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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7087

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (Dobell) (10:38): The member for Mayo's contribution does remind me that the contribution of the previous government to higher education was to tie funding to the compulsory introduction of Work Choices in universities. I will be saying something about that later. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the member for Mayo not only quoting but endorsing the words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating. I actually did not think I would ever hear the day that the member for Mayo would come in here and quote Paul Keating in glowing terms and say that what he said about higher education was actually right. So it is a red-letter day today: the member for Mayo is out there supporting Paul Keating and the Labor legacy in higher education and education generally. I will come back to that legacy later on as well, because I think the member for Mayo has made a very good, telling point, which I will emphasise a bit more later in my contribution. I do thank him for bringing to the attention of the House the very wise words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating and the contribution that he made to both productivity and higher education. Congratulations to the member for Mayo: that was a fine contribution.

The Australian government is fully committed to transforming Australia's higher education system through implementing a demand driven system for funding higher education providers for undergraduate places. This results from the 2008 Bradley review that this government instituted to look at what we needed to do to fix up higher education, to make sure that Australia is leading the way in higher education rather than falling back as we saw happen in the previous 11 years.

I was listening earlier to the contribution of my colleague the member for Robertson from the Central Coast, who was talking about how Australia had fallen back over the 11 years between 1996 and 2007. She referred to some of the countries that had overtaken us, one of which was Finland. The member for Mayo was saying that making sure we have the right number of people with degrees is not just about ticking boxes. He is absolutely correct in that analysis. It is interesting to note that Finland has the highest growth in productivity in the world, and has for some years. Their investment in education, from childhood education right through to tertiary education, is clearly linked to those productivity outcomes. What we saw in the decade of neglect under the previous government was Australia going backward and countries that invested in higher education, like Finland, moving forward, being highly productive and changing their economies. Again, the member for Mayo was right to bring that point to the attention of the House as being a very important point. Really, the member for Mayo should have come across to this side of the House to deliver his speech because so much of what he was saying is what we on this side of the House have been saying for so long. Unfortunately, very few of those on the other side have been making that point, but he did a great job of that.

The Higher Education Support Amend­ment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill gives effect to the implementation of a demand driven funding system for undergraduate student places at public universities from 2012. It will do so by removing the current cap on funding for undergraduate Commonwealth supported places. This is an exceptionally important reform because it means that demand is going to determine issues of access to higher education and the number of places and the types of courses offered. This will have a particularly strong effect on regional univ­ersities. As the member for Robertson pointed out earlier, we on the Central Coast are lucky enough to have the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle. If there were any university campus in Australia that epitomised the model Prof­essor Bradley was looking at it would be this campus in my electorate. The university also integrates a community college and a TAFE, and they are doing a terrific job in providing services and making sure that the people of the Central Coast have access to a university. The reforms in this piece of legislation will enable the university to better target the courses that are run and the places that are available, providing greater opportunities for the people in my electorate.

This is particularly important in elect­orates like mine, when we are talking about having a target of 40 per cent of young people having bachelor degrees. In my electorate that figure is just under 10 per cent. There have been historic problems in my region concerning access to higher education and this government is about trying to address those problems. The reference that the member for Mayo had to the previous Labor government is again a good one, because the university campus in my electorate would not be there but for the Hawke-Keating government and the tremendous work and advocacy of my predecessor, Michael Lee, the former member for Dobell, who was able to successfully get that campus instituted on the Central Coast. That is the sort of thing that Labor does. We know how important education is because of the opportunities it creates. It gives people the chance, no matter what background they have, to maximise their potential. The former member for Dobell, Michael Lee, is owed a great debt of gratitude from the people of the Central Coast for fighting very hard to get that campus up and running. It is a pity that not long after that campus was built we had to endure the 11 barren years of the Howard government in the area of higher education.

My area particularly needs these reforms because it will continue to open up these opportunities for young people. What we have found in the past is that, with limited places at the university on the Central Coast, many students have had to go to Sydney. That is a four-hour round trip commuting, which many young people find difficult, and often they drop out of university. There is then the flow-on effect of their lack of qualifications and their suitability for jobs. That is an issue that goes on to affect the economy.

As a country, we need to make sure that we are creating the workforce to match the jobs of the 21st century. For Australia to remain and continue to be competitive, we must upskill our workforce to make sure it has the opportunities in education not just for its own self-betterment but for that of the economy. With unemployment at less than five per cent and tipped to go down, issues of workforce and the availability of work very much mean that we need a smarter and better educated workforce.

One of the things that employers often speak to me about on the Central Coast, where we have unemployment a couple of percentage points higher than the national and state averages, is that we have jobs here but often have to fill them with people from Sydney because we do not have people locally who have the qualifications. It is universities like the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle that will be able, if this bill goes through, to offer more places locally to get our local workforce to the stage where it is able to fill the jobs that are there.

It is important that we look at what the previous government did not do for higher education. What they did not do was make investments in higher education. What they did do—their single biggest reform of higher education—was to tie funding for every higher education worker in the country to the offering of AWAs under Work Choices. This was pushing their ideological bent to new levels not seen in the wider employment area. In universities and higher education generally across Australia, a university's funding would be held back and it would not get its funding unless it could demonstrate that every employee had been offered an AWA. This philosophical bent, this particular issue that they have with the labour market, is one that we know will not go away. We have seen Barry O'Farrell leap back into this space. We know that the member for Mayo and many of those on the other side still strongly hold the view that that was the right thing to do. That was their single biggest contribution to higher education. Meanwhile, Australia has slipped further and further behind other countries in terms of its investments and the number of people with degrees. We also continue to have issues around capacity constraints that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia continually warned the previous government about. But their contribution was: 'Let's impose Work Choices on every higher education worker. That is our answer. That is our contribution to higher education.'

It really typifies the approach that the other side took to education generally. They were not about rebuilding schools; they were not about getting higher quality teachers in schools. They were about putting flagpoles in schools. It does not matter at what level you look, the contribution of the previous government to education was about cheap gimmicks and pushing an ideology on workforces that did not accept it. It is something they really should be condemned for.

This is an important bill because it frees up and responds to the demand for places in universities. It is particularly important for regional universities, like the one in my electorate. The bill is very important if we are to ensure that Australia's workforce is better placed to respond to the changes in the economy and the changes in the world that are taking place and to continue to make Australia very competitive. This is part of a Labor agenda that, as the member for Mayo was able to plot for us, goes back over previous Labor governments. We had an 11-year hiatus in contributions to education at all levels. Thankfully, this government is getting this country and our higher education system back on track with real investment and real reforms to the way in which universities are run. I commend this bill to the House.