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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5795

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (21:23): I rise to contribute to the debate tonight on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. For too long Australia has lagged behind the rest of the OECD when it comes to the proportion of our population who have a tertiary qualification. We invest so much in trying to inspire our children on a lifelong journey of learning and yet, for some, there are still limited educational opportunities beyond formal schooling. Despite huge growth in the numbers of women attending university, the fact remains that there are still groups of Australians who are underrepresented in tertiary education, including Indigenous Australians, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those from rural and regional areas.

In my home state we have a fantastic university, the University of Tasmania. We also have one of the lowest participation rates in higher education in Australia. Whilst I do not believe that this restructure will be the panacea to that participation problem, I hope that our progressive reforms to the tertiary system will make higher education more accessible. There is overwhelming support and evidence to suggest that the legislation that is before us today is the best way forward for higher education across Australia.

This legislation is about revolutionising the way in which the tertiary sector in Australia is funded. Moving toward a demand driven model rather than forcing each institution to come back year in, year out and negotiate capped places will only work to promote and enhance the accessibility of higher education to Australians regardless of their background. Moving toward a demand driven funding model is also the most appropriate way to ensure that we are equipped for the future challenges in a rapidly changing global economy.

This bill ensures that as a government we meet our commitment to introducing an uncapped student demand system for universities for 2012. Through these funding reforms we will provide our institutions with a flexibility within the sector to meet our national target of having at least 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds with a bachelor level degree or above by 2025. As we work towards achieving our participation target, we will boost our rankings within the OECD and serve to bolster our credibility as a thinking and innovative nation in our region and beyond.

This bill is also significant insofar as it adds the finishing touches to the Labor government's reform agenda for the higher education sector. We have progressively delivered on the commitment that we made in 2009 so that from 2012 our universities will benefit from the deregulation of the allocation of university places through the introduction of a demand driven system for domestic students, except for medicine, and the abolition of student learning entitlement, the SLE, for all courses and the introduction of mission-based compacts and the strengthening of academic freedom.

Fundamentally, this legislation ensures that Australian students can access tertiary education based on their ability, on academic merit and on a willingness to participate rather than just their capacity to pay for it. As well as transforming funding for the tertiary sector, this legislation also abolishes the student learning entitlement. The student learning entitlement is a hangover of the Howard years which limited a student's access to a Commonwealth loan, HECS-HELP, after seven years of study. The introduction of the student learning entitlement created equity issues and posed a threat to lifelong learning. It was proven to have discriminated against low SES and mature-age students and those who chose to change their study pathway. Moreover, the SLE created an administrative burden on universities and, whilst the student learning entitlement was allegedly introduced to promote retention, it did not translate in any way to provide funding for support for students at each institution.

It follows that the abolition of the student learning entitlement will remove a regulatory burden that has been placed on universities since 2003 and ensure that there is no time or dollar limit on a student's learning achieveĀ­ment. It will also remove a significant barrier that medical students have faced since 2003 and has been welcomed by the AMA. No longer will medical students, particularly those who have articulated into medicine from science streams, be disadvantaged when they choose to study medicine because of a fear of exhausting their entitlement.

Those opposite have criticised the government's move to abolish the student learning entitlement but I challenge them to find anyone else who is advocating for it to remain.

Senator Mason: Well I am, Carol.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Notwithstanding the good senator opposite. We are seeing in this place those opposite playing up again. It is not unlike Senator Mason to play up a bit, but they are also relying on outdated and factually baseless arguments about how this reform will let students waste time lingering in our universities and draining taxpayers dollars. In Australia we simply do not have a situation where students are studying for excessively long periods of time. It is a myth. Those opposite seem to be stuck in a bit of a time warp and lack a true understanding of what tertiary education means today and to the unique intellectual capital of our nation. Those opposite were never serious about investing in higher education in any meaningful way. They simply dressed up the student learning entitlement, painting it as a policy aimed at improving retention while continuing to rip funding out of the tertiary sector. The student learning entitlement never transpired into funding for essential services and student support—those proven elements of any retention strategy. Across the sector, the Group of Eight and others have come out in full favour of the abolition of student learning entitlement. Put frankly, Senator Mason, it is time to move on.

This legislation also provides for the introduction of mission based compacts between the government via the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and tertiary institutions. The mission based compact will be the mechanism through which universities can show how they are contributing to the government's goals for higher education. The compacts will include details of the major education and research funding for each institution as well as performance targets. The compacts will allow for universities to be rewarded for improving the quality of their offerings, attainment and the participation of students in higher education. As the mission based compacts will differentiate between teaching and research, they will allow an accurate benchmark from which to measure and reward performance, taking the sector forward.

I will now take a moment to talk about the academic freedom aspects of this bill. Notwithstanding Senator Mason's no-doubt-excellent record on objectivity and impartiality when he was lecturing, this bill will also bolster academic freedom, enshrining the government's commitment to free intellectual inquiry in legislation. Until the introduction of this bill, academic freedom was assured only through the national protocols agreed to at the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in 2007.

