Senate debates

Thursday, 21 March 2013


Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013; Second Reading

12:14 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some comments on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013. I can indicate to the chamber that the coalition does support the bill. A postimplementation review of VET FEE-HELP was undertaken in 2011 and this bill seeks to introduce some of those recommendations. VET FEE-HELP is a government loans scheme which helps eligible students pay their tuition fees for higher level vocational education and training, VET, courses undertaken at approved VET FEE-HELP providers.

In 2005, income contingent loans were extended to full-fee-paying students in higher education courses through FEE-HELP under the Howard government. This move by the coalition recognised there was a need to encourage students to take up higher skill qualification by reducing financial barriers and addressing the unfair situation where the VET sector had courses with high fees, yet was the only sector with postsecondary qualifications without an income contingent loans scheme. VET FEE-HELP can be used to cover all or part of a student's tuition fees. The government pays the loan amount directly to the approved provider. Students repay the loan gradually through the tax system once their income reaches the compulsory repayment threshold set by the ATO, which is currently $49,096. VET FEE-HELP is available for courses at approved providers at the level of diploma, advanced diploma, graduate certificate and graduate diploma.

The amendment bill before the chamber came about because of a postimplementation review of VET FEE-HELP undertaken in 2011. This review was commissioned in 2009. The review found that VET FEE-HELP was administratively complex. We certainly welcome the practical measures in this bill which reduce red tape and aim to increase the number of VET FEE-HELP providers and, in turn, students accessing vocational education courses.

The review also found that, while overall there is strong support for the scheme by the VET sector, particularly in relation to the scheme's role in providing greater equity and accessibility for VET students, the scheme was increasing at slower than anticipated rates. Of the approximately 2,000 providers who offer diploma and advanced diploma courses, only 112 are currently approved as VET FEE-HELP providers. As a result, the take-up of VET FEE-HELP has been low, with only 39,123 students accessing VET FEE-HELP in 2011.

Of particular concern to me is the low take-up rate of VET FEE-HELP by students in regional and remote areas. This is referred to as an issue of concern in the regulation impact statement. In 2011, 18.2 per cent of students accessing VET FEE-HELP were from regional and remote Australia. VET FEE-HELP's complex administrative policies and processes are noted as a major contributing factor to the low participation rate of this group.

In light of the skills shortage facing the agricultural industry, I am also concerned to see the low take-up rate that is the proportion of fees deferred through VET FEE-HELP assistance for agriculture, environmental and related studies. Of all the disciplines, agriculture had the lowest take-up rate at 40 per cent. This is in comparison to areas such as food, hospitality and personal services which had the highest take-up rate of 94.3 per cent. It is hoped that addressing the administrative and compliance complexities of the VET system will go some way to addressing the low take-up rates. The VET FEE-HELP scheme has the potential to assist many more Australians to access further education and, as indicated, the coalition will be supporting the bill.

12:18 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens generally support the overall Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013, which makes minor amendments to sharpen compliance and accountability around FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP providers while streamlining name changes of providers and updating and consolidating other administrative changes. However, the Greens continue to oppose the shifting of costs for public vocational education and training onto students via income contingent loans. I also reiterate our opposition to the continuing commercialisation of the VET sector which has been facilitated by expansion of VET FEE-HELP to private providers.

In schedule 1, I note the automatic revocation of a provider's approval to offer public funded FEE-HELP and VET help to students when that provider proves non-compliant or has had its provider registration cease for various reasons. Last year when speaking to the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 I stressed the need for a more timely revocation of a HELP provider's approval where there are grounds for doing so. Currently the time between the minister's decision to revoke such approval and the actual time of revocation is subject to disallowance with an extra 15 parliamentary sitting days before revocation takes effect. Removing the notice of revocation from a disallowable legislative instrument is supposed to ensure students are not duped into enrolling with institutions that are about to lose approval to offer VET FEE-HELP to students during that 15-day disallowance period. It also ensures public money following those enrolments does not disappear along with the institution itself.

We see schedule 2 allowing of a one-step process to vary an approval to reflect a higher education VET provider's name change where that legal entity remains the same as a simplification of processes instead of the current approval revocation and reapplication process. Schedule 5's creation of one provision allowing the ministers to seek information from TEQSA and the relevant VET regulator when approving, revoking or suspending a provider's approval is a sensible consolidation of the current eight separate provisions. However, we see this bill as centring around the approval of providers and particularly VET providers to offer VET FEE-HELP to students. That is, in essence, what we are dealing with.

