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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1833

Ms GAMBARO (Brisbane) (19:14): I rise this evening to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to do two things. Firstly, it strengthens the compliance regime for approved VET providers and, secondly, it increases the availability of HECS income contingent loans to VET students. Focusing on the first aspect of this bill, there have been recent developments within the VET and higher education sphere which have prompted this update in the legislation. This bill seeks to strengthen the compliance regime for approved VET providers. This is part of an ongoing push to ensure the highest possible standards are maintained in the industry. These measures will ensure positive outcomes for many providers in the electorate of Brisbane.

I want to talk about some of the wonderful VET providers—there are many hundreds I could name—particularly TAFE facilities in my electorate. I especially acknowledge the Gateway TAFE and the Ithaca TAFE who do an absolutely sterling job educating students in skills they will require for their futures. The greater the skills a nation has and the greater the capacity of human capital, the greater the productivity.

The electorate of Brisbane covers many suburbs, including the CBD, which has some of the high-quality five-star hotels, including the Sofitel, the Stamford, the Hilton, the Marriott, and many high-quality restaurants, coffee shops and cafes. Also many mining industries are headquartered in the Brisbane CBD and the construction industry is a very important and vital industry.

There are a number of private providers. I acknowledge the wonderful work of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, a thoroughly professional body. They are to be commended for the great work they do with 1,000 private organisations which deliver a huge range of higher education, vocational education, training and English language courses. I have had the great privilege of visiting a number of them in the electorate of Brisbane.

I put on the record the great work being done by Kay Ganley, and Michael Hall who has succeeded her, and all of the team at ACPET. They do great work representing VET providers who form part of their membership. In particular I acknowledge the great international work that Kay and other agencies do in the electorate of Brisbane, not only in providing this wonderful service to domestic consumers of the VET sector, but also in raising the standard and increasing the export of our wonderful service industries. Education is a huge part of our service export industry.

The substantial aspect of this bill is the extension of the HECS FEE-HELP income contingent loan for VET students. VET is an important part of Australia's higher education system. It is fair to say that predominantly in Australia we have placed more emphasis on our university based degrees and qualifications. The previous speaker, the member for Capricornia, talked about a seamless transition. Certainly there has been a transition from the VET sector into the university sector and there has been a transition where people with university degrees want to fine-tune particular skills by going back into the VET sector. It is a two-way movement. We need to have a much more flexible system than we have had in the past. I have had the wonderful opportunity and great privilege of a teaching role at the Queensland University of Technology. I fully appreciate the role our higher education institutions play in the future direction of our society. The VET sector certainly is an important part of that sector.

With our mining industries screaming out for skilled workers, the role of vocational education has become really important in recent years. The VET sector has predominantly offered the training required for the trades that are needed in our regional economies. The proposal contained in the bill put forward by the Prime Minister requires a sign-on from the states. The Commonwealth wants these changes in place by July 2012—at the commencement of the next five-year Commonwealth-state funding agreement.

The proposal would see the states emulate the system currently in place in Victoria where income contingent loans are offered on a widespread basis to VET students. More than 22,000 Victorian students have taken up these loans. The loan scheme will be an extension of VET FEE-HELP, administered by the Commonwealth, and it may have similar settings, possibly including a 20 per cent loan fee, quite unlike the HECS system. The policy would also see the abolition of upfront fees for many students, which is very welcome. In addition, students would be guaranteed a place in a training course.

The federal government would also guarantee foundation and entry-level courses for technical and service sector careers in areas such as health, business, hospitality, communications, construction, transport and other areas through a government-subsidised training place worth up to $7,800. Eligibility for these places has not yet been determined and there has been criticism levelled at the Victorian prototype model where students' eligibility is based on them not having completed a higher level qualification in the past.

These measures appear not to have been specifically costed. However, they are part of the $1.75 billion committed to VET in the 2011-12 budget. VET FEE-HELP is currently available to assist eligible students studying for higher level vocational education and training qualifications to pay their tuition fees. Higher level VET qualifications are at the diploma level and above, as VET FEE-HELP is not available for certificate level courses. These proposals will ultimately increase the take-up of VET courses, add much needed skills to the economy and encourage many young Australians in particular to add to their skills and knowledge. The other great thing about encouraging investment in vocational education is that it allows people who might want to go in a different direction, who want to change their current circumstances or who aspire to get ahead and earn more income for their families to enrol in our VET system and make that career change. It is good to invest in training. It is good for productivity. It is good for the country. It is good to encourage people to take up these paths of education. However, you must provide incentives for doing that and a good economy and full employment is part of ensuring success for the vocational training sector.

In conclusion, this bill will encourage the take-up of VET education through the extension of VET FEE-HELP. The coalition supports these outcomes. Given this government's form, we have our concerns regarding the implementation and some administrative aspects of what is being proposed, but in general we are supportive and I commend the bill to the House.