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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Mr SIMPKINS (6:48 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution tonight on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. I have always had an interest in matters relating to education. While I spend much of my time in schools speaking about the need to get the best education possible, we know that a university education and such qualifications are not for everyone. I know that there are many young people in Cowan who are not interested in a degree of any kind, and they are of no lesser value to our community than those who have attained multiple and higher degrees. No person in this nation should have their value and self-worth judged by the qualifications they possess; rather, they should be judged by their character and by evidence of their effort to do their best. I hope the days are gone when those with university qualifications are thought of as being the best and all others are thought to be of lesser value. That is not to say, however, that those with university qualifications are not great achievers for this country. Without them, where would we be in health, science and the arts? My point is that, first and foremost, Australians should be judged by the depth of their character, not by what university they attend and what degree they receive.

I am here to speak on a bill which represents the government’s response to the review they commissioned on higher education, led by Denise Bradley, which commenced in March last year. There is little doubt that the review elicited a great number of submissions across a broad range of categories. That review, the Bradley review, was released in December 2008. I understand that the 42 recommendations also covered a broad range of issues, including funding, quality and standards, the issuing of places, support for students and how to ensure increased participation from lower socioeconomic areas and those who are not considered to be part of the mainstream. The review also elicited a number of reactions and counter points which I will speak of later.

How do we ensure that those who are often called ‘the disadvantaged’, such as Indigenous people, have tertiary education opportunities? It is my view that it should not be done through quotas and special funding arrangements, because tertiary qualifications are ultimately achieved after comprehensive study, coursework and exams. Arriving at the front door is the easy part; leaving in a cap and gown requires more work and a foundation and ethos that are created many years before. In Australia that begins when children are born—when they are safe, when they are fed healthy food and when they are introduced to education by the examples their parents provide to them. For example, ‘story time’ creates in children a love and valuing of books and the information passed on by their parents in general terms.

When I meet with people in Cowan I sometimes hear of their disquiet about the special arrangements that are provided for minority groups—special funding, places set aside et cetera. While some may be dismissive and call such concerns racism, I consider their concerns to be evidence of a belief in an egalitarian society where there are no special extra rights for minorities but, rather, equal responsibilities and opportunities for all. My point is that, through early intervention and steps taken to ensure that children are in safe, healthy and positive environments, you can remove the disadvantages that face teenagers. Special funding, special places and special deals for minorities become less relevant if their younger years are positive and appropriate. It is through such a solid base from infancy onward that disadvantage is best alleviated. While it may make some feel good to be able to point to the number of undergraduate students from targeted minority groups or groups deemed to be disadvantaged, I worry about their ability to pass the course requirements without that solid base of education and a safe and healthy childhood. I also worry about those who were never suited to tertiary study and their opportunities while these boxes are being ticked for university undergraduate places.

My point is very straightforward. If we get the health and safety and children’s love of learning right from their infancy, we remove the need for special deals, special places and special funding later. The challenge is: how do we get parents to raise their children safely, keep them healthy and read to them, amongst other imparting of information? That is a requirement for all parents in this country, no matter where they were born, the colour of their skin or their socioeconomic situation. Without reservation I condemn all parents that abuse their children or allow their children to be abused by others, as an abusive environment is not a safe and secure environment. I condemn parents or carers that are addicted to drugs and whose children suffer from neglect or have their futures undermined by those parents. I condemn parents that bring children up in circumstances of crime. I condemn parents whose commitment to drugs, alcohol, gambling or other vices comes before their commitment to their children, ensuring that those children do not have the opportunities that parents should be providing.

As I have always said, in this place and outside it, there are communities, suburbs and towns around this country right now where children should be taken away from their so-called parents and placed in the care, permanently, of properly assessed couples. Children should be able to grow up in an environment where they have a proper mother and father whose commitment is to the child before themselves and before any vices.

That being said, I would like to speak more specifically about the work of a university in Perth. There are several universities in Perth, including the University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, Murdoch University, University of Notre Dame Australia and Edith Cowan University. It is with regard to Edith Cowan University, or ECU as it is commonly known in Perth, that I would like to make some comments.

