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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 561


Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (13:33): I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (VET FEE-HELP and Other Measures) 2011 [2012]. To begin, I will deal with some of the aspects of this bill and then I will speak further about what we are doing in higher education and education generally. I will also speak on the consequences of what we know to be the policy of the coalition with respect to education. After all, where is the $70 billion in savings the coalition are promising to come up with and where is that coming from? And how would that affect the capacity of Australia to have an appropriat­ely qualified workforce across the broad domain our economy requires?

This legislation incorporates amendments to implement the 2011-12 budget measures and also update maximum payments paid to provide for increases in enrolments in Commonwealth tertiary supported places and indexation. The bill has three main aspects. The first aspect of the bill provides for a reduction in the HECS-HELP discount applied to upfront student contribution pay­ments of $500 or more than 20 per cent to 10 per cent. The second aspect deals with an increase in funding for the overenrolment of Commonwealth supported places that occurred in 2011. The overenrolment in places is allowed for under the cap on funding for places over agreed targets. The cap on overenrolment was raised from five to 10 per cent in funding terms for 2010-11 as part of the introduction of the recommend­ations of the Bradley review to create a demand driven funding system for higher education from 2012.

From 2012, the cap on funding for undergraduate Commonwealth supported places has been removed for public universi­ties and other tertiary education providers, and that will have some implications for funding. Funding will be based on student demand, and that makes this one of the most important significant changes to higher education in this country for a very long time. I believe it will open up the system and allow more young people, mature people and older people the opportunity to go to university to get the VET training they want and that our society needs.

The final aspect of this bill deals with the Commonwealth supported places at overseas campuses. It gets rid of the ambiguity in the current legislation about its application to Australian citizens at overseas campuses of Australian higher education providers. It clarifies that Australian citizens will have access to HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP schemes only when they are enrolled on Australian campuses of an Australian provider.

The coalition really have nothing to be proud of when it comes to their record on higher education when they were in office. With respect to their performance, their funding for higher education was $8 billion in 2007. Their enrolments were about 400,000 university places around the country in 2008, 20 per cent fewer than will be the case in 2012. The funding of the Australian Labor government will increase from the measly $8 billion that the coalition put into the scheme to $13 billion this year. Enrolments this year will rise to over half a million places. That will give people the opportunity to achieve their full potential, exercise their skills, talents and ability, and go on to tertiary institutions. In my home state of Tasmania the University of Tasmania is now offering 13 per cent more places than in previous years. Many people in Tasmania are going to university or getting other post-secondary training for the first time. Some people have parents who did not have the opportunity to even finish high school—and the idea of going to university was fanciful under a coalition government. It was the opening up of the higher education system by the Whitlam government in the 1970s that gave so many people in this place and elsewhere the opportunity to go to university. This government is now massive­ly expanding its funding in this regard.

The coalition went to the last election proposing to gut education in this country to the tune of $2.8 billion but they were forced to reveal their true intentions. Their idea in the higher education sector was to put in protocols and arrangements that linked funding to the imposition of Work Choices. They said, 'We'll fund you and, if you don't put in place AWAs in the higher education sector, we'll effectively decrease your funding.' That was in their legislation, and we abolished it when we got into power because it was blatantly unfair. We want to have a tertiary sector that is demand driven by people aspiring to achieve their potential and go into higher education after completing high school.

The coalition want to have a tertiary scheme motivated by the imposition of Work Choices. This is not what this country needs. It is a class based attack on the university sector, a sector they have never comfortably supported, as shown through their speeches in this place on voluntary student unionism. As mentioned earlier, the coalition have failed to outline the cuts they would make and whether that would be to the new trades training centres—I have visited some of these new centres, and they are all keenly supported by the communities in which they are located—or to the Digital Education Revolution, of which the coalition have been critical. While the benefits of the NBN are recognised by some in the coalition, they cannot own up to that as their policy is to rip out the NBN if they were to get into government after the next election. And that would be a shame. The Tasmanian commu­nity would not accept that. As Senator Bushby, on the other side, would know, the NBN has been overwhelmingly supported in Tasmania, even by the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Liberal Party in Tasmania, Mr Hodgman.

We have heard in here time and time again the attacks on the BER. There is not one school in Tasmania that would ever put up its hand and say: 'We didn't need this injection of funds. We didn't need these new classrooms, new library and new hall.' But I have not seen one Liberal senator go to a school in Tasmania and say, 'We believe this was a waste of money.' They may do it in this chamber, they may try and spruik it through the media, but they do not have the fortitude to front up to these school communities. I have visited so many of these schools. The students, the teaching staff, the administrative staff, the parents and the entire community can see the benefits that the injection of BER funding has made not only to their schools but to their community.

