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Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Page: 1544

Mr PYNE (5:30 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (University College London) Bill 2010, which will enable the university to operate as an education provider in Australia for the first time, to be located in my home town of Adelaide. The amendment in this bill will allow the university to offer an industry focused master’s degree to students in the much-needed area of energy and resources by inserting the university into table C of providers within the Higher Education Support Act.

The coalition welcomes University College London to Australia. We are a party of choice and diversity, and we have long argued that diversity among institutions gives students greater opportunity, encourages innovation and increases competition and excellence. Just as Australia is establishing branches, campuses and collaborations in other countries, foreign countries are also looking to expand their investment and their markets overseas. University College London joins a growing list of foreign universities to establish branches within Australia. Students will be able to enrol in a range of programs to address areas of skills shortages identified by industry and government. Through its partnerships with energy company Santos, the university will offer the exciting opportunity for students to undertake world-class learning.

University College London is a very high-quality research institution and education provider. It ranked third in the UK and seventh globally in the Times Higher Education rankings in 2009, and it has had several Nobel Prize winners. UCL has a distinguished history. Founded in 1826, it was the first institution in the United Kingdom to offer access to students regardless of their religious beliefs and the first to welcome both men and women equally. It is no surprise, then, that in 1888, at the age of 19, Mohandas Gandhi attended UCL to study law and train as a barrister. He was just one in a long list of notable alumni to attend UCL.

It is worth remembering and reminding the House that it was the coalition government who first paved the way for overseas higher education providers to operate in Australia. It was a coalition government that first amended the legislation to enable the table C provision for approved overseas higher education institutions. It arose from a proposal by Carnegie Mellon University to establish an Australian campus in 2004, also in Adelaide. The Carnegie Mellon proposal was to offer postgraduate courses in information technology, public administration and business management in Adelaide, and we faced criticism at the time. Some were concerned that opening up the market to private providers would undercut public universities. My colleagues at that time Alexander Downer, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop pressed on, and in 2005 the act was amended to provide the framework for all approved overseas higher education institutions to operate a branch in Australia. Subsequently Carnegie Mellon was able to open its first offerings in Adelaide in 2006.

Dr Stone interjecting

Mr Farmer interjecting

Mr PYNE —Indeed, I note the keen interest of my colleagues in the coalition in this speech that I am giving to the House today. Both of the members on my side of the House are quite gripped by the speech that I am giving on UCL!

Indeed, without the coalition’s ambitious goal of opening up the market to private higher education providers—enabled through the key policy instrument for reviving diversity, FEE-HELP—I do not believe such initiatives as the one brought before the House today would be possible. While on the subject of FEE-HELP providers, I want to point out to the House yet again that until recently this used to be a varied group with both public and private institutions being able to offer full-fee-paying places for Australian students. The relaxing of caps on both Commonwealth supported places and domestic full-fee-paying places under the coalition government gave universities much more scope than had previously existed to set the mix of courses they offered. We also saw the value in opening up the education market to private providers such as small, locally operated colleges to provide some immediate competition to public universities, and we knew that opening the door for international providers would also contribute to diversity in the sector and drive healthy competition.

Sadly, Labor shackled the public education sector last year by abolishing fee-paying places for Australian students despite promising an ‘education revolution’. It is outrageous that, despite overseas students being entitled to study as full-fee-paying students, Australian students do not enjoy the same privilege. We have argued ever since this decision was taken that the minister’s and the Labor Party’s ideological abolition of full-fee-paying places for domestic students should be reversed. Recommendation 35 of the government’s own Bradley review stated that full-fee-paying places should be reinstated for all university providers, because it seems that, like the Coalition and the sector, everyone except the minister knows that full-fee-paying places actually allow more students to attend university overall. The extra funds from full fees pay for extra places for publicly funded students.

We are already seeing the consequences of this decision, with the recent spike in demand and reports that some universities are unable to accommodate that demand with the government supported places only. It is rank hypocrisy that today the minister welcomes University College London onto Australian shores, knowing that they will be offering Australian students full-fee-paying places while our public universities have had their hands tied.

It is critical that Australia not remain insular within this international environment. Unlike Labor, who talk big, only the coalition truly understands that universities need flexibility over student places. This joins a long list of policy failures in the education portfolio, including the youth allowance fiasco, which the government has finally decided to deal with this week after leaving students hanging since last year. The mismanagement of these legislative changes has been breathtakingly bad. First, the minister abolished Commonwealth scholarships despite the warnings of the coalition that, without having an alternative in place, students might be left with nothing. Second, the minister has made no effort to negotiate with me, as education spokesman, to attempt to address the coalition’s concerns. Third, the minister has come into this place and berated the coalition, claiming it is all our fault and refusing to accept any responsibility when the truth is that this is entirely a mess of her own making.

The coalition does not control the legislative agenda. We did not make the decision to abolish Commonwealth scholarships without having what everyone knew would be a contentious piece of legislation in place. We have offered to consider splitting the scholarships to ensure students have funds to start this year—an offer the government continue to ignore. The coalition is standing up for our constituents, who are truly concerned about these changes; and, while some of the neediest students have had to put their university ambitions on hold, the government refuses to budge. In fact, the member for Farrer, who is in the chamber, would know exactly the response of her constituents to the government’s changes to youth allowance and their failure to split the scholarships from the youth allowance.

I challenge the minister to answer this question: where is a rural student meant to find the 30 hours a week of work for 18 months to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance under Labor’s changes? I am sure the minister has flown over a few country towns. Where is the work for these young people? The coalition is committed to the development of a robust, high-quality higher education sector that is internationally competitive. We believe this underpins Australia’s cultural, social and economic development.

As we know, higher education is becoming increasingly competitive in a global context. Australian universities, to remain competitive globally, need to be exposed to different forms of educational methods if they are to remain internationally relevant and not get left behind. The entry of foreign universities such as Carnegie Mellon University, Cranfield University and the University College London will support Australian universities in comparing their methods and specialties with other institutions that are well regarded internationally. It is worth mentioning here that for a university to establish itself here in Australia it needs to meet the same accreditation, quality and accountability requirements that exist for our own higher education providers. It is important to note that Australian universities are not deprived of any funding by doing this. The introduction of not only this university but also, hopefully, more foreign universities in the future will increase diversity and choice within the Australian higher education sector.

Some still ask us why we support the introduction of foreign universities into Australia. It is because it will make Australia more competitive and increase our standing in the global higher education marketplace. We hope Australia continues to be seen as open and receptive to different educational pathways, including the establishment of branch campuses of foreign universities. It will elevate the international standing and attractiveness of our country as a preferred choice education destination and it will attract students from around the world who are seeking a high-quality education experience in a safe and unique environment through either an Australian provider, of which we have many, or an internationally recognised university. With those words I commend the bill to the House.