Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011; Consideration in Detail
I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 1) Bill 2011. The main purpose of this bill is to streamline measures to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP, the income contingent loans applying to the higher education and VET sectors.
FEE-HELP is available to eligible full-fee-paying higher education students, while VET FEE-HELP, which was introduced by the coalition government, is available to eligible full-fee-paying and certain state government subsidised VET students studying in higher level education or training. VET FEE-HELP provides a loan for all or part of a student's tuition costs. As such, it provides assistance and an incentive to students who may not have taken up further higher education and higher level skill qualifications to do so by reducing the financial barriers to those studies. VET FEE-HELP is a contingent loan scheme for the VET sector and it is part of the higher education loan program. Currently, there are approximately 90 VET providers that have been approved under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to offer VET FEE-HELP to eligible students.
This bill is intended to ensure quality education providers are able to apply for and be approved as VET providers under the act so that they are able to offer VET FEE-HELP assistance. In addition, the administrative requirements are intended to be simplified to improve the Commonwealth's ability to manage provider risk. It is essential that there is a proper approval process to ensure that education providers maintain appropriate standards and conduct themselves in an ethical manner. With an expected increase in providers, this will be an issue that will need to be properly managed by the government. The risk of undesirable providers entering the market is intended, though this bill, to be managed in part through the introduction of a fit and proper person test for the management decision makers of these bodies. This bill also provides flexibility in the principal purpose requirement for the recognition of bodies corporate as a higher education or VET provider but does not, however, specify how this requirement will be met.
It is important to return to the fundamental reasoning behind the VET FEE-HELP assistance scheme. This scheme was established to provide opportunities for more Australians to pursue new careers or lift their qualifications without facing the financial burden of having to pay upfront tuition fees. In 2009, a total of 5,262 students accessed VET FEE-HELP assistance, including 890 students from low socioeconomic areas. The VET FEE-HELP statistical report claimed the majority of assisted students were female and half were under 25 years of age. Younger students do not generally have the finances to be able to pay their tuition fees upfront. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that our young people are taking advantage of being able to study certificate and diploma level courses with part or full income contingent loans. The most common qualification being attained by these students is the Diploma of Accounting. Around 79 per cent of VET FEE-HELP students are applying themselves to the diploma level of study, with the remaining opting for certificate level programs.
In 2009, $25.5 million of VET FEE-HELP assistance was accessed by students and, as a result, 526 VET FEE-HELP assistance students were awarded a diploma or high-level qualification. The most common field of education in 2009 for VET FEE-HELP assisted students was society and culture, undertaken by 1,382 students. Most of these students were enrolled in the Diploma of Children's Services. The second most common education field was management and commerce. It was undertaken by 1,338 students, so it was a very close second.
The Gold Coast Institute of TAFE is one of Australia's leading vocational education and training providers and TAFE is the largest provider in the Gold Coast region with six campuses, including the Coolangatta campus, which is within my electorate of McPherson. TAFE is recognised as an innovative leader in the provision of education and training services to local, national and international clients, and TAFE makes a very valuable contribution to the Gold Coast. A number of Gold Coast TAFE courses offer flexible learning options using online flexible or blended learning study options allowing students, if necessary, to study outside their required work hours.
The Gold Coast Institute of TAFE eligible VET FEE-HELP courses include the Diploma of Education Support, which gives successful students the qualifications necessary to work as an education support worker, a teacher's aide or assistant, a support worker for children with disabilities or as an education assistant. Each of these areas of employment require quality trained individuals, and there are many schools, organisations and businesses on the Gold Coast that desperately require skilled workers in these areas.
There is also a demand on the Gold Coast for enrolled nurses, and the Gold Coast Institute of TAFE offers VET FEE-HELP for the Diploma of Nursing for enrolled division 2 nursing. Successful graduates can work as endorsed enrolled nurses in private and public hospitals, aged-care facilities, hostels or medical centres—all of which are high-demand positions on the Gold Coast. It allows successful students the ability to be employed in various healthcare environments around the country. There are currently discussions underway in relation to formal training for surf craft manufacturing with a view to developing an apprenticeship. We are hoping that this will be based in the Gold Coast. During the lead-up to the 2010 federal election the coalition promised $500,000 to develop appropriate training for surfboard manufacturers and board shapers. This was not matched by Labor; however, the need for formal qualifications in this industry sector remains and must be addressed as a priority. To date the Gold Coast TAFE has shown a keen interest in supporting this industry and the Coolangatta campus is a viable option for training delivery.