While students support any moves to ensure greater accountability and transparency, I do state again the position of the Greens on the subject of student debt and the push to extend such debts to VET and particularly to TAFE students. The Greens remain deeply concerned about the government's reliance on the provision of income contingent student loans as the main policy instrument for ensuring access and participation to VET and university education. Not only is it a complete abrogation of the government's responsibility but we would argue that it makes bad economic sense.

The OECD has stated that the wealth and health of a nation is, to a large extent, determined by the education attainment of its population. We know how important that is. We hear many fine words in this parliament but we remain concerned about the structure of the bill and where it leads. While the Greens will support the bill, we will continue to call on the government to prioritise and increase its VET funding to the TAFE system to ensure a high-quality, viable and accessible public vocational education and training system instead of relying on income contingent loans as proxies for equitable and affordable student access.

12:22 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to indicate my support for the measures in this Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013 and for the other steps the government has taken to improve and streamline the higher education system. I particularly want to note the improvements in oversight of higher education and training providers, especially in terms of protection for overseas students.

However, there is one significant area where the government is consistently and significantly failing smaller providers. On 30 June 2011, the Knight review into the student visa framework handed down 41 recommendations to improve Australia's student visa system. In September 2011, as part of its response to these recommendations, the government announced that it would request DIAC to undertake a review of the student visa assessment level framework, with a discussion paper released in March 2012—over a year ago. The outcome of that review was supposed to be delivered in November last year. It still has not been released, despite repeated assurances from the government that the findings will be announced shortly. Well, so far, 'shortly' has covered nearly six months.

In my home state of South Australia, the value of higher education and training providers to the economy cannot be underestimated. We know that overseas student levels have been dropping. In South Australia, the sector was worth $1.3 billion in 2010. By 2011, that had dropped 14 per cent to $884 million. Across Australia in 2011, the sector also contributed almost 130,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

It is believed that the government will be announcing a streamlined visa application for certain education and training providers. But in South Australia and in the smaller states—Mr Deputy President, in your home state of Tasmania this is relevant as well—where the majority of providers fall into the small to medium category, there is serious concern they will be excluded from this scheme and that could mean disaster. Why would international students choose to study at a smaller provider if they receive a more favourable, fast-tracked visa status or process somewhere else? It could mean the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs, business closures and the end of revenue from associated areas such as accommodation. The government's refusal to respond to the review is keeping smaller providers in limbo. They have no idea what might happen next week, so they are operating as best they can without being able to make firm plans for the future.

On top of that, the Australian Skills Quality Authority recently released its new fees regime, which will mean a huge increase in payments for smaller providers. New regulations also announced by the National Skills Standards Council will be an added burden because, while we obviously have to protect standards, there needs to be a more flexible approach for smaller providers, which I believe we can do without compromising standards. I have had meetings and discussions with the South Australian Minister for Employment, Higher Education and Skills, the Hon. Grace Portolesi, and she has been terrific in her advocacy for this sector. I know that she has recently met the federal minister, and she too shares my concerns about the potential impact of these changes in South Australia on South Australian providers. I commend her for her advocacy and work in relation to this.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training is so desperate for the government to respond to the visa situation that it published an open letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday in the national press. This is a letter by Martin Cass, the chair of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training. In part, the letter read:

It is with regret that I write this open letter urging you to act on the numerous reports and reviews your government has commissioned to support international education. Your delay threatens organisations like mine, our students and our staff.

The letter continues:

Filling an educational niche that a university or TAFE can't fill is part of Australia's innovative edge. Not all students (whether they are Australian or international) want or need to study with a large institution. I urge you to recognise and celebrate small businesses in the education sector when you respond to the National Skills Standards Council proposed changes to the regulatory standards for small providers.

More urgently, I ask you to act on the advice you have received and to extend improved visa processing arrangements to international students in non-university providers, rather than seeking to only reward large, homogenous public institutions.

We know the value of this sector to the economy and, more importantly, to the students who come to our country to continue their education. The government have not been able to give a clear reason why their response to this review has been delayed for so long. They cannot even give providers a date for the announcement, even after six long months of waiting. Enough is enough. Higher education and training providers need to know what is going to happen so that they can make business plans and adjust as well as possible if the news is not good.

I call on the government today to explain their inaction and to justify why smaller providers should continue to exist on a knife edge. It is bad policy—if the government has a policy at all. So while there have been improvements in the sector, smaller providers seem to be slipping through the cracks. We need to fix that and ensure that the sector can survive and be stronger than ever.

12:27 pm

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contributions and commend the Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013 to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.