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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3032


Ms LIVERMORE (Capricornia) (09:15): I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. This bill is a straightforward but necessary bill to clarify some aspects of the Higher Education Support Act, which, among other things, is the vehicle by which our universities are provided with Commonwealth government funding.

To start with, the bill clears up some problems relating to indexation arrangements that arose due to the passage in 2010 of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Indexation) Act. That act had the effect of introducing some ambiguities into the application and operation of the indexation provisions of the Higher Education Support Act. Specifically, the indexation arrangements cleared up in this bill are for amounts including Commonwealth contribution amounts under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, maximum student contribution amounts, the FEE-HELP limit, the maximum OS-HELP amount, and the maximum amount of the student services and amenities fee on 1 January 2011. The bill makes it clear that indexation should have been applied to all amounts in the act on 1 January 2011, as provided for under the previous indexation provisions. It also makes clear that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts.

As I said, the bill is technical in nature but nonetheless the changes included in it will benefit the higher education sector in Australia—and, indeed, you could say that about any bill that the government brings into the parliament relating to higher education. We have been determined as a government to undo the damage done to the sector by the Howard government—damage that started with savage cuts in 1996 and continued as that government pursued a course of chronic underinvestment in universities coupled with constant meddling in their internal administration. This government, in contrast, sees universities as important partners in an agenda that recognises education in all its forms as core to achieving our objectives for economic prosperity and social equity in this country.

Following the advice of the Bradley review we have set ambitious targets for participation in higher education in the medium term. By 2025 we want 40 per cent of Australian 25- to 34-year-olds to have a bachelor level qualification or higher degree. It was with great pleasure that I noted the announcement earlier this month by the education minister that we have achieved significant progress on that measure. Thanks to the government's investment in the higher education sector and much fairer and more generous support for students, there has been a 27 per cent increase in the number of student places at universities since 2007, or an increase of 150,000 extra university students in Australia.

There are further targets for universities to meet in terms of the participation and graduation of people from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Indigenous people and those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those from rural areas. I just note in that regard the announcement by my local university, CQ University, just last week of its appointment of the first Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Engagement, Dr Bronwyn Fredericks, and welcome Bronwyn back to Central Queensland to take up that very, very important position at the university and one which is going to open up incredible opportunities for Indigenous people throughout Queensland.

The targets that I have talked about are bold targets and they have been matched by equally bold reforms to help the higher education sector to meet them. Chief among those is the shift from 1 January this year to demand-driven funding. No longer will the Commonwealth government decide how many students will study what course at which university, effectively setting caps on course numbers according to how many Commonwealth funded places go to each university; instead, under the demand-driven funding model, universities are free to make their own decisions about how many students they are prepared to enrol in particular courses. Students who meet those enrolment requirements set by a university will attract Commonwealth funding to match those enrolments.

Such a big change has required universities to think about what they have to offer and what they need to do to meet the needs of students in the broader community. To help universities make that transition, the government has made available structural adjustment funding and numerous rounds of funding to boost infrastructure and to reward quality teaching. I am pleased to say that my local university, CQ University, has received a handsome share of that structural adjustment funding in a very competitive and rigorous assessment process. So the education reforms that I have talked about are evident in our region in a very tangible way.

In response to the reform agenda under way in the higher education sector and to the economic growth going on in our region, CQ University has looked closely at how it can best meet the needs of local industries and communities and provide opportunities for people wanting to fill the skills gaps that exist in so many important occupations in Central Queensland. One way the university is doing that is by greatly increasing the courses on offer in allied health disciplines. Last year the university established programs in ultrasound and sonography, nutrition, mental health nursing, paramedic science, pathology and clinical investigation, among others. These new courses have proved popular, with enrolments meeting the first year targets and continuing to demonstrate strong support from students in 2012.

I am pleased to say that these courses have now been added to. In 2012 the first students were welcomed into courses including physiotherapy, podiatry, speech pathology, chiropractic and occupational therapy. I note that one of the amendments in this bill makes a change to the definition of 'a course of study in dentistry'. Students are able to use FEE-HELP to pay their tuition fees up to the amount of the FEE-HELP limit. There is a higher amount of FEE-HELP available to students enrolled in certain courses, including dentistry. For example, the general FEE-HELP limit in 2012 is $89,706. However, the limit is higher for those students enrolled in a course of study in either veterinary science, medicine and dentistry—up to an amount of just over $112,000.

The important point in this bill is to clarify exactly what is meant by a course of study in dentistry or veterinary science. The change means that only students undertaking courses of study in dentistry or veterinary science that satisfy a minimum academic requirement for registration as a dentist or vet surgeon are eligible for that higher FEE-HELP limit. Students undertaking courses of study that lead to registration as a specialist—in other words, going beyond those minimum registration requirements—are not entitled to the higher FEE-HELP limit.

The reference in this bill to a course in dentistry caught my eye because one of the courses that CQ University has been working very hard to make available from the start of 2012 is a degree in oral health. Graduates from the oral health program will be oral health therapists, qualified to perform preventative and operative dentistry—things like examination, risk assessment, diagnosis of periodontal disease and dental caries, scaling and cleaning, and oral hygiene instruction. This is the only oral health degree program being offered in Queensland. It has shifted from Griffith University, where that university has elected to concentrate on its dentistry program and close down its oral health degree. CQ University has now picked that up.

