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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7093


Ms SAFFIN (Page) (10:59): I speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. I do so with some degree of pleasure—it is a big change in the way that students will be able to access higher education and to the way that the system works. I do so for a number of reasons, some of which I will outline in my contribution. This bill does a number of things. It has one primary purpose, but a number of objectives that it will be able to achieve, and it is about also the policy idea that people of all backgrounds can get a fair go, which means an opportunity to have access to university and to have a university education. The bill itself cannot do all of that but it can provide part of the framework for an enabling environment for that oppor­tunity. As the Prime Minister and the minister are wont to say, it is transformative, and it is a number of other things as well. If a person has a desire to go to university and they get that opportunity, that is thrilling. I can remember the thrill of being accepted into university and I am sure there are people in this place who have been to university and remember that feeling of arriving on campus on the first day. For some, it is a natural progression in life because they have grown up knowing that that is what they will do, that they will go to university and it is part of a normal progression of the things that they will do. For others, it is something that they dream of and think will never happen. And some end up there having never dreamt of it or saw it as part of their experience. The government are not only focused on ensuring that people from all backgrounds get that opportunity if they desire it—and not every­body wants it—but also on creating an environment whereby people can see that if they want to. Some people growing up in different backgrounds think it is not something they will ever do, that it is for other people. The law alone cannot change all things, but it can and does provide the opportunity and it can and does over time change and shape thinking. This bill charts the way forward for these things to happen.

As the legislation states:

The main purpose of this Bill is to implement a demand driven system for funding undergraduate places at higher education providers ...

And they are mainly public universities. The legislation refers to table A and table B. I was not too sure what that meant, but I did read it because I thought, 'What is this about?' Table A contains mainly public universities. From 2012, the universities will be able to determine the number of students that they choose to admit to undergraduate courses with the exception of medical courses—and I will say a little more about that later. Except in specific circumstances, the government will no longer regulate this aspect of a university's operations, and the Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for these places will not be limited.

Within the bill there are three schedules and they amend the Commonwealth Grant Scheme provisions and the Higher Education Support Act to abolish the student learning entitlement, SLE. The SLE currently limits a student to the equivalent of approximately seven years full-time study as a Common­wealth supported student. With the removal of the SLE, the amendments to the Higher Education Support Act are required to ensure that people are able to request a refund of their student contribution and reduction in the HELP debts under special circumstances.

It is nice to come into this place and talk about a bill that has widespread support. Across the parliament everyone will have their own view, but generally there is support and it shows that this bill is on the right track in its policy settings and policy direction. I also note that Universities Australia strongly support the bill and that it was one of the key recommendations of the Bradley review, a review that set out policy directions for higher education. In my thinking, I broadly endorsed everything in the Bradley review, though there was not enough in it about regional areas and it could have done more in that area. But the government have done more policy work in that area. Coming from a regional area, I look at any report in this regard to see what is in there. I think we need to do a bit more thinking around that. The student learning entitlement has been around for a long time, but it is something that is unnecessary.

The bill also amends the Higher Education Support Act to promote free intellectual inquiry. Free intellectual inquiry is an important principle and underpins higher education and the development of thinking. And that will become an object of the act. Universities Australia and a range of other groups in the sector, including the union, as I understand it, support this because it is universities and it is higher education. As much as we want universities to provide people with the necessary skills and qualif­ications to participate in the workforce and in the changing workforce around goods, services and skills—and that is necessary—universities should and do maintain intell­ectual endeavour, intellectual inquiry and free-thinking. People come out of univer­sities with degrees that equip them to work broadly or to work specifically as a global citizen. When you come out of university, it is good to have that grounding in free-thinking.

It does not cover medical graduates but there have been developments in that area. This government have provided a lot of additional places for medical graduates. We know that the number of places will rise from around 1,900 to over 3,000, an increase of over 60 per cent. With the previous government there was a cap on those medical places. It was necessary to deal with that and increase the number so that we will have enough doctors, because there is a doctor shortage in Australia. We want to make sure we have that corrected for the future.

I live in Lismore, a university town or city. Having a university in our local area is a good thing. It is a good thing for education and for opportunity, and it is a good thing for the regional economy—it is one of the drivers of the regional economy. If you look at the research and the statistical evidence of what having a university does for regions, it certainly is one of the big employers and it puts a lot of money into the local and regional economy. It also acts as a flagship and as a stimulus for people to think about going to university when they might not otherwise have done so. The traditional experience was that you went off to the city to go to university. Some people still debate that. Some people say it costs more to have universities in regional areas. Yes, it does, but sometimes we have to bear those costs for essential public policy, and that is one of those ongoing issues.

Having Southern Cross University in our area is clearly of great benefit to the whole area. I say it is in Lismore, my home town, but there are also campuses in Coffs Harbour, Tweed Heads and the Gold Coast. It has a very large footprint across the North Coast and Northern Rivers. According to its website, Southern Cross University has a total of 16,322 students, and there is a breakdown of how many are full time and part time and the number of international students onshore and offshore. I am closely connected to our university. I am on the governing council and have the public policy perspective of being in this place, dealing with legislation and all those other issues. I am very interested in that. I have a longstanding association with Southern Cross University, starting with when it was Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education before it became a university, from which I graduated, as well as Macquarie University. So I have a special place for Southern Cross University, and I know that the vice chancellor, Peter Lee, is quite pleased with the changes that this legislation will bring, as are the other vice chancellors as well.

This bill reforms the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, which provides the Australian government's financial contri­bution to a student's place at university. Australian universities will no longer be asked by the government to ration Common­wealth students' supported places among students competing to get a bachelor degree. The government has committed to increase the target for the number of young people receiving a bachelor degree to 40 per cent by 2025. That is important so that we have the necessary skills and qualifications for our economy and for our workforce. I note that people often do not think of education as an export earner, yet it is our third largest export in terms of the money it brings in. When we think about exports we often think about more tangible things, we do not think about the goods and services sector; yet education clearly is one of the big ones and very important to our national economy. This bill locates it within that broader framework.

From 1 January 2012, universities will have greater flexibility to respond to student demand and to employer and industry needs. The Commonwealth Grants Scheme will fund universities not on the basis of the number of places the education minister decides they will be given but the number of places they provide and can provide. The bill will remove the legislative cap on the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. By 2012, the government will have increased higher education expenditure on teaching and learning by 30 per cent in real terms since 2007. I know that is something that the higher education sector welcomes. Expend­iture had been going down. According to the national and OECD figures and the comparisons, we were slipping backwards, so I welcome that percentage—an increase in expenditure by 30 per cent in real terms since 2007. With those comments, I commend this bill to the House.