House debates

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending Fee-Help for Vet Diploma and Vet Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 21 September, on motion by Mr Robb:

That this bill be now read a second time.

6:39 pm

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

As I indicated in my remarks on the bill on 15 August, Labor supports the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007. The bill extends FEE-HELP assistance to full fee paying students in diploma and advanced diploma courses, accredited as vocational education and training qualifications. Labor supports FEE-HELP arrangements for private hire education providers and will not disturb the current arrangements in place. Labor also supports this bill because it provides some relief from the up-front costs of some vocational education and training.

Labor believes that the government’s approach is too narrow, excluding many vocational education and training students from the operation of this bill. Access to the current FEE-HELP loan scheme is limited to full-fee students undertaking studies at an accredited higher education provider. Students undertaking equivalent level vocational education and training qualifications are not able to access this scheme and, as a result, often pay up-front tuition fees. Labor regards the continuation of the situation as inequitable and inconsistent with the importance of vocational education and training for Australia’s economy. Labor believes that FEE-HELP is an important instrument in providing assistance through deferred payment of up-front fees to students attending higher education courses at accredited private education providers.

This bill only extends FEE-HELP assistance to full fee paying students in diploma and advanced diploma courses that are accredited as vocational education and training qualifications and where credit towards a higher education award is available. That means that those who are undertaking vocational education courses that do not articulate into a higher education qualification, such as a university degree, are not eligible for assistance. Importantly the bill, as presented to the House, also excludes the two most senior vocational education and training qualifications from FEE-HELP, namely, vocational graduate certificates and vocational graduate diplomas, by virtue of the fact that these qualifications do not lead to a higher education qualification. The legislation should allow for FEE-HELP to apply to those higher qualifications without the requirement to articulate into a university degree.

In addition to these restrictions, the Queensland state government has also expressed concern over the criteria for eligible vocational education and training providers. The Queensland state government has argued that the definition of a vocational education and training provider in the bill is too narrow, requiring providers to be classified as a body corporate. The Queensland government has expressed concern that this definition excludes Queensland TAFE institutes, which are not currently, but will be in due course, constituted as corporate bodies.

Since debate on this bill adjourned on 15 August, the government has circulated amendments to the bill to extend FEE-HELP to vocational graduate certificates and vocational graduate diplomas. I welcome the government’s recognition of the importance of these certificates and diplomas and the fact that these courses will not need to articulate into a university qualification. I do, however, question why the government has not proposed to remove the requirement for vocational diplomas and advanced diplomas to articulate into a higher education qualification, a requirement that fails to recognise the value of a standalone vocational qualification. I indicate at this point that Labor will support the amendments circulated by the government. They reflect the comments I made in my earlier contribution and they reflect the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the bill.

This budget measure goes some small way to addressing some of the post-secondary school vocational education needs of our nation. Labor support this measure, although we do not believe that it goes far enough. The amendments proposed to be moved by the government, however, go some way to addressing these restrictions but the requirement for diploma and advanced diploma qualifications to articulate into a university degree continues. Similarly, further consideration as to the eligibility of institutions is warranted. It is, in my view, unfair that those students engaged in vocational education and training studies in Queensland miss out on FEE-HELP eligibility purely on the basis of the corporate status of the TAFE sector in that state.

As I indicated in my remarks of 15 August, I have a second reading amendment and I now formally move that amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

welcomes the extension of FEE-HELP but notes it has been unnecessarily restricted by requiring eligible providers to be corporate entities thereby excluding more than 7,000 VET students in Queensland TAFE Institutes, and secondly by limiting eligibility to those courses that give credit for higher education or University qualifications; and
notes the Senate Inquiry into this legislation also shared Labor’s concerns through their recommendation that the Government consider the practical examples raised regarding the exclusion of the vocational graduate certificate and vocational graduate diploma to ensure the legislation adequately meets its stated objectives”.

As I indicated in my earlier remarks, the government has now circulated amendments that meet paragraph (2) of the second reading amendment. In that respect, I now commend the bill and the second reading amendment to the House.

