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Wednesday, 5 June 2002
Page: 3115

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (9:31 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This government is committed to creating an environment that encourages investment in the education and training of young Australians, in updating the skills and knowledge of the work force, in generating knowledge through research and in translating these ideas into economic activity that benefits all Australians.

Despite Australia's total investment in higher education already being above the OECD average, the government is currently delivering a significant injection of funding through the Backing Australia's Ability initiatives and other measures such as the 2001-02 budget measure to provide additional places to regional universities. As a result of these initiatives, by 2004 annual Commonwealth funding to universities through the Education, Science and Training portfolio, including the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, will be $480 million higher than in 2001 at around $6.3 billion—in non-cost-adjusted terms—and there will be at least 8,300 more fully funded undergraduate places in 2004 than in 2001.

Many of the key indicators for the health of our higher education sector continue to be very positive. Revenues are at record levels and growing. Higher education participation is at a record level and increasing. Graduate employment outcomes are improving. Graduate satisfaction is at record levels and our educational exports are more successful than ever.

Nevertheless the government is not content to sit back. Over the coming months I am undertaking a review of the higher education sector and have invited public discussion on the future policy directions for higher education in Australia. We want to bring institutions, students, the general community and even the opposition, if they are willing, on board to work with us to create the best higher education system we, as a nation, possibly can. I am sure that all members would agree that this task is one of considerable national importance and one that should transcend political divisions.

A well-educated and skilled work force that embraces lifelong learning is essential for Australia's economic growth. As part of its commitment to lifelong learning, this government announced the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme in 2001 as part of Backing Australia's Ability. The scheme, which commenced this year, encourages increased participation in education and helps Australians update and acquire new skills. It is also an important equity measure ensuring that no prospective postgraduate coursework student is prevented from studying by an inability to pay up-front fees. Early indicators suggest that the scheme has been extremely successful in increasing the number of Australians undertaking postgraduate coursework qualifications. For example, early estimates data show a 20 per cent increase in postgraduate coursework enrolments in 2002 over 2001.

This bill provides for the extension of the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme—or PELS, as it is known—to four additional institutions: Bond University, Melbourne College of Divinity, Tabor College in Adelaide, South Australia—with which you are very familiar, Mr Speaker—and Christian Heritage College, as promised in the election and announced in the recent budget. This gives students at these institutions access to postgraduate study loans on the same basis as other students, but does not make the institutions eligible for public funding.

The extension of PELS to these four institutions levels the playing field for competition in fee-paying postgraduate coursework degrees and further extends opportunities for institutions to provide and students to undertake fee-paying postgraduate coursework.

The bill also updates the funding amounts provided for in the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 which is currently before the House. In doing so it provides additional funding for the establishment of a graduate diploma in environment and planning at the University of Tasmania with six associated scholarships. This honours an election promise and implements an initiative from the recent budget. The varied amounts also contain further supplementation for indexation purposes, in accordance with the latest Treasury parameters and reflect a revision of the estimated HECS liability in various years.

The bill also adjusts funding levels in the Higher Education Funding Act and the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to permit the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University to access the competitive funding schemes of the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. This measure is part of the ongoing efforts of this government to create a more strategic and internationally competitive research system in Australia.

Finally, the bill provides for an additional funding cap for the Australian Research Council competitive research schemes in 2006, consistent with the current budget forward estimates, so that the minister can approve ARC grants for a period of four years. The purpose of this measure is to reduce administrative work and to give grant recipients greater certainty in relation to their funding.

There is a technical amendment to correct a previous drafting error in HEFA.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Cox) adjourned.