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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9328


Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (10:46): I rise today to make some remarks regarding the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The coalition will not be opposing this bill. We are certainly very supportive of legislation that streamlines, that makes things easier and more efficient, and that indeed is the case with this particular piece of legislation. The Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The bill aims to strengthen and streamline the administration of the government's higher education loan schemes—HELP schemes—FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP. VET FEE-HELP was announced by the Howard government in the 2007 budget and it extended FEE-HELP to the vocational training and education sector. This move by the coalition recognised there was a need to encourage students to take up higher level skill qualification by reducing financial barriers and it addressed the unfair situation where the VET sector had courses with high fees, but was the only sector with postsecondary qualifications without an income-contingent loans scheme. VET FEE-HELP plays an important role in ensuring Australians have access to affordable education. VET FEE-HELP is a government loans scheme which helps eligible students pay their tuition fees for higher level vocational education and training courses—VET courses undertaken at approved VET FEE-HELP providers.

It is useful to make a few comments about how it works for those that do not necessarily have an understanding in this area. To be an approved provider, registered training organisations—or RTOs—must apply to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education and satisfy a range of eligibility requirements. RTOs must:

be a body corporate …;

be an RTO as listed on the National Register …;

be financially viable and likely to remain financially viable;

carry on business in Australia with central management and control in Australia;

offer VET accredited diploma and advanced diploma courses …;

be a member of an approved tuition assurance scheme …;

have administrative procedures and the capacity to meet reporting requirements.

VET FEE-HELP can be used to cover all or part of a student's tuition fees. The government pays the loan amount directly to the approved provider. Students repay the loan gradually through the tax system once their income reaches the compulsory repayment threshold set by the ATO. The threshold is currently $49,095. VET FEE-HELP is available for courses at approved providers at the level of diploma, advanced diploma, graduate certificate and graduate diploma. The amendment bill before the chamber came about because of a post-implementation review of VET FEE-HELP undertaken in 2011. The review was commissioned in 2009 and found that VET FEE-HELP was administratively complex and, as I said at the outset, the coalition is supportive of those measures that will reduce complexity when it comes to administration. The review also found that overall there is strong support for the scheme by the VET sector, particularly in relation to the scheme's role in providing greater equity and accessibility for VET students. The review did however find that the scheme was increasing at a slower than anticipated rate in terms of student enrolment and approved VET FEE-HELP providers, but there were positive signs for further growth. The bill is the first stage of implementation of those changes made in the post-implementation review. We certainly welcome the practical measures in the bill which reduce red tape and that aim to increase the number of VET FEE-HELP providers and, in turn, students accessing vocational education courses.

It is important to point out the importance of VET courses. Over many years we have seen a lot of focus on the higher education system when it comes to university. It is pleasing to see, increasingly over recent years, the focus that has been placed on the VET sector and the important role that it provides our students, particularly those in regional areas. It is also very pleasing to see a number of collaborative arrangements starting to take place—indeed, they have been for some time—between the university sector and the TAFE sector. I am very supportive of those arrangements, where they are in place, and know that there is a real benefit in there, particularly for regional students. We welcome any attempt to increase the access of students to further education, both VET and tertiary, although I must note that over recent years it has not always been the case that this government has put in place measures that have done so. I refer to the changes in early 2010, changing the arrangements for the independent youth allowance, which severely disadvantaged some regional students, and was very pleased to see after a lengthy period of time that the government did do a backflip, recognising the inequity that they had created for regional students.

It is vitally important that our regional students have equity of access to education. There is no excuse for regional students to have anything less than that equity when it comes to accessing education.

The RIS completed by the government states that the take-up of VET FEE-HELP by RTOs, and therefore students, has been below government expectations. However, I note that there are positive signs with data showing that the number of students accessing VET FEE-HELP is increasing over time. A total of 39,124 students accessed VET FEE-HELP during 2011. That is a 50 per cent increase in the number accessing assistance in 2010 and an increase of more than 600 per cent since VET FEE-HELP was first made available. The increase in the number of students accessing VET FEE-HELP assistance corresponds to an increase in the number of VET providers offering VET FEE-HELP and also the number of students eligible for VET FEE-HELP assistance.

Of particular concern to me is the low take-up rate of VET FEE-HELP by students in regional and remote areas. This is referred to as an issue of concern in the RIS. In 2011, 18.2 per cent of students accessing VET FEE-HELP were from regional and remote Australia. Clearly, that is a figure that we would like to see improved. The complex administrative policies and processes of VET FEE-HELP are noted as major contributing factors to the low participation rate of this group. It is, however, slightly promising to see that the percentage is increasing. The figure of 18.2 per cent is an increase of about 86 per cent from 2010. So, while the figure is still unacceptably low, we note that it is increasing.

