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Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Page: 7038

Mr SLIPPER (FisherDeputy Speaker) (16:51): I am pleased to be able to rise in the chamber this afternoon to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 1) Bill 2011. I think all of us realise that our youth are our country's future and that education gives young people the best opportunity of getting a good job and making a contribution to society. It is therefore vital that youth right around Australia are encouraged as much as possible to take advantage of the many educational opportunities available to them in this country, and that the education they seek and receive suits them in the direction in which they hope to travel during their working life. It is, of course, good for them and it is good for the community when our young people achieve a good education.

Young people who wish to improve their qualifications and gain better skills need support, as much as the community is able to provide, from their families as well as from society at large. Also they need financial support through loans from the government, and that is the subject matter of the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 1) Bill 2011.

I think most of us would know—those of us who are parents and those of us who are not—that the journey towards gaining a post high school qualification is not always easy and requires commitment and discipline. I think society is becoming increasingly complicated and, while there are more choices and opportunities for young people than previously existed, I suspect that society also poses many challenges that were not confronting young people of earlier eras. The cost of education—and parents would know this all too well—can often feel like a bottomless pit for students as well as for their families. Not only do students often have to pay the cost of tuition; they also have the cost of textbooks and other equipment directly utilised in their education such as calculators and, if someone wants to be a carpenter, then hammers and drills, or aprons and kitchen utensils for chefs, and all other sorts of tools of the trade that are specific to the various courses in which students are enrolled.

In addition, particularly for those who live away from educational institutions, there is the problem of the costs of accommodation, food, transport and so on. All of these costs mount up and it is important that a society provides as much assistance as it reasonably can to benefit students because it is an investment in the future. Properly educated students mean a properly educated workforce and that, of course, means that we are a society which is much better able to compete in the world of the 21st century. In the past, financial assistance has come through programs such as Austudy for tertiary students and many in this country have benefited from that support and gone on to have successful, busy and rewarding careers. It was a sensible, successful move by the former Liberal-National Party government to recognise that not everyone is destined for a career that requires tertiary studies and that those who do not wish to undertake studies through university should have equal access to financial support as they go through obtaining their educational qualifications. It is relevant to state that too many times in our community parents have stressed that it is important for students to get a university degree—any university degree—even one that might not lead to many career opportunities. We have undervalued trade training and we have undervalued encouraging young people to undertake technical education. But through the initiative of the previous Liberal-National Party government, the VET FEE-HELP system was born and that assists those eligible students who are undertaking an approved course, through an approved VET provider, by paying for all or part of their tuition and course costs.

Obviously, this is a loan which needs to be paid back, but only when the student moves into the workforce and is achieving an annual income of $44,911. This is an indexed figure as at 2011, so this year. This ensures that the loan used to acquire improved qualifications does not become a burdensome bill but one that has a delayed repayment trigger that comes into play only when the graduated student is able to afford repayments. These loans now extend beyond support for university courses, to make loans available for diploma and advanced diploma courses, as well as graduate certificate and graduate diploma courses.

Some members have quite accurately expressed in this House the concern that many students in rural areas have reduced access to the support programs that are intended to boost the skills of Australia's youth and to assist those young people get into meaningful jobs in the workforce. I think that as an equity measure you would agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is important that remoteness or extreme distance from a tertiary or vocational training centre ought not to be a determining factor as to whether a young person is able to undertake the necessary education. Those who live in rural areas, as opposed to those who live in the cities, should not be disadvantaged in the pursuit of the training, the study and the jobs that they wish to pursue.

Much has been said in this place about this anomaly and that the government needs to look at this seriously, and I am pleased that the minister is here as the minister should investigate what the community is saying, what members have said and look at what changes she is able to make to encourage and support all of our young people regardless of whether they are in metropolitan, country or regional areas. I know the minister is very well intentioned in this area and I can see her nodding at my suggestion.

As I said before, not everyone is destined to follow the once-traditional path of entering university after the completion of the senior years at high school, and vocations that require a different set of skills—hands-on skills—are a legitimate career path and the courses and education opportunities available now ensure that those taking those other pathways are well trained and well prepared for life and have the skills to provide their goods and services in the community.

This bill aims to tweak the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to improve the operation of the VET FEE-HELP system; that is, the vocational education and training part of the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. The changes afforded by this bill intend to introduce a number of modifications to the act that help to simplify the administrative arrangements for the providers of VET courses and also to improve the risk management processes associated with identifying and monitoring VET providers to ensure that the providers are 'fit and proper' to provide the tuition to an acceptable and professional standard. I must say that I was surprised to see that only 50 VET providers had previously been approved, and part of the aim of this bill is to increase flexibility. This is very positive.

The bill aims to reduce the difficulties for some in accessing financial support for their education. The changes have as their fundamental purpose the support of young people and boosting the availability of skilled workers in Australia. Unfortunately the latest figures from 2009 from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations show that only 5,262 students were assisted in this program and that there were, as I said a moment ago, only 50 registered training organisations. So access to services in this important and valuable sector is lacking and needs to be improved.

I refer now to the opening of the Sunshine Coast Technical Trade Training Centre in my electorate of Fisher. I was privileged to be present, and Senator Claire Moore was there representing the government, at the opening of this important trade training centre. It is a centre that gives instruction to students from high schools in pursuits that are important for a coastal area that is so dependent on construction. It will again rely even more on construction as the pressures of the global financial crisis submerge and as the economy is restored. The courses on offer were not available when many people were going through high school—building and construction, civil engineering and sustainable energy. The programs at the trade training centre are delivered by a partnership between the Sunshine Coast Institute of TAFE and the University of the Sunshine Coast. The building has a wonderful design and it is a credit to all of those who are involved. It is already providing a wonderful opportunity for young people as it enables them to commence developing their skills in preparation for their life after school while they are still at school.

The $2.551 million centre is provided from the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program, and, most importantly, it is a partnership among four local schools—Beerwah State High School, Caloundra State High School, Kawana Waters State College and Meridan State College. The fact that these four schools are working together probably made their application so attractive. The centre provides an alternative school-based pathway for learning and is a sensible community asset that provides students with a practical educational initiative. Some 60 students from year 11 are enrolled at the centre presently, and of course this figure will increase over coming years. I commend all those involved in the centre and also the students. I have to say they looked particularly smart in their uniforms and work boots during the official opening, but they did begin to shiver towards the end of the ceremony as the main work area, with its high ceilings and cement floors, was not exactly the warmest place on the Sunshine Coast on that particular day.

In summing up, I do support this bill. It is a good bill, a commendable bill, and I thank the Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare for introducing it. It is a bill that seeks to streamline measures in the Higher Education Support Act 2003. It is important to encourage young people, and supporting this bill is another opportunity to do that.