This bill extends the government's commitment to academic freedom by ensuring that it relates to learning, teaching and research. Including an explicit reference to learning also bolsters a student's access to intellectual freedom. Of course, those opposite will criticise this element of the legislation too. It comes as no surprise that they would again play up on their old rhetoric. Manifest in their long-held paranoia is their mistaken belief that free intellectual inquiry and the protection of academic freedom are biased towards the Left. I only hope that they can for once put aside this baseless assumption and help the government bolster academic freedom for learning, teaching and research within Australia's tertiary sector.

This legislation represents the final pillar in our higher education platform. It builds on the results of the major programs of reform that the Prime Minister commenced as Minister for Education in 2009. As a direct result of our reform agenda already, we have seen close to 100,000 additional students grasp the opportunity of a university education since 2007. Since then we have seen an extra 80,000 undergraduate students each year get the opportunity of a university education, from 408,000 in 2007 to 488,000 this year. We have also seen the number of Commonwealth supported postgraduate places double from 16½ thousand in 2007 to 33,000 this year. Having already succeeded in opening the doors of Australia's universities to more students than ever before, we are even more determined to continue to boost participation.

The legislation before us is a measure that has been welcomed far and wide across the sector. National Union of Students President Jesse Marshall in May this year branded the legislation a 'welcome investment in providing opportunity to Australians to participate in higher education'. Universities Australia has expressed strong support for this bill, urging all parties to support the legislation and approach it in the spirit of bipartisanship. Universities Australia's Chair, Professor Glyn Davis AC, has said:

Passage of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011 will directly transform the accessibility of higher education in Australia.

Student demand-driven funding was a key recommendation of the Bradley Review, and its implementation will help achieve the higher participation and attainment targets for universities that have been set by Government."

Professor Davis said that this bill helps to complete the transformation of the sector and:

Along with a national regulator and the potential for positive outcomes from the Review of Higher Education Base Funding, provision of funding on the basis of student demand further defines the Government's new foundations for the university sector.

Innovative Research Universities also welcomed the changes, arguing that the bill achieves its intended purpose of allowing universities to be funded for each enrolled undergraduate except, as I have said before, medicine.

IRU's Chair, Professor Ian O'Connor, heralded this legislation as 'a major step forward for universities, recognising the need to open access to all Australians capable of university study'. The Good Universities Guide has highlighted how the demand driven funding will benefit students. With such overwhelming support I cannot see how those opposite would stand to oppose aspects of this bill.

I want to echo and endorse some of the comments of the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans. Minister Evans described this new legislation as the opportunity for Australia to move away from a decades-old system of central planning for university funding in which, every year, universities negotiated student places with Canberra. He said:

For the first time, universities will be able to grow with confidence and diversify in response to student needs.

Our commitment as a government is to the continued expansion of a high quality university sector, to educate the graduates needed by an economy based on knowledge, skills and innovation.

As the Bradley review highlighted, the quality and performance of a nation's higher education system will be clear determinants of its economic and social progress.

OECD data shows that Australia's proportion of graduates in the population is less than in comparable developed economies. This was echoed within the Bradley review. The review warned that Australia was falling behind other countries in both performance and investment in higher education. Moreover, the review reaffirmed that we will need more well qualified people in Australia to meet the demands of a rapidly growing global economy. The only way to increase participation in higher education is to look to those groups that are underrepresented in our universities. These are Indigenous Australians, people with low socioeconomic status and people from regional and remote areas.

We also must strategically invest in our education sector. Let us not forget that educational institutions, particularly our universities, form the third-largest export industry in Australia. Developing the intellectual capital of our nation is vital both for our own national development and prosperity and also to secure our reputation and rankings worldwide.

The reforms we have progressively introduced since 2009 ensure that we are laying the strongest foundations for our future at home, in our region and beyond. I look forward to seeing more Australians, regardless of their background, aspiring to and achieving a higher education.

To recap what this legislation plans to do. The Australian government is fully committed to transforming Australia's higher education system through implementing a demand driven system for funding undergraduate places at higher education providers, which are listed in the table in the Higher Education Support Act. The bill will give effect to the implementation of the demand driven funding system for undergraduate student places at public universities from 2012. It will do so by removing the current cap on funding for undergraduate Commonwealth supported places, except for medicine, and the current seven-year limit placed on students' eligibility to receive Commonwealth support for their higher education.

In the new demand driven funding system universities will have greater flexibility to respond to student and market demands. The amendments are integral to achieving the government's higher education attainment target of increasing the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with bachelor-level qualifications to 40 per cent by 2025. The mission based compacts will provide for Commonwealth oversight of the teaching and research missions. The bill will also promote free intellectual inquiry.

I commend the bill to the Senate and I look forward to seeing the support of all for this bill.