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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 12

Mr ROBB (Minister for Vocational and Further Education) (9:51 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007 will open up opportunities for students to pursue high-level full-fee VET courses.

This bill sets up the arrangements and appropriation to extend FEE-HELP assistance for students studying full-fee VET diploma and advanced diplomas with registered training organisations such as a TAFE.

The government believes it is important to raise the status of vocational and technical education to signal the significance the government and the community attach to high level technical qualifications. As well, the accelerating use of higher levels of technology to compensate for the labour shortages associated with an ageing population means that higher levels of technical and vocational training for many in the workforce are a critical future need.

This initiative will assist students who wish to pursue higher level vocational education and training qualifications. Many students are attracted to VET because of the specialist skills they learn while studying, but the high up-front fees acts as a deterrent. Presently, these students cannot access student loan arrangements and are forced to pay their fees up front or pursue an alternative university qualification if they need loan assistance.

Currently, the cost of pursuing vocational education and training rests with the planning decisions of states and territories. While some states offer publicly supported training for some qualifications, principally at their TAFEs, for many other VET courses and registered training organisations students are required to pay full fees up front. Extending FEE-HELP into vocational education and training, particularly for higher level qualifications, lessens the impact of state planning and funding decisions on access to high-skill courses and allows students to choose their course and provider of preference through loan assistance.

Through FEE-HELP the Australian government provides loans to ease the up-front financial burden for eligible students by assisting them to pay their tuition fees to their training provider. This initiative will remove some barriers that exist for students who want to pursue further higher level qualifications through the VET system. It increases access to technical and vocational diploma and advanced diploma courses.

Training organisations will be encouraged to seek approval from the Australian government to receive FEE-HELP for diploma and advanced diploma students if they have an agreement with a university that their students could move (with appropriate credit transfer) into a related degree qualification.

This arrangement will ensure that VET students get appropriate recognition in any subsequent studies at university, and get credit for what they’ve already done. It will also encourage those already with trade qualifications to build on them.

As this budget measure is an extension of FEE-HELP in the higher education sector, this amendment is based substantially on the existing FEE-HELP mechanisms already in the Higher Education Support Act. VET providers will be required to meet certain conditions including financial viability, quality and reasonable fees and student access arrangements. The government insists on these arrangements as it is important to protect the interests of the students who take on responsibility for repaying the debt they incur from a provider. These measures ensure that the provider is acting in the best interests of their students.

In addition, current FEE-HELP legislation requires providers to be corporate bodies and this is also a requirement for VET providers.

This is the first introduction of a student loan scheme in the VET sector at the national level. I am continuing consultation within the sector on the operation of the scheme, including the impact on state and territory training arrangements. I introduce this amendment to demonstrate the government’s commitment to deliver this scheme in 2008 for the benefit of all Australians.

This arrangement covers full-fee courses. Governments will continue to support training through public funding. This measure is part of the suite of reforms and funding by the Australian government for VET to remain as a world-class training sector. States and territories will be expected to continue with their level of funding for training and to continue to provide public funding for training.

The Australian government expects to loan around $221 million to students over the four years to 2010-11 depending upon the number of VET providers which seek approval to provide VET FEE-HELP assistance and the number of students they enrol.

In the coming decades, Australians with trade and technical skills will be in demand. It is predicted that over 60 per cent of jobs will require high-quality technical or vocational qualifications yet currently only 30 per cent of the population have these skills.

While vocational education and training is a state responsibility, the Australian government is a strong supporter of vocational education and training (VET). Total Australian government funding to VET, taking into account the 2007 budget measures and the Prime Minister’s Skills for the Future package of last year, amounts to $11.8 billion over the next four years. Federal government funding has increased by 99 per cent in real terms since 1996, with annual funding going from around $1 billion in 1996 to $2.9 billion this year.

Loan assistance to students adds to the suite of programs the Australian government has developed, providing equity and choice for individuals. Pursuing a trade or vocational qualification is just as important as pursuing a university education as a pathway to a productive career and future prosperity. Through this bill, the government is offering students real choice in the study they pursue and builds the skills of the workforce.

Mr Speaker, this measure, combined with the suite of other initiatives already put in place by this government, represents a significant investment in the development of skills in the Australian population.

I commend this bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Snowdon) adjourned.