Photo of Ian CausleyIan Causley (Page, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of John MurphyJohn Murphy (Lowe, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

6:46 pm

Photo of Gary HardgraveGary Hardgrave (Moreton, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted to participate in this debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007 to endorse the government’s actions, its commonsense and practicality in recognising that there are many different ways that people may choose to get to the same ends. We have a circumstance where if a student decides to go down a university pathway they are treated in one particular way but where they could gain an equal qualification through their local TAFE or other training provider. It is a qualification which is equal to that university outcome but which has a different set of circumstances. One of the key things is the up-front fee requirement of state government TAFEs and of other training providers before students can commence study while university students are of course able to access the Higher Education Contribution Scheme for accredited courses. I was one of the first people in Australia to pay HECS. I started my part-time studies at Griffith University in 1987 while I was working. If I remember rightly, I got too enthusiastic about the payment schedule and overpaid my HECS debt, so I got a nice refund at one stage. I understand how university students have an advantage over TAFE students.

As is the wont of the opposition, they will promise the world and, based on their track record, no-one can believe anything they promise. When we came to office in 1996 barely $1 billion was put into vocational and technical education in this country. We are spending $2.9 billion this year and over the current quadrennium the best part of $12 billion. It has been this side of the House that has sponsored the way forward for acquisition of skills by mechanics, cane cutters and all the other people who do things for a living. It was this side of the House and not the Labor side that gave voice to the genuine concerns about market responses of governments, like that of the New South Wales government a few years ago when it increased TAFE fees by 300 per cent. What sort of signal do you send to young people who are deciding whether they want to do hairdressing or bricklaying or to become a chippie when they find that not only do they have to pay the fee up front but the fee for some of these courses has increased by 300 per cent? These are the sorts of things that came out of New South Wales, which has the biggest economy in Australia but also the worst performing economy in Australia. Is it any wonder? They see TAFE students as milch cows and revenue raisers. They turned them into general accounts rather than treating the time that people take to educate and train themselves and gain skills as a very important investment.

At the same time, the TAFE sector has become enormously stodgy and unresponsive in various parts around the country. It was the students who had to work for them rather than the other way around. Employers, who are the ones that trigger the training by hiring apprentices, had to work around the way that the TAFEs wanted to operate—36 weeks a year and 20 hours of student contact time per week. That approach is not the real world but it is the TAFE world.

The government has a very much reformist program to deliver a better outcome. At the same time, we are saying to people who want to go to a diploma level of attainment similar to a university degree or above—in TAFE and training system parlance it is a certificate V or certificate VI qualification—that we think they should be offered the chance to get access to FEE-HELP. Through this bill, we are extending that to these diploma and advanced diploma vocational education courses.

On this side of the House we have the real people who have come to this place with qualifications they earned in the community. I see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training is in the chamber. He is the only mechanic I know of here. There might be a few amateur ones, but he is a qualified one and he is on this side of the chamber, not on that side. They are the people who represent the union leaders, 70 per cent of their frontbench being former union officials. They are not the ones who represent the workers. We are. This measure, I think, proves this again.

This measure is one of a suite of measures. In the Skills for the Future package, announced almost a year ago by the Prime Minister, there was an additional vote of the best part of $1 billion. There is the Australian technical colleges program, which now is a $500 million program and has 28 colleges around Australia. It provides opportunities for kids to learn the trades and gain skills while they are still doing years 11 and 12 at school and, perhaps because of their own ambition, they will not just be a tradesperson; they will re-educate themselves and gain further skills by taking on a diploma or advanced diploma course. There are people in this country today who are engineers with university qualifications who seek to understand how to build the things they design. It is important that those people know that when they aspire to improve their credentials—which benefits both their families and the community—the government is willing to back them all the way. The Skills for the Future package was in part about that.

The measures in the education revolution budget that was announced by the Treasurer in May this year are further evidence of this government’s commitment, not simply to the high-intellect end of town but also to those who have the intellect and the skills to be good tradespeople. We have put the taxpayers’ money where our mouths are.

FEE-HELP is a loan scheme which eases the up-front financial burden on eligible students. It assists them to pay their tuition fees. These fees, as I have said, go to the service provider, and state governments see TAFE students as a massive milch cow so I certainly hope that the response from state governments is not to jack up fees. If we are going to start helping students to pay these fees, the last thing I want to see is state TAFEs starting to ramp up the costs and saying, ‘You beauty! Commonwealth-state relations will be enhanced in our favour if we charge these students more.’ I suppose in one sense that is the potential downside of our engaging in this, but I know, because I chaired the meeting, that the state TAFE ministers agreed in November last year to do more—to provide a greater range of courses and to provide greater competition in these higher end things. I guess the deal was that they would do that provided we could come through with FEE-HELP. We have kept our word at that ministerial council level.

