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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9340


Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (11:36): I join with other coalition regional senators passionate about education, Senator Nash and Senator Back, to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012. This bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations for inquiry on 11 October this year, on which a report was tabled in the Senate. With Senator Back, I sit on that committee.

A report released this month from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research identified that my home state, Victoria, provided a third of all state and territory investment in training delivery and support in 2011, and provides a million more subsidised enrolments in vocational education than any other state. So, when the other side likes to point the finger at those of us in the coalition from Victoria and make commentary around our state's commitment to the vocational education sector, it would be good for them to also note that we provide more subsidised enrolments than any other state. Given that international education is Victoria's largest export sector, worth $4.8 billion to the economy, it is a most worthwhile investment.

The bill at hand seeks to strengthen the VET FEE-HELP scheme, based on recommendations from the 2011 post implementation review prepared on behalf of the Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education's redesign discussion paper, released earlier this year. A significant proportion of the evidence base stems from the trialled extension to VET FEE-HELP in my state, Victoria, as part of an agreement between state and Commonwealth governments to reform the TAFE sector.

I take this opportunity to note that the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Senator Evans, is on record just last month as saying that Labor's student demand-driven system of allocating places has not worked and is failing to meet the needs of employers. I welcome that admission, as one has to recognise a problem before they can start to rectify it. Indeed, Labor's system in Victoria produced an absolute explosion in lifestyle type courses such as personal training. I have a sports science degree. I am not adverse to personal training. I encourage everyone: if you cannot get out there and do it yourself, get someone with the qualifications to help you.

Senator Edwards interjecting

Senator McKENZIE: Senator Edwards, I know you are pounding the pavement at the moment, heading into the Christmas break.

However, when we think about the training sector, it is about being able to deliver skills to our employment sector. I am not sure we need as many personal trainers in Victoria—I know we have a little bit of an issue down south—as were being produced under the Labor government's demand-driven system. The coalition government has been working on fixing that. The Victorian coalition government's commitment to change VET for the better will support the courses that provide high-level training—for example, apprenticeships—and target support to areas of identified skills shortages—and, let me tell you, personal trainers ain't one of them—or those that make an important contribution to the state's economy and Victoria's chances of gainful employment.

Getting back to the legislation at hand, schedule 1 of the bill removes the need for providers to be a body corporate, to try to increase RTO uptake of the scheme. It also introduces different compliance requirements based on the provider's compliance risk level. I note that, in its submission to the Senate committee inquiry, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training raised concerns about:

… a distinct lack of detail around how risk will be determined and applied and how this will in turn influence the Minister’s approval and reporting requirements.

It is a very important query, one I am sure all providers would like the government to respond to. If the minister has an opportunity in her closing remarks, it might be a great time to comment on ACPET's issues.

Part 2 of schedule 1 relaxes the restriction on VET FEE-HELP to courses at the diploma, graduate diploma and graduate certificate level. It will enable other appropriate courses to be covered by the scheme, such as certificate IV courses set as prerequisites for further education. Consequently, this measure will meaningfully assist prospective students who may have found the costs of such prerequisite courses prohibitive. I welcome this sensible amendment as a measure to assist and increase participation of those who have been unable to complete year 12.

Continuing on the theme raised by previous coalition speakers, year 12 completion is a particular issue in regional areas. We have lower rates. In urban areas the rate of completion of year 12 is 81 per cent of students. In regional areas, it is 67 per cent. This means that those certificate IV courses that students can attend are actually a stepping stone for them to be able to access higher education, something that we are passionate about increasing. We are also obviously interested in ensuring that more young people, whether they are from regional or urban areas, take up the great careers that are afforded by skills training.

Schedule 2, part 1, puts protections in place regarding revocation of approvals. As the bill currently stands, organisations can continue to enrol and offer students VET FEE-HELP, despite being advised that their approval is about to be revoked, until the often protracted parliamentary process, being across 15 sitting days, has concluded. These particular amendments offer some degree of protection to students as well as to taxpayers' money in such circumstances, as the minister's decision will take effect on the date the notice is registered.

The second part of schedule 2 seeks to improve information sharing with the sector's regulators, including the Australian Skills Quality Authority and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, to help streamline the approval process and sooner identify low-quality or high-risk providers. Given that the post implementation review revealed approvals were averaging 200 days and the maximum time taken was a staggering 851 days—a couple of years; nearly three—I can appreciate providers' calls for streamlined approval and compliance processes and see how the present arrangement might act as a barrier to new providers participating in the scheme. I congratulate the government on working to streamline that.

Minimising the compliance requirements of quality providers makes sense. Similarly, identifying and dealing with low-quality providers is essential for our students and the integrity of the system as a whole, not only for domestic students but for our international reputation.

