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EDITORIAL: Debt and despair in vocational education

IN theory, the deregulation of the vocational training sector was supposed to usher in a new era of competition enablingprivate providers to add studentchoice to a world that had been traditionally dominated bystate-run TAFE colleges.
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And to be fair to the successful private colleges that have blossomed under the reforms, there are enoughsuccess stories to show that the reforms are at least partlyoperating as intended.

Unfortunately, however, the private training sector has also beenembroiled in a string of funding scandals,often involving the inappropriate enrolment of peoplewho are then saddled with large debts to the governmentstudentloan schemes that arehelping to underwritethe expansion of the system in the first place.

One of the biggest scandals involvesa stock marketlisted company, Vocation, which was formerlychaired by one-timefederal Labor treasurer and education minister, John Dawkins.

Vocation’s share price sky-rocketed after its listing in 2013 but the gains were reversed whenthe Victorian government stripped it of $20 million in funding over the quality of some of its courses. Thecompany wentinto voluntary administration in November.

If Vocation was an early warning of the sector’s problems,investigations by Fairfax Media and others have revealed a continuing culture among some private providers that putsincome generation ahead of education quality, even whenit creates an unreasonabledebt burden for students.

In a new example of the sector’s questionable practices, Fairfax has examinedthe case of a 21-year-old Elermore Vale woman, Helen Fielding, who found herself tens of thousands of dollars in debt after answering the door to education agents who had arrived at her house uninvited.

Ms Fielding is described as having an “obvious intellectual disability”. Even so, she was signed up for three online diploma courses in business, management and human resources subjects.

Unfortunately, Ms Fielding is far from the only vulnerable personin such a position. Unless stategovernments can get some quality control into their systems–and unless there’s a better watch over thefederal loans scheme –the opportunists who are abusing the sector as their ownpersonal get-rich-quick scheme will destroy whatever good that theproperly motivated providers are achieving.

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