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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8155

Ms GEORGE (1:26 PM) —Following my colleague the member for Riverina, I am always interested in what she has to say, because I think she is a very good representative of her local constituency, and no doubt she speaks with a great deal of passion about the individual cases that she referred to in her contribution. But I would make the point that the member may not have alluded to in any great detail that many of the people she talked about in the House today will in fact continue to be eligible for the youth allowance with the increase in the parental income cut-off. The member shakes her head. I do not know the answer to that, but I do believe that she has a genuine concern about the issues of equity; it is just a pity that, as a member of a government for more than a decade or so, the broad issues to do with equity in higher education and the rates of participation of people from low SES backgrounds was an issue that was left very much on the backburner. That is an issue which is very much at the forefront of the Minister for Education’s concerns. I think that for the first time, as I will get to in my contribution, the issue of equity is going to be very much centrestage of the minister’s reform agenda for the future.

I am pleased to be able to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, because it does chart the beginnings of the reform of the higher education sector; and that, coupled with all the changes that are occurring through the Building the Education Revolution—the new national partnerships, the huge investment in capital works, the new programs to enhance teacher quality, and the programs to deal with disadvantaged schools—is really ushering in the most exciting changes in education that I can recall. I was a young teacher in the days of the Whitlam era, and that era brought in massive changes and made it possible for students from poorer backgrounds to access the opportunities that education brings. I know that the minister has a personal commitment to make sure that we do better in the future. The bill before us today begins that reform process, and it addresses some of the issues that were very much at the forefront of our concerns when we were in opposition.

We consistently expressed to the community our concerns about the decline in public expenditure on postsecondary education, particularly by comparison to other comparable OECD nations, and the clearly occurring shift in funding from public sources onto the shoulders of students and their families, both domestically and, in many cases, internationally, to cover up the shortfalls in commitment from the Howard government. Alongside that shift of funding to private sources, it is not surprising that there was a consequent erosion of opportunities for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

I take the point made by the member for Riverina that that decade or so had a profound effect on the rates of participation of young people from regional Australia. I think that clearly comes through in the analysis undertaken in the Bradley report. But, going into the election, we promised a substantial increase in public funding and a program of long-term reform. It was very clear to all that investment in education is so important in global terms, that we were losing ground against our competitors and that, as a nation, we had squandered and failed to invest the proceeds of the boom years. Our national participation and attainment in higher education, in fact, saw us slipping down on the OECD tables, and we needed to do more to ensure that our economy prospered in a globally competitive environment where investment in knowledge and human capital was going to be so much more important.

As we all know, the minister commissioned Professor Bradley to undertake the review, and she set out some very bold recommendations: a national target of at least 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds having achieved a bachelor qualification by 2020; very importantly, setting a target that by 2020 20 per cent of higher education enrolments would be of people from low SES backgrounds; recommendations that went to the heart of reforming student income support, as we have heard in the contribution just preceding mine; the longstanding issue of the indexation formula and proposals to revise that formula for base funding, which I know has been a major concern of the academic union and the sector generally; and the move to introduce a demand-driven entitlement system—not a voucher system but a demand-driven entitlement system.

Following from the Bradley review the government looked at, I think, 46 recommendations that were made. In relation to some of them we have already made it clear that we will embark upon the route of ensuring that by 2025—so we have taken the time line a bit further than the Bradley report—we see 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds with a qualification at bachelor level, which is going to be a significant boost from today’s figure, which I think is about 32 per cent. Secondly, this bill will also begin the process of transition arrangements as we move to funding unis on the basis of student demand. We will provide in this bill the budgetary measures that will begin the process of funding on the basis of student places, we will revise the indexation arrangements, we will establish a new regulatory agency and we will bring into being some institutional performance targets.

But, as the minister explains in her second reading speech, after a decade of neglect we are not going to turn the world upside down in one or two budgets. But this is the beginning of the process of reform, and the year 2012 will see these major reforms begin to take effect. The bill proposes a new system of allocating student places at a cost of $490.6 million over the next four years. On projections, it is anticipated that this will lead to an additional 50,000 student places by 2013. There is provision to allow for a small overenrolment for the institutions in this transition period. We are also providing interim funding arrangements to move to a new indexation formula, as well as $202 million for the Diversity and Structural Adjustment Fund and a significant boost to research funding that was announced in the budget. Additional funding of $436.9 million over 4 years will be targeted at supporting increased participation for low SES students, with around $30 million in this financial year. This is an important first step in our commitment to boost participation of low SES students to 20 per cent of enrolments by 2020, an issue which I said earlier was very much on the backburner in the Howard era.

The investment of $491 million over the next four years will significantly increase public university places, and it is our intention, as I understand the commitments, that from 2012 places will be uncapped, meaning that if universities accept appropriately qualified students for recognised courses then the government will fund that place. This will certainly help in achieving our national goal and ambition of 40 per cent of Australians in the 25- to 34-year age group having a bachelor’s qualification.

But, in achieving that very ambitious target, of course we will need to increase the proportion of students from under-represented backgrounds, and I want to spend most of my comments on that very important issue. I do so because education is the key to success for many in our community and it is the means of providing the opportunities for students from lower SES backgrounds and from backgrounds where a parent might be unemployed or a sole parent to get the benefits that we all know tertiary education brings. Of course, in the era of conservative rule in this country prior to Whitlam, we saw tertiary education very correlated to the income levels of parents, so kids like me were very much in the minority in having any chance to go to university, and it was usually only because you happened to either win a Commonwealth scholarship or get a teacher’s scholarship that you were able to knock on those hallowed doors that had been the preserve of the elite and the wealthy in our community.

