House debates

Thursday, 20 September 2007

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

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 19 September, on motion by Mr Robb:

That this bill be now read a second time.

upon which Mr Stephen Smith moved by way of 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”.

10:30 am

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

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.

10:44 am

Photo of Luke HartsuykerLuke Hartsuyker (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is always an honour to participate in this debate with the member for Hasluck—the best member for Hasluck that we have seen in the history of this parliament. This is a man who is passionate about vocational training—a man who is leading the drive to ensure that the people in his electorate and in the country generally receive the sort of training that they need to get on with the job and to get the skills they need to boost productivity in Australia. I congratulate the member for Hasluck on his contribution.

It is a great pleasure that I now have the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007. This legislation is in addition to the coalition government’s commitment to provide practical solutions to the skills shortage and to encourage the vocational education and training industry. In speaking on this legislation today, I would like to emphasise three important points. Firstly, I would like to highlight how the coalition government’s policies are improving the skills base and delivering real outcomes to address the skills shortage. Secondly, I would like to outline how my electorate of Cowper is benefiting from this government’s commitment to improving vocational education and training. Thirdly, I would like to lend my support to the detail of this legislation, which will provide further progress towards meeting the skills shortage in Australia.

Thanks to the prudent economic management and intelligent policy decisions of this government, Australians are enjoying one of the greatest periods of national wealth in our history. Unemployment is at a 30-year low, wages are at all-time highs and there are more people in work than ever before. It is a great economic time for this country. We have arrived at this place not by way of some fortuitous accident, as members opposite would like us to believe, and not purely because of the mining boom, as members opposite like to say. The growth in jobs in my electorate is substantial, and we do not have mining. Mr Deputy Speaker Haase, you have mining in your electorate. I know you are not representing your electorate at this point in time; however, I know that you appreciate the importance of mining and that other areas are growing, despite not having a major presence of mining. This puts paid to the myth that it is only the mining boom that has created the jobs growth and wealth and prosperity that we have seen in this country.

Since the introduction of the new industrial relations system, Australian industry has had the freedom to create over 400,000 new jobs, and most of them are full time. When we introduced the legislative changes to industrial relations in March last year, what we heard from the union movement was that the sky was going to fall in, there were going to be mass sackings, wages were going to fall and there were going to be mass industrial disputes. What happened? Were there mass sackings? There were none; in fact, there were mass hirings—some 417,000 new jobs were created. Did wages fall? No, they did not. Wages actually rose three per cent in real terms. Was there mass industrial unrest? No. Industrial unrest is at record lows. The Australian people have now seen through the improper claims made by the unions and the Australian Labor Party. We are seeing record prosperity, record jobs growth and record improvement in wages, despite the ridiculous claims made by the Australian Labor Party.

We have seen the highest levels of workplace participation. This is a great thing. We have more people coming off the dole and getting into work. We have an increasing number of older people coming back into the workforce. The level of long-term unemployed is falling dramatically. This is great news for Australia—great news economically and great news socially. In addition, Australian industry has matured; it is entering new fields and expanding in others. Our trade and industry policies have seen strong growth in emerging and growing sectors of research and development, manufacturing and exporting. Coupled with the resources boom and an ageing population, exceptional economic management and employment growth have resulted in Australia facing a serious skills shortage.

It is interesting to note that under Labor there was no skills shortage. When you have thrown a million people on the scrap heap you do not have a skills shortage. There were more people looking for jobs than there were jobs. We have a very pleasant problem at the moment, if I could describe it as that. We have more jobs chasing fewer people—a stark contrast to the achievement of the Australian Labor Party, which put 11 per cent of the population on the unemployment scrap heap. Almost 11 per cent of the people in this country were in the unemployment queue. That is bad for society, and it is bad for the individual. More than one in 10 working-age Australians were unable to find a job. That is hardly an economic record to crow about.

