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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7077

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (09:55): The Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011 has come about largely in response to the final report of the expansive Bradley review of Australian higher education, which mapped out a broad vision for the restructure of the higher education sector. The review identified, amongst other things, the need to have a future skilled workforce where 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 will hold at least a bachelor's degree by 2025. In principle, I support this target, as I believe a highly skilled workforce will contribute positively to our nation's economy.

To meet this target, it is important that higher education move away from a restricted intake to a student demand driven system and, in so doing, also allow choice of public or private institution enrolment for students. At present, Commonwealth supp­orted places are capped by the Higher Education Support Act 2003, which prevents the approximately 220,000 additional students required annually to fulfil the Bradley review's recommended target from gaining a Commonwealth funded place.

The move towards demand driven funding for undergraduate student places and removal of the restriction on the number of undergraduate Commonwealth supported places that Australian universities are able to offer is a positive move, even though I note that the number of enrolments for medical student places remains capped. With this cap and restriction removed, public universities will be given the freedom to decide the number of undergraduate student places they will offer and for which degrees they will offer them. Decisions about undergraduate student places will be based on student demand and the needs of employers in a given discipline, rather than on rigid government stipulations.

On the Gold Coast we have four univ­ersity campuses: Southern Cross, Griffith, Central Queensland and Bond. Southern Cross University and Bond University are in my electorate of McPherson. Much has been said previously in this debate in relation to public universities, so I would like to focus on private universities and in particular Bond University. When Bond University opened 21 years ago, it was Australia's first private university and it was modelled on the traditions of the world's most elite educ­ational institutions. Bond has produced about 16,000 graduates since its establishment, and this has been achieved with minimal public funding, as more than 90 per cent of the university's total income is from student fees.

The Bradley review target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds to be degree qualified by 2025 is particularly important for Bond University, as it is centrally located in the Gold Coast region and the Gold Coast is a region with low higher education partic­ipation rates, as illustrated by data from the 2006 census, where only 18 per cent of the Gold Coast population aged 25 to 34 were degree qualified, compared to the national average of 29 per cent. There is an 11 per cent difference in those figures. Our universities on the southern Gold Coast are already taking action to address this issue within the region. Bond University takes part in the state low-SES initiative and it does this by providing academics to tutor in science based subjects and by providing advice on tertiary education. Bond has also signed a memorandum of agreement with the Gold Coast City Council under which the university and the council are working together to address low higher education participation rates and low aspirations of children in the Gold Coast region. This is a very positive initiative for us on the Gold Coast.

Bond University also has in place an annual scholarship program that compares favourably to the G8 universities. Ten per cent of Bond's fee revenue goes towards scholarships and, currently, a range of corporate and other funded scholarships are being developed. Importantly, these schol­arships are merit based and therefore support access and equity to students who might otherwise not be able to afford a place at the university.

As the member for McPherson, I would like to see the Gold Coast economy mature to become a centre for excellence in education and research, to complement the existing industries of tourism and const­ruction. I called for this recently in my speech on the appropriation bill to this parliament. On current projections, the Gold Coast is expected to become Australia's fourth largest city by 2050 and, accordingly, substantial investments in education, and research and development infrastructure will be needed in the region.

Even with the growth in non-government higher education in Australia over the last few years, Australia's higher education system remains overwhelmingly public. This is inconsistent with demand for private education more broadly in Australia and specifically on the Gold Coast. The demand for private education in Australia is evidenced by enrolments in private sec­ondary schools in Australia, which account for 34 per cent of total enrolments, and is growing. On the Gold Coast, many of our independent schools have extensive waiting lists.

With private higher education providers comprising only six per cent of the higher education sector, private institutions such as Bond can and should play a much more significant role in Australia's changing higher education scene. It is also increasingly clear that the government and the taxpayer do not have the resources to fund this expansion and that the obvious way its targets can be met is through encouragement of private providers. Nevertheless, gov­ernment policy remains firmly on providing the public product.

The Bradley review recommended that, to support the expansion of the system, Commonwealth supported places should be uncapped and made available to private providers. Bond University itself says that the difference between the tuition cost and the CSP funding should be the student contribution, which could be funded through FEE-HELP.

Parents who have struggled to put their children through a private school no doubt appreciate the Commonwealth funding which flows in support of private school places. However, support for private places stops at the university level if a student chooses a private university such as Bond. This is an obvious anomaly which should be addressed. The government has thus far refused to consider the provision of CSP places to private providers on the basis that students could pay the gap, or use FEE-HELP, to meet the gap between the CSP amount and the institution's fees. The Commonwealth's position is concerning, as the Bradley review clearly supported a demand driven system. The government, by not allowing students to use their CSP funding at a private higher education provider in this way, denies choice and a true demand driven system.

