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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7084

Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (10:26): It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. It is a bill that deals with some of the recommendations from the review done by Professor Denise Bradley in 2008 into the higher education system. The main purpose is to remove the restrictions on the number of undergraduate Commonwealth supported places that Australian universities are able to offer. From 2012, universities will be able to determine the number of students that they choose to admit to undergraduate courses with the exception of medical courses.

In addition, the bill seeks to abolish the student learning entitlement. That is a measure that the coalition will oppose. We will move an amendment to change that system from seven to eight years. We have had a consistent view on this matter for some time now that we should not be encouraging people to spend their life at university on the taxpayer. Those restrictions were put in place by the former government and we do not see a compelling case to remove those rest­rictions.

This bill also requires universities to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth government and requires universities to institute policies which prom­ote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. We will be moving an amendment relating to extending this provision to students as well as acad­emics because, from time to time, we have had some concerns about the way in which students are treated if they have a differing view about the way they go about their work. Unfortunately, in some of our universities, no matter how much a student has addressed the criteria, if the thesis of their argument—particularly when it comes to more theoretical discussions—is different from that of the lecturer or tutor, sometimes the marks are substantially different.

My wife had that experience, surprisingly, at university. She was at Flinders University studying an international relations degree with an American politics bent. She wrote a paper, which of course was more from the conservative style of politics, and it did not pass, although when it was reconsidered it somehow got a distinction. So there was obviously a clear difference of view by the original marker. In fact, he commented at the time, 'I could not possibly pass this assignment because the view in it I find repugnant.' That did not really get to addressing the issue of whether the essay actually touched on the criteria for marking. It was simply that the political bent in the response did not meet the person marking the criteria. We will attempt to extend that academic freedom to students as well. That is important at our universities because an important element of what students should learn and be encouraged to do at university is to argue their case with strongly based evidence from their perspective. People should be respected for their ability to do so. That is something that we are attempting to change through this bill.

This is an important area where we should have a genuine discussion in this place about the future of our university sector. It is—and I agree with those on the other side who have made this comment as well—vital for Australia's productivity capacity for our fut­ure economic performance that we get the university sector right and, in fact, that we get all three levels of the structure of the education system right. In the first stage of that, early learning, which we are going through at the moment, we need to ensure children are getting the best access at that early level to get the solid base right before secondary education, where they are taught the fundamentals, and then in tertiary education we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of our market to ensure that we are training people in the areas that we should be and that we are training them so that they are achieving and are encour­aged to achieve as much as they possibly can.

One of the things that strikes me is that one of our challenges in Australia is to continue to encourage our entrepreneurial culture and to encourage that desire to want to do very well—not just to go to university to achieve a degree for the purposes of having a degree mounted on your wall but to go to university to have the next step in your career so that you are contributing in a way that increases our productivity, increases our economic participation and increases the size of our 'economic pie'—to quote a former Treasurer and Prime Minister—for the future. We have increased competition in our region and worldwide. We are in a society that is flatter than it has ever been before. People can compete more than ever before and have access to information more than they have ever had before.

One of the policy areas that we need to look at in this place moving forward is creating provisions which encourage people to do their best. One thing that strikes me about the system in the United States is that it encourages people to achieve very high levels. It is not just a matter of ticking a box about how many people are achieving a degree. Professor Bradley's work has a goal of 40 per cent of people achieving a bachelor's degree, and that is a worthy goal, but in the US supertalented people not only go to university to achieve an academic qualification but are encouraged to look at their ideas, take them to market and create their own opportunities. The more we can encourage people to create their own opport­unities and create their own future and not just rely on the old idea of 'achieve your degree and move into the workforce' but rather start their own businesses and look for their own spot in the market to employ people to continue to encourage our great entrepreneurial culture the better our country will be, the better out economic welfare will be and the more we will be able to achieve.

This bill makes some changes that the opposition support. It was undoubtedly a comprehensive review by Professor Bradley, someone who is certainly worthy of consideration in this respect. We take seriously the recommendations that she has moved and that the government are now trying to enact. But we say that we should continue to look for ways to improve our higher education system into the future so people are able to gain opportunities with what they have and are encouraged to achieve to the highest of their ability in the future. That is an important element of having an accessible education system but also an education system that, with achieve­ment in mind, is based on encouraging the best out of our young people and not just ticking boxes. Something that we need to consistently look at in this place is how we make our education system more dynamic, encouraging people to engage with tertiary education not just when leaving school but, as they go through their career, to use the old phrase, to continue to engage in lifelong learning so that they are always looking at new ways to do things, always looking to engage in a different way and always looking at arguments from different perspectives so that they are achieving as much as they possibly can.

There is no doubt that we have to compete. We have to have a more dynamic and flexible tertiary education sector. We should be looking at the ways that young people are able to engage with it using the accessibility of the internet, particularly when it comes to regional areas. When I was growing up in Mildura, which is a long way from a capital city, it always had that tyranny-of-distance problem that many people in regional areas such as in the electorate of my friend in front of me, the member for Grey, consistently face. Now more than ever younger people in those regions are able to continue to live in those regions and still engage in tertiary education because of the accessibility of the internet.

Mr Craig Thomson interjecting

Mr BRIGGS: And you do not need the member for Dobell to spend $35 billion to do it either. You can do it a lot cheaper than some on the other side would like to do it and give people access to higher education for the future and also to ensure that our regional areas are strong.

One of the great challenges of regional areas has always been the loss of talent when young people go off to university and inevitably stay in the city. Not many return. One of the opportunities as we move into the future is that young people leaving school can stay and work in the regions and also achieve higher education qualifications at the same time, increasing the capacity of our regional areas to achieve what we want them to achieve and to grow how we want them to grow. This is an important bill that is worthy of support. As I said, we think there are some improvements that should be made. I support in principle Professor Bradley's recom­mendation, which is contained in this bill, that we have a goal of 40 per cent of young people having bachelor's degrees. I put a caveat on that: it should not just be about ticking that box; rather, we should be aiming to get the most out of our young people by having the best system we can have to encourage people to study in whichever field and however they are able to do it so that they can go on and create their own opportunities, which of course creates economic opportunities and increases social wellbeing in our country into the future.

With those remarks, I indicate that I support the bill's intent. I hope the government sees the wisdom in encouraging freedom of speech—I know there are members on the other side who wish that they could be more open and more able to speak freely on a range of issues. This bill would be a good way for them to start to encourage that greater freedom of speech approach. I understand that some of the newer members opposite who entered this place after the last couple of elections have a desire for that freedom of speech, that freedom of expression. I hope they are able to use this bill to make that indication known.