What about the National Partnership Agreement on Low Socioeconomic Status School Communities et cetera? None of that was referred to. There has been criticism of the Gillard government but nothing about what the coalition would do. Given the mumblings we are hearing, there is little doubt that they would go back to the education aspirations of the Howard government, which were to impose Work Choices and the like, and link that to funding once again.

The legislation we are debating here today is to implement a demand driven funding system for undergraduate university places and places in other public and private education facilities to meet the education and training needs of our community and our economy. But, as always, what the oppo­sition have demonstrated in this place is always about opposition. There is nothing about policy and how they are going to drag back and fill this $70 billion black hole.

The demand driven system for these places was passed by the House of Repre­sentatives on 14 September last year. We are providing $3.97 billion of additional funds over six years from 2010 for the demand driven funding system that the Bradley review recommended. There is an additional $1.2 billion in the 2011-12 budget. How much would the coalition put in if they were on the treasury bench? We know they will impose funding cuts, as they have said, and they will be looking for savings in this sector.

The government have taken the view that we need to increase funding in this sector. The 2011-12 budget increased the regional loading for universities by $109.9 million over four years. The student learning entitlement, which restricts students to seven years of Commonwealth support for univer­sity study, has been abolished since 1 January 2012. That change was to get rid of university red tape and make it easier for students to navigate the system. It will also make it clear that, if students want to go to university or get trade training, they will be able to get there. Students at Australian facilities will have better access to quality services when they go back to campus this year as a result of our student services amendment bill. This is all part of our package with respect to improving higher education across the country.

We in the Gillard Labor government see the benefits of providing educational oppor­tunities for our young people and for older and mature students. Those opposite oppose what we have done in this regard. They have posed and preened and uttered platitudes about their 'terrible days at university' in relation to our attempts to make sure students at university can get access to sporting and recreational activities, employ­ment advice, legal aid, child care, financial advice and food services. For the first time we are enshrining the promotion and protection of free intellectual inquiry in learning, research and teaching through amendments to the Higher Education Support Act. The coalition, in their complete and utter denial of reality with respect to good public policy, oppose these types of arrangements. They think that the promotion and protection of free intellectual inquiry in learning is not a worthy and noble thing to aspire to and protect. Universities and other eligible higher education providers in receipt of funding will now have a policy that actually upholds free intellectual inquiry. It is important that we also have established the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. This will basically amalgamate the work done by nine agencies into one central agency and provide national consistency and efficiency in registration and quality assurance.

This bill is important because it provides funding and it gets rid of any ambiguity. It also makes it plain that our demand driven system is something that we believe in. We are very keen to implement the Bradley reforms, because we believe that every single child, regardless of whether they are born in the Torres Strait or in Tasmania, in Palm Beach or in Perth, should be able to aspire to university or TAFE training and should have the opportunity to advance while experienc­ing financial security for themselves and their families. With that we, the government, believe that we distinguish ourselves from the opposition. If there is one pillar in the Labor Party that we strongly believe in, it is the belief in equality of opportunity. Postsecondary education placement, a demand driven system and legislation such as the bill we are debating today give us that opportunity.

I will also go into a little bit of detail regarding the more flexible principal purpose requirement to get on the record what the government has done. The amendment adds to the current principal purpose provisions to allow the minister the discretion to approve a body corporate as a higher education or VET provider where the principal purpose of that body may not be education—and/or resear­ch, in the case of higher education provid­ers—as long as its other purpose or purposes do not conflict with its principal purpose. There are certainly some industries and manufacturers that can readily demonstrate their ability to provide sound education and training. And the minister may suspend or revoke a body's approval as a higher educa­tion or VET provider if any of the body's other purposes conflict with its principal pur­pose or if the body no longer has education and/or research, in the case of higher education providers, as its principal purpose.

The loan may cover or partially cover the tuition costs of the VET course, a sensible addition. Students are required to repay their loan once their income exceeds the minimum repayment level of $44,911 for 2011—once again, a very sensible provision.

This bill is important because it provides for opportunities for all Australians for our young people to aspire to go on to university. In the case of my home state of Tasmania, where we still need to increase the retention of students in higher education, this bill will assist those families and individuals. I com­mend the legislation to the Senate. I think it is important reform and it is part of a whole matrix of reform that this government is committed to, making sure that young people across the length and breadth of the country can get the chance to participate in our econ­omy and their community to the fullest ext­ent to which they aspire. I commend the bill.

(Quorum formed)