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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 153


Mrs SUDMALIS (Gilmore) (20:28): I stand in awe of what is being presented here. I am happy to be corrected, but it is my understanding that $6.6 billion was ripped out of the budget for university education by the Labor Party and that we were in a position where we actually had to put corrections in place. At no stage is this Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 planned to destroy our universities; it is an act to keep our universities viable, to reverse the cuts put in place by Labor and to give the universities a chance to be sustainable. The Australian people are confused. The Labor government ripped money from the university sector with absolutely no avenue to survive financially. This is actually pretty typical of those who sit in opposition at this time. There was a grab for funds to fix the budget, and our universities were an unintended consequence: 'Oh, well, I guess the Liberals will fix that; they always do.'

But even in opposition Labor block policy. Misinformation regarding the potential scholarships for young, talented people to attend university is rife. It is being peddled by Labor and being used as a blocking tactic. The equity of access that they promote is being blocked by their actions and misrepresented. Perhaps the whole bill has not been analysed, or perhaps their reading is a little selective, leaving out the fact that their cuts to university funding were enormous and had to be addressed.

In September of last year I rose to commend the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 to the House. While the House agreed to the bill, the Senate did not, refusing a second reading on 2 December. By voting down this bill, the Senate is putting at risk the jobs of 1,700 technical and support staff and the work of up to 35,000 researchers by the cessation of vital research infrastructure funding.

When this bill is passed, the following are some of the benefits: the Australian Research Council Future Fellowships will be awarded, meaning that future top researchers will not have to head overseas or abandon their research careers, creating a brain drain. There will be sufficient funding support for the full range of research priorities, such as the Antarctic Gateway, tropical health research at James Cook University and dementia and diabetes research. My electorate of Gilmore is one of the most senior by average age across Australia. Research funding is crucial for both diabetes and dementia. There are many other members in this House on both sides who would also welcome this research funding.

If this bill is passed by the Senate, it will help secure Australia's place at the forefront of research, with $150 million being allocated in 2015-16 for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which was mentioned earlier. There is $139.5 million to deliver 100 new four-year research positions per year under the Future Fellowships scheme. Some examples include $26 million to accelerate research in dementia, $42 million to support research in tropical disease and $24 million to support the Antarctic Gateway Partnership. They are good projects. They will benefit our nation.

This bill is a good bill, with many crucial reforms for Australia and reforms to help guarantee the future of our higher education and tertiary sectors nationwide. We have consulted widely with these stakeholders, and there is a lot of support for the reforms. In December last year, the Regional Universities Network urged the Senate to pass this new bill as soon as possible. They said:

It's not in the interest of students or universities to continue to let this issue drag on.

The network also explained that the bill contains key changes that will, in their words, 'benefit regional students'. Finally, the network wholeheartedly believes that, despite the scare campaign of the $100,000 degrees, this will not be a reality.

We as responsible members of parliament should take note of Universities Australia, who just one week ago pleaded with the senators to pass this bill, saying:

Our appeal to Senators as they return to Canberra is not to ignore the opportunity they have to negotiate with the Government in amending and passing a legislative package that will position Australia's universities to compete with the world's best …

Senators, particularly those on the crossbenches: if you support a better-quality, more competitive higher education system with significant opportunities for rural and regional, disadvantaged and low-socioeconomic-background students, you must support this bill.

On this reform package before the House, let me assure all members that I am 100 per cent in support, particularly because I know from personal experience just how much a cheap loan would have meant to me in my youth. Let me assure the House that I speak on this issue with personal experience in the field of education as a pathway to university. For 10 years I was a high school science teacher, and I was an educator tutor at the University of Wollongong, I also taught high school in the United States as an exchange teacher and was a volunteer teacher in India. The experiences in these countries and in the different levels of education inspired me to see the true value of our own unique education system right here in Australia.

Through this reform package, we will ensure that Australians have a higher education system that ensures equality of opportunity and a chance for every child: the potential to attend university, if that is their choice. For decades to come, the scholarship scheme is a remarkable system. This bill introduces many positive and long-overdue reforms, including the expansion of a demand driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, much of which was inaccessible to students in the regions before. It will also extend Commonwealth funding to all Australian students privately studying bachelor courses through other organisations.

Crucially for an area like Gilmore, where youth unemployment is estimated to be over 50 per cent in some of our villages, this bill will allow an opportunity for them to be part of the extra 80,000 students—I repeat: the extra 80,000 students—who could qualify for Commonwealth support. It saddens me that in my electorate of Gilmore only three out of 20 attend university level education. We have one of the lowest participation rates in the country for higher education, so for some of our HSC students this new support scheme is a fabulous opportunity.

However, those of us from rural and regional areas understand that a bachelor's degree is only one option for students. I dare say that the overwhelming majority of jobs in my electorate are not the kind where a bachelor's degree is required, although there is potential for change. Most of our local jobs only require a certificate II, III or IV, and in some cases a diploma or an advanced diploma.