Put simply, dodgy providers must be weeded out. In the 12 months to August, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority cancelled the registration of 75 registered training organisations in the state. The Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national body, deregistered 12 providers, three of which were in Victoria. One might wonder if the Australian Skills Quality Authority is adequately resourced to meet its regulatory responsibilities.

I want to briefly mention a story in the Age from May this year that goes to the heart, I think, of why these are important measures being delivered today by the government and not opposed by the coalition. In the story, a retired TAFE administrator was recounting his experience with dodgy course providers. Mr Brian MacDonald had discovered a local college that had supposedly closed due to inclement weather but in reality had closed due to financial collapse. Further investigation revealed that the 61 students picked up by the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE from the collapsed college had not studied a particular subject for which every single one had been certified as having passed and met the legal requirement, and that it had not even been taught. The article in the Age stated:

Mr MacDonald … blames the Brumby government for starting the strife in the sector.

…   …   …

MacDonald believes this scheme—which the government thought would save it money—bled TAFE funding dry and left the present government with little choice but to try to rein in costs.

So it seems only fair that we are all assisting the state coalition government clean up the mess of previous ALP state governments.

Schedule 3 of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and other Measures) Bill allows for the consolidation of several existing VET guidelines into a single instrument to increase transparency and reduce duplication of requirements. However, a number of submitters to the EEWR inquiry such as Victoria's RMIT University felt they could not duly appraise the impact of this and other aspects of the bill given the lack of available detail. This lack of detail was raised in discussion around the water amendment bill and other pieces of legislation that we are being asked to examine. RMIT evidence to the committee stated:

… most of the practical detail will come into effect through the proposed new VET Guidelines. Without seeing these Guidelines, RMIT must reserve its judgment on the changes, as the detail is required to enable institutions to make an informed assessment of its implications.

We keep asking irrigator bodies, universities, TAFE providers and the community to make judgement calls on how particular pieces of legislation will impact their business, impact their industry and impact them personally, yet we do not give them the actual detail to allow them to do that. It appears RMIT is rightly conscious that, as with so many things this government promises, the devil is in the detail.

The final schedule of this bill, schedule 4, includes amendments to census date requirements, with the intent of affording providers greater flexibility to respond to student and industry needs, as the sector was designed to do. This amendment recognises that the initial one-size-fits-all approach to administering this scheme did not accommodate the inherent market differences between universities and VET providers. Whilst I am talking about one-size-fits-all policy, I draw the Senate's attention to some concerns that the Australian Council for Private Education and Training expressed around the risk based approach in the legislation. They were concerned that the approach outlined in the explanatory memorandum would automatically deem public providers to be either low-risk or high-risk providers. In evidence, they stated they were of:

… the firm view that the VET sector has a sophistication and complexity beyond a simple dichotomy of the public/private divide and therefore this dichotomy should not play a significant part of the risk assessment process.

We saw this yesterday with our conversation about the equal employment for women in the workplace bill. There seems to be a desire to simplify the argument to public/private, rich/poor or big/small when we are actually dealing with complex systems and industries, and it is lazy.

With little time remaining to speak, I wish to draw attention to a pertinent point made in the National Tertiary Education Union's submission to the EEWR inquiry. Their submission testifies:

… we strongly question the assertion made in Section 2 of the Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum which states (in relation to potential students from specific demographic groups including Indigenous Australians, students with disabilities and those living in remote and regional Australia) that:

Increased student take-up of VET FEE-HELP is key to lifting VET participation amongst these groups nationally.

It further asserts that:

The NTEU considers it an abrogation of the Government’s responsibilities to rely on the provision of ICLs—

income contingent loans—

as the primary policy instrument for improving educational participation amongst underrepresented groups of Australians.

I think that is a very good point well made.

Amongst the great breadth of subjects offered within the VET sector is agricultural skills and training. With Senator Back, I participated in an inquiry looking into our agricultural education sector and the issues around the provision of courses and the taking up of those courses. Anything we can do to assist that to occur is to be welcomed. I say that because today the Victorian coalition government will hand down its report into agricultural education.

If we are to fulfil the desires of the government around the Asian century, as outlined in their white paper, and to take advantage of the growing middle-class and their demand for more protein and for the high-quality agricultural produce that we are so good at producing in this country, we are going to have to ensure we have the skilled workforce.

Agriculture competes with mining for a particular type of skilled individual. Wherever I go through regional Victoria, producers, whether they are growers up along the Murray looking for skilled labour, particularly around harvest time, dairymen down south or even wheat growers to the west, are lamenting the lack of skilled workers available in their local communities. The streamlining and simplification measures within these bills need to be welcomed.

I also thank the organisations who submitted to the EEWR inquiry. It was conducted in quick time and I join them in encouraging the government to work cooperatively with the vocational education training sector in developing the necessary detail related to this bill. Clearly, there is much more work to do and I look forward to doing whatever I can to assist the current government and future governments in ensuring equitable provision of education and training in this country and , specifically , increasing measures that increase participation for regional and rural Australians.