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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7111

Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (12:20): I apologise to my colleagues for adding to the confusion about whether I would be here in time to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. I thank the member for Shortland, who just the other day was telling me that she was quite anxious to speak on such an important bill. Now that I am here, I rise to support the bill.

Reform and investment have been the hallmarks of this Labor government's app­roach to higher education. This bill is another piece, and a very important piece, of our reform framework for the sector. We want to help universities get ready to play their role in preparing our country to meet the economic and social challenges of the 21st century.

When we came to government in 2007, we recognised that we had a lot of work to do to undo the damage done to the university sector during the years of the Howard government. Universities were going backwards under the Howard government, struggling financially from funding cuts and pressured by the incessant micromanagement of the sector when it came to things like academic freedom and workplace relations. When it came to higher education, the Howard government's years were charact­erised by neglect and underfunding. That is not just my analysis or rhetoric. It is clearly evident in international comparisons from the time. By the time Labor came to government in 2007, public investment in universities had declined by seven per cent since 1995. Funding for our Australian universities went backwards by seven per cent. Over the same period of time, from 1995 to 2007, funding for universities within the other OECD countries increased by an average of 48 per cent.

It is clear from those figures that when Labor came to government in 2007 there was a real risk of our country being left behind by our competitors because we were not making the necessary investment in human capital to equip our country with the skills, quali­fications and innovation required by the modern global economy. From our first days in office we recognised the link between education and our nation's economic future. We recognised that spending on education is an economic investment, an investment in human capital essential for creating an innovative, productive workforce that can adapt to a rapidly changing world. We also recognised, however, that as much as the university sector required additional funding it was not enough to simply increase funding without a thorough understanding of exactly what we need our universities to achieve, their current capacity and challenges facing the sector and how we can maximise their potential.

Early in our term of government, there­fore, the then Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, asked Denise Bradley, an exper­ienced educator and university leader, to undertake an inquiry into Australia's higher education sector to help us develop policies to grow and strengthen the sector and broaden access to university education. As the Bradley report says:

The review was established to address the question of whether this critical sector of education is structured, organised and financed to position Australia to compete effectively in the new globalised economy.

The Bradley report concluded:

Analysis of our current performance points to an urgent need for both structural reforms and significant additional investment. In 2020 Australia will not be where we aspire to be—in the top group of OECD countries in terms of participation and performance—unless we act, and act now.

The government has acted and continues on its agenda to transform the scale, potential and quality of higher education in Australia, with measures like the one in this bill. The move to demand driven funding that would be achieved through this bill is tied to the participation targets recommended in the Bradley report and adopted by this government. Participation in higher educ­ation is another area where Australia has slipped behind comparable OECD countries in the last decade or so. In the period when the Howard government was cutting funding to universities, Australia fell from seventh place in 1996 to ninth place in 2006 in terms of the number of graduates in the 25 to 34 year age group.

In a study commissioned as part of the Bradley review, Access Economics predicted that in the coming decade the demand for people with higher education qualifications will exceed the supply of those graduates. The government understands completely the link between a highly skilled and qualified workforce and national productivity and prosperity. We do not want the skills shortages identified in the Access report to hold us back. The fact is that the knowledge based economy of the future will require more Australians to be degree qualified. It is clear that major changes are needed in the way our universities are structured and funded so that access to a university qualification is opened to a significantly higher proportion of our population than is currently the case.

The government has set a target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-old Australians attaining a qualification at bachelor level or above by 2025. This is an ambitious target. As of 2006, the figure for degree holders in the 25 to 34 year age group was 29 per cent. We will only meet that 40 per cent target by opening the doors of higher education to a new generation of Australians, and a fair proportion of those will need to be from groups that have traditionally been under­represented in our universities: rural Australians, Indigenous Australians and people from low socioeconomic back­grounds. We have been putting in place policies to drive that demand for higher education and to encourage people to see university qualifications as part of their career path. But universities have to be part of generating that greater demand and also need to be ready to meet it. That is what the demand driven funding model is all about—opportunities for individual universities, add­ing up to growth, flexibility and diversity across the sector as a whole.

On 1 January 2012 we will see the start of a new era for universities and the way they are funded by the government. Importantly, the government will no longer set the number of undergraduate places that a university can offer. Universities are curr­ently resourced through funding agreements negotiated with the Commonwealth gover­nment which effectively cap the number of places for which public funding will be provided. It was concluded by the Bradley review that 'a demand driven, student entitlement model of funding higher education teaching is essential if Australia is to achieve better attainment of higher education qualifications'. As recommended by the Bradley review, from 2012 univ­ersities will be able to offer as many undergraduate places as they like, giving them greater flexibility to respond to student demand and employer and industry needs. Universities will set their own entry standards and determine which and how many students to enrol. The only exception to this, as we have heard from other speakers, is medicine. The government will continue to allocate Commonwealth funded places for medical degrees.

