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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 12127

Dr SOUTHCOTT (7:00 PM) —This is a straightforward bill, theHigher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Tertiary Admission Centres) Bill 2009, which the opposition will be supporting. In fact we have spoken to this bill earlier when it was part of a bill to reintroduce compulsory student unionism and at that time I did indicate that we supported those sections of the bill which related to the broadening of the definition of students who would be able to receive VET-FEE HELP.

VET-FEE HELP was introduced by the former coalition government in 2007 and it was in 2007 that VET-FEE HELP was extended for the first time to the VET sector. It was principally for students undertaking full-fee courses in diploma, advanced diploma, graduate diploma and graduate certificates. It was at bodies which were corporate bodies and which had in place credit transfer arrangements for higher education. Prior to this the VET sector was the only sector offering post-secondary qualifications without fee help. The coalition recognised that students seeking an education in VET did not receive the same level of financial support as those seeking an education at university.

In August 2008, as part of the Victorian state government’s move to a demand-driven skills and training system, the federal government announced the extension of income-contingent loans to the Victorian VET sector and at that time the opposition, both myself and the shadow minister for education, at that time the member for Casey, indicated our support for that extension of income-contingent loans. So the opposition position has been laid out there from August last year.

The TAFE future survey in 2006 indicated that fees present a major deterrent particularly for those living in areas with a high dependence on social security and in low-paid jobs. VET-FEE HELP increased the accessibility to vocational education and training for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who otherwise may not have been able to afford to undertake these studies.

This legislation allows for a broadening of the students who will be able to receive VET-FEE HELP. For the first time it will be extended to government subsidised students who are studying for a diploma or advanced diploma. At this stage it applies specifically only to VET reform states or territories, and at present there is only one, and that is Victoria. There is provision there for other states, should they go down the same pathway that Victoria has gone down in the vocational education and training sector, to gain access to this, but at the moment the costings are there for $5 million over the next two years and then there is a return after that. The opposition recognises the importance of VET qualifications and believes that these qualifications deserve the same status as a university degree.

In the budget reply speech this year the Leader of the Opposition outlined our proposal to bring forward the incentives for apprentices in the area of traditional trades. By bringing forward the incentives to a time when apprentices are generally less productive, it gives a clear financial incentive for businesses and helps them retain staff when finances are tight. That is why, when the government recently announced its proposals for KickStart apprentices, again focused on trade apprentices and also on bringing forward the incentives to commencement, the opposition supported it. We thought that was very similar to the idea that we proposed in the budget in May.

We need as a country a multifaceted approach to boost enrolments in traditional trades and areas of skill shortage, especially as the Australian economy enters recovery. That is why the previous government established the Australian Technical Colleges. The idea was to have centres for excellence for VET in schools. It combined a pathway to complete year 12 certificate III, a school based apprenticeship, and a very big employer-industry input into the direction of the school. We thought that was very much the direction to go to concentrate the effort. VET training is very expensive and it made very good sense to concentrate that effort. So the Australian Technical Colleges were set up with industry, ensuring that the needs of employers were taken into account in the development of curriculum and training of the future workforce.

Unfortunately, the government did not share our vision. They have ceased funding the Australian Technical Colleges as of the end of this year, throwing the education of many students into turmoil. For example, there is the Australian Technical College in Northern Tasmania and the Australian Technical College in Spencer Gulf. Both have no certainties about their future, both are looking at closing at the end of the year, and both have seen a very significant number of school based apprentices on those campuses.

It is absolutely critical as the economy recovers that we do see strong enrolments in VET courses and in apprenticeships as well. That is why we proposed in the budget bringing forward the incentives for apprentices in traditional trades. As the economy recovers it is likely that we will see skill shortages in a whole range of areas—in electrical, in automotive, carpentry and mining—and it is absolutely critical that we encourage participation in these areas of skill shortages now.

The second part of the legislation has some amendments which deal with tertiary admission centres and will see tertiary admission centres to have the same status and duty of care as officers of a higher education provider and a VET provider in relation to the processing of students’ personal information. Tertiary admission centres allow for the streamlining of applications by potential students to higher education institutions and it is vital that they adhere to stringent guidelines in the processing and handling of personal information.

That is the opposition’s point of view. This is a straightforward piece of legislation. We do support the extension of income-contingent loans, in this case to Victoria, and any other states or territories that go down that track. We would be very interested in watching the progress of the reforms in Victoria as well. The amendments which relate to the tertiary admission centres are ones which we think are necessary.