Yet when it comes to economic policy the Australian Labor Party say, ‘Me too.’ They have voted against every measure that has got us to where we are today, but they somehow seem to claim that there is bipartisan agreement on economic policy. We have a Leader of the Opposition who does not understand the current tax policy or economic policy, but he is trying to claim that he does. However, he has been seen through as a fraud. He has been seen through as a policy fraud and an economic fraud. He does not understand the implications of Australia’s tax system. He does not understand the implications of good economic policy for the future of this country.

In 1996 this government inherited a vocational education and training system that was underfunded. It was lacking in vision; it was lacking in forward planning. In their last year of leadership of this country, the previous government spent only $1 billion on vocational training and further education. Compare that to the coalition government’s commitment of $2.9 billion to address our skills needs in 2007-08 alone. Since 1996, the coalition government has provided over $22 billion for vocational and further education and over $12 billion to the states and territories for TAFE and vocational training.

The federal government has developed a number of initiatives which are designed to address skills needs, particularly in traditional trades. Perhaps the most exciting vocational education initiative of recent times has been Australian technical colleges. This initiative, while still only in its infancy, has already proved an unqualified success. Contrary to the claims, the whingeing and the moaning of the members opposite, Australian technical colleges are a success. They are state-of-the art facilities that allow our young people the opportunity to work towards a trade in the final two years of their secondary schooling while still completing a year 12 certificate. This is flexible training meeting the needs of future employers. It also meets the needs of our students by allowing them to earn a year 12 certificate. It is a real win-win for students. But all we hear from the members opposite is negative carping, moaning and whingeing. Over 2,000 students have already enrolled in these colleges, with enrolments expected to reach nearly 10,000 by 2009. It is expected that, once fully operational, each college will graduate as many as 350 students each year, with students having already completed one-third of a trade qualification.

While the members opposite have continued Labor’s 20-year legacy of denigrating the trades by ridiculing those successful colleges, their alternative is a trade training centre policy. A policy is a bit of a change from a committee or a review, however feeble the policy is; we have to grant them that. A feeble policy is better than a review or a new bureaucracy. A feeble policy is better that no policy at all. What does a trade training centre policy do? It puts a microwave oven or a lathe in the corner of a classroom. That is hardly quality vocational training. The best the school could do is perhaps heat up a pie in the microwave and get a soggy outcome. If that is the best they can do in trade training it is pathetic.

In addition to the Australian technical colleges, the government has introduced a group of initiatives designed to encourage participation in apprenticeships in skills shortage trades. These initiatives include a wage top-up of $1,000 for two years for eligible apprentices and $500 per year for two years to help cover the cost of training fees. There are also toolkit vouchers worth $800 for Australian apprentices in skills shortage occupations and allowances for apprentices in regional areas and apprentices that are living away from home. These are very important because apprenticeship wages are relatively modest, by their nature, when students are in the training phase. So the government is supporting those people in rural and regional Australia who have to live away from home to obtain training. These are good initiatives which try to smooth out the bumps in delivering training to people from a range of areas.

To encourage mature Australians to retrain and gain new skills, the government has provided wage subsidies of up to $13,000 for mature-age apprentices. That is a great initiative, because when I talk to people in my electorate many employers say that they would like the opportunity to take a mature-age worker and upskill him through an apprenticeship. The previous arrangements, with many industrial instruments and the apprentice pay structures, would not have permitted, for instance, a 30-year-old person with two children to take up an apprenticeship, by virtue of their inability to earn enough income to support their family. This top-up will allow them to do that. This top-up will have great benefits in developing Australia’s skills base and it will have great benefits for individuals.

To encourage employers to hire new apprentices, the government offers incentives to employers of $4,000 per apprentice and has increased funding for Australian apprenticeship centres to allow them to increase retention and completion rates. This commitment to vocational and further education is already reaping dividends.

