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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7081

Ms O'NEILL (Robertson) (10:11): I rise today to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011 and to oppose the opposition's amendments. This bill is an important development in the government's deter­mination to ensure our economic future is sound. It is also a reflection of Labor's deep understanding—yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, our very deep understanding—of how critical a high-quality education really is. At all levels the Gillard government is governing to ensure that we are able to reach our national potential. The way that we will achieve this in the tertiary sector is through the kind of key structural reform that this bill will deliver.

That brings me to the main purpose of this bill, which is to implement a demand driven system for funding undergraduate places in a wide range of higher education institutions. That means removing the current controls on undergraduate places in all disciplines, except for medicine, and abolishing the Student Learning Entitlement. This was one of the measures announced as part of our comprehensive reform package transforming Australia's higher education system, cont­ained in the 2009-10 budget. The way that the system worked up until Labor's landmark reforms was that the government would provide funding to eligible higher education providers for an agreed number of Comm­onwealth support places in a given year. In other words, each university was capped in regard to the number of places it could provide. So, even if there were students knocking on the door, ready, willing and able to start a course, that university could not meet the desire for education. As an educator, there is nothing worse than turning away someone who is ready to learn. It is the worst possible response to the expression of a thirst for engagement—a thirst for the risk-taking that is part of learning, a thirst for the challenge that taking up education at a tertiary level presents. This turning away of students is of great concern not only for the individuals, whose vision for improvement and skill development is thwarted, as others have noted in this debate; it is a great loss of the capacity of Australia to advance in the interests of our nation.

As others have noted in this debate, the context for this legislation is the review of Australian higher education chaired by Professor Denise Bradley. Professor Bradley could not have been any clearer. Australia is falling behind other countries in performance and investment in higher education—'Australia is losing ground', she said. We are at a great competitive disadvantage unless immediate action is taken. But further, Professor Bradley outlines what I believe is our moral imperative. The report's words again:

… we must [also] look to members of groups currently under ­represented in the system, that is, those disadvantaged by the circumstances of their birth: Indigenous people, people with low socioeconomic status and those from regional and remote areas.

To me, there is a social justice imperative for this reform as well as a productivity imperative because, make no mistake, failure to have the flexibility and the capacity to respond to changing community demands in this sector has a negative impact on our overall productive capacity. Higher skill and education levels are highly associated with better life and financial outcomes for individuals and for the society that benefits from those individuals' efforts.

When you represent, as I do, a regional community, the current limitations on flexibility are absolutely amplified. Many potential students from regional Australia have been more disadvantaged than their counterparts in metropolitan areas simply because of their geographical location. Often there is a physical or financial incapacity to shop around for a place at another university that might allow them in if the one that is near to home does not provide the place that they seek.

This bill offers universities in cities and regions a critical capacity to be more flexible and responsive to the fluctuations in demand for particular courses and fluctuations in the needs in their particular regions. Sadly, I had one poor student who was a couple of marks short of getting into a teaching place out in the western suburbs of Sydney. She was lucky enough to get a teaching place at the University of Newcastle, where I was teaching, and I was delighted to have her in my class as a student. She made a fine contribution, and I am sure that at this stage she is out making a fine contribution in the teaching profession. However, she did have to leave her family to undertake her first year of study. She had to finance that. There were many, many impediments put in her way. There was a social impact and a financial impact. She did successfully complete year 1, and on the basis of that she was then able to secure a place at her home university. There are students, however, who might not have had the personal drive, the agency, to be able to navigate that path to education. This bill will achieve a much cleaner and much more responsive capacity for univ­ersities to avoid that sort of stupid situation, which was very damaging in its impact on that young woman.

We want innovation in Australia; we do not want a system in education that challenges students' innovative capacity just to get round the system. This legislation offers the system the opportunity to serve the people. I believe it is a much better arrangement. On the Central Coast we are blessed in many ways—we have great people and a beautiful environment—but we are not blessed with abundant resources. There is no mining boom in our region. The people of my region want to lift themselves up, but there is no opportunity to access education that prepares us for this 21st century if we do not provide it within the context of where we live.

Once upon a time, a sixth grade, then a fourth form and then a year 12 graduation certification was satisfactory. But for this 21st century we really need to massively increase the number of tertiary graduates. We all know that higher education is a great enabler, and it is a powerful way to help people overcome disadvantage. This govern­ment is determined to give all Australians the opportunity for a great education, no matter where they live. In higher education we have set ourselves a target that will see at least 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds gain a qualification at bachelor level by 2025. That reality check demands that we must attend to the realities that press on us.

The government reveal in this legislation our commitment to Australians, our invest­ment decisions and our determined reform efforts in the education of Australians as a critical investment in people and in our shared future. This legislation reveals our practical and real action to ensure that, on our watch, investment in Australia's talent, our young people who will carry us into the future, will make sure that they receive the opportunities they deserve. This legislation reveals the educational leadership that we are offering—the educational leadership neces­sary to ensure that those who are in high schools today can enter tertiary education settings across this nation and acquire the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that will ensure their employability in a world economy.

