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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7819

Ms BURKE (1:10 PM) —I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. Education is a central priority of the Rudd government’s reform agenda. This government is passionate about providing quality education outcomes for all Australians, right across the education spectrum. We are heavily investing in all aspects of education in Australia to ensure a productive, bright future for our nation. The Labor Party has a long history of championing higher education and in opposition we made substantial commitments to reforming the sector. This bill signifies a pivotal first step in revolutionising higher education in Australia, allowing us to work towards a world-class university system. It sets us on a path that will transform both the quality and accessibility of Australia’s universities and provides the basis for increased public funding of higher education through the implementation of significant structural change and important policy initiatives.

The task of reforming the higher education system in Australia is difficult and complex as a result of the 11 years of neglect by the Howard government. I would like to quote a speech by Professor Edward Byrne, who has just been made the new Vice-Chancellor at Monash University. He recently addressed a function, and his speech is rather relevant today, so I am going to quote liberally from it. He said:

Jonathan Swift has a lot to answer for. In Gulliver’s Travels—

and I do recommend it if you have not read Gulliver’s Travels. It is a book you should try and get into. Jonathan Swift:

… describes to his readers ‘a visit to the Grand Academy of Lagado,’ where Gulliver encounters an academic “with sooty Hands and Face, his Hair and Beard long, ragged and singed in several Places,” who at the time of the visit, “had been Eight Years upon a project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers,” and, “did not doubt in Eight Years more he should be able to supply the Governors Gardens with Sun-shine at a reasonable Rate.”

Swift’s satire, which reflected both on his contempt for the Royal Academy of Dublin and his disbelief that humans were rational creatures, is an image of academic life that we are all familiar with: the disengaged professor in an ivory tower. It has remained a popular stereotype up to today, even if we would hope that academics’ standards of personal hygiene have improved somewhat.

Tragically, I think that was the view under the Howard government of what universities were: ivory towers full of people beavering away on useless projects, not centres of learning. So we had 11 years of this view that somehow universities were not places of quality education, were not places where everyone should strive to go but were irrelevancies. Unfortunately, we now have to try to make up for those 11 years of neglect.

During the Howard years, Australia slipped radically behind the rest of the world when it came to public investment in higher education. Rather than adopt the global approach of investing more money in tertiary education, the Howard government saw fit to oversee a decline in public investment as a proportion of GDP. As a result, Australian universities have endured more than a decade of underfunding. This shameful record of public neglect is compounded by additional issues that plagued the Howard government’s approach to higher education: the increased micromanagement of the sector, the erosion of opportunity and the reliance of universities on student fees for revenue.

As I said, Professor Edward Byrne has just taken up the vice-chancellor’s position at Monash University. At this time, I would like to put on the record my appreciation of Professor Richard Larkins, who retired from Monash University just a short time ago. Richard arrived at the university at a very difficult stage in the university’s history. It was going through quite some challenges and was facing the neglect of the Howard government—the downturn in revenue. In the very short time that Professor Larkins was in charge as vice-chancellor, he turned the university around and put it back on the education map. I would like to put on the record my appreciation for the great thing he did for that terrific university.

There are enormous challenges that have been left for the Rudd government, but we are committed to reforming this sector. We stand ready to deliver on the significant promises we have made for higher education. We understand the need for a substantial increase to public funding and a program for long-term reform. We will continue to work with the higher education sector to rebuild our universities and the way we go about delivering tertiary education in Australia.

Again, I think this idea has been captured neatly in Professor Byrne’s speech:

The internationalisation and ‘mass-ification’ of higher education have put universities firmly on the agenda of policy makers and business, who recognise the place that world-class higher education institutions have in providing the skilled workers, critical thinkers and cutting-edge researchers that collectively underpin successful knowledge-intensive societies.

Thus for universities to continue to be effective in their mission to advance the human condition in today’s world, they need to be attuned to the needs of the communities that they serve. This means recognizing the vital contribution universities can play as agents for societal progress—by providing graduates that are leaders in business and the community, by generating new ideas and solutions to the pressing problems of the 21st century. In Australia, it should be noted, universities also make a direct contribution to the economy as our third-largest export industry, and in the case of Victoria, the largest.

This bill responds in part to the Bradley review, which assessed that reach, quality and performance of our higher education system will be key factors in our future economic and social growth. It is a bill that reflects the key principles of the government in relation to higher education—namely, the belief in the importance of quality university education to the community and the individual; broadening access to higher education, especially to groups traditionally underrepresented; and basing access on merit and not the ability to pay.

