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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9331

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:00): The Greens support some aspects of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012 which take a risk-managed approach to administrative compliance. We do however have concerns about the VET FEE-HELP scheme, which we outlined in additional comments made to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations' review of this legislation. The Greens do not support the proposed government amendments that will delay the indexation of Student Start-up Scholarships, which are awarded to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to assist them with the start-up costs of commencing full-time tertiary study.

Overall, the Greens support the provisions of this bill that allow a risk-managed approach to approvals and administrative compliance. It makes sense that the low risk posed by institutions, such as publicly funded TAFEs and universities, is recognised when the minister is approving their applications as a VET provider. After all, our public education institutions are effectively underwritten by government and subject to public scrutiny via their public funding in a way that private corporations are not.

The requirement that the minister must regard a wider range of financial information when making a decision about an applicant's financial viability is appropriate, especially when we remember the number of dubious private providers going bust in 2009, leaving students in the lurch and leaving the government to pick up the financial pieces. We also remember the damage it did to our international reputation. The seeking of full information from TEQSA or a relevant VET regulator when approving, revoking or suspending a higher education or VET provider's eligibility around VET FEE-HELP and FEE-HELP is also a due process.

More timely revocation of a higher education or VET provider's approval as a VET provider when they have been found to present a financial risk or do not meet quality standards or other responsibilities is clearly needed. Students need protection from such providers. The time between the minister's decision to revoke such approval and the time that revocation takes effect must be minimal so that students are not duped into enrolling with institutions that are about to lose their licence to provide VET courses. We cannot risk public money following such enrolments disappearing along with the institution itself.

The delegating to non-public servants to ensure the business of all departments administering funding or programs under the act will continue, despite changes in government or administrative arrangement orders. We can see that this is sensible. The consolidating of four existing sets of guidelines—the VET provider, the VET FEE-HELP, the VET tuition fee and the VET administration guidelines—into one set of VET guidelines also makes sense. The Greens note the concerns raised by a number of providers that much of the detail will be effected through the VET guidelines. This means those details have not been available for examination or assessment, and we do support the call for the government to continue to consult with stakeholders in formulating the VET guidelines provided for in this bill.

The bill allows the minister's power to expand the VET courses applicable for VET FEE-HELP to include certificate IV courses and above. This is in schedule 1, and this change is very troubling. We note the concerns raised by TAFE Directors Australia and RMIT University that VET students currently do not have equitable access to FEE-HELP loans. The Greens agree with the National Tertiary Education Union that:

… it is an abrogation of the Government's responsibilities to rely on the provision of [income-contingent loans] as the primary policy instrument for improving education participation amongst underrepresented groups of Australians.

The NTEU have set out very clearly the problems here. The Greens do not support the shifting of costs for vocational education and training onto the student via TAFE student fees. This in turn necessitates students raising debts to participate in VET through the VET FEE-HELP system.

TAFE is an important entry point into further education and training or into employment for a large proportion of students from low socioeconomic regional and rural regions outside capital cities. Indeed, up to nine per cent of students entering university come from vocational and educational training pathways. This is a huge contribution and it clearly needs to be fostered. With large numbers of disadvantaged students traditionally accessing TAFE, it is wrong that those students should be burdened with HELP debts before even entering the workforce—or before even embarking on basic university study. What type of substantial HELP debts do such students accumulate by the end of their basic university degree? That still is not fully clear.

In 2011 the Prime Minister spoke about an approaching shortage of about 36,000 tradespeople by 2015. We so often hear talk about this problem and the need for Australia to be able to bring forward more skills training so that we can be the 'innovative nation'—which is put in so many policies these days.

This government states that it recognises an increase in higher qualifications for disadvantaged Australians is imperative if we are to successfully compete in a future global economy. If we are to succeed in having 20 per cent of undergraduate students coming from low-socioeconomic backgrounds to meet the looming skill shortages, we should not be burdening disadvantaged students with a HELP debt that is needed to pay rising TAFE fees. This is an anathema to any notion of equity or the idea of removing barriers to participation in further education and training, and it could obviously be somewhat of a roadblock to achieving that skilled nation that we all say we are committed to. For this reason, any extension of the VET FEE-HELP scheme is noted with concern as moving in the wrong direction by pre-empting even higher student fees.

The Greens believe that a fee-and-charges-free TAFE system should be pursued. We need to prioritise and increase VET funding to the TAFE system to ensure a high quality, accessible and viable public VET system.