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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1283

Mrs ANDREWS (McPhersonAssistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills) (10:17): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

VET Student Loans Ombudsman

Student loans to pay for tuition fees provide important financial support for vocational education and training students who would otherwise be unable to afford to study because of upfront fees.

Most training providers whose tuition fees are funded by student loans do the right thing, providing high quality training that gives their students the skills they need to get a job, or get a better job.

Unfortunately, however, it is common knowledge that Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme was exploited by a number of unscrupulous providers and their agents. In particular, disadvantaged Australians were targeted, including those with a disability, those with low levels of literacy, Indigenous Australians and older Australians.

People were signed up for loans but had little understanding of what they were signing up for; taking out loans for courses which they did not need and did not have the capacity to complete.

That is why the Turnbull government axed Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme and established a new, student-centred, robust, outcomes-focused VET Student Loans program.

VET Student Loans rebuild Australia's income contingent loan program for vocational education and training from the ground up, restoring confidence in the VET sector and better protecting students.

As part of VET Student Loans, the government announced it would establish a new VET Student Loans Ombudsman, giving students access to an independent complaints handling mechanism with the power to adequately investigate their concerns.

The submissions made to the Senate inquiry into the VET Student Loans Bill 2016 late last year demonstrated the significant stakeholder support for the government's announcement. For example, the Consumer Law Action Centre said:

An ombudsman will assist the sector to rebuild its reputation and the trust and confidence of students, parents and employers. The fact that the Government is acting quickly to establish this service is welcomed, as accessible and free dispute resolution is complementary to a rigorous consumer protection environment.

Similarly, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) noted:

An ombudsman also offers the vast majority of providers the protection of knowing that those who do the wrong thing will be weeded out.

The VET Student Loans Ombudsman will be operated through the Commonwealth Ombudsman, whose independence will help in restoring confidence in the VET sector.

The VET Student Loans Ombudsman will be able to investigate complaints, and compliance by providers with legislation in relation to loans, for both the new VET Student Loans program and under Labor's failed VET FEE-HELP scheme, and make recommendations to address concerns.

The unfortunate actions of a small number of unscrupulous providers and their agents have left some students with significant debts and damaged the reputation of our many high-quality VET providers.

This government recognises the critical importance of assisting these students with their complaints and repairing the reputation of the sector, and this is why I introduce this bill today.

Australian Research Council amendments

The bill also increases the funding caps in the Australian Research Council Act 2001in line with inflation and ensures that the Australian government can continue to provide support for thousands of research projects.

The Australian government is making a significant investment in science, research and innovation—committing $10 billion across all portfolios in 2016-17 alone.

Through our $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science agenda (NISA) the Turnbull government is supporting research, incentivising innovation and entrepreneurship, rewarding risk taking, and promoting science, maths and computing in schools includes, including through:

sharper incentives for universities to engage with industry to support research commercialisation, through the research block grants;

measuring research impact and university engagement with industry in research;

inspiring all Australians in digital literacy and STEM;

funding critical research infrastructure through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS); and

opening up continuous applications for the ARC Linkage Projects Scheme to enable researchers and industry to apply when the opportunity arises, rather than having to wait for an annual application round.

Through the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australian government is investing in excellent fundamental and applied research that helps improve the quality of people's lives, supports Australian industries and businesses, and ensures our nation remains at the cutting edge of research, innovation and global competitiveness.

Such research has and continues to play an important role in both addressing the most challenging and significant social and economic problems of our time, and ensuring taxpayers money is invested wisely.

In November last year, the government announced more than $416 million in Australian government funding through the ARC's National Competitive Grants Program.

This funding supported research projects including: developing high-speed optical wireless technology; helping to better understand speech and language difficulties in children; and understanding how people with disabilities use smartphones to navigate and use essential services.

In January this year, the government also announced the first research projects awarded funding under the new continuous Linkage Projects scheme, including research that will: improve our national rail track system; develop better coal seam gas water treatment; and improve the efficiency of Australia's mining sector.

Australia's higher education system must have adequate research funding and facilities to ensure we attract and retain world-class academics, working with industry, and teaching the next generation of researchers, policymakers and entrepreneurs.

Unlike the former Labor government, which left a funding cliff for NCRIS in June 2015 and announced $6.6 billion in cuts to university funding, the Turnbull government, through the NISA, has secured the future of the NCRIS network and its 1,700 highly skilled technical and research staff.

High-quality, accessible and sustainable research infrastructure is a crucial investment in Australia's future.

The amendments in this bill, to extend funding through to 2019-20, provide certainty to Australian researchers to continue to deliver critically important research, build partnerships with industry and the community, and realise excellent research outcomes for Australia and the world. I commend this bill.

Debate adjourned.