Of course, many of them were not proficient in the English language. In the case of the community services diploma, Birsel was told by Keystone that English language proficiency would not be an issue as the college would provide a Turkish-speaking teacher. When she asked about the job prospects for a non-English-speaking person with a diploma in community services, she was told that English language skills would not be necessary because graduates would be working in the Turkish-speaking community. Students commenced the community services diploma, but no Turkish language teacher was provided, so the college asked Birsel to be the interpreter. She agreed, and the course began. No Turkish language teacher was ever appointed, however, and eventually, after a period, many of the students dropped out because they could not cope. But this was not before the census date kicked in, so to their horror many students were left with a debt they were not aware of. Birsel herself has never been fully paid for the work she did.


With Birsel's help, my staff and I met with some 70 people from my electorate last Thursday to hear their experiences at Keystone College in Broadmeadows. Many were studying a diploma of community services. A number of the women had enrolled in this course, including Farida, Nancy, Golda, Samira, Antoinette, Intisar and Basima. They all told me that they were doing the course to help the community. They had been told that within the next five years Australia would need 50,000 community services workers, so they believed that the demand was there for them to get a good job.

Nancy and Golda told me that when they enrolled they were studying the 2008 diploma of community services course, which the government changed in December last year. Therefore, the course that they had been studying was no longer relevant, even though they were well into the course itself. In January this year, after much lobbying, they were told that they could continue with the 2008 model but would have to complete the course by July 2016 in order for their diploma to be nationally recognised. Now that Keystone has gone into administration, Nancy and Golda have no idea how they are going to finish the course by July. They have effectively been left high and dry.

Samira, a Syrian refugee, was also due to complete the diploma by July this year. The course she signed up for cost a total of $18,800, although Nancy and Golda were told it was $19,500 and others again were told it was $17,990. On Keystone's website the cost was advertised as $17,990. Intisar, a 64-year-old woman enrolled in the diploma, only has 1½ units to complete before she finishes her diploma. Last Thursday she went to class and was told to pack up her things and go home. There was no explanation given. Intisar has not received any correspondence from the college or the administrators and has not yet received any statement of her liability. Nor have a number of other students. The inconsistency has added greater frustration for my constituents.

Another student, Antoinette, told us that she had enrolled at Keystone College because she believed that, as a government registered training organisation, Keystone would be regulated and aboveboard. This has not been Antoinette's experience. She asks, 'Why is the government giving money to these organisations?' Others asked why they should incur a debt for a course that they cannot complete and that is no longer recognised.

I also met with students studying interactive digital media courses. One student, Ahmet Uzuner, told Keystone from the outset that his English language skills would not be good enough to do the course. However, the manager there, Mohammad, reassured him that his English was sufficient for the course. After Ahmet had enrolled and the census date has passed, it was suggested that he either drop out or improve his English or they would freeze his enrolment. This 64-year-old grandfather now has a debt of roughly $8,000.

Another group were enrolled in a diploma of beauty services at Keystone. Five women enrolled in this course—Serap, Sarnia, Iktimal, Meral and Ozlem. They initially went to Keystone College but were escorted to Aspire College, which was in the same building, and were made to enrol there. They were told that they would each be provided with food, a tablet, a full make-up kit and transport costs for travel to a salon in Moonee Ponds for the practical component of the course. In reality, they got the tablet, a few nail polish bottles and no transport money. The theory component of the course was all done online and provided by a distance education teacher in Queensland. The practical part of the course was conducted at the Athena Institute of Health and Beauty in Moonee Ponds, but the students recently received an email from the salon telling them not to come in for the usual sessions that week because the salon was being renovated until further notice. Ozlem then received a letter from the administrators advising that the college was likely to be placed in liquidation and that they would try to place the students in other colleges. None of the other enrolled students have received any letters.

Serap has called Athena College, as well as the Queensland trainer, but all numbers are disconnected. She printed out a withdrawal form from the Aspire website but there is nobody to submit the withdrawal form to. Serap has now enrolled in a similar course at the Meadows Education Centre, paying a further $3,000 upfront, and has been told that the course she was taught at Aspire was out of date and would not count towards a Diploma of Beauty Therapy.

When signing the VET FEE-HELP form a number of students were told not to fill in the date and, in fact, to leave it blank. I have met with other former employees of the now defunct National Training and Development. They gave me numerous examples of unconscionable recruitment activities and practices, such as a student who signed up to a Diploma of Interactive Digital Media. When asked by the district manager, Robert Ninness, 'Why do you want to do the course?' the student responded, 'I want to learn how to use the computer for my grandchildren.' Clearly the course was not suitable for this particular student, who was signed up anyway and has now incurred a debt of some $22,000.

An investigation in 2015 by the Australian Skills Quality Authority found problems with two-thirds of the private training providers it audited. Such a result indicates there is an undeniably very serious problem in this industry. This is especially disturbing as the courses are government funded through VET FEE-HELP. The ASQA report revealed that vocational education training cost the state and territories $5.9 billion in the 2014-15 financial year. This amount included $1.8 billion of Commonwealth money, which was partly to fund VET FEE-HELP. How many more colleges have to go into administration and how many more vulnerable people have to be left with debts before something is done about the systemic rorting and exploitation within registered training organisations?

I have an excellent TAFE in my electorate—the Kangan TAFE—which is capable of providing the courses that RTOs currently provide without the exorbitant fees and without engaging in ruthless and unethical practices. We should stop wasting taxpayers' money. We should get rid of RTOs and restore the delivery of these courses to the TAFE sector.