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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 24

Mr HENRY (10:30 AM) —I continue my speech from yesterday on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007. The Australian government pays the amount of the loan directly to a student’s education provider. Students then repay their loans through the taxation system once their income rises above the minimum threshold. Voluntary repayments can be made at any time regardless of income. In its first year of operation FEE-HELP borrowing amounted to about $362 million. More than 100 institutions, including 39 universities, are now eligible for FEE-HELP. On 1 August the Australian newspaper reported several large private education institutions offering strong support for the FEE-HELP scheme. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training estimates that some 20,000 students in private institutions are now on FEE-HELP and the number is expected to increase. The University of Notre Dame in Western Australia says that about 60 per cent of fee-paying students have taken advantage of FEE-HELP.

This amendment removes barriers to FEE-HELP that exist for students who have chosen to get further higher qualifications through the VET system. It increases access to technical and vocation diploma and advanced diploma courses. Under current arrangements such students would not be eligible for FEE-HELP unless courses were available at university. Students will now be provided with a real choice with our recognition that many of them want to pursue vocational level courses to prepare them for work and for future university study. FEE-HELP will be extended to full-fee paying students in diploma and advanced diploma courses that are accredited as VET qualifications where agreed credit for any subsequent university degree is available to the student.

The government also wants to hear from training organisations which want to receive FEE-HELP for diploma and advanced diploma students if they have an agreement with a university that their students could move, with appropriate credit transfer, into a related degree qualification. This will ensure VET students get appropriate recognition for any subsequent studies at university and receive credit for what they have already completed. An example of an advanced diploma with credit transfer to higher education could be from the Advanced Diploma of Accounting at TAFE in South Australia, which is a full-time course over two years and costs approximately $2,800. This Advanced Diploma of Accounting from TAFE South Australia meets the educational requirements for membership to the National Institute of Accountants. Courses in banking and finance give students the skills and knowledge to work in a variety of financial institutions and positions. The University of Flinders will award up to 54 units, equivalent to 18 months of study, towards a degree of Bachelor of Commerce. Another credit transfer example is the Diploma of Children’s Services. Successful graduates will be awarded credit transfer to the University of South Australia’s four-year full-time Bachelor of Aboriginal Studies, Bachelor of Social Work with 36 credit points, which is equal to one year of study. This also encourages students who already have trade qualifications to build on them. It has been a particular point of interest to me for some time that we should be recognising vocational trade qualifications as an opportunity to gain access to universities and that recognition and credit should be given to allow that transfer to happen.

This is another important foundation stone the Howard government is laying. It provides equity and choice for individuals and ensures Australia continues to build an appropriately skilled and professional workforce. The government expects to loan approximately $221 million to students during the next four years to 2010-11, depending on the number of VET providers which seek approval to provide VET FEE-HELP assistance and the number of students they enrol.

By opening financial help to students to study for higher level VET qualifications, the government is aiming to lift the status of VET by making it easier for students to access these courses and pursue high-level vocational and technical training. Examples of possible VET FEE-HELP take-up could well be, for example, permitting a dual sector private provider to extend FEE-HELP to VET accredited courses. The SAE Institute located at Byron Bay is reputed as a provider of state-of-the-art media recording and digital training in Australia. It has already applied for, and received, FEE-HELP eligibility as a higher education provider for its Bachelor of Digital Music. Under the extension of VET FEE-HELP it would be able to offer students FEE-HELP for its VET accredited diploma courses, including the audio engineering diploma. Another example would be allowing full-fee paying students in TAFE to access VET FEE-HELP for the Diploma of Children’s Services provided by Queensland’s Southbank Institute of TAFE. This is a diploma course of some 18 months of full-time study. Career opportunities from this course are open to occupations currently in schools, including group leaders in long day care, occasional care and outside school hours care; kindergarten and community preschool assistants; and primary teacher aides. The full-fee rate for this course is currently about $5,700.

Another example is allowing full-fee paying students with a private VET based RTO to access VET FEE-HELP. Equals International is a private registered training organisation in South Australia under the AQTF to deliver nationally accredited training. It is also a member of ACPET. It is listed with the South Australian nurse registration board as a trainer of enrolled nurses. It provides fee-paying places to both Australian students and overseas students. It currently delivers a one-year full-time equivalent diploma of nursing, pre enrolment, with a strong focus on excellent nursing practice. Graduates of the course will be eligible to take up careers as enrolled nurses, an occupation in skills need. The current course cost is some $5,695.

