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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7096

Mr SCHULTZ (Hume) (11:21): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011 and in support of statements made by my coalition colleagues. Our university system plays an important role in fostering the expansion of our younger—and some older—minds. An ancillary benefit to the expansion of human knowledge, research and inquiry that our tertiary sector provides is that our universities and their facilities are equipping our people with the necessary skills to participate and excel in our multibillion dollar economy.

The nature and increasing competitiveness of the globalised economy means that Australia cannot merely compete but must excel at all levels and in all sectors. A mostly glowing report on Australia recently publish­ed in the Economist highlighted our tertiary education sector as one of the areas that was letting us down:

However, the most useful policy to pursue would be education, especially tertiary education. Australia's universities, like its wine, are decent and dependable, but seldom excellent. Yet educated workers are essential for an economy competitive in services as well as minerals.

I totally disagree—our wines are first class! However, it is hard to ignore this objective critique by the Economist of our higher education system, especially when it is backed up by authorities such as Professor Simon Marginson, from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. In reference to the critique in the Economist, Professor Marginson states:

It's absolutely spot on …

Australia spends less in public funding on universities than almost every other country in the OECD. Australia spends 0.7% of GDP and the OECD average is 1.1% of GDP …

There's been no increase in Australian Research Council funding for about 10 years. There was a major report in 2001 which led to a doubling of research funding over the next four years but there has been nothing since then.

…   …   …

The University of Toronto is in the top 20 in the world. ANU is number 56 and the University of Melbourne is 62 and they are the best two we have. Sydney is in the top 100.

It really is just about investment. That's what the article is saying—the government has to get serious about those things. Universities are a long term thing.

Australia as a whole should be doing as Dr Glenn Withers AO, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, stated:

A wave of investment can lift all. We can then ensure a new national balance by better combining the luck of natural bounty with the even greater skills and smarts of our people.

The Bradley review of Australian higher education handed down its final report in December 2008 and it is this document which forms the foundation for national debate on higher education as well as framing the policies advanced in this bill. The bill before us aspires to remove the restriction on the number of undergraduate Commonwealth supported places that Australian universities are able to offer, abolish the student learning entitlement, require universities to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth government and require universities to institute policies which promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research.

The Bradley review in its final report outlined a broad vision for the restructure of the higher education sector. Amongst the recommendations was the aspirational goal of 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 holding at least a bachelor's degree by 2025. The coalition supports this aspiration in principle. Investment in our tertiary education sector through research grants, capital funding for new buildings and expanding the number of tertiary institutions is vital if we are to expand the educational horizons of Aust­ralians. If the Australian government is to meet the aspirational goal of having 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 holding a bachelor's degree by 2025, the Commonwealth government will have to accommodate an additional 220,000 students every year. The bill before us attempts to accomplish this by moving away from restricted supply to a demand driven funding system. This will be achieved by removing the capping system of Commonwealth supported places instituted by the Howard government under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 from 1 January 2012.

As I outlined earlier, the coalition agrees with this aspiration. But the question is: how and where do the government intend to place the extra 220,000 students that they are hoping to encourage into taking up a bachelor's degree? The removal of rest­rictions on placements is great in theory but, as with most policies of this government, it is ill thought out. The expansion of tertiary places will require a corresponding invest­ment from this cash-strapped government to actually build the infrastructure to support these places. When we have a government stripping regional Australia of over 800 Medicare access points, including in the shires of Cootamundra, Weddin and Yass in the electorate of Hume, in order to save a measly $9 million, you just know that they are not able to stump up the money for university infrastructure to back up the expansion of placements.

The move to a demand driven system away from restricted supply must fall within a broader strategy of investment in our university sector. In regional Australia, and in particular in my electorate of Hume, we have seen this government stripping away financial support for university students as well as denying opportunities to invest in university infrastructure. Although providing greater access is an objective we can all agree on in principle, this government has already betrayed this aspiration by scrapping eligibility criteria under the independent youth allowance scheme, which has greatly affected inner regional students and families in the Hume electorate. Regrettably I was absent due to illness earlier this year when hundreds of signatures on the coalition's petition to reinstate the eligibility criteria for inner regional students were tabled in the House on my behalf by the member for Forrest.

