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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9336

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (11:18): I am pleased to rise to contribute to the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The bill aims to strengthen and streamline the administration of the Australian government's higher education loan program schemes, FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP.

I draw attention to the fact that it was under the Howard government in 2007 that VET FEE-HELP was first announced and then FEE-HELP was extended to the vocational education and training sector. The coalition strongly supports, as do all of us in this chamber, any move at all which encourages students to take up higher education skills qualifications. If that reduces their financial barriers then that is to be applauded, and I will speak in some more detail about that.

There are a number of objectives. Firstly, the bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act to achieve the following: strengthen the quality of the loans program schemes themselves, which in itself is laudable; improve information sharing and transparency with national education regulators; improve arrangements for early identification of low-quality providers—hopefully, then to either improve the standard of service of those providers or cause them to exit the market; and, finally, position the government to better manage two areas: the risk to students and public moneys. All of us in this chamber and all those who are listening would always applaud the opportunity—even the obligation of government—to better manage public moneys.

The overview of the bill can be briefly described. Schedule 1 aims to increase the take-up of VET FEE-HELP by quality registered organisations and thus by students. This is an area for enormous and tremendous improvement which I hope to come back to. It will allow the minister to specify different approval requirements for those organisations, particularly those that present a low risk to the government and, by inference, a low risk to students and their families who may be supporting them.

Schedule 2 ensures revocations of approvals are undertaken in a more timely manner and that of itself must be beneficial to everybody in the industry. Schedule 3, a streamlining measure, will act to reduce complexity and duplication through consolidating and streamlining four sets of VET legislative guidelines into a single set, and we would support that. Schedule 4 adjusts the specific date requirements for census dates to the guidelines, so each of those then is a matter of importance.

Coming back to participation, there are some 5,000 registered training organisations in Australia and they would then be divided into the public sector, principally TAFEs in eastern Australia, and the private sector.

It was stated—at least in 2010—that there were some 2.4 million students participating in skills training at this level, of whom around 75 per cent were under the direction of publicly funded RTOs, and about 600,000, or 25 per cent, in the private sector. Where is the federal government's contribution, given the fact that most of the training in this sector is in fact state and territory funded? In 2010-11 the federal government contributed $1.7 billion to the states and territories, and there has been an allocation of a further $1.75 billion over four years in the current out-year program.

There are, however, a couple of areas that we need to draw attention to. The first is that the two states of Victoria and Western Australia have not yet come into participating. I was part of the committee process that examined the reasons for that last year. I have always been of the view that, had there been perhaps a more prolonged dialogue and a greater degree of flexibility in dealing with Victoria and Western Australia, we may well have seen a circumstance in which all of the states and territories would be participants.

The second area to which I will draw your attention is the Australian Skills Quality Authority, ASQA. I point to the fact of the serious underfunding of that organisation. Its role is to both register and to regulate the majority of RTOs. You would think that that in itself is a significant process and challenge given the number that there are—some 5,000. Yet the last figures that I saw said there were only six investigators tasked with ensuring compliance by those RTOs. I think that is an area in which we certainly have some more work to do.

I draw attention then to the VET FEE-HELP process. I mentioned earlier the number of students who are participating in the VET sector. In 2011 there were only 39,000 students who had availed themselves of the loan scheme under the VET FEE-HELP program, and that in itself was a doubling from the previous financial year. Even more concerning is that, of the number of RTOs that I have quoted, being some 2,000, in 2011 there were only 112 who were actually registered. Therefore the provision of that facility for students in those programs would necessarily be limited. I will be urging that a lot more attention be given to promoting both the institutions themselves—the RTOs—and students to avail themselves of that loan scheme.

We know of course that repayment under the loan scheme only commences when a graduate or recipient of the loan scheme is earning just in excess of $49,000 per year; therefore, it should be a tremendous incentive for people to take up that loan scheme, if indeed it is the barrier to them participating in skills and higher education training.

Indeed, there is a 20 per cent loan fee—I would call it an impost—which has been estimated by the government actuary to take account of interest which may accrue through administration and other costs. But, of itself, you would have thought, given the benefit of attaining those skills, having them in the workplace and being able to achieve a higher level of remuneration as a result, that that was a very cheap form of gaining that higher education and skills and training.

I believe Senator Nash, in introducing the coalition's side of this debate, would have spoken eloquently because she is a great apologist and defender of rural and regional education. It is the case, as I understand it, that only 18 per cent of those participating in the VET FEE-HELP process are coming from the rural and regional areas of Australia. I would like to reflect for a moment on the very wide gap that exists between urban Australia and rural Australia when it comes to the tertiary education sector and the postsecondary skills sector.

I will compare 1984 with 2009. I refer to tertiary qualifications. In 1984 the urban communities were represented by some 10 per cent of their citizens who had tertiary qualifications. By 2009, that 10 per cent had jumped to 25 per cent—a 250 per cent increase. That is the urban community.

I now turn to those with tertiary qualifications in the rural, remote and regional areas. While it was 10 per cent in the urban communities in 1984, it was four per cent in the rural and regional areas of Australia. Lamentably, that four per cent from 1984 to 2009 only went up from four per cent to seven per cent, while the wider community had gone up to 25 per cent. That is a figure that we cannot be proud of in this country. In other words, a four per cent to seven per cent increase was a less-than-doubling at a time when the wider community increased by some 250 per cent.

