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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Page: 12132

Mr COULTON (7:21 PM) —I rise tonight to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Tertiary Admission Centres) Bill 2009. In a previous occupation before I came here I was heavily involved in vocational education and training, and I understand the importance of that, particularly in rural electorates such as mine. In speaking on this bill tonight I would like to highlight some of the flaws that exist in the application of the bill in the hope that by putting this on record the department and the minister may be able to iron out some of the problems that are affecting one training organisation in my electorate.

Since opening its doors in Dubbo in 2006, the Advanced Massage College of Australia has provided a variety of professional courses in the field of massage therapy. The college, and the courses it provided, are somewhat unique to western New South Wales and as such the college has consistently attracted a large number of applicants. In fact, in only a few short years the college’s reputation has grown to the point where a number of its students have relocated to Dubbo from throughout New South Wales to study there.

The owner-director of the Advanced Massage College of Australia, Mr Claude Phillips, has had significant difficulties in accessing the VET-FEE HELP and obtaining a credit transfer agreement for a diploma course at the college. Mr Phillips applied for VET funding on 13 May 2009 but, despite repeated representations to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Gillard, Mr Phillips is still unclear as to why these difficulties have arisen.

Mr Phillips’s confusion about his situation increased when it was brought to his attention that a very similar organisation in Western Australia, offering a very similar course, was granted VET-FEE HELP funding based on exactly the same criteria as presented by the Advanced Massage College of Australia. There seems to be widespread confusion among many such organisations, particularly in regard to the VET credit transfer arrangement, because VET-FEE HELP has been granted to a number of colleges based on the guidelines laid out in the Australian Qualifications Training Framework Health Training Package, but not to others who are in a very similar situation.

During Senate estimates, a manager from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations clarified the situation somewhat and said the Perth college has a valid credit transfer agreement endorsed by a higher education provider that has been assessed by the department to be compliant with the requirements of the act and the credit transfer part of their application was approved on that basis. The manager explained that the Dubbo college has sought to get that same agreement from Charles Sturt University, which has a campus in Dubbo, as well as several other higher education providers, but has been unable to have a higher education provider endorse that same level of credit transfer for the course he is delivering.

The department was able to do little more than recommend other local higher education providers to try and arrange a credit transfer with them. In regional New South Wales this is very difficult for a variety of reasons, but mainly because there are far fewer options for providers like Mr Phillips. Another reason he has been unsuccessful is because higher education providers such as Charles Sturt University require more credit points, which Mr Phillips believes is a significant flaw in the design of the Australian Qualifications Training Framework Health Training Package, which outlines the benchmark standard for all such colleges to use and follow.

During the course of this funding battle, Mr Phillips has not been able to take on a single student. In 2009, not one student has been or will be accepted to the college, because the students who applied to study remedial massage cannot afford the cost of the course without financial assistance. Over the past four years the college has carried the burden of the financial strain for all students by allowing them to pay what they can. However, the lingering effects of the drought combined with the current economic downturn means that the college is unable to do this any longer. Without VET-FEE HELP the college fears that they will not be able to take in any students in 2010 as well. There are 70 students currently waiting to enrol to study at the Advanced Massage College of Australia and, unless VET-FEE HELP is provided, those 70 students will be turned away.

VET-FEE HELP is an invaluable tool in my electorate in helping address the skills shortages that are increasingly becoming part and parcel of life in regional Australia. However, it is my belief that the processes in which this legislation is applied may need to be altered so that situations such as the one faced by the Advanced Massage College of Australia do not occur in the future.