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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5788

Senator MASON (Queensland) (20:47): As we all know, the business of the 21st century is knowledge. To better compete and to more effectively contribute to Australia's well-being, universities, which are our knowledge factories, have embarked upon change and reform. Over the last few years there has been robust debate about the future of our higher education system—a debate spurred on by the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education. This debate is likely to last for many years, given the crucial importance of our universities to our economy and indeed to our society in general.

The Higher Education Support Amend­ment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill is the legislative expression of one of the two main recommendations of the Bradley review, as adopted by the government—namely, the move towards a student demand driven system right across our public universities. The other major recommendation of the Bradley review sets a target for increased participation in higher education of 40 per cent of our young people in the age bracket 25 to 34 by the year 2025, with a particular emphasis on attracting more students from currently underrepresented groups such as students from low SES backgrounds, students from rural and remote areas and of course Australian Indigenous students. These two reforms are interlinked, since abolishing the restrictions on the number of university places will go some way towards increasing participation in higher education.

The coalition supports these reforms, though with some important caveats in regard to both the current bill and the overall implementation of the Bradley reforms by the government—subjects I will touch on later. Let me state at the outset that the move to a system where demand by qualified students determines how many places are offered by universities is a vast improvement on the centralised state control model that has been operating so far, where the public servants in Canberra micromanage the number of places that each university can offer in each particular course. The removal of the restriction on the number of undergraduate places, otherwise known as Commonwealth supported places, that Australian universities are able to offer is a step in the right direction. The laws of supply and demand work better than the dictates of bureaucrats, no matter how well qualified.

However, the bill does not provide for a complete removal of restrictions. The bill does not uncap the number of enrolments for medical student places as those degrees are reliant on the availability of clinical placements provided by state governments, nor does it uncap the number of Common­wealth supported places for postgraduate students in our universities. The bill also gives the minister for higher education the ability to cap the number of places in particular disciplines or particular institu­tions in defined circumstances. The coalition will await the resolution of these issues and is particularly interested in the last mentioned power, especially in light of the persistent rumours circulating in the university sector that the government might be tempted to start capping places again, having slowly become aware of the fiscal implications of the move to a fully student demand driven system.

The bill goes further than setting up the framework for the partial deregulation of the university sector. It also abolishes the student learning entitlement that requires universities to enter into a mission based compact with the Commonwealth government and to institute policies which promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. The coalition is opposed to abolishing the student learning entitlement. The SLEs were introduced by the Howard government in 2003 and limit a student's ability to qualify for a Commonwealth supported place to a defined number of years of full-time undergraduate study. The defined number of years is typically seven, with some exceptions, and it accrues over the lifetime of the student. The measure was introduced to prevent so-called lifelong or professional students from undertaking continuous studies at taxpayer expense with no intention of ever paying off their FEE-HELP or HECS debt. Far from losing their relevancy over time, the SLEs actually become even more important under the student demand driven system for this reason—abolishing the student learning entitlement, combined with abolishing the restrictions on the number of Commonwealth supported places, results in a system where an unlimited number of students can study for an unlimited amount of time. The government's proposal, under this bill, means that an unlimited number of students can study for an unlimited amount of time. The opposition opposes that.

What are the fiscal implications of that for taxpayers? No-one knows, including the government, which has not produced any plans, estimates or projections of the cost of implementing the Bradley reforms. In the absence of any concrete information, and considering this government's record of profligacy with other people's money, the coalition believes that it is only sensible to maintain some restrictions, such as the SLEs, on the expansion of higher education costs.

The government argues that the SLE restriction is hindering students who have undertaken a bachelor's degree, followed by a five-year professional degree, from completing their degree by substantially increasing their FEE-HELP debt. The coalition understand that there have indeed been some substantial changes in the way some undergraduate degrees are taught. The coalition are aware of that, so we believe the upper level of student learning entitlement should be set at eight years rather than at the current limit of seven. This would, for example, allow students to undertake a Bachelor of Science degree with an additional honours year and then complete a medical degree. The coalition will be moving an amendment to that effect.

Moving on to compacts, the interim agreements between individual universities and the Commonwealth are already in place and have been for the past few months. These agreements require universities to lay out holistic, integrated plans for linking their research direction with their teaching and learning expertise and to link these goals to a university's Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding agreement. While not ignoring the potential benefits of compacts, the coalition still retain some concerns about these new arrangements. We are worried that compacts could be used to micromanage universities rather than to simply align the universities' objectives with those of the Commonwealth. At a time when the university system is undergoing significant reform and expansion, the coalition would not want to see the freedom to diversify and excel restricted by the Canberra education bureaucrats.