During Labor’s last year in office, how many apprentices completed an apprenticeship? Was it 100,000? No, it was not. Was it 50,000? No, it was not. A feeble 30,900 people completed an apprenticeship during Labor’s last year in office. In the past four years, over half a million apprentices—some 544,000 people—have completed apprenticeships. That is a spectacular contrast. It compares the initiatives of the coalition government with the apathy of Labor in government—not with Labor rhetoric but with Labor in government.

There is no silver bullet that will instantly fix the skills shortage. Some of the factors affecting the skills shortage are beyond our control, but there are some we can control. Investment in skills training is one of the things that we can do, and the coalition government is committed to improving outcomes in vocational education and training. Our investment in vocational education and training has increased by 99 per cent, to almost $3 billion, under the coalition government.

I also note the opposition’s plan to combat the skills shortage—not a greater investment in skills training, not a policy to expand the Australian technical colleges and not a plan to encourage new apprenticeships. No. What is Mr Rudd going to do as part of his plan? Mr Rudd is going to form a committee. It is amazing what Mr Rudd is going to do with his whole range of committees. I suggest that very soon he will have to establish a committee to coordinate his committees. So there will be range of committees and an overarching committee to coordinate all of those. Skills shortages affect every region in this country and the Leader of the Opposition proposes to create another bureaucracy. That is the best we can expect, I guess. The Leader of the Opposition does not have a plan to overcome the skills shortage. A couple of microwaves stuffed in the corners of classrooms is hardly a plan, and forming a committee is hardly a plan. The coalition government is making the hard decisions and making the right decisions to address our skills shortage.

May I take a few moments to draw attention to the growth and development of vocational education in my electorate. I recently had the privilege of attending Kempsey High School to present a vocational student prize to Renae Stevens, a year-12 student who has excelled in the Vocational Education and Training in Schools program. For her outstanding achievements I had the honour of presenting Renae with a prize of $2,000 and a certificate. These awards send a strong message to the young people of Australia about the value of vocational education and encourage others to embrace that career path. When Renae finishes high school later this year she will have the option of training as an Australian apprentice pastrycook or baker, with the added incentives of wage top-ups, toolkits and training vouchers. As a result of the coalition’s investment in vocational education, the Cowper electorate now has 2,100 apprentices in training. This compares with only 700 at the time of the Labor government. There were virtually no apprentices in Cowper, under Labor, before 1996. We have seen a 300 per cent increase to, as I said, 2,100 apprentices in the electorate of Cowper.

Perhaps a good example of the coalition government’s policies in action is Mr Darryn Phinn and his business, Coffs Mechanical Repairs, in Coffs Harbour. About three months ago Darryn needed to hire another mechanic. At the same time, Haman Coulter, a 22-year-old farmhand from Macksville, was trying to decide on his future career direction. With the incentive of $5,000 in government assistance for Darryn, and an $800 toolkit and additional financial support for Haman, Darryn now has a new mechanic in training, and Haman will be a fully qualified motor mechanic in less than four years. I know that Darryn looked for a qualified mechanic also, but with the incentives on offer from the government he has been able to invest in training a young person to fill that role rather than having to compete in the market place for senior qualified mechanics, who are very hard to find.

Last year alone, the coalition paid almost $3 million in incentives to businesses in my electorate that employ apprentices. Cowper now also has four apprenticeship centres that provide advice and assistance for employers and job-seekers throughout the electorate.

I would like to turn to the legislation before the House and note that it is an extension of the government’s commitment to encouraging vocational training. In essence, the bill provides FEE-HELP to students undertaking full-fee diplomas or advanced diploma level courses with an approved vocational training provider. The government believes that it is important to raise the status of vocational and technical education. The bill demonstrates the importance that the government and industry attach to high-level technical qualifications, and will serve to raise the self-esteem of students undertaking these qualifications.

The vocational education and training FEE-HELP measure is just one of a suite of initiatives designed to raise the status of vocational education and training in Australia. Undertaking trade or vocational training is just as important as undertaking a university degree and just as important a pathway to a successful career. Simply put, people should be encouraged to do what they do best and, if that happens to be in a technical area, we should be encouraging them to pursue a career in that area.

