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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11690

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (17:27): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The government has created this bill to introduce what it terms 'timely improvements to its Higher Education Loan Program—HELP—and VET FEE-HELP in particular'. According to the explanatory memorandum, it is acting:

… on the recommendations arising from the Post Implementation Review of the VET FEE-HELP Scheme Final Report September 2011 and its commitments under the April 2012 COAG National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform …

The bill is set out in three parts. Firstly, it amends the Higher Education Support Act by applying indexation to the maximum levels of expenditure for the grants and other scholarships that are available from the Commonwealth. In order to avoid regular amendments to the act, the bill will enable the minister to index these maximum level expenditures by legislative instrument. Secondly, it seeks to amend the Australian Research Council Act 2001—ARCA—by indexing the appropriated levels of expenditure under this act and add the final year of the budget forward estimates. And, lastly, the final part repeals the existing division 180 of the Higher Education Support Act, which allows for the departmental Secretary to disclose non-personal information to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—TEQSA—and the National VET Regulator for the performance of their duties or exercise of their powers.

In its place will be a new division that expands the distribution of non-personal information to state and territory agencies, higher and vocational education providers or groups and other bodies as determined by the minister through legislative instrument. The reason given for this expansion is that there are currently a large number of requests from these bodies for information to enable them to accurately assess and monitor the effects of funding.

The coalition recognises that the number of registered training organisations—RTOs—in Australia's vocational education and training—VET—sector has mushroomed. There are now around 5,000 of them, ranging from public technical and further education institutes to private-sector RTOs of varying size and scope. We are sympathetic to the need to simplify administrative arrangements. In order to improve access to vocational education and training the government provides support through the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme, as part of a wider Higher Education Loan Program, to ensure that students are not put off from enrolling in courses by the financial barriers associated with upfront costs.

The problem with the current VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme, however, has been limited the extent to which it has improved access to vocational education and training participation. That has led to the supply of graduates with high-level VET qualifications not keeping up with growth in demand from industry and businesses, which is why Australia has noticeable skill shortages in some industries. What concerns me is that it is students from regional and remote areas, including my electorate of Paterson, who are disproportionately missing out on these opportunities. Students in my electorate know that individuals who achieve high-level vocational and education training qualifications are more likely to be employed in full-time permanent jobs and enjoy higher weekly wages.

A major reason for this failure has been the complex administrative policies and processes that training organisations face in becoming registered. Despite being the largest state there are only 28 registered training organisations that are eligible to offer VET FEE-HELP in New South Wales. The bill therefore faces the challenge of finding the right balance on two different issues. The first is on the issue of privacy. The second regards the issue of maintaining the standards of programs that registered training organisations offer while ensuring that there are the proper and effective safeguards for students and public moneys with the administrative burden that registered training organisations face. Clearly, the need for this bill has shown that compliance with current administration is too burdensome and needs to be adjusted.

On the issue of privacy the coalition believes that a greater ability to monitor and assess the effectiveness of higher and vocational spending is worthwhile. However, the challenges that privacy presents should not be taken lightly. It is important that the proposed greater access to this information is not abused. The balance between effectiveness and protecting privacy is a difficult one at the best times. However, the coalition notes that the legislation has amendments that include new sections which create offences where information is disclosed other than for permitted purposes.

The government states that the proposed amendments are 'reasonable, necessary and proportionate to achieve the legitimate objectives'. We on this side of the House also recognise that there are protections in place against the misuse of disclosed information. With the government conducting a consultation process which revealed that most stakeholders are not seeking to oppose this bill, and because the bill is administrative rather than one of major legislative challenge, we are not inclined to oppose it. However, we will reserve our final position for when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, to which this bill has been sent for further inquiry, reports back. The coalition will be looking closely at what the committee says regarding not only the implications for privacy in this bill but also the financial implications, which are estimated to be an additional spending of $828.59 million over the forward estimates, as well as the potential for reduction in red tape. Higher education, including vocational education and training, is vital if Australia is going to remain competitive in the global economy.

I take the opportunity at this point to congratulate WesTrac for the establishment of a new facility in Tomago. WesTrac knows how vital it is to have highly skilled workforces. WesTrac not only has 5,500 customers in NSW and the ACT, and over 14,500 in Australia, but it also employs 4,220 people, including 624 apprentices and an additional 893 contractors, across Australia. The WesTrac Institute was established with the Caterpillar Institute in Western Australia in 2000. Their stand-alone WA institute was established in 2008 and their stand-alone New South Wales institute at Tomago in the Hunter Valley was established in 2008 as well. These institutes are testament to WesTrac's commitment to high-quality training that the industry needs. They offer specialised training in the mining, construction and transport sectors, all at an investment of a $12 million build cost.

In 2005 I visited the original WesTrac Institute in Perth. I was so impressed with the quality of training and the opportunities provided I was determined to have an institute in the Hunter to address the skill shortage that we face. I worked with the then minister for training, the member for Goldstein, Andrew Robb, and WesTrac's Jim Walker in 2007 to achieve a federal grant of $9 million, of which $3 million went to the Western Australian institute and $6 million to the new New South Wales institute at Tomago. The institute employs 35 training and administrative staff in 14 classrooms, two workshops consisting of nine bays and two computer labs running programs from 40 days to three years in duration.

