Senate debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020


Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020; Second Reading

1:22 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 demonstrates the Government's commitment to the higher education and vocational education and training (VET) sectors, and ensures that higher education remains accessible and affordable to students, even during these difficult times.

Schedule 1 of the Bill makes amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 as part of implementing the Government's decision to extend the unique student identifier (USI) regime to all higher education students. The Bill will assist in standardising student identifiers across the tertiary education sector by requiring students accessing Commonwealth assistance to have a USI. Starting in 2021, new students can apply for a student identifier, and from 1 January 2023, all enrolled students must have a USI to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. These amendments will improve the Government's data matching and identity verification capabilities, which will make the administration of the tertiary education sector more efficient and effective for students and providers.

Schedule 1 of the Bill also amends the VET Student Loans Act 2016 to require that, from 1 January 2021, a student's application for a VET student loan (VSL) must include the student's USI. This is consistent with the position that from 2021 all new domestic higher education students will receive a USI, and with the current VET Student Loans application requirements, which require an application to include the student's USI if one has been assigned.

Schedule 2 to the Bill introduces a measure to validate certain HELP loans and VET student loans by allowing the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (department) to determine that certain students who, due to having multiple Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Numbers (CHESSNs), have exceeded the HELP loan limit and allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amount through the income contingent repayment system.

From 3.5 million unique student records, only a small group of 475 students are affected. The measure is limited to loans incurred prior to the commencement of the amendment. The amendment avoids adverse financial outcomes for both students and providers that would arise from invalidating the loans, in recognition of the fact that these students were assigned multiple CHESSNs in error.

Since this issue has been identified, the Australian Government has updated the technology it uses to manage student enrolment information, including improving its data matching capability. These IT upgrades will prevent this issue recurring in the future.

Schedule 3 of the Bill clarifies that a student's HELP balance is taken to be reduced immediately after the census date for HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, VET-FEE-HELP assistance, and immediately after the census day for VET student loans (VSL). This amendment will ensure consistency across HELP and VSL by deeming the point in time at which a student's HELP balance is reduced to be the census date or day.

Schedule 4 of the Bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to support full-fee paying students to start or continue their studies, and in turn to support universities and other higher education providers to continue teaching. As part of the COVID-19 Higher Education Relief Package announced on 12 April, Schedule 4 to the Bill removes the loan fee that applies to undergraduate students accessing a FEE-HELP loan to pay for their studies. The loan fee exemption will apply for a six month period, for units of study with census dates from 1 April 2020 to

30 September 2020.

So that Australians can continue to upskill and retrain, this measure will reduce the cost of study for full-fee paying students in Semester 2 2020. Prospective undergraduate FEE-HELP students who may be considering commencing or returning to study may be incentivised to study in Semester 2, encouraging continued student enrolment for providers. The Bill gives effect to the Government's commitment to provide certainty to the higher education sector, so the sector can remain agile while meeting the needs of industry and contributing to the economy.

Schedule 5 to the Bill contains minor technical amendments to improve the clarity and operation of the Higher Education Support Act, including to amend the definition of a 'course of aviation' to include an 'approved course' as defined under the VET Student Loans Act 2016, and update a university name.

These amendments demonstrate the Government's commitment to the higher education sector, and to ensuring that workers in Australia are able to continue to upskill and retrain, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I commend the Bill.

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

The Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 includes provision for full-fee-paying university students to have the 25 per cent loan fee waived for six months, due to COVID. The bill also gives the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who, due to having more than one Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number, have exceeded the HELP loan limit and allows these students to repay their resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system.

The bill extends the unique student identifier regime to all higher education students by requiring all VET student loan recipients commencing on 1 January 2021, and all students from 1 January 2023, to have a USI in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under HESA. The bill also includes a range of measures that are technical in nature. Labor welcomes the small fee relief—for that small proportion of full-fee-paying undergraduate students—that a six-month waiver in loan fees will provide. It is right to ensure that students who have exceeded the student loans cap due to the administrative glitch can repay the debt over time rather than be pursued for lump sums they may find difficult to repay.

Labor has supported the expansion of the unique student identifier across higher education and understands that this should reduce the likelihood of such mistakes happening again. Labor will support this bill.

1:24 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

On this legislation, again I'd like to commend Senator Brown for her thoughtful contribution as a Tasmanian and a big supporter of the University of Tasmania and the good work that it does. I could see the passion in Senator Brown's contribution. I thank her for so fiercely advocating, on behalf of the opposition, for Labor's support for the legislation we are dealing with now. I too am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020, an important piece of legislation, which I'll talk to now.