This bill encompasses measures announced in the 2009-10 budget, amounting to a $5.7 billion allocation to higher education, innovation and research over four years. It gives effect to budget measures that implement reforms and increased funding to student places, revised indexation arrangements, industrial performance targets, indirect costs of research and a new quality and regulatory agenda.

An important component of this bill is that it seeks to increase access to university for all Australians, particularly people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only does this adopt a key aspect of the Bradley review; it also adheres to a fundamental principle of the ALP in providing a helping hand to those who are less fortunate. We have committed to a dramatic improvement in the participation rate of Australians in higher education right across the spectrum.

This bill introduces new initiatives which will support our higher education attainment ambition that, by 2025, 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds will hold a qualification at bachelor level or above. Additionally, the government is committed to ensuring that, by 2020, 20 per cent of university enrolments at undergraduate level will consist of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Providing support to increase the participation of students from such backgrounds will have a significant benefit for families from low socioeconomic groups. It will result in flow-on effects of higher education aspiration and attainment, both for students and their families, including improved future employment, economic and social outcomes. This bill specifically targets the issue through a number of measures to ensure the government achieves our higher education attainment ambition.

Through this bill, we have adopted the Bradley review’s recommendation to introduce an uncapped student demand driven system for the funding of universities. Previously, the government has funded universities through agreements on a set or capped number of places. Overenrolments have resulted in penalties, with universities resorting to uncapped overseas and domestic full-fee-paying students to meet demand and provide revenue. This has resulted in academically capable students being squeezed out of university places for purely financial reasons.

During the term of the last government I placed on the record the story of Claire, one individual from my electorate. She was the youngest of nine in her family and a first-generation university student. She got, in the Victorian system, a TER of 91.5. She had won the Monash law prize. To get into Monash law, she needed 91.7—she was 0.2 off. She could not get in and did not get a place in the law system. Had her family been able to buy her a place into the system she could have got in on a result of seven points lower. I always thought that was the archetypical example of how bad the previous system was.

The new system we are proposing will remove caps on student places and will provide an additional 50,000 student places by 2013. To ensure the quality of higher education in Australia is maintained while participation is expanded, the government will create the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency which will be tasked with protecting the overall quality of the sector. This bill also introduces a new performance funding grant which will provide universities with a genuine incentive to ensure that they are providing the best possible learning opportunities for students. It will require institutions to meet certain requirements in helping underrepresented students achieve their study aspirations. Having some funding at risk will be incentive for universities to implement strategies to lift their performance.

The introduction of uncapped student demand driven funding is the first step to a higher education system with students as the central focus. Additional funding of $436.9 million will be targeted at supporting increased participation from students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This funding will essentially reward universities that attract more financially disadvantaged students and provide them with necessary support once they are enrolled. Three hundred and twenty-five million dollars will be provided to universities as a financial incentive to expand their enrolment of low SES students and to fund the intensive support needed to improve their completion and retention rates.

Studies have found that promoting higher education to students in the early years of secondary schooling results in greater aspiration for tertiary study. In recognition of this, $108 million will be allocated over four years to link universities to schools with low socioeconomic backgrounds in an effort to increase the aspirations of students to higher education.

These reforms will bring immense benefits to many of my constituents in Chisholm. Chisholm is home to Monash University, the Melbourne campus of Deakin University and the Box Hill Institute of TAFE, so higher education is a big factor within my electorate. Monash University is, as I have said, one of Australia’s leading higher education institutions and also has one of the largest enrolments of students on the one campus, at Clayton—it is a village unto itself.

There is some irony in the fact that Monash University is located in the area of Chisholm, where many people do it tough compared to many other parts of my electorate. I dare say many who come from the Clayton area do not actually attend the university—lots of people who live in Clayton go to the university but those who have been born and bred in the suburbs have not had a great opportunity to get there. These reforms will open up opportunities for such people to access the immense educational opportunities that institutions such as Monash University provide.