This legislation will make it easier for students who have chosen to pursue higher education through the VET system rather than through a university which offers a similar qualification. It increases access to diploma and advanced diploma level courses, which would currently not be eligible for FEE-HELP unless offered through a university. This bill will provide real choice for students wishing to pursue vocational education in preparation for work or university study.

Although Australia is currently experiencing a period of strong economic growth, Australian industries are increasingly competing in a global market and need to maintain a competitive edge through innovation underpinned by a highly skilled workforce. It is estimated that eventually over 60 per cent of jobs will require high-level qualifications, especially high-level VET qualifications at the diploma and advanced diploma level. This legislation makes access to this training easier by removing the barrier of up-front full fees. This measure will also provide the opportunity for Australians wishing to change careers or to improve their skills base and will provide an option apart from the traditional choice of furthering your higher education in the university sector. A recent study published by the Treasury found that, although VET at the diploma and advanced diploma level can improve an individual’s earning potential, up-front fees were often a deterrent to participating in such courses.

FEE-HELP is a loan scheme that currently assists eligible students to pay their tuition fees in non-Commonwealth supported university places. FEE-HELP can cover all or part of a student’s tuition fees. The Australian government pays the amount of the loan directly to the education provider. The student repays the loan through the tax system once the student’s income has reached a minimum threshold. Students also have the option to make voluntary repayments on the loan.

Under this legislation, FEE-HELP will be extended to full fee paying students in diploma and advanced diploma courses that are accredited as vocational education qualifications where those courses could be then accepted as credit by a university. Training organisations will be encouraged to seek approval to facilitate FEE-HELP diploma and advanced diploma students, provided the organisation has an agreement with a university that their students can transfer to a related degree qualification. This requirement ensures that VET students receive appropriate recognition for what they have already completed in their subsequent university studies. The government expects to lend about $221 million to students over the four years to 2010-11, depending on the number of VET providers which seek approval to provide VET FEE-HELP assisted courses and the number of students who enrol for VET FEE-HELP.

This government takes very seriously the issue of the skills shortage. It takes very seriously the importance of vocational training and trades. We are very focused on the fact that, as a result of the strong economic growth in this country that has resulted from good economic management under this government, we face a challenge in developing and improving our skills to remain world competitive. This government is focused on doing that. This government is delivering the sorts of solutions that are going to build a stronger education sector both in the university sector and in the trade and technical sector. I commend the bill to the House.

11:04 am

Photo of Kay HullKay Hull (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to follow the member for Cowper in speaking about this fabulous initiative that is being put forward by the government to extend FEE-HELP for vocational education and training diploma and advanced diploma courses for those students who want to study a particular area. Before, unless they did this through a university course, they were not eligible for FEE-HELP. This has been one of the inconsistencies and perhaps discriminatory factors that have been in place for such a long time and has been a carryover of the very many years in the past when so much emphasis was placed on going to university. I am on record as saying I think that is a fabulous thing; we must have students going to university, but not every student goes to university. In fact, around 70 per cent of the students in my electorate of Riverina do not attend university. This legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007, is providing the much-needed assistance for students doing a diploma or an advanced diploma—they will now be able to apply for FEE-HELP.

I think it is especially pertinent at this time for this bill to be accepted through the House, because over the years we have seen TAFE fees rise and rise. In fact, in New South Wales they have risen about 300 per cent. I could be corrected, but I am sure that I have seen in the last few weeks the New South Wales government again putting TAFE fees up, by another nine per cent. It is very difficult when you are trying to resolve the skills shortage and you have no mechanism to assist students to apply for FEE-HELP.

