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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8238


Ms CAMPBELL (7:19 PM) —If nothing else, I think the member for Tangney’s contribution showed a certain degree of compassion, even if the content leaves a lot to be desired. Over the course of the last decade under the previous government, Australia’s higher education sector suffered tremendously. There was an overall decline in public expenditure, particularly in comparison with other OECD countries and as a percentage of GDP. Righting this imbalance is one of the many reasons why I am adding my voice in support today of the Rudd government’s Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. It fulfils in part Labor’s longstanding commitment made whilst in opposition to substantially increase public funding to the higher education sector. It is a commitment I supported then and am proud to support now.

The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and moves to implement the government’s 2009-10 budget measures. Included among the legislation’s key features, the Commonwealth Grants Scheme is to be amended to see introduced a demand-driven system of Commonwealth supported places from 2012. From 2012 all public universities will be funded on the basis of student demand. These are the first steps to a higher education system with students at its centre. It supports achievement of our higher education attainment ambition to increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with bachelor level qualifications to 40 per cent by 2025. This legislation also increases the cap on overenrolment of Commonwealth supported places from five per cent to 10 per cent in funding terms for 2010-11.

The bill amends the act to introduce increased indexation for higher education. The increased indexation of all amounts under the act will commence in 2012. It provides for a new performance funding grant element under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to reflect the conditional indexation payment in 2011 and new performance-funding arrangements from 2012. The government’s legislation amends the act to specify the maximum annual student contribution amount for a place in a particular funding cluster or part of a funding cluster. Education and nursing units of study will be increased to the maximum annual student contribution amount for the band 1 rate for new students from 2010. The bill amends the act to remove the 20 per cent loan fee on OS-HELP loans from 2010. This will practically assist to support universities in encouraging students to travel abroad on student programs as part of their studies, and I am hopeful that it will receive wide support, as it should. The bill amends the act to add a new item to the other grants provisions for the structural adjustment fund. The new fund will encourage institutions to consider their strategic direction and focus their activities and missions to achieve long-term sustainability. It will lay the groundwork for the provision of more sustainable higher education, particularly in regional and outer metropolitan areas.

One of the key components not only of this legislation but of the government’s wider approach to higher education is a measure to support increased participation of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The government’s review of Australian higher education was undertaken last year by Professor Bradley. This legislation is the result of that review. Among its well-researched observations was that this country is at a critical juncture in the history of higher education. Professor Bradley’s final report commented on and recognised that there is an international consensus that the reach, quality and performance of a country’s higher education system is one of the key determinants of social and economic progress. That was a theme adopted by the Deputy Prime Minister as she introduced this bill to the House.

Through this legislation, the government is fulfilling its commitment to ensure that by 2020 some 20 per cent of higher education enrolments at an undergraduate level are filled by people from a low socioeconomic background. The government has allocated $108 million over four years for a partnerships program which will link universities with low socioeconomic schools and vocational education and training providers with the aim of creating leading practice and competitive pressures to lift the aspirations of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to higher education. This is recognition and acknowledgement of international experience, which has shown that interventions in the early years of high school are effective and indeed vital if we are to lift the aspirations of students to go on to further study at university. We have also allocated $325 million over four years as a financial incentive for universities to expand their enrolments of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and to fund the intensive support needed to improve completion and retention rates.

We face tremendous challenges both as a government and as a country. The Bradley review highlighted the fact that Australia is falling behind other countries in performance and investment in higher education. We are falling behind, and I find that absolutely unacceptable. It has the potential to limit our social and economic progress. Professor Bradley noted that if we are to maintain our high standard of living, our robust democracy and a civil and just society then we need also to maintain an outstanding and internationally competitive higher education system. They are inextricably linked. It is something which this government recognises, but instead of capitalising on the strength of the economy during their time in office those opposite presided over a decline in an overall performance and investment in higher education. Ten years ago Australia was seventh out of 30 within the OECD in the proportion of our population aged between 25 and 34 with degree-level qualifications. Twenty-nine per cent of our 25- to 34-year-olds have degree-level qualifications, while other OECD countries have set targets as high as 50 per cent. Faced with this uphill challenge, as a government we are aiming for 40 per cent by 2025.

