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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Dr SOUTHCOTT (5:55 PM) —I will only be speaking briefly on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, which implements a number of the recommendations of the Bradley review. Unfortunately, a lot of the funding from this has now been found from the Education Investment Fund, which was previously the Higher Education Endowment Fund. The Higher Education Endowment Fund was established in 2007. There was an original endowment of $5 billion. The vision of this was that higher education institutions would gain access to the interest and it would be an endowment fund in perpetuity. How wrong we were. Within two years, the Minister for Education had raided this endowment fund, a fund which was designed to be there in perpetuity, and used the money that was left there to fund a number of the recommendations of the Bradley review.

In speaking on this legislation I would like to say that the Liberal Party and the National Party have long been supportive of a shift towards a more deregulated higher education sector. We believe that greater flexibility for individual education institutions will allow for a more demand driven system. We think that this is an important development and we certainly will not be opposing this legislation. The opposition is also supportive of the creation of a tertiary education quality and standards agency to encourage a best-practice model in higher education, ensuring that Australian institutions remain globally competitive.

One of the features of our education system is how dramatic the expansion of international education, the delivery of education to overseas students, has been over the last quarter of a century. We now have a services export which is worth in the order of $15½ billion to the Australian economy. It is our third largest export industry in terms of its value to the Australian economy. It is our largest service export. It means that many Australian students now come into contact with overseas students. It is part of their experience at Australian higher education institutions but also part of the experience for overseas students. We in the opposition certainly welcome the expansion in the number of overseas students that we have seen coming to Australia and the extraordinary success that Australia has enjoyed in this area. For many traditional markets we are now a more popular destination than the United Kingdom. Of course, our two major source countries for overseas students are India and China. While we are speaking in particular on higher education it would be remiss of me not to mention the extraordinary growth that we have seen in the vocational education and training sector for overseas students, such that on the latest figures there are now more overseas students who are studying in vocational education and training courses than there are in higher education courses. This has been a positive development.

I should say that, by and large, the providers are of a high standard, but certainly there is a need for the regulation that we have here to keep pace with developments in the industry. There will be an opportunity, I am sure, to say more about this at a later time. We support the creation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. We think that this is important and it is an important goal to make sure that we maintain our reputation in the delivery of education services to overseas students. This not an area where we can rest on our laurels. There is a lot of competition from European institutions, from institutions in the United Kingdom, from institutions in Asia and also from institutions in North America.

While indicating that the opposition will not be opposing this legislation, I should also point out that the abolition of the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships proposed by this legislation is a real concern to us. Provision for the replacement measures for these scholarships has not yet been introduced into the House. We wonder why this legislation is not yet available and why the government have not given sufficient consideration to this legislation. The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs have already had time to examine this legislation and they have recommended, and we agree, that the government need to introduce the legislation, allowing for the replacement of the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships.

Before the last election, the Prime Minister committed to improving and expanding Australia’s Commonwealth Scholarships Program, yet under their replacement model rural and regional students will be excluded. Greater flexibility is needed to ensure that rural and regional students who may not be eligible for Youth Allowance are still assisted to attain further education. As the replacement measures are currently understood, students particularly from farming and small business backgrounds will find it harder to undertake further education. With those remarks, the member for Sturt will speak later to outline in more detail the opposition’s position on this legislation, but I have indicated that the opposition will not be opposing this legislation.