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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11703


Ms HALL (ShortlandGovernment Whip) (18:25): I start my contribution to this debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012 by sharing with the House the experiences that we have had in the Shortland electorate with the Australian technical colleges. I know that the member for Wannon is a new member. In the Shortland electorate there were to be two Australian technical colleges. There was the Hunter or Newcastle ATC and one for the Central Coast. Negotiations took place for many years about getting that one happening. The one in the Hunter, far from having the support of industry and business, could not organise, as part of their work training, one job for the people who were enrolled. They had great difficulty. I had parents coming to see me. The tools that were being used were donated and, believe it or not, the parents went along on the weekend and built the workbenches. Is that a successful system delivering to young people who need to train and get qualifications to go out into the workforce? Or is it just a system that is duplicating the TAFE system which in New South Wales has worked brilliantly and provided brilliant vocational education to young people and not so young people for many years? I know that the parliamentary secretary who is sitting in the chamber with us tonight was a former TAFE teacher and gave many years to ensuring that young people had opportunities in life.

The Rudd and Gillard governments have ensured that we have an ATC on the Central Coast which is working effectively. We have devolved the responsibilities to the high schools. I am on the northern part of the Central Coast. Each of the schools has those services. The other ATC would have been situated at the other end of the Central Coast if an agreement could ever have been reached. It is now operating in areas where young people can actually access it as opposed to having to travel a couple of hours to get to the ATC. It has been combined with the trade training centres, and we have centres of excellence. Three high schools on the Central Coast are really delivering quality vocational education to young people rather than a mickey mouse ATC which was seeking to duplicate the state system because the then minister did not like the state governments.

The member for Wannon would have been very interested to learn that the ATCs did not work at all effectively in my electorate and in the regions I represent. They were fraught with problems: getting employers to offer the training, having the equipment they needed to deliver the services and finding somewhere to situate the ATC on the Central Coast. That is hardly something to boast about as a great achievement of the former, coalition government.

I also heard the member for Wannon complain about the BER program. It seems to me as though he would have been happy if none of the schools in his electorate received funding through the BER program. Once again, I have had a totally different experience within my electorate. Principals of schools have said to me that it is a once-in-a-generation program and that it has transformed the face of the schools in my electorate, and I know that is the case in the electorates of many of my colleagues. I see my colleagues over there agreeing with me. Now there are students in very state-of-the-art classrooms as opposed to being in demountables with mould and mildew on the walls and the carpets. It really has made a big difference. Anyone who knows anything about education knows how important the learning environment is. When students are in very poor and sometimes unhealthy learning environments, their ability to access quality education is impinged on the poor quality of their surroundings. Far from being critical of the BER, I would have thought that the member for Wannon would have consulted with his schools and discovered that they are very appreciative of all those new classrooms and other facilities that they received.

I just needed to deal with those issues that were raised by the member for Wannon in his contribution to the debate before I touched on the legislation. I note that he has agreed to support it in principle and says that the opposition will support it in principle, but there is a big 'but' there. There is always a 'but'. There is never opposition that is constructive; there is never a situation where the opposition will say, 'This is actually good legislation.' They always look to find a reason to say no. This is the most negative opposition that I have ever encountered. I have been an opposition member and I know that you quite often can find fault with legislation, but you must also accept that some legislation deserves the support of the opposition. I have been in the situation where I have supported government legislation and recognised the fact that there is value in the legislation before the parliament.

This bill would introduce a number of measures to strengthen and streamline the Higher Education Support Act and it will result in more effective and efficient administration of the Australian government's Higher Education Loan Program, particularly VET FEE-HELP.

While I am talking about VET FEE-HELP, I would like to quickly transgress and talk a little bit about TAFE. TAFE is a provider of quality vocational education. In New South Wales it has been the source of establishing a strong trade base within the state. It has provided vocational education to tens of thousands of young people over the years. I have been devastated in recent times to learn that the TAFE system in my state of New South Wales has come under attack. TAFE in New South Wales is such a valuable asset. When I hear of course after course closing, I think of the implications for Australia as a nation. If we do not provide adequate and proper training to those people who want to be involved in vocational education, then as a nation we will suffer, and there is no better provider of vocational education than TAFE.

Within New South Wales $116,000 is being slashed from TAFE, as well as 1,800 jobs. TAFE fees will increase by 9.5 per cent. Overall, if you look at education as a whole in New South Wales, there is going to be a three per cent cut in education funding. This is a four-year freeze by the state government, and the impact this will have will be irreversible. All those young people will be denied the opportunity to train, and for us as a nation it will lead to a further shortage in trades. I might add that a large part of these cuts are impacting on apprenticeships.

Members of this House will be aware that we have a skill shortage in Australia. That skill shortage needs to be addressed, but you do not address a skill shortage by slashing, burning and cutting, by not providing education and by not supporting a system that has worked so very well for us as a nation over the years. It is not only in New South Wales that this is happening. I am very aware of New South Wales—it is my own home state, and I have been closely connected with TAFE throughout the region. It is also happening in Victoria and Queensland.

This really needed to be put on the paper, and I could not let the opportunity pass me by whilst talking to this bill, which introduces a number of measures that will strengthen and streamline the Higher Education Support Act. The bill implements recommendations arising from the Post Implementation Review of the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme—Final Report, 30 September 2011. The bill also enhances the quality and accountability framework underpinning the scheme through strengthening suspension and revocation provisions—decisions to revoke or suspend an approved provider will now be taken back to the day the notice is registered.

These are all very important aspects of the legislation: accountability, integrity and transparency of the HELP scheme. We really need to ensure these are in place. The bill will provide a risk management approach to approvals and compliance, and the approach will reduce the administrative burden. The prescribed 20 per cent rule for census data will also be moved to the legislative guidelines. The bill will strengthen a number of definitions and it will further streamline the administration to produce, duplicate and increase efficiencies. These are all very important aspects of this legislation, and they are all aspects that members of this House should support. They should not just support them in principle; they should support the fact that we need to have transparency, accountability and integrity. I have great pleasure in supporting the legislation before us tonight.