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Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Page: 7006


Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (11:16): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 1) Bill 2011. When the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare and Minister for the Status of Women was speaking I felt that we had finally begun to make some progress on the matters before us today in this bill, but then when I listened to the member for Dobell's contribution I felt we were going backwards. The minister has finally come to the view, as I knew she inevitably would move away from her student days, that it is appropriate for us to allow private providers and people in the education sector to participate and make a contribution to the education of young Australians. For too long in this country the government has always been the answer to education and there has been the view, simply put, that people ought not to make a contribution to their own education. That is the view of this government and of ministers within this government.

It is good to see that in the provisions of this bill they are expanding the Howard government's approach to education and recognising that people ought to make a contribution to their own education. When you get education you get an economic asset and an improvement in your ability to function in the economy. That is a valuable thing—it is something that has a real return to you as a person and in your career prospects—therefore, you should make a contribution to it. That is why VET FEE-HELP and all the provisions here are meaningful. That is why the Howard government extended VET FEE-HELP to be accessed by people in different institutions in the economy and in society. It has been so successful because education has become one of our bigger export markets—well it was until very recently when we had some troubles and regulatory problems imposed by this government.

Education ought to be a vibrant, functioning part of the private economy as well as a government monopoly. This bill is a good thing because it recognises that. I praise the minister for finally coming to that view. She has shed her student activist days when she opposed all of the things covered in this bill. She has come to the table responsibly and recognised that it is important for us to have a vibrant education sector in terms of education colleges. I think that is a positive development.

Let us look at what this bill intends to do. I think it is good to streamline what is going on in this sector. In that intention I think the government has got it right here. The intention to simplify arrangements for VET providers to ensure quality providers apply for and can offer these income contingent loans is a good development. Income contingent loans were offered by the Howard government in 2007 and extended to the vocational education and training sector, which was a good development as well.

Students are required to repay their loan once their income exceeds the minimum repayment level. Again, it is good to say to people: 'You have received an economic contribution from the taxpayer. You ought to make a contribution to your own education because of the added value you get from that education.' It is a worthwhile and smart system to say to people early on: 'As a government, we will use a carrot instead of a stick. We will provide the incentives that enable you to get the education and access to skills that you need to do better and lift yourself economically and socially. You can seek and achieve whatever you want to do with the skills that you learn, but you then must make a contribution to society for that education.' That system has been proven to work.

Regrettably, in Australia too few people have been able to access VET FEE-HELP and that needs to change. It is good, through the provisions of this bill, that it is changing. In 2009 only 5,262 students received income-contingent loans. Of course, there were only 50 registered training organisations available. With the diversity of organisations out there in the economy today offering diplomas or other types of degrees and courses, it is great that we are expanding this system in order to take into account the diversity of this sector.

It has been a great success story for the Australian economy. The education sector is doing very well in spite of what I regard as significant regulatory burdens imposed by state and federal governments. In many cases these regulatory burdens are there for good reasons, but in many cases they are there simply to require further bureaucracy and administration on very fine and worthy institutions that really need to be allowed to get on with the job of providing courses that local and foreign students seek. Of course, that is the subject for another debate.

The minister will specify in this legislation by means of a legislative instrument the criteria that need to be taken into account in deciding whether the management of a registered training organisation is fit and proper before the body may be approved as either a higher education provider or a VET provider. I support that intention in this bill. I urge that it not be so restrictive that it does not recognise the diversity of bodies and courses in the modern Australian economy because we want to encourage diversity and plurality. We should not seek competition between the public and private providers because we want to encourage capital investment in education.

One of the big failings of the Australian economy is that we have not successfully sought the investment of more capital into the provision of education to increase the skills of our population. In America there is a very strong and successful system. We had the member for Dobell talking about Work Choices and how, in order to increase the skills of our population, the government is doing this and that. It is not only up to the government to do things, and that is where the member for Dobell and the minister fail in their intentions. It is not just the role of government. There are many capable, qualified and successful providers of diplomas, degrees and other courses in our economy today and they ought to have the ability to function properly and successfully. So while the government is introducing a bill which enables and extends VET FEE-HELP to more areas in our economy, it also seems that the member for Dobell simply does not understand that we need these things to promote more private capital into education so that we can have more operators and courses to educate people.

I support income-contingent loans because they are the smart approach to government. These loans use a carrot and not a stick by saying, 'We are going to provide incentives at an early stage for you to get educated and get yourself ahead.' This is a good approach to government.

Without labouring the point too much, I support the intentions of this legislation. The loan system that the Howard government extended to the vocational education and training sector in 2007 is working. This is a worthy set of measures to ensure that system is expanded to more sectors of our economy. I am personally encouraged by the minister's contribution today. She is moving away from compulsory unionism and her days of student activism where it was always about the state educating students. She is recognising that we have a vibrant education industry in Australia today that is not just government funded or controlled. We will continue to promote measures that encourage not only the education sector to flourish but also the expansion of fit and proper education providers in our economy.