The Information Training Institute offers a number of diplomas in information technology—for example, the Diploma in Information Technology (Business Analysis). Successful graduates will be awarded credit transfer in the second year of the James Cook University Bachelor of Information Technology.

Another example is that mentioned by the minister earlier of a certificate or diploma in the vocational graduate diploma in maritime management at Challenger TAFE in Western Australia, which provides students with the skills to manage the business and legal aspects of shipping. There is also the vocational graduate certificate in business administration offered by the Royal Brisbane International College to provide higher level skills to managers in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

This all means that the Howard government is embarking on ensuring the best possible opportunity and access for the best possible training and education to meet the career aspirations of Australians. While Australia is experiencing very strong economic growth, thanks to this government’s successful management of the economy, local industry is increasingly competing in a global market and needs to keep its competitive edge through innovation supported by a highly skilled workforce.

In the future it is estimated that some 60 per cent of jobs will need high-quality technical or vocational qualifications, especially high-level VET at the diploma and advanced diploma level. This measure opens up opportunities for individuals to pursue study in the VET sector, without the disincentive of up-front payment of full fees. Aligning funding arrangements between the sectors reduces some inconsistencies and barriers which may act as a disincentive for students to move between the sectors and also eases the administrative loads on providers who seek to offer students both university and VET experiences.

The Australian government introduced FEE-HELP in 2005 to help students studying at university to defray the up-front costs associated with gaining a qualification. There is no such scheme currently available to students studying in the VET sector, although some diploma and advanced diploma qualifications delivered through universities and approved higher education providers are eligible for FEE-HELP. Primary qualifications normally delivered through the VET sector are at the certificate III and IV levels of the Australian qualification framework. The majority of qualifications for traditional trades apprenticeships, other apprenticeships and traineeships are at certificate levels III and IV.

I would like to deal with any misconceptions there may be about this amendment. It is not the start of any introduction of HECS in VET, nor does it discriminate against VET qualifications such as certificates III and IV. This move does not signal the introduction of income contingent for publicly subsidised training places. We have introduced these measures to offer choice to students between full-fee places in the higher education and VET sectors.

State training ministers agreed last year to increase completion for diploma and advance diploma courses. The Howard government will be ensuring they do not reduce their contribution to training by transferring the cost burden to students. I reiterate: the Commonwealth government will be making sure the states and territories do not shift training places from being publicly funded to full-fee paying and that there is no inappropriate increase in fees to students in TAFEs. There is also a good reason why this measure is not being extended to other VET qualifications. TAFE fees are generally lower than higher education fees, with the average cost per semester being some $523. Fees for apprentices undertaking certificates III and IV are often paid by the apprentice’s employer, and most other VET students or trainees are working while studying, with appropriately structured learning both on and off the job.

The recent budget also contained apprenticeship fee vouchers to help with TAFE fees. Those vouchers are worth up to $500 per year for all first- and second-year apprentices in trades facing skills shortages, to help them or their employers meet the cost of course fees. The budget measure is the extension of current FEE-HELP arrangements to the VET sector and requires approved providers to be a body corporate. This means currently that TAFEs in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia may not be eligible. It is now up to the states and territories to determine whether they want their TAFEs to offer VET FEE-HELP and whether they will comply with the body corporate requirement. This is a further argument for the greater autonomy of the TAFE system and would provide some states the chance to deliver a higher proportion of VET graduates with diploma or advanced diploma qualifications.

There is no doubt in my mind that the corporatisation and independence of TAFE is an essential opportunity for Australia and Australian industry to get from TAFE colleges the delivery of the trade qualifications and the skilled workforce of the future that we so badly need at this stage. There is no doubt that state governments have restricted the opportunity for TAFE to deliver a range of services to different industries and ensure that opportunity for trade training is at an all-time high. There is no doubt either that Australian industry must be provided with and be able to access a trained and technically advanced workforce with well-developed skills and trade qualifications.

Measures such as this and the establishment of Australian technical colleges show the government is right on track to improve the nation’s ability to deliver to the level necessary to ensure the workplace keeps pace with the continued growth of the Australian economy and needs of industry. Again I make the comment that state governments have been the impediment in ensuring that we have the skilled workforce that we so badly need in growing and further developing Australia’s economy. I congratulate the minister for pursuing greater diversity and competition in the tertiary education system by extending FEE-HELP to the vocational education and training sector. I commend this amendment to the House.