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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9344

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate and Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) (11:53): I thank the senators who spoke on the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The act provides the legislative authority for the Australian government's Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. The HELP schemes—HELP FEE and VET FEE-HELPassist individuals to access higher education and higher level vocational education and training by providing students with an income contingent loan to assist in paying their tuition fees.

As an income contingent loan, students do not have to make any repayments until their income reaches a minimum threshold, currently $49,095. The bill will enable the government to act on recommendations made in the post-implementation review of the VET F EE- HELP Assistance Scheme final report, September 2011, and its commitments made under the April 2012 COAG National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform. The amendments position the government to deliver timely improvements to the scheme and, in doing so, create a more accessible, transparent, responsive and robust tertiary sector.

The amendments strengthen a number of provisions to better support access to, and administration of, the schemes. The amendments reduce complexity and duplication through consolidating three sets of legislative guidelines into a single set of guidelines. Importantly, the amendments will allow the minister to determine a category of providers and financial reporting requirements for applicants and approved providers that represent a low risk to the government. Further, the amendments enable the tertiary sector to deliver education and training in a more responsive and flexible manner by moving consensus state requirements to the legislative guidelines. This will allow the sector to be more responsive to student and industry needs without onerous administration.

The amendments also allow for a managed trial of the V ET F EE- HELP for C ertificate IV level qualifications. The amendments strengthen the government's ability to protect the integrity of the HELP schemes and minimise risk to students and public moneys. Specifically, the amendments enhance the provider revocation provisions for approved providers. The amendments enhance the quality and accountability framework underpinning the HELP schemes through new provisions that allow the minister to consider investigation reports from the national and non-referring jurisdiction education regulators when making a decision to approve or suspend an education provider under the HELP schemes.

Responding to Senator McKenzie's remarks, I note the ACPET comments to the committee. The risk management approach for approvals on ongoing compliance of providers puts in place mechanisms to identify those providers that may pose a higher risk to government moneys and to students. This will increase participation in the scheme of low-risk providers, maximising the reputation of the VET sector as a whole.

Finally, the government has proposed further amendments to the bill. The government amendments to the bill will amend the Social Security Act 1991 to allow a freeze of indexation on a student's start-up scholarship for the period 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2016. Consequently, the maximum amount payable under the student start-up scholarship will remain at the 2012 rate of $2,050 until 1 January 2017. This amounts to savings of $82.1 million over four years as part of the recent MYEFO statement.

Overall, I commend the bill to the Senate for its purposes to strengthen and streamline the government's income contingent loans programs and to achieve savings for the government.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.