In the end, we are about encouraging excellence amongst students. We want to pay the amount of the loan direct to the student’s education provider and the student will then repay their loan through the taxation system once their income is above a minimum threshold, just like the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. Of course, if anybody wants to make a voluntary repayment they can do that at any time.

We believe this legislation will remove some of the barriers which exist for students who have chosen to pursue a higher level qualification through the vocational education system. We believe that it brings a certain amount of equity to the two. I think this confirms what the Prime Minister and others have been so passionate about—that is, to defeat forever this logic that seems to have come into our society over the last 20 or 30 years that if you do not have a university degree you are a dud. We want to put vocational education qualifications on the same footing in attainment as the best of university outcomes. There will be those who say, ‘The great brain surgeons must be held up on a platform way above the best of plumbers.’  I guess that might be true unless the water main in your front yard breaks. That certainly happened to me in Brisbane. I said to the plumber who came out that particular Sunday afternoon in the middle of the Labour Day long weekend in May a couple of years ago, ‘Mate, I’m glad you didn’t take on brain surgery, because you’re a good plumber and you fixed my problem fast.’

The point is that we on the government side have been absolutely zealous in our ambition to restore the sense of attainment, dignity and importance associated with the vocational trades. While the 2006 figures show that there were 623 full fee paying students studying at these higher levels within the Australian Qualifications Framework—we know the uptake of the scheme is fairly modest in the sense of these higher end credentials and, therefore, the financial impact is probably going to be modest as well—we have nevertheless offered an extra $40-plus million over four years to accommodate the qualifications. We suspect the numbers in the FEE-HELP scheme will gradually increase to about 500 students by 2010-11. We are factoring in the notion that not every student will want to do it, but also we are recognising that those who choose the vocational education system in which to attain these higher levels of qualifications should not be disadvantaged in their efforts by not being able to access the FEE-HELP scheme.

I know that the Minister for Vocational and Further Education, Mr Robb, has circulated some further amendments to the original bill in response to the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education, which looked at these things. I welcome those further amendments. The amendments are basically saying that there are some people at the vocational graduate certificate and vocational graduate diploma levels who deliver professional skills which build on the technical skills that they have obtained through the vocational system. There are various certificates, diplomas and advanced diplomas. In a technical sense these people have reached a point of personal attainment and qualification equivalent to any higher education graduate certificate or graduate diploma. They sit at levels 8 and 9 in the Australian Qualifications Framework—above a bachelor degree but below a master’s degree.

I see the member for Rankin in the chamber. He has a PhD—he is probably going to speak after me—and I am sure he would understand the importance of the hard work to obtain a PhD. I am in awe of people who have done that. The key thing is that, if people who have gained a qualification through the vocational framework want to qualify themselves even more, we are all for that. The rub-off in society is—and I know the member for Rankin has written lots of papers about this—the great economic advantage that comes our way with the qualifications that are gained.

There are some who would have perhaps been disadvantaged by the original draft of the bill, so we have taken the Senate committee’s advice on board. One of the examples that has been given to me is the excellent state owned TAFE in Western Australia, Challenger TAFE. They have a vocational graduate diploma in maritime management. It provides students with the skills to manage the business and legal aspects of shipping. In Western Australia, when it comes to the shipping and fishing industry, the TAFE sector—and Challenger TAFE is at the heart of this—is world’s best practice. If world’s best practice is being offered, and other countries around the world are seeking the advice of places like Challenger TAFE, then it is important that Australia recognises that. So we have these further amendments that the minister has provided and I am pleased that the opposition agree that they make sense.

I must declare a personal friendship with Jeff and Michelle Lee, who run the Royal Brisbane International College at South Bank—in part in concert with the University of Canberra. Michelle is over in Changping, north of Beijing, right now doing what she does well—that is, flogging Australian education overseas and encouraging more students to come and study. I hope she makes a dollar at it! I also know that the Royal Brisbane International College has provided a vocational graduate certificate in business administration, which provides high-level skills to managers in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Until these further amendments came into this place, they might not have been able to be assisted by the FEE-HELP amendments that we are making to the Higher Education Support Act.