But that is not all they will achieve through participation in learning in a tertiary setting. The experience of learning in a tertiary setting not only assures that we develop a highly qualified and competent workforce; indeed, in an age of technology, when knowledge is so easily accessed through the internet and other virtual sources, it is more important than ever that the acquisition of knowledge in a tertiary setting gives our students a social context in which they come to understand how that knowledge might be useful.

In my view, a tertiary learning experience provides our democracy with a populace that is critically aware—people who are able to critique themselves and other sources of authority. Well-educated communities such as those are innovative and adaptive. Inn­ovation and adaptability are core capacities necessary in our fast-moving global econ­omy. We need students who complete their studies and who are able to weigh up new information and ideas, new knowledges and new perspectives. We need students who complete their studies and who are able to draw on a body of sufficient knowledge to add to our productive capacity. But first of all we have to allow them access to the universities.

A quality tertiary education creates that most essential of assets for our rapidly changing time: a citizenry of lifelong learn­ers who will become leaders of our professions, our businesses, our services, our community and our nation and leaders in our increasingly connected world. To achieve a degree of security for our future, to ensure that we have this skilled citizenry necessary to take our place amongst the leaders of the 21st century, we must deliberately move towards a much larger engagement in, and more completions of, tertiary education.

Our goal is clear: to ensure that the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with bachelor level qualifications reaches 40 per cent by 2025. By international standards this is a conservative goal. There are a number of nations out there which have set their target at 50 per cent. But 40 per cent is, I believe, achievable, and it is essential that we move towards it. To achieve the goal of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor level qualification, something needs to change. Critically, this bill will provide vital change drivers to allow our tertiary institutions to respond to student driven desires to select the courses of learning that most appeal to them. The capacity of students' interests to drive change in the tertiary sector is an important part of the reform that this bill offers. That is the educational case.

There are also compelling economic and productivity reasons why we need to boost the number of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with bachelor level qualifications to 40 per cent by 2025. Nearly 6½ million Australians in the 15-to-64 age group have no postschool qualifications. Back in the Howard years, when the previous Leader of the Opposition held the education portfolio, our university completion rate was 72 per cent, just a touch above the OECD. These are the figures that were cited in the Bradley report. We need to do better than that average so as not to be left behind in a competitive region. It is difficult to talk about the future without reflecting on the past. There is a very telling table in Professor Bradley's final report that I draw to the attention of those opposite. It is table 2 on page 18, titled 'International comparisons of education attainment: percentage of bachelor degree or above'. The table compares the levels of education attainment between 1996 and 2006 and the rankings of various countries relative to others. In 1996, we were seventh in the world when it came to people holding bachelor degrees or above. By 2006, we had slipped to ninth. It is no coincidence that the relative reversal coin­cides with the years of the Howard government. Labor recognises that 28 per cent of students not completing their studies is not good enough. Look across the Tasman to New Zealand whose Prime Minister we were so honoured to hear in the joint sitting earlier this week. New Zealand went past us, so did Sweden and Finland. Congratulations to those countries for lifting their games in the bachelor degree stakes. But no-one should forget —least of all those opposite—that our ranking went backwards under their watch.

As an educator I understand the power of expectation and setting high standards in classrooms. This bill exemplifies the same expectation of high standards. Importantly, Labor is leading on this critical issue, along with so many others in this House, ensuring through this bill that we give Australians who want to be ready for the new global economic realities of our time access to the education that they need to be a participant. More importantly, we are willing to act. I add that we have also set the target of halving the number of Australians aged between 20 and 64 years without qualif­ications at the certificate III level or above. I am delighted and proud to be part of a government that is making this shift to a demand driven higher education system. The effect of the transition to a demand driven system over the last two years, where Labor has lifted the cap on enrolments from five per cent to 10 per cent, has begun to already have a significant impact.

I heard anecdotes the other day from a university about the changes in the nature of what is happening in their first-year courses. We have many more students from low socioeconomic levels engaging. It is delight­ful to hear in that context that they are not only engaging but succeeding, and they are staying. The problem seems to not have been the marks that students needed to get into the university; it was simply the fact that they needed to get the door open to allow them through.

Another thing that will change is the seven-year full-time access limit. This particularly impacts on students who might have a life episode where they have a child or experience mental illness and they might not be able to complete studies within seven years. I know just such a student who is very close to the completion of her degree. She will make a fine social worker. If the seven-year rule applies to her, she might be six years and three months from completing and all of a sudden we have lost somebody with all those skills. She will not be any less well trained. She will not be any less well prepared for the role if it takes her eight years instead of seven. So this is an important change that we have made as well.

This bill continues to build on Labor's great investment. Our record in governing since 2007 has shown that we are absolutely committed to higher education, early childhood education and general education through our schools. This is a transformative investment, an investment that will alter the quality of learning and teaching of this generation and those who follow them. We are investing in the people of our nation who add to our wealth through their engagement and learning, not just in the very important BER projects that are opening across the nation to the delight of local communities. Through this bill, we are going to invest in our people to lead in the economy of the future. I commend the bill to the House.