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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 12129


Mr RAGUSE (7:08 PM) —I certainly acknowledge the contribution of the member for Boothby and the bipartisan approach to this particular piece of legislation with all these amendments. I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Tertiary Admission Centres) Bill 2009. The bill before us today seeks amendments in two areas of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The two amendments seek to expand the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme and amend the functions of tertiary admission centres. As the member for Boothby well explained, the changes—and the continuation of a number of parts of the framework—are to what we understand very well as the vocational education and training system, and they put in context the better known and historical aspects of the TAFE system of technical and further education. Labor governments for many generations, certainly from the Whitlam years, always looked at vocational education and training and the better ways of enhancing that approach.

VET FEE-HELP is a loan scheme to assist vocational education and training students with their tuition fee expenses. VET FEE-HELP allows students to defer their fee expenses until they are earning a reasonable income of at least $43,150 for the financial year 2009-10. Schedule I of the bill broadens VET FEE-HELP eligibility by allowing lower debt amounts to apply to classes of students and to allow VET credit transfer requirement matters to be dealt with within the guidelines. These changes will allow VET FEE-HELP to be made available to more training organisations and state government subsidised students. As the member for Boothby mentioned, this is about VET reform states—states which take the commitment. At the moment Victoria is progressing that way but certainly the framework is there for other states to come on board. Schedule II of the bill makes technical amendments to allow a better flow of personal information between tertiary admission centres and other educational entities. This is to be achieved by amending the act to give tertiary admission centres the same status and duty of care in dealing with personal information as officers of a higher education provider and VET provider. These changes are to ensure that education authorities can share relevant information. The privacy and rights of students remain protected by the privacy requirements and provisions of the act.

What is significant about this bill and the continuation of the framework is that it gives increased recognition, certainly for the vocational education and training sector. As I said before, it enhances the technical and further education system and many of the TAFE colleges. This harks back, of course, to the same sort of ideology that Labor governments have had for many years, in fact since the Whitlam government. I have mentioned before in this House the considerable changes that a former Whitlam education minister, Kim Beazley senior, whom we know very well, brought to skills training and to vocational education and training. A senior public servant at that time, Myer Kangan, set out to produce a report that would look at the delivery of technical skills through different agencies. It was clear in the very beginning that coordination—the very things that we talk about today—brings in a system. At that time the system was called ‘technical and further education’—the system we know today as TAFE.

That has been further enhanced with our understanding of the vocational education and training system, or the VET system. Over the last two decades there has been a move towards other private providers and registered training organisations which can actually work in that space of technical and further education. It is of personal interest to me, of course, because for 10 years of my working life I was a TAFE teacher, lecturer and TAFE college director. I had a lot to do with a lot of the changes and enhancements to our training system and coordinating a national training approach to skills and the way we credential skills. Not so many years ago an electrician who gained training in Queensland might not have been able to operate in Victoria or Western Australia because of the differences of not only the training regime but also the certification that went with that. Those times are long past. The establishment of the Australian National Training Authority in the Keating years was very much about setting that framework in place. As the member for Boothby well recognised, during their time in government they recognised that TAFE and the VET system were important frameworks in establishing and maintaining our skills training base.

Bipartisan support exists in this area, and it is critical that it exists because over 30-odd years from the time that the Kangan report was tabled and the TAFE system was born we still today need to continue to work together. The nationalisation of most of our training systems—but particularly the TAFE system, which, as the member for Boothby pointed out, is so important—means that we have a strong skills base and that people have the opportunity to gain not only higher educational qualifications through university but certainly the vocational skills that quite often enhance the training that they already have. In fact, only today in a related area of education I spoke about this very thing—that not so many years ago a person could engage in a course of academic study and not necessarily gain the empirical skills that someone might need to provide a certain activity on the ground.

I had a strong involvement in helping to understand that reverse articulation. Most organisations now accept articulation, certification and the recognition of skills across not only different state jurisdictions but different educational institutions. This very bill does talk about the need for a number of requirements—certainly articulation and reverse articulation—in those programs. The fact is that not so many years ago a certificate course in Queensland, whether or not it was seen as what we understand now as a cert I to a cert IV, might have been completely different from the sort of training that you might see in another state.

