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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2339

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (12:14): I rise to make some comments on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013. I can indicate to the chamber that the coalition does support the bill. A postimplementation review of VET FEE-HELP was undertaken in 2011 and this bill seeks to introduce some of those recommendations. VET FEE-HELP is a government loans scheme which helps eligible students pay their tuition fees for higher level vocational education and training, VET, courses undertaken at approved VET FEE-HELP providers.

In 2005, income contingent loans were extended to full-fee-paying students in higher education courses through FEE-HELP under the Howard government. This move by the coalition recognised there was a need to encourage students to take up higher skill qualification by reducing financial barriers and addressing the unfair situation where the VET sector had courses with high fees, yet was the only sector with postsecondary qualifications without an income contingent loans scheme. 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, which is currently $49,096. 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 postimplementation review of VET FEE-HELP undertaken in 2011. This review was commissioned in 2009. The review found that VET FEE-HELP was administratively complex. We certainly welcome the practical measures in this bill which reduce red tape and aim to increase the number of VET FEE-HELP providers and, in turn, students accessing vocational education courses.

The review also found that, while 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 scheme was increasing at slower than anticipated rates. Of the approximately 2,000 providers who offer diploma and advanced diploma courses, only 112 are currently approved as VET FEE-HELP providers. As a result, the take-up of VET FEE-HELP has been low, with only 39,123 students accessing VET FEE-HELP in 2011.

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 regulation impact statement. In 2011, 18.2 per cent of students accessing VET FEE-HELP were from regional and remote Australia. VET FEE-HELP's complex administrative policies and processes are noted as a major contributing factor to the low participation rate of this group.

In light of the skills shortage facing the agricultural 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 agriculture, 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. It is hoped that addressing the administrative and compliance complexities of the VET system will go some way to addressing the low take-up rates. The VET FEE-HELP scheme has the potential to assist many more Australians to access further education and, as indicated, the coalition will be supporting the bill.