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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Mr NEUMANN (6:28 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. I listened to the member for Dunkley speak in relation to this particular issue. He said that somehow we have had a Pauline conversion with respect to the tertiary sector. I say to the member for Dunkley that the only conversion that has happened has been in those of the opposition. Listening to the member for Dunkley’s comments, you could tell that they have a kind of political amnesia. We were highly critical of the Howard government with respect to education at all levels.

It is a fact that under the Howard government they spent one-fifth of the percentage of GDP that our competitors in the OECD spent on preschool education. Their remedy for primary and secondary education was to give schools flagpoles, to put little statements on walls and to underfund schools, particularly state schools. The evidence of that is across electorates throughout Australia. Their idea for tertiary education was simply this: ‘We’ll make sure that you get funded, provided you impose Work Choices on the people who work in the tertiary sector. If you don’t, pursuant to legislation and protocols, we’ll underfund you. We’ll cut back your funding.’ That is their idea of tertiary funding and of the importance of the tertiary sector.

Let us not look at this situation somehow as though the Howard government had this wonderful and virtuous record for 10 years when it came to the education sector. The federal government, the Labor government, is committed to the Building the Education Revolution program at every level—preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary. This is a substantial amount of funding in terms of the increase and involves substantial policy reform across many years. We are building a stronger economy by skilling our workforce—making sure our young people and those people involved in the tertiary sector have the kinds of skills, abilities and talents that are necessary to improve productivity—to ensure that we have a highly skilled workforce which will improve profitability in our businesses, improve the economy and therefore maintain the wealth that we all expect our country to enjoy. But it is also about a fairer Australia.

I listened intently to what the member for Dunkley had to say. We saw an erosion of equity of opportunity under the Howard government and a greater reliance on student fees for income for universities. I have spoken to the universities in my electorate of Blair in South-East Queensland about our reforms. I have spoken to Professor Alan Rix, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland. He is based at Ipswich campus of the University of Queensland. I also have the Gatton campus of the University of Queensland in my electorate. Along with a number of other academics who I have spoken to, Professor Rix was highly critical of the Howard government’s record. They are very much in favour of what the Rudd Labor government is doing in terms of taking on board the recommendations of Denise Bradley in her review. For example, Universities Australia in a media release on 12 May 2009 said:

Universities Australia applauds Federal Budget for higher education, research and innovation.

The Group of Eight universities, the sandstone universities, including the University of Queensland, said that they applauded what this government was doing with respect to tertiary education and they called it a ‘visionary road taken to university reform’.

I just wonder what was happening under the Howard coalition government for almost 12 years. They must have had some very unpleasant experiences at university in their time when they were much younger because they seemed to attack the university sector constantly. We are really strongly of the belief that a strong tertiary sector means a stronger Australia, a fairer Australia and an Australia that will meet the future challenges that we face in this century. We are strongly of the view that we need the 10-year reform agenda for higher education to position us so that we can compete in the world market across many areas. We believe that higher education is integral to our vision of a fair, just and prosperous Australia. Those opposite did nothing about this. In fact, sadly, whilst our competitors in the OECD increased their funding to tertiary education by 48 per cent, Australia under the Howard coalition government decreased it. That is the reality.

We have put forward a strong program of reform. The Bradley review reported in December 2008 with 46 recommendations and many of them are taken up by the legislation that is before the House. For example, there is a national target of at least 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds obtaining qualification at bachelors level or above by 2020. That would mean an extra 217,000 people in this country would have access to the kind of training that would give them security in their finances, in their jobs and in their families’ future—217,000 extra training places; 217,000 extra jobs—people involved the tertiary sector having the kind of training that is necessary for the future. That is an enormous contribution. We also know that we need, according to Bradley, to set a national target by 2020 of 20 per cent of higher education enrolments at undergraduate level for people from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The truth of the matter is that for nearly two decades we have had about 15 per cent of people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds enrolled at undergraduate level. We know also that that cohort makes up about 25 per cent of the student population. There is a big challenge for us here. But that is what Bradley recommended and that is what the Rudd Labor government is so committed to doing. We see justice and equity when people from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported into tertiary education. This uplifts people and gives them the kind of chance in life that they deserve. We believe that no matter what the postcode and the financial circumstances in which a person was born—whether they were born in a wealthy suburb or in a poorer area of our community—a person deserves the same chance in life. We do not believe that education is about the politics of the Left or the Right. We believe it is about both. We believe it is important that people get every opportunity in life to advance.