I know how important a demand funded higher education system is to Australia. I have worked closely on this and other private higher education issues with Adrian McComb, Executive Officer of the Council of Private Higher Education, and with Chris Hogan, Associate Director, Information and Planning, at Bond University. In fact, I found Mr McComb's views on private higher education providers insightful:

Under a student-driven system, how can you discriminate on the basis of where a student chooses to enrol? The nature of the ownership of their institution shouldn't be a factor.

Whilst Bond University is, undoubtedly, very grateful for the Commonwealth's investments to date, including contributions in support of the establishment of its School of Medicine and School of Sustainable Development, a fairer reflection of the public benefits of private education would be appropriate when considering allocating public funding. It would not cost the taxpayer any extra for students to be able to choose to utilise their CSP funding to assist them to enrol at Bond University. In fact, it would save the taxpayer, as Bond has established a wonderful campus with world-class facilities and academics, with very modest financial support from the government over the many years of its existence.

As I noted earlier, since the establishment of Bond University there have been domestic award course completions, at substantially no cost to the taxpayer. Completions in the public sector cost, on average, $100,000 when capital costs are included. On this basis Bond has already made a significant contribution to the public good, the majority of which would otherwise have been funded from the public purse. Private institutions are very grateful for public support and acknowledge how FEE-HELP has also been particularly helpful in facilitating a large number of domestic students, including low SES students, to undertake their degrees at Bond University.

The solution is to now go ahead and implement the public-private vision proposed by Bradley, which would allow students to take their CSP to the university of their choice, whether it be private or public. This would be a truly demand driven and high-quality system that would prepare Australia for the challenges ahead. In a genuine demand driven system, Com­monwealth support should follow the student, irrespective of whether the student is enrolling in a public university or other approved higher education institution. The best outcome for the student and for the taxpayer will come from supporting the choice of the student in what and where they choose to study.

From 2012 we will have in a single national regulator, national accreditation standards and national course standards, providing confidence in the quality of the system. This clears the way for support for the student to follow their choice. I call on the government to allow CSP funding to flow to students, irrespective of whether they choose a public or a private university, and also to allow students at Bond University to top up their CSP funding to the Bond fee by using their own funds or FEE-HELP. There are a further three issues that I would like to comment on briefly today. Firstly, the bill requires universities to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth government. These agreements require universities to show how their research direction contributes to the government's goals for higher education and link their goals to a university's Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding agreement. There are currently in place interim compacts between individual universities and the Com­monwealth government. This bill therefore seeks to formalise the existing arrangements. Compacts have broad support, as they will help diversify the higher education sector and focus universities on their central research direction and goals. However, we do not want to see compacts used to micromanage universities when they should be given relative educational freedom. The government should not be seeking to use compacts to align universities' objectives and goals with those of the Commonwealth.

Secondly, this bill seeks to abolish the Student Learning Entitlement, which was introduced by the Howard government and implemented by the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to limit students' ability to qualify for a Commonwealth supported place to a defined number of years of full-time study. The defined number of years is typically seven years, with some exceptions, and also accrues over the lifetime of the student. The implementation of the Student Learning Entitlement was an extremely sensible move by the Howard government to prevent students from undertaking cont­inuous studies at taxpayers' expense. While we can debate whether there are many or a few 'lifelong students', it is still important that we are prudent with taxpayers' money and ensure these students are not being funded for an education which will not lead to skilled employment and for which they have no intention of paying the money back.

Finally, the bill seeks to promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research and consequently requires universities to have institutional policies in place to achieve this. There is no prescription in this bill, however, on what is to be included in these policies, and there is no explicit mention of the requirement for students to be covered by this freedom. Academic freedom is a key principle in our society. It is often invoked as a shield in defence of unpopular but important scholarly activity. Sometimes it can be unsheathed as a sword to swing. It is a cherished foundation of the nation's universities, but is not necessarily a settled concept. It is the right of scholars and students to search for truth and to learn. Both scholars and students should be free to engage in critical inquiry and public discourse without fear or favour. It is their right to hold and express diverse opinions. Scholarly debate should be robust. Scholars and students are entitled to express their ideas and opinions even when doing so may cause offence. The ability to speak freely applies to the making of statements on political matters, including policies affecting higher education, and even to criticism of a university and its actions. Like scholars, students should not be disadvantaged or subject to less favourable treatment because they exercise their academic freedom.

We should not forget, though, that while academic freedom is a right, it also carries the burden of responsibilities. As scholars and students hold their own views and speak freely, they have the responsibility to exercise this right reasonably and in good faith. Discourse should accord with the principles of academic and research ethics, where these apply. For example, justif­ications should be given for an argument or statement in order for those who wish to respond to have a basis to do so, with potential conflicts of interest stated. I support the principle of academic freedom for both scholars and students. (Time expired)