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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8285

Ms LIVERMORE (10:18 AM) —This Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 is taking us on the first steps down the road of a comprehensive and far-reaching reform of Australia’s higher education system. It is a reform process that will address the decay in public investment in the higher education sector that occurred in the last decade or so under the previous Howard government. That record of neglect has seen Australia fall behind the rest of our competitors in terms of public spending on education, at a time when they have grasped the central role that education plays in increasing economic prosperity and improving equity in their societies. We knew when we took government that we could not achieve our vision of a stronger and fairer Australia without addressing the structural and financial problems in our higher education sector.

The Bradley review of higher education commissioned by our government last year identified the task ahead of us in terms of greater participation in higher education, more funding targeted at meeting student demand and a focus on quality. Denise Bradley’s report laid down a challenge to the government and it is one that we will not fail. This legislation enacts one part of the government’s broader response to the Bradley review that was announced in the budget. In doing so, it heralds a new approach which sees higher education firmly at the centre of our economic productivity and social inclusion agenda. In short, it is about taking us toward a future where we have a high-quality university education system comparable to the best in the OECD by 2020, particularly when looking at access, learning outcomes, engagement and research. We will not achieve this goal on our current path.

As an indication of just how significant the required change is, the government has set bold targets for lifting the rate of participation in higher education within the Australian population. Currently, 32 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree. If current policy settings continue, that is projected to rise to just 34 per cent by 2020. We think Australia can do better. If we are to retain our standard of living and our international competitiveness, we have to do better. That is why the Minister for Education announced that our government is aiming for 40 per cent of Australians aged from 25 to 34 to have a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2025. That equates to an additional 217,000 graduates. We will not reach that target unless we also tackle the persistent divide that exists between those sections of the community who have traditionally gone to university and those who have not had that opportunity. Lifting raw participation rates is one thing but the government and our educational institutions need to go further to encourage and support participation in higher education by those traditionally underrepresented groups—people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, people from rural and regional areas and Indigenous students.

So, in addition to our overall 40 per cent target, the government want 20 per cent of people enrolled in higher education to come from groups who are currently underrepresented in the system and we want this to happen by 2020. This 20 per cent target for low-socioeconomic status students is one of the key findings of the Bradley review and represents a substantial increase from where we are now with just 15 per cent of students identified as low SES. It is no easy task, but this legislation lays the framework for us to achieve such ambitious and worthwhile targets.

We recognise that it is not enough for the government to set targets, then expect universities to be able to go out and overnight recruit thousands of students from non-traditional backgrounds and then have those students magically graduate in four years. We are talking about students who have no experience of university. They are from country towns with no higher education institutions; they are the first person in their family to attend university; they come from non-English-speaking backgrounds; they are Indigenous and come to university after previous bad experiences in the school system. Universities and schools will need support and financial resources to first of all encourage these students to enrol and to see university as part of their life. There will then need to be additional support available to overcome some of the barriers that might stand in the way of students’ academic success and completion of their degree.

The government has therefore put aside $108 million to be used over the next four years for a partnership program linking universities with low-SES schools and $325 million to universities to fund the intensive support needed to improve the completion and retention rates of students from low-SES backgrounds. That represents an additional $394 million over the next four years directed towards the goal of lifting participation rates of students who have not in the past gone to uni in large numbers. This measure is firmly targeted at electorates like mine in Central Queensland, where the participation rate in higher education is well below the national average. I believe it will also reward the work of unis like the one in my electorate, CQ University Australia, by recognising that encouraging and supporting non-traditional students through their uni experience should be a key function of universities—one we require of all universities and one that should be rewarded when done well.

Over the years, CQ uni has consistently had one of the highest percentages of all Australian universities when it comes to the number of students from low-SES backgrounds, Indigenous students and students who are the first in their family to undertake university education. The university also has just been awarded five stars for access by the Good Universities Guide. I know the commitment that is there at CQ University to achieve those results. I know the staff involved and the programs that are run, and CQ University is right to be proud of its achievements in this important area.

CQ University has done that because of where it is located and because part of its mission is to serve the needs of Central Queensland. But it is not easy, and it is right that all universities, not just regional unis, should now be required to take that responsibility seriously and have their performance in that task measured and results rewarded. This legislation ensures that that will happen. It provides for a new performance funding grant element under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, which will be conditional in 2011 and fully operational from 2012. It will ensure that Australia’s reputation for quality teaching and learning remains high by providing universities with a real incentive to ensure that they are providing the best possible learning opportunities for students and investing the effort necessary to help underrepresented students achieve their study goals. This will encourage universities to continue to raise the bar with student achievement and learning. After all, the government understands that it is not just about student numbers in a lecture theatre. The students also have to achieve good learning outcomes.

The government will work with universities to establish performance indicators to lay the framework for this funding. These will include the success of various demographics of the student population. These targets will be challenging but appropriate for the circumstances of universities. From 2012, universities will receive this funding if they agree on and meet new targets, and this process will be assessed independently through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. Universities will be able to negotiate targets and they will know what is at stake if they do not meet the targets.

