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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Mr SYMON (6:02 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. This bill forms an important part of the Rudd government’s measures to transform Australia’s higher education sector. The government’s approach to this very important issue is worthy of a moment’s consideration. Labor started with a commitment before the last election to make significant reforms to this sector. In government we established a major review of higher education, led by Professor Denise Bradley, to provide a foundation for effective action. I recall that the opposition was critical of this government during the initial period of office when a large number of reviews and investigations were initiated. But this considered approach is now bearing fruit and leading to progressive reform in a number of critical areas, of which higher education is a most important one.

The Rudd government have set the standard—broad policy settings and quality investigations by an expert inquiry followed by long overdue structural reforms, detailed policy changes and fair dinkum allocation of resources. Eleven years of the Howard approach to higher education has resulted in Australia falling behind the rest of the developed world. The Bradley report indicated that within the OECD we are now 9th out of the top 30 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with tertiary degrees—down from 7th only a decade ago. It is time to stop this decline and to reinvigorate the sector, to try our best to match other OECD countries that have set ambitious targets for the future.

The Bradley report recommended a significant number of measures to raise the standards of Australia’s higher education system. It recommended the establishment of targets for attainment of degree qualifications; the setting of targets for participation of lower socioeconomic groups; that institutions should have the freedom to enrol as many students as they wish, with funding to follow the student; increases in levels of student support; that a proportion of funds allocated to institutions be allocated on the basis of performance against specific targets for teaching and equity; that funding for research be increased; and that the government establish an independent national tertiary education regulatory body.

Access Economics, quoted in the Bradley review, predicted that from 2010 the supply of undergraduates will not keep up with demand. To increase the numbers participating in the system, we must look at members of groups currently underrepresented in the system: Indigenous people, those of low-socioeconomic status and those from regional and remote areas—broadly those disadvantaged by circumstances of their birth. The reforms initiated in this bill are a critical first step to address this important area.

The government have made a significant and major response to the Bradley review which is progressively being rolled out. The Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has announced that Australia will have a target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor level or higher qualification by 2025. The government is supporting the Bradley recommendation that universities be funded by demand, with funding of a Commonwealth supported place for all domestic students accepted into eligible accredited higher education courses at recognised public education providers.

The current cap on over-enrolment will be raised from five per cent to 10 per cent from 2010, and removed completely in 2012. This will allow a managed transition into the new system and will prevent institutions growing too quickly, therefore with a possible drop in quality. Significantly, the Rudd government is providing an additional $5.4 billion to support higher education and research over the next four years. This major boost in funding will support high-quality teaching and learning; enable access to students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds to be significantly improved; provide additional funding to institutions that meet agreed quality and equity outcomes; and, last but by no means least, improve resources for research.

To ensure that the standards of higher education increase as the demand and funding increase, the government is establishing a national regulatory and quality agency. The agency will carry out audits of standards and performance and provide quality assurance to ensure that Australia’s reputation for quality teaching and learning remains high.

Turning to the detail of the bill, I will focus on some of the bill’s key measures and implications. Universities will have to negotiate specific performance targets that suit their circumstances and contribute to national goals for participation and quality. The government is not approaching this delicate issue in a ham-fisted way but will ensure that proper consultation with each institution takes place in the setting of performance standards.

The bill also covers some of the areas raised as concerns during the inquiry held last year by the House Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation. The report produced by that committee, entitled Building Australia’s Research Capacity, is well worth reading and provides another pathway for future changes in this sector.

The bill amends the HESA to commit $512 million over four years for a new Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities initiative to augment the existing block grants scheme. The number of Australian postgraduate awards will be doubled by 2012. Importantly, the APA stipend to support our postgraduate students will be increased by more than 10 per cent from $20,427 in 2009 to $22,400 in 2010. This increase will be welcomed, I am sure, by postgraduate students across the nation, as the increases complement the major reform to student income support arrangements.

The higher education performance funding is significantly different to the former Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. Each university will receive a share of the performance funding pool, based on the size of their student population, and will receive performance funding if they meet their targets, rather than on the basis of comparative performance.

Most importantly, the Rudd government has set a goal of 20 per cent of those enrolled in higher education to be drawn from groups currently under-represented in the system. Universities will be able to set targets, after negotiation, that are challenging but that suit their circumstances. Most significantly, they will have to meet targets for equity performance as well as teaching quality. Targets and performance will be assessed by the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The role of Skills Australia will be expanded to advise the government on the effectiveness of higher education systems in meeting Australia’s needs.

I welcome this important initiative to improve the linkages between our workforce and training needs and the delivery of quality graduates and postgraduates from the tertiary sector. Of course, I am also fully aware of the need of our tertiary institutions to provide a high level of intellectual endeavour of a sometimes more esoteric nature, without which the nation would be the poorer in the arts and education fields.

The bill does increase the maximum annual student contribution for education and nursing graduates. This will provide increased revenue for higher education providers to better resource their education and nursing courses and will add around $1,000 per year to an education or nursing degree. The value of the extension to the HECS-HELP scheme to eligible graduates will be greater than the increase in student contributions.

I will turn now to the funding arrangements under the structural adjustment fund. The amendments will provide $200 million for structural adjustment over the period 2009-10 to 2012-13, which will provide $136 million of new money. This will commence on 1 January 2010. While the linkage of this structural adjustment to specific capital projects is still to be determined, there is no doubt that capital works in the higher education sector will significantly increase the level of spending on infrastructure nationwide and will help Australia minimise the effects of the current global recession.

In conclusion, I reiterate my support for these important measures that are being undertaken in support of the Bradley review. The review found that Australia needs more well-qualified people to meet the demands of a rapidly-moving global economy. We are also facing a looming shortage of academics to teach and guide the undergraduate and postgraduate students. Again, that was highlighted in the report by the ISI committee and came up at many hearings.

The reforms encapsulated in this and other bills will enable Australia to move again to be a world leader in the higher education sector; to adapt to the challenges of more students wanting a better education at a higher standard, which is recognised worldwide; and, most importantly, to enable students from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds, due solely to the circumstance of their birth and not to their intellect, from achieving their full potential. I commend the bill to the House.