Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (11:31): I appreciate the opportunity to speak in relation to the Vet Student Loans Bill 2016. Before I commence I would like to acknowledge the young people in the gallery this morning and wish them well in their studies.
I would also like to recognise the students in Victoria who are approaching their Victorian VCE exams in the coming week—next Wednesday. I wish all the students well, and I am sure all members wish year 12 students around the nation well in this very challenging time in their lives. I offer a little reminder to students that a number, an ATAR score, on a piece of paper will never define them as a person. There are many, many ways of achieving success in their future careers. While the ATAR score is a measurement tool, it is important to remember that there are many pathways to future success. I know from personal experience as someone who never went to university, who went on to do a journalism cadetship, that it has not held me back in my aspirations for the future. I know you, Deputy Speaker, parted company with your high school under mutually agreeable terms—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Yes.
Mr CHESTER: and were perhaps encouraged to find another career option. I understand that you went on to become an apprentice shoemaker and have been wearing that shoe leather ever since. It certainly has not held you back in your career aspirations to be a state member of parliament and now the federal member of parliament for McEwen. I guess the lesson in that for all of us is that there are many pathways to success. It can be a very stressful time for students who are approaching their VCE exams, but there is a great deal of support out there for them, whether that be through their own family, their network of friends or their teachers. I also point out that organisations like the digital mental health organisation ReachOut Australia, which is supported by the government and corporate donors, have resources to support year 12 students if they are finding things tough. I encourage young people going through this stressful time in their lives to make sure they reach out for assistance if they need it. Obviously, after their exams some students will go on to university but others will choose other pathways and pursue different options, and that is what today’s bill is all about—it is all about protecting the integrity of an important education pathway, that being vocational education. There is no doubt that the VET Student Loans reform which is before us today is well and truly required and, in some instances, is a response to some very inappropriate behaviour throughout our nation. The government intends to replace the failed VET FEE-HELP scheme with the VET Student Loans program from 1 January 2017. The scheme will include a range of measures to protect students and Australian taxpayers, and to restore some trust in the vocational education sector.
This is especially important, Deputy Speaker, for young people from regional areas. You and I know that, at this stage, students in our regional communities do not participate in tertiary education as much as students from metropolitan areas, but young people from regional areas do participate very strongly in apprentice courses and TAFE programs at a higher level. People from our regional communities want the opportunity to access reputable courses in their own community as much as they possibly can and for those courses to offer a pathway into full-time employment. People with honest intentions, who have participated in these courses expecting to land a job with their new qualifications, have been badly let down by the unscrupulous operators this bill seeks to address. The operators who acted in this unscrupulous manner—and I congratulate the Minister for Education and Training for recognising this—have effectively rorted the system. I think it is terribly important to recognise that they preyed on vulnerable students, who were the innocent victims in this process. The businesses of education providers who were doing the right thing were also affected during this time. I sincerely congratulate the minister for recognising the need to put in place new provisions which protect the legitimate operators but particularly crack down on those who were operating in an unscrupulous manner and rorting the previous system.
Not only were people ripped-off; the government’s budget was blown out and taxpayers had to pick up the tab. The funding for VET loans blew out from a cost of $325 million in 2012 to $1.8 billion in 2014 and $2.9 billion in 2015. We have seen meteoric increases in student numbers in the order of 400 per cent. Fees more than doubled and loans increased by 792 per cent. The Turnbull-Joyce coalition government is taking steps to repair the system, including limiting courses eligible for VET Student Loans to those that align with industry needs and having a clear pathway for the students undertaking those courses. Three bands of loan caps—$5,000, $10,000 and $15,000—will be set for courses, depending on their actual delivery cost. And students will be required to log in to and engage with the VET Student Loans online portal to ensure they are active and legitimate enrolments and participating in that educational opportunity. Another change is a new application process for providers wanting to access VET Student Loans, which includes a much higher bar to entry. So the legitimate education providers will be able to participate but those who have unscrupulous intent will be weeded out. We
will also strengthen legislative, compliance and payment conditions, prohibiting approved providers from using brokers or directly soliciting prospective students. That was a fundamental problem under the previous system, so it is a welcome change.
The minister has announced 347 courses that are expected to attract funding support under the new affordable, sustainable and student-focused VET Student Loans program. This remains open for consultation, which is an important point to make. I would encourage anyone who thinks a course has been left off the list but should be retained to engage in the consultation process. I know the minister is well and truly open to those suggestions. I refer back to my comments at the outset about student pathways. I would like to raise another issue about student pathways which is directly impacting on my electorate of Gippsland. I have been approached by concerned students and teachers at Federation University, at their Churchill, Gippsland campus, about a pathway to graduat medical studies that now no longer exists for students in my community. Previously, students completing an undergraduate biomedical science degree at Federation University in Churchill were eligible to transfer to the Monash University graduate entry medical program. To give context about why this matters to my community, Federation University’s Churchill campus was previously the Monash Gippsland campus. Churchill is also the home of the school of rural health. It is the flagship student medical program for Gippsland and plays an important role in supplying medical professionals to our region. You know and I know—and many regional members have the same experience—that attracting and retaining GPs and health professionals in all forms in our regional communities is an enormous challenge. A very significant part of the answer to this problem is providing access for kids from a regional background to that training, because they are much more likely to return to their home communities in the future, having had that regional experience.
The history to this is important. In 2006—so 10 years ago—Commonwealth funding was provided to create the graduate entry program at Monash’s Churchill campus in Gippsland. It was known at the time as the Gippsland medical school. Under this model, graduate students would achieve their degree in four years, rather than the five required by direct-entry students. The federal and state governments provided funding of $12 million for infrastructure upgrades at Churchill, creating the medical school base, and the clinical sites of the school. The coalition government at the time—the Howard government—established extra Commonwealth support places in 2006, and there were additional places sourced in 2007 and 2008. Gippsland students were actively encouraged to pursue the graduate pathway to becoming a doctor. In 2007, it was marketed to the local community as a way of retaining doctors in Gippsland, because we knew then, as we know now, that many country-trained doctors will return to those rural areas to provide services to the underserviced populations that still exist today. In early 2011, the Gippsland medical school was disestablished and the first year of the Graduate Entry Program at Churchill became the responsibility of the school of rural health. I am advised that in 2013 a review was conducted by Monash University into the graduate entry program. Monash University made a decision it would only accept students into its graduate entry program from Monash undergraduate courses. So, if you completed your undergraduate subjects at Churchill, the pathway to Monash University’s medical program is now closed. This has caused great concern among the staff at Federation University. It has also caused huge concern for students and prospective future students. I believe—and I make no apologies for being as blunt as this—Monash University is failing my community.