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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7103

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (11:49): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. I was very interested in listening to the contribution made by the member for Chisholm. We would disagree, of course, most vehemently on voluntary student unionism. As somebody who was forced to pay that upfront fee, I think it does deny access to a lot of students who otherwise cannot afford that fee.

Ms Burke: Oh, 200 bucks; dream on!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms S Bird ): The member for Chisholm is being extremely disorderly!

Ms O'DWYER: However, the bill before us today is the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill, and I will refer to it. Australia is fortunate to enjoy one of the finest education systems in our region and one that is recognised throughout the world. Our universities are the envy of many other countries, many of which send their students to Australia to study. It has been to date a critical export and central to the success of our economy.

As we know, education is one of the critical keys to improving our society and underpinning our economy. Our universities are not only schools of knowledge and skills but places of enlightenment. They provide students with the knowledge they need to gain employment. They provide places of research at the coalface of scientific discovery. They encourage innovative think­ing. Importantly, they also give students a global perspective of the world in which we live and teach life skills as well as job skills.

As a country, the improvement of our higher education system should be one of our top five priorities, because if we truly want to become a knowledge nation, if we want to attract the best and brightest to Australia, if we want to keep the best and brightest in Australia, if we want to develop the innovators of tomorrow and lead the world in groundbreaking research, we need to unshackle our higher education sector. We can do this in a number of ways. One is by enhancing teaching and research and finding the locus between these two areas. We can do it also by encouraging a greater sense of openness and tolerance of people's views in the university sector and by ensuring that students are not put at a disadvantage academically when they express their own views on an issue. But, more significantly, we can do it by allowing universities greater autonomy over their destiny, both in funding and in the allocation of their resources, by stripping away the regulation that suffocates the higher education sector and leads to perverse incentives and perverse outcomes. While this bill moves us in the right direction by touching on these first two issues, the third is left unaddressed. What is more, it concerns us that it has taken the government this long to propose these small changes. It is an indictment of this government's ongoing mismanagement of education policy in this country.

In the time available I want to touch on three key elements of the bill. The bill seeks, firstly, to abolish the student learning entitlement which places limits on the number of years a student can study full time while in a Commonwealth supported place. The limit is generally seven years and accrues over a period of the student's study at university. The limit has been put in place to prevent students from undertaking contin­uous study at taxpayer expense. When a student qualifies for Commonwealth assistance, there is an expectation that they will endeavour to complete their studies in a reasonable time and that they will not undertake additional study that is superfluous to their professional requirements when it is taxpayers who are footing the bill.

We need to ensure that we provide stud­ents with the best possible higher education for those who are committed to learning and who have the dedication and drive to complete further study. As a society, it is important for us to ensure that these are the people that we continue to support. The famous American educationalist John Dewey once said: 'Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.' For many people the pursuit of education is indeed a lifelong goal. There are people who are interested in gaining knowledge for the sake of learning. Indeed, we all told by our teachers at school that we learn something every day, even if we are not consciously studying. This is a good principle.

However, the Howard government brought in the student learning entitlement measure because, as much as we support the principle of lifelong learning, we do not support the concept of 'professional students' who undertake continuing study at taxpayer expense with no intention of paying off their FEE-HELP or HECS debt. These are the people who, unless limits are placed on their ability to remain at university indefinitely, use additional study purely as a means to avoid the transition to work. This is only one way that we can create a sustainable educ­ation system where society is happy to assist those who have a desire for further learning but at the same time where the student recognises his or her obligations to return that investment. While their pursuit of education may seem noble to professional students, people in the workforce who are providing them with the benefits of our education system do not necessarily view it in the same light.

While Dewey was right in saying that education is life itself, we are wise to ensure that subsidised university education does not become a way of life. There must be a mechanism in place to ensure that the obligations of those who enjoy education are eventually acted upon. That is what we tried to do previously in government. We on this side of the House are not convinced that the proposal of the government is a prudent step. We propose to retain the student learning entitlement in our amendment and extend it by one year to accommodate those students who are completing longer professional degrees. But we are committed to ensuring that funding is given to those students who intend to use their education.

The second aspect I raise on this bill is the step towards demand driven education. This legislation does take a step in the right direction towards demand driven education, which is what Australia needs if we are to have a flexible system that responds in the short term as well as the long-term trends. As we know, we need an education system that is able to adapt to changes in the demand for student places and for changes in what society deems to be the most valuable skills. A top-down approach cannot facilitate this relationship, which is a complex one and relies upon the interplay between the demand for knowledge and skills in industry, the available educational resources that universities have at their disposal, the interests of individual students, the desire for universities to conduct research as well as teach, and the state of the overall economy. These variables make planning for education very difficult, and so moves towards a demand driven model are a positive development.

