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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7828

Mr CHEESEMAN (1:48 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. I am pleased to speak on these budget measures and yet another education bill. It seems to me that at the halfway mark of the first term of the Rudd government the area that this government will be remembered for is education. Isn’t it a great thing that this government has delivered so much for young people in education? I have lost count of the number of education bills that I have spoken on since the last election. Many of these bills have included sweeping reforms, including upgrades to every single primary school and many secondary schools in Australia, trade schools measures, student income support reforms, VET reforms and student union funding reforms. That is a fantastic list of achievements we have been able to deliver, and now we are turning our attention to the higher education sector.

The Rudd government is rebuilding Australia’s education system and, I believe, putting in place an education system for the future. This is another bill of sweeping change. I will list just a few of the changes introduced in this bill. This bill will introduce a demand driven system of Commonwealth supported prices from 2012, with transitional arrangements in 2010 and 2011. It will introduce increased indexation for higher education. It will introduce a new performance funding grant element under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. It will increase the maximum annual student contribution amount for education and for nursing. It will remove the loan fee on OS-HELP loans. It will add new items to other grant provisions of the structural adjustment fund.

The bill will introduce measures to increase the participation of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, which I think is a very important aspect of this bill. Funding for the Commonwealth Scholarships Program will reflect replacement of certain scholarships by new scholarships. From 2010 it will redirect the grants for the Workplace Reform Program into the CGS based grant. This bill also ends the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund and the Workplace Productivity Program. It will provide appropriate funding for the continuing Commonwealth Scholarships Program and other research programs. These are about a dozen very important provisions that will be made into law by the passage of this legislation. They are indeed some very sweeping reforms.

Firstly, I would like to make some overarching remarks about where we are heading with these reforms and then I will concentrate on a couple of those aspects. In this bill, the muddled tangle of ideology and small-mindedness of the previous coalition government will be untangled and swept away. In its place, we are putting new foundations that will consolidate our higher education sector and accelerate the race to make Australia’s higher education system world-class. I think that is extremely important because, without doubt, our universities today operate in an international higher education marketplace. Our foundations have to be strong and the key elements have to be constantly improved.

The new foundations of the Rudd government, first of all, are about encouraging participation in higher education. The new foundations that the Rudd government are putting in place are about world-class, first-class, ground-breaking research, not average research. The new foundations are about encouraging really good scholarship. The new foundations of higher education are about a system of cooperative working arrangements between the government and universities rather than the punitive approach of the previous government. The new foundations are about fostering cooperation on industrial relations between university management and their staff. The new higher education foundations are about creating a high-performing and rewarding system.

As I said, this is a wide-ranging bill and it is not possible to go through all of the detail on all of the aspects, so I will just focus on a couple of aspects that I find particularly important. Firstly, the amendments to the act, which support an increase in the participation of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds is a very important part of the Labor Party’s agenda. We are the Labor Party and the custodians of a fair go. Access to higher education is central to opportunity and prosperity for individuals, their families and their communities. This is particularly so in a modern world where a much larger proportion of jobs require a higher degree or specialist technical expertise. The second reason for supporting maximising participation in higher education is not so much about individual opportunity; it is about opportunities for our nation. So much great talent is wasted because of the lack of opportunity.

Still today a great deal of talent is wasted in Australia because people do not have the support to reach their full potential and having a go at university is critical to that. The analogy I would like to use, as a lover and long-time follower of Aussie rules, is that of the old VFL, which was before the AFL. If you go back to the days of the early eighties—when I was a young boy—there were virtually no Indigenous boys playing in the VFL, and then the AFL was started. It was not because there was no Indigenous talent out there but because they were not getting the support, help and recognition that they deserved to be able to play AFL at the highest level. It was not because there was no Indigenous talent; it was because of the lack of support. So much Indigenous football talent was being completely wasted because the system did not recognise and encourage it.

Today, the system has changed and the difference it has made is remarkable. Indigenous boys have made the system so much better. They are many of our great talents of the game. They are excitement machines in that particular code. The talent was always there but now the system is in place to identify it, support it, encourage it and give them a go. I think that is a very important story for us to tell. Australia had missed out and was the poorer for it. This part of the bill, which recognises and assists people from lower socioeconomic areas into higher education, is in my view a no-brainer and it ought be encouraged.

I would also like to say a few things about the controversial part of this bill that has been raised and this is also linked to the issue of lower socioeconomic areas. That is, of course, the issue of performance funding and publishing performance results in ‘league tables’, as they have been dubbed in the media. Performance funding focuses universities firmly on meeting our shared objectives for Australia’s higher education system. It is important that universities know that there are incentives available if they do perform well and meet certain performance measures. Having some funding at risk will be a real incentive for universities to come up with effective strategies to continue to lift their performance.

Under the Rudd government’s reform, a university’s share of the performance funding pool will be based on the size of its student population. Universities will receive performance funding if they meet targets rather than funding allocated on the basis of comparative performance. This is a system, I believe, that takes much better account of the issues of socioeconomic disadvantage and those communities. This is critical if we are to achieve our goal of ensuring that, by 2020, 20 per cent of the people enrolled in higher education are from groups that are underrepresented in the system as we currently know it. Universities will have the opportunity to negotiate targets that are challenging but appropriate for their circumstances against indicators of learning and teaching performance and the performance in relation to the outcomes of the low-SES students.

It is a very sensible system. It is a much better system than the old model used by the coalition, which just rewarded the rich institutions. The government is committed to making sure that the robust and suitable performance measures are put in place. Under this bill, individual targets will be negotiated in 2010 and there will be conditional funding paid in 2011 to providers who meet those agreed targets. Of course, a critical issue is who will decide whether or not institutions meet those targets. To make sure this is objective and done by people with the best available knowledge—

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.