This bill, as stated, implements part of the Higher Education Relief Package, which is part of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it's important to highlight that this pandemic, as I did indicate in the previous debate, is something that is unprecedented. Certainly, in my lifetime and in the lifetimes of most of the occupants of this chamber, we have not experienced anything like it—the swift nature of the outbreak and indeed the government responses. I have to say I am truly thankful that our government was in a position to be able to respond in the way that it has in terms of the support that has been provided to all sectors. I know that there have been differences of opinion in relation to the application of that support—and we're not going to get into that now because that is not the debate that we are currently having. But it is important to note that support was required right across the economy, and the education sector, our tertiary education sector in particular, was no exception.

Under this bill, for a six-month period, from 1 April to 30 September, the loan fee that applies to undergraduate students accessing FEE HELP—that is, a loan—for their studies will be removed. Undergraduate full-fee-paying students who may have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis will be given an incentive to begin or continue to study in semester 2 of 2020, thus supporting higher education providers through continued student enrolment. We need to ensure that there is continued turnover in a business or a university, like any other entity, so that there is continued revenue. That is what sustains these entities. This is what makes them able to pay the salaries they need to pay. This is what makes them viable into the future. We are able to support those affected by the crisis through support packages like this, where the loan fee, as I said before, is deferred.

Those sorts of measures are important so that we can encourage enrolment and so that we can keep people engaged with the education system. Through this measure, the government demonstrates its commitment to ensuring Australians are able to upskill and retrain, even in these difficult times. I think that is important as well. Sadly, because of this crisis, there are a lot of people who have been disengaged from their employment for one reason or another, which is of course something we've tried to avoid through JobKeeper and associated packages. Providing Australians with an opportunity to augment their skills or to train in a completely different sector, particularly in essential services—as has been outlined by a number of measures put in place by this government and, indeed, with the support of many in this chamber—is important so that we do have continued activity in the economy and right across the country.

The bill also enables the implementation of the government's decision to extend the unique student identifier, otherwise known as the USI, to all higher education students. By replacing the existing student identifiers with the USI, students and providers will have access to a single identification system. To support a single identifier across the tertiary education system, the bill will require students accessing Commonwealth assistance to have a USI. With almost all students in tertiary education using the USI, we will be able to monitor and collect unprecedented data to better inform education programs and policies. In addition, through the USI, students will be able to move between VET and other higher education more easily, which I think is a great outcome, encouraging ongoing engagement in education and lifelong learning, personal development and career aspirations.

This is an important point regarding the capacity in this day and age for Australians of any age, any background, to participate in the education system, be it through VET or a university. As Senator Brown would know, the University of Tasmania has a great range of associate degrees that catch that area in between a full degree and, say, a TAFE education, which has catered to many more thousands of, in our case, Tasmanians—a fantastic thing. Supporting that through unique initiatives which streamline the system to enable better data collection so government can respond to the changing landscape within our education sector is a fantastic initiative. Data is important to be able to make good decisions not just for government and not just for policy-makers but also for universities and other providers of education to understand exactly what is going on within their institutions, which are often large in number and which employ and educate a great many people. It's a very important initiative, one I feel very strongly about and one I am pleased to be supporting.

This bill also introduces measures to validate loans for students who have been assigned multiple Commonwealth higher education student support numbers to prevent unfavourable financial outcomes for providers and students. Following the passage of this legislation, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment will make best efforts to contact affected students as soon as is practical. I know, having worked with this department on many occasions and with the senior executives at Senate estimates, that the department will work quickly in partnership with education providers across the country to ensure that this is implemented seamlessly, and I look forward to seeing the work rolled out.

Correspondence will contain information on their situation and the effect of the legislation that we are debating—and hopefully passing very soon—and will include information on how to challenge debts that may be inappropriate or, indeed, incorrectly allocated to their CHESSN. Additional information on managing financial hardship and the income contingent nature of the HELP scheme will be provided to ensure that students are aware of their obligations and any course for redress or relief where required. I think it's important, when dealing with these sorts of schemes and the information contained in them and in trying to achieve the outcome sought here, to have that information so that students do feel comfort and have a clear indication of the pathways available to them. I know that the Minister for Education has written to the opposition to confirm this. It is with pleasure that I thank the opposition for their constructive engagement on this bill. It's great to see. This bill also clarifies the point in time that a student's HELP balance is taken to be reduced in the legislation to ensure that there is consistency across the HELP and VET student loans programs, and it makes minor amendments that streamline and improve the operation of the Higher Education Support Act.

All of these things contained together in this package—support to education providers, which are the institutions that are in operation; most importantly, support to those who benefit from the work that providers do, who are the students of these institutions; the streamlining of identification processes; the streamlining of the debt programs and how they are managed and how we interact with the users of those programs—have been well crafted in consultation with the various sectors that work in this space: namely, the universities but also other post-secondary education providers. I do commend, again, the opposition for their input and for the work that's been put in. I commend the officers of the department and the minister for their work on this legislation. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.