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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9364

Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (12:35): I am proud to speak in support of the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, which effectively will implement the most significant and historic reform of our higher education system in several generations. This is a very comprehensive suite of reforms, necessarily so. Australia's higher education system, while still strong, has begun to fall behind the rest of the world. I take this opportunity to commend the Minister for Education for his leadership and courage in putting together such a significant package designed to stem the decline and to provide the sector with the flexibility it needs to once again lead the world.

This is not the piecemeal approach that has been such a feature of higher education policy in recent years. The fact is, tinkering around the edges has left the sector teetering on the brink, which is why I implore those opposite and the Senate crossbenchers to resist the urge to cherry-pick these reforms. I will talk more about that later.

I would like to start by dispelling a few myths. These reforms are not about cutting funding to the sector: in fact, higher education and research funding will actually grow by over $950 million over the next four years. These reforms do not make higher education less accessible: in fact, these reforms mean more students will have access to higher education loans, with no repayments until they earn a decent wage. And we are actually removing unfair loan fees that used to apply to some students. Most importantly, these reforms will create the greatest scholarship scheme our country has ever seen, allowing more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access a university education. So this package really is all about increasing equity and fairness.

These reforms are not about restricting numbers of students in supported Commonwealth places. In fact, it is estimated that over 80,000 more students will be supported by 2018.

There is nothing elitist about these reforms, and I take this opportunity to reject out of hand the glib political line that student protesters and, sadly, some members opposite, have used—that this is in some way about university for only the rich. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a terrible class-warfare tactic that has no basis in reality. I really urge those who persist in this phoney class warfare to stop and listen to what the industry is saying.

The peak representative body, the Group of Eight, which comprises Australia's leading tertiary institutions, has described the reforms as 'logical, coherent, sustainable, equitable and inevitable.' Executive Director of the Group of Eight Mike Gallagher also said:

Unless there is reform we will continue to drift, we will fall behind the emerging universities of Asia and we will fall out of touch with the vital global centres of knowledge.

Professor John Dewar, Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University said, prior to the budget:

… the reality is that something has to give if universities are to serve the national interest effectively … A deregulation of fee setting is an obvious next step …

Just last week, Professor Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, said:

The status quo is not feasible as it will over time erode the quality of our education and research activities—not a good position to be in when our nearest Asian competitors are investing so heavily in these areas.

And Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson has said that failure of the package to pass in the Senate would condemn the university system to inevitable decline.

Editor of The Australian Paul Kelly has said:

In terms of long-run structural reform, this is arguably the single most important budget measure.

And I note that, this morning, the man Labor themselves asked to design their own education reforms, David Gonski, has come out in favour of university deregulation. He has said he believes it will strengthen the sector and make our universities even greater. What is more, he has called on Labor to stop playing politics.

As the Group of Eight's Executive Director Mike Gallagher said of Labor:

It is outrageous that they have washed their hands of responsibility for the mess they created.

As Paul Kelly said:

The nation now faces an extraordinary prospect—the political system, having created an untenable policy structure for universities, threatens to sit on its hands and deny any solution by invoking scares about $100,000 degrees and ideological rejection of fee deregulation.

It is a crazy situation, and I really do implore those in the Labor Party and those in the Palmer United Party and those independents who hold the balance of power in the Senate, to stop, look behind the class-warfare rhetoric, and see why this package of reforms is so vital for higher education.

Education is currently our third-largest export industry, worth around $15 billion a year. But it is a sorry example of the decline in the sector that, in 2009-10, it was worth around $19 billion. Yes: under Labor's watch, our education exports shrank. We want to build them back up so that we can grow an important export industry. But, most of all, we want to build our education sector back up so that our best and brightest Australian students have access to a world-class education, and so that we have the skilled workforce our nation needs to drive our economic and social success in the future.

That is where the coalition is coming from. That is our motivation: what is in the national interest. And these reforms are undeniably in the national interest.

While much of the debate has centred on deregulation of fees—and certainly that has been central to Labor's big scare—there is so much more in this package, including: expanding the demand-driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees; extending Commonwealth funding to all Australian higher education students in non-university higher education institutions studying bachelor courses, costing $449.9 million over three years; strengthening the Higher Education Loan Program that sees the taxpayer support all students' tuition fees up-front and ensures that students only repay their loans once they are earning a decent income—over $50,000 per annum, at present—though we have been careful to ensure that no-one needs to pay a cent up-front; removing all FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loan fees which are currently imposed on some students undertaking higher education and vocational education and training; and securing Australia's place at the forefront of research, with $150 million in 2015-16 for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, $139.5 million to deliver 100 new four-year research positions per year under the Future Fellowships scheme, $26 million to accelerate research in dementia, $42 million to support new research in tropical disease, and $24 million to support the Antarctic Gateway Partnership.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most exciting aspects of this bill is the opportunities for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds that will open up through the new Commonwealth Scholarships. This will be the greatest scholarship scheme in Australia's history, providing support and incentives for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It will provide opportunities and assistance to those who need it most. Surely that is something to be supported and applauded.

I want to address this idea of a 'free education', which is something we hear bandied about quite a bit—especially by the professional protestors who like to burn effigies in the streets and vandalise private property. Every Australian supports the idea of our children and grandchildren having the opportunity to succeed and access a place at university. Unequivocally, our best and brightest, no matter where they come from, should always be able to access a university education. But education has never been 'free'. I think former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating summed it up best when he said: 'There is no such thing as "free" education. Somebody has to pay. In systems with no charges those somebodies are all taxpayers. This is a pretty important point: a "free" higher education system is one paid for by the taxes of all, the majority of whom haven't had the privilege of a university education. Ask yourself if you think that is fair.'