I have already referred to the university in my own electorate of Capricornia, CQ University, where the commitment to serving the educational and research needs of our region is stronger than ever. The university has a new vice-chancellor, Professor Scott Bowman, who is enthusiastic and upbeat about the university, and he has a great team around him. With the government’s reform agenda for higher education starting to be implemented, the university, under its new leadership, is well placed to show that it is ready to take up the challenges ahead and indeed can earn some well-deserved recognition and reward for some of its traditional strengths.

With Professor Bowman only a fortnight in the job, his chair is barely warm, but already he is demonstrating that he is the right person for the job. CQ University, with its campuses across the region and interstate, needs someone with his experience and willingness to engage the community, industry and government to move it into the future. After all, the university is not without challenges. A Queensland Treasury Corporation report released recently highlighted that there has been a decline in international and domestic enrolments at CQ University.

Professor Bowman acknowledged this point in his opening address to staff a couple of weeks ago and has also outlined a path to success for the university, setting targets for the next two, five and 10 years. He said that the work would start immediately by refreshing courses, investing in new programs and putting strategies in place that will attract more full-time students to all of the university’s campuses. I quote from the speech he delivered to about 300 staff, in which he talked about the strategic position of the university and its campuses. He said:

We have to use our geographical location to our best advantage over the coming years to strengthen our links with industry, develop new programs, and fully serve the needs of local communities …

In 10 years, CQUniversity will be known as one of Australia’s great universities and as an employer of choice in the sector.

I am sure everyone in Rockhampton and the region also wants this for the university. As the local member, I certainly do and I will be working to assist the university in any way that I can in the months and years ahead as it find its place in the new future for higher education that our policy is creating. It is pleasing to see strong leadership and vision at the university coinciding with this legislation at the federal level, which will provide a boost to higher education.

This long-term mission for increasing en-rolments at CQ University is critical for the university as it works with this legislation into the future. After all, this legislation is also about providing incentives for enrol-ments and setting benchmarks for education. By setting goals now, CQ University is posi-tioning itself ideally. I do not need to tell the management of the university that they do not have a moment to lose.

As a part of our response to the Bradley review, this legislation sets in place the new student-driven scheme for funding universities in Australia. From 2012, all public universities will be funded on the basis of student demand. To allow for the introduction of a demand-driven system, the bill amends the act to remove the maximum grant amount for the Commonwealth Grants Scheme for 2012. The allocation of funding to universities on the basis of student demand for places at individual institutions presents a challenge to CQU with its recent history of falling enrolments. But our policy and this bill give universities two years to prepare for the new system. I know that it is time that CQU will use wisely.

The current funding floor for universities will be maintained for 2010 and 2011. In that time, CQ University can take advantage of other parts of the package—for example, the structural adjustment money and incentives for enrolling students from non-traditional backgrounds to consolidate—and develop the mission and niche that will carry it forward. Of course, the university will also benefit from the new and long awaited indexation arrangements in this bill that better reflect the true costs of education provision, especially wages costs for academic and general staff.

The structural adjustment funding in particular will be important for a university like CQ Uni that has so much to offer and has a region that needs it to succeed. This part of the package is telling universities to work out: what are your opportunities, what needs do you meet, what do you do well and how do you see your future? It then supports the uni to achieve those goals. To support the transformation that will inevitably take place, the government is providing $400 million over four years for structural adjustment. This means that universities will be able to take the reins and make strategic decisions about their own futures. There is a $200 million capital component to this funding and all of this funding will support broader strategic and capital projects.

To ensure their long-term sustainability, regional unis are also looking to the government to overhaul the system of regional loading. Throughout 2009 the government will continue to work with universities such as CQ University to identify the specific issues facing regional provision. We will fully consider the issues surrounding regional provision and the impacts of a demand focus for funding, which will roll out in coming years with this legislation.

It is true to say that Labor governments in the past have been at the forefront of delivering important reform to the tertiary education sector. These reforms, whether they were through the Whitlam or Hawke governments, have helped Australia to the position it is in today. Labor government reforms have opened the doors of education to broad sectors of the community, increased participation and improved the productivity and efficiency of higher education. Australia as a nation is the better for it.

As noted in the Bradley review, past reforms have led to increased performance of the sector overall. However, under the 11 years of the Howard government the higher education sector had been a victim of neglect. Indeed, in cases such as student services, the coalition is still attempting to wage a tired old ideological war against students and their tertiary education.

Today these Rudd government reforms being debated are critical for the sector and for our nation. In fact an OECD report makes the same point as the Bradley review and underlines the urgency of these reforms:

The widespread recognition that tertiary education is a major driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy has made high-quality tertiary education more important than ever before. The imperative for countries is to raise higher-level employment skills, to sustain a globally competitive research base and to improve knowledge dissemination for the benefit of society.

We see that as a central role for government, and this legislation is another step towards achieving that vision. I commend the bill to the House.