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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9454


Mr VARVARIS (Barton) (18:27): I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.

This bill is imperative to the future sustainability and success of Australia's higher education institutions. This bill is crucial for our current and future generations of bright minds because it allows key reforms to be made so that we can expand opportunities and encourage individuals to make the best choice possible for their further studies. This government is committed to ensuring that our universities are not trailing behind those around the world, that they are given the resources needed to compete internationally and to provide outstanding education experiences for students so that graduates can be leaders in their fields.

We are in an unprecedented knowledge economy like never before and it is critical that as a First World nation we have the First World education facilities to match those of our competitors. For decades, Australian universities have produced graduates who are innovative and vital to our nation. But in this time, whilst Australia has retained the status quo for excellent achievements, the standards of education and research have also been gaining momentum amongst our competitors. If we are to retain our intellectual capital and our economic standing we cannot afford to be complacent with our education and investment standards. That would be detrimental to our reputation and to the economy. Now is the time to be asking ourselves and our universities: how can we better ourselves to benefit our students and in turn increase Australia's competitive advantage?

This bill seeks to address the crucial elements of much-needed higher education and research reforms that will pave the way to success for graduates and universities alike. Rather than a centralised system, this government believes that universities should be free to decide on the appropriate level of course fees that best reflect the market value in which the fees the students pay are more realistic to their potential future earnings. We must strengthen our higher education system for all students in a way that is sustainable for the taxpayers of Australia and for the universities, and that will allow generations of students to continue to benefit from appropriate levels of funding for their higher education.

The coalition believes that reforms must be systematically achieved in four ways. Firstly, deregulating university fees so that institutions can set their own fees according to student and market demand and extending funding to include degrees, diplomas and associate degrees at public, private universities and non-university higher education providers. Secondly, adjusting the interest rate on student HELP loans from the CPI to a more sustainable rate of a 10-year government bond rate with a maximum rate of six per cent is vital to the sustainability of the taxpayer contribution scheme. Thirdly, improving accessibility of higher education to more Australians, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by setting up a Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. Finally, this bill allows amendments to the Australian Research Council Act 2001, which will provide for additional investment in research through the Future Fellowships program and will secure Australia's place at the forefront of research with funding towards key programs.

These key measures are fundamental to ensuring all students have access to opportunities for higher education, whether they are city or regional students, whether they wish to obtain a bachelor degree or a diploma, whilst universities and other higher education providers are given the chance to effectively position themselves and compete for students. The coalition is a firm believer in the transformative power of higher education and is committed to ongoing investment in the higher education sector. More importantly, higher education is one of the best investments an individual can make and the dividends far exceed the monetary gain of a salary or a wage.

Australia has a proud tradition of high education standards and a certain quota per year is set for university entries based on merit. Both sides of government believe in investing in our best and brightest to ensure brilliant minds are cultivated in our institutions so that will increase our national competitiveness.

However, government funding directly comes from working contributions of Australians, and whilst our higher education institutions have had unfettered taxpayer support in terms of funding, this is not feasible in the long run. The privilege to be able to attend university and divert the cost of the degree are the striking benefits of a system that is focused on students investing in their futures, bound by notions of hope, reward and opportunity.

At the same time, as our population increases and demand for higher education both from domestic and international students escalates, we owe it to both universities and students alike to maintain a system that is resilient to changing demands and shifting trends. In order for future generations to enjoy higher education standards like their predecessors, we must allow for this sector to reform in ways that are suitable and viable. The provisions in this bill are measured and reasonable.

All changes anticipated as part of the reform package will result in more university places offered by 2018—some 80,000 additional students—through expansion of opportunities to degrees, diplomas and associated degrees. There will be increased opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who show potential to truly shine, being given a free education through the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme—the biggest in our nation's history. Furthermore, students can still choose to divert the entire cost of their courses through the Higher Education Loan Program and will only need to repay their loans once they earn over $50,000 per year. Most importantly, these provisions allow universities to focus on the necessary changes they need to remain competitive in the world, whilst offering quality education that is prudent to the needs of students and the labour market. When universities and colleges compete, the students are the ultimate winners.

I would also like to take this opportunity to confirm that the coalition will be investing in higher education through increased funding. The budget papers show that there will be increased and ongoing funding for higher education and higher education research. The coalition will invest $11 billion over four years in university research and this will include funding to attract and retain some of the world's top researchers in Australia. This will help to ensure that our universities remain relevant and competitive amongst the First World economies. In addition, we will be delivering $150 million towards the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which supports and encourages collaboration between the research sector, industry and government within Australia to conduct world-class research. This ensures Australian research will be pertinent and competitive on an international level.

The coalition will also fund 100 new research positions per year under the Future Fellowships scheme at a cost of $139.5 million. The scheme enables four-year fellowships to outstanding mid-career researchers to strengthen our national research capacity. There will also be no less than $42 million injected into the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University to support research and training in tropical diseases such as dengue fever and elephantiasis. The coalition will also be providing $24 million to the Antarctic Gateway Partnership in Tasmania to strengthen their position on Antarctic research. The current budget also delivers $3.3 million to enable the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to continue to preserve important Indigenous cultural items in digital form as a research resource to share domestically and internationally. Australia has always engaged in world-class research, as history indicates, and the coalition government are committed to ensuring that this continues.

As discussed previously, our higher education system both for academic and research purposes must reflect the changing needs of students and market demands. Our knowledge economy means that an estimated 40 per cent of our young population will obtain a degree, thus it is imperative that we examine whether our current system is apt. We cannot sit on the existing higher education status quo to the detriment of innovation. The above structural reforms I have discussed are crucial to changing the way we operate our fourth largest export industry, so that it best serves the needs of students and our nation.

 

Some may deem the changes as radical, but I firmly believe that these changes are measured and absolutely necessary. If no changes are made to the cost of degrees then, in essence, the value of degrees is eroding. Similarly, if funding for university models does not alter, then some degrees may face extinction due to declining funding and demand, whilst others face unconstrained popularity that dilute their real value.

Whilst we have seen a deregulation in student numbers, which translates to more students enrolling in universities, the fee and funding model to serve these students has remain unchanged. This is not sustainable for the higher education institutions and will erode the value of Australia's universities compared to those of our competitors.

The expansion of a demand-driven Commonwealth funding system to enable more opportunities for students studying for diplomas and in non-university higher education institutions will cost taxpayers more than $821 million over the next three years. This funding is indicative of how serious this government is about preserving the standards of our higher education sector, whilst enabling increased opportunities for more students to pursue studies.

Australian graduates who continue to receive Australian taxpayer support through their higher education studies are the beneficiaries of this system, earning on average 75 per cent more over their lifetime than those who only complete year 12. Therefore, this is a reciprocal obligation for students in the courses they choose. Moreover, the Higher Education Loans Program will remain to ensure that students do not experience any financial burden until they can repay the loan. This is equitable funding and a reasonable expectation for what is considered a lifetime investment.

It is the government's role to ensure our higher education sector is relevant to the student and remains tenable in the market. Our universities cannot remain ahead of our competitors if they do not have the required funding. The provisions in this bill are fundamental to ensuring our current and future generations of graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to bring to their chosen careers.

Our research institutions must also have the appropriate funding level and skill sets to ensure that Australia is at the forefront of exploration. This bill will pave the way for Australia's future. I commend the bill to the House.