Within the electorate of McPherson the King's International College at Reedy Creek has been providing eligible VET FEE-HELP courses in nursing. In addition to nursing, it offers a Diploma of Accounting and a Diploma of Community Services Work. The progressive action of King's since 1996 has allowed the college to update and expand its programs in growth areas by offering training that is practical, workplace relevant and meets current statutory requirements. The Gold Coast TAFE and the King's International College are just two examples, but there are many others on the Gold Coast. We need to ensure that students are able to access training and gain these qualifications to fill the need for skilled staff in the industries that require them the most. The VET FEE-HELP income contingent loans encourage students to undertake these studies and gain employment in their chosen fields without an unnecessary financial burden at a time when they can least afford to pay.
This bill is particularly important to the Gold Coast because education as a whole, and higher education in particular, is one of our main industries, as well as being a significant contributor to the local economy. I believe that it is fair to say that the Gold Coast is well on the way to becoming an education city. In my electorate of McPherson on the southern Gold Coast, in addition to the TAFEs and privately operated training colleges, including those registered training organisations that are already recognised VET FEE-HELP providers, we have two universities. At the southern end of the electorate we have the public Southern Cross University and at the northern end of the electorate we have the private Bond University. However, the Gold Coast is a region with low higher education participation rates, as illustrated by the data from the 2006 census, where only 18 per cent of the Gold Coast population aged 25 to 34 were degree qualified compared to the national average of 29 per cent. Considerable work needs to be done to meet the Bradley review target of a future skilled workforce where 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 to 34 will hold a bachelor's degree by 2025.
Today I would specifically like to speak about Bond University and FEE-HELP. When Bond University opened 21 years ago it was the first private university in Australia and it was modelled on the traditions of the world's most elite educational institutions. Bond has produced some 16,000 graduates since its establishment and this has been achieved with minimal public funding, as more than 90 per cent of the university's total income is derived from student fees. In 2010 Bond University had an average of 4,365 students on campus, made up of approximately 66 per cent Australian students and 34 per cent international students.
As I have already said today, the Gold Coast has low participation rates and Bond University and Southern Cross University are actively working to address this issue locally. Bond takes part in the state low-SES schools initiative by providing academics to work with local schools in tutoring in science based subjects and by assisting with advice on tertiary education. In addition, Bond has signed a memorandum of agreement with the Gold Coast City Council, under which the university and the council are working together to address low higher education participation rates and low aspirations of children in the Gold Coast region.
In addition, Bond University has in place an annual scholarship program that compares favourably to the Go8 universities. A total of 10 per cent of the revenue is redirected to fee scholarships, and a range of corporate and foundation funded scholarships are being developed in addition to this. These scholarships are merit based and therefore support access and equity to students who might otherwise not be able to afford a place by helping them gain admittance on the basis of merit. Bond University places are not subsidised by the government and full tuition fees are charged semesterly on a subject-by-subject basis. Without access to FEE-HELP students wishing to undertake study at Bond are required to obtain personal finance or sponsorship programs. Bond University prides itself on being a not-for-profit organisation. Tuition fees are re-invested back into the university enabling Bond to offer world-class campus facilities, state-of-the-art learning resources, a lower student-to-staff ratio and access to Australia's leading academics and corporate achievers. FEE-HELP makes private education like at Bond University more accessible than ever, encouraging quality access to higher education for all Australians.
The Bradley review recommended that, to support the expansion of the system, Commonwealth supported places should be uncapped and made available to private providers. Bond University is also saying that the difference between the tuition cost and the Commonwealth supported places funding should be the student contribution, which could be funded through FEE-HELP. I support this view, and I support this view very strongly as a way forward.
The coalition remains supportive of income contingent loans. It is vital that individuals have the support they need to increase their skill levels to ensure they remain employable within the workforce. I support measures to support and develop the education sector.