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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1818


Ms LEY (Farrer) (18:07): I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011.

The coalition is committed to ensuring that Australian education is world class. Be it our university sector or our vocational education sector, we are determined that we shall be recognised globally as a standard bearer. We need a system defined by its academic quality, flexibility and ability to promote productivity. The coalition supported both the establishment of TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and also a national VET regulator to provide for a more systematic process of registration and auditing for vocational education and training, commonly known as VET.

It was the creation of these two agencies that in part led to one of the key aims of this bill. Part 3 of the bill outlines the use and disclosure of information collected from providers during their application process. This will enable the sharing of this information with the national regulatory agencies. Without doubt, the vocational sector had been plagued by a number of serious regulatory problems, resulting in the need for a real overhaul. We acknowledge that the system required a more stringent, consistent model of regulation and we supported the implementation of this model, albeit highlighting that the national VET regulator does not offer a truly national system of regulation as it currently stands because Western Australia and Victoria have chosen to remain outside the system. This bill specifically provides for greater compliance provisions for VET providers. Higher education does not just provide us with a home-grown workforce, it is also a vital export. Therefore it is critical that we ensure the end product is of as high a standard as possible. We want to be considered as a world leader and in order for this to occur we need a sound framework. That being said, we need a transparent, accountable system of regulation. But the coalition will not condone a system that is plagued by red tape. We need to audit smarter, not harder.

The former coalition government introduced income contingent loans to the VET sector in 2007. This helped extend education opportunities to those who had never previously believed a higher education was within their grasp. VET FEE-HELP enables all Australians to benefit from training, giving people a better employment future. Schedule 2 of the bill clarifies that the Higher Education Support Act is to this extent a tax law, for the purposes of the Taxation Administration Act, ensuring that the responsibility for the collection of the debt incurred via VET FEE-HELP or FEE-HELP rests with the taxation commissioner.

This bill seeks to amend the provisions concerning the permissible time frame the minister has in order to approve a request to become a higher education or VET provider. Currently, the minister has 90 days in which to approve the application from the receipt of the application. This bill will ensure that even if this time frame is not met, the minister may still approve the provider. The coalition does, however, caution the minister that a blow-out in time for approvals will not be acceptable.

Part 4 ensures that the secretary can revoke or alter a determination that an advance can be made to a provider. Again, the circumstances under which this may occur are outlined and provide that serious cases of misconduct can result in action from the Commonwealth.

Part 2 of the bill introduces subclauses 25 (2) and (3), outlining the circumstances in which a provider must provide written information to the minister when they believe they are in breach of their contractual requirements. Certainly, to some this may appear to be bit of a nanny state clause; however, on the understanding that in the first instance the department will work with the provider to rectify any problems, the coalition, whilst having some concerns, recognises that this mirrors a clause in the National VET Regulator Bill and we will not be opposing this measure.

As a country we need to ensure that we are positioning ourselves in the best possible space to deliver high-quality, industry-driven training. Vocational training has such a critical role to play here in helping us meet the future workforce challenges in both existing industries such as mining and in new economies yet to be explored.

Whilst these are good measures, regrettably we do find ourselves facing some significant challenges in the VET sphere. The national partnership agreement as re-announced by the Prime Minister earlier this year has been the subject of much speculation. Ultimately, this was little more than a re-announcement of a plan for a new national partnership agreement. The 'national entitlement for a training place' is indeed nothing new. Labor committed to this in the 2010-11 budget, and I draw the responsible minister's attention to the Skills for Sustainable Growth fact sheet, What is the national entitlement to a quality training place? The word 'quality' appears to have vanished, but there is little else of difference nearly two years on.

Given this government's significant botching of the Productivity Places Program, it could be time that they conceded they do not have the skills or the know-how to implement VET programs. They got so desperate with the Productivity Places Program that they were forced to handball them off to the states, then surreptitiously siphon off the money to other programs that they hoped to brand more favourably. This could well be why, as I understand it, states are a little reluctant to sign on the dotted line this time around.

However, despite the numerous problems that have been the making of the federal government in this space, we do have thousands of committed providers who are endeavouring to do their best to provide a quality education both for local and international students. The coalition is committed to assisting these providers to operate within a framework that ensures a quality education within sensible business parameters for these training businesses.

We clearly have a way to go to in order to ensure that Australia is a preferred choice for international students seeking the best quality education, and for Australian students wanting a globally competitive advantage. But we in the coalition are committed to this goal and we do trust that this bill, properly administered in a policy sense, will help to realise this ambition.