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Thursday, 29 May 2008
Page: 3833


Ms GILLARD (Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion) (3:36 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to implement the Rudd government’s education revolution 2008-2009 budget package in higher education. These measures carry through on our election commitments.

The government’s immediate priorities for higher education implemented through this bill will address skills shortages in critical areas, restore equity and support access to higher education, and fund places and infrastructure in key areas.

The commitments delivered in this bill are complemented by the budget’s two major education infrastructure initiatives—the Better Universities Renewal Fund and the Education Investment Fund—that together will begin the process of restoring university facilities after years of being run-down under the Howard government. These funds will fund major infrastructure investments in our universities.

These initiatives are part of the government’s commitment to ensuring higher education plays a leading role in equipping Australians with the knowledge and skills to make Australia a more productive and prosperous nation.

This bill makes important amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to address urgent and immediate priorities.

One such priority is to amend the act to provide considerable incentives for students to study mathematics and science at university.

The maximum annual student contribution amount for students studying mathematics, including statistics, or science units will be reduced from $7,412 a year to the lowest national priority rate of $4,162 in 2009 for an equivalent full-time student load. Commencing maths and science students will enjoy the same rate as students studying education and nursing units of study. These are all areas of particular workforce need. Existing students will also benefit if they transfer into a mathematics or science course.

The bill also ensures that higher education providers’ funding for mathematics, statistics and science units will be maintained by compensating them for lost revenue associated with this measure. This will be through a new Transitional Loading under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.

The bill will also provide incentives for maths and science graduates to pursue related careers through the new HECS-HELP benefit, which implements the government’s policy for HELP debt ‘remissions’. The HECS-HELP benefit will encourage graduates to pursue careers in mathematics and science, including teaching these subjects in secondary schools. The HECS-HELP benefit will also encourage early childhood education teachers to work in areas of particular need.

The HECS-HELP benefit will reduce an eligible person’s compulsory HELP repayment. For certain eligible persons, if no compulsory repayment is required to be made, the benefit may be a reduction in the person’s accumulated HELP debt.

The amendments to the act provide the framework for the HECS-HELP benefit and for the details of the eligibility requirements and the amount of the benefit to be specified in HECS-HELP benefit guidelines.

It is proposed that the guidelines will provide for the HECS-HELP benefit to be claimable for a total lifetime limit of 260 weeks, the equivalent of five years.

A person will receive a benefit for an income year based on the number of weeks in the year for which they are eligible. The HECS-HELP benefit will be claimable from the 2008-09 income year onwards. An application for the benefit will be made to the taxation commissioner, generally at the same time as a person lodges their tax return.

The maths and science HECS-HELP benefit will be available to people who grad-uate from a maths or science course from the second semester of 2008 onwards, having undertaken that course as a Commonwealth supported student, and who are employed in a related occupation, including the teaching of maths or science at secondary school.

The early childhood education HECS-HELP benefit will be available to eligible people who have graduated at any time from an early childhood education teaching course undertaken as a ‘HECS’ liable or Commonwealth supported student, and who are employed as a teacher in an early childhood setting in an eligible location—regardless of whether their repayment income is such that they are required to make a ‘compulsory repayment amount’ in the income year.

Another of the government’s key election commitments reflected in this bill is to ensure that students gain access to higher education on merit and not on ability to pay by phasing out full-fee-paying undergraduate places for domestic students in public universities from 2009.

From 1 January 2009, universities will not be able to enrol a new domestic undergraduate student on a fee-paying basis, except in circumstances where the act prohibits their enrolment as a Commonwealth supported student. Additional exceptions are for students who accepted a fee-paying place this year but have deferred taking it up and for students who commenced their courses as overseas students but later become domestic students.

Fee-paying students who began their courses before 2009 will be able to continue their courses on a fee-paying basis.

The government will allocate up to 11,000 new Commonwealth supported places by 2011 to replace the full-fee-paying places that will be phased out from 2009. Funding for the places will be ongoing.

If universities demonstrate that assistance is required to ensure the delivery of replacement Commonwealth supported places, the government may provide additional funding, over and above that for the places, through the new transitional loading that is being introduced through this bill.

In addition to the measures I have already outlined, the bill will also provide for increased funding under the act:

  • for additional Commonwealth supported places in early childhood education and nursing;
  • for the expansion of Commonwealth scholar-ships including the doubling of the number of undergraduate scholarships from 44,000 to 88,000 by 2012 and the doubling of the total number of Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) holders to nearly 10,000 by 2012;
  • for capital infrastructure, additional Com-monwealth supported places and clinical outreach funding for the establishment of the James Cook University Dental School; and
  • for capital infrastructure and additional Commonwealth supported places in medicine, nursing and education at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Mr Speaker, the measures in this bill, in addition to our commitment to the $11 billion Education Investment Fund and the $500 million Better Universities Renewal Funding (BURF) that are not covered by the act, represent the start of the government’s education revolution in higher education.

Together with addressing these immediate priorities, the government will take its reforms further to make long-term, systemic improvement in the higher education sector through the Review of Australian Higher Education, led by Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC. This is important work. It will report on the future direction of the sector, its capacity to meet the needs of the Australian economy, and the options available for ongoing reform.

The government’s response to the review will build on this legislative package that I present to you today.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ian Macfarlane) adjourned.