Questions without Notice, Monday 12 September 2011
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:26): I direct my question to the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans. Can you provide the house with details on the vocational education and training FEE-HELP review, conducted by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations? In particular, what were the terms of reference for the review; what inequities were found in the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme; what consultation occurred with stakeholders, including the community; and how does the government plan to respond to issues raised by this review?
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:27): I thank the senator for her question and I am pleased to see that it is focused on a key policy issue, which is how we progress reform in the vocational education and training sector, as it drives so much of the nation's prosperity and opportunities for Australians. We did implement a review of the VET FEE-HELP Assistance Scheme as a result of a commitment given by the Prime Minister in 2008 or 2009 where we said we would look at the experiences in Victoria and undertake a review of that scheme. As I understand it, the review is being conducted by a Canberra based management consultant firm. It has been set that task.
Opposition senators interjecting—
Senator Bob Brown: Mr President, I simply cannot hear the minister's answer, due to the interjections from the opposition about their reading of the Greens website. I ask you to give us the ability to hear the answer to this question.
The PRESIDENT: The senator is entitled to hear the answer to the question that the minister is giving. I remind those on the left that it is disorderly to interrupt during the minister's answer.
Senator CHRIS EVANS: I will have to take on notice who has been consulted and how the review is being conducted. But I understand we have recently received a draft report for the review. I have not yet been briefed on that. We will consider those findings in the context of the discussions with the states on the wider reform of VET, as outlined in the budget. What I do know is that, from earlier advice I saw from the department, we saw quite a strong take-up in 2010, in that 26,000 students had accessed a loan to help pay tuition fees and there was good, early evidence of access by increasing numbers of disadvantaged learners. I have not seen the formal report. When I get that I will make it public. I can advise the Senate that we have undertaken, as part of the COAG process for the new National Partnership on vocational education and training, to hold a series of consultations with key industry players. I have already attended one roundtable, which will allow a broader debate on what should be included in the new National Partnership on vocational education and training as part of the COAG process. I think we do need to open it up to more input from other players.
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:30): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, when will the outcomes of the review of the Productivity Places Program be made public, and how will your government keep its commitment to consultation with stakeholders on proposals to reform the VET sector that were announced in the budget?
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:30): Again, I will take this on notice, but I think the most recent report on the PPP was released recently. The report that has received some coverage in the papers recently was a much earlier report. But I will take it on notice, and if the report is publicly available I will make that available. It actually showed a much more positive picture of the take-up of PPP places. Interestingly, it showed an increase in the number of people taking higher-level qualifications.
As I indicated earlier, I am keen to have key stakeholders engaged in the debate around VET reform and the nature of the COAG partnership agreements. I have started on that process and have met with the key players, and I will continue to do so. In fact, the ministerial council will invite half a dozen of the key players to brief it prior to its next meeting. So we are looking to broaden that engagement. (Time expired)
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:31): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, are you aware that TAFE New South Wales, in its submission, highlighted the inequities of the VET FEE-HELP scheme relative to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS, and made 40 recommendations to reduce the cost of administering the scheme to make it less complex for students and also more flexible? What is your response to the TAFE New South Wales recommendations?
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:32): I am aware that those concerns have been expressed. It is one of the issues that were picked up in the review and to which we will respond. I will make the broader point that this government strongly supports the FEE-HELP scheme. We think it has been one of the best things Australia has done to allow access to university education. I think there are very strong prospects for it to make a similar contribution at certain levels of VET education to assist students to be able to afford to take on the courses that will give them the best opportunities in life.
Clearly this review is important. I also note that, as I understand it, the policy of the Greens is to abolish all HECS and FEE-HELP student debts. I would like to know whether that is still Greens policy. Clearly if we are going to have a debate about this it has to be in the context of our strong support for the scheme and whether or not the Greens support the continuation of the FEE-HELP scheme. (Time expired)