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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1820

Mrs D'ATH (Petrie) (18:13): I rise today to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011. Ensuring that our workforce has the necessary skills and education in the contemporary Australian job market is vital to the health of Australia's economy and competitiveness in the global community. The Gillard government is reforming our vocational education and training system to give Australians skills for life—skills to get a new start, a better job and a higher pay packet.

Since coming into office, Labor has made a record investment in training to build a highly skilled workforce, to boost productivity and to increase participation. We want Australians to have access to the high-skill, high-paid jobs of tomorrow. In the current economic environment, we have an urgent need to lift skill levels and workforce participation in Australia to allow industry and individual Australians the capacity to respond flexibly to current economic developments. We live in a global world and we need to be competitive. That means we need people with more skills and higher level skills. By 2015 Australia will need an additional 2.4 million workers with qualifications at a Certificate III level and higher to meet the needs of the economy.

Labor recognises that now is the time for VET reform. We have committed $1.75 billion over five years for a new skills reform national partnership agreement with the states. This is in addition to the $1.4 billion the Commonwealth provides annually to states and territories to fund their VET system. These reforms are aimed at making training more accessible, of a higher quality and more transparent to consumers.

This bill will introduce measures that will strengthen and streamline the government's student income contingent loan programs in the higher education and vocational education and training sectors—namely, FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP. Through these schemes the government will provide a loan for all or part of a student's tuition fees and pay these fees directly to the approved education provider. Students in diploma and advanced diploma courses will no longer have to pay their course fees upfront. They will have access to an income contingent loan, similar to the HELP system in higher education. This will boost participation rates in higher level VET courses and provide the highly skilled workers that industry needs.

Importantly, this bill will improve the Commonwealth's ability to manage risks to the administration of public moneys and better protect students in the vocational education and training sector by strengthening the compliance provisions for approved VET providers. Further, the bill includes a transparent provision to make it clear that the secretary may vary or revoke a determination that an advance payment is to be made to a VET provider if the secretary is aware that the provider may not comply with the requirements under the act or may not be financially viable. Matters that the secretary may take into consideration on the decision on whether or not to revoke may include the nature of noncompliance, the provider's history of compliance and the impact of noncompliance on delivering quality education and training.

When it comes to better quality training, the government is also pursuing reforms to ensure that students are receiving high-quality training that meets the needs of industry. We need to ensure that employers can trust in the quality of our VET system. These reforms will build on the new regulatory requirements that this government has already put in place for the establishment of the National VET Regulator, which is now operating in five jurisdictions.

TAFEs are also an integral part of the reforms. TAFEs play an important role in serving the training needs of industry. Labor recognises their importance to local communities in their delivery of high-level training and workforce development for industries and improved skill and job opportunities for disadvantaged learners and communities. In recognition of their role, this government has invested heavily in the infrastructure of our TAFEs as part of the $4.5 billion commitment in tertiary infrastructure from the Education Investment Fund. That investment has seen many facilities updated for the first time in 40 or more years, including automotive workshops and building trades centres.

Further, the government is providing greater responsiveness to industry needs. To lift national productivity, Commonwealth and state and territory governments need to work closely with industry and employers to ensure the VET sector can respond quickly and efficiently to deliver the right skills, at the right time, to meet industry needs.

This bill provides for clearer, simpler and improved administrative arrangements for the assessment of an individual's Higher Education Loan Program debt. In doing so, the bill enables better consistency between the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and tax legislation.

In the electorate of Petrie, our VET providers are committed to providing support and opportunities to their students and, with the introduction of this bill, I am confident that Labor have demonstrated once again that we are the party of jobs, skills and workforce participation by expanding opportunities for individuals to access further education.

On top of the many significant reforms and investments into higher education and skills that I have already mentioned, the Gillard government have a strong history of achieving in this area. Labor have made skills and training the centrepiece of this year's budget. We announced a $3 billion investment in skills and training to address the skills shortages being experienced by industry. We have put more young people into training. Apprenticeship and traineeship numbers have soared over recent years—up from 410,000 in September 2006 to around 459,000 in March 2011, the highest level ever recorded. We made a record government investment of more than $11.1 billion in total skills funding between 2008 and 2011—an increase of almost 55 per cent compared to the $7.2 billion under the former government between 2005 and 2008.

We have boosted the number of VET students to more than ever before. Students undertaking vocational education and training studies with public support rose by eight per cent, up from 1.67 million in 2007 to 1.8 million in 2010. We have ensured a record number of apprenticeships and traineeships. In June 2011 there were more than 462,000 people undertaking apprenticeships and traineeships, up 14 per cent from 404,600 in December 2007. Labor has given more people the opportunity to gain qualifications than ever before. Nearly 400,000 people gained VET qualifications in 2009, up 23 per cent from 319,200 in 2007. Nearly 290,000 people gained higher level qualifications in 2009, up from 228,500 in 2007, a rise of 27 per cent. In 2010, almost 140,000 students who already had degree-level qualifications studied VET, up 38 per cent from 101,400 in 2007. We have made training more accessible. In 2010, there were more than 26,000 VET FEE-HELP assisted students. This is an increase of nearly 400 per cent, or almost 5,300 students, compared to 2009. We have given better access to education for diverse groups. In 2010, there were 83,000 VET students who identified as being Indigenous, an increase of 17 per cent from 2007; 110,000 who identified as having a disability, an increase of eight per cent; and 271,000 from non-English-speaking backgrounds, a 17.6 per cent increase. Finally, we have ensured 150,000 regional and remote students in 2009 completed VET qualifications, a 23 per cent increase from 2007.

The Gillard Labor government is committed to education. Whether it is early childhood education, primary and secondary schooling, VET qualifications or higher education, this government is committed to delivering on education and skills for the future. Today we are debating another piece of legislation that sees Labor delivering on its commitment to developing skills to lift the nation's productivity. I know the people in my electorate are committed to skills improvement and want to see this government invest in apprenticeships and traineeships into the future. That is why it is my pleasure to commend this bill to the House.