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Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Page: 8289

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare and Youth and Minister for Sport) (10:34 AM) —I begin by commending the previous speaker both for her contribution to this debate and also for her ongoing commitment to higher education within her own community and indeed thank all members who have spoken on the bill. The Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to implement the Australian government’s reform of the higher education system as announced in the 2009-10 budget. It responds to the review of Australian higher education, the Bradley review, which affirmed that the reach, quality and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be the key determinants of its economic and social progress.

The bill is a landmark in the history of Australian higher education. Put simply, this bill transforms the scale, potential and quality of our nation’s universities. It introduces the first stage of a new higher education system with students at its centre, where there is a Commonwealth supported place for every eligible undergraduate student accepted into a course at an eligible higher education provider. The bill also amends the act to give effect to measures to address key findings and recommendations of the review of the national innovation system and the recent House of Representatives inquiry into research, training and workforce issues.

Alongside a student centred system, the government is also introducing measures to ensure quality, address Australia’s skill needs and the broader public interest, and support achievement of our higher education attainment goals. This ambition is that, by 2025, 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds will hold a qualification at bachelor level or above. We will introduce the student centred system gradually. The bill provides for the cap on funding for overenrolment in Commonwealth supported places to be lifted from five per cent to 10 per cent in funding terms in 2010 and 2011. This will have an estimated cost of $491 million over four years.

The bill also removes the limit on funding under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme for 2012 to reflect the fact that there will be no overall limit on the number of students that table A higher education providers will be able to enrol from 2012 onwards. The bill takes the steps necessary to open Australia’s universities to a new generation of students. It amends the act to provide for an increase in funding to encourage increased participation by low-SES students. Our goal is to ensure that, by 2020, 20 per cent of higher education enrolments at the undergraduate level will be people from a low-SES background. This goal will be directly supported by the injection of additional funding for universities to support the low-SES participation targets.

The government has allocated $108 million over four years for a new partnerships program to link universities with low-SES schools and vocational education and training providers. The intention is to create leading practice and competitive pressures to increase the aspirations of low-SES students to higher education. The government is putting in place systemic reasons for universities to be engaged with improving the quality of school education. Funding will provide schools and vocational educational and training providers with links to universities, exposing their students to people, places and opportunities beyond the scope of their own experiences, helping teachers raise the aspirations of their students. Programs might include scholarships, mentoring of teachers and students, curriculum and teaching support or hands-on activities run by university staff in schools.

Once students from disadvantaged backgrounds have entered university, they generally do very well. Often, however, they require higher levels of support to succeed, including financial assistance and greater academic support, mentoring and counselling services. The government has therefore allocated $325 million over four years to be provided to universities as a financial incentive to expand their enrolment of low-SES students and to fund the intensive support needed to improve their completion and retention rates. The existing Higher Education Equity Support Program will be replaced and incorporated into these new funding arrangements. Better measures of low socioeconomic status will be developed which are based on the circumstances of individual students and their families. Performance funding will be based in part on how effective institutions are in attracting these students.

The steps to improve low-SES student participation will impact on and benefit Indigenous students also. They are significantly underrepresented in our universities and they face distinct challenges. The government will support a review of the effectiveness of measures to improve the participation of Indigenous students in higher education in consultation with the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council. At the same time, the government is also introducing major reforms to student income support to assist the access and retention of low-SES students.

The bill amends the act to provide funding for the continuing elements of the Commonwealth Scholarships program. Existing Commonwealth Education Cost Scholarships recipients will continue to receive the scholarships under current arrangements. The CECSs will be replaced by the Student Start-Up Scholarships. A Student Start-Up Scholarship of $2,254 in 2010 and indexed thereafter will be provided as an entitlement to all university students receiving income support and those under veteran schemes. This compares to the current system where in 2009 around 13.7 per cent of commencing student income support recipients at university received a Commonwealth Education Cost Scholarship. The Student Start-Up Scholarships are estimated to benefit 146,600 students in 2010, up from the 12,900 Commonwealth Education Cost Scholarships that would have been offered to commencing students under the current system.

Existing Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarship recipients will continue to receive their scholarships under the current arrangements. CAS will be replaced by the new Relocation Scholarship in 2010. University students receiving youth allowance and Abstudy who have to live away from the family home to study will be assisted by a Relocation Scholarship. This will be available to dependent students living away from home as well as independent students who are disadvantaged by personal circumstances. The Relocation Scholarship will provide $4,000 for students in their first year at university and $1,000 in each year thereafter, and it will be indexed. An estimated 14,200 students will benefit from this measure in 2010—a 75 per cent increase on the number of Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships which were to be offered that year. By comparison to the current system, in 2009 about 8.7 per cent of commencing students on income support received a Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarship. Indigenous students will continue to receive scholarships under the Commonwealth Scholarships scheme in the future.

