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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1827

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (18:44): I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011. Since my election as the member for McPherson, I have spoken on numerous higher education bills in relation to both tertiary education and vocational education and training. Over this time, I have continually reaffirmed that I see the higher education industry as a key component of the economy of my electorate of McPherson, of the wider Gold Coast and of Australia. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill today and on the higher education sector.

This bill aims to strengthen the compliance regime for the VET sector through a number of changes, thereby reinforcing amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 that were made by the parliament last year. Firstly, under the current act a VET provider must notify the relevant minister of events that may significantly that provider's capacity to meet the quality and accountability requirements. This bill will change the act so that providers will also be obliged to notify the relevant minister in any event where there may be grounds to repeal that VET provider's approval. In reference to these changes, I hope—like my colleagues on this side of the House—that the department will work cooperatively with providers to address any issues of non-compliance rather than take a heavy-handed approach with those who report any discrepancies.

Secondly, the act as it currently stands requires the minister to make a determination on applications to become a higher education or VET provider within 30 days of the receipt of that application, although under the amendments the minister will still be able to determine an application even if the timeframe for such a decision is not complied with. This ability to decide outside the legislative time frame is also set to apply to the 60-day period from when further information is requested by the minister.

My concern is that such changes have the potential to see approval times for applications blow out. The changes that I have just discussed will mean that the 90-day or 60-day time frame that the minister is currently required to adhere to will become obsolete as the minister's power to determine an application will not be affected if the time frame passes. I hope that the 90-day and 60-day time frames will be strictly adhered to and that the new provisions will only be used in extenuating and special circumstances. Ideally, it should not be necessary to extend the time frames at all.

Thirdly, the bill introduces a number of changes, including that Commonwealth officers will have the ability to use information that has been collected as part of a provider's application for approval during the course of their employment and that such information can be provided to regulatory agencies so that they can perform their respective functions.

The VET sector is ever expanding and I and the coalition understand that government regulation needs to keep up with what is occurring in the sector. However, we need to maintain a fine balance between protecting the integrity of the VET sector and not burdening institutions with overregulation. There is sufficient evidence to support the view that overregulation stifles flexibility in business and creates a web of bureaucracy that many individuals and businesses find difficult to navigate.

This bill is another in a large list of other legislative changes to the higher education sector, especially in the vocational education and training sector. At the end of 2011, the House passed the National Vocational Education and Training Regulator Amendment Bill 2011, which amended the regulatory framework for the new National Vocational Education and Training Regulator that was created earlier last year. One of the main purposes of this framework was to introduce a national system for VET regulation to protect students undertaking courses and to protect the reputation of the sector. But the national system is not yet national at all, as the Queensland parliament has still not passed the necessary legislation and neither has the South Australian parliament.

Education is the fourth largest export product in Australia and consequentially an important part of the national economy, with the sector making a contribution of $5.9 billion in 2009-10. The Gold Coast Institute of TAFE alone created an economic turnover of $188 million and $109 million in gross domestic product for the Gold Coast. If this is the contribution of one VET institution, one can only imagine the contribution that each organisation makes to their local area. The VET sector also provides many Australians with jobs, from the educators passing on the necessary skills and training to students to those running the institutions and ensuring their success.

The coalition recognises the importance that the VET sector plays in maintaining the health and productivity of many of our industries. That is why in 2007 the Howard government introduced income contingent loans for the VET sector, reflecting the importance and value the coalition places on valuing a VET qualification as a tertiary qualification. The introduction of income contingent loans such as VET FEE-HELP ensured that students who wanted to undertake vocational education or training could do so knowing that they had the financial assistance to get them through.

I would like to remind the House that on the Gold Coast alone there are over 160 registered training organisations. According to the most recent available census data, from 2006, there were over 2,200 people undertaking vocational education or training in my electorate of McPherson alone, with the number of students being evenly spread between males and females, which is very positive. In 2010, the total number of VET students for the Gold Coast as a whole was over 28,100, up from the 2006 total of 24,030 students. These numbers show that our local VET sector is strong and expanding, with more and more students viewing vocational education and training as a stepping stone to a long and successful career.

