Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012 - Consideration of Senate Message

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (16:30): I move:

That the amendments be agreed to.

Before us is the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012, which has been returned to the House from the Senate. I want to speak about the context of the bill and deal with the amendments.

It should be clear to all in the House that the purpose of the bill is to provide legislative authority to the Australian government's higher education loan programs, which are commonly known and referred to as the HELP programs. There are of course two main streams—FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP. The purpose of the schemes is to assist individuals to access higher education and higher level vocational education by removing an up-front financial impost so that it does not act as a barrier for people when they are considering undertaking further study. In particular that is done by deferring those up-front tuition fees in a way that enables people to undertake to repay the fees when they are earning a level of income that would make that a manageable situation for them. I think it has stood the test of time as a way of managing the shared costs of higher education between government and individuals.

The bill before us sits within that framework and it is intended to enable the government to act on some recommendations that came out of a review of the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme. That review reported in September 2011. As a result of the review and the report of the review, the government worked with the COAG process and in April 2012 produced the National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform. So the amendments were put into the bill to enable the government to deliver the improvements to the scheme that were intended by that process of review under COAG.

The amendments in the bill enhance the quality and accountability framework that underpins the scheme. It was an important combination of seeking to streamline processes while at the same time ensuring the rigour and quality of the protections around the scheme that were in place. It allows the minister to consider information from the national and non-referring jurisdiction education regulators when making a decision whether to approve, whether to revoke or whether to suspend an education provider under the HELP schemes. So the intention of the amendments to the bill was to strengthen the government's ability to both protect the integrity of the schemes and to minimise risks to students and obviously to the public money involved in the schemes. The amendments enhance the existing provider suspension and revocation provisions for approved providers.

The amendments went further. They enabled the tertiary sector to deliver education and training in a more responsive and flexible manner as a result of the amendments to the census date requirements to the legislative guidelines. That was to enable the higher education sector more broadly to be responsive to the industry's needs without having an onerous administration level added to the system and to the scheme. There was an important balance between flexibility and reducing red tape in the sector and also ensuring quality and ensuring protection of the student body and government moneys involved.

I was very pleased, when introducing the bill into the House, to announce that it enables a managed trial of VET FEE-HELP for certificate IV level qualifications. This is obviously an important extension from the diploma and associate diploma to the certificate IV level qualifications. These amendments strengthen the number of provisions to better support access to and administration of the schemes. They reduce complexity and duplication through consolidating three lots of legislative guidelines into a single set of guidelines. These important amendments in the bill allowed the minister to determine a category of providers and of financial reporting requirements for applicants and approved providers that represent a low risk to the government. (Extension of time granted)The combination of the streamlining provisions, which were about reducing red tape for post-secondary higher education VET providers and an important reform in extending the capacity for the VET FEE-HELP scheme to cover a wider range of relevant courses at the certificate IV level, were important intentions of the legislation before us.

This sits within the context whereby, when I originally spoke on the bill, I expressed some concerns about what was happening in the TAFE VET sector in Victoria—in particular, the significant reductions in funding that had occurred for Victorian TAFEs. We were at that time being presented across the media and by various student and teacher organisations—and, indeed, by our own local MPs from Victoria in this House—with the grave implications that was having for TAFE in Victoria, with campuses and courses being shut down and closed.

There was a foreshadowing of similar problems in New South Wales and Queensland. I will take this opportunity to report to the House that that is certainly the case. We have now seen in New South Wales potential devastation again of the TAFE system—with 800 jobs to go and fees to significantly rise. Day by day, I am hearing the implications of those costing cuts to TAFEs in New South Wales and cuts to delivery of services to the regions. It is particularly appalling and a bit surprising that some of the regional members on the other side, who in the past have been strong supporters of the public education provider and TAFE, can be silent with their state colleagues in this particularly short-sighted cutting away of the public provider and TAFEs—not only in Victoria but also in New South Wales and Queensland. Indeed, in Queensland we have seen the response to the report recommending the closure of a significant number of TAFEs, which potentially will see half the TAFEs in Queensland shut down.

This will be felt most strongly and most significantly in regional and rural areas of all three states. I would argue that it is a devastating blow not only for the economies of regional and rural communities—both in the provision of training and education and the employment creation that goes with them and the flow-on effects to the economies of those small towns—but also for the economies of the states more broadly. One of the great strengths of every state—indeed, of the nation—is our people. It is a theme and a commitment that this government has consistently talked about and consistently delivered on. We have significant additional money rolling out into our vocational education and training sector from the federal government. I have spent an enormous amount of time visiting TAFEs in my new role and have seen the new physical facilities that capital injections from the federal government have provided and how important they are for students and for industries. I would argue that it is extraordinarily short sighted of state Liberal governments of the eastern seaboard, both socially and economically, to be cutting away and destroying the foundation of the public provider in the vocational education and training sector at this critical time. Sadly, I cannot inform the House that the news has got any better since my original contribution on the bill. Indeed, it has only got worse.

We now have before us some amendments to the bill, as members would be aware. I would like to take the opportunity to thank members of this House who have spoken on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012 over the various stages of consideration. It is important to understand that the bill as a whole strengthens and streamlines the government's income contingent loans programs and it achieves savings for the government. The government's amendments to the bill will amend the Social Security Act of 1991. This is to allow a freeze on indexation of the Student Start-up Scholarship for the period of 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2016. To make it clear: consequently, the maximum amount payable under the Student Start-up Scholarship will remain at the 2012 rate. The current rate is $2,050 and it will remain at that rate until 1 January 2017.(Extension of time granted)

The Labor measure is a carefully targeted measure. It is intended to respond to the current fiscal environment and it is intended to achieve significant savings while having a minor impact on individual students. Acknowledging the needs of students from regional Australia is important to the government, and it is an important part of the issues I have attempted to cover in this section of the bill. What we are doing is freezing the amount payable under the Student Start-up Scholarship; the Relocation Scholarship will not be affected. I should also make it clear that other student income support payments will not be affected by the bill.

In closing, I take the opportunity to make the point that the government remains committed to an expanding and strong vocational education and training sector. The government wants to ensure that the higher education sector more broadly is able to function effectively for students so that they are not put off the studies they want to undertake because of up-front fees and that we provide a rigorous help scheme for students in both higher education and vocational education and training. We as a government want to continue to increase the number of students in both sectors. We have also had significant increases in the numbers of students receiving income support or loan assistance. That is a great achievement and we remain committed to that participation and equity in both educational sectors. I commend the bill to the House.