However, much like the Bradley report and the government's subsequent response, this is a very conservative step towards demand driven places. The report recommends a move away from restricted supply, with available places capped under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The Bradley report suggested that some 220,000 additional students could be given a Commonwealth supported place through a removal of these restrictions and an increase in funding. But, in the end, the Bradley report did not recommend a functioning price mechanism, which meant that the idea of a demand driven education system was essentially a false one but a step towards what could potentially be real reform. The report suggested that Australia should achieve a graduate output of 40 per cent of students holding a bachelor degree in the 25- to 34-year-age group by 2020. It also proposed student entitlements, which the review believed should be limitless. The coalition agrees in principle with the target proposed by the review.

This bill proposes to allow universities to determine the number of students that they choose to admit to undergraduate courses, with a few exceptions such as people studying medical courses. Removing government regulation with respect to places is certainly the right way forward. Where a university can expand their student intake on a sustainable basis above the allocation limits imposed by the Commonwealth, they should be given the opportunity to do so. It is important to bear in mind that this is yet another issue that the government has delayed action on. The idea to implement a demand driven education system was proposed 2½ years ago in the Bradley report. Since then the government has not taken any serious action until today.

The third issue I touch is the compacts with the Commonwealth. The concept of the compacts between the Commonwealth and the universities is potentially a valuable idea. These are agreements where universities receive Commonwealth support for integ­rated teaching and research plans. If implem­ented correctly, compacts could improve the learning experience of students while also enhancing the research side of university operations.

Often there is a tension between teaching versus research. In many cases there is a trade-off between the two, with resources dedicated to one area detracting from out­comes in the other. Compacts could help reconcile the two areas and provide greater diversity to the sector. These plans would then be linked to the university's Common­wealth Grants Scheme funding agreement. However, the coalition does have concerns that compacts, if poorly implemented—and the record of the government is certainly not great on that front—have the potential to impose new regulatory burdens on tertiary institutions. Worse, they may be used by an interventionist government to micromanage the teaching and research curricula of universities and to pervert the desired outcome of a fully integrated research and teaching program. This is the basis of the coalition's amendment. We want to ensure that the government is not in a position to add further regulatory impositions on our universities.

As I mentioned earlier, we are moving to a demand based system because it is better placed to deal with the requirements of students, universities and industries. A more flexible system is the objective of the legislation. A poorly administered compact system could undermine this objective by making it harder for universities to create their own learning environments that are adaptive to the needs of both teaching and research. The coalition is aware that these two areas need not be mutually exclusive. There is and should be a great deal of overlap between the two. By incorporating the latest research into their teaching, universities can stay at the forefront of intellectual developments as they occur. But this is not what is likely to happen should this government continue to be in control of our higher education institutions. Rather than align the objectives of universities with those of the government, the government is more likely to manage the practices of the universities in exchange for the funds. This will not create more innovation in research or teaching but will simply make life harder for our universities.

Another area I would like to touch on is academic freedom. As I said at the start, our universities are more than just conduits for skills and knowledge. They are places where students can exchange ideas, intellectual as well as moral, without fear of reproach or discrimination. This bill introduces a legislative requirement for universities to promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. What it fails to do, however, is describe exactly what policies universities might be required to put in place to ensure academic freedom is protected. Just as with their demand driven proposal, the devil is in the detail and particularly in the implementation. While we all support academic freedom at university—as, indeed, we support it everywhere—the lack of detail with regard to how the government intends to promote it means that this aspect of the bill is little more than rhetoric.

To ensure clarity in the legislation, the coalition proposes an amendment that makes explicit that the legislation applies to students as well academics. Students have the right to have their work assessed based on application and not on the political notions of the assessor. There are numerous accounts of academic bias affecting students who have reached a conclusion that does not accord with the opinions of their tutor or lecturer, despite the student having treated the topic in a perfectly adequate way from an academic perspective. Requiring universities to have a policy in place to deal with instances of academic bias will create an environment that is more intellectually rigorous, more interesting and, importantly, fairer for both teachers and students. When students are free to explore their own philosophical underpinnings without fear that their views will offend the sensibilities of their teachers then we will make our universities more vibrant and enlightened places.

The government has put forward this bill and, as I said earlier in my speech, we support some of the principles of it. We have moved a number of amendments, as I have explained. But, in conclusion, it is worth noting that the government's record in higher education is certainly not a particularly strong one. One of the first things they did when they came into government was stop Australian students from accessing full-fee-paying places. These can be accessed by overseas students but Australian students here in this country can no longer have the benefit of accessing those places.

Another thing that the previous Howard government did was put in place the Higher Education Endowment Fund—a $6 billion fund to fund the ongoing infrastructure needs of our university sector. This fund, which has morphed into the Education Investment Fund under this government, has been raided. No longer is this fund being used in perpetuity to fund the infrastructure needs of our higher education sector. It has been raided, just as the government has raided other funds that had been put in place for the long-term good of our country. The university sector will be all the poorer for it. The government does not have a great record in the higher educ­ation sector. We encourage the government to accept our amendments to the bill to improve it and we hope that they take them on board.