I recently attended a launch of a new teaching degree opportunity created at ECU. The launch was held at Ballajura Community College. ECU was represented by Professor Kerry Cox, the vice-chancellor, and Professor Greg Robson, the head of the school of education, and Tim McDonald from the university was the MC. The launch was for the graduate diploma of education residency program. The graduates seeking their teaching diploma will be able to see firsthand the challenges and the opportunities their chosen career will provide them with. For two days a week they can be at a school getting firsthand experience, then undertake their course work on the other days. The program will ensure that participants will not suffer from any significant culture shock as a result of moving straight from the lecture theatre to being in charge of a class of primary or secondary students. Whilst hearing how the program would work and the benefits that the schools would receive, I was reminded how positive and innovative ECU was and how similar attitudes in our schools can allow the two parts of the equation to work so well together.

At the launch were the principals and some staff of a number of schools, with most being Cowan schools. Given the event was hosted by Ballajura Community College, the principal, Dr Steffan Silcox, was there and expressed his strong support for the program. At Ballajura Community College, or BCC, there is always something innovative happening, so it did not surprise me at all that a new tertiary program was being launched and implemented at the school.

The other schools from Cowan taking part in the program are Mercy College, Ashdale Primary School, Ashdale Secondary College and Roseworth Primary School. I took the opportunity of speaking with the principals of Roseworth and the two Ashdale schools. Geoff Metcalf is the principal at Roseworth Primary. Roseworth is located in the suburb of Girrawheen and the school exists as a result of an amalgamation between Hainsworth School and Montrose primary schools. Geoff Metcalf is a highly dedicated principal that has always looked at ways to provide a better education for his students. Girrawheen is an older suburb with lower socioeconomic circumstances than most other suburbs in Cowan. I know that, like me, Geoff sees the potential in Girrawheen and sees it most clearly in the students at his school.

Ashdale Secondary College is a brand-new school. The principal is Carol Strauss. I saw Carol at the launch, and the school’s involvement in the program is, in my view, evidence that Carol and her team are dedicated to assisting in providing the highest quality teachers possible. A teaching position at Ashdale Secondary College is highly sought after, and the staff there are some of the best there are in Perth. Graduates seeking a residency will be in very good hands there, with very good examples of teaching on offer. Ashdale Primary is a large school, under the leadership of Rick Firns. It will provide graduates seeking their teaching diploma with a great variety of opportunities, under a very highly regarded principal.

I expressed right from the start my thoughts on education and the importance of primary and secondary education. I see examples such as ECU’s residency program for the diploma of education as being of great benefit in ensuring knowledge is eventually transferred effectively to students in our schools. Beyond my thoughts on early intervention, quality teachers are going to make the biggest difference once those students reach schools.

With specific regard to this bill, making a large presumption, it is pretty hard to be opposed to much of the changes to be made. The presumption I speak of is the matter of finances. The question is: can this all be accomplished within our means? Admittedly something around half of the $5.7 billion involved is from the last government’s Higher Education Endowment Fund, so that came out of the savings this nation once had. Clearly there is nothing new about that money. It is also a point worth making that, when we look at the money being spent in this legislation, there is a clear difference between the emphasis on higher education here and the far greater emphasis on pink batts and cash handouts.

Yet this bill is an example of what a government can do when it is no longer constrained by fiscal restraint. Extra places at university, as admirable as that is, can be provided when you no longer try to balance a budget, when economic conservatism has been thrown aside, when the federal government no longer provides a shining example of living within one’s means but rather starts looking like a teenager with an unexpected mobile telephone bill. As a father, every time my daughters ask for something they see in the shops, I ask them whether they can afford it. That is what parents do, but the example shown by the previous federal government is no longer available, and the focus on living within one’s means is gone and is beyond the families of Australia.

Now leaving that issue aside, it would be useful to mention some of the industry perspectives that have been raised following the release of the Bradley review. I will begin by drawing upon the comments of the University of Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who said:

I think the target is great, (but) I think it’s aspirational and it will not be possible, as the Government realises, to achieve it without also addressing educational disadvantage at primary and secondary school levels.

