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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2328

Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (19:39): I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. This bill is a straightforward but necessary bill to clarify some aspects of the Higher Education Support Act, which, among other things, is the vehicle by which our universities are provided with Commonwealth government funding. The bill clarifies the application and operations of the indexation provisions of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Indexation) Act. The Commonwealth contribution amounts under the Common­wealth Grant Scheme include the maximum student contribution amounts, the FEE-HELP limit, the maximum OS-HELP amount and the maximum amount of the student services and amenities fee on 1 January 2011. The bill makes clear that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts.

The bill is technical in nature, but, nevertheless, the changes included in it will benefit the higher education sector in Australia. It will deliver to them. Mind you, that could be said about any bill that this government brings into the parliament relating to higher education. We have been determined as a government to undo the damage done to the higher education sector by the Howard government. I repeat: we are about undoing the damage that the Howard government did to higher education in this country. This damage started with the savage cuts in 1996 and continued as that government pursued a course of chronic underinvestment in universities, coupled with constant meddling in their internal administration. The Gillard Labor government, in contrast, sees universities as important partners in an agenda that recognises education in all its forms as core to achieving our objectives for economic prosperity and social equality in this country.

Following the advice of the Bradley review, the government has set ambitious targets for participation in higher education in the medium term. By 2025, we want 40 per cent of Australians between 25 and 34 years of age to have a bachelor level qualification or higher degree. The government's investment in our higher education sector of much fairer and more generous support for students has seen a 27 per cent increase in the number of student places at universities since 2007, or 150,000 extra university students in Australia. There are further targets for universities to meet in terms of the participation and graduation of people from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Indigenous people and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those from rural areas. The targets are bold targets, but they have been matched by equally bold reforms to help the higher education sector to meet them.

Chief among those is the shift from 1 January this year to demand driven funding. No longer will the Commonwealth government decide how many students will study what course at which university, effectively setting caps on course numbers according to how many Commonwealth funded places go to each university. Instead, under the demand driven funding model, universities are free to make their own decisions about how many students they are prepared to enrol in particular courses. Students who meet those enrolment requirements set by a university will attract Commonwealth funding to match their enrolments. Such a big change has required universities to think about what they have to offer and what they need to do to meet the needs of students in the broader community. The government has made available structural adjustment funding and numerous rounds of grants to boost infrastructure and to reward quality teaching to help universities make this transition—a stark contrast to the dark days of the Howard government.

The bill before the Senate also amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to clarify the application and operation of indexation arrangements in the act. It updates the definitions for 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' and updates the Melbourne College of Divinity's name in light of its approval to operate under the title 'MCD University of Divinity'. The bill also allows for technical amendments to the calculation of the voluntary repayment bonus to resolve rounding issues. The bill will amend the definitions for 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' to clarify that only students undertaking courses of study in dentistry or veterinary science that satisfy the minimum academic require­ments for registration as a dentist, veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner are eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit. The Melbourne College of Divinity has been approved by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to operate under the name MCD University of Divinity until 31 December 2016. Students can make a voluntary repayment towards their HELP debt to the tax office at any time. Voluntary repayments of $500 or more currently attract a five per cent bonus on the payment amount. When calculating the effect of a person making a voluntary repayment of his or her HELP debt, the act provides for a person to obtain a five per cent bonus and includes rounding rules in calculating whether a person has repaid their debt and the amount of debt repaid if it is only a partial repayment.

Currently, the effect of the rounding rules are that: (a) when making a full repayment, the person benefits from the rounding amount because the amount of payment required to pay off their debt in full is reduced because the cents are rounded down; and (b) when making a partial repayment, the person is disadvantaged because the value of the reduction to the outstanding debt due to a payment is rounded down. The bill amends the act to provide that when calculating the effect of a person making a partial repayment towards his or her HELP debt, the amount will be rounded up to the nearest dollar. The cents would continue to be rounded down to determine the amount required for the full repayment of a person's HELP debt amount. Effectively, the rounding rules will now always benefit a person making a voluntary repayment.

Senator Mason in his comments returned to the coalition's preoccupation with student organisations. Let us be very clear: the student services and amenities fee legislation does not require universities to give funds to student organisations, although we would hope that, where student organisations are best placed to provide needed services, universities will. The senator may also be unaware that universities, in setting the student services and amenities fee, have chosen a range of fees which reflect a range of enrolment patterns. Fees set so far range from $15 to the full amount of $263.

The passage of time meant that there were ambiguities in the act about the application of indexation provisions to the amount in the act on 1 January 2011. This made clear its intention regarding indexation of these matters in both the explanatory memor­andum and the debate in the parliament. These amendments do not change the intent of the parliament in passing this legislation but do add clarity to that indexation that should have been applied to the amount in the act on 1 January 2011, and that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts. The bill reflects the government's continued commitment to improving Australia's higher education sector and expanding opportunities for Australians to obtain high-quality higher education. As I mentioned at the start of this speech, the bill seeks to clarify the application of indexation provisions in the act for a range of amounts relevant to the higher education sector.

I have to say, I am sure not only that Senator Mason—as we heard in his contribution—has a fixation on the student services and amenities fee but also that the other contributors will dwell on the same narrow point. The fee of up to $263 per year can now be charged by the universities to offset the cost of providing student services and amenities. These fees go to things such as child care, food outlets, legal services and sporting facilities on our university campuses. We just heard from Senator Mason his evaluation of how the university campus has changed and how there are more people studying part time and so there are people trying to balance work and family. Surely these services such as child care and sporting facilities are necessary in having a well-balanced lifestyle.

But you can always guarantee that for those opposite anything that has the word 'unionism' in it is going to be opposed. They can change their position when it comes to things like supporting a tax cut to companies—they can change their philosophical point of view there—but, when it comes to student unionism, they will always be consistent. You can put your house on it.

The fee was reinstated with the passage last year of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2011. The battle over a student services fee has been a very long one. In fact it is a battle that most of those senators opposite have been fighting since their own days at university. Even now you only have to say the words 'student union' and you will have them in a lather. That evil word 'union', even in association with students, is like a red rag to a bull for those opposite.

I am proud to be part of a government that has emphasised the importance of education. If you are talking about BER funding and the success that has been in my home state of Tasmania, every single school—private, public, Catholic, independent—is thankful to this government for investing in education. This bill builds on top of that. We go from primary school to high school to college and now to university, and we are actually putting the runs on the board, unlike those who, when they were in government for 11½ very long years—and we know what they did—tried to pull down the universities as they did the health system. I commend the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 as another plank in the Labor plan to return Australian universities to the once proud position they held in the world and to meet the future needs of Australians to enjoy the benefits that flow from the Gillard government's vision and policies for the future of this great country.