The education minister has pointed out—but I think it is worth repeating—that Australian university graduates on average earn up to 75 per cent more than those who do not go on to higher education after secondary school. Over their lifetime, graduates on average earn around a million dollars more than if they had not gone to university. University graduates are less likely to be unemployed than those people without degrees, and studies show that university graduates also live longer and enjoy better health. So I put it to the House: is it really unreasonable to expect those who benefit the most to contribute a little more to the cost of their own education?

Under this reform package, we expect higher education graduates will be required to contribute around 50 per cent on average to the cost of their higher education. Currently, students contribute only around 40 per cent, on average, while the taxpayer pays 60 per cent.

With places uncapped, in order for the system to be sustainable in the future it is important that the cost-sharing is more balanced and reasonable. And part of the reason that is so important is that Labor left our country with a huge debt and deficit problem. We have to be responsible with every cent of taxpayers' money because we need to get the budget back under control so that our grandkids are not left with the burden of paying back the debt that Labor racked up in less than six years. To put it in context: we currently pay over $12 billion each year on interest payments alone, just on the debt Labor racked up in those six short years. That is about $3 billion more than the government spends on higher education each year. In fact, Labor's interest bill—just the interest—is about the total of higher education funding and student assistance funding combined. So Labor has absolutely no right to stand in this place all indignant and cry for more funding for higher education. Thanks to them, our country has to waste more on interest payments than we spend on higher education. That is a devastating legacy. While our government did not create this mess, we are taking the responsibility to clean it up. And we will not shirk that responsibility.

This bill exemplifies our readiness to take the tough but necessary decisions, the ones that might not be politically popular but are undoubtedly in the national interest. But I stress once again: the government—that is, taxpayers—will still fund around half the cost of every university degree. What is more, we will also help fund a raft of undergraduate degrees and we will also contribute to degrees undertaken at private institutions. Every student will continue to have access to reduced-interest loans that are only repayable when the student begins earning a decent wage.

We believe students undertaking a wider range of courses deserve support from the Australian government. Currently, only students studying bachelor level courses at universities are guaranteed to have their places directly supported by the Australian government. This means there is currently limited support for students who choose to study for higher education qualifications at TAFE, private universities or private higher education institutions, or for students studying higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees.

There are also qualifications that serve as pathways into university, preparing students for university study. Many of these students come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and many are first generation university students. Such pathways have been proven to be very effective in equipping students for university. Often they perform better at university than students with better year-12 results who have not come through pathway programs. Our expectation is that guaranteed support for such pathway qualifications will help to improve the success rate and reduce the drop-out rate for undergraduates.

I also wanted to take a little time in this debate to talk about one of Australia's most successful private universities. Just across the road from my electorate office is Bond University. Bond is a not-for-profit private university which has established a stellar record over the past 25 years for excellence in education. As I mentioned in the appropriation bill debate, Bond University is in fact a shining example of how competition can produce much better outcomes. As a private university that sets its own course fees, Bond has had to provide an excellent product in order to compete with public universities.

The Good Universities Guide2013 gives Bond University the most five-star ratings of any university in Australia for educational experience. Bond received five stars across key performance indicators, including: teaching quality, generic skills, graduate satisfaction, staff-student ratios and staff qualifications. In fact, Bond has the best student-to-staff ratios in the country. Many students are attracted to the accelerated learning, with three semesters a year, which means students can graduate and begin earning sooner.

Bond's success over the past 25 years is a testament to what can be achieved when a university has to be responsive to student, community and industry requirements. And now the Commonwealth will contribute to degrees at Bond—as they do at Southern Cross University, which also has a campus on the Gold Coast.

Students at Bond will benefit from the measure to remove all loan fees for FEE-HELP, meaning equal access to loans for students no matter where they study. This will ensure that students who chose Bond University, or other private providers for that matter, will not be discriminated against in terms of accessing HELP loans.

I have been working with Bond, in consultation with the minister's office, to ensure that their voice is heard in the ongoing consultation process. As with every new system there are changeover issues, and these can impact on the interim study year. Bond has some concerns in this regard, and I will continue to ensure that their concerns are heard and taken into consideration. Similarly, Southern Cross University has some concerns about how the changeover may affect them as a regionally-based university, and I am taking these up with the minister as well.

These are historic reforms, and it is understandable that some in the sector may be apprehensive about how they will work and especially about the transitional arrangements. I know that the minister is extremely mindful of this and he will continue to keep the dialogue open with providers in the lead-up to the January 2016 start date. But it is extremely important that these reforms are passed as soon as possible, so that the industry can plan with certainty. So I implore every member of this place, and especially those in the Senate, to put the outdated class warfare politics to one side and to resist the politically-expedient temptation to cherry-pick these reforms.

As the Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University, Professor Peter Lee, said in recent correspondence to me:

As the debate unfolds in Parliament, there is the potential for unintended policy consequences if a decision about one measure is considered in isolation of other aspects of the package.

A piecemeal approach is the last thing the sector needs.

We cannot afford to extend Commonwealth support to a greater number of degrees without deregulation of the sector. We cannot afford to keep fees regulated if we want the sector to compete and flourish. But, perhaps above all else, we cannot afford to do nothing, which appears to be the policy of Labor, the Greens and even Mr Palmer—if media reports are anything to go by.

But I sincerely hope that good sense will prevail and that all elected representatives will take a close look at what the universities themselves are saying, what needs to be done in the national interest, and how this plan will help make our higher education sector more competitive, more responsive and more accessible to the disadvantaged.

As the Chairwoman of Universities Australia, Professor Sandra Harding said: 'The status quo is not an option'. I commend this bill to the House.