The government is saying that, after years of strong economic management and of gearing this country up to the point where we are at a threshold of even better years ahead of us, we need to find new ways to further invest in what will sustain our good, strong economy and our economic circumstances. This is about growing trade skills and growing the vocational education sector. This measure will add further to those. So, on top of that original budget allocation of $221 million, an additional $40.142 million has been added, so all up there is an enormous amount of money being dedicated to assist students through FEE-HELP.

Reflecting on the Royal Brisbane International College’s effort in tourism and hospitality management, it is absolutely vital that these sectors have well-qualified and capable people. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Workforce Participation recently tabled a report which looked very closely at the folly of employers in the tourism sector not seeing the value in training their staff and training them well. Here is a perfect opportunity for them to take up the challenge. They should not see those who come through their businesses and work for them as just the current crop of people who will then cycle on. Tourism and hospitality should not be seen as something that you do until a real job comes along. Instead, people in the industry should be seen as a commodity worth investing in. They should be seen as groups of people with passion and ability and they should be able to gain a qualification that will stand them in enormous positive stead all around the country.

Consider this government’s attention to the task of repairing what was a very parlous set of circumstances that we inherited in 1996. At that time, there were about 30,000 people in the vocational education system as apprentices, and now we have over 180,000, or whatever it is—the officials do not need to get involved; the number of apprentices is something in that order. There are over 400,000 people in the vocational system, which is up from around 100,000 when we came to office. It is pretty obvious to me that people actually get the fact that the best investment you can make in your business is in your people. As people make this investment, what is absolutely important is that the training sector is as responsive and as agile as it can possibly be. The power to choose the best provider of that training is in the hands of those who receive that training and, indeed, those who sponsor that training as employers. It is important that we understand that not one apprentice can be created unless somebody actually decides to invest in their business in this particular way.

It is more than just about apprenticeships, though; it is about higher level skills. It is about this government getting parity through the higher education support scheme—the HECS scheme, the FEE-HELP scheme. It is about getting parity between those who want to seek higher level qualifications through the vocational sector and those who are getting them through the university sector.

There is one last thing that is worth putting on the record, and that is an ambition only exercised by a handful of institutions around this country—currently four of them in Victoria. How sad it is to think that there is still this sort of highbrow arrogance about universities versus TAFEs. Organisations like RMIT and others in Melbourne are in fact offering a double outcome for the same effort—a TAFE qualification and a degree qualification out of the same effort. They recognise that the skills and the effort taken to gain the credit units that you need to get your degree may well be very complementary to or exactly the same as the skills and effort taken to gain a diploma or higher diploma—a technical underpinning through a technical qualification—at a TAFE. If we can get more institutes adopting the kinds of models that we are seeing mainly in Victoria, we will start to see a lessening of this highbrow sandstone university view of the world.

I am really speaking like an ex-Griffith student now, aren’t I—a real radical? But we need to see more of this respect for, and understanding of, the effort that it takes for people at different education levels and different experience levels to achieve technical outcomes through a vocational course. Their skills and experiences are just as valid as those of someone who may well have the academic qualifications but not the practical skills. Marry those two skill sets together and you will get a mighty capable workforce; marry those two skill sets together and the world will beat a path to our door; marry those two skill sets together and you will get a greater sense of cooperation and respect, and perhaps some shorter pathways to problem solving in the years ahead. I see this bill and the amendments that the government have put forward to it as being valid, strong steps taken by this side of the chamber to ensure that Australia is ready to be unleashed on the rest of the world in the 21st century.

7:05 pm

Photo of Craig EmersonCraig Emerson (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Service Economy, Small Business and Independent Contractors) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor supports the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007 and the second reading amendment moved by the shadow education minister and seconded by me. Most particularly, we would like to see the extension of these arrangements. The current legislation limits eligibility to FEE-HELP to those courses that give credit for higher education or university qualifications. We have come a long way now. It was only a few years ago that there was the suggestion that, if an income-contingent loan were made available for a vocational education course, it would be heresy. It is a pity that after 11 years of government the coalition has just come to this idea. It always made sense. The coalition, to its credit, when in opposition supported the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which enabled the then Labor government to obtain a contribution, based on income subsequently earned, from university students, all of which was then put back into the university sector. The purpose of that was to expand the number of university places in Australia.

