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Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Page: 3860

Senator STEPHENS (Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector and Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Prime Minister for Social Inclusion) (11:42 AM) —I, too, rise to speak in support of the legislation before us this morning. We have had a long and informative debate about the features of this bill, and I hope that I can make a brief contribution to ensure that those who are interested in this area understand the import of the legislation that is before us.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Removal of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements and National Governance Protocols Requirements and Other Matters) Bill 2008 is one of several higher education bills that we have been debating in recent months, given the change of government and the change in direction that the Rudd government is providing in terms of, as Senator McEwen so rightly said, the education revolution that is going to change the face of Australian society in the next few years.

Much of the debate this morning has focused on the removal of those five elements of the higher education workplace relations requirements. We have had long discussions about the impact of those, and we have seen overwhelming support from the higher education sector for the removal of those features. We have had lots of discussion this morning about the impact that those conditions had placed on university funding.

Seriously thinking about this issue, though, and where the impact is going to be in the higher education sector, you can see that it really is going to enable universities to capture the innovation that is so important to the future of our economy and our society. We know that the Group of Eight universities have been incredibly supportive of this withdrawal and welcome the minister’s announcement that these conditions will be removed. The Commonwealth Grants Scheme guidelines are quite clear: we want our universities to be able to manage their own workplace relations and administration, we want to free them from the extraordinarily restrictive and directive requirements that we know exist. We have heard from the vice-chancellors how much time and effort was diverted from where we want them to focus their efforts, and that is on quality research and quality teaching. We want to make sure that our higher education providers are released from this nonsensical level of micromanagement and red tape that the previous government imposed upon them. In doing so we want to ensure that we free up the effort that is going into universities so they can deal with a new agenda, which is about a knowledge nation in the truest sense—a nation that is focused on innovation, lifelong learning and, as Senator McEwen so rightly said, a commitment to learning that goes almost from cradle to grave; certainly, from early childhood through to the University of the Third Age.

In my contribution to this debate today I want to focus on another important initiative of the higher education sector and why the removal of these conditions is so important. I want to focus my thoughts on the work that the higher education sector is doing in my very important portfolio area of social inclusion and the extent to which these changes are actually going to really free up some of the very innovative, creative and responsive thinking that is going on in the university sector around issues of social inclusion, philanthropy, social responsibility, social return on investment and these kinds of things, which were never really of great interest to the previous government but which we see as underpinning the quality of the society that we in the Rudd government want to ensure will be delivered for Australia.

In July I had the opportunity to speak at a forum at the University of Melbourne on this issue of higher education and social inclusion. The issue that has perplexed many of us, certainly on this side of the chamber, is that Australia’s actual equity performance in higher education has been pretty ordinary in the last few years—pretty mixed. Although we have had an increase in the number of tertiary students through the 1980s and 1990s, the actual socioeconomic mix of students has hardly changed in that time. So I was very pleased when I attended this forum to hear some of the innovative thinking that was going on about trying to raise the participation rate of tertiary students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Social inclusion is not just about low income families or families that might have serious disadvantage for various reasons; it is also about ensuring that quality of life changes for the whole-of-life perspective. So it is not just about early intervention with families to keep young people at school; it is also about ensuring that we are generating new opportunities for those young people who might not normally be participators in higher education to be there. We know that there are lots of reasons why we have had a fall-off in students from those backgrounds in higher education. Certainly, HECS is one of those reasons and cost-of-living and student accommodation pressures are extraordinary, to name just a few.

The changes we are making to higher education are now allowing universities to provide much greater flexibility in the way they respond to these new challenges. This is very important because the old tried and true methods of tackling the issues that prevent participation in higher education do not work and we need to understand why that is so. At the forum I attended, the Group of Eight were really trying to tackle this issue very seriously. I listened to some of the proposals that they had in place around the use of technology, and certainly around supportive financial and workplace mechanisms and learning environments for students. But I also saw that there was a lot of very new and creative thinking around the way in which universities are actually tackling this issue for themselves. For example, the University of New South Wales described their ASPIRE initiative, which targets students from disadvantaged public high schools who might have the potential to enter and succeed at university. That encourages students from year 8 to stay on. It is working with students right through from year 8 to year 11 to actually give them exposure to the kinds of opportunities that university can offer them. So we can see that the need for these changes to higher education is really about enabling this kind of flexibility.

The Victoria University has got a magnificent new approach to pathways and articulation, from TAFE to higher education. These are really important developments. We have got community engagement programs across the nation. The universities have actually reached back out into communities to engage them in this way, and the kinds of issues that we are addressing in our higher education reforms, as I say, allow this kind of flexibility.

We now have several universities, including the Macquarie University, the University of Sydney and the Australian Catholic University, actively encouraging volunteering within their undergraduate degrees, providing many exciting opportunities in partnership, for example, with Australian Volunteers International. We have the Australian Catholic University using the flexibility that they are now being encouraged to act upon to make early offers in many of their courses to year 12 students who can demonstrate that they have got a history of activism in their communities. These are the kinds of things that encourage universities to really draw on their strengths and their own populations to encourage social inclusion, and to that extent they are very important new initiatives.

Having said all of that, we need to invest in our higher education institutions. They have to lead on the issues of civic engagement, active citizenship, advocacy and debate. If we do not do that and we actually crush them with the kinds of arrangements that the previous government put in place, we are much poorer as a nation because of it. We need the intellectual powerhouses of our tertiary institutions to lead in this area and to facilitate change in our up-and-coming professionals. That is really where this government wants to invest. We want to harness the skills and expertise and commitment of our up-and-coming generations of professionals in these areas.

Getting back then to the issue of the reforms, the subject of this legislation, today I really did not want to go through the concerns about nepotism on committees or the issues that were raised by Senator Moore, for example, about pay inequity and unfair employment practices, which were part and parcel of the concerns about lower staff morale, the poor relationships between Australian universities and their staff and the diminished capacity for universities to attract high-calibre academic and general staff, and of course the fundamental issue of poorer outcomes for students. With this legislation today you can see that there is a very clear and purposeful intent in the way in which the Rudd government is reforming our relationship with the higher education sector by removing the workplace relations requirements and the national governance protocols. There has been a long debate on this legislation. It is very important. It is a significant piece of legislation before us that, despite the protestations of some, will generate a much more flexible, responsive and innovative higher education sector, and I will end my remarks there.