Minister defends education cuts

The Minister for Education has received many protests from the arts sector after cutting the number of tertiary arts courses eligible for VET student loans by 80%. Here he defends his decision.
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Image: Diploma of Cinemagraphic Makeup, one of the 57 courses cut.

Many of you reading this would have heard the stories about VET FEE-HELP over the last few years. You know the ones – students being ripped off by shonky training providers, brokers promising free laptops to people living in remote Indigenous communities if they signed up for a diploma course, young people with disabilities being enrolled for courses they don’t have the literacy or numeracy skills to ever complete.

It all started in 2012 when the former Labor Government opened up the VET FEE-HELP program in ways that contained very few safeguards. It’s meant we’ve had shonky providers providing loans to students who are inadequately prepared, or who had no interest in the studies they are being signed up to and courses over-saturated with graduates with little employment prospect at terribly inflated prices.

Most Australian taxpayers rightly expect that their support for student loans will go to courses that will help students get a job ​

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, we have seen loans offered grow from around $350 million in 2012 to $2.9 billion by 2015 and course fees in some areas surge from about $5000 to $30,000. Yet, some providers had course completion rates in the single digits.

Australia has been appalled and outraged and try as we did to close the loopholes in the flawed VET FEE-HELP scheme, in the end we, the Turnbull Government, decided enough was enough. It needed to be replaced by a new program, VET Student Loans.

I’ve read your comments, emails and letters about the changes and I’d like to try to address some of these concerns and assure you of the value we place on the contribution of the arts to our community and economy.

Read: Arts education cuts leave sector fuming

In building the new VET Student Loans program from the ground up we’ve reviewed the more than 800 courses that were previously eligible for student loans against a range of criteria. The 347 courses selected clearly offered strong employment prospects by being on at least two ‘state skills needs’ lists and aligned with our national priorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and agriculture.

Of the 478 courses that will no longer be supported 119 are in management and commerce, 149 are society and culture courses like the Diploma of Life Coaching and 149 are in health-related fields such as veterinary Chinese herbal medicine. In comparison, 57 arts-related courses did not make our proposed list and 29 of those have no students at all and several others have been superseded by courses that will be supported by our new program. 

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, VET Student Loans will support studies across a number of different genres and roles related to the arts, including graphic design and visual arts, screen and media, live production, photography and music industry. Further, if other arts courses make their way onto the skills needs lists of different states then they can expect to be added to the courses eligible for VET Student Loans.

Most Australian taxpayers rightly expect that their support for student loans will go to courses that will help students get a job and ultimately earn enough money to repay what was lent to them. Unfortunately under VET FEE-HELP far too many students ended up with ballooning debt that will take them far too long to repay, if they ever do.

Of course the arts and creative industries make an incredible contribution to Australia’s society and economy – it’s why we have committed around $685 million to the sector over the coming year. It’s why the Government will continue to back a variety of Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas, Bachelor and post-graduate courses. We know there are job opportunities in the arts for current and future students – but the demand for graduates is not significant enough to justify funding every single arts course, just as it isn’t in many other industries.

I thank those who have taken the time to contact me about these changes and I hope we can continue the constructive conversation I have tried to lead as I consider their input and we implement this reform to ensure students and taxpayers are protected, skill shortages are addressed, and the reputation of the vocational education sector is restored.

Read the industry’s response: Creative Arts skilling will suffer

Simon Birmingham
About the Author
Senator The Hon Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Education and Training.  
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