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Monday, 12 September 2011
Page: 5800

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (21:39): I am pleased to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The bill is the final piece of legislation in the government's implementation plan for higher education reforms, which was announced in 2009. It meets the commitment to introduce an uncapped student demand driven system in 2012 in order to increase the participation of students in courses and the rates of tertiary educational attainment in our population.

It is commonsense that when a person is eligible for university they should have a good chance of being able to gain access to a university place. However, this common­sense approach struggled to prevail under the Howard government, which saw too many talented Australians being turned away from universities because there were not enough funded places. This government, I am proud to say, will end such inequality and see doors opened to more students than ever before.

The government's higher education reforms provide extra funding for the sector, extra support for students and extra opportunities to universities to offer more places to those willing to gain a tertiary education. The main purpose of the bill is to implement a new system for the funding of undergraduate places at universities eligible for funding of Commonwealth supported places under the Higher Education Support Act. The amendments in this bill will seek to remove the caps imposed on the number of student places at each university. Instead it will provide places according to demand.

The bill has come about as a result of a wide-ranging review of the Australian higher education system that was chaired by Professor Denise Bradley. The government accepted a number of the recommendations of the Bradley review, including deregulating the allocation of university places through a demand driven entitlement system for domestic students; changes to the indexation formula of university funding; increasing targeted places to improve participation rates of low socioeconomic status students; and establishing a new tertiary education quality and standards agency.

These changes will begin the process of working towards two key targets that were established by the Bradley review. Firstly, a national target of at least 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds having attained a qualification at a bachelor level or above by 2025. Secondly, that by 2020 twenty per cent of university enrolments at undergraduate level are people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds.

The cornerstone of a strong economy is an educated workforce. To provide for economic output that meets our country's achievements, we need to provide the best trained workforce in Australia and work towards being one of the most educated economies in the western world. Skills Australia has forecast that by 2025 one-third of all jobs will require a minimum of a bachelor's degree qualification. To meet that demand for highly skilled workers, this government is ensuring that everyone who is eligible can gain access to a place at an Australian university. More Australians with TAFE or university qualifications means more Australians in good jobs and higher living standards for everyone. To start this process we will invest almost $490 million over the next four years, from 2012, to uncap the number of public university places, allowing universities to offer enrolments to all eligible students. This will create an additional 80,000 student places over the four years from 2010 to 2013, allowing about 50,000 additional students to participate in higher education. We are delivering on our promise of a new era for universities, delivering on our promise of an education revolution which focuses on students, on more access to university education, on research and innovation, on improving the skills of the workforce and on boosting productivity.

We are also building on the government's relationship of trust and mutual respect for universities. The bill also seeks to abolish the student learning entitlement. This entitlement was the subject of criticism from universities and from students. The bill also introduces requirements for universities to have policies in place to protect academic freedom in learning, teaching and research. The bill will require universities to enter into mission based compacts with the government. These mission based compacts are three-year agreements that show how each university's mission contributes to the government's goals for higher education and they include details of major higher education and research funding and performance targets. The compacts will be in two parts—one for teaching and one for research—and they will define targets for improvement and for reform. The targets will relate to quality, attainment and participation by students from underrepresented groups.

Key stakeholders in the tertiary sector—the universities and students—agree it is sensible to remove the regulatory burden and reduce administrative costs for universities so they can meet the requirements of accepting additional students. This bill will allow that to occur. We are allowing universities to pursue their main mission, which is excellence in teaching, in research and in innovation—quite simply, doing what they do best. These changes to legislation will achieve positive outcomes, increasing commencements and achieving greater equality by ensuring university places are open to talent, not just to family, school or social background.

The reforms will raise the aspirations of students who would previously never have considered going to university. This will also lift the number of low-socioeconomic-status enrolments in universities. Many of these students will be the very first members of their family to have the opportunity to attend university, and for these students access to a world-class education will give them the skills they need to achieve a better standard of living and higher paying, quality jobs for tomorrow. This is a fine Labor policy and vision, an investment in long-term reform giving more Australians the skills and education they need for a good job and a secure future. The opportunity to access a university education will change the lives of each and every one of these students.

These reforms have seen us move away from a decades-old system of central planning to a new, demand driven approach. The Gillard government's reforms of higher education underpin our drive to build a highly educated, skilled and productive workforce to underpin our nation's future. This is the final bill in a suite of reforms, the final piece of legislation in the government's implementation of the higher education reforms announced in 2009. It meets our commitment to introduce an uncapped, student demand driven system in 2012 in order to increase participation and it meets the national target set by the review of 40 per cent of 20- to 34-year-olds having attained a qualification of bachelor level or above by 2025. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate interrupted.