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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1824

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (18:33): I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill. This bill will introduce measures that will strengthen and streamline the administration of the Australian government's student income-contingent loan program in the higher education and vocational education and training sectors, namely FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP. FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP are available through approved higher education and vocational education and training providers respectively to assist eligible students with their tuition fees. Through these schemes the government provides a loan for all or part of a student's tuition fees and pays these tuition fees directly to the approved education provider. This assistance helps students to take up higher education and higher level VET qualifications by reducing the upfront financial barriers associated with study. The bill will support the new Commonwealth regulatory frameworks for the higher education and VET sectors.

Provisions in the bill will allow for the transfer of information to the newly established national regulators in the higher education and vocational education and training sectors: the Australian Skills Quality Authority and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, operating under the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Act 2011 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011 respectively. The bill will improve the Commonwealth's ability to manage risk to public moneys and better protects the interests of students in the vocational education and training sector.

The bill makes it explicit that an approved VET provider must comply with the notice of events requirements that affect its ability to comply with the requirements to continue to maintain its approved provider status. The bill includes the capacity to withhold payment to a provider where there is concern over its compliance with requirements under the act. The bill will also result in improvements to administrative arrangements which help the application process times under FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP.

Higher education, be it in the university sector or the VET sector, is very important to this government and it has run through the four years of programs that this government has put before parliament. It is part of the Labor ethos that we believe that providing opportunities and access to education, at all levels, is fundamentally about making sure that everyone in our society gets a fair go, and it is the way in which we can make sure that people get appropriate training that will enable them to access jobs and opportunities.

This is particularly so in an electorate like mine, where we have a very low number of people with higher education qualifications and traditionally a lot of people who have not completed school. We also have some of the highest unemployment rates in New South Wales, usually being three or four per cent higher than the state average. Opportunities to give kids and older Australians access to study are vitally important. It is something that the Labor Party has always stood for, and it has always brought forth programs in this area. This bill is part of the whole suite of reforms that are so important to making sure people get access to the right sort of education to match the jobs that are out there at the moment.

One of the things that is often said to me by local employers is that, while there is high unemployment in our area, we cannot always get kids with the right sorts of skills needed to fill the jobs. Bizarrely for an area in which 30 per cent of the workforce commute to Sydney, we see a lot of the good jobs filled by people who commute from Sydney up to the Central Coast, because we are not providing local people with the skills necessary for the new jobs in the new economy. It is really important that the measures in this bill, which underlie this government's approach to education, are carried through to implementation. With the introduction of the National Broadband Network, we in the Central Coast are on the cusp of a whole series of opportunities that, for the first time, the Central Coast will have. We need to be making sure that we skill our workforce appropriately so that they are able to fill the jobs that are going to develop from the new technology, the speed of the technologies and the opportunity for business to suddenly be in areas where there is cheaper land, though not necessarily as close to the capital cities as before. That is a very important issue.

I had the pleasure last week of visiting the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle. This is a terrific campus in that it is a multifaceted campus. It has TAFE, university and community colleges all on the one campus, all integrated and providing a whole range of educational options for kids from the Central Coast. Over 90 per cent of the people who go to the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle are from the Central Coast. Traditionally, what used to happen was that our young people would have to travel to Sydney or to Newcastle to get the sort of training they can now get at this university campus. Invariably, that saw people drop out of education because it was too hard to commute and so forth. Now we have this campus there, and this government is fully supporting and resourcing this important campus to make sure that it provides a vital role for the Central Coast. I have done it before in this place and it is again worth placing on record the thanks that the people of the Central Coast have for my Labor predecessor, Mr Michael Lee, who was the member for Dobell for 17 years. Without him we would not even have this campus at the Central Coast. There was none there before, and he was able to secure the campus there, which is now, I am told, one of the most successful campuses of the University of Newcastle. It has over 4,000 students and is growing all the time, which fits given that we are a growing area.

Last week I was able to be at the university to officially open the $3.2 million redevelopment of the university's library—a state-of-the-art library, but one that is open to the whole university. It operates 24 hours a day. It has a coffee bar so that people can come and stay there. It is a far cry from when I went to university where you scurried into a library, grabbed some books and got out of there as quickly as possible. The sorts of libraries we are building in institutions now are open, welcoming and designed so that people will stay there, study there and socialise there. This library that we opened last week was a fantastic addition to the university, and I was very pleased, in my role as local member, to be able to open it.

But we have spent more than that on this university, and that is only right given the importance of the university to the Central Coast. In the last two years we have spent $20 million on facilities there. We redeveloped the science buildings and the exercise sports and science areas so that they are state of the art. We rebuilt and built some new buildings for education and nursing. These were the most significant expansions of the university since it first came into being when Michael Lee was the member there.

It is also worth noting that my neighbour the member for Robertson, before she came to this place, was a lecturer at this university and lectured in education. We both have a great affinity for this fantastic facility that is in Dobell. It is one that is increasingly providing at all levels a way for people on the Central Coast to get an education. It has a fantastic link program for kids who do not have the marks to get into university, where they are able to go to this university, study for a year and then get credits for a degree. In areas where there is not a culture of learning and where there is not a culture of going to university, these types of programs are absolutely essential. They fill a niche and make sure that people who would simply not have the opportunity to go and study are now doing that and therefore getting qualifications that mean they are able to get the high-paying jobs—the good jobs—that are being developed in the new economy rather than, as has traditionally happened, compete for the ever-shrinking area of unskilled work that is there.

Mr Deputy Speaker Symon, I know that you are very familiar with trade training in schools as well. We have some wonderful examples of that on the Central Coast, with schools cooperating and having multicampus trade training centres that provide this sort of trade training at schools. During the previous member's contribution he spoke about the Australian Technical College. The money that was going to go to the Australian Technical College in my electorate has been very well spent by being divided up and shared by three campuses of high schools on the Central Coast. That money has been put to great use. It has been part of an integrated approach to education, to making sure that kids in my area in particular get those opportunities.

Lastly, the bill itself provides for clearer, simpler and improved administrative arrangements for the assessment of an individual's Higher Education Loan Program debt. In doing so, the bill enables better consistency between the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the taxation legislation. It is part of a suite of bills that we have put to this parliament continually over the four years about our commitment to education at all levels, making sure that it is at the forefront of Labor's agenda for reform. I commend this bill to the House.