We have provided many packages in terms of assistance and it is a bit disingenuous of those opposite to say somehow that we are simply raiding funds that they set up because there are many, many areas which we are putting funding into after a decade of underfunding. The decade of underfunding, the national scandal of declining public investment in higher education as a proportion of GDP, is coming to an end. It is coming to an end because the Rudd Labor government is carrying out its election commitments and listening to the recommendations of the Bradley review.

We have a new approach to higher education funding, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said, and it is sorely needed. The bill introduces a new, student centred funding system for higher education. It will cost $491 million over four years but we believe it is necessary. For the 2010-11 years, the cap on overenrolment and Commonwealth supported places will be lifted from five to 10 per cent in funding terms. In the circumstances, we think it is crucial that we do this. We think it is crucial to ensure that Commonwealth supported places for eligible students be accepted. We think it is important particularly that the skills needs of young people—and mostly young people go to university—are met, and it is in the broader public interest of all Australians to ensure that our people are educated at tertiary level, if they so choose.

The situation is that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds at high schools—for example, in my electorate—need to get incentives and opportunities and to be encouraged to go to university. That is why I recently attended a wonderful program that was run by the University of Queensland’s Ipswich campus. It was called PolyVision: Pacific Youth of Tomorrow. That is very much in line with what we are doing in terms of the University of Queensland, Bremer State High School and other state high schools in my electorate which are from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds.

PolyVision is worth noting and commenting upon. PolyVision is a University of Queensland outreach initiative which specifically targets Pacific island high school students. I met a number of them there from my old high school, Bundamba State Secondary College. It is particularly targeting those on the west side of Brisbane. It is based on a concept that was developed by the University of Auckland. PolyVision aims to inspire young people to consider higher education as a postschool option, as well as building their self-confidence, instilling pride in their Pacific identity and inspiring them to dream big dreams. I was pleased to go that night to that dinner to celebrate the young people who graduated from that course. I had dinner there with a number of them from my old high school, Bundamba State Secondary College, and also students from St Peter Claver College, a Catholic school in Riverview in my electorate and another area of low socioeconomic status.

PolyVision represents one of a number of outcomes of a two-year research project undertaken at the University of Queensland. It has arisen from a strategy aimed at motivating young people to consider the full range of available postschool options. I commend all those involved in PolyVision. I also commend Professor Alan Rix, who was there at the time as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, and the parents. There were so many parents there supporting their young people undertaking this program. The delight, the glee and the enthusiasm of those young people—from different backgrounds, and most of them from what we would call working-class high schools in my electorate—were inspiring and I commend all the people involved. It links in very much with what I am talking about here with this bill and what this bill aspires to do.

The University of Queensland in my electorate also needs to be commended for what it does in partnership with Bremer State High School. Bremer State High School is relocating to the Sandy Gallop golf links just beside the University of Queensland. In partnership with that working-class area high school, the University of Queensland will develop strong links. It already has strong links in terms of the aerospace program with Boeing and the aerospace park near the RAAF base at Amberley which is being developed. It is important also that young people from Bremer get encouraged to go on to the University of Queensland’s Ipswich campus, where we will see many young people involved in the Bachelor of Health Sciences, the Bachelor of Nursing, the Bachelor of Medicine/Surgery, the Bachelor of Business, the Bachelor of Arts and other courses that are run there.

