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Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Page: 6643

Mr TUDGE (Aston) (13:19): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The bill does four things. Firstly, it removes the restrictions on the number of undergraduate Commonwealth supported places that Australian universities are able to offer. Secondly, it abolishes the student learning entitlement. Thirdly, it requires universities to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth government. Finally, it requires universities to institute policies which promote and protect intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research.

Broadly speaking, the coalition supports this bill overall, although, as you would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, we will be moving some amendments. I would like to go through each of those four objectives of this particular bill and make some comments in relation to them. Let me, firstly, speak on what is the most important aspect of the bill and that is making the number of Commonwealth places demand driven rather than capped. As members would probably be aware, over the last few years we have had a highly centralised university system where places have been determined by officials here in Canberra. They have determined exactly how many places will be funded in every single university, in every campus across the country. Under this system, if a student did not get a place at a university which they wanted to attend and had the qualifications to attend, they really had very few alternatives. In the past, they may have had the alternative of paying for a full-fee place at that particular institution, but the Labor government has abolished that particular provision.

The recommendation for uncapping the Commonwealth places at universities and making the system demand driven came out of the Bradley review into higher education. Two core recommendations came out of the Bradley review. Firstly, that we should set a target that, by 2025, 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds should have an undergraduate degree. Secondly, that the system should be a demand driven system of places rather than a capped driven system. Broadly speaking, we support this first aspirational target. It is a reasonable target to set. Additionally, we support the second core recommendation, about moving to a demand driven system. Again, this is a good recommendation. It is a sensible measure that the government has taken up from the Bradley recommendations and is now implementing. It basically means that if a student qualifies for a particular course at a particular campus of a particular university then he or she will be able to get into that course. The Commonwealth funding will go with that student to that institution rather than the student possibly missing out on a place because we currently cap the number of places for that institution. We believe that no student who is qualified for a particular undergraduate degree should miss out on getting Commonwealth assistance in that instance.

The bill also adds almost $4 billion in appropriations to support this recom­mendation and to help implement this demand driven measure. Again, this is an important additional injection of funds to support this measure. Of course, not all places are going to be uncapped. The bill does not uncap medical places and it does not uncap postgraduate places; they will continue to be set by the Commonwealth government here in Canberra. The bill does give the minister the ability to cap places in certain and limited circumstances. I understand that, by and large, the university sector welcomes this measure of introducing demand driven funded places, and it is a good measure. The university sector has been too tightly regulated and too tightly restricted in recent years, so any measure that moves to liberalise the university sector, which this measure certainly does, should be supported.

Some serious questions remain, however, about the adequacy of the funding that complements the measure. I mentioned that the bill provides $4 billion of extra funding over four years, but it does not provide any extra infrastructure funding. Of course, if we increase the number of students who go to university—and that is the whole intent of this bill—then we need more infrastructure at the universities as well to accommodate those new students. Many students know that the lecture theatres and the campuses are bursting at the seams already. Students are consistently complaining about exactly that. So I am concerned that through the measure to make it a demand driven funding system we will have a lot more students at the university but will not have additional infrastructure to cope with that. So I put that particular issue to the government: who is going to pay for the additional infrastructure that will be required to accommodate the new students? There is certainly no additional infrastructure funding in this bill.

I also raise the issue of the level of base funding to support students at universities. Many recommendations have been made, including in the Bradley review, to increase the base funding rate so that we do not diminish the quality of the university experience. The Bradley review recom­mended that the base funding rate should be increased by 10 per cent. The government has not addressed that recommendation. It is having a review of the recommendation, and we will certainly be keeping a close eye on that. Again, we know that universities are already struggling with lack of resources to provide for the students they have and provide the high quality of education that students demand and that the community demands. Universities are faced with the prospect of working out how they get the additional resources. As the shadow minister for education outlined earlier today, there are really three options to address that. Firstly, the universities could accommodate the additional students within the existing resources—simply put more students in and try to make it work. Secondly, the universities could find additional resources themselves—somehow. Thirdly, the govern­ment could actually find the additional resources to meet the additional costs that will come with this bill.

The first option of accommodating the additional costs within their existing resources is obviously exceptionally difficult for the universities. They are already pressed to the limit. The second option of finding additional resources themselves is already very difficult for the universities. The universities are already heavily reliant upon international students, for example, who cross-subsidise Australian students. The international student market has taken a hit in recent times, in part because of the strong Australian dollar but also because there is increased competition from other countries in the international student market. I think it will be difficult for the universities to significantly increase their resources. So it really comes down to the third option of the government needing to seriously examine providing additional resources to help the university sector meet the additional cost burdens they have. As I said, the Bradley review recommended a 10 per cent increase in the base funding rate, and I think that needs to be seriously looked at.

Let me just touch on the other measures the bill introduces—firstly, the mission based compacts on universities. Again, we broadly support this measure, but we have some serious concerns with it. 'Mission based compacts' sounds very nice. It almost implies that there will be just one piece of paper that both the Commonwealth government and each university signs. I believe that in actual fact it will be significantly worse than that. It will not be one piece of paper; it will be a volume that has to be agreed upon between the universities and the Commonwealth. Our concern is that this will add considerable red tape for the universities. As outlined earlier, the universities need to be freed from the red tape and given the opportunity to provide education as they best see fit. They do not need additional red tape added to them. The government have form in adding red tape to institutions, be they businesses, nonprofits or other institutions. They came into power promising that there would be less red tape and fewer regulations. They promised that for every new regulation they put in place they would take one out. But we know the record of this government in this area since 2007. That record in fact shows that for every one regulation which they have removed they have put 220 new regulations in. So they are 1/220th of the way towards meeting their promise. We have some serious concerns that these agreements will be used to stifle the universities and just add additional red tape, which they do not need. We will be moving an amendment to express our concerns in that particular area.

Secondly, we have some concerns in relation to the abolition of the student learning entitlement, which this bill also implements. The student learning entitlement was introduced by the Howard government. I thought it was a sensible measure in essence to address the issue of professional students. It does not try to prevent legitimate students from doing their undergraduate and further degrees. But it does try to address the fact that some students do one degree after another and insist on getting taxpayer support to continue to do further degrees which may not be necessarily advancing the economy or our society. We do not believe it is sensible to abolish the student learning entitlement. It was initially set at seven years. You would get seven years of taxpayer funded support and then after that you would be on your own. We believe that, given the changing nature of higher education and the different structures within the university sector, that should probably be eight years now and of course there would still be some important exemptions to go with that. I think it is a mistake to abolish the student learning entitlement altogether.

I also want to make some comments about the provisions which support academic freedom. The bill requires universities to have in place policies to promote and protect intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. That is fine. That is a good policy. Academic freedom is absolutely central to the nature of our universities. What we would like to see in addition though is for students to have those same protections as well, because we are concerned that some students, particularly conservative students, who express their views do not always get the same fair hearing as students who might express alternative views. We think it is a reasonable amendment to include not only that that freedom be given to academics and that important principle be put in place in the legislation but that that academic freedom and protection also be given to students.

The final comment I would like to make is that, while this bill concerns higher education and is in large part about addressing the 40 per cent target objective, which we broadly support, this bill should not be interpreted as meaning that tertiary education is somehow necessarily better than alternative pathways which are available to students. We should always be encouraging students to pursue their own pathway, whether that be going into an apprenticeship, going into a job straight after high school or going to university. It is important to support the broad objective of students going to university, but I also think that message is important to get across as well. Broadly, in conclusion, we support this bill, but we do have some concerns which I have outlined and we will be moving a sensible amendment which we would hope that the government would support.