One of the outcomes we are seeking to achieve through this change to demand driven funding is an increase in the number of people undertaking tertiary study, so it will require a greater investment from the federal government, but we are committed to doing that. Already this year the government will fund more than 480,000 undergraduate places at public universities. With an anticipated four per cent growth next year, this will rise to over half a million places. That is a 20 per cent increase since 2008. To fund this historic expansion of opportunity, the government provided an additional $1.2 billion in this year's budget, bringing the total demand driven funding to $3.97 billion over successive budgets.

As I said at the start, this government is committed to investment and reform in the higher education sector. These reforms represent a massive change for universities, and with that comes opportunities but also challenges as funding shifts between universities in response to student demand. The university in my electorate, CQ University, has taken up that challenge and in the years since the release of the Bradley report has embraced the need for change ahead of the shift to demand driven funding. The university has been rewarded for its dynamic approach, which has seen the introduction of new courses and a much higher level of engagement with local communities and industries. CQ University is currently one of the fastest growing universities in Queensland, with its domestic enrolments up by 10 per cent and its mid-year intake up by 40 per cent. I have been particularly pleased with the university's decision to develop a large number of new courses. Already there have been 20 new courses offered in 2011 including law, medical imaging, sonography, financial planning, engineering management and paramedic training, and planning is under­way for the introduction of further courses in allied health and oral health. This shows that the university is working with the communities where its campuses are located to understand what skills are in demand and then to provide access for local students to the qualifications that will enable them to fill those positions. It is great to know that local people can finally obtain these qualifications without leaving Central Queensland. It makes their education so much more affordable and makes it much more likely that they will remain and pursue their career in the region, which has traditionally struggled to fill many professional positions. It is also worth mentioning that the university is developing facilities and structuring its courses in innovative ways so that students, particularly those in allied health courses, can complete their clinical training on campus by offering treatment to members of the public. This is a great example of the way that the university is engaging with communities and other organisations to identify needs and build our region's capacity to solve our own problems.

The new system will require universities to be strategic and flexible. CQ University has got that message and it is not standing still. That is obvious in its plan to become Queensland's first dual sector university preferably through an amalgamation with the CQ Institute of TAFE. There is enormous support for this initiative and plans are progressing, so I hope the university gets the go ahead from the Queensland government very soon. The dual sector proposal is driven by the same goal that this government has: opening the door to tertiary education to as many people as possible.

CQ University serves a part of regional and rural Australia where there is a low rate of participation in tertiary education. The university has one of the highest rates of any university in Australia of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous students and students who are the first in their family to go to university. CQ University sees the TAFE amalgamation as one way of boosting participation by making university qualifications more accessible, more flexible and more relevant to the people in our region. Because of the low rate of participation in tertiary education in Central Queensland and the current skills shortages across the region, our local university has a great opportunity to tailor its course offerings and expand the number of students it enrols. CQ University really stands to benefit from the demand driven funding model in this bill and the evidence so far shows that it is doing all the right things to make that happen.

I have already mentioned the new courses being developed and offered by CQ University. That has required significant investment in new and upgraded facilities across the university's campuses. In total there is $50 million worth of infrastructure works underway, which is a fantastic invest­ment in the future of the university and which gives substance to its claim to be an essential partner in the development that is taking place in the Central Queensland region.

The university also has a renewed focus on research, building on its current world ranked research in the areas of engineering, nursing and health sciences. There is a major recruitment effort underway to attract senior researchers to the university, and in great news just the other day it was announced that CQ University's collaborative research application with the University of Queens­land, QUT and Western Australia's Curtin University was successful. The application for $5.53 million has been granted in full and it will boost the research capacity and output of the university's Institute for Health and Social Science research. The institute is headed by Professor Brenda Happell, and I congratulate Professor Happell and all those involved in the application on that great result.

There are other elements of this bill that I also support. The bill abolishes the student learning entitlement, which is an unnec­essary barrier to people accessing and completing tertiary qualifications. Previously a person's ability to study at university as a Commonwealth supported student was limited to the equivalent of seven-years full-time study. The Bradley review recom­mended the student learning entitlement be abolished, and the government agrees that it is inconsistent with our aim of encouraging greater numbers of people to pursue higher education and to add to their qualifications throughout their lives and careers.

In closing, this bill marks a major transformation in the funding relationship between the Commonwealth government and universities which will drive the expansion of the sector needed to sustain our prosperity in the knowledge based economy of the future. On that basis, I support the bill very strongly.