The bill makes a provision for an historic increase to university indexation, ending more than a decade of real and brutalising cuts under the previous government. Revised indexation arrangements from 2012 for programs funded under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 will promote improved quality by ensuring that funding for teaching, learning and research keeps pace with increasing costs. This will contribute towards the overall financial stability and viability of the higher education sector and will provide greater certainty for individual institutions when planning for future development.

The bill will amend the act to increase the maximum annual student contribution amounts for students studying education and nursing units from the current national priority rate to the band 1 rate, providing extra revenue for higher education providers that will be available to improve resourcing of education and nursing courses. The HECS-HELP guidelines made under the act will be amended to extend this benefit to graduates of initial teaching and nursing degrees who go on to work as teachers and nurses. Extending the benefit will not only encourage new students into the field; it will also encourage graduates to enter and stay in these professions.

The bill will amend the act so that from 1 January 2010 students who receive an OS-HELP loan will no longer incur a 20 per cent loan fee. The removal of the loan fee will assist universities in encouraging students to undertake part of the studies for their Austra-lian qualifications at an overseas institution. This will improve the productivity benefits to Australia of students undertaking overseas study.

A central feature of the reform agenda will be an increased focus on quality. This will be especially important in a period of growth, when institutions will attract students who have not traditionally considered going to university. The bill reflects the new arrangements for quality and standards which will be initiated during 2009 and 2010, with work commencing on establishing a new standards based quality assurance framework. Funding under the act for the Australian Universities Quality Agency will be replaced with new arrangements to support the development and establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency by 2010.

Universities will be accountable for the quality of their learning and teaching and their efforts to improve outcomes for students from equity groups. At-risk funding tied to their performance in these areas will be introduced. Each university will be required to enter into an agreement with the Australian government to meet individual performance targets for teaching and learning as well as the attainment and participation of those students who are currently underrepresented in higher education. The targets will be based on robust performance indicators that will be developed in close consultation with the sector over the coming year.

In 2011 those universities that have agreed targets will receive a facilitation payment representing a share of more than $90 million. This funding will help them to position themselves to meet their targets. In 2012 up to $135 million will be distributed to the universities that have met their targets. The new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency will provide an independent assessment of whether universities have met these targets.

It may take some time for the higher education sector to adjust to the reforms arising from the Bradley review. A new structural adjustment fund has been established to support transformation in the sector and will be available to universities to enable them to develop diverse missions. This funding will promote long-term sustainability in the sector by assisting individual universities to make strategic decisions about their future missions and ways to enhance their place in the new higher education environment. The new fund will also lay the groundwork for the provision of more sustainable higher education in regional areas ahead of decisions being taken about funding models for regional delivery.

Universities play a pivotal role in the national research and innovation system through the generation and dissemination of new knowledge and through the education, training and development of world-class researchers. Amendments to the act will assist universities to address the current gap in funding for the indirect costs of research. The Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities initiative aims to raise the average support for the indirect cost of university research to 50c per dollar of direct competitive grant funding by 2014. The measure will also provide greater accountability for public investment in university research.

Through the joint research engagement measures, the bill will encourage universities to diversify their sources of research income and increase collaboration with industry and other end users. The postgraduate research students support measure will ensure Australia’s research students are adequately supported in order to improve Australia’s capacity to attract the best research students needed to sustain our research workforce into the future. The bill’s reform agenda will be underpinned by the increase to HESA indexation to better reflect actual increases in costs associated with research and research training.

The bill will enable Australia to achieve a university research sector that produces world-class research, that is responsive to end-user needs and that attracts the best and brightest minds to develop the skills that underpin Australia’s innovative capacity. Measures in the bill are complemented by additional investments of $2.1 billion from the Education Investment Fund for education and research infrastructure and $1.1 billion for the Super Science Initiative. Taken together, these comprehensive reforms will invigorate the higher education sector, fund a new era of student participation and promote new benchmarks of educational excellence.

The tertiary education revolution will change and enlarge Australia’s economic potential. The investments and reforms will drive improvements in productivity and create a smarter and more competitive economic future for Australia. For these reasons I urge all members to support the bill and commend it to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.