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Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Page: 57

Ms MADELEINE KING (Brand) (17:03): I rise today to discuss the impact of the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. It's a bill I absolutely will not support. I reject it outright. It is complex legislation, and that is fitting because we in this place all know that higher education is a complex issue to deal with, with a long list of stakeholders and participants, and there is always great community interest in our universities. Primary, secondary and higher education are as important as each other, and negotiating and creating reform that is complementary across sectors can create long-lasting benefits for the whole community. Education reform is challenging. Higher education reform is challenging.

The reforms in this bill purport to tackle the considerable challenge of funding universities while at the same time managing to fundamentally ignore how universities actually work. This bill displays a kind of wilful blindness to the reality of how universities make the most of their funding and the pressure facing this very important sector and export industry.

If this bill is to help the higher education sector, it should be designed to support the students in the institutions it professes to reform, but it does not do that. This is a bill that should be making universities more accessible to students across the nation, but it isn't. This is a bill which should pay attention to the vast range of activities that a university conducts, but it does not. This is a bill that should bring together relevant stakeholders to the table and develop meaningful, long-term policy for the sector. Again, it doesn't and it fails. Certainly, this bill should ensure the future prosperity of a world-class higher educational institution, and it certainly does not do that. Recent comments published in The West Australian and, of course, around the world say it advocates the exact opposite. The West Australian says:

Australia's performance on international university league tables could fall if the Federal Government pushes ahead with planned reforms, the editor of the Times Higher Education global rankings has warned.

In these rankings, six Australian universities were ranked among the top 100 in the world. Unfortunately, none of Western Australia's universities made the top 100, but UWA moved up 14 places, climbing to 111. The West Australian says:

Times Higher Education global rankings editor Phil Baty said Australia's future rankings could suffer if the Government went ahead with plans to cut funding by 2.5 per cent.

"It is good news that Australia's universities have held steady in this year's table but funding cuts proposed by the government could harm the country's institutions in future editions of the rankings," he said.

"The data also shows that Australia's leading institutions are already falling behind peers in mainland China and Hong Kong, which receive high and sustained levels of state funding."

Mr Baty said figures from the first quarter of this year showed a 15 per cent increase in international student numbers in Australia.

He said Australia could benefit from a potential decline in the number of international students applying to universities in Britain and the US because of Brexit and tightened immigration policies.

So we have the capacity already and we have the model and the opportunity.

The Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, has said Australian universities are punching above their weight on the international stage but they should not rest on their laurels in a competitive world. The education minister asked universities not to rest on their laurels, while this government has been doing exactly that in this policy area and others for four years. Mind you, as laurels are symbols of victory and status, one can't really accuse the Liberal government of much of that. It is laziness in application of policy thought. They've failed to consider the complexities of our third-largest export industry. How does cutting the legs out from our universities help maintain our national rankings? How does it help universities improve on their already excellent performance?

I want to talk about the university experience of students across Australia. For those of us who were lucky enough to go to university—and not many people in my electorate have been to university—it's not about just going to your lectures and going home. It's not a factory; students don't just go in one end and get churned out the other end with a piece of paper. We hope they go into positive learning environments, get to engage with peers, pick up life skills, network and build a strong, positive and well-thought-out foundation for life post graduation. We hope that it sets them up. But this bill does not do any of that. Instead of reforming the sector for the good of the students and the vast university communities, this bill has become a cash grab by the Liberal federal government to repair the budget bottom line at the expense of education and the future of our community.

I've worked in the university sector for over 10 years. Before coming to this place, I operated an international relations think tank, the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. Before that I was a lawyer for the University of Western Australia and I was chief of staff to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia. I have had the remarkable experience of working with students, the UWA student guild, educators, lecturers, heads of state, scientists, cleaners, researchers, heads of government, administrators, artists, Nobel laureates, gardeners, curators and carpenters—so many different people doing so many different things to make a remarkable institution what it is: a place of learning, a place of research, a place of effort and application and a place of beauty where all can seek wisdom should they choose to, and most do. In being director of UWA's centenary celebrations a few years ago, I had the chance to spend time helping a vast community celebrate the contribution of the first free university in the British Empire, a university which promoted equal access to tertiary education for all. It enabled the education of Western Australians and the research which enabled the development of that state's agricultural industry—its second-largest export industry—and the state's mining industry, which is WA's largest export industry.

Of course, now, with five universities, education itself is Western Australia's third-largest export industry. A hundred and five years after UWA first commenced in 1911, there are a further four great WA universities—Murdoch University, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, and the University of Notre Dame Australia—each playing important roles in educating Western Australians of all ages and international students from many nations. These universities conduct research across a broad spectrum of subjects, and, like unis across the country, they contribute to local communities in hosting community events and providing sporting grounds and facilities. They are significant employers and create centres of activity that support hundreds of small businesses across WA.

