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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Mr BILLSON (6:12 PM) —The coalition will not oppose the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. In fact, the coalition support a number of the measures relating to the deregulation of the higher education sector, greater flexibility for institutions and an endeavour to be more responsive to student demands. Mr Deputy Speaker Bevis, perhaps you, who have been in this parliament longer than I have, might reflect as I do on these changes and wonder why these revelations are so appropriate now when efforts to make changes of this kind when the coalition was in government were opposed. There were vitriolic orations from Labor members about what an evil thing deregulation in higher education and flexibility and responsiveness to student demand would be, yet in government we see a different face of the ALP.

A number of these measures do respond to the Bradley review, but it is worth noting, in response to some of the comments of members opposite, that it does not embrace all of the Bradley review recommendations. In fact, it falls a considerable distance short of funding commitments that the Bradley review recommended. That is something that no doubt will be the subject of further debate. I would have thought that the very closely related issues of changes to Youth Allowance—what that means in reduced eligibility for over 30,000 students—and the mystery that surrounds the precise nature and array of scholarship related support, given that this bill dismantles and abolishes the present array of Commonwealth scholarships, should have been dealt with in conjunction with this bill, because those instruments are very important in achieving the ambition that Bradley outlined, which the government seeks to associate itself with in the bill before the parliament night.

I will touch a bit more on that, and how it relates to the community that I am a part of, but I should declare a pecuniary interest as the chairperson of the Monash Peninsula Campus Community Advisory Council. My strong ongoing interest has seen me carry out that highly paid and highly sought after role, trying to make sure that outer metropolitan interests are reflected in the plans of a terrific university like Monash for the future. When we see so many of the quality academic institutions being pretty much in the heart of our biggest cities, having outer urban campuses and regional campuses is very important and having a strong voice in support of them is equally important. Hopefully, having declared that interest, I will bring some of the insights to bear that that role provides me.

Mr Gray interjecting

Mr BILLSON —Thank you. The interjection from the Parliamentary Secretary for Western and Northern Australia, opposite, is that they should double my pay. Yes, a hearty zero to zero would be fantastic—but thank you for that!

As I say, the coalition does support the deregulation measures and the flexibility. We see those measures as an improvement and mentioned that we would have liked Labor’s support for such a reform when Labor were in opposition. But they are late to this task. They have had a conversion somewhere along the way, and now a more demand driven system will be part of the higher education framework for the future. The coalition is very supportive of the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. That is particularly important as there is now, in that scope for greater flexibility and student responsiveness, a need to always keep an eye on quality and to make sure that, in the enthusiasm to embrace more candidates for higher education, that effort is not at the sacrifice of quality and standards.

The minister, Julia Gillard, claims that the government is providing $5.7 billion of new money for universities, yet, when you unpick that a little bit, it is not quite as it is being presented. That $5.7 billion that is in the budget for initiatives includes about $3 billion—$2.99 billion—taken from a raid on the Education Investment Fund, a fund that was designed and paid for under the previous government and through the enterprise of the Australian people from budget surpluses as a Higher Education Endowment Fund that would support ongoing improvement in university infrastructure and in research capability for years to come. That endowment has been raided; it is no more. That represents more than half of the funding that has been announced—from the previous government. But that endowment is now gone. That has been spent, and opportunities to fully embrace some of Bradley’s recommendations and other insights are now made more difficult because of that.

What we are looking at is really a change in the funding. I will not go over all the details—I think the previous speakers have done that—but they include the changes to eligibility for funding, the funding parameters themselves, the revision of Commonwealth scholarship arrangements, introducing funding for clusters of education, and also changes in student contribution amounts and introducing the HELP scheme, the Higher Education Loan Program. Isn’t it extraordinary that something that those opposite had held up as an obstacle to higher education is now being expanded? It is another conversion on the road to higher education Damascus, but it is quite remarkable to see that change of interest and change of heart.

In fairness to the ALP, perhaps when you are in government you learn a lot. You need to take more seriously your responsibilities and be a little more objective in your analysis. Perhaps that is what we are seeing here today. Some of those changes are interesting, though—and I touched on the youth allowance eligibility question and how that will actually make higher education more difficult by reducing eligibility for some 30,000 students. There is also the idea of the HECS extension through HECS-HELP, HECS having been long held up by the ALP as an obstacle to people engaging in higher education. That will now be a greater obstacle—if you believe what the ALP said. I do not, but I am very mindful that intending higher education candidates may well have been persuaded by the hysteria and ill-informed comment from the ALP when in opposition that HECS was an obstacle to academic engagement. We have long seen that the benefits of higher education qualification are that it delivers much improved employment and income prospects over a person’s working life and that that personal contribution to their own future opportunities is not the obstacle that the ALP have gone on about for some years. They now seem to agree with that and are looking to extend the HECS utility with the HELP provision in the light of things that they must have just learned since coming to government.

