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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2224

Mr PYNE (3:42 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow revised funding amounts for the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, for Commonwealth scholarships and for other Commonwealth grants. It also provides for future funding to move toward a student demand driven system of Commonwealth supported university places. This marks the transition from a system where student places at universities are capped to a system where the government will fund a place for every eligible undergraduate student accepted into an eligible course. This measure was announced in the 2010-11 budget and reflects the recommendation by the Bradley review into higher education, which was delivered to the government in late 2008.

Specifically, this bill, by taking the first step toward a student demand driven system, will assist in meeting the government’s objective for 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 to have at least a bachelor level degree by 2025. This begins with lifting the cap on enrolments from 2010 and 2011 from five to 10 per cent, with the transition to a student centred funding system from 2012.

This bill itself has no financial impact for the implementation of the transition toward a student demand driven system. Rather, from 2012 there will no longer be a maximum amount in table A, but its practical effect will result in future higher expenditure. Maximum funding amounts at section 30-5, section 41-45 and section 46-40 of the act will also be amended to account for indexation. I note that this is to be based on the present safety net adjustment, introduced in 1997 by the Howard government, which comprises 75 per cent of the current index.

The coalition is committed to the principle of the continuation of indexation for higher education and, by implication, the current arrangements regarding indexation as they stand in this bill. Indexation arrangements will change, of course, following the new arrangements to be introduced from 2012. The government have elected to use the professional, scientific and technical services labour price index reduced by 10 per cent to replace the safety net adjustment, after a period of significant consultation with the sector. The bill also reduces funding to the Graduate Skills Assessment program by $2.4 million across the years 2010-11 to 2013-14 in line with a diminishing public interest in the program.

But there is also another amendment to the Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010 upon which I would like to comment. The bill seeks to reduce funding to the Australian Technical and Learning Council by $18.4 million, reflecting the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency and the fact that part of the agency’s budget will be allocated indirectly towards the council. While the opposition does not consider this redirection of funds to be controversial, the role and structure of the future Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency may certainly have the potential to be. Already we see that even before TEQSA is created there is growing debate about just exactly how the government should go about bringing change to monitor and assure standards. I have previously stated that, while the coalition supports in principle the development of a national regulatory agency, we hope to consult carefully about the details of the governance and powers of TEQSA in the months ahead. We need to give the most careful consideration to the new standards that will be used to judge our institutions and other important aspects of regulatory regimes. The coalition will continue to monitor future activity and advocate for a higher education system that is flexible and responsive. We recognise that not all higher education providers are alike and we will not let the sector be burdened unnecessarily without justification.

While the coalition welcomed the Bradley review when it was released and many of the recommendations in it, including the recommendation that has translated to this bill, I take the opportunity to reflect on where we go from here. Unlike the government, we believe that the Bradley review is not merely a list of boxes to tick off over time. It is much more. The reforms stemming from the Bradley review should be considered the beginning of ongoing debate and reform in the higher education sector. We appreciate the move towards a student demand driven system proposed by Professor Bradley and endorsed by the government. The measure in this bill is a start, but I also believe there is much more scope to meet the ambitious target set by the government of 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 years having at least a bachelor level degree by 2025. For example, when we look overseas for potential solutions we find that there are some countries like Norway that have already met this target. Universities cannot be held to account to meet this target alone, though having the freedom to offer a sufficient number of places to students to meet demand is certain to assist in reaching these ambitious targets.

We also need to think about new and innovative ways to modify existing educational structures to facilitate progress from one stage of education to the next. We do need fewer ports of entry into education to make choices and pathways easier and clearer for potential students. The coalition is also deeply concerned about the direction and future of the new national curriculum, for a quality curriculum needs to be carefully designed to meet the future challenges in Australia and the labour market. Though this government has taken some steps to improve coordination between schools, private enterprise and post-secondary education, I believe that we could still do much more. We are concerned in the coalition that, if a national curriculum is introduced that is rushed, poorly implemented, not well thought out, badly funded and teachers are not given the training they need to ensure the national curriculum is what students need and what schools want, the pathway to higher education will be made that much harder as universities look to their own enrolment tests rather than relying on the year 12 marks that schools currently undertake.

And we most definitely need a much easier recruitment and pathway process to higher education for vocational education and training, which leads me to comment on the dramatic change between the previous government and this government in relation to the responsibilities for education. Education in the previous government was found in the same portfolio as universities, training, apprenticeships and so on with respect to the pathway through education in most people’s lives. Since the election of this government the portfolio has been divided between the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, Simon Crean, and of course the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett. The purpose for this division of responsibilities can only be to make the scrutiny of education less able for the opposition and is probably a response to the very effective breaking down of the government’s facade in education in the last three years when the current Prime Minister, as Minister for Education, presided over what can only be described as another Labor mess—whether it was the national curriculum, the My School website or, most importantly, the school hall stimulus debacle.

Many of the aspects of education under Minister Gillard proved to be failures, and when she was asked before the election for her list of achievements as Minister for Education the only one she could name in an entire portfolio covering everything from universities, apprenticeships and training to schools, education and child care was the setting up of the My School website. So a website was the No. 1 achievement of the Prime Minister when she was the Minister for Education and one can only assume that the responsibilities for education have been so disbursed in order to make it harder for the public to be aware of the ongoing failures of the government in relation to education. But I can ensure the House that we, from the opposition side, will continue to monitor the ongoing failures of the government in education. The one that is looming largest is the national curriculum, which was designed to be in place by January 2011 and most clearly will not meet that deadline. Only last Friday, the New South Wales Board of Deputies, which is responsible for schools education in New South Wales, wrote to the New South Wales Minister for Education and Training, Verity Firth, indicating that they would not be implementing the national curriculum in January 2011.

Other state jurisdictions will follow and we are seeing the unravelling of the national curriculum for a number of reasons. We have a minister, in the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, who is quite incapable of delivering a program. He was the same minister who presided over the solar panels debacle, the Green Loans scheme and the tragic home insulation scheme. He has now been given the hospital pass of the Prime Minister’s national curriculum to introduce, and of course he cannot recognise that this is going the same way as the other programs that he has presided over as minister. The courageous thing to do, which the government will not do, is to announce that the national curriculum will not be introduced from January 2011 and accept the opposition’s proposal, which is given generously and without any hooks or barbs, that we will allow them to delay the curriculum until January 2012 without us trying to score any political points, because we would prefer students got a better curriculum that was ready to be introduced in 2012 rather than a rushed curriculum, poorly implemented, cumbersome and facing criticism from all sides.

We also need continued efforts in youth programs, to encourage those youth who are neither undergoing education nor employed, who are at risk or from disadvantaged backgrounds, to access appropriate support services. All of these are policy areas that can and should be considered by the government as it works towards its set target of 40 per cent of youth having at least a bachelor level degree by 2025. Moving to a student demand driven system is one measure, but we must not forget the other elements that I have touched on as we work toward this goal. Nevertheless, in spite of some of the criticisms that we have made, the coalition is pleased that Labor has at least undertaken the uncapping of student places in the bill, and for this reason we support the legislation as drafted.