FEE-HELP will operate the same as HECS does for university students. Once a student has received FEE-HELP and it has eased the up-front financial burden with their tuition fees, they can repay the money to the government over a period of time. Everyone talks about the minimum threshold, and people have the view out in the general populace that HECS is an unfair system that makes somebody pay for a university education. If this bill is passed, it will actually create opportunities for those who are doing diplomas and advanced diplomas in VET. I think many people think that HECS is the unfair imposition of a fee structure. However, while the minimum threshold at which a student is required to start paying back their FEE-HELP generally increases every year, in the 2006-07 financial year a person could earn up to $38,148 and not have to start paying back their HECS debt. It is only after a student earns $38,148 per annum that they are required to start paying back their HECS debt. I do not see anything unfair in that. The majority of my electorate would not be on $38,000 a year and supporting a family. So I do not think that it is an imposition, nor do I think it is an unfair impost on students who choose to do a course that will generally yield a very high and productive salary for them in the future. This government initiative gives them the opportunity to be able to get into such a profession.

We have heard a lot recently about the skills shortage and the trades and services shortage but when I entered parliament  nine years ago—and I was only looking at my maiden speech just a few weeks ago—one of the issues I raised was the need for us to recognise the value of skilled apprentices and trades and services.

Next week I will be in Leeton. They have a fabulous VET course going with Leeton Links, and I always feel proud and privileged to be able to attend the award ceremony with the students, with the employers who get involved with Leeton Links and with the parents, who sit with their children and are so proud of their achievements in the trades and services areas, in the apprenticeship opportunities that their children have undertaken and in the skills they have gained. The amount of pride from those kids never ceases to amaze me. I look forward to it every year. It goes right across my electorate.

I so enjoy doing the awards ceremony at Riverina TAFE. I think Riverina TAFE holds up as one of the most extraordinary institutions, providing the exact things that we require across our electorate and other electorates for our students. It is a state run institution and I am very proud of Rosemary Campbell and her team. They are truly committed to the equity and parity of rural and regional students in being able to access VET courses and pursue their careers. An outstanding record of employment right across my electorate has resulted from attendance at Riverina TAFE.

We need a skilled workforce. This legislation will provide an additional assistance package that will help to ensure that our students across rural, regional and city areas will continue to add meaning to the Australian community and be productive.

There has been a huge movement in apprenticeships in my electorate alone. In October 2006 I announced that in the electorate of Riverina there was a 164 per cent increase in the number of apprentices since 1996, when the coalition was first elected. Figures from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed that, as at October last year, there were 3,750 apprentices in training in the Riverina electorate. That was up from 1,420 in March 1996. There has been an absolute focus on getting apprentices into systems and on getting employers to value their apprentices. It is no mean task. Employers have to be required to ensure that apprentices are not there for their indiscriminate use; apprentices are there to learn a trade, they are there to get a valuable education and they are there to finally be skilled, certified tradesmen who can add value to any employer’s business.

There are national figures that I believe are extraordinary, and I am very proud to be a part of a government which has applied such a focus to apprenticeships and trades skills. A certificate of registration as a qualified panelbeater, mechanic, plumber or electrician is equally as good and equally as respected as any university degree. That is a point that I have been making continually in this House for many, many years. I see the value; I see how clever these young people are at what they do and it is an absolute credit to them. Finally, they are now being recognised for the value that they provide to the Australian community.

I have said in this House many times that you can build a community, people can make plans on paper and you can have all of the bureaucrats, all of the technocrats and all of the academics in the world putting out fantastic options, but without people with the skills to put them in place—to build a building, construct roadways, construct bridges and construct nation-building infrastructure—you cannot achieve anything. Finally I think this is cutting through and the government are being recognised for what we are doing for young people who have chosen to go along the pathway of doing an apprenticeship or doing a diploma or an advanced diploma through a VET institution.

So it is with great pleasure today that I rise to support this bill in the House. I support the parliamentary secretary, who is here to again expand upon the benefits of this bill. Without doubt one of the most significant things I have seen in my time in this House is the change in attitude towards technical institutions and TAFE and to those students—and their families—who choose to have a vocational education and who choose to have a trades and services background. I commend this bill to the House.