Universities are complex, and I haven't even touched on what it takes to put together a university budget, but, mostly from my own experience, I know it's extraordinarily hard work. Simplifying the complexity of universities and all that they do in the community and assuming student contributions only get applied to teaching shows an absurd lack of attention to universities, to what they are and to how they work. For the education minister to say that unis are somehow pocketing the extra cash from student contributions that exceed the costs of teaching shows just how mammothly out of touch this government is with this sector. In July, the education minister described the increase in funding to the sector because of the demand-driven system as a 'river of gold'. How out of touch can you get. I can imagine more than a few university administrators shaking their heads at that comment and thinking, 'If only we could keep hold of that extra revenue and not have to apply it to research programs, or IT infrastructure, or maintaining heritage-listed 85-year-old limestone buildings or a collection of art carefully collected or gifted and curated and which the university holds on trust for the benefit of the public and the benefit of future generations.'

Our universities are not cash cows for this or any other aggressive Liberal government to raid for their budget repair, and neither is the foreign aid program, for that matter. But nothing will stand in the way of this government giving $65 billion worth of tax cuts to the most wealthy—not even those institutions which quite literally build the future of this nation's prosperity.

This government has resolutely ignored the reality of universities. It has not managed to grasp the reality of the implicit cross-subsidy where any funds left over from a teaching program go toward funding critical research. It is a failure to listen to universities. It is a failure to understand how they operate. And it is only one more of this government's many failures in this regard.

If I could, I'd like to speak briefly about Murdoch University in Western Australia. I hope the member for Tangney comes and speaks a bit later on this. I know it's in his electorate and it plays an important role in his community as well as in mine. It is the closest university to Brand and has offered a unique and valuable approach to tertiary education for many of my constituents. It's also close to my family's heart, having been named after my husband's great-grandfather, Sir Walter Murdoch, the founding professor of English at UWA and a local author and philosopher. Established in 1973, Murdoch University offers enabling programs for students who did not achieve the ATAR ranking they had hoped, or, in some cases, those who did not achieve an ATAR ranking at all—programs such as OnTrack. That is—or was—a fee-free program which is approved as a full-time study option by Centrelink.

This bill seeks to replace the enabling loading with a student contribution that will have a disproportionately negative impact on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the suburbs south of Brand, in the Peel region, across the seat of Canning as well as in my electorate of Brand. In 2016, there were 296 students from the region taking advantage of this program. This year, there are 453. The replacement of the enabling loading will undoubtedly put an immediate halt to this, flying in the face of the very great positive progress Murdoch University has made in opening up the university experience to people who are already at a disadvantage in comparison to many others around Australia. It is estimated that charging fees for enabling programs will affect more than 350 students across Rockingham and Peel. To rip up the opportunities and dreams of these students is, in my opinion, a national disgrace and should be reconsidered by the government.

Among OnTrack students enrolled at Murdoch University between 2008 and 2014, 55 per cent self-identified as being the first in their family to go to a university, and 56 per cent lived in low-SES denominated areas. Furthermore, and very importantly, 69 per cent of all funded enrolments translated into undergraduate degree enrolments at Murdoch University. That's a good thing for the region, it's a good thing for Western Australia and it certainly is a good thing for the people and potential students of Brand in Western Australia.

I will speak for a couple of minutes to a few of the other measures that are in this bill. We know what an efficiency dividend is, of course; it's a cut. The 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend will take out of an already-stressed sector. There will be an increase in student fees. Now, let's be clear, this increase in fees will not go to any kind of pool that's going to improve the student experience or go to funding facilities to support services to help improved infrastructure. No, it's going to go straight to the consolidated revenue and transform into that $65 billion tax cut for big business. This government is increasing the fees for students and is not applying that increase to the sector itself. Students will pay more and they will get less. Not only will the extra fees go elsewhere, but the 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend—cut—and the 7.5 per cent performance management daylight robbery scheme will all add up to taking more money out of universities to fund tax cuts. It's a disgrace, and it's a failure.

I'm going to reflect a bit on that performance based funding pool that we have no detail about. Earlier, the member for McPherson, I think, said that there was going to be some metrics put around it and that they would be related to student achievement. So here we have another 7.5 per cent to be taken off universities, coming out of their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding, that will be put into some pool to be distributed in some fashion yet to be determined. That's very helpful for universities, some of which have billion-dollar turnovers and have to plan for these things.

The member for McPherson mentioned student achievement as a possible metric. That sometimes translates to attrition. Attrition of students is regularly and most often out of the control of universities, because students at universities, like all of us, have lives that are complicated. Sometimes they have to give up their studies for health reasons, because they become carers, because they've simply changed their mind or because they're not able to cope; there are so many reasons people do not finish their degree. And students that need the enabling courses that the government is now going to charge for are often those who are at most risk of not finishing their degree and going into that attrition lot of students. So if performance funding is going to be linked to attrition, then unis will find themselves being forced not to enrol students at risk of leaving their institutions—those at risk of not finishing their degree in full. And these are the people, as I said, who do the enabling courses. They are the most vulnerable in our community, the people we need to get into universities and to finish their degree. We need to do all we can to help them out so that they can finish their degree and create a better life for their families and for their future. Universities are highly motivated to keep students enrolled. It's part of their funding. The money flows with the students, so there is no need to have any kind of performance based funding managed around attrition, because that's well and truly dealt with.

I'll conclude by saying that I think these reforms are a disgrace. I've worked in this sector for over 10 years and I have been on the council of a university. I'm proud to have worked in the university sector and I'll do all I can to defend it and to improve the funding model for the universities in the future. (Time expired)