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Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Page: 7030

Mr TEHAN (Wannon) (16:09): I rise today in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 1) Bill 2011. At the outset, I would like to thank the minister and his office, particularly Mr Tim Friedrich, for listening and for fixing an unintended consequence of changes that were made to the legislation in 2007, I think. The particular amendment that I would like to talk about is the more flexible 'principal purpose' requirement which has enabled a training provider in my electorate to continue to operate. It is a business that offers training and should continue to operate. Sharp Airlines is a growing provider of regional aviation services and started primarily as a trainer of pilots, but as the business grew it branched into providing air services between Hamilton, Portland and Essendon airports. It also now flies to Adelaide, Launceston and even Flinders Island. The airline does a lot of other mining routes as well. It is fantastic to see a regional business such as this expand, but one of the things that occurred during this expansion was that the provision of services along these routes took over and became a growing part of the business. Sharp still continues to provide excellent training for trainee pilots, but the principal purpose of the organisation became the delivery of air services.

Under the legislation as it previously stood, all of the trainees who came from across Australia to Hamilton to train to be pilots could not get access to VET FEE-HELP. Following that, Helen Sobey from Sharp Airlines came up for a meeting with Tim Friedrich, the minister and others. The minister, his office and the department listened to the case that was put forward and, hence, we have this more flexible 'principal purpose' requirement in the bill. I would like to place on record my appreciation for this being included in the bill. If it had not been included, there was a possibility that Sharp Airlines may have reluctantly had to look at relocating in order to get access to VET FEE-HELP. That would have been a real shame not only for Hamilton but also for the family business itself.

It is very good to see that the unintended consequences in this situation have been addressed. I think the lesson for all of us as decision makers in this building is that when we legislate we should always think of the unintended consequences. When we put forward laws from Canberra we should especially realise that what may be suitable for training providers in our big urban centres or capital cities may not always fit with what is happening on the ground in regional and rural areas. I think for that reason we have to be very careful about mandating absolutely specific requirements. We should always be prepared to say that we might need particular flexibility. So it gives me great pleasure to see that in this bill that is what has been provided. I know that Sharp Airlines are very appreciative that the minister has gone down this path. They feel that they have been listened to in this circumstance. That is very good and they are grateful.

I will go into a little bit of detail regarding the more flexible 'principal purpose' requirement to get on the record what the government has done. The amendment adds to the current principal purpose provisions to allow the minister the discretion to approve a body corporate as a higher education or VET provider where the principal purpose of that body may not be education—and/or research in the case of higher education providers—as long as its other purpose or purposes do not conflict with its principal purpose. The minister may suspend or revoke a body's approval as a higher education or VET provider if any of the body's other purposes conflict with its principal purpose, or if the body no longer has education—and/or research, in the case of higher education providers—as its principal purpose.

The following amendments are made to section 16-25, in relation to higher education providers, and to clause 6, in relation to VET providers, and are similar amendments to ensure consistency between the respective provisions. Once again, I think the government has acted in good faith in making this amendment. As the member for Wannon, as a member of the coalition and as someone who led a delegation to the minister, I support this change.

Broadly speaking, we also support the streamlined measures that are introduced through this bill to the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The intention is to simplify administrative arrangements relating to VET providers to ensure that quality providers apply for and are able to offer income-contingent loans in the form of VET FEE-HELP. The bill also seeks to improve risk management processes ensuring VET FEE-HELP approved providers are fit and proper people. I think we are all in agreement that we need this to be the case and that we do not want to see an instance or instances whereby some of those who are providing VET training may not be doing so for particularly wholesome reasons. So this is a good change.

The bill is intended to increase access to VET FEE-HELP by removing financial barriers to higher education, ensuring those who wish to undertake a VET qualification are able to access student loans to fund their course. I go back to one of the amendments which have been made which will enable young potential pilots from around Australia to go and train in Hamilton to become pilots and get assistance for doing so, whereas under the previous legislation that was not the case; only those that had the income could do so. This is a change for the better.

Income-contingent loans were extended to the VET sector in 2007 under the former coalition government. It is good to see that both sides have been able, in government, to continue to progress the changes which were made to the sector in 2007—changes led by the coalition government at that time. The extension of student loan assistance from the university sector to the VET sector with student loans available for diploma, advanced diploma, graduate certificate and graduate diploma courses, was a very positive move. It was recognition that, while we need students in our tertiary institutions, in our universities, we also need to ensure that students who want to do, for instance, aviation training are able to afford to do so and to be able to relocate where necessary to do that training. The loan may cover or partially cover the tuition costs of the VET course, a sensible addition, and students are required to repay their loan once their income exceeds the minimum repayment level of $44,911 for 2011—once again, a very sensible provision.

Regrettably, too few Australians have been able to access VET FEE-HELP to date, and I think the hope from all sides is that we will see more Australians accessing VET FEE-HELP. It is important, as I stated before, that we can position students, no matter how they are seeking to skill themselves—whether it be in universities or through vocational education or training—so that they can afford to do so. So hopefully we will now see greater access to this. One place where I am sure it will happen is that we will see an increase in the aviation sector.

DEEWR figures show that in 2009 only 5,262 students received income-contingent loans under the VET FEE-HELP scheme. These are the most available figures at the moment, but hopefully we will see that number increase significantly. There were only 15 registered training organisations that were eligible. Once again, I think that through these amendments, and in particular the one that I detailed specifically earlier in my speech, we will see the number of RTOs that are eligible expand.

The minister will specify by means of legislative instrument the criteria to take into account in deciding whether management of the RTO is a fit and proper person before the body may be approved as either a higher education provider or a VET provider. Once again, I think this is a sensible addition. It is another safeguard to make sure that the VET provider wants to provide education and training in the vocational sector—that that is what their intent is.

So the coalition remains supportive of income-contingent loans. Once again I express my appreciation that we will now see this being able to be offered to students who seek to learn how to fly. As our need for air services continues to grow, with the expansion especially in our resource sector, and the needs of our commercial airlines continue to grow, we are going to need to continue to process pilots and to be able to train them up. The changes in this bill will enable that to happen. I think that on the whole everyone in this House will finally benefit from that change, because a dearth and shortage of pilots is not something that the nation needs. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage aviation training. Once again I would like to place on the record my thanks to the minister and his office for having listened, for having made the amendment that they have made in this bill and also for following on from the good work that the Howard government did in introducing this VET FEE-HELP.