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Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Page: 7003


Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (11:03): The Australian government recognises that for some people the payment of an upfront tuition fee for higher education and VET courses is a barrier to study. The FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP are available to assist eligible full-fee-paying students with their tuition fees. VET FEE-HELP is part of the Higher Education Loan Program and is an extension of the higher education student loan scheme, FEE-HELP. The amendments will ensure that a higher education or VET provider is a fit and proper body before they are approved; therefore, ensuring the integrity of these programs. The proposed amendments will be broadly consistent with the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, following the recommendations of the Beard review of the proposed regulator. Requirements will be developed for inclusion in legislative instruments made under the act and where possible streamlining the use of existing Commonwealth regulatory frameworks. The amendments will allow the minister to qualify approvals of higher education or VET providers by imposing conditions on providers and specifying these conditions in the notice of approval. The minister will be able to vary or remove conditions which have been imposed. Placing conditions on the approval and continued approval of a body corporate as a VET or higher education provider will allow the minister the power to approve a body corporate as a VET or higher education provider while imposing conditions to better manage the risks that may be associated with that particular organisation. If these conditions are breached, approvals could be suspended and/or revoked. The amendments will allow the minister the discretion to approve a higher education or VET provider where the body's principal purpose may not be education, as long as its purpose does not conflict with its purpose to provide education. This would allow education providers that are dual or multi-purpose organisations to be approved as a higher education or VET providers without significantly diminishing the quality requirements of the educational provision.

The technical amendments will correct an omission in the current provisions by requiring the minister to give notice to higher education or VET providers before issuing an intention to suspend a provider's approval. They will also allow the minister a reasonable period of time between issuing a higher education or VET provider a notice of suspension and making a decision regarding revocation of provider approval. This provides the minister with more time to investigate possible breaches and make an informed decision.

In more detail, the bill contains four proposed amendments to the HESA to improve the administrative efficiency and effectiveness of the government's income contingency loans, FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP. The amendments will introduce a fit and proper person requirement to ensure that applicants are fit and proper for that purpose. This will ensure that senior officers and directors, or persons who are in a position of influence in terms of the management of the applicant, must demonstrate that they are fit and proper persons to be approved as a VET or higher education provider.

This is important legislation. It is part of what this government has been doing more broadly in relation to higher education. When we came to government in 2007 we found higher education in a pretty sorry state. While the rest of the OECD had been providing increased funding in relation to the higher education sector, what we found in Australia was something that was vastly different. We found that we were actually going backwards in terms of the contribution to higher education, ranking as last in the OECD in terms of investments in higher education. This is also reflected if one looks at the number of people who have bachelor degrees or higher in Australia, running at around 29 per cent—compared to the UK, which is over 40 per cent, or to Ireland, which is over 55 per cent. We simply were not investing enough in higher education and VET.

This government has taken a very positive decision that we need to look at a wide-ranging series of reforms. But we also need to be investing dollars and cents into this area so that we can upskill the Australian community so that the capacity constraints that the Reserve Bank Governor warned the previous government about on over 20 occasions can be addressed. We are about making sure that we have a smarter workforce, a workforce that can improve the productivity of this nation, and the best way of doing that is through investment in education, investment in human capital. It is an area that the previous government chose totally to neglect, to walk away from.

The previous government's major contribution to higher education was to try and tie funding for universities to Work Choices. A condition of funding under the previous government was that, if you did not offer statutory individual contracts to every employee—if you did not offer an AWA—then you were not going to get your funding. When we look at the record of the previous government and what they wanted to do in terms of higher education, we find that they did two things: they cut the amount of funding that was there and they chose to tie the amount of funding that they actually got in higher education to Work Choices. You would have thought they would have learnt the lesson in relation to this and they would be there saying: 'Look, the government's doing a great job in terms of higher education. This government is providing opportunities for Australians to upskill, for Australians to contribute more greatly to the economy. This government is making sure that conditions of workers are not being affected.' But, no, we do not get that at all from the opposition. What we get from the opposition is a re-run of the mistakes of last 10 years. It is because ripping off workers is absolutely in their DNA. Look at the O'Farrell government that has just come in. The first thing it has done is attack public sector workers. It attacked them straight away by trying to take away their conditions, taking away the conditions of nurses and firefighters. It is an absolute disgrace that an incoming government chooses to pick on these vital public service areas when what they should be doing is supporting this government's reforms in higher education, of which this bill is an important part, and making sure that we can make the changes needed in education so that we can develop the economy. But, no: we have an opposition that is all opposition and no substance; it has no policy whatsoever.

Mr Hawke interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Sidebottom ): The member for Mitchell may not speak soon if he continues in that vein. Please, let us have some courtesy from both sides.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The whining from the other side does not disturb me in the slightest.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: It disturbs me so, if you do not mind, let us get back to the legislation.

Mr CRAIG THOMSON: The contribution that we are seeing from those opposite is pretty much the contribution we see generally in relation to their policy issues in this place or anywhere else—that is, we will have a whine, we will have a bit of a whinge, we will oppose what the government wants to do because we do not really have any policies ourselves. This is important legislation because it is about making sure that there are more opportunities for students who want to get into higher education and making sure that they have other means of meeting the fees.

I would like to spend a few minutes talking about the university campus I have in my electorate, which is the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle. This legislation is particularly important to it because it is a campus that incorporates a community college, a TAFE and a university. It was a Labor government that made sure that we had a campus there. If it were not for the good work of my predecessor Michael Lee and the very strong representation he put, we would not have seen that university campus on the Central Coast at all.

Whilst the national average for people having a bachelor degree or more is 20 per cent, we have less than half that on the Central Coast. By having that university we are giving the opportunity to local kids to go to university. This government has been particularly supportive of the University of Newcastle's Central Coast campus in terms of capital funding for a new library and library extensions and for the health sciences and places in nursing. The sorts of jobs that we have on the Central Coast are the sorts of investments both in human capital and in physical capital that have been made at the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle.

It is important that we see the sorts of investments made by this government across the board. As a result of those investments, we are seeing local kids going to a local university and not having to travel down to Sydney—a round trip of four hours which often sees local kids dropping out of university or TAFE because it is simply too much to expect with the pressure of university. We have seen much higher levels of young people going to our campus, finishing their degrees and being available to meet the requirements that modern employers are seeking from their workforce now: a more educated workforce and a more technically savvy workforce. That is why this legislation and this government's program in relation to education, investment in early childhood right through to higher education, is so important.

We are at 4.9 per cent unemployment at the moment, and predicted to go to 4.5 per cent. If we do not have this investment in higher education and education generally, the effect will be that our economy will face impediments in labour supply but also, more importantly, in productivity. This is not news, because this is what the Reserve Bank governor was telling those opposite for years and years. But they just did the lazy thing; they watched the money roll in from the mining boom mark 1 and did nothing. They did nothing in terms of the structural reform that was required in higher education and did nothing to make sure the labour market was going to be skilled properly to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The previous government chose to do nothing on those issues.

This government is about making sure we make that investment in education. We are making the investment for a number of reasons: firstly, because making sure people get opportunities equally around Australia—and this bill will make sure there are opportunities to get into a university and VET—is the right thing to do; and, secondly, because of the economy. By investing in human capital in this area we are providing the leverages for the economy to continue to grow in the areas that we will be most competitive in in the future.

That is just one part of the legislation. It is part of this government's suite of reforms. It is fixing up the 11 years of neglect and making sure that higher education and education generally get a fair go. I commend this bill to the House.