That national framework was very important; the processes of ANTA were very important. But one problem, one difficulty that existed was that the funding for students in the VET sector did not match those opportunities that had been established in the university sector. So the Whitlam era brought in access to a university education, the development of the TAFE system. At a later time, the introduction of a HECS fee system allowed students to access educational opportunities and take a loan and pay those fees at a later date when they were earning certain levels of income. That was all very important, but the VET system is still very important in continuing to enhance the TAFE system.

I will give you an example of how important it has been to the development of new industries in this country. I reflect on my involvement in the media and the new media industries, which we all understand today as being multimedia. Back in the early nineties most of the skills training did not exist in this country. We had the opportunity to enter that new world of the internet and multimedia, which we understand as being everyday today—accessing computing systems and using browsers and using different software to access different programs and opportunities—but the reality is that in this country back then we had very limited knowledge or ability of how we would create the content. I reflect on a story. When Keating announced the Creative Nation strategy, that was very much built on a visit by Bill Gates to this country when we were boasting of opportunities that we were putting in place with the development of Optus and the laying of fibre-optic cable. That is a very relevant discussion these days but this is back in the early nineties, when this infrastructure was being built. Bill Gates, who was observing this, said: ‘This is very good, but what are you going to put down those lines? What are you going to run along those data lines?’ Of course it was clear that content was something we did not have or did not have the ability of in this country.

The point I am making here is that the development of new industries and the opportunities that exist through training and the new media—what we call now the multimedia industry—were born at that time simply because there was a desire and a need and an opportunity to build a new industry, but through training. That was also enhanced by the understanding that if we were going to have a national approach to multimedia, or new media at the time, then we had to have qualifications that reflected the same things. I remember well that the then Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, suggested that Victoria would be the multimedia capital of Australia. It was great in a statement, but dare I say, being a parochial Queenslander, we did it first. The very first educational programs in multimedia, the first higher post-secondary qualifications in vocational ed and the certificates and advanced certificates and diplomas were developed in Queensland, and then the articulation to those university programs.

The point I am making is that these all go together, these parts all come together to enhance our vocational education and training system. The reality is that we must continue to work towards giving opportunities to students to access this type of training. The choice that many students make is certainly an academic path, but, as we know, during the period leading up to the financial issues we have had a huge skills deficit. In fact, we currently have a skills deficit in this country, and so the vocational education and training system is the place and is the means by which we can finally provide well-trained graduates who then can go out and build our infrastructure in the way that the community demands.

As I said, wonderful opportunities have been advanced by technology, but also by our ability as a country to see an opportunity, and through the TAFE system. Through this bill, which enhances the opportunity and access for students, they can take loans and have an opportunity to study and take that career path which may end up ultimately a combination of vocational skills and also academic skills.

This has also had a lot to do with the very current debate around international students and the international programs that we run. Students who come to this country are studying not only in the university sector but right throughout our vocational education and training system. We talk often in this House about the issues and some of the problems that exist in maintaining a quality system for international students. The reality is that it is a $15 billion industry that is built on the back of our ability to develop a credential system. It is all about having developed a credential system that would give students who accessed education in Australia a qualification that was matched against a quality framework. This is something that does not exist in many other countries in the world. The approach that was taken during the Whitlam years, the development of a vocational education system, TAFE as we know it and the continuation to have easy articulation into university programs is all very much about that program of training and support.

In conclusion, the federal government is supporting students seeking vocational education and training. The VET options provide students with important career progression pathways, as I have explained, and the VET FEE-HELP is expanded to additional training organisations and state government subsidised students. This bill allows the better flow of student information between education authorities within strict privacy guidelines, and of course further opens up the training market to both government and private sector training organisations in the pursuit of quality outcomes for not only our students in this country but also those international students who pay high fees to come and gain a qualification from this country. For those reasons, I commend the bill to the House.