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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1830

Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (18:59): I rise to join my colleagues in speaking on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011. Like all members in the debate so far, I support the propositions put forward by the government in this bill. Each and every week in here, Mr Deputy Speaker Symon—and I know that you support all these measures and speak on them very regularly—the government continue to build on our reforms in higher education and our existing investments in the vocational education and training and university sectors. There is a long list of very significant reforms. There is increased investment in youth allowance, allowing thousands of additional low-income students to receive support for the first time, a change that has already seen larger numbers of rural and regional students, particularly, going to university than ever before. This helps the government to meet the very bold targets that it has set for this nation in terms of increasing the rate of participation in higher education.

Another incredibly significant reform which we debated in this House, and which has taken effect for the first time this year, was the move to demand-driven funding of universities. That involved removing the cap on student numbers to ensure that our universities can grow and diversify according to student demand for courses. There will be a Commonwealth government funded place for every Australian student who is offered a position at one of our universities—truly a defining reform in our higher education system.

The other reform worth singling out is the delivery of a framework for better support and services for university students right across the country, reversing the damage that had been done to universities, particularly regional universities like Central Queensland University in my electorate, where students rely so strongly on the services and support provided by the university. Thankfully we have been able to overcome the ideological obsession of the opposition about voluntary student unionism to return those services and activities to university campuses across the country.

Our reform commitment also goes to the vocational education sector, where training is provided to fill the skills shortages in industry today as well as to equip people to move into the growth industries of the future. While we debate this bill, work is progressing on building trades training centres in schools right around Australia, a very important part of introducing young people to the trades and careers that they might want to pursue and getting them started on acquiring nationally recognised competencies and qualifications.

So far in my electorate, a number of schools have already completed their trades training centres. I am thinking particularly of Rockhampton High School, which was first off the blocks and was successful in the very first round of the trades training centre funding program, a testament to the commitment that that school has and the priority that it gives to vocational education and training. It now boasts a world-class engineering facility preparing young people at Rockhampton High School to fill the many positions in the resources and energy and agriculture sectors in our region. St Brendan's and St Ursula's down at Yeppoon combined to establish trades training centres for the automotive trades and hospitality. Schools in the Central Highlands, in the western part of my electorate, and in Mackay, in the northern part of my electorate, have chosen to come together and pool their funding as a cluster of schools and are well on the way to making their trades training centres a reality and providing opportunities for students in their region, who are well and truly guaranteed places in industry if they are able to secure the appropriate qualifications. The Cathedral College in Rockhampton has already indicated to me that it also intends to apply in the future. That is a sign of the importance that schools attach to trades training centres, which allow their students to have access to a range of pathways and give them the opportunity to secure their future in the trades and in so many other occupations that now require recognised qualifications.

Our commitment is very real. There are millions and millions of dollars represented just in that list from my electorate. Our commitment is real and it is backed up by funding. It is already making a difference to people who want to skill themselves for job opportunities and for industries wanting to develop a highly skilled and productive workforce. We know that our ability to supply a skilled workforce and build productivity depends on a high-performing VET sector and one with a reputation for quality and integrity. VET providers have an obligation to meet high standards for their students and to be accountable to the government. For those reasons, this bill strengthens the government's oversight of the sector.

The bill seeks to amend various aspects of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, particularly as it relates to the government's Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. Specifically the measures in the bill seek to strengthen and streamline the administration of the FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loans schemes. Those HELP loans are loans from the government that eligible students can access to help them pay upfront tuition fees for their chosen course of study. It is important to note that the money unlocked through the loans scheme is actually directed to providers of VET qualifications, so the integrity and viability of those providers is essential. This bill is about safeguarding and strengthening the integrity of the VET sector.

One measure in the bill will allow Commonwealth officers to use and disclose information gained through the administration of FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP for certain purposes. Importantly, that includes sharing this information with the newly established national regulators—namely, the Australian Skills Quality Authority and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The bill also improves the Commonwealth's ability to manage risk to public moneys. As I said, the loans we are talking about here are Commonwealth money paid to providers in order to assist the access of students to VET courses. It will also better protect the interests of students in the vocational education and training sector. To do that, we will strengthen the compliance provisions for approved VET providers. 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 also includes a capacity to withhold payments to a provider where there is concern over its compliance with requirements under the act. The bill will result in improvements to administrative arrangements which will improve application process times under FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP—something that will be welcomed by providers.

It is pretty clear from this list that these are commonsense amendments designed to strengthen accountability in the sector and to ensure that students, and industry that relies on the flow of students coming out of the VET sector with appropriate qualifications, can have confidence in what the sector is producing in terms of graduates from those VET providers.

At the outset I gave very concrete examples of the government's commitment to vocational education and training, recognising as we do that it is essential for the future productivity of our economy, and of course for the quality of life for people in Australia, to be able to reach their full potential and to participate fully in our growing economy. The priority that we give to vocational education and training was underlined further by the Prime Minister when she delivered a major speech on 1 February, this month. In that speech she signalled that the government is preparing to go even further in terms of reform in the VET sector. The points that she raised in that speech included the extension of HECS-style income contingent loans to vocational education and training courses, those of a higher level, things like diplomas or advanced diploma level. That would abolish upfront fees. It would mean that people wanting to take advantage of building skills in those courses would no longer face upfront fees.

The other very important reform that she flagged in that speech was that for other courses students would have a fee subsidy paid by the government of up to $7,800. That would be help for those in entry-level courses across the spectrum, health and hospitality, business and communication, right across the spectrum where we want people to be upskilling and really starting on the path of obtaining skills and looking to where they can continue to develop those skills, gain those qualifications and play an ever -growing role in building our economy and filling the shortages that are there in highly skilled positions.

The policy that is being developed, and which will be released in greater detail fairly shortly, will also extend demand-driven funding for VET courses. So it is really following through on the agenda that was foreshadowed in the Bradley review of having a much more seamless integration of the treatment of the university sector and the VET sector and bringing the financial assistance for students and the way that VET providers are able to offer Commonwealth funded places to however many students are seeking and they deem eligible for their courses. It really brings the VET sector into line with the reforms in the higher education sector and I think is a very important step forward.

One of the other things the government has identified as vital as we continue on this agenda of upskilling Australians and giving them the opportunity to reach their full potential and participate fully in our economy, is the question of articulation of courses and having seamless pathways from vocational education and training qualifications right through to degree and higher degree courses at universities. The Standing Council on Tertiary Education Skills and Employment has made removing barriers to those articulation pathways a priority. Their priority is to look at ways we can remove barriers to those articulation pathways between qualifications in the VET sector and the higher ed sector.

I am pleased to say that in my local region our university, Central Queensland University, is getting ahead of the game in that respect. They are already well underway in exploring the possibility of a merger between Central Queensland University and the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE to become Queensland's first dual-sector University. I am very proud and pleased to say that the federal government is supporting that initiative 100 per cent. We have committed $73.8 million of funding to allow that initiative to become a reality. I will have a bit more to say about that later on in the House tonight because we are seeking the support of the various parties contesting the Queensland state election at the moment for a similar commitment. I commend the bill to the House.