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Speech: Higher Education legislation

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 21 Mar 2013

Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill 2013, Thursday 21 March 2013

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:18): 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.

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