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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7813

Ms NEAL (12:42 PM) —I rise today to speak in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and gives effect to the changes announced by the Rudd Labor government in the 2009-10 budget. I am pleased indeed to be able to talk about this government’s enhanced support and funding for Australia’s universities.

I addressed members earlier this year about the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle, which reached its milestone 20th anniversary this year. I have had a long and friendly association with the Ourimbah based campus and its Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Crump. I know that this university has established a record of excellence in education and many local students can access that excellence. The Ourimbah campus has forged partnerships with the wider community, government agencies and local businesses that bring great benefit to the Central Coast. It is a multi-sector campus, being co-located with the New South Wales Hunter Institute of TAFE and the Central Coast Community College. Together these three institutions do a wonderful job in targeting areas of skill shortage in the economy of the Central Coast.

I am well aware that all Australian universities need the fullest support of the Commonwealth government to continue providing the highest quality teaching, learning and research to students from the widest range of social backgrounds. The pressures are most particularly of concern to regional campuses, such as this one on the Central Coast. So I am heartened indeed to be speaking today on this bill, which gives certainty and sustainability to higher education funding. There are measures contained in this bill that are of particular benefit to regional universities. The reforms in the bill are an important part of the Rudd Labor government’s agenda to reform higher education in Australia.

The measures proposed here will help ensure the financial sustainability of our universities. They will recognise and give greater reward to the essential research initiatives at our universities. They will also provide quality by rewarding excellence and encourage the participation of students from all socioeconomic groups in higher education. The bill is a positive and innovative response to many of the recommendations of the Bradley review of Australian higher education. It provides certainty for students in universities, provides funds for growth and improved quality, and seeks to arrest more than a decade of declining public investment in higher education. The bill is the first step towards increasing the proportion of Australians aged 25 to 34 years who possess higher education qualifications to 40 per cent by the year 2025.

To allow universities time to adjust to the new arrangements current funding levels will be maintained for the years 2010 and 2011. From 2012 funding for universities will be simplified by rolling a number of existing programs into the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. Under the new arrangements universities will be funded on the basis of student demand, and to facilitate this the bill removes from the act the maximum grant amount from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme for 2012. This will mean that there will be no overall limit on the number of students that table A education providers—that is, the major public universities—will be able to enrol from 2012. In addition the current cap on overenrolment for Commonwealth supported university places will be raised from five to 10 per cent for the years 2010 and 2011.

All programs under the revised act will gain significant funding from increased indexation provisions to be introduced in 2012. This will include grants for teaching, learning and research as well as for the OS-HELP maximum loan amount and the FEE-HELP borrowing limit. The bill will increase the maximum annual student contribution amount for nursing and teaching students. This measure will increase the funding available to universities. It will mean a slight increase in contributions for those students of around $1,000 per year, but this increase will be more than offset by savings eligible students will reap from the extension of HECS-HELP benefit, valued at up to $7,500, to cover teaching and nursing courses. On top of this, from 1 January 2010 students who receive an OS-HELP loan will no longer incur a 20 per cent loan fee. This will assist students who wish to undertake part of their studies at an overseas university.

One reform measure that I am particularly encouraged by is the move to increase participation in higher education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Rudd Labor government has committed to a goal where by 2020 some 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments will be from students from a low socioeconomic, or SES, background. Some $108 million over four years will be invested to link universities with low SES schools and vocational education and training providers so they can offer scholarships, mentoring projects, curriculum and teaching support, and practical programs run by SES schools. Some $325 million will be invested over four years in financial incentives to universities to help them enrol more low SES students. This funding will allow universities to provide intensive and ongoing support mechanisms to assist low SES students who do enrol to complete their courses. These measures will increase access to and continued participation in higher education by these disadvantaged students. They will be of particular assistance to Indigenous students across Australia.

One of the major thrusts of the bill before us today is a commitment to ensuring quality of teaching and research outcomes in the higher education sector across the nation. Under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme increased indexation arrangements and new performance funding will be introduced. This will give higher education providers real incentives to ensure that students receive the best possible learning opportunities. Additional funding of $94.6 million will be provided in 2011 to table A higher education providers, based on increased indexation of teaching and learning grants. Funding will be determined by rigorous performance targets set within each university. Work will begin with each university in 2010 to establish these performance targets and indicators, and from 2012 performance funding will be paid if targets are met.

The assessment of performance will be managed by a new and independent body—the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. A new structural adjustment fund worth $400 million over four years will also be available to universities to help them develop and implement long-term strategic missions. This fund will support broader strategic and capital projects and will be of particular importance to regional universities such as the Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle. Strengthening the research base of our universities is a priority of these new arrangements. I am very pleased that the bill will provide $512 million over four years for a new Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities initiative. This program will help plug the current gap in funding for the indirect costs of research in our universities. Together with the Research Infrastructure Block Grants scheme this new initiative will increase support for the indirect costs of research to 50c per dollar of direct competitive grant funding by 2014.

Another measure, the Joint Research Engagement initiative, will refocus the existing Institutional Grants Scheme, allowing closer collaboration between universities and industry. Another practical and welcome measure is the plan to increase funding to Australian Postgraduate Awards. The government has committed to doubling the number of such awards by 2012. On top of this, the Australian Postgraduate Award stipend will be increased by more than 10 per cent in value to $22,500 in 2010. That is very welcome income support for many postgraduate students. These more generous arrangements will enhance Australia’s research capacity.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 transfers and consolidates funding streams from a number of existing programs into the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. This will simplify the funding arrangements and allow an increase in Commonwealth contribution amounts for those clusters of funding. The new funding arrangements in this bill come on top of additional investments of $2.1 billion from the Education Investment Fund for education and research infrastructure and $1.1 billion for the Super Science initiative. I am very proud to be part of a government which is giving this sort of support to education and our universities. I commend the bill to the House.