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Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Page: 6007

Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital TerritoryParliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) (09:33): I thank those members who spoke on the Higher Education Support Amend­ment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011. The bill before the chamber amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to implement the govern­ment's package of initiatives outlined in Transforming Australia's Higher Education System.

The government understands that the Australian economy today and in the future will require more Australians to be degree qualified. The bill will ensure our nation's universities are able to meet the increasing demand for higher qualifications from stud­ents and employers and our nation's future workforce needs. The government is comm­itted to achieving the ambitious goal it set for national attainment, and the government wants to increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with a qualification at bachelor level or above to 40 per cent by 2025. This is the major reason for the intro­duction of demand driven funding for under­graduate student places at public universities. Australian universities will no longer be asked by the government to ration Common­wealth supported student places among students competing to get a bachelor degree.

The government recognises that it will continue to have a role in the national oversight of our higher education sector and will retain some powers to assist achieve­ment of those outcomes and to enable it to respond to national imperatives. There may be circumstances in which the Australian government needs to limit the extent of future growth in expenditure for unallocated undergraduate places, and the minister will be able to do this by specifying a maximum grant amount for these places in a universi­ty's funding agreement. There will also be protections in the legislation for universities to ensure the minister cannot reduce an insti­tution's funding or force it to cut back on its previous year's enrolments. These are not protections that currently apply in the current system of funding universities on the basis of fixed numbers of places, which is based solely on the minister's decision to allocate places to individual universities. These prot­ections which are written into the bill are new and substantial, and they provide an additional level of reassurance for univer­sities as they move to demand driven funding for undergraduate places.

The government will be monitoring dema­nd and supply for graduates in all disciplines in the early years of implementation of the new funding system. The bill ensures the government has the capacity to respond to any new skill shortages and, if necessary, to the oversupply of graduates in particular areas. The measures in this bill for demand driven funding of undergraduate places prov­ide for much needed investment in higher education. As a result of these reforms, uni­versities will be able to grow with confiden­ce and diversify in response to student needs.

Consistent with the shift to a demand driven funding system, the government agreed in its response to the Bradley review that the student learning entitlement, or SLE, provisions of the act would be abolished from 2012. The student learning entitlement currently limits a person's eligibility to study at university as a Commonwealth supported student to the equivalent of seven years of full-time study. Abolishing the entitlement will reduce the regulatory burden on univer­sities and allow them to get on with teaching the next generation of students. The dialogue between universities and the government plays an important role in determining future policies and funding. It assists in understand­ing the strategic directions of universities in response to government's initiatives. Mission based compacts provide an important process of dialogue and communication between universities and the government. The amend­ments proposed by this bill will ensure the universities' and government's investment of time and effort for compacts is recognised as part of the overall requirements for funding under the act.

I would particularly like to thank the members who contributed to the debate regarding the application of free intellectual inquiry. Free intellectual inquiry will become an object of the act. Table A and table B providers will be required to have policies that uphold free intellectual inquiry in rela­tion to learning, teaching and research. We believe that, as autonomous institutions, universities are best placed to determine how they wish to articulate their commitments to free intellectual inquiry. This bill reflects the government's continued commitment to invest in Australia's universities and to expand opportunities for Australians to obtain a higher quality higher education.

Question negatived.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.