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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2230

Mr FRYDENBERG (4:08 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010, as presented by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The bill raises the funding cap on Commonwealth funding provided to Australian universities and assists universities during the transition to increased numbers of student centred places.

Under the 2009-10 budget, the government provided approximately $491 million over the forward estimates to fund 80,000 Commonwealth supported places and a transition for universities to incorporate over-enrolment. On an assessment of potential over-enrolments, under the government’s program, it is now estimated that there will be an additional 115,000 Commonwealth supported places over the period 2010 to 2013.

Those on this side of the chamber support this bill so long as it is closely monitored over the forward estimates, particularly in regard to universities self-funding over-enrolments through a reliance on the foreign student market. The increasing reliance by universities on fees from foreign students must be monitored as the economic reality today is that the high Australian dollar, difficult economic conditions abroad and a competitive international student market mean that the large number of foreign students that have been coming to our shores in recent years is not guaranteed to continue. I have seen this firsthand in my electorate of Kooyong at Swinburne University.

The coalition strongly supports an open and flexible higher education system. This bill is consistent with a student demand driven system as proposed by the Bradley review. Let us not forget that it was the Howard government that made the first moves towards a student demand driven system. In the last year of the Howard government a record 185,898 Australians were offered a university place. The $1.9 billion Realising Our Potential package introduced significant new funds into key areas and saw a dramatic increase in the level of Commonwealth scholarships that were designed to ensure that Australia’s best and brightest had every opportunity to reach their potential. In the same way, the Howard government increased the repayment threshold applying to student repayments on Commonwealth supported places, formerly known as HECS-HELP loans, to just short of $40,000, making a world’s best practice student contribution scheme even more accessible.

While the bill before the House proposes to increase funding for Commonwealth scholarships, funding for these scholarships has decreased since 2009, when the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Act redirected Commonwealth scholarships funding to support student income reform measures. It is high time that funding for Commonwealth scholarships be returned to previous levels. Between 1995 and 2006 there was a 23 per cent increase in the number of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds attending university. In this period we also saw a 15 per cent increase in students from rural areas, a 137 per cent rise in students with a disability and a 30 per cent growth in Indigenous students at our universities. In addition the Howard government also made a significant investment of more than $6 billion in the Higher Education Endowment Fund—a visionary plan to support the building of new university infrastructure. It is an indictment of those opposite that this initiative has not received the requisite political support.

Our universities are a critical component of Australia’s education system, integral as they are to our civil society and to our future prosperity. The coalition supports this bill, contributing as it does to the health of our tertiary sector.