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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8251

Mr ZAPPIA (8:18 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, and I have a great deal of pleasure in doing so. This bill implements a suite of measures which complement the government’s national education reforms and which also advance the Rudd government’s education revolution—an education revolution which has seen the Rudd government commit over $62 billion to the schools sector over the period 2009-12. That is an 85 per cent rise, or close to double the $33.5 million invested in the last four years of the Howard government. It is a $62 billion investment that includes $14.7 billion for the greatest school modernisation program in the nation’s history, with every one of Australia’s 9,500-plus primary and secondary schools eligible for capital works funding. I am pleased to say that about $100 million of that has gone to almost 50 schools in the electorate of Makin, which I represent. The $62 billion also includes $970 million allocated over five years to provide 15 hours per week for 40 weeks of preschool education for every child. It also includes $2 billion of school computer funding for secondary schools. Again I note that over 1,900 computers, at a cost of almost $2 million, have been allocated to secondary schools in my electorate of Makin.

The package also includes $2.5 billion of funding for trade training centres, $2 billion of funding for 711,000 vocational education training places, and a $6 billion investment in higher education and research infrastructure—which includes $1.1 billion for the National Super Science Initiative, which will expand key research in the science sectors of astronomy, marine science, climate science, nanotechnology and biotechnology. In fact, it is that $6 billion which effectively forms the basis of this bill.

Currently only around 32 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds attain a university degree. The Rudd government, through its investment in education, has set a target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds attaining a university degree by the year 2025. On 4 August I was a guest of the Chancellor of the University of South Australia, Dr Ian Gould, when I attended a University of South Australia graduation ceremony in Adelaide. The pride and the sense of tremendous accomplishment glowed in the faces of every graduate as they stepped forward to be handed their degree. It really brings joy to your heart to see people, having gone through almost a lifetime of education in their case, finally being given the ultimate certificate that they had been chasing. So it is important for us as a nation to try to ensure that more and more people are given the opportunity to be able to step up and accept that degree, as the hundreds of students did at that graduation ceremony two weeks ago when I was there.

As we all know, education does not start at primary school. Nor does it stop when you leave secondary school. For many young people, formal education ends well before the completion of secondary school. Across Australia, less than 75 per cent of students complete year 12. For students from low socioeconomic areas, only 59 per cent of students complete year 12. That in itself is cause for concern, because, without completing secondary school, entry into university becomes highly unlikely.

In response to this issue, the Rudd government is partnering with the states in a compact for young Australians. The compact means that every Australian aged under 25 not currently working will be provided with a guaranteed education or training place. The compact also brings forward $100 million of reward payments from the federal government to meet the goal of achieving a national year 12 attainment rate of 90 per cent by the year 2015.

Of course, failure to complete secondary school is not the only barrier to university education. For those young people who come from low socioeconomic communities there are many other barriers that need to be overcome. Those barriers have most likely been with them throughout their primary and secondary school years and are often the very cause of their inability to complete secondary school.

It is widely accepted that a good education is one of the greatest gifts a young person can be given. To quote Nelson Mandela:

Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

Investing in education is not just about investing in individuals. It is as much an investment in the future of our nation, because a better educated nation is more productive and more prosperous. Young people from low socioeconomic communities who do not maximise their educational ability are limiting not only their own options in life but also their productive contribution to the nation. That is why I particularly welcome the commitment in this bill to provide support for students from low socioeconomic areas.

I have been associated with several groups working in the northern region of Adelaide tasked with the difficult challenge of tackling the associated issues of raising secondary school retention rates and increasing university participation amongst children who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of these students, to use Nelson Mandela’s analogy, are the sons and daughters of factory workers, cleaners, farm workers and unemployed parents. In the northern region of Adelaide, university participation rates for young people are at around 16 per cent, or 10 per cent lower than that of the metropolitan area of Adelaide. Over the years, I have been associated with industry leaders who have difficulty in securing the suitably skilled and qualified employees needed to grow their businesses. I have served on advisory groups with secondary school principals who are working diligently to raise the retention rates within their schools, and I have been a member of the University of South Australia’s northern Adelaide partnerships group tasked with the challenge of attracting more young people from low socioeconomic areas into tertiary education. All of these efforts are making encouraging progress. However, we can certainly do more.

I will take a moment to address some of the key measures in this bill that will increase participation at university amongst students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These measures will work in partnership with and complement the existing programs I have just outlined being run by schools, industries and universities. The bill has a specific target for universities to meet. By the year 2020 the aim is for 20 per cent of people involved in higher education to be from groups that are underrepresented in the system. These underrepresented groups include Indigenous Australians as well as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In order to meet this target, the government has allocated $108 million over four years for a new partnership program to link schools in low socioeconomic areas with universities and vocational education and training providers. The intention of the partnerships program is to increase the aspirations of students of low socioeconomic status to higher education. The intent is to create links between schools and universities and to expose students to people, places and opportunities beyond the scope of their own experiences. Programs might include scholarships, mentoring of teachers and students, curriculum and teaching support or hands-on activities run by university staff in the schools.

A further $325 million will be provided to universities as a financial incentive to expand their enrolment of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and to provide the intensive support students from such backgrounds require, including mentoring, counselling, greater financial assistance and academic support. There is no point in encouraging these students to enter higher education if, once they get there, the support services are not provided to assist them to complete their studies. Better measures of low socioeconomic status will also be developed which are based on the circumstances of the individual students and their families. Performance funding to universities will be based in part on how effective institutions are in attracting these students.

There are other measures within this bill that provide additional support to specific groups of students that I will also briefly address. The first of these is for Australian students who as part of their degree choose to study for a period at an overseas institution. Under this bill, the government will remove the 20 per cent loan fee on overseas help loans to make it easier for students to study part of their course at an overseas institution. The removal of this fee means students now have less to repay long term, should they choose to study overseas for a time. Overseas study partnerships provide a range of benefits to the student and to the university. Firstly, it gives the student a wider experience during their degree. Secondly, the student, upon graduation, may be more attractive to a potential employer because of their language skills and the cross-cultural experience gained during their study. Thirdly, cultural awareness is raised and, fourthly, universities and the Australian economy benefit from international students coming to study here.

The support for Australians studying overseas has particular relevance for universities in my own state of South Australia, as many of the degrees offered, such as international studies or international business at the University of South Australia, either encourage or even mandate that their students complete a semester overseas as part of their degree.

Debate interrupted.