The institute offers courses in certificate I Automotive; certificate II Automotive Mechanical; certificate III Automotive Mechanical Technology; certificate III in Engineering-Mechanical Trade; certificate I in Transport and Logistics, Warehousing and Storage; certificate I in Warehousing Operations; certificate II in Transport and Logistics, Warehousing and Storage; certificate II in Warehousing Operations; certificate III in Transport and Logistics, Warehousing and Storage; certificate III in Warehousing Operations; certificate IV in Transport and Logistics, Warehousing and Storage; and certificate IV in Warehousing Operations.

WesTrac Tomago now has 75 first-year apprentices, 55 second-year apprentices, 59 third-year apprentices and 50 fourth-year apprentices—totalling 239 apprentices at the Tomago institute. They also have eight school-based trainees. These figures include the 39 2012 first-year apprentices currently being institute trained, with predicted figures for the 2013 intake of 84 apprentices and a growth of school-based trainees, automotive, to commence in 2013 with an intake of 16.

Apprentices that will be institute trained predicted for 2013 are: 45 first-years—and that figure includes apprentices to be institute trained out of the 2013 intake of 45, of which 39 will be on plant and six will be on road transport; 45 second-year apprentices; 49 third-year apprentices; and 12 school-based trainees. At the WesTrac Western Australian institute, they have 146 first-year apprentices, 112 second-year apprentices, 72 third-year apprentices, seven fourth-year apprentices and 73 have just graduated in 2012 in their fourth year. I look forward to watching this facility grow and help reduce our skills shortages, particularly in the Hunter. It is producing tradesmen who will be job steady and job ready, satisfying the needs of our local market.

I will now turn to higher education. In my region of the Hunter, we have one of Australia's finest institutions in the University of Newcastle, which has campuses in Callaghan, on the Central Coast, in Port Macquarie, in Sydney, in the Newcastle City precinct and even overseas in Singapore. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it was ranked in the top three per cent of world universities this year and is one of Australia's top 10 universities for research and funding. As it will for other Australian universities, this bill will have an impact on Newcastle's future in terms of funding. For example, a record $14 million is granted by the Australian Research Council for 38 of the university projects across health, science, engineering and education departments.

The year 2015 will be an important year for the university, as that is when it will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It will be a year when people in the Hunter will remember the determined campaign by their forebears to create a local university. According to the university's website, just five full-time students were enrolled when classes began, and study concentrated on science, mathematics and engineering. Now there are over 30,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students taking courses in five different faculties of the university.

Universities are not only learning centres; they can also act as drivers to rejuvenate local economies. My region has before it an opportunity to rejuvenate its major centre, Newcastle, by greatly expanding the university's footprint there by creating a downtown campus. The member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson, said that she would secure federal funding for it, but there was no mention of the higher education infrastructure program that Newcastle University had hoped to take advantage of in this year's 2012 budget.

Prior to that we were told the proposed university CBD campus had progressed to the second phase of approval under pre-existing funding, with final announcements to be made in July. However, despite this, July came and went and still the member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson, is waiting for the federal funds. But we should not be surprised—for neither has the member for Newcastle received anything towards the infrastructure grant for the Federal Court that she has repeatedly asked for. It is a great example of the ineffectiveness of local ALP members in the face of the federal ALP, which takes for granted what have been 'safe seats' in the Hunter. For while a conga line of trains brings the coal to Kooragang Island to be shipped from the world's largest coal export port of Newcastle, the profits, rather than being invested in our region, are being fast-tracked out of the Hunter and into other states.

According to the Newcastle Herald, after three years of waiting, Newcastle City Council has drawn up contingency plans for its surplus buildings in the civic centre in case the University of Newcastle's proposal to expand its inner city operations does not attract any federal funding. This will provide an opportunity for the Newcastle university to go it alone on the expansion; however, I point out that this development should not be reliant on just one institution. I would like to see greater competition between universities and vocational education and training providers within the Hunter. The city centre of Newcastle should be transformed and the first step should be the removal of the rail line to the foreshore. This would set the scene for the city centre to come alive again by including thousands of students living and learning downtown while attending a variety of learning and training institutions to be located there.

One of the proudest achievements of the Howard government was the establishment of the Higher Education Endowment Fund as a perpetual fund for the Australian university sector. It had an initial contribution of $6 billion. This was something that the Hunter institutions could have taken advantage of but, unfortunately, this government saw fit to discontinue it in December 2008 and wasted the proceeds. This was an example of the coalition's commitment to higher education, not for just one year but for year on year. It gave certainty to universities—certainty that this government has chosen to take away. With the winds of economic uncertainty seemingly approaching and the government struggling to fund other priorities as it sorts out its debts and deficits, it will be a decision that our universities will come to rue.

Newcastle has a new Lord Mayor, Jeff McCloy, who is determined to pursue educational growth opportunities for Newcastle and indeed the whole of the Hunter. He is determined and has a mandate to revitalise and grow the city of Newcastle. This is but a part of that revitalisation. Hopefully, this year after the next election he will be joined by Jaimie Abbott, the Liberal candidate for Newcastle, who shares not only his passion and vision for Newcastle but also a determination not to take the area for granted, as Labor members have done since Federation.

I reflect on Newcastle even though it is outside my seat because it is where the young people from my electorate of Paterson largely go for their higher education. A vibrant Newcastle means a vibrant Hunter, and that makes good sense in every way.