There are 28 students enrolled in this first year of the degree at CQU. The program has strong links into the sector with clinical placements being made available within Queensland Health, including access to two dental chairs in the school dental service and access to two chairs at the community dental clinic at the base hospital. An additional 12 dental chairs will be located at the CQ University public health clinic. The public health clinic is central to the university's major investment in allied health and it is something I am pleased to say has been strongly supported by our government.

The Gillard government is funding the $20 million needed to establish the allied health clinic. That is $6 million from Health Workforce Australia and $14 million from the Structural Adjustment Fund. This facility will allow students in disciplines like physiotherapy, podiatry, speech pathology and oral health to participate in supervised clinical placements in the on-campus clinic. Members of the public will be able to access the clinic for treatment, taking pressure off waiting lists for so many allied health services at the same time as supporting our health professionals of the future.

This clinic will make a really significant contribution to health care in the Rockhampton region. It will allow us to train our own home-grown allied health professionals with a much higher chance that they will stay and practice in the region and relieve the chronic shortages that we have suffered in so many areas of health care. Those students will gain their clinical skills by treating members of the public under appropriate supervision, so the addition to our overall health services will be felt immediately.

Heading up the oral health school is someone who is no stranger to Parliament House and this chamber. I thought those members who have been around for a while—not quite the new parliamentary secretary at the table, Ms Bird, who came a bit later, but certainly the member for Lingiari, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs—might like to know that Leonie Short, the former member for Ryan, has joined Central Queensland University as an associate professor. She has guided the new course through its accreditation and now has the satisfaction of overseeing the progress of those 28 new oral health students. I know how lucky we are to have someone of Leonie's experience, not to mention her passion for education, taking the lead on this program. I welcome her to Rockhampton and wish her and her team all the best in getting the oral health degree firmly established as a top choice for students in Central Queensland.

I mentioned at the start of this speech that the bill seeks to clarify the application of indexation provisions in the act for a range of amounts relevant to the higher education sector. One of those amounts is the student services and amenities fee that we have heard so much about from our friends opposite. The fee, of up to $263 per year, can now be charged by universities to offset the cost of providing student services and amenities. I will list some of those because we did not hear any of them from the other side with their obsession with political campaigns and student unions. These fees go to things like child care, food outlets, legal services and sporting facilities on our university campuses.

The fee was reinstated with the passage last year of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2011. The battle over a student services fee has been a long one. In fact, it is a battle that most of the opposition MPs have been fighting since their own university days and, as evidenced by this debate, even now you just have to say the words 'student union' and you will have them in a lather. Right on cue, as classes commenced for the year at CQ University, the member for Dawson and the member for Flynn put out their template press releases having a go at their local university for asking students to pay a fee for a range of services made available to them on those campuses.

I will describe for the House what these campuses are like. In Mackay and Rockhampton, two of the relevant campuses, the campuses are on the edge of those cities. They are a reasonable distance from other services such as shops, local government offices and service providers. They are not big campuses and do not have thousands and thousands of students. You are talking about much smaller numbers of students than some of the examples that have been given by other members in this debate, like Sydney University with 30,000 students. These are campuses that are a little bit removed from those cities of Rockhampton and Mackay and they do not have a lot of students able to support provision by the private sector of some of those services.

We have heard all the usual ideological arguments from the other side, and certainly from the member for Dawson and the member for Flynn in their media comments and speeches about the evils of student unions. They reminded me that probably the most overt political activity that I can remember on the CQ campus was that engaged in by the member for Dawson with his infamous editorship of The Student Advocate which among other things said how stupid women are. If you want to talk about politics at CQU the member for Dawson is probably the person to talk to.

The fact is that, by law, this student services fee cannot be used for political purposes. It is a fee that students are not required to pay upfront; rather, it can be deferred as part of their FEE-HELP debt to be paid back when they are earning graduate salaries. It is a fee that goes towards providing health services, child care, student advocacy, sporting facilities, counsellors, career advice and accommodation support. It is a fee that drew its strongest support from regional universities that have seen the biggest reductions on campus services due to the Howard government's VSU legislation. Again, the examples were given of the big city universities. They may very well be able to go and find private providers for some of these. Someone who knows a thing or two about regional campuses is the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, Sandra Harding, who said: 'Regional students were especially dependent on the services that had been weakened since the abolition of compulsory student union levies. Regional students are more likely to have had to move away from their families to attend university and rely more on the welfare and support services that were provided from the previous fees.'

Our regional universities, like JCU and CQU, know what they need to do to attract students and support them while they are completing their studies. On all its campuses CQU has been investing to create an environment which gives students opportunities to get involved in activities beyond the classroom and experience all that university life has to offer. The members in electorates to my north and south, Dawson and Flynn, might want to support the university and some of its applications for funding rather than take cheap shots at it in this ideological crusade.

The SPEAKER: The question is that this bill be now read a second time. I now give the call to the Hon. the Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills and congratulate her on her appointment. I believe this is her maiden summing up.