That is a very important point that I have already covered in this contribution. Dr Spence also said that he had been disappointed there had been no deep discussion of the role of fees in making educational reform during the Bradley process.

The University of New South Wales Vice-Chancellor, Fred Hilmer, warned the government not to accept the review as a whole, saying it was not properly thought through and costed and could not deliver dramatic increases in quality and output. He is reported as telling the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney that he and many of his colleagues were troubled by the review’s lack of a clear vision. He said that the review did:

… not clearly acknowledge the fundamentally important principles of excellence, differentiation of mission and the importance of a university education for its own sake.

He went on:

There is little recognition in the Bradley report of the special and key role played by research intensive, internationally well-ranked institutions.

Clearly, there has been a big divide, following the Bradley review. The Group of Eight universities believes that Denise Bradley, the former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, has a hidden agenda to deconcentrate research. In December it was suggested that the Group of Eight vice-chancellors was fearful, before the release of the Bradley review in late December, that the hostility its chairwoman was believed to harbour against the research elite might influence her recommendations. That was in response to her address at a recent Australian Technology Network conference saying that her review had stressed the teaching and research nexus to counter an extreme position on research concentration. It was reported that Professor Bradley told the ATN conference:

I am aware of the arguments about the strategic importance of greater concentration of internationally competitive research performance, but I think that there are good national reasons for us to adopt a model which continues to encourage some spread across institutions.

She went on to argue against:

… too much concentration of research capacity in too small a number of what will inevitably be capital city institutions.

It has also been widely reported that the Group of Eight, which argued forcefully for research concentration to meet global challenges in a paper released before the Bradley report, slammed the findings of her panel. The executive director of the Group of Eight said:

What is presented as a tightening of criteria for university status, based on the mythical “teaching-research nexus”, could well loosen expectations of research quality and further dissipate the nation’s research investment …

And further:

The Bradley report reflects a parochial and complacent view in the context of aggressive concentration of research investment in many other countries.

I also understand that the Group of Eight’s tough stand against Professor Bradley has been echoed by University of Melbourne professorial fellow Vin Massaro, who pointed out that the review’s targets for enrolment growth would involve producing an extra 544,000 graduates by 2020, which would require an additional 20 universities. Professor Massaro went on:

Assuming that the Government (was) prepared to fund these places, no mention has been made of the likelihood of finding the academic workforce to teach them, nor of the cost of building the necessary teaching infrastructure, nor of the plausibility that demand would rise so quickly …

He estimated that the capital costs required to meet the challenges of this enrolment explosion would be in the range of $25 billion to $30 billion.

On the other side is the group of universities represented under the banner of the Australian Technology Network. The ATN’s director, Vicki Thomson, said:

… We think that it is unfortunate that the Bradley review is being picked apart and that might diminish the opportunity for significant reform.

Representing the ATN, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Technology, Sydney, Ross Milbourne, said that the Bradley review was the best he had seen on the tertiary sector. He said its vision was to create a world-class university system. He went on:

We need a great university system, not one or two great universities.

The facts therefore are abundantly clear—that there is division in the tertiary sector about the direction taken by the Bradley review and the government’s ability to deliver on the expectations that have been created. There are concerns in that direction, as well as concerns about the financial capacity and where the review will lead our university research programs. I have also stated my own concerns.

Moving on, I also share the concerns of my regional colleagues about the changes the government wants to make to effectively abolish the workforce participation criteria for eligibility for the independent youth allowance. While that is not dealt with in this bill, the minister’s refusal to even entertain the notion that there is a problem is, sadly, just more evidence that this government is arrogant and refuses to consider alternative views. Country students will be disadvantaged by the government’s recalcitrance on this matter.

In any case, we look forward to greater Senate scrutiny of these matters in the future. To conclude, I look forward to seeing what will happen in the future with the implementation of this bill and seeing how far the government gets with managing the great expectations it has created.