Second Reading SpeechMrs Andrews (McPherson-Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills)
That this bill be now read a second time.
Today I introduce the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No.1) Bill 2016 which has two distinct purposes. Firstly, the bill aims to improve the way we assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to participate in and graduate from university. Secondly, the bill makes an administrative amendment to ensure the Department of Education and Training can collect tax file numbers to improve the administration of the VET FEE-HELP scheme and improve data management arrangements for the HELP scheme as a whole.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enrolling in universities in greater numbers than ever before, with enrolment rates growing faster than those for other Australian students. Unfortunately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not progressing through university and completing degrees at anywhere near the rate of other Australian students.
The government has worked with universities to reform arrangements so students are not only enrolling, but also progressing through their courses and completing university degrees in greater numbers.
These new arrangements were included in the Indigenous Student Success in Higher Education measure announced by the government in the 2016-17 budget.
The amendments that I introduce today will mean that existing supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students can be administered through a single part of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and, importantly, through a single set of guidelines.
The bill proposes the establishment of a new special appropriation under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to consolidate the existing Commonwealth Scholarships Program and the Indigenous Support Program, administered under separate divisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, with tutorial assistance administered under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
Consequential amendments to the social security law and to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 ensure that grants under the new part are subject to current arrangements for other grants under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and do not disrupt checks and balances that are currently in place.
Should the parliament pass this bill, Minister Scullion will issue guidelines that ensure universities continue to offer scholarships, tutorial support and safe cultural spaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to learn. However, these new guidelines will improve the capacity of universities to design and implement the best services for each circumstance, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander staff or advisers.
The government appreciates the assistance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff from many universities across the country in developing these reforms. The government also appreciates the support offered by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, Universities Australia and Innovative Research Universities for the reforms to Indigenous student assistance.
Together we have developed reforms that shift the focus from simply getting students in the door, to also helping students to achieve and succeed at university.
This government recognises that our richest capital is our human capital. At the heart of building the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professional workforce, is increasing the number of successful university graduates. Improving completion outcomes will lead to more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taking up professional careers in medicine, education, engineering, law and management, to name a few.
The Turnbull coalition is committed to delivering better outcomes for our first Australians and the government will continue to ensure that every dollar invested delivers the best outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
With the support of this parliament, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students will be able to benefit from this legislation as they enter the 2017 academic year.
The bill also introduces administrative amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to allow the Department of Education and Training to access the tax file numbers of VET FEE-HELP students in order to improve the efficiency of data exchange with the Australian Taxation Office, and to improve data quality. This element of the bill does not relate specifically to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students but all HELP debtors.
These amendments build on existing administrative processes already in place for Trade Support Loans and for the other four Higher Education Loan Programs.
The amendments provide consistency across all five loan schemes. They will enable more efficient and effective administration of the Higher Education Loan Program and, importantly, improved HELP data. The amendments will also make it possible for VET FEE-HELP students to use, from 2017, a new digital Commonwealth Assistance Form that is managed by government, not by providers. The government form contains valuable enhancements that are designed to protect VET students from the unscrupulous enrolment practices of a few unethical providers.
The amendments will allow the Department of Education and Training and the Australian Taxation Office to efficiently exchange loan data using the common identifier that is a student's tax file number. Student loan debts that were incurred in an unconscionable way can be removed with speed and certainty, reducing stress on people who had never intended to incur a debt. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were among those targeted by providers that did not have the best interests of these often vulnerable students at heart.
This government recognises it is vital that the HELP scheme remains sustainable so that it can continue to be accessed by future generations of students. These amendments authorise use and disclosure of tax file numbers between Commonwealth officers specifically to improve available data on the HELP scheme and assist in its future administration.
These amendments support the broader VET FEE-HELP redesign that the government is pursuing to ensure future loan arrangements are robust, sustainable and above all have the interest of students at their centre.
I commend this bill to the House.