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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12453

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (11:38): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2011. As the member for Blair said, the bill makes a number of important changes to university funding. Firstly, it increases the maximum public funds allocated to Commonwealth-supported university places to account for the projected increase in the number of Commonwealth supported students. This bill is one of several that come on the back of the Bradley review of Australia's higher education system. A key recommendation of that review was adopting an aspirational goal to have 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 holding a minimum of a bachelor's degree by 2020. This is an ambition that will see around 220,000 additional students each year. Naturally that is going to require an increase in the funding for Commonwealth supported places, and this bill allows for that.

This increase in the number of university students is intended to come about as a result of the government's move to a demand driven higher education system. I have spoken about this change with Dr Stephen Weller from James Cook University in Townsville. He spoke positively of this shift in focus, pointing out that regional universities such as James Cook University have always had to compete for students, and this will encourage the same level of competition among all universities. That can only be a positive thing.

This bill also allows for university funding to increase in line with indexation, extends the act to cover funding for the year 2015, and halves the discounts given to students who pay their HECS upfront or make voluntary repayments. While I do not oppose this bill, I do have concerns about this last provision to reduce the discounts offered for paying HECS off upfront. The government has stated that this is a budgetary savings measure. While I recognise the need to tighten the belt and increase the amount of HECS actually being repaid, especially given the expansion in the overall level of funding, it is disappointing to see the way that this government has chosen to achieve this.

The HECS-HELP system provides students with a fantastic opportunity. It opens up the benefits of tertiary education to anyone who wants to put in the hard work and effort. But the government should be doing its best to recoup this money from those who can afford to pay it back as quickly as possible, and to do this an adequate incentive needs to be provided to students. Many students and graduates are at a time in their lives when they have other financial aspirations, such as buying a car or a house—or just simply getting on with life and not living on a student's wage anymore. Paying off their university debt has to compete with these. Halving the discount for upfront payments dramatically diminishes the incentive to make this a priority.

The government is well aware of this. It has acknowledged that the proportion of students paying their HECS upfront will halve as a result, creating a longer period of time for the recouping of HECS costs and opening the system up to a greater level of doubtful debt. While I support the fact that there is no obligation to pay back HECS when earning a below-average income, this creates a lot of debt that is never paid back. There is less risk of this becoming a problem when students and graduates are strongly encouraged to make voluntary payments when they can afford to. Any business—and let's face it, universities these days are a business, and the government is a business by extension—will know that to get cash in now is better than having your cash flow stymied over a long period of time. While I have mentioned business, this government could and should do all it can to improve its balance sheet, and giving people incentive would ensure that the overall position of the government would be enhanced by early payment of fees—even at a discounted rate.

Another concern I have is that effectively increasing the cost of university for those who pay their HECS ahead of time could potentially reduce the number of students. Of particular concern to me is the impact that may have or could have on James Cook University in Townsville. James Cook University is a source of immense pride for the Townsville community. With the recent visit of the Queen it is a good time to remind the chamber that James Cook University is the only university in Australia that she has personally granted royal assent to, and it has become the foundation of Australian research and education in tropical issues.

The Howard government greatly contributed to this with its support for the School of Medicine, opened in 2000. This was followed by the School of Allied Health. Our latest acquisition was the School of Veterinary Science in 2006. James Cook University has a charter which explicitly states that its courses should reflect and be appropriate to life in the tropical world. Our School of Medicine has become a vital part of both international research in tropical medicine and in training doctors to work in rural and remote areas, successfully encouraging many of its graduates to stay in the region. Most of the registrars in the rural and remote hospitals are JCU medical school graduates. Credit must really go to Tropical Medical Training and Ian Hook and his team for the support that they have given.

In discussing the impact of university funding on JCU and life in the tropics, I would like to take the opportunity to urge this government to match the coalition's 2010 pledge to establish, in Townsville and Cairns, the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine. With 40 per cent of the world's population living in tropical areas, and with all three of JCU's campuses located in the tropical zone—the Townsville, Cairns and Singapore campuses—JCU is ideally placed to lead Australia's humanitarian and scientific efforts in this most important part of the world. Our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, is a developing nation with very real health concerns. It is often said, and I will say it again, that the closest capital city by far to Townsville is Port Moresby. Our relationship with Papua New Guinea must improve, as must health conditions. But, with cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria creeping into the Torres Strait, it will not be long before they hit the mainland. Our first Australians were the group of people most affected by the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. We as a nation cannot afford to have these sorts of diseases hit our people who live in remote parts of the Cape and Torres Strait. James Cook University not only have a vision for the future; they have the people to take them there. From medical science to communications, agriscience and engineering, we have an asset here which must be supported in every way.

Australians are lucky to have such a great tertiary education system. Expanding these opportunities to more students is important, and I recognise that the cost of this must be found in savings in other parts of university funding. While I do not oppose this bill, I remind the government that we need to encourage students to pay back their HECS loans quickly and reward those who do. It is just good business sense.