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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1822

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (18:23): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This bill aims to provide administrative efficiencies in relation to the FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP assistance schemes for vocational students. These include requiring VET providers to notify the minister if they will not be able to meet quality and accountability requirements, allowing for certain information to be used and disclosed if authorised, and allowing for the secretary to revoke a determination made to pay an advance to a VET provider. The bill also allows the minister responsible for deciding whether an institution can become a higher education provider to make that decision after the time frame of 90 days within which the decision is currently required. The coalition agrees with many of the intended outcomes of this bill that relate to strengthening the compliance framework for VET providers. We have seen rorters take advantage of this sector. This bill aims to ensure that these things cannot happen again and that the sector can instead maintain consistently high standards of education. But there are also severe penalties for overreacting and burdening institutions with red tape.

With a strong construction industry in Townsville and my electorate's position on the edge of the North-West Queensland Minerals Province, vocational education is extremely important to my constituents. Bob McAulay has just stepped in as Director of the Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE in Townsville, temporarily replacing current Director, Robyn Dyer. As Bob has said to me, 74 per cent of jobs in the Far North region are jobs that have benefited from vocational education and training. There can be no question of the importance of these institutions to economic growth in our region. In mentioning the VET FEE-HELP loan opportunity, Bob recognised the importance of it, not for the institutions but for the students. The cost of any education is not cheap, and without a system like this in place students would have to either go without or try and find the money to pay upfront. I agree with Bob that the extension of the HECS-HELP mechanism to the VET sector is fair for vocational students. Bob also spoke to me of the extensive and burdensome regulation that they are faced with at TAFE. He said it is so excessive that he cannot imagine any organisation being able to get away with providing a substandard education. While we all appreciate the need to ensure that a high-quality education is provided by all institutions, overburdening them with more and more requirements will serve only to hamper service delivery in this sector. That is what we are talking about here: the delivery of a quality, affordable, directed vocational education and training service.

My concern in this area is also with the bureaucracy that comes from the constant imposition of new regulations by this government. Every bit of new red tape takes more people away from what they are supposed to do, what they want to do and what they are good at doing—in this case teaching—in order to sign forms, tick boxes, and write letters. It must also be paid for by the taxpayer or the recipient of the service. This government has never seen a new set of regulations upon which it could not expand—such behaviour comes at a cost. To provide a good education to trades students requires someone who can not just do the job well, but teach it well. That is a specific combination of skill sets. If you introduce these new requirements you take these people away from jobs we need them doing.

Given the importance of trades, not just to Townsville but to the North Queensland region, I am a big supporter of vocational education. I believe that governments at all levels should help out VET institutions and students wherever possible. We are suffering a skills shortage at present across the country. We are certainly feeling the pain of this in Townsville. Townsville businesses are employing apprentices, only to have them poached by mining and processing companies for a far higher wage than a small business can adequately compete with. There are serious skills shortages, and that is something this government needs to address. VET exists not just to supply staff to the mining sector but also to ensure there are enough trades specialists for all the other businesses upon which we rely. Vocational education is the vehicle for this. We need to encourage high school students to go into this area, we need to make it more affordable, we need to ensure that there are plenty of places available and we need to work with institutions to make sure the best vocational education possible is provided to as many students as we can. Instead, we have this bill, which gives no assurance that VET institutions not meeting the requirements will be given help to improve rather than immediately being stripped of their credentials and left to try and sort themselves out. The Howard government had the vision to introduce income contingent loans to the VET sector. I support this government's furthering of this measure, but it is disappointing to see it in this legislation allowing the minister to approve applications to become a higher education provider after the 90-day time frame. We can't tick off on these training opportunities fast enough and yet the government is going to allow excuses to blow out the time frames for approvals. There is a cost in getting to the necessary standard, and you still have to get through a 90-day trial period. We either commit to it or we do not. We also need to look at exact areas of skills shortage and consider ways to encourage students into these vocations. We need more people in certain trades, so we should be rewarding the students that are choosing to go into these areas.

I do not oppose this bill. Vocational training is needed more than ever to allow Townsville and North Queensland to continue to grow and prosper, and I want to see that happen while ensuring that the standard of education is not put at risk. But I caution this government on the risk of overburdening the sector with regulation that will see the VET sector hampered and sent backwards.

If I could just touch on Tec-NQ—the Australian technical college Townsville campus, which the Howard government started. It was one of the most successful technical colleges in the country. It brought high school students in and, by the time they graduated with a high school certificate, they were two years into their trade. It delivered education and produced tradesmen. After the 2007 election, the Rudd government made them spend $50,000 of their own money to change their name to Tec-NQ and then withdrew their funding. As I said in speaking on a previous bill, we set these things up and we ask people to commit and then, at the very last moment—perhaps with a change of government—we change everything and withdraw support. Tec-NQ is still in existence but it has had to move away from its original core duty of providing high school education and a trade base for high school students, to becoming an RTO—a registered training organisation. That to me is a waste of funds. We have seen the government duplicate what Tec-NQ has in its trades training centre, producing a different outcome for a different set of people, and it is in the middle of nowhere, where no high school student can get to it.

Those are the sorts of things this government and all governments must look at. It is too easy to sit there and ask people to change their name and then to withdraw funding and support and expect everyone to pick up from there. I was on Palm Island last week and I saw it there. People are asked to commit wholly and solely to programs, 100 per cent, and then three months in we run out of funding. It is not just this government's fault or any government's fault, but we ask people to keep on turning up and to keep on committing and sooner or later they stop and then we call them lazy. That is wrong, and that is what is wrong with all these programs that are coming out.

I do not oppose this bill. I support people having to pay for education. I think it is worth while.