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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 32

Mrs HULL (11:04 AM) —It is a pleasure to follow the member for Cowper in speaking about this fabulous initiative that is being put forward by the government to extend FEE-HELP for vocational education and training diploma and advanced diploma courses for those students who want to study a particular area. Before, unless they did this through a university course, they were not eligible for FEE-HELP. This has been one of the inconsistencies and perhaps discriminatory factors that have been in place for such a long time and has been a carryover of the very many years in the past when so much emphasis was placed on going to university. I am on record as saying I think that is a fabulous thing; we must have students going to university, but not every student goes to university. In fact, around 70 per cent of the students in my electorate of Riverina do not attend university. This legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007, is providing the much-needed assistance for students doing a diploma or an advanced diploma—they will now be able to apply for FEE-HELP.

I think it is especially pertinent at this time for this bill to be accepted through the House, because over the years we have seen TAFE fees rise and rise. In fact, in New South Wales they have risen about 300 per cent. I could be corrected, but I am sure that I have seen in the last few weeks the New South Wales government again putting TAFE fees up, by another nine per cent. It is very difficult when you are trying to resolve the skills shortage and you have no mechanism to assist students to apply for FEE-HELP.

FEE-HELP will operate the same as HECS does for university students. Once a student has received FEE-HELP and it has eased the up-front financial burden with their tuition fees, they can repay the money to the government over a period of time. Everyone talks about the minimum threshold, and people have the view out in the general populace that HECS is an unfair system that makes somebody pay for a university education. If this bill is passed, it will actually create opportunities for those who are doing diplomas and advanced diplomas in VET. I think many people think that HECS is the unfair imposition of a fee structure. However, while the minimum threshold at which a student is required to start paying back their FEE-HELP generally increases every year, in the 2006-07 financial year a person could earn up to $38,148 and not have to start paying back their HECS debt. It is only after a student earns $38,148 per annum that they are required to start paying back their HECS debt. I do not see anything unfair in that. The majority of my electorate would not be on $38,000 a year and supporting a family. So I do not think that it is an imposition, nor do I think it is an unfair impost on students who choose to do a course that will generally yield a very high and productive salary for them in the future. This government initiative gives them the opportunity to be able to get into such a profession.

We have heard a lot recently about the skills shortage and the trades and services shortage but when I entered parliament  nine years ago—and I was only looking at my maiden speech just a few weeks ago—one of the issues I raised was the need for us to recognise the value of skilled apprentices and trades and services.

Next week I will be in Leeton. They have a fabulous VET course going with Leeton Links, and I always feel proud and privileged to be able to attend the award ceremony with the students, with the employers who get involved with Leeton Links and with the parents, who sit with their children and are so proud of their achievements in the trades and services areas, in the apprenticeship opportunities that their children have undertaken and in the skills they have gained. The amount of pride from those kids never ceases to amaze me. I look forward to it every year. It goes right across my electorate.

I so enjoy doing the awards ceremony at Riverina TAFE. I think Riverina TAFE holds up as one of the most extraordinary institutions, providing the exact things that we require across our electorate and other electorates for our students. It is a state run institution and I am very proud of Rosemary Campbell and her team. They are truly committed to the equity and parity of rural and regional students in being able to access VET courses and pursue their careers. An outstanding record of employment right across my electorate has resulted from attendance at Riverina TAFE.

We need a skilled workforce. This legislation will provide an additional assistance package that will help to ensure that our students across rural, regional and city areas will continue to add meaning to the Australian community and be productive.

There has been a huge movement in apprenticeships in my electorate alone. In October 2006 I announced that in the electorate of Riverina there was a 164 per cent increase in the number of apprentices since 1996, when the coalition was first elected. Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed that, as at October last year, there were 3,750 apprentices in training in the Riverina electorate. That was up from 1,420 in March 1996. There has been an absolute focus on getting apprentices into systems and on getting employers to value their apprentices. It is no mean task. Employers have to be required to ensure that apprentices are not there for their indiscriminate use; apprentices are there to learn a trade, they are there to get a valuable education and they are there to finally be skilled, certified tradesmen who can add value to any employer’s business.

There are national figures that I believe are extraordinary, and I am very proud to be a part of a government which has applied such a focus to apprenticeships and trades skills. A certificate of registration as a qualified panelbeater, mechanic, plumber or electrician is equally as good and equally as respected as any university degree. That is a point that I have been making continually in this House for many, many years. I see the value; I see how clever these young people are at what they do and it is an absolute credit to them. Finally, they are now being recognised for the value that they provide to the Australian community.

I have said in this House many times that you can build a community, people can make plans on paper and you can have all of the bureaucrats, all of the technocrats and all of the academics in the world putting out fantastic options, but without people with the skills to put them in place—to build a building, construct roadways, construct bridges and construct nation-building infrastructure—you cannot achieve anything. Finally I think this is cutting through and the government are being recognised for what we are doing for young people who have chosen to go along the pathway of doing an apprenticeship or doing a diploma or an advanced diploma through a VET institution.

So it is with great pleasure today that I rise to support this bill in the House. I support the parliamentary secretary, who is here to again expand upon the benefits of this bill. Without doubt one of the most significant things I have seen in my time in this House is the change in attitude towards technical institutions and TAFE and to those students—and their families—who choose to have a vocational education and who choose to have a trades and services background. I commend this bill to the House.