I will now draw your attention to the postsecondary sector, which is more relevant, I admit, to this particular bill. The wider community in 1984 was represented by some 46 per cent with postsecondary qualifications, and that jumped from 46 to 67 per cent in 2009 for the wider community. I now go back to the rural community: that 46 per cent in 1984 for the wider community was less than half, only 27 per cent, in regional communities. That 27 per cent only went up to 42 per cent in that time. That is still a 25 per cent difference between those in the urban and those in the rural and regional communities with postsecondary qualifications. We on this side have spoken many times of the barriers to people getting into the skills and higher education sectors.

Yes, we would all support those moves to ensure that people from low socioeconomic areas have the opportunity to get into skills and higher education training. I make the point again, as indeed was made to me by Professor Alan Robson, then the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australian and the chairman of the national universities sector of Australia, that over time it has been demonstrated that those with the greatest barrier to getting into postsecondary and particularly tertiary education have been those from regional, rural and remote areas of Australia because of that tyranny of distance, that need to have to move from their homes to another location along with all the costs associated with relocation, reestablishment and the maintenance of themselves. In fact, I am one of them. I had to travel from Perth in Western Australia to Brisbane in the 1960s to do a veterinary qualification. Had there not been some limited support at that time through a bonding system with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, I would not have had that opportunity.

What is the outcome of all of that? It is not the subject necessarily of this program today but we have spoken in the past in this chamber of the very wide gap—the deficiency—between the demand for higher education and skills training, particularly in the agriculture-agribusiness sector in Australia and the actual supply. The figures we quote are those from Dr Jim Pratley from the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture. I have no reason at all to dispute the figures that he produces, which are that this year alone we will graduate fewer than 700 students in agricultural sciences around Australia when there is a demonstrated need for some 4,000 positions. That is a different challenge, but it has its relationship here.

I make the point because of the recent publicity given by the Prime Minister to Australia in the Asian Century, talking about these very laudable objectives of Australia becoming the food bowl for Asia. As we all know, we will be feeding 1.9 billion more people in this region alone by 2050. We will do it with less land, less fertiliser, less fuel, fewer pesticides, less water and an ageing population. One of the areas that Australia can expand its provision of services to international students, which at this time is the third-largest income earner for this country, is to make sure that we extend that into education opportunities in rural, regional and remote Australia.

Members of the committee that reviewed the bill before us were in China in July this year. I had the opportunity, along with Senator McKenzie, Senator Bilyk and Senator Marshall, to ask people those very questions: was there a demand in rural and regional areas—in this case in China—for students to be educated and trained? Of course, there was a very strong demand. At this moment we are not addressing ourselves to it. I would have thought that under the auspices of the legislation we are discussing today we would see those opportunities. I am not speaking just about those opportunities in the agriculture and agribusiness areas, I am also speaking about others that affect regional and non-urban communities.

I conclude with some comments about the appropriateness of education beyond the secondary level. We are at risk in this country of promoting and of focusing on tertiary education when quite rightly for many people we should be focussing on the VET sector—the skill sector. Why do I say that? For numbers of reasons. Having been associated for some years teaching at an agricultural university in Western Australia, I saw many instances of substantial differences or barriers against young people participating in tertiary education, when the right place for them was the postsecondary and VET sector. I speak of gender differences: at the age of 17, young women very often are more mature than young men. Young men are not ready to focus on the discipline and the rigour of a tertiary qualification when at that stage they may well be interested in the more practical nature of VET sector training.

Socioeconomics is a factor, and we are addressing it in this bill. Personal circumstances are among other factors. There are students who sometimes cannot be released for full-time study either because of family circumstances or they may be required in their own family's or other businesses on a full-time basis. But they could actually participate part-time, and VET sector training is more appropriate for those people.

One of the concerns I have is that there is all too much emphasis on people necessarily having to get a university degree. In fact, it may be far more appropriate for them to make a career for themselves in the trades areas from which they will have obtained qualifications in the VET sector. The other plea we would all make, and I concur with Senator Evans and others in this area, is that unlike the 1970s and eighties and nineties we are seeing now a more seamless movement from those who, for whatever reason, start their postsecondary training in the skills area and then develop an interest in learning. I have seen many instances of young men who have gone into the VET sector, have developed some skills, and then have developed a love of learning. They may have been told when they were kids that they were dumb and thick and could not study, but all of a sudden they have discovered that they love learning. We need to see that seamless movement into the tertiary sector and even into the post-tertiary sector of higher qualifications. I can speak of many instances of young people who we had to fight to get into the VET sector and who subsequently not only got degrees but also went on to get very good doctorates in their areas.

Those are the areas upon which I want to focus. As I said, I support the thrust of this legislation. I support any opportunity for a young person to be able to take a loan under the HELP provisions, if that is necessary. But it is not adequate to just get somebody into the postsecondary and tertiary sectors, what we need to focus on is them graduating—passing, completing and moving forward. I will give all support to those policies, those philosophies and that legislation which will achieve it.