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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 1251

Senator MASON (9:04 PM) —The opposition supports the Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. This bill follows the government’s acceptance of the broad thrust of the higher education reforms recommended by Professor Denise Bradley in her review of Australian universities. In a sense, there are two major thrusts underpinning that review. First of all, there is a move away from a centralised, bureaucratic system where Canberra decided how many students there would be at Australian universities and also what courses students would be doing to a student demand driven system where the students themselves dictate what courses and how many places our universities offer. Universities will have the flexibility to offer as many courses as they like and as many disciplines as they like, depending, of course, on student demand. Secondly—and I know this is of concern to the government—Professor Bradley’s review also flagged the move to increase participation in higher education to ensure that more Australians benefit from university education and that our country benefits as a result of that too.

Tomorrow my friend Senator Nash will be moving a bill that seeks to increase the coverage that youth allowance will have across this country. That is part of increasing access by disadvantaged groups to higher education. Professor Bradley and indeed the Prime Minister when she was minister for education spoke about three particular groups: Indigenous students, students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and rural and regional students. They are the three groups that quite clearly are underrepresented in higher education. It has been a policy thrust of the government’s to address that inequity. The coalition agrees with that, subject to this: while we agree that there must be added participation from these groups, I sometimes wonder whether the government talks too much about increasing the supply of tertiary places. I think that the problem is increasing the demand from those three groups for the places. In other words, I think increasingly the problem is that Indigenous students, students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and students from rural and regional areas are in fact not applying for university places. That is more often the problem—far more often than universities not offering enough places in the first place. The problem is one of student demand, not university supply. That is the policy difference between the coalition and the government.

In a sense, what this bill reflects and what Professor Bradley’s review says, although she does not spell it out, is this: over the last 30 years in Australia, universities have moved from an elite system—when Senator Collins did her degree, it was an elite system—to more of a mass system and increasingly to a universal system, which is the thrust of what Professor Bradley is talking about. As honourable senators would know, the government has a target of 40 per cent of Australians having a bachelor’s degree by 2020. Even if that does not make the system universal, certainly a very substantial proportion of the Australian community will end up with a higher education qualification.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill deals with several matters, the most important of which is putting in place transitional measures for next year, before Australian universities move to the student demand driven system in 2012. While the coalition endorse the goals and will not oppose the bill, we will certainly scrutinise the government’s actions, because it does not have a good record in implementation—in education as in so many other areas. I was going to say, rather wickedly, that higher education was never really part of the education revolution, which some might find provocative; but actually it is probably a good thing that higher education was not part of the shambles that the Building the Education Revolution has become. So I think higher education is actually redeemable. Redemption is possible; it is still salvageable.

There are some positive signs, certainly, but also many concerns, which the coalition will be focusing on over the next year or two. I will mention some of these just very briefly, such as outsourcing higher education policy. There have been over 20 inquiries and reviews, including now the Lomax-Smith review of university funding, which will not report for another year—again absolving the government from having to make any decisions in the meantime. It is just another review into higher education.

There is the raiding of the Education Investment Fund and the broken promise to top it up. Honourable senators will recall that under the Howard government the Higher Education Endowment Fund had $6 billion put into it. How much have the government put into it? Well, they promised they were going to top up the coalition’s $6 billion, but they have not added one cent to the Education Investment Fund. In fact, they have used it as a slush fund, and now there is a bit under $2 billion left. The long-term capital fund for Australian universities has been ransacked.

There has been a broken promise on compulsory student services fees. I know the Senate will again be debating this issue; it seems like a perennial issue. But, again, that is a broken promise. About one million Australian tertiary students will be required to pay the $250, so that is about $250 million for which the government will be taxing some of the less fortunate members of our community.

There was the rush by the government to establish TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, only to finally back down and engage in a proper conversation with the sector. Senator Evans is certainly across these issues. TEQSA has been difficult because the sector does not speak with one voice on the issue. But I have to commend the government because at least it has commenced negotiating with the entire sector, and I think progress is being made.

Finally, there is the uncertainty that remains over university compacts, which is how universities see themselves and how the arrangements between governments and universities will be drawn up. That is still uncertain, but let us hope that the government, and Senator Evans in particular, will manage that process well, because it is vitally important for what is Australia’s principal services export industry.

Those are just some of the issues that will be highlighted over the next 12 to 18 months. I will acknowledge that higher education is finally on the government’s radar, and I think the government has done some good things in relation to higher education. But it is not just the problems I have raised that are critical to the future health of the university sector; the government’s implementation of those policies leaves a lot to be desired. Over the next 12 to 18 months, how we start to fund a mass higher education system will become the debate on higher education in this country.