11:15 am

Photo of Pat FarmerPat Farmer (Macarthur, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, Science and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to give the summing up speech on this today, particularly because, whilst a lot of people may know me as Pat Farmer, the long-distance runner who ran around Australia and across America and did various things along those lines, they may not know that I am originally a motor mechanic by trade. Can I say as a motor mechanic that we have been crying out for a long time as trades men and women in this country to be recognised as having the same qualifications as somebody who has completed a TAFE course or a university course. It has been noted by all of the speakers on this bill, today and in past times, that we cannot get by without trades men and women in this country. We need more trades men and women, and it is important that we recognise those qualifications to the highest possible level. Without them this country simply cannot survive.

I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending FEE-HELP for VET Diploma and VET Advanced Diploma Courses) Bill 2007. Through this appropriation the government will be able to provide loans to students studying at a registered training organisation such as TAFE to help them pay for their up-front tuition fees. The bill gives full fee paying VET students equality with full fee paying university students. This arrangement will also ensure that VET students get appropriate recognition in any subsequent studies at university and get credit for what they have already done. It will encourage those with trade qualifications already to build upon them. The Howard government is confident that this initiative will raise the status of vocational and technical education and signal the significance that the Australian government and the community attach to high-level technical qualifications. In turn, this will raise the self-esteem of those students undertaking these qualifications.

On behalf of Minister Robb I would like to thank everyone who has spoken on this bill. Whilst the minister may not necessarily agree with all of the comments made, he appreciates the input of all the members who have spoken in the VET FEE-HELP debate.

By far the majority of submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education were supportive of this bill. The government has taken on board the recommendations of the Senate committee and will move an amendment to include the vocational graduate diploma and the vocational graduate certificate in this bill. In addition, some concerns were raised, and I would like to address these concerns now. One view was that fees may rise as a result of this bill. This is untrue. The current circumstances in the tertiary sector, such as low levels of unmet student demand and competition for students in the VET and higher education sectors, provide a market force against excessive fee rises. Provisions in this bill require providers to publish their fees to assist students to choose their study options. They need to publish these fees up-front. The Department of Education, Science and Training will monitor this very closely and will deal with providers on a case-by-case basis if substantial fee rises are detected. This includes fee rises that could come from the states. It is Minister Robb’s view that the bill will not have an adverse effect on fees.

Current FEE-HELP legislation requires providers to be bodies corporate and this is also a requirement for VET providers. Mr Robb has had consultations with the Hon. Rod Welford, the Minister for Education, Training and the Arts in Queensland, concerning the arrangements which will apply while Queensland is in the process of establishing its TAFE colleges as statutory authorities.

Minister Robb has also agreed that Queensland’s first statutory authority TAFE, to be established in early 2008, will be able to act on behalf of all Queensland TAFEs as the eligible VET FEE-HELP provider for a transitional period of 12 months while the new governance arrangements are completed for the remaining Queensland TAFEs. Minister Robb also informed Queensland that the rollout of new governance arrangements must be completed within the time frame; otherwise, he will act to curtail this transition arrangement.

I want to assure the House that this amendment covers full fee paying courses. Governments will continue to support training through public funding. States and territories have stated their commitment to increasing completions in these higher level qualifications and will be expected to continue to provide their current levels of public funding for this training and to not withdraw funds simply because the federal government is supporting their roles.

This bill provides another example of the Australian government’s commitment that VET will remain a world-class training sector. Australian government funding to VET, taking into account 2007 budget measures and the Prime Minister’s Skills for the Future package of last year, amounts to $12 billion over the next four years. Through this bill the government is offering students equity and real choice in the studies they wish to pursue. It says that pursuing a trade or vocational qualification is just as important as pursuing a university education as a pathway to a productive future prosperity. These measures, combined with other initiatives announced and currently being implemented by this government, represent a significant investment in the future growth of Australian industry and vocational education and training. I commend this bill to the House.

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Perth has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation for the bill and proposed amendments announced.