Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No 1) 2012 - Second Reading Speech

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (09:30): That would be correct, Mr Speaker, and thank you very much. I am sure my colleagues on the other side will give me lots of support in the process of doing my first summing up.

Mr Tony Smith interjecting—

Ms BIRD: I am sure you are here to help me. I thank those members who spoke on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. I have had the opportunity to hear a significant number of the contributions to the debate on this bill. The bill before the House amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to clarify the application and operation of indexation arrangements in the act. It updates the definitions of 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' and updates the Melbourne College of Divinity's name in light of its approval to operate under the title MCD University of Divinity.

The bill also allows for technical amendments to the calculation of the voluntary repayment bonus to resolve rounding issues. The terms 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' are used to determine which students are eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit of $112,132 in 2012.

The bill would amend the definitions of 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' to clarify that only students undertaking courses of study in dentistry or veterinary science that satisfy the minimum academic requirements for registration as a dentist, veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner are eligible for the higher FEEHELP limit. The Melbourne College of Divinity has been approved by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to operate under the name MCD University of Divinity until 31 December 2016.

Students can make a voluntary repayment towards their HELP debt to the tax office at any time. Voluntary repayments of $500 or more currently attract a five per cent bonus on the payment amount. When calculating the effect of a person making a voluntary repayment of his or her HELP debt, the act provides for a person to obtain a five per cent bonus and includes rounding rules in calculating whether a person has repaid their debt and the amount of debt repaid if it is only a partial repayment. Currently the effect of the rounding rule is that (a) when making a full repayment the person benefits from the rounding because the amount of payment required to pay off their debt in full is reduced because the cents are rounded down; and (b) when making a partial repayment the person is disadvantaged because the value of the reduction to the outstanding debt due to a payment is rounded down. The bill amends the act to provide that when calculating the effect of a person making a partial repayment towards his or her HELP debt the amount would be rounded up to the nearest dollar. The cents would continue to be rounded down to determine the amount required for the full repayment of a person's HELP debt amount.

Effectively the rounding rules will now always benefit a person making a voluntary repayment.

Many members opposite have taken the opportunity in debate on this bill to once again state their opposition to improved student services and amenities on campus, an issue canvassed by the member for Capricornia, who spoke before me. They have rehashed old flawed arguments in opposition to this bill. This government has not reintroduced compulsory student unionism. We have created a source of funding for vital student services and amenities on campus. No university is required to give any of this funding to student controlled organisations but some of them will, because some student organisations—despite all the obstacles put in their way by members opposite— deliver excellent and important services to students.

Members opposite have also suggested in the debate that this bill represents a fee hike. It simply does not. Government members, during the passage of the original bill, were clear that the maximum fee chargeable by a university would be $263 in 2012.

Given the history of the Liberal Party in introducing upfront full fees for domestic undergraduates and their hints that, if they should form a future government, they will deregulate fees, it does seem a bit hypocritical that they would express such concerns about $263 that can be put on HECS and will not need to be repaid until a student is earning a good wage.

Passage of time meant that there was ambiguity in the act about the application of the indexation provisions to amounts in the act on 1 January 2011. The government made clear its intention on the indexation of these matters in both the explanatory memorandum and the debate in the parliament. These amendments do not change the intent of the parliament in passing this legislation but do add clarity in that indexation should have been applied to amounts in the act on 1 January 2011 and that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts.

The bill reflects the government's continued commitment to improving Australia's higher education sector and expanding opportunities for Australians to obtain a higher quality higher education. I commend the bill to the House.