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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2227

Ms O’NEILL (3:54 PM) —I am pleased to be able to speak today on this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. What is the purpose of this bill? It is very clearly an indication of this government’s commitment to education, particularly to higher education, which is in such need of renewal. There are three key points that this bill seeks to address: to increase funding to eligible providers for the Commonwealth Grant Scheme in 2010 and 2011, to increase funding to eligible providers for other grants for the years 2010 to 2013 and appropriate funding for these grants for 2014, and to increase the maximum payments for Commonwealth scholarships for the years 2010 to 2013 and appropriate funding for these scholarships for 2014.

Not that long ago—in fact, just before the federal election—I had a life as a university lecturer. The purpose of this legislation certainly meets with the demands in our local economy and our wider community and certainly with the needs of universities to be able to fund more places for students and to do it in a well-organised manner. Now I get to give a lecture to the Manager of Opposition Business, who has actually just left the chamber—he must have got wind of the comment that I am about to make—about his selective talk in this debate about the government’s higher education agenda. I must admit it is quite a challenge for any teacher to give a good lecture, but I am certainly up for the challenge here this afternoon.

Let’s start with the basics of this bill, which amends the Higher Education Support Act to implement these 2010-11 budget measures. The bill provides for an increase in funding for the over-enrolment of Commonwealth supported places that occurred in 2009 and 2010 under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and for the increases that will flow on into 2011 under that scheme. This is a parameter update to reflect new estimates of student demand for the government’s student centred funding system. Members may recall that we in the government introduced the student centred funding system in response to the review of higher education by Professor Denise Bradley. And what a relief it is to have students at the centre of the decision making in higher education. All too often processes and organisations dominate the discourse. We need to have students at the centre, and that is one of the critical dimensions of this bill that I am so positive about. The over-enrolment of Commonwealth supported places is allowed for under the cap on funding for places above agreed targets. The cap on over-enrolment was raised from five to 10 per cent in funding terms for 2010 and 2011, as part of the introduction of student centred funding from 2012.

I hope the opposition cannot put up the usual roadblocks to this non-controversial piece of legislation, which enables more learning for more people and correct funding for our universities. Already today in the House, from the member for Wentworth, we have seen the kind of obstructionist spoiling behaviour that is now the hallmark of the coalition under the current Leader of the Opposition. I am afraid to say that behaviour will probably be on display again later this week, when the coalition will try to block funding for Australian university students and the vital student support services they need. These blatant political delaying tactics are being employed by the coalition for no purpose other than to delay the implementation of good things for young Australian people in the context of the tertiary education sector. They plan to gum things up, to block and delay. This is not in the national interest. Labor, in contrast, is working to restore critical services including child care, counselling, health, and sport and fitness services to university campuses across Australia. The Liberal Party is determined to block and delay this vital reform.

The government introduced the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 in the first sitting week in a bid to provide a balanced, practical approach to funding campus services and amenities. It was introduced by the government as a priority in a bid to see it passed by Christmas so that the benefits would flow to students studying in 2011. Universities and students are united in their support for this measure, but the Liberal Party is determined to play a negative, blocking role. As a result of the previous coalition government’s decision to abolish student services and amenities fees, close to $170 million was ripped out of university funding. This had a dramatic impact, particularly on regional universities and regional and rural students. I can confirm from my own personal experience as a lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle’s Central Coast campus that this was certainly the case.

Our student body would grow and thrive if it had strong campus support services. It is critically important in regions such as my own to acknowledge the fact that many of our students are the first in their family to attempt tertiary study. When you are in such a position there are a number of practical challenges that you have to meet. Firstly, which university are you going to go to? That can be the first question. How am I going to find access? Am I eligible for access? Am I a person who can undertake this challenge? Am I a person who can lift outside of my own experience and undertake tertiary study? These are challenges that students face, and when they arrive they need support. They need to connect into a new community.

We have students on the Central Coast—and it is a similar situation in many regional areas—who come from all over the coast, and they meet with new people of a range of ages. Sport, for example, is a great way in which people can meet others in a teamwork situation, bringing the skills they already have in order to develop social networks. Such things underpin the success of all learners. We do not perform well in circumstances where we feel very vulnerable, and certainly when we are disconnected. Learning is a risk event—every day going to the edge of what you know and taking up the challenges of knowing more, understanding more and thinking more deeply. And at the end of the day that is the journey of a student—to be able to do new things. Students need to be supported in their university environment so that the money that is invested for our country’s future by the government is really invested well. Students are more likely to be successful if they have that sort of social support in their new learning environment.

