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Speech: Higher Education Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 21 Nov 2012

Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012, Wednesday 21 November 2012

Second Reading Stage

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (11:00): The Greens support some aspects of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2012 which take a risk-managed approach to administrative compliance. We do however have concerns about the VET FEE-HELP scheme, which we outlined in additional comments made to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations' review of this legislation. The Greens do not support the proposed government amendments that will delay the indexation of Student Start-up Scholarships, which are awarded to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to assist them with the start-up costs of commencing full-time tertiary study.

Overall, the Greens support the provisions of this bill that allow a risk-managed approach to approvals and administrative compliance. It makes sense that the low risk posed by institutions, such as publicly funded TAFEs and universities, is recognised when the minister is approving their applications as a VET provider. After all, our public education institutions are effectively underwritten by government and subject to public scrutiny via their public funding in a way that private corporations are not.

The requirement that the minister must regard a wider range of financial information when making a decision about an applicant's financial viability is appropriate, especially when we remember the number of dubious private providers going bust in 2009, leaving students in the lurch and leaving the government to pick up the financial pieces. We also remember the damage it did to our international reputation. The seeking of full information from TEQSA or a relevant VET regulator when approving, revoking or suspending a higher education or VET provider's eligibility around VET FEE-HELP and FEE-HELP is also a due process.

More timely revocation of a higher education or VET provider's approval as a VET provider when they have been found to present a financial risk or do not meet quality standards or other responsibilities is clearly needed. Students need protection from such providers. The time between the minister's decision to revoke such approval and the time that revocation takes effect must be minimal so that students are not duped into enrolling with institutions that are about to lose their licence to provide VET courses. We cannot risk public money following such enrolments disappearing along with the institution itself.

The delegating to non-public servants to ensure the business of all departments administering funding or programs under the act will continue, despite changes in government or administrative arrangement orders. We can see that this is sensible. The consolidating of four existing sets of guidelines—the VET provider, the VET FEE-HELP, the VET tuition fee and the VET administration guidelines—into one set of VET guidelines also makes sense. The Greens note the concerns raised by a number of providers that much of the detail will be effected through the VET guidelines. This means those details have not been available for examination or assessment, and we do support the call for the government to continue to consult with stakeholders in formulating the VET guidelines provided for in this bill.

The bill allows the minister's power to expand the VET courses applicable for VET FEE-HELP to include certificate IV courses and above. This is in schedule 1, and this change is very troubling. We note the concerns raised by TAFE Directors Australia and RMIT University that VET students currently do not have equitable access to FEE-HELP loans. The Greens agree with the National Tertiary Education Union that:

… it is an abrogation of the Government's responsibilities to rely on the provision of [income-contingent loans] as the primary policy instrument for improving education participation amongst underrepresented groups of Australians.

The NTEU have set out very clearly the problems here. The Greens do not support the shifting of costs for vocational education and training onto the student via TAFE student fees. This in turn necessitates students raising debts to participate in VET through the VET FEE-HELP system.

TAFE is an important entry point into further education and training or into employment for a large proportion of students from low socioeconomic regional and rural regions outside capital cities. Indeed, up to nine per cent of students entering university come from vocational and educational training pathways. This is a huge contribution and it clearly needs to be fostered. With large numbers of disadvantaged students traditionally accessing TAFE, it is wrong that those students should be burdened with HELP debts before even entering the workforce—or before even embarking on basic university study. What type of substantial HELP debts do such students accumulate by the end of their basic university degree? That still is not fully clear.

In 2011 the Prime Minister spoke about an approaching shortage of about 36,000 tradespeople by 2015. We so often hear talk about this problem and the need for Australia to be able to bring forward more skills training so that we can be the 'innovative nation'—which is put in so many policies these days.

This government states that it recognises an increase in higher qualifications for disadvantaged Australians is imperative if we are to successfully compete in a future global economy. If we are to succeed in having 20 per cent of undergraduate students coming from low-socioeconomic backgrounds to meet the looming skill shortages, we should not be burdening disadvantaged students with a HELP debt that is needed to pay rising TAFE fees. This is an anathema to any notion of equity or the idea of removing barriers to participation in further education and training, and it could obviously be somewhat of a roadblock to achieving that skilled nation that we all say we are committed to. For this reason, any extension of the VET FEE-HELP scheme is noted with concern as moving in the wrong direction by pre-empting even higher student fees.

The Greens believe that a fee-and-charges-free TAFE system should be pursued. We need to prioritise and increase VET funding to the TAFE system to ensure a high quality, accessible and viable public VET system.


Committee Stage

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:04): The Greens do not support the government's proposed amendments to delay the indexation of the student start-up scholarships from 1 January next year to January 2017. These amendments really put up in flashing lights the government's failure to public education, and in particular to students in a difficult situation, whether they have a low income for various reasons or they are in regional and rural areas. What is also now up in flashing lights is the coalition. We have heard a very interesting speech from Senator Nash. She has set out very clearly the problems with this amendment, but also stated very clearly that the coalition would not be opposing it. We could stop this amendment going through. The Greens are not going to be voting for it and it should not be supported. Senator Nash said very clearly that it makes no sense.

This scholarship is provided to students who meet the lower economic income criteria of various income support payments to help meet the exorbitant costs of textbooks and other study materials. We have it there, because it is a recognition that these students are already struggling economically. We have all had experience of going to many of these areas—I think most of us have, because I have heard many speeches in parliament about the difficulties students and their families are facing in coping with education costs. This has been an important measure. To gouge a group of disadvantaged people who are being urged to overcome multiple barriers of disadvantage to attend full-time study and acquire further qualifications for the future economic necessity of Australia is simply wrong. It is actually deeply offensive. Let us remember all of those speeches from the Prime Minister and her ministers about a skilled nation. We need to be providing pathways for people across the country to come into our education system, yet we have just put up a barrier until 2017. It is extraordinary. It is as though it will never come back again. This cut is part of an over $1 billion cut in higher education support for students, research and universities. It is a most backwards and very short-sighted step.

We need to look at what is happening in some of the comments that are being made about these amendments. Senator Nash spoke very effectively in exposing the government's hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, but she has actually done exactly the same thing herself with her speech. She has got the experience from regional areas. I have been outside this parliament on platforms where she has spoken in detail about these problems. She has done it many times in this chamber with her colleagues. But she has actually highlighted the hypocrisy of the Liberals and Nationals. I urge that we vote together to block this and that the government pulls it. At this time, to bring forward a delay in the indexation of the start-up scholarships is so deeply wrong.

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