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Thursday, 26 November 2009
Page: 9018

Senator MASON (1:46 PM) —Most importantly, the coalition does, of course, support this bill. The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Tertiary Admission Centres) Bill 2009 amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 by broadening the application of the Higher Education Loan Program help category for vocational education and training students, called VET FEE-HELP. The bill builds on the coalition’s proud record in office of supporting all young Australians in their educational paths. In 2006 the TAFE future survey indicated that course fees presented a major deterrent to young people pursuing vocational education and training, particularly to those young people living in areas with a high dependence on social security and in low-paid jobs. This was of great concern to the coalition government, particularly at a time of skill shortage. We could not stand by and let the human potential go to waste simply because young people could not afford to take the courses they wanted to.

Also, considering that those wanting university education were already receiving government support, why should VET students have to pay upfront fees while those at universities did not have to? That was the issue before the Howard government. This was particularly hard to justify, given the commitment of Howard government and the higher education sector to enhancing the articulation of VET qualifications for university entrants and also for degree credit at university. Credit transfer arrangements from the VET sector to university are now well established and commonplace. Thus, to preclude VET students from access to income contingent loans was not only unjust but increasingly illogical. So it was not just about personal and economic outcomes; it was also very much about fairness.

In June 2007 the Howard government introduced the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP Assistance) Bill. This bill enabled FEE-HELP to finally be extended from higher education to the vocational education and training sector, specifically providing financial assistance to individuals undertaking full-fee diplomas and advanced diplomas. This invaluable financial support has enabled many, many young people around Australia to pursue further education and gain further qualifications that they otherwise would not have achieved. They are better for it and, of course, so is our country. The bill has been criticised on at least one ground—that is, that it has been asserted that student access to income contingent loans in the VET sector might provide the incentive for VET providers to increase their fees. While there is little evidence that this has occurred thus far, it is something I know that the government will have to continue to monitor, and I am sure it will.

I only have one piece of sad news. My friend Senator Birmingham reminded me of this: in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2009-10 the Rudd government announced that it intends to increase the FEE-HELP loan fee for undergraduates enrolling with private providers from 20 to 25 per cent, which will raise about $42 million over three years for the government. The opposition opposes this because this measure singles out fee-paying undergraduates enrolling with private providers and not other categories of students. Neither HECS-supported postgraduates nor those studying overseas are affected. The opposition does not support the announcement that the government has made in the MYEFO report for 2009-10. In the May budget the government committed itself to the position that the loan fee for FEE-HELP would not be increased, but that seems to be a broken promise. It is disappointing, and it is certainly one more disincentive for Australian students wanting to pursue the course of their choice. The government rightly talks about access. It is very important. But if access is truly the cornerstone of higher education and also vocational education and training, this is one policy that does not assist that. With those comments, I add that the coalition does support the bill.