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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 558

Senator MASON (Queensland) (13:22): The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011 [2012] deals with a subject that has been very much on the coalition's mind in recent times—namely, the issue of quality and standards in post-secondary education in Australia. The opposition has a very clear and unequivocal position regarding quality and standards. When speaking recently to the Australian Technology Network of Universi­ties, I remarked that in the pursuit of expan­sion and increased participation we cannot allow our university sector to meander into mediocrity. We simply cannot sacrifice quality for quantity. It is quite clear that if the increase in student participation at university leads to lower standards then everyone is a loser: students whose degrees are devalued, the economy which gets underqualified workers and our higher education system itself, whose domestic and international reputation becomes tarnished. In an equation where resources, participation and standards are all variables, the coalition considers standards to be non-negotiable. If we cannot at least maintain the current standards and quality, nothing else—no other achievement, no other goal reached—really matters. We simply cannot compromise the edge that our higher education system gives us in educating our own workforce here in Australia. We cannot compromise the desira­bility of Australia as a top destination for hundreds of thousands of international students.

While my remarks related to universities, they are just as applicable to vocational education and training. Vocational education and training is another industry undergoing significant expansion and change. Trade skills are essential to guaranteeing the future prosperity of our country, including to ensure that we can take full advantage of the demand from our natural resources. Last but not least, VET is a very important export industry, generating billions of dollars in annual income as our providers provide skills and education for hundreds of thous­ands of students, mostly from Asia. That is why it is essential that our VET system continues to deliver quality service, both for domestic and for international students.

For this reason the coalition, this time last year, supported the creation of a national regulator for the VET sector, just as earlier the coalition supported the creation of TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. If anything, the VET sector is much more in need of a national regulator than our universities, which, in general, both manage themselves well and are well managed under existing institutional arrangements. The VET sector, however, has been much in the news over the past few years—sadly, in some cases, not for the right reasons, ranging from a spate of collapses of VET institutions to many worrying reports of violence directed against overseas students undertaking VET courses in Australia.

The federal government was slow to act on these issues and, when it did, it did so in a haphazard manner, characteristic of the government's general approach to post-secondary education. The coalition is, in principle, in favour of measures that seek to ensure that our VET sector is more transpar­ent and accountable and functions in accordance with high standards of quality. However, we continue to look closely at specific proposals put forward by the government, because we know that good intentions are one thing but good policy and good implementation are quite another. As far as this Labor government is concerned, the twain shall rarely meet.

The recent creation of a national VET regulator and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency requires an update to the legislation to enable effective informa­tion and disclosure provisions. The bill currently before the Senate will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to provide that the minister retains the power to decide an application for approval as a higher education provider, although the required time frame may have expired; require VET providers to notify the minister in writing of events which may affect their ability to comply with quality and accounta­bility requirements; provide for the authoris­ation of certain uses and disclosures of information; allow the secretary to revoke or vary any determination made to pay an advance to a VET provider in certain circum­stances; clarify that a VET provider must provide statistical and other informa­tion, although an approved form of provision has not been specified; and make administrative arrangements relating to the assessment of an individual's Higher Education Loan Program debt.

All this is well and good in principle, and the coalition will not oppose this bill. However, we have concerns about the lack of important detail in this legislation that have not so far been assuaged by the government. In particular, we note the amendment clause 25(2) which imposes an obligation on VET providers to notify the minister in writing of certain events that may significantly affect their ability to continue as an approved VET provider. While we accept that there are similar requirements, for example, within the context of the aged-care industry and the bill does mirror a clause in the National VET Regulator Bill, we seek an assurance that in the first instance the department would work cooperatively with the provider to address any areas of noncom­pliance. In addition, I note that the bill does not specify the preferred documentation the department may seek from providers when the department requests statistical data. This may impose unnecessary administrative requirements on providers. While the coalition is all in favour of strengthening quality and standards, we do not want to see education providers strangled by red tape. Education is far too important economically for Australia. We cannot afford to take another hit to our longstanding and otherwise good international reputation as a provider of very high quality educational services.

As I know you are aware, Madam Acting Deputy President, education is Australia's fourth largest export after iron and coal and only last year was pushed from its traditional third position by the rise in the price of gold. It is also Australia's largest export services industry. A quarter of a million overseas students who attend Australia's schools, VET institutions and universities inject billions of dollars into the Australian economy as well as billions directly into the educational institutions that they attend, thus cross-subsidising the teaching, the infrastructure and learning opportunities for our domestic students. In addition to economic benefits, there are also many intangible and some­times immeasurable benefits as overseas students build often lifelong friendships and connections with their Australian colleagues, add to the international reservoir of goodwill towards our country and, in some cases, stay here in Australia to become residents and ultimately citizens, enriching Australia with their knowledge, expertise and hard work.

Australia has for years, if not for decades, been considered a world-class education provider for international students. Consider­ing our small population, we have managed to attract more overseas students per capita than just about any of our overseas competi­tors. We have built a solid reputation as a welcoming destination offering a great lifestyle as well as excellent quality eduction services for overseas students. But it is fair to say that over the last few years our reputation and our position as the world leader in international education have been under threat from a range of factors.

While we cannot control the international economic situation or the growth in overseas competition to our educational providers or, indeed, even the value of the Australian dollar, which all impact on our competitive­ness as a post-secondary education provider, we certainly are duty-bound to do everything that is in our control in order to rebuild our somewhat frayed reputation and to show the world that Australia remains an attractive destination for international students, offering them quality as well as a friendly educational experience. We certainly hope that this bill will contribute towards that end and we will watch its implementation very carefully to ensure that it does just that.