There are other issues that are critical for new students in these areas and for which the funding has disappeared—such as students who need particular study skills. They should not be provided with a ‘sheep-dip opportunity’ where they get one token lecture on how to undertake their studies. There are students who hit the sixth week of a 13-week semester who have sincere practical difficulties in this area. They may have no skill base to balance their university work with their employment commitments and, perhaps, their family commitments. Trying to balance those things can be a very important management issue, and intervention with a student counsellor who has experience in these matters is vital for students to be able to manage that transition and to continue successfully in their journey to the end of the semester. Given the loss of $170 million over the last several years, we dare not count the cost of the numbers of students who have fallen out of universities through losing faith in themselves. They have lost hope of participation in tertiary education because they have not been able to feel like they belong to a university—and belonging is a vital part of learning.

The stories that I have just shared with you from my own experience are certainly borne out in last week’s survey by the National Union of Students on students’ perceptions of higher education quality. This poll, engaging more than 6,855 students from every public university in the country, was conducted earlier this year. It found—unsurprisingly to me, at least—that regional students and those at satellite sites attached to major university campuses faced difficulties and costs in accessing books from the main campus. And that is not the only cost that they incur; there is a whole dislocation that can happen in those sorts of contexts.

The organisation’s survey also revealed that nearly half of all respondents thought their university was not doing enough to bridge the cultural divide between domestic and international students. We are global citizens. We live in a globalised economy. The opportunity for conversations and cultural sharing of varieties of knowledge between students from a range of nations is something we should definitely be investing in and enabling. Those students who are unhappy about these things need look no further than to the other side of the chamber to point the finger of blame. I know firsthand how much importance students place on the quality of their educational experience. Issues such as the quality of teaching get much attention, but the real focus here, and that is why this particular piece of legislation is so good, is the focus on the student’s experience—in this case, the learning experience—and students’ capacity to access services on campus is vitally important for them to create an environment that enables them to learn.

Labor has a longstanding commitment to ensuring the quality of all education, but particularly at this time higher education. We have a 10-year reform agenda that places a clear focus on quality and this is supported in real terms by record investment. The new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is one element of these critical reforms. From 2012, universities that improve student satisfaction with teaching and learning and that increase the proportion of low socioeconomic status students will be rewarded. In my experience, students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds have been marginalised for too long from participation, from a sense of high endeavour and from access to all of the professions. The NUS survey reminds us that all students from regional campuses are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing services that students in urban centres take for granted. The Gillard government wants to help redress that balance by restoring important student services.

The bill proposes two budget measures to cease funding for the Graduate Skills Assessment—the GSA program—from 30 June 2010. This will generate savings of $2.4 million over four years. According to information in the 2010-11 budget, these funds will be redirected to support other government priorities, and the My University website will incorporate the program. The GSA was a voluntary test introduced in 2000 and was designed to assess the generic skills of university graduates both at the point of entry to, and exit from, university but, not surprisingly, there has been a diminishing student interest in the GSA—which is something that they see generally as an administration event that does not enhance the quality of their experience.

The other budget measure which the bill proposes to implement is a 20 per cent reduction in funding of $18.4 million over three years from 2011-12 for the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. The ALTC receives approximately $27 million annually to support a range of programs designed to enhance and support the quality of teaching in Australian universities. This measure is a consequence of the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The ALTC will receive funding from the TEQSA.

Another key initiative will be the additional funding under new mission based compacts. Australian universities will have up to $550 million in additional funding under new mission based compacts. The introduction of compacts and new arrangements for performance funding are part of the government’s commitment to investing in the future of higher education and ensuring Australia’s higher education system better meets Australia’s future needs. Universities will be eligible for $94.2 million in annual facilitation funding from 2011 and $136.6 million each year in reward funding from 2012. Over the three calendar years of the compacts, this amounts to $550 million.

Targets will be set in three key areas. I think that these are really important targets that note and guide us to the change in focus. The target areas are: participation and social inclusion, including the enrolment of more students of low socioeconomic status; the quality of student experience; and the quality of learning outcomes. The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, has said that the framework includes some interim indicators and plans to develop improved measures of performance over time. The government will negotiate with the universities in 2011 to develop this further. I commend the bill to the House.