The Whitlam era fundamentally transformed that. There are so many people I know in this chamber today who are the beneficiaries of the free tertiary education that happened in that era and, subsequent to that, there have been changes with the introduction of HECS. But what we have seen is a disappointingly constant percentage of low-SES students participating in higher education despite everybody’s best efforts. I am pleased that the Bradley review investigated in some detail this very important national issue of inequity in higher education participation and concluded:

Australia has not provided equal access to all groups in our society.

The report points to the underrepresentation of not just people from lower SES backgrounds but young people from regional and remote Australia and, very obviously, the low participation rates among Indigenous Australians. The Bradley report showed that the participation rate for low-SES students overall in Australia was around 15 per cent, much lower than the overall 25 per cent representation of people in the general population.

In answer to some questions on notice a couple of years ago when I was looking at the breakdown of the participation rates in my own local university, the University of Wollongong, the data showed that they were pretty much at that level. Wollongong university is a fantastic institution. As a regional university it does incredibly well on a range of scores and is always at the top end—just recently it was awarded five stars on a number of indicators. But, despite its best efforts, it was obvious that the life chances of children in the electorate of Throsby were not significantly different from those of their parents’ generation. The Bradley report argued that a student from a high-socioeconomic background is about three times more likely to attend university than a student from a low-SES background. Her report shows that the participation rates that I have referred to have remained relatively unchanged since 2002.

What I find interesting in the data is that once at university it appears that a student’s background does not negatively affect their chances of completing the course they undertake. But quite distinct differences exist in low-SES participation by type of institution or university, by the course undertaken and by the field of study. Not surprisingly, low-SES students are even more poorly represented in the G8 universities, poorly represented in the fields of architecture and law and grossly underrepresented in the fields of medicine, dentistry and economics. Those findings correlate with the exact breakdowns that I have for the University of Wollongong.

Not surprisingly to the nation, the statistics from the Bradley review confirmed that Indigenous people are incredibly underrepresented and it showed again that, while the underrepresentation is very obvious, an equally important issue for Indigenous students is that of success and retention once enrolled. I know a number of universities, including my own, have specialist Indigenous units that assist in the process of mentoring and encouragement. The Bradley review concluded, and this is my fundamental belief too:

Social inclusion must be a core responsibility for all institutions that accept public funding, irrespective of history and circumstances.

That is right. Why should the honest hardworking families in the electorate of Throsby, who pay their taxes for the provision of good public services, find when they look at the representation of the children of those families in post secondary education that the measures are so distinctly inadequate? The minister does not find this good enough either, she, coming from her background, is very committed also, as I am, to see the nation achieve this objective of 20 per cent representation by 2020.

The bill commits $437 million over four years to reward those universities that enrol more students from low-SES backgrounds. Part of that money is targeted to funding robust partnerships between universities and schools. We all know that patterns of social and educational disadvantage are experienced well before people reach the point of considering whether attending university is possible and relevant for them. In my wildest dreams when growing up I would never have thought that one day I might be at university and that goes for lots of children from working-class families.

It follows therefore that programs that focus solely on the higher education sector can only partially influence the problems and come up with the solutions. We know that endemic educational disadvantage begins in the earliest years of schooling and is often reinforced by low achievement and parental influences. We need improved efforts to increase school retention and student achievement, and to raise aspirations with regard to the chances of people going on to higher ed. We need more outreach programs and pathways that circumvent competitive entry based on academic achievement alone, such as teacher recommendations or other forms of interviews that I know apply in some of our tertiary institutions. Certainly, more scholarships and financial incentives for students from rural communities and for Indigenous students would also be required.

One way of tackling this is to change the university admission process so that innate ability rather than required knowledge is better tested. Several universities I believe are already trialling uniTEST for students who may have experienced difficulties or disadvantage at a crucial time in their schooling which might have affected their final results. The vice-chancellor at Macquarie University said recently that the uniTEST trial showed students selected by this method have done as well in their first undergraduate year as students admitted normally.

Another approach is to encourage and help early-promise students persist through to the HSC. I know that the University of Western Sydney has run a Fast Forward program since 2004 for students in years nine and 10 who show potential but are considered at risk of dropping out before year 12. Currently, their program involves 23 schools with activities including coaching, mentoring and talking to the parents. According to the vice-chancellor of the University of Western Sydney:

The challenge is to reach this partially invisible cohort of students before they decide about the rest of their lives, and to encourage them to aspire to go to university.

I have read also that recently the University of Sydney, my old alma mater, has launched a social inclusion program which forges relationships with two local schools, Marrickville and Kogarah High, and their feeder schools. So there is a range of good innovation out there to help the government achieve its objective.

In an article that I recently read, the vice-chancellor of a university—I think it was the University of Western Sydney—referred to this issue as a social problem. She said:

This is a social problem. It belongs to all of us and we will have to work collaboratively to fix it.

Once students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain entry to university they will often require higher levels of support to succeed, including financial assistance and greater mentoring and other forms of support. We have allocated funding in this budget to provide such incentives. I understand the loading for students from disadvantaged backgrounds will increase substantially to around $1,100 in 2012.

In conclusion, I commend the Minister for Education for her bold reform program in the higher education sector. I particularly want to commend her for her passionate commitment to ensuring that children from poor backgrounds are able to achieve the benefits that education provides to our community—not just to the individuals but the community generally. As a nation wanting to compete on the world stage, our investing in human capital and in becoming a knowledge economy is going to be increasingly important, and I am glad that this reform agenda at the heart of it ensures that the doors of higher education will open for a new generation of Australians who have previously often been in the position of missing out.