There are many fundamental differences between this government and those opposite. Chief among them is an unwavering commitment to education of all levels, underpinned by the belief that education is at the core of our society. It is essential to our society and to economic prosperity. It is why we committed to computers in schools; it is why we have embarked on an investment program the likes of which this country has never known. Our Building the Education Revolution will see students provided with the learning environments necessary to promote lifelong learning.

In my electorate of Bass I have been fortunate enough to see the real effects of this government’s investments in schools. I have been to schools like Winnaleah District High School, where the multipurpose hall being built will serve not only the school and its students but the entire community. I have seen firsthand the degree of degradation suffered under the previous government to facilities such as the science laboratories at Flinders Island District High School and I have been fortunate enough to be able to work closely with the school to see much needed upgrades funded through the Building the Education Revolution program. From the $50,000 awarded to Branxholm Primary School for refurbishment of a classroom and an upgrade of student toilets under the National School Pride Program to the $2 million gymnasium for South George Town Primary School in the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program, big and small these funding projects speak of a commitment to education which is simply not shared by those opposite.

The Rudd government is investing $200 million in Better TAFE Facilities to support the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow. Communities like mine in Northern Tasmania will benefit from this investment through improved teaching facilities and a skilled workforce, and from the economic activity generated by such infrastructure projects. The Better TAFE Facilities initiative is part of the Rudd government’s $500 million Teaching and Learning Capital Fund for vocational education and training. Under Better TAFE Facilities, all TAFE institutes across Australia are eligible to receive a grant of between $2 million and $8 million to undertake maintenance needs, small capital works and equipment and plant purchase. The Rudd government announced the Teaching and Learning Capital Fund for vocational education and training last December as part of a $4.7 billion nation-building infrastructure package to support Australia’s economy.

We are committed to education of all levels and we recognise the importance of higher education to the future of our country. This bill recognises that performance funding will focus universities firmly on the need to meet our shared objectives for the higher education sector. What greater incentive to develop effective performance-lifting strategies than to have the outcomes of those plans linked to funding? Unlike the previous Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, universities will be able to negotiate individual targets and will have an exact idea of where they are at in relation to meeting those targets. Universities will be working towards targets they themselves have negotiated. This is an initiative which will assist in meeting the government’s 20 per cent target of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds by 2020.

There is a clear government agenda being put in place to ensure that, from primary school through to university, our students have the ability to access education and facilities which will secure Australia’s economic prosperity. Australia will need more highly-skilled, well-qualified people as the 21st century progresses. Professor Bradley observes that by 2010—that is, next year—Access Economics predicts that the supply of qualified undergraduates will not keep up with demand. In part it is why the government is committed to ensuring that those people who are underrepresented in our universities, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are offered every opportunity to participate. We are also acting to ensure that those from rural and remote areas are offered the opportunity to contribute through higher education.

Twenty years ago, Australia was one of the first countries to restructure to enable wider participation. As a government there is a philosophical underpinning to our policy. At the heart of Australia’s strategy for research and innovation are our universities. Analysis of our existing performance points to the need—an urgent need—for increased investment coupled with structural reform; otherwise we will simply not be where we need to be by 2020. We should aspire to be in the top group of OECD countries in terms of both participation and performance. I am pleased to say that, as a government, we recognise that need to act.

I commend the Deputy Prime Minister for her commitment to setting targets and supporting the attainment of those targets through government policy and through funding. It is in stark and welcome contrast to those opposite who adopted a ‘slash and burn’ mentality to funding for the education sector while at the same time fostering an outdated, elitist approach to university access. From 1995 to 2005, the public contribution to higher education in Australia remained unchanged—the only OECD nation where this was the case. Well, times have changed. This government is committed to primary and secondary education and the TAFE and vocational sector through Building the Education Revolution.

Through this legislation, we are broadening the scope of the higher education sector and at the same time moving to secure the standing of Australia’s educational reputation. Make no mistake about it: to not act is not an option. Professor Bradley’s review makes for alarming reading. It is indeed a wake-up call, one which this government has heeded and acted upon. I commend the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 to the House.