It was an inspired scheme. It was designed by Professor Bruce Chapman at the Australian National University. It has become a model for other countries that were fascinated by the fact that we administered this income-contingent loan scheme through the tax office—that is, if and when people who have been through university and obtained a degree earn an income above a particular threshold, the tax office takes a share of that money above the threshold, which is then a contribution to the cost of their education.

It would be marvellous if we could afford in this country a free university education. The Whitlam government captured the imagination of the Australian people by making university education free but, unfortunately, that was also restricted in terms of the numbers. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a free lunch and taxpayers had to fund all of that. So the concept of an income-contingent loan was a good one. It was applied by the previous Labor government and the coalition, when in opposition, supported it. It was always logical that this concept be capable of being extended to vocational education, most particularly because a lot of people from lower income backgrounds choose to take on a vocational education rather than a university education. Just as the HECS arrangements were designed to avoid shutting people out of universities, it made sense that such an income-contingent loan arrangement applied to technical education would help avoid shutting them out of a technical education.

Our concern with the legislation now is that it does not go far enough. Why have this distinction between universities and TAFE colleges and other vocational education courses in terms of eligibility for an income-contingent loan? If it is good for university students, surely it is good for any and all vocational education students. I do accept that the cost of a vocational education course usually is lower than that of a university course; therefore, the barrier to entry for people from lower income circumstances is lower. But it still makes sense that, if it is good for uni students, surely it is good for students who are going through a vocational education course. That is why Labor is moving the second reading amendment, welcoming the extension of FEE- HELP but noting that it has been unnecessarily restricted in this legislation by limiting eligibility to those courses that give credit for university or higher education qualifications.

The second part of the second reading amendment notes that the Senate committee inquiry into this legislation shared Labor’s concerns, as reflected in its recommendation that the government consider the practical examples raised in that inquiry regarding the exclusion of the vocational graduate certificate and vocational graduate diploma to ensure that the legislation adequately meets its stated objectives. To be perfectly honest, I am now aware that there are amendments that the previous speaker, the former minister for vocational education, says reflect those Senate concerns. That is a good thing, if that is the case. If the government has now moved to address those concerns, that does go a further step towards Labor’s second reading amendment. I have been in this parliament for the best part of nine years and I think this is the first time I have seen a second reading amendment actually have an effect on government thinking—or certainly on the thinking of this government. I suppose it will claim it had no effect whatsoever and it just saw the light of day at five seconds to midnight.

This is a good piece of legislation, but it is unduly restrictive. In a book that I wrote last year, which was released in March, entitled Vital Signs, Vibrant Society, I talked about the virtues of income-contingent loans. I talked about the possibility of the private sector, indeed, investing in the talents of our young people going through universities. But I also went on to say that, if it makes sense—as it does—for income-contingent loans to apply to university degrees, surely it also does towards vocational education courses. So today there is a little bit of satisfaction there. One part of one chapter of Vital Signs, Vibrant Society is being implemented and, I am pleased to say, on both sides of politics, a number of its other chapters are being implemented too. There is a contest of ideas. Labor is winning that contest, but at least the government very belatedly is doing something right by those young people who choose the vocational education stream.

I want to use some of the remaining time available to me to talk about those choices. We heard the previous speaker, the member for Moreton and former minister for vocational education and training, talking about ‘highbrow arrogance’. This reminds me of a single word that the former minister for education, now the Minister for Defence, has used repeatedly in relation to Labor’s championing of university education—and that term is ‘snobbery’. He has accused Labor of snobbery and now we hear this term ‘highbrow arrogance’. It is as though there is some deadly choice to be made where, whenever Labor says that a university education is good, we must automatically be saying that a vocational education is bad.

It is horses for courses. Some people prefer a university education. They prefer the opportunity to think expansively, creatively and imaginatively—and that is good. I believe that every young person who wants to should be able to go on and do a university education. But that does not mean for a moment that Labor believes that young people who choose the vocational stream are in any way lesser. They are not. It suits them and, in many circumstances, taking on a trade provides them with a wonderful standard of living and a lot of job satisfaction. So why do we have to have this schism in the national debate about tertiary education between higher education—that is, universities—on the one hand, and a vocational stream on the other? Let us just allow young people to make those choices free of the values that seem to be imposed on the government side, in suggesting that whenever Labor talks about a university education it must be saying that a vocational education is bad. They are both good.

