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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3268

Mr BIDGOOD (12:24 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The Australian government is committed to ensuring that higher education students have access to the amenities and services they need, as well as access to independent democratic student representation. These amendments provide for measures that support a balanced, practical and sustainable solution to rebuilding student support services, as announced by the Hon. Kate Ellis MP, the Minister for Youth, on 3 November 2008.

These include, firstly, an imposition on higher education providers that receive funding for student places under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme of requirements that ensure the provision of information on and access to basic student support services of a non-academic nature. Secondly, there is an imposition on these higher education providers of requirements ensuring the provision of student representation and advocacy. Thirdly, it includes allowing higher education providers, from 1 July 2009, to choose to implement a compulsory student services and amenities fee—which will be capped at $250 per student per annum and indexed annually—to help provide student services and amenities within set guidelines. Fourthly, it includes providing eligible students with the option of a loan for the fee through the establishment of a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, to be known as Services and Amenities HELP, or SA-HELP.

In 2008-09, total funding for this initiative is $1.34 million, funded through savings against the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. Table A and Table B providers, as listed under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, will be provided with $20,000 each to support upgrades to IT and administrative systems. Funding of $523,000 for departmental expenses will support modifications to the Higher Education Information Management System of $300,000. It will also provide funds for staffing, $122,194, and publication costs of $100,000. Future offsets will be considered in the context of the 2009-10 budget, and the government’s consideration of the review of Australian higher education. Fifthly, this is not a return to compulsory student unionism. Sixthly, the government is not changing section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act, which prohibits a university from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation.

The opposition argues that government is slugging students with more debt in tough economic times. But, in fact, the introduction of the VSU by the previous government stripped close to $170 million out of university funding. This means that students are already paying the cost of VSU, with many university services and amenities being substantially reduced or cut completely. Students have also been hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. Students have also experienced the indirect cost of VSU, with many universities redirecting funding out of research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut. The student amenities fee will help rebuild important student services and amenities. To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier to students in higher education, eligible students have the option of taking out a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program—SA-HELP.

I now turn to the VET FEE-HELP measures. The bill also amends HESA to introduce provisions to allow loan fees and VET credit transfer requirements related to the VET FEE-HELP. This scheme is to be referred to the guidelines that support the program. Specifically, there is a provision to specify a reduced VET FEE-HELP debt below the current 120 per cent of the loan in the VET FEE-HELP guidelines and a provision to allow different arrangements to apply to a different student cohort in relation to credit transfer requirements.

Why is it necessary to introduce these provisions for the VET FEE-HELP scheme? To increase productivity, Australia needs to increase the skill levels of its population. For the last four or five years, the number of students studying diplomas and advanced diplomas in the public VET system has decreased, from 197,300 in 2002 to 165,000 in 2007. This is unacceptable. VET FEE-HELP assists students who may not study at this level due to upfront fees to access training and defer the fees until they are able to pay. This amendment provides the flexibility to reduce the loan fee for particular students and streamline credit transfer requirements for a range of students through the guidelines. On 26 August 2008, the government announced that VET FEE-HELP would be extended to state-subsidised diploma and advanced diploma students in Victoria, with the loan fee being withdrawn for these students. Reducing the loan fee and relaxing credit transfer restrictions form part of this measure. The availability of VET FEE-HELP is expected to significantly contribute to the Council of Australian Governments target to double the number of diploma and advanced diploma completions by 2020.

The bill will also amend the HESA to provide that TACs—Tertiary Admission Centres—have the same status and duty of care as officers of a higher education provider in relation to the processing of students’ personal information. Higher education providers, HEPs, must access students’ personal identifying information to process applications for student places and for Commonwealth scholarships. This amendment will ensure that the relevant information may be shared between the department, HEPs and TACs as appropriate in accordance with HESA and subject to HESA’s privacy requirements. This will help ensure that students’ privacy rights are protected by HESA’s privacy protection provisions.

I commend this bill to the House.