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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12461

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (12:12): Tertiary education brings invaluable benefits not only to those who pursue a degree but also to the entire nation. Our Australian universities are world class. Our top-performing institutions consistently rank in the top 50 in the world. Our Group of Eight research intensive universities are at the forefront of research and innovation. I am proud that my electorate of Ryan is home to the University of Queensland whose breakthroughs are world renowned.

Professor Ian Frazer's HPV and cervical cancer vaccination is just one of many discoveries that will undoubtedly change lives and, indeed, the world as we know it. University of Queensland students are fortunate to have this amazing mind as part of their university, to have direct access to the leaders in their fields. University of Queensland graduates will remember being taught by Professor Frazer and there are opportunities for research scholarships and thesis supervision by researchers across all fields that are breaking new ground. The 2010 Australian National University poll of public opinion has found that the feeling about the benefits of science and research is overwhelmingly positive—85 per cent feel that science has made life better for people.

I also take this opportunity to congratulate Professor Zee Upton, a scientific research in my electorate of Ryan who recently won the Queensland Life Sciences Industry Excellence Award. Science and innovation are a big part of our universities and Professor Upton has absolutely excelled in her field. Professor Upton is an internationally renowned biochemist, inventor and tissue engineer best known for her research in growth factors, extracellular matrix proteins and wound repair. Since completing her PhD in 1994, Professor Upton has attracted over $14 million in research funding, produced 65 publications with 1,100 citations and has achieved 10 patents—all working for a better future. I am also delighted that another researcher in the electorate of Ryan, Dr Cherrell Hirst AO, was also one of the three finalists, and I take this opportunity to congratulate Dr Hirst for her very impressive work. Work and research such as that conducted by Professor Upton and Dr Hirst has been greatly supported by our universities, and with our young and fertile minds being taught around the nation by academics of this calibre the future is indeed bright.

The changes to the system that we are seeing today come as part of the Bradley review's recommended aspiration of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-old Australians holding at least a bachelor's degree by 2025. Given the benefits of higher education, the coalition supports this goal in principle. However, a big part of any reform is to ensure that it is fiscally responsible.

We are here today to discuss the change to 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. This comes as a result of moving to a demand-driven system for Australian university placements, which is estimated to cost up to $3.97 billion to implement. While I welcome the move to a demand-driven system, I cannot help but worry about the cost given this government's record of poor and reckless financial management. We have seen cost blow-out after cost blow-out across all projects in all sectors under this government and with the current state of the world economy Australia simply cannot afford another budget blunder in the implementation of this change to higher education.

The surplus is gone. But, on top of that, with regard to higher education this government has milked all other avenues of additional funding dry. It started with the election of the Rudd government, which abolished full-fee-paying places under which students could have chosen to pay up front in order to get their degree. Contrary to the propaganda promoted by left-wing student unionists—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): Order, the member for Ryan! I have allowed a great deal of latitude but, if you are going to speak to the bill, speak to the bill.

Mrs PRENTICE: This is about funding.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Yes, but it has nothing to do with the funding under this bill. I have allowed a great deal of choice about universities and what they are doing. Come back to the bill.

Mrs PRENTICE: I am talking about Commonwealth supported places.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: No, the member for Ryan will not debate with the chair. The member for Ryan will be relevant to the bill.

Mrs PRENTICE: Full-fee-paying students who are not taking up a position that could otherwise have gone to a Commonwealth supported place could have provided their own funding that gave the university the ability to provide the resources needed for their place provided they met appropriate academic criteria. By abolishing full-fee-paying places, the Rudd government simply took away an avenue for a student to gain a degree, and a source of funding for universities to spend on resources to teach more students.

On top of that, the Labor-Green coalition has recently reintroduced what is essentially a student tax with the abolition of voluntary student unionism.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Ryan had the opportunity to debate that under another bill—

Mrs PRENTICE: I did.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: and she did. So she will return to the bill before her or I will sit her down.

Mrs PRENTICE: Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. It amazes me that the Treasurer actually has the arrogance to claim that this tax is a government saving when he knows that it comes directly from students' pockets. It is yet another cash grab.

Further, as part of the bill we are debating today, we see this government making yet another grab and clawing back yet another financial incentive through the halving of up-front discounts. The system for students to pay for their university education is pretty good in Australia—by no means perfect, but it does allow us a considerable decrease in up-front costs to students through course fees. Don't get me wrong: going to university is still a very expensive exercise. However, the arrangement that allows students to pay back their fees once they are working, rather than up front, has resulted in a major increase in tertiary participation rates and enabled many more students to gain a degree when they otherwise may not have been able to.

However, this system does cause a strain. It takes many resources to provide tertiary education and, whilst increased participation is indeed a wonderful outcome, it does come at a cost. Strained resources will see a decrease in quality, and that is the last thing we want for our universities and students. This is why encouraging those who cannot afford to pay their fees up front relieves strain—it provides another source of funding. So today, as a result of this government's ongoing mismanagement of our nation's resources, it now needs to grab cash wherever it can.

This bill reduces the up-front payment discount from 20 per cent to 10 per cent and halves the reduction for voluntary payments in excess of the minimum requirement. Under the current system, 17 per cent of students pay their fees up front, yet under questioning during estimates the government admitted they expected this would halve under the change proposed today.

Education is life-changing, and Australia needs a strong foundation for our universities. Funding plays an essential role in providing that foundation, so I truly hope that the government makes expenditure on this program a genuine exception to their track record of financial mismanagement by keeping within their proposed budget. Having passed the buck on university funding to yet another review—this one conducted by Dr Jane Lomax-Smith—the government will have no excuse if it does in fact return to its track record of poor and reckless financial management.

I am proud of the calibre of Australian universities and the opportunity for our young Australians to access tertiary education. The move to a demand-driven system could be hugely beneficial to both. But if it is not delivered well, if it is delivered in the same way as other mismanaged government projects—as their track record shows with budget blowouts and reckless spending—then there is a high probability that the changes will fail. As Professor Paul Greenfield, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland and Chair of the Group of Eight Universities has highlighted, the focus on participation statistics is laudable but not enough. Such a commendable concern for social equity must be framed in the international sphere where the focus is on quality. A false step with this bill today regarding funding of the changes that have already occurred in the system threatens that quality. I implore the government to ensure that this time they do not drop the ball. This time they need to get it right.