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Thursday, 23 June 2011
Page: 7118

Mr SIMPKINS (Cowan) (12:48): I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. I am sure I mirror the sentiments of all members of the House when I say that when I visit the schools in my electorate, particularly in those areas of greater socioeconomic challenge, I like to say to the students, and particularly the primary students, that a great future awaits them because they live in this country; that this is a country of opportunity where if you have a big dream and you are prepared to work for it, you can achieve it. God forbid that that should ever change. It is important that we do talk up the dreams of young Australians and remind them that they do have great opportunities. Many of those opportunities will be provided through tertiary education. I say to them that one day—and I seriously mean this—one of them could be Prime Minister of this great country. I believe that, and I hope they believe it as well. One day they could run BHP. As I say in Western Australia, they could be doctors or nurses in Royal Perth Hospital saving lives, or they could be Qantas pilots flying around the world.

These are some of the great dreams that I hope the young people of Australia will have. I hope that they do not just listen to those influences in their lives which are not as ambitious; those influences in their lives which might lead them to believe that their only hope for the future is a life of welfare dependency. It is important that we as community leaders, and this is certainly the way I approach it, talk up the dreams and talk up the ambitions of these young people and remind them of their opportunities. Many of these opportunities will be delivered through university education—there is no doubt about that—but it is not a good idea to try to re-establish the Keating-esque view of the world where if you do not have a degree you are somehow at a lower level.

Mr Stephen Jones: That was never what he said—come on!

Mr SIMPKINS: We will get to the accuracy of statements in a second. It is very good to have South Australians in the chamber, because I want to cover things that the member for Kingston said. She said on two occasions that under the Howard government only the wealthy could study. I was really surprised to hear that. You would have thought that entrance exams in each of the states did not matter, that you had to have money before you could study. I thought there was a system called HECS in this country. I thought if you studied and got the marks, you could get into university, get a loan, HECS, and pay at the end—with the exception of the obligatory, compulsory student union fee. We have talked enough about that barrier, which some like to impose upon tertiary students. The member for Kingston specifically made the blatant false claim that under the Howard government only the wealthy could study. That certainly was never the case. While lines like that might run pretty nicely with the National Tertiary Education Union—who may be preselectors or booth workers, or possibly both—that line is inaccurate.

The coalition have a number of amend­ments which we wish to advance on this bill. As has been said by the government, the ambition of this bill is to uncap the number of students who are able to receive a Commonwealth supported place at univ­ersity. It requires universities to have a policy on free intellectual inquiry, to enter into agreements with the government called 'compacts' that set out the objectives and it removes the limit on the student learning entitlement, the length of time a student may occupy a Commonwealth supported place at university. The coalition have proposed that we would amend the bill to talk about retaining the limit on the time a student can occupy a Commonwealth supported place, extending that limit from seven to eight years, and ensuring universities' policies on free intellectual inquiry apply to students as well as to academics. These are positive proposals which will benefit the intent of the bill.

There has been a great deal of talk in the past about professional, lifelong students. When I was at university, admittedly many aeons ago, students were not asked to provide a copayment for their university degrees. There were up-front costs, of course, but the overall cost of the degree was not put to the student. There were people at the university who had been there for a very long time and that was certainly the case before the Howard government brought in this limit. There were still people who chose to use the system to permanently remain in study mode, to start a number of degrees and not finish them, and basically live a reasonable sort of life in an environment in which they were obviously extremely happy.

It is not the place for people in this country who see a looseness in the system to decide: 'That's something I will exploit. I have no regard for taxpayers' contributions, I will just carry on and enjoy the high life.' And that applies to social security payments as well. If you have the capacity to work, to contribute, that is your duty and you must acknowledge that duty. The government, in seeing that the measures they have put in place have reduced the number of lifelong students, may mistakenly believe they can back away from the good changes of the Howard government and release the system, and then for some reason think there will not be any more lifelong professional students. The government has unwound so many of the Howard government policies which worked—boats et cetera—but the gov­ernment says: 'There's no-one in this category; there are hardly any professional, lifelong students. We'll back off from those measures.' So should this bill pass un­amended, as we found with boats we will start having people who think that the government and society owe them, that there is an opportunity for them to just carry on and not contribute to the country.

That relates back to some of the things I have said to students within my electorate of Cowan. Recently I have said to Warwick Senior High School and to Waddington Primary School, whose students have a very great future, 'You have opportunities in this country, but society does not owe you; society gives you the opportunity and has the systems in place of which you can take advantage'—that is, putting teachers in front of them so that they can develop and learn and seek higher qualifications along the way. It is not that anyone is bound by right to have automatic access to these things; it is still a matter that the person has to work, has to commit to their studies and to a workplace later on, and they have to continue to commit to this country. These are very important matters.

Moving on to deal with academic freedom and the compacts, as I said before, it is important that there is free intellectual inquiry within universities. It is important that that is not just enshrined for the academics but that it also applies to the students. These things are very important. There have been suggestions in the past about certain universities around the country that if a student expresses viewpoints that may politically differ from those of the academic in charge of the course there might be some sort of comeback or negativity sheeted home to the student. So I think it is very important that we keep an eye on these sorts of matters and that we have that oversight over the tertiary sector so that there is governance and methods by which there can be genuine academic freedom for students as well. If a student has a differing political view that is put logically and referenced in detail it certainly should not result in a negative outcome just because it might not necessarily reflect the view of academics.

So, from the coalition perspective, there are aspects of this bill that we appreciate. As I have alluded to, the coalition oppose the abolition of the student learning entitlement and we have an amendment to increase the entitlement for a further year of study. The coalition also believe that an amendment is necessary to ensure that free academic inquiry extends to students as well as staff. The coalition will introduce an amendment also indicating that we oppose compacts being used to micromanage universities but we do support compacts that make university performance transparent and measurable. In general terms, the coalition do not oppose the remainder of the bill.

I reiterate that this is a nation of great opportunity and that it is through the courses and opportunities that are provided in our excellent universities that our young Aust­ralians can take up opportunities. If they have ambitions and take up the opportunities to fly Qantas planes around the world, to be doctors in Royal Perth Hospital or to be Prime Minister for the good cause of serving the people, not because it is a great sounding job, often they will find themselves moving through our universities. But that does not mean it is only through higher education, tertiary education, that the great opport­unities of our nation are achieved. Many people who do not have a tertiary education live very good lives in our cities and have done very well. I believe that many people in this House have succeeded and serve the people of their constituencies well without having had a particular degree. Based upon their experience, other jobs that they have done and other qualifications beyond university, they have been well equipped to serve the interests of their people. So, as I have said, there are aspects of this bill which we support and there are things which should be amended but in any case I do appreciate the opportunity to make those comments on this bill today.