We need to ensure that the participation figure for regional and remote students continues to increase. World-class education is the right of every Australian and a vital investment in the people, opportunities and prosperity of our nation, regardless of where you live. However, we know that where you live does have a big impact on the ability to access both VET and tertiary education. An increase in the number of RTOs in regional locations would help to increase participation by regional and remote students. According to VET FEE-HELP data collection in 2011, there were 230 campuses of approved VET providers. We note that some providers operate at multiple campuses. None were located in remote or very remote regions. In New South Wales, for example, there are 74 campuses of approved VET providers: 57 are in major cities, 15 are in inner regional areas and only two are in outer regional areas. In Queensland, there are 31 in major cities, one in an inner regional area and one in an outer regional area.

The estimated cost for a regional student to relocate and attend university is said to exceed $30,000 per year in study costs, accommodation and living expenses. The cost to relocate for VET would be a comparable amount. The cost of relocation is a huge barrier to regional and remote students taking up VET FEE-HELP places. An increase to providers in these areas would surely assist in breaking down these barriers. Again, there is the inequity that exists for our regional students who are faced with the burden of the cost of relocation—a burden that does not sit with our students, by and large, in metropolitan areas. One of the key issues that we on both sides of this chamber must continue to grapple with is to make sure that we have equity of access for our regional students. When I talk to parents in the regions, they say they simply cannot afford it, even in spite of the measures the minister has put in place that he says are assisting regional students. I will give credit where credit is due: in some areas, that is indeed the case. But, by and large, there are still a number of regional families who are not sending their students away to tertiary education because of the cost.

In light of the skill shortage facing the agriculture industry, I am also concerned to see the low take-up rate—that is, the proportion of fees deferred through VET FEE-HELP assistance for agricultural, environmental and related studies. Of all the disciplines, agriculture had the lowest take-up rate at 40 per cent. This is in comparison to areas such as food hospitality and personal services, which had the highest take-up rate of 94.3 per cent. Why? This is attributed to the lack of access to education and training in regional and remote areas. These areas also have limited access to the internet and lower rates of broadband use, limiting the option of online study.

Senator Conroy: That's your fault, as you know.

Senator NASH: Unfortunately, Minister, things just do not happen quickly enough, do they? Minister, if you had not overbeaten the egg, we might be a little closer to having some broadband for those areas. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of VET courses in agricultural, environmental and related studies has increased from 25 to 45, which is welcomed. Anything we can do to encourage and make it easier for more students to enter agricultural training at any level, be it tertiary, VET or short courses, is to be encouraged.

The Senate committee report on higher education and skills training in agriculture and agribusiness, released in June, revealed the agriculture industry needs 4,000 graduates a year to fill vacancies, yet there are currently only 700 graduates. This is an issue I continue to implore the government to focus on, in terms of future sustainability of the agriculture sector in Australia When we have figures such as those in front of us, it is simply not good enough that more is not being done to address this issue, increase the participation rate and ensure that our young people understand the very bright future for them in the agriculture sector. Reasons for the decline in agriculture and agribusiness education in Australia are complex, but they include an ageing workforce, competition from the mining industry and the high cost of education.

Since 2001, there has been a trend of declining enrolment in higher education qualifications in ag science and related fields, leading to a shortage of qualified professionals in the agriculture sector. This is alarming, particularly in light of the fact that the on-farm agriculture sector is forecast to lose at least 30 per cent of its workforce over the next 10 years, mostly due to ageing. As one of those farmers in regional areas who is ageing, I think I am part of that figure now. It really is something we need to be aware of. We need to ensure that we encourage the next generation to be on the land and be involved in the agriculture sector, given the contribution agriculture makes to the economy, the nation and our society. Studies have shown that educational attainment in agriculture is generally low compared to other industries. However, the gap in attainment is greater for bachelor degrees than for VET qualifications, and for lower level VET qualifications agriculture has a higher proportion than overall, demonstrating a preference for VET training rather than tertiary studies.

Provision of education through VET training as an alternate pathway to tertiary courses is of increased importance in light of the government's axing of the popular Farm Ready program earlier this year. Courses of a shorter duration have traditionally been popular with farmers and their employees. While short courses may not achieve certificates, diplomas or degrees, they are essential to encourage knowledge sharing and skills in the industry. As we know very well, primary producers are time poor, with many unwilling to commit to extended periods of training. Farm Ready helped to fill a gap in the skills market and was axed despite there being 469 approved courses at the end of May 2012, including computer mapping, introduction to no-till, succession planning, use of computerised financial packages, production change, whole farm planning, management integrated crop and pasture production, pasture and animal production, strategic management and permaculture design.

The VET FEE-HELP scheme has the potential to assist many more Australians to access further education. Moves to remove barriers to participation in the scheme, which will hopefully assist in addressing inequities faced by regional and remote students, are certainly welcomed, and the coalition will not be opposing the bill.