The government here, in the legislation that is before the House, is allocating $108 million over four years for a new partnerships program to link universities with low SES schools and vocational education and training providers. It is just like the situation with the University of Queensland’s Ipswich campus and Bremer State High School and like the young people from St Peter Claver College and Bundamba State Secondary College in the PolyVision program I referred to. The intention here is to ensure that we have as many young people as we can from low socioeconomic backgrounds involved in higher education. The funding here will ensure that our young people get a chance in life. What we are going to do here is make sure they get the opportunities and places which they deserve, because we need to ensure that their aspirations and their expectations are met.

We are also allocating $325 million over four years to provide universities with a financial incentive to expand their enrolment of low SES students and to fund intensive support needed to improve their completion and retention. Sadly, many people go to university and drop out. We need to sustain these young people, particularly with the family pressures and the challenges that perhaps their parents did not face. With the pressures of their backgrounds, the kind of assistance that they need is not necessarily coming from home. We are supporting them, making sure they have got the financial support and making sure that universities partner with them. That is why I was rapt, absolutely thrilled, to see the families of those Pacific island young people from those schools supporting their young people at PolyVision that evening.

Of course, the steps to improving low socioeconomic status student participation will have impacts on, for example, those in the Tongan and Samoan communities in Ipswich and also on Indigenous students as well. There are many Indigenous students in our high schools in Ipswich and they are grossly under-represented at our universities. They face particular challenges and difficulties in completing university and getting there in the first place.

I heard some criticism about what we are doing in terms of scholarships. We are actually grandfathering some of those programs to ensure that those people who are receiving Commonwealth education costs scholarships and those people who are receiving existing Commonwealth accommodation scholarships will continue to receive those scholarships under the current arrangements. But we are bringing in new programs. The Commonwealth education costs scholarships will be replaced by a student start-up scholarship of $2,254 in 2010 and indexed thereafter. The accommodation scholarship is being replaced as well, and the relocation scholarship will provide $4,000 for students in their first year at university and $1,000 each year thereafter—and that will be indexed, of course, because that is the right thing to do.

I am very pleased that, in this legislation, we have funding for the Australian Universities Quality Agency. That agency is going to be replaced by what we think will be a better agency in 2010—the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. We think that is important because we want to make sure that, across the whole spectrum of the tertiary sector, the research that is done, the study that is undertaken and the teaching that is given is consistent—and we are going to make sure it is of high quality. We do not want young people who go to sandstone universities receiving a much better education than those who go to other universities. We want to make sure that everyone gets access to the kinds of education that they deserve and need in the circumstances. It is important also that we assist research and development, and that is why I am pleased that we are building on our commitments. We are increasing by more than 10 per cent the value of the Australian Postgraduate Stipend. It is going up from $20,427 in 2009 to $22,500 in 2010.

While I am on the subject of assisting universities and helping young people, I want to commend the government for the assistance it is providing to the University of Queensland in my electorate for the relocation of the School of Veterinary Science from Brisbane to Gatton, where it should have been in the first place. I appreciate the support—the tens of millions of dollars which are going to the University of Queensland. I commend the Head of the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Queensland, Professor Jonathan Hill, and all those involved in making the application for funding. I think the funding for the relocation of the School of Veterinary Science to Gatton will make a big difference in the Gatton community. Along with the prison that is being built by the Queensland Labor government, this will secure employment and a much-needed boost in retail expenditure. It will improve the population cohort and it will also improve the wealth and the aspirations of young people. They will have the opportunity to go to a brand new School of Veterinary Science, not to what is at the moment a fairly rundown university in terms of its facilities and structures.

I think this is tremendous for the people of the Lockyer Valley. It has been advocated for a long time. I commend the government for the funding we have seen there. It will make a big difference to the future of townships in the Lockyer Valley such as Gatton and Laidley and also for young people from Ipswich and the rural areas west of the Great Dividing Range, many of whom come to Gatton for their funding and their education. They get the training they need in agricultural science. Then they go back to their farms and become involved in best practice in their farming communities. Also, they stay there. We have had a drift to the cities of people from south-east Queensland. If we can get people back on the farms, that will be good for the Queensland economy as well. If we can train those farm workers and those involved in primary production, that will be even better. This is a great piece of legislation and I commend it to the House. (Time expired)