It is true today more than at any time in Australia’s history that good social policy and good economic policy coincide. The campuses of our preschools, our schools, our training colleges and our universities are the places where economy meets society. It has been the persistent Labor argument that the best investment we can make as a country in sustaining and improving prosperity is in education. But it is also socially right. It is a good thing to do in terms of fairness. So, if we want, as I do—and I am sure the member for Gorton and all Labor members and, I hope, coalition members do—a prosperous and fair society, then the one investment can achieve both: investment in quality education, whether young people decide to go into the vocational side or the university side.

A major report was released today and was the subject of much debate and heat in question time. It was the 2007 edition of the OECD’s annual report on these matters, called Education at a glance. By the way, it runs to about 500 pages, so it is perhaps inappropriately titled! But the point is that the early part of that report released today talks about the value of investing in higher education. For the edification of the Prime Minister, who has been very critical of Labor’s approach to all of this over the last 20 years, I point out that the average unemployment rates amongst early school leavers are compared with those of year 12 completers, people who have undertaken vocational education and people who have undertaken university education, and the results are very clear. The greater the level of education that you undertake as a young person, the more the average unemployment rate falls. That is why it is so important. But the Prime Minister in March 2005 on the Sunday program lamented what he called an obsession with staying on till year 12. He said: ‘What’s all this fuss, what’s all this obsession, with finishing high school? People should be able to leave early and go and get a trade—all this stuff about universities.’ Well, last year’s Education at a glance report and this year’s report expose that as being wrong. The greater the investment that you make in education and the longer you stay in the education system—other things being equal—the better off you will be.

Labor understands—far more than the coalition, I think—that these decisions need to be made at a very early time. It is good policy today that we are debating. But what really keeps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds out of university and out of TAFE is much more than the fees that are applied. It is much more the fact that, from a very early age, they do not often get the basics of literacy and numeracy and the whole ethic, if you like, of learning. The reason for that—and I am being very direct here—is that the children of parents who have had a very bad education experience themselves, parents who do not have great literacy or numeracy skills, parents who do not have books at home, are far more likely to follow the same pattern. Take, for example, a single mother who has not had the opportunity of a good education and perhaps got pregnant at the age of 14 and had to leave school. She is trying to cope as best she possibly can. Her partner may well have disappeared. How can you expect her to even have the resources to ensure that when the kids come home from school they have that extra support at home, that thirst for knowledge, when perhaps the single mother has had a bad education experience herself?

Where does this take us? Right back to the beginning, to early childhood development, even before preschool. The member for Jagajaga outlined in this parliament today that more than 100,000 four-year-olds miss out on a preschool education in Australia every year. Most of them are disadvantaged, and there is an enormous representation of Indigenous kids in that number. But it goes back. The problem does not start at four years of age. Often it can start in the womb. If, when mothers fall pregnant, they do not have a home environment where they can nurture that child, then things go very badly very early on. Fortunately for the United States, there is a program that has been running there since the early 1970s called Nurse-Family Partnership. The Blair government, and now the government led by Gordon Brown, have picked this program up in the United Kingdom, where they have initiated 10 pilot programs. The idea is to get to an at-risk mother as early as 16 weeks into her pregnancy and to have a nurse caring for, advising and encouraging that mother—encouraging the mother if she is a heavy smoker to get off smoking, if she is a heavy drinker to get off drinking, if she is a drug user to get off that—and helping her to bring that baby into the world with a decent opportunity. The nurse supports that mother, not for a day or a week or a month after birth but right through to two years after birth and then comes back again and gives support wherever that is needed.

That is the sort of program that James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, has been talking about—investing very early in the young. They have a full lifetime over which that investment is returned. It is great for the kids, it is great for society—the best investment that we can possibly make. Yet in this country—and I am not just going to score some sort of cheap political point here off the government—we have really a very badly organised early childhood development system. The Commonwealth invests virtually nothing in it. The state systems are improving but they are all trying different schemes and basically the refrain is that you cannot have these sorts of arrangements like nurse-family partnerships where you have a nurse looking after one mother with one baby all the way through from 16 weeks of pregnancy to two years and coming back again, because it is so expensive.