Our universities are now competing not just against each other within Australia but against all other universities in the world. At stake are the significant income and other benefits derived from international students, the capacity to attract the best staff and the ability to build and enhance reputation. All this calls for less, not more, regulation and for more, not less, flexibility. To that effect, I will be moving a second reading amendment that reminds the government of the growth of red tape under their administration and of their broken promise to only introduce new regulation after repealing an earlier one. Universities already suffer under the compliance burden of myriad different regulations and requirements imposed on them, mostly by federal laws and regulations. Legions of employees are now needed to ensure policies are adhered to or that information is collected for the federal government. Imposing more regulation, as may be the case under the compacts, goes completely against the spirit of higher education reform, where the trend is towards more freedom, more flexibility, more choice and more options. The amendment I will move as a second reading amendment broadly seeks to minimise the regulatory burden on universities.

I move:

At the end of the motion, add "but the Senate:

   (a) notes:

      (i) the government response to the Bradley reforms may impose increasing regulation on the higher education sector,

      (ii) the growing burden of red tape and regulation imposed on small businesses, not-for-profit organisations, higher education providers and industry by the Gillard Government, and

      (iii) that the increasing regulatory burden represents a broken election promise by the Labor Government which said that it would only introduce a new regulation after repealing an earlier regulation - a 'one in, one out' rule; and

   (b) calls on the Gillard Government to adopt immediately the Coalition's red-tape reduction policy which will seek to reduce the cost of the Commonwealth's regulatory burden by at least $1 billion per year".

The bill also requires universities to have institutional policies in place to promote and protect free intellectual inquiry in learning, teaching and research. The bill does not prescribe what is to be included in these policies. While the coalition firmly believe in the value of academic freedom, we also believe that the prescription in this bill is only half complete. With that in mind, we will be moving an amendment to ensure that academic freedom extends not just to academics but also to students, researchers and other teachers. Students in particular have complained to me and to many others for many years about their work being marked not on the quality of their argument, their understanding of the material and the clarity of their thoughts but on the basis of their political philosophy, which often conflicts with that of their lecturers. Of course when I marked assignments, I would never have marked any assignment with less than great objectivity.

Requiring universities to have a policy on academic freedom for students as well as teachers will assist students in exploring their own philosophical underpinnings without fear that their views will offend the sensitive and sometimes indignant sensibilities of some academics. We could not have that, could we? The coalition stands for free inquiry for academics as well as free inquiry for students, without fear and without favour. This is, after all, what education, as opposed to indoctrination, is supposed to be all about. In the autumn sittings this parliament passed legislation to establish the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, adopting another recommendation of the Bradley review. I took some time then, and will take some time now, to reiterate some serious concerns the coalition has with the government's approach to implementing these far-reaching reforms. It is even more important to restate these concerns during the debate about the bill that seeks to implement one of the two major pillars of the Bradley reforms.

Let's face it, implementation—as you have heard me say many times in this chamber—has always been the Achilles heel of the Rudd and Gillard governments. Not many other portfolios have the dubious distinction of being able to illustrate this point better than my own area of education. Here one can name one program after another—Building the Education Revolution, computers in schools, fibre connection to schools, trade training centres, Indigenous children and family centres, Indigenous residential colleges—which read like an encyclopaedia of government failure. What all these programs, as well as numerous other examples such as the NBN, pink batts, or digital set top boxes for pensioners, have in common is this: there does not seem to have been much planning done after the initial brainwave from the minister or the Prime Minister's office. There are no cost-benefit analyses done, no proper studies, estimates and projections prepared, and no mechanisms put in place to properly supervise the implementation and oversee the expenditure of taxpayers' moneys. I raise these concerns once again because I am increasingly worried that this government's cavalier 'by the seat of their pants' approach to implementing its broad education agenda will infect the grand project of reforming Australia's higher education system.

The Bradley review set an ambitious goal of increasing participation in tertiary education to 40 per cent of our young people by the year 2025. The government has adopted this goal. It is perfectly obvious to everyone in the sector as well as any observer that a significant influx of additional student numbers over the next two decades or so will necessitate a large expansion of universities' physical and teaching infrastructure—that is certain. This in turn will require additional government outlays of tens of billions of dollars between now and 2025.

How much exactly? That is a very good question; sadly, it is not one that the government has answered. It did not even ask it in the first place. And so we do not know the true cost or indeed the benefits of the Bradley reforms. We also do not know what impact these reforms will have on our universities. All we can say is that considering the lack of planning and the government's ham-fisted approach to implementing its programs, we have reason—the opposition has reason, Australia has reason—to be concerned.

Let me say this: the coalition will not tolerate a blind and uninformed rush towards increased participation if it would in any way damage our higher education system and affect its performance and international reputation. We cannot allow a situation to develop where quantity is achieved at the expense of quality. We will not stand by and allow university degrees to be devalued, because the government wants to encourage more young people to participate in tertiary education without providing adequate financing for universities to cope with the expansion—all resulting in falling standards.

We will be watching very carefully how these reforms unfold. The coalition's broad support for these goals does not mean a blank cheque as to the means. We will try to do our best to hold the government to account and ensure that these crucial reforms are carried out in a responsible manner.