Many people from suburbs in my electorate—such as Clayton, Ashwood and Chadstone—which are generally home to households from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will be able to access quality university education as a result of these reforms. Having grown up in Ashwood and been one of a first generation of university educated individuals and one of five siblings who all had the pleasure of going to Monash University, I know the great benefits that this can bring. My parents did not have the opportunity when they were at school to get a university education but it was probably one of the greatest joys of our lives to watch our mother graduate with her university degree many years later. I think that is one of the things we forget: it is not just about people in their younger years; it is opening up across the board. For people who go into university as mature-age students, as my mother did, to get a degree is a terrific thing. Ensuring that people, no matter where they come from, have access to education is something that we should all be striving for. Many capable individuals from such suburbs have in the past missed out on the opportunity to study at university for purely financial reasons. This is a real tragedy and a damning reflection of the policies and attitude adopted by the former government. Through the reforms outlined in this bill we are seeking to address this very issue and ensure that, as we move forward, access to higher education is focused on merit and not on the ability to pay.

As I have said, I also have the Melbourne campus of Deakin University in my electorate, in the seat of Burwood. It is a very large campus. Deakin University is also striving to ensure that it is accessible to all. I am sure the next speaker will also be talking about the merits of Deakin University. Deakin has made itself very accessible through its online component, ensuring that, again, people who we would not traditionally visualise as students but who are in the workforce and want to upgrade or progress have access to higher education. We need to think about higher education as for all and not just for 18-year-olds. I think that sometimes in this debate we limit ourselves on who and what universities can provide benefits to.

These reforms highlight the Rudd government’s commitment to higher education and build on several local funding commitments already made to TAFEs and universities in Chisholm. The government understands that a high-quality higher education sector requires first-class research and teaching infrastructure. That is why we have invested $5 billion for higher education and research infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund. Monash University was successful in round 1 of the program, receiving $86.9 million to construct the New Horizons centre—a vital component of the university’s vision to develop the Clayton Innovation Precinct as the most significant technology innovation hub in the southern hemisphere. Not only is the university a higher education institution; it is also the largest employer in my electorate. It does not just see its boundaries. It looks at what it can do for employment in the sector for an area that has suffered job losses through the closure of car component plants. So we need to invest in these great institutions not only for education but for the employment opportunities they bring. A new biology laboratory will also be constructed at the university, following a further $8 million in funding announced in the 2009-10 budget. Both Monash and Deakin universities shared in $8 million in recognition of their excellence and improvement as part of the 2009 Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. This is reflective of the quality of learning and teaching at Chisholm’s two universities and shows both institutions are improving the quality of their teaching, which directly benefits students.

The Education Investment Fund also delivered for the Chadstone campus of the Gippsland Institute of TAFE, which received $16.2 million under round 2 of this program. The Gippsland Institute of TAFE—which sounds bizarre when it is in the middle of metropolitan Melbourne—is a lovely little TAFE which is there with the old SEC linesmen school. It is a vital part of the infrastructure of our state—indeed of many states—that people still know how to put up poles to string electric wires between. My father did part of his apprenticeship training way back when at that TAFE and he reckons that it has not changed since he went there. So they are very appreciative of the funding, which might bring it into the 21st century eventually. This is a great initiative of this government. This funding will enable the TAFE to build new facilities that will provide up-to-date training resources and infrastructure and will help train workers to build the $42 billion National Broadband Network. Chisholm is also home to the Box Hill Institute of TAFE, which has received unprecedented federal support for a number of innovative projects. This includes $2.7 million for the construction of a green skills hub which will support the provision of training courses in the sustainability sector. Additionally, $2.3 million has been provided for the TAFE to undertake a wireless internet rollout and equip its new Aveda Institute.

These projects reflect the Rudd government’s commitment to funding world-class higher education infrastructure which will enable students and researchers to operate in a world-class higher education system. The TAFE sector was completely ignored by the Howard government. They were totally denuded of any support and any recognition. It is a vital part of the higher education sector in our society. It is a vital part of education and jobs. Box Hill TAFE is a world renowned institution and it wants to stay a TAFE. It does not want to become a university; it wants to stay as an institution that excels in skills training. I really want to commend them for the great work they do.

The bill before the House today outlines reforms that build on Labor’s established commitment to higher education. It is a significant step forward in our reform agenda for higher education. Importantly, it reverses the shocking neglect and underfunding of Australia’s universities displayed by the Howard government. This is a bill that strives to improve the quality of higher education providers, whilst making university study accessible to a greater number of Australians. These reforms set us on the right track to achieving our higher education attainment ambition of increasing the proportion of 25- to 34-year-old Australians with bachelor-level qualifications to 40 percent by 2025. It also includes provisions that will help us achieve our goal of ensuring that by 2020 20 per cent of people enrolled in higher education will be from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The introduction of this legislation will transform the way higher education is offered in this country. It will ensure a greater number of Australians can achieve excellence in their tertiary studies. I commend the bill to the House.