The answer that is given in policy terms is often: let us do something cheaper. Well, you get what you pay for. If you are not prepared to put much of an investment into early childhood development, then in disadvantaged communities, you will not get very much early childhood development. This is the big debate, the coming debate, of this part of the 21st century. Whoever is in government must make a total commitment to early childhood development in this country for the good of the country and in the interest of what is good and fair in our society.

How does that relate to this bill tonight? The answer is: if we had a far fairer system, a bigger investment in early childhood development, there would be a lot more kids who would say, ‘I am going on past year 10. I am going to year 12 and I am going to university.’ Or, alternatively, they would complete year 12 but at the same time do some vocational education along the way. There is nothing wrong with two streams from year 10 through to year 12—a vocational stream and a higher education stream—with kids switching from one to the other as their taste or experience dictates. But none of that can happen if, by the time the kids arrive at year 10 they cannot read, cannot write and have no interest in an education because their background has not given them the sort of thirst for knowledge and creativity that is so important to this country’s future. If we are going to ensure that those young people are able to have happy and fulfilling lives, that they are going to be creative, then, yes, of course these sorts of arrangements of income-contingent loans can play a part. But we have to get the fundamentals right, and getting the fundamentals right means a big investment in early childhood development. This is a good piece of legislation.

Unfortunately the OECD’s report out today, whether it has some shortcomings or not in terms of coverage and years and so on, is an indictment on the government. Any way you read it, the OECD report is an indictment on the present government that has been in power now for 11 years. This government has greatly undervalued investment in early child education. It has undervalued investment in schools and in vocational education and university education. That is why we do need a change of government. I can say with great certainty that everyone on this side of the parliament really highly values education. We know what disadvantage is. We know what needs to be done. It is no good calling people bludgers. Let us lift them up, give them a hand and make sure that every young person in this country has a flying start in life and a fair chance for a happy and fulfilling existence on this planet. I commend this bill to the House.

7:25 pm

Photo of Stuart HenryStuart Henry (Hasluck, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It has certainly been interesting sitting here listening to the member for Rankin, and I guess there are a number of areas where I could perhaps agree with him. I could agree with him that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having two streams of education—an academic stream and a vocational stream—and it is also good to see that this is a good piece of legislation. But some of his other remarks I find rather surprising, coming from somebody who, when previously in power, had a youth unemployment rate of 34.5 per cent. What sorts of opportunities did they provide for these people? Given his compliments about this legislation and the value of quality vocational education, he might well even support Australian technical colleges, which quite clearly provide a quality vocational stream for young Australians in high school. It is that sort of quality that will ensure that they have the opportunity of going on and creating careers and opportunities for themselves in their working lives.

There is no doubt that the Howard government believes it is vitally important to raise the status of vocational and technical education to signal the significance that both the government and the community attach to high-level technical qualifications which in turn raise the self-esteem and improve the career paths of those students undertaking such qualifications. Again, referring back to the member for Rankin, it was interesting to hear his criticism of the government. Many state Labor governments at the moment oppose the introduction of Australian technical colleges. They have done very little about apprenticeship and trade training and allow TAFEs to continue to ignore industry requirements to develop skills. Labor governments have required students to stay at high school until year 12 but have not provided a learning environment that engages the majority of those students who do not wish to pursue an academic pathway with a learning environment that allows them to learn by doing, as is created by the Australian technical colleges. In fact, the Australian technical college in Maddington, in the electorate of Hasluck, is doing a fantastic job already, having developed very quickly an automotive workshop. I have been about there recently and have seen a lot of young people taking advantage of that vocational training, working on motor vehicles in that workshop and really learning about the opportunities for careers in mechanics where they can make a very positive contribution to the community, to the automotive industry and to themselves and their families.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007 will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to extend the FEE-HELP scheme to students in full-fee vocational education and training diploma and advanced diploma courses with approved training institutions such as TAFE and other industry registered training organisations. This year’s federal budget delivered a number of measures including FEE-HELP to lift the status of vocational education and training in Australia. Pursuing a trade or a vocational qualification is definitely no less important than undertaking university education as a pathway to career and future prosperity. People should be encouraged to do what they can do best, and FEE-HELP is a loans scheme which lessens the burden of up-front fees and will be of great assistance to many. It helps eligible students to pay their tuition fees and can cover all or some portion of those fees. The Howard government pays the amount of the loan direct to a student’s education provider then students repay their loans through the taxation system once their income rises above the minimum threshold.

Debate interrupted.