One of the things that trouble me, though, having identified the raid on the Higher Education Endowment Fund, staring down the barrel of an enormous budget deficit and with no end in sight to deficit budgets and accumulating debt, is that the scope to fully embrace not just the specific Bradley recommendations but the actions that are required to pursue some of the recommendations is considerably diminished.

I touch on a couple of things in particular that are of importance to the community that I represent. These are the ambitious targets that the Bradley review set for increased participation in the higher education sector: 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a qualification of at least bachelor level by 2020, recognising that the current rate is about 29 per cent. That is a welcome and ambitious goal, recognising that the employment mobility and future prospects of someone with a higher education are enhanced as we go into economic transformation and change that have been with us for some decades and will be with us for decades to come. But simply making that statement will not bring it about. And the targets go further and talk about participation amongst low-SES Australians and other disadvantaged groups. By 2020, the Bradley review proposed a 20 per cent level for all undergraduate enrolments in higher education being students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the community that I represent on the Mornington Peninsula, the percentage of our population that goes on to higher education is less than that of the greater metropolitan area generally, less than that of the state of Victoria and less than the national average. In my own journey, I left a housing commission secondary college called Monterey in Frankston North and was one of a handful of people who were absolutely committed to pursuing higher education.

My belief that your postcode does not determine your potential is ingrained in me, so I am very interested in these recommendations, but our local community’s experience should point to a need for positive action to bring those recommendations about. Simply saying, ‘Come to higher education. There’s a place for you,’ does not tackle the biggest obstacle, and that is about aspiration amongst candidates who may be extraordinarily well qualified and able to succeed in the higher education environment but who, because of their life’s journey, their economic circumstances and the guidance of those around them, feel that that journey is not for them.

How do we say to a young person in Frankston North who is doing well at their studies but who may be the first person from their family ever to go on to higher education, ‘This unfamiliar, almost alien, journey for your adult life is for you,’ when around that person they may have no signal, no message and no mentoring to engage in that pathway? This is where these recommendations, as virtuous as they are, need decisive, comprehensive and thoughtful action to be brought about.

In Monash’s favour, they have the Monash College, where someone perhaps not with the ENTER score that Monash might be looking for—as they seek to maintain their international reputation as a university of excellence, which is very ENTER driven—can get in. ENTER scores are the key to higher education opportunity. But, if your ENTER score is not that flash and you are an incredibly gifted individual whose other competencies, faculties, skills and talents would make you a wonderful graduate and a very suitable candidate, at least measures like the Monash College give you a chance to go that way.

But, again, where is the appetite? Do we say: ‘You’ve been smacked around with a dodgy ENTER score. Why don’t you turn up anyway and see if higher education’s for you’? Or is the message, ‘No, go and do something else with your life’? This is reality. This is what goes on. I think the raid on the higher education fund and the parlous state of the Commonwealth finances provide very limited scope to put in place the programs and the support that are needed. In some cases they will need to last for years and years, in fact probably generations, for communities that have not had higher education as a natural and normal part of their life journey to be able to make higher education part of their normal journey.

I know it is not just Monash that do this, but I am most familiar with Monash, particularly the Peninsula campus. Their college is one pathway in and they offer VCE research and VCE study labs to help people prepare for their exams. They do that on campus so at least people can come into what seems like a foreign part of the local community and say, ‘There are folks around here that aren’t that different from me, maybe this is for me.’ It reaches out to those people who for whatever reason may have left secondary education early, started on another career pathway and found it was not for them. It engages with those people and says: ‘Higher education could be part of your future journey in life. You are equipped, you are capable and you have all that it takes to succeed.’

Those kinds of measures give people the confidence to turn up to engage and to overcome the noise that the Labor Party put out into the electorate prior to being elected to government. They said HECS is an enormous impediment and you have to be loaded with cash up to your eyeballs to have a higher education. That is not true, but what happens when those messages go out there is that there may be some hesitation in a person for whose family higher education is not a familiar pathway. They hear all that and may go and do something else.

So we need to focus on higher education aspiration. I believe with every fibre of my being that your postcode does not determine your potential, but your postcode can provide influences in your life that guide you to make certain choices. In some communities those choices may well guide you away from a higher education career, an academic pathway, that leads to improved future prospects. Those might be the messages that are there, and they are what we need to overcome.

The opposition is not opposing this bill. We regret that the changes around youth allowance to do with reduced eligibility and scholarships, as the complementary measures that make some of this ambition achievable, are not here to be discussed and debated alongside the bill. Resources needed to achieve those virtuous goals may be scarce. Whilst certain groups make the headline statement that higher education is very virtuous, simply repeating it does not make it happen.

I invite the government and the officials advising them to connect with the issue of educational aspiration to see what we can do to make sure that obstacles, real or perceived, are not denying capable, suitably qualified and completely ready people to engage in a higher education experience that will improve their future life prospects. Your postcode does not determine your potential, but there are messages we need to overcome if we are going to achieve some of the goals that Bradley outlined, that the government are referring to and that are in part addressed in this bill before the House.