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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 564

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:51): The Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011 [2012] provides an insight into the failure of government policy in the vocational education and training sector. It is a failure to promote a skilled workforce and a failure of the current legislation. The opening up of VET has exposed the underbelly of the market. It has exposed problems that need to be patched up. This is why this bill is needed.

Under the current act, approval to be a VET provider is given in perpetuity and to top off the gravy train. This bill is needed; we acknowledge that. It goes some way to tightening up compliance and establishing some accountability to private VET provid­ers. The expansion of competitive tendering and contestable funding for VET has brought with it a huge growth of private companies competing for domestic and lucrative full-fee-paying international students.

There are, as we know, unethical provid­ers entering the marketplace, taking advantage of the money to be made. And we know the risks are considerable in this sector. The implication is that it is in taking VET into the marketplace that we will see an expansion in the skills base in this country, but that is certainly not always the outcome. In Victoria the extension of contestable funding saw enrolment in courses for fitness instructors jump 1,000 per cent in just two years. Then there has been the introduction of income-contingent loans for students. That saw the abolition of concession fees for diplomas and the introduction of full fees for domestic students, with significant increases in costs of courses. So it seems an absurdity that, to attract more students to fill skills shortages and power Australia's future economic health, a framework is built that compels students to pay more for their training, forces them to borrow money to pay those increased costs and, in turn, allows further price rises by unscrupulous providers.

The Greens will support this bill. It puts some limited controls in place on a loose market regime that is causing such damage to vocational education. The Greens do welcome that the bill allows the Common­wealth to cancel or vary the payment of the student's debt to the provider via the VET FEE-HELP loan if the provider does not comply with any of the required guidelines or regulations, many of which relate to quality and accountability. It clarifies that a VET provider must provide statistical and other information to ensure compliance as requested by the minister. However, there are problems. The ability of the minister to approve a provider outside the required time frame is double edged because it allows inordinate delays in the process.

The government and the opposition have developed this brave new world of education and training where, despite the importance of VET as an investment in our future, govern­ments treat it as a cost to be borne by students and as a profit to be reaped by the corporate sector. But—to repeat again—the Greens will support the bill, as it provides some safeguards to a problematic sector.