Whilst the government is claiming under this bill to expand the number of opport­unities for Australians to obtain a bachelor's degree by moving to a demand driven system, it is at the same time stripping regional students of the financial support they require so that they can survive whilst trying to obtain their degrees. These policies are self-defeating. The new demand driven funding system is estimated to cost $3.97 billion over the 2010 to 2015 period. Reinstating the criteria for inner regional students to obtain independent youth allowance would be only $90 million per annum.

A lack of access to financial support under independent youth allowance is only one of the hurdles this government is shoving in front of regional students; access to physical tertiary institutions in regional Australia is another. The Goulburn-Mulwarree Council, in conjunction with the Goulburn Chamber of Commerce, have been seeking funding under the Regional Development Australia Fund for the construction of a University of Canberra campus in the city of Goulburn. The merits of this proposal are worthy of consideration and I congratulate them on their persistent efforts, as well as the Goulburn Post, which has been following the funding merry-go-round.

Under this grant the government requires a fifty-fifty funding commitment from the local community, which effectively falls to local council authorities, such as those of Goulburn, to find the money for. How does the federal government expect local government authorities to continue to absorb the cost burdens of raising capital for projects such as these, costing up to $25 million? It is another hurdle that some of the local government representatives here in Canberra would agree is often insurm­ountable. Constructing tertiary institutions in regional centres has been a boon for local economies. Bathurst, Armidale and Wagga Wagga are examples of the benefits of that to regional students and the economies of regional centres.

The demand driven system will require a corresponding investment in tertiary fac­ilities. It is simple mathematics: if you expand the number of students, you will then be required to build the universities to host them. Cities such as Goulburn, with its proximity to inner regional Australia, as well as to Canberra and south-western Sydney, should be carefully considered for invest­ment by the Commonwealth to become the home of a university campus.

Despite this bill moving the sector to a demand driven scheme, it fails to remove a cap on numbers in one crucial faculty: medicine. This bill fails to remove the restriction on the number of places for medical students. I am aware that the placements for medical students are depend­ent upon the state government's availability to provide clinical placements for them. In rural centres in the Hume electorate we are facing a critical shortage of doctors. The township of Grenfell, with a population of nearly 3,700 people, has been left in the absolutely unjustifiable position of having neither a doctor nor a visiting medical officer for the hospital for nearly six months. The situation is being exacerbated by the shortage of doctors willing to come to reg­ional Australia and the visa requirements for overseas doctors. However, we should not have to be reliant on overseas doctors. Governments at all levels should be assisting our future regional doctors by investing in tertiary education in regional Australia and, where available, should uncap the number of placements in regional areas where the need for doctors is dire.

One final point I would like to raise with respect to this bill is in relation to the requirements under this legislation to have institutional policies in place to promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. Interestingly, the bill does not prescribe what is to be included in these policies. That is why the coalition has attempted to amend this bill to ensure that the new policy to protect free intellectual inquiry applies to both students and academics.

The university sector has long been the bastion of social engineers on the left of the political spectrum. For decades, students have had well-founded fears that academics are more often inclined to allocate grades not on the basis of quality work and the pursuit of open and free inquiry but rather on a student's capacity to illustrate their adherence to the left-leaning political agendas of their lecturers.

The coalition's amendment to require that both students and teachers are subject to university policies on academic freedom provides protection for students who are fearful of expressing their God-given right to freedom of thought and philosophical inqu­iry. The coalition's attempt to extend the protection of students' rights to freely explore their philosophical underpinnings safe from fear of persecution does more than help students get fairer grades; it strengthens the foundation for why we have tertiary institutions in the first place.

Universities are there for all Australians to deepen their understanding of the world we live in. That is achieved through invest­igation, observation, testing, theo­rising, arguing and debating ideas about who, what, where, when and why. Academic freedom is essential to this process and that is why it must be protected at all costs.