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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12447

Mr PYNE (SturtManager of Opposition Business) (11:14): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011. This bill updates the maximum public funds allocated to fund Commonwealth supported places as a result of projected increases in enrolments of Commonwealth supported students in Australian universities. It also provides for an increase in funding in line with indexation, adds an additional year of funding for the 2015 calendar year and implements changes announced in the 2011-12 budget to the discounts applicable when students either pay their HECS upfront or repay their fees early.

The Bradley review of Australian higher education, which was released in December 2008, outlined a blueprint for restructuring the higher education sector. Among the key recommendations was an aspirational goal of 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 holding at least a bachelor's degree by 2020. The government, in response, pushed this date out to 2025. The coalition has always supported this aspiration in principle.

The main thrust of the Bradley recommendation for our Australian higher education system was that it move away from a restricted supply to a student demand driven system. At the time, Commonwealth supported places were capped by the Higher Education Support Act 2003, preventing the approximately 220,000 additional students that will be required annually to fulfil the Bradley target from gaining a Commonwealth supported place.

A related piece of legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Act 2011, which received royal assent recently, removed those restrictions for most Commonwealth places from 1 January 2012. So essentially, once this bill passes, further funding will be provided for these additional students by adding an extra year of funding for the 2015 calendar year.

The coalition does not oppose this bill, but I will in this debate simply make some points and take this opportunity to mention a few of our increasing concerns about the direction that higher education is taking in Australia under this government. The most important is Labor's lack of planning and longer term vision for the future with respect to higher education.

The major Bradley review reforms, including the commitment to increase university participation to 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds by 2025, are of course worthy, but these initiatives will not pay for themselves. Most of us understand that if universities absorb 20 per cent more students than they currently teach then they will have to increase staff to teach those students and they will need to expand fiscal infrastructure to accommodate extra students. The 2011-12 federal budget was a fizzer for higher education. It failed to show any evidence that the government is taking the challenges facing the higher education sector seriously. The coalition, on the other hand, has taken a very keen interest in precisely what research or projections are being undertaken to understand the impact of this enormous increase in student numbers over the next two decades.

The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, has been unable to advise, or even answer, what the estimated cost in future years of funding university places to achieve the government's targets will be. Worse still, he has not even bothered to commission any work on this by his department or any associated agency or consultant. Neither has he been able to provide any evidence that the government is seriously examining the potential impact of a better educated population on increasing the standard of living, the tax base, productivity and economic growth, or the impact on innovation and research. And what about quantifying the range of potential benefits to our communities and the broader economy flowing from an increase in the number of Australians with a tertiary education? The answer is that the minister has done precisely nothing. It was revealed at Senate committee hearings in June that the government has not commissioned any work on any of these questions.

Equally disappointing is that there has been no attempt to get any indication of the demographic or economic impact of implementing these reforms in each of the states and territories or of what the government's reform might mean for regional communities. A lack of careful planning is characteristic of this government's approach to the so-called 'education revolution'. Yet the government is proceeding, despite having no real grasp of what taxpayers may ultimately be required to contribute to this huge expansion of the higher education sector.

Taxpayers quite rightly have cause to be alarmed. They are concerned not only about reform in higher education but about reform in education more broadly. Take, just as one example, Labor's implementation of the national curriculum. The coalition has pointed out again and again that the whole curriculum process is likely to fall over unless some funding is specifically quarantined to support teachers with the rollout of the national curriculum. The government does not seem to understand that ultimately the development of the curriculum documents is only one component of the curriculum process and that in order for a new curriculum to be delivered effectively it must go hand in hand with a clear implementation process that considers the long-term consequences of national reform.

As an aside, Madam Deputy Speaker, I make the point that the same mistakes were made with the rollout of laptop for students, the Computers in Schools program, where a billion dollars was allocated for that program simply to buy hardware for students and it has now blown out to $2.4 billion. And some schools, particularly in Queensland, are now charging parents for the use of the laptop computers for their children. This was supposed to be a free program of laptops for students in schools. In South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania there are examples of schools charging parents for the use of the laptop computers. In Queensland it seems to have simply become state government policy to allow students to be charged for the free laptop computers. The government, in the guise of the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, the member for Kingsford Smith, changed the guidelines last December, in the dead of night, so that state governments could charge for what was supposed to be a free program. But I digress, Madam Deputy Speaker; thank you for giving me the opportunity without interruption to do so.

The government was forced to the negotiation table over the national curriculum and announced on 14 October at the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs meeting that $38 million would finally be provided for the professional development of principals as part of the government's National Partnership for Improving Teacher Quality. Yet for the last two years the government has not even been prepared to acknowledge there was an issue. Governments are obligated to fully consider their policy outcomes, including unintended ones, but there is nothing to suggest this government has considered the full effects of the Bradley reforms for higher education. There is no evidence that the Gillard government is taking any interest at all in the long-term planning connected with the implementation of it.

There is one more issue I wish to flag before I conclude. It relates to the reduction in the discount to students that pay their HECS-HELP upfront—that is, the measure which will apply from 1 January 2012 that upfront discount on students paying their fees reduces from 20 per cent to 10 per cent and the reduction for voluntary payments in excess of the minimum falls from 10 per cent to five per cent. This measure clearly penalises those students who pay their HECS debt upfront or early and provides a disincentive for many not to do so in the future.

The coalition notes that the reduction in the discount is expected to save $479.5 million over four years. Yet under further questioning, the government has conceded that it expects only half of the 17 per cent of estimated students who currently pay their fees upfront will continue to do so after this change. So even that figure cannot be relied upon.

I know that members on this side of the House find it disappointing that the government's own figures show that billions of dollars of HECS debts are considered to be at risk of never being repaid; yet the government are doing nothing about it. Instead of doing more to chase up these unpaid debts—which run into billions of dollars—the Gillard government have opted to penalise the students who pay their debt fully, promptly and upfront. It is an extraordinary inversion of logic. This is yet another example of how this government simply cannot get their priorities right in higher education, and when they do act in higher education, as they have over the discount, they get it fundamentally wrong.

I do hope that after the passage of this bill the government will start to listen to concerns of providers in the uni and higher education sector. It is simply incomprehensible, given that Australian government expenditure on higher education as a proportion of GDP is around 0.58 per cent, why they are not making any sort of projections or forecasts in relation to the impact of the Bradley reforms or why this work is not being made a priority. Even though we are concerned about the direction the government are taking in higher education, this is a step in the direction of implementing the Bradley reforms and the coalition does support most of the suggestions and recommendations made by Professor Bradley. On that basis, we do intend to support the bill. I commend most of the aspects of the bill to the House.