Other major reforms delivered by this bill are the better opportunities for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to get scholarships—and it will be the greatest scholarship scheme we have ever had. If this bill is passed, it will effectively mean free access to education for the brightest students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds Australia wide.

In previous debates on this bill, I explained that, after I completed high school, I was originally accepted to the University of New South Wales in medicine. But at that point, looking at the cost of moving from Woodford in the mountains to the centre of Sydney, as well as the cost of textbooks and other materials, there was no way I could afford such a course, so instead I gratefully accepted a Department of Education scholarship. I gave up the idea of doing some other degree because I simply could not afford it. Can I say that a cheap loan would have been a wonderful opportunity for me.

We are also strengthening the Higher Education Loans Program that sees taxpayer support to all students' tuition fees up-front and ensures that students only repay their loans once they are earning a decent income. No-one needs to pay a cent up-front. We are also removing all fees on FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loans, which are currently imposed on some students undertaking higher education and vocational education and training.

Through wider consultation with external stakeholders and those on the other side and the crossbench, the government has proposed a number of amendments since last introducing the bill. With our amendments, this reform package will see even greater benefits to students. A negotiated outcome is a recognition of the different perspectives that need to be incorporated. Ultimately, if we work together, good governance can be achieved.

As a candidate in the run-up to the September 2013 election, I was not aware of all the unexpected consequences of the Labor decision-making process in the budget overall or university budgets. In fact, I do not think anyone knew what their changes really meant in a budget where the words 'billions of dollars' are tossed around with little regard to the impact. Under Labor, $6.6 billion was removed from the allocations to universities. That is six thousand, six hundred million dollars. That is enormous. How on earth were our universities meant to recover from that cut—no research fellowships, nothing for infrastructure, nothing to help smart, low-socioeconomic students access university education. Seriously, this had the potential to be a huge problem.

Worse still, in April 2013 Labor capped self-education expenses, leaving thousands of nurses, teachers and middle-Australian professionals financially disadvantaged. For a political party that continually extol their support for middle Australia and the importance of research and university education, the actions that they took defy explanation.

Freeing up our higher education system will make it possible for all Australian students to obtain a higher education of world-class quality, rather than see us fall behind in an intensifying global competition for education and jobs.

Labor left a complicated and unwieldy mess, with large increases in regulation, compliance and reporting, unnecessary red tape and regulatory duplication applying to universities. They spent an estimated $280 million a year on compliance. Did you know that part of the costs imposed on universities, that we hope will be removed with this bill, included such ridiculous reporting as: 'Describe the teaching spaces and their use.' For example, the universities had to write a report on their science laboratories stating their use. It was for teaching science. For the lecture theatres—what were they used for? Guess what? Lectures for students. Labor's poor track record, shown in the two independent reviews of regulation and reporting that came out in 2013, was completely ignored. I mean, really! It is such a shame that the general public did not know of such impositions put in place by Labor.

Our international education went somewhat backwards. Export income for our universities fell by billions of dollars from its 2009-2010 peak because of Labor's neglect. The number of international student enrolments fell by 130,000 students. This represents a decline in enrolments of 16 per cent over that period. That is bad for our economy, for all those who work in education and for all those in the support services such as travel and accommodation.

Many Australian families are not aware that education can be seen as an export. The easiest way to explain this is that the degrees earned in Australia are like a product being manufactured here and sold overseas. Money is earned for Australia from an international source. It is the same for international students studying here in Australia.

There are a whole heap of strong Labor people who have publicly said that the desirability of the Opposition should be in generating a compromise, working through this and getting the deregulation through. The Hon. John Dawkins, the Hon. Maxine McKew and Professor Peter Noonan have all said, 'Get your act together and work together.' Former senior Labor minister the Hon. Gareth Evans is a strong advocate of the need for higher education reform, including deregulation. The truth is that the government's reform package, with amendments, is supported by almost all universities and higher education peak bodies.

Without the additional operational funding, the significant intellectual capital for all of our research places, the expertise built up over nine years of some programs, will dissipate and many people will lose their jobs. This bill allows for the ongoing funding through the Australian Research Council of 100 four-year fellowships each year from 2015. Future Fellowships funds promising mid-career researchers to ensure Australia keeps its internationally competitive researchers now and into the future. Without the passage of this bill, there will be insufficient funding and the program will end.

To conclude, I echo my comments from the last time I spoke and when I commended the original bill, by reminding the House of a simple fact: over the working lifetime of the average university graduate, they are likely to earn significantly more than someone without a degree. Right now we collectively have the chance to open the door of opportunity for so many more of our young Australians and to continue to have a worthwhile income for universities. I strongly urge all honourable senators, especially those on the cross bench, to support this bill for the future of our universities and the future of our nation.

Our job as local MPs is to widen opportunity and give everyone a fair go. That includes the chance to go to university, TAFE or other training organisations, and that is exactly what this bill will achieve. I say again: we have the chance to make the most of our national future and to help our students to make the most of theirs. So let us open the door of opportunity and encourage this bill to get through the House.