On the Gold Coast, the usually dominant tourism and construction industries are partly dependent on the health of the VET sector, as is the manufacturing industry. However, the Labor government is setting VET students up to fail once they complete their training, with falling job prospects on the Gold Coast and in Queensland in both the construction and tourism industries. The Gold Coast construction industry has been hit hard in recent years. In the November 2011 quarter there were over 37,000 people employed in the construction industry on the Gold Coast, constituting 12 per cent of the total number of employed persons. This is down 8.3 per cent from the 2010 total of 41,100 people. The Urban Development Institute of Australia has recently claimed that revenues for the construction industry have fallen 33 per cent or about $1.2 billion. The highest point of employment in the construction industry over the last five years came in 2007, when the Howard government left office. Since late 2007, when Labor formed government, employment in the construction industry on the Gold Coast has failed to rise back to that point.

The construction industry was the second-largest contributor to Queensland gross state product in 2008. Now it is the fourth-largest contributor, with its economic value having fallen by 13 per cent. You need only look around the southern Gold Coast to see that the construction industry is moving at a snail's pace. So what prospects do new, freshly trained VET graduates have in an industry which is faltering?

Although these facts would indicate that something needs to be done to spur the industry on, the government has instead set out to abolish one of the main contributors to the stability of the industry. I have spoken recently in this place against the government's plans to remove the independent Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. Today, I reiterate my disappointment that an organisation which is responsible for a 10 per cent increase in productivity, an economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion per year, reduced inflation of about 1.2 per cent and a 1.5 per cent increase in gross domestic product is being abolished at a time when the construction industry is doing it tough.

The VET sector also contributes to the success of the tourism and hospitality industry on the Gold Coast. Tourism on the Gold Coast and in Queensland has traditionally been strong. However in recent years, with the global financial crisis and the high Australian dollar, the tourism trade has entered a lull period. Looking at data released by Tourism Queensland for December last year, there has been a five per cent annual decrease in the number of overseas tourists arriving in Queensland, whilst the national average has neither increased nor decreased. But the bad news does not stop there. The Gold Coast saw a three per cent reduction in visitors for the year ending in September 2011, as well as a five per cent reduction in the number of nights stayed. These trends have dramatic consequences for local tourism operators. When you add the additional costs that are set to be imposed by the carbon tax, we will then have a situation where costs will eventually overtake the revenue being collected, leading to employees being let go, business closures and a lack of opportunities for VET graduates in the industry.

Ultimately what is happening in the Gold Coast construction and tourism industries will have an effect on local VET graduates looking for employment after they complete their studies. If the industry is unable to provide jobs for future VET graduates, we are setting those graduates up for unemployment or, more worryingly, underemployment. This is not acceptable. Although the long-term unemployment rate for the southern Gold Coast currently stands at 5.4 per cent, the monthly average for January this year is 6.2 per cent, up 1.9 per cent from December last year and up 0.1 per cent from the same time last year.

Vocational education and training can provide many people with an avenue to get out of unemployment or underemployment by offering them the opportunity to learn new skills, develop new techniques and acquire new knowledge. Although we can provide the opportunity for people to study by offering programs such as VET FEE-HELP, we also need to make sure that we do not inhibit growth in key industries that are reliant on VET graduates.

The Gold Coast is growing as a destination for both tertiary and vocational education. We have four universities and 160 registered training organisations, all offering a large variety of courses and avenues of study to domestic and overseas students. We have the infrastructure to accommodate a large student population, with accommodation, hospitals and shopping centres, and public transport available to these locations. The higher education industry on the Gold Coast helps businesses in these sectors to stay in business through students moving to the Gold Coast and spending money on transport, food and recreation.

By maintaining the stability and health of the VET sector, we can ensure that there is a ready and able workforce for the key industries that keep this country going. It is important that the reputation and competitiveness of the VET sector and of the wider higher education industry are maintained at a domestic level as well as internationally. It is not merely the economy that benefits from a healthy higher education industry but also local businesses and local communities. The coalition supports measures that aim to maintain the high quality of education that we export to the world and that students expect. We cannot allow the quality and the reputation of our higher education system to slip, otherwise we risk losing the business of international students as well as the workforce this country will need in the years ahead.

I will continue to work with the local VET providers to ensure that their students have the best possible chance of competing in the workforce and to ensure that the Gold Coast can continue to grow a healthy and prosperous higher education industry.