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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1075

Mrs WICKS (Robertson) (13:16): I am pleased to rise to speak to the amendments outlined in the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, because I strongly believe that education provides a great foundation for people to gain the necessary knowledge, skills and qualifications they need to pursue the best possible employment opportunities, which, in turn, will help create a better future for themselves and their families. This is a belief quite close to my heart, as a university graduate, a former teacher, a mentor to a number of young people in my electorate and as a mother of two young children who I want to have access to the best possible opportunities to set them up for the best possible future for their lives.

That is why I so strongly support these reforms and why I urge members opposite, who would seek to create fear and uncertainty about the impact of these reforms, to look beyond the smokescreen of their own ideology and see what we are actually building, not what they claim we are trying to destroy. If they stopped for a moment to breathe and to fan away the smoke created by the fires they are attempting to light, members opposite might glimpse—even for a moment—an outline of what we are actually seeking to build: a solid framework for a once-in-a-generation opportunity for significant reform and, if members opposite could see the framework, perhaps they would be able to make out the foundations. Then, if they can make out the foundations and the framework, maybe members opposite would then also perceive the quality of the bricks and mortar and tiles that are being laid by these reforms. If so, perhaps then they would also see that the architecture that is outlined in this legislation is actually about providing the best possible educational opportunities for all Australians, not just some.

In saying this, I speak as someone who grew up in a largely single income family, the eldest of five children, in a home where I was lucky enough to have parents who also knew the importance of education. My father was a high school teacher. I remember growing up back in the 1980s, during the times of the high interest rates we experienced under a former Labor government, delivering pamphlets and doing a paper run with my dad and my younger siblings which helped to pay for our school fees and our school uniforms and helped to pay the mortgage.

I also remember being a student at university in the early 1990s, working through the week during semester in casual employment, then working full time during my university holidays at a factory in West Gosford. I worked full time during my holidays in order to save up enough money by the beginning of each year to pay not only for my university texts but also for the compulsory student union fees that were imposed—quite high fees, if I recall correctly—but I never heard members from the other side of the chamber argue against their imposition. As I said in an earlier contribution to this debate, I also remember that while my HSC result enabled me to apply to any university in Australia for the humanities degree I wanted to study—no HSC result could have enabled me to make the one choice I would have perhaps liked to make—the choice to study locally.

So in making my contribution to this debate today, I speak as one acutely conscious of the impact of our reforms on those with less privileged backgrounds; those from regional areas—and I count my electorate of Robertson on the New South Wales Central Coast as a regional area—and those for whom access to choice of university is an important consideration.

I am advised that more than 4,600 students leave the Central Coast daily to Sydney to commute to their chosen metropolitan university. They do so because, at present, many do not have the choice to study in our region. Around 4,500 do have that choice—and I am enormously proud of the considerable investment made by the University of Newcastle into its Central Coast Campus at Ourimbah. There are another 4,500 at the TAFE campus there. The Ourimbah campus of Newcastle University offers 19 complete degrees plus online and split-site learning options, and its reputation in our region is of the highest order. But, after 25 years and consistently high rankings when it comes to student achievement and research, there are still only 4,500 university students at the Ourimbah campus. Why is that? Is it because of its location, a picturesque campus in the most beautiful region of the most beautiful country in the world? Is it because the mere fact that it is a smaller campus with less choice of courses means that many students from the Central Coast attend metropolitan based universities because the fees they pay for the privilege are the same regardless of which university they attend? Or is it because the current structure of the regulated system that our universities operate in do not allow them to think more innovatively, to explore more opportunity and to offer compelling and competitive courses that not only attract more students but importantly, outstanding staff as well?

So I ask those members opposite to imagine, just for a moment, what the future of a university campus on the Central Coast of New South Wales could be as a result of these incredibly important reforms. What additional faculties might it be possible to establish if a university like Newcastle, an outstanding university with an impressive pedigree despite its relative youth, was allowed to look for unique value propositions that would meet the needs of a growing region, attract students from around Australia and indeed the globe, and invest in the right courses that meet student demand and reflect their own expertise? What great future may lie ahead for a research intensive regional university like Newcastle, already in the world-class rankings, if it were let off the regulatory leash, so to speak, and allowed to create truly world-class educational and research opportunities to the benefit of current and future Australians wishing to pursue higher education?

Newcastle University has already identified the need to encourage more students from the Central Coast into university study through its pathways programs. More than 900 students were enrolled through the pathways program in 2013. As a snapshot into the diverse student mix on the Central Coast, more than 40 per cent of these students were from low socio-economic backgrounds and 55 per cent were mature-age students. So the opportunity for even more students on the Central Coast to benefit from the expansion of increased opportunities for diploma and sub-bachelor degrees is made possible by these reforms outlined in the bill.

In saying this, may I also commend Newcastle University for its pursuit of excellence in all fields, particularly in the areas of medicine and engineering. I thank vice-chancellor Professor Caroline McMillen for her outstanding leadership and stewardship of Newcastle University, and I acknowledge the significant and ongoing commitment that the university has made to providing excellence in educational opportunities on the Central Coast for more than two decades now.

If I sound passionate about these reforms, it is because I am. They make possible the world-class education that Australian students deserve and that our employees, entrepreneurs, businesses, schools, teaching hospitals need in order to build an even better tomorrow than what we enjoy today.

Despite what members opposite may say, the reforms outlined in this bill do not reduce opportunity for more students to access tertiary education—far from it. Competition enables choice and choice and quality of education ensure that more students, not fewer, will benefit from these reforms, and more students benefiting from choice and quality of education in turn of course, ultimately, benefits all of us as a nation.

We simply cannot allow a scare campaign by those members opposite to force a gradual decline into mediocrity in Australian higher education, nor should we allow members opposite to get away with their own dreadful record: the $6.6 billion that Labor ripped out of higher education and research between 2011 and 2013 hangs as a millstone around their necks.

In contrast, by allowing universities to set their own tuition fees from 2016 and enabling universities to specialise or offer more courses, regional universities like Newcastle will benefit because they can compete more successfully to attract more students. Because of HECS, under these reforms no student will pay a cent up-front for their university fees and no student will need to repay a cent until they are earning over $50,000 per year. And because of the choice and flexibility that is encouraged by these reforms, and because of the competition for the student dollar that deregulation of fees will engender, no university is likely to hoick up their fees to the sorts of heights that we hear in the cacophony of hysteria created by members opposite, who are trying to stymie this legislation. What members opposite they fail to understand, quite sadly, in my view, is that all they are really doing is trying to stymie future opportunities for students on the Central Coast—for children who today are still in primary school or preschool, for my children, for our children and for our children's children.

International competition alone demands that we at least consider these reforms and the very real benefit they will bring to regions like my own right around Australia. In fact, the Regional Universities Network has been publicly calling for these reforms to be passed by the House. The Chair of the Regional Universities Network, Professor Peter Lee, has made it clear, as have so many other leaders in this sector from across Australia, that it is not in the interest of students or universities to continue to let this issue drag on. Simply, these reforms should be passed—and it is not just Professor Lee. Universities Australia, the Regional Universities Network, the Australian Technology Network, the Innovative Research Universities, the Group of Eight, TAFE Directors Australia, the Australian Council of Private Education and Teaching, and the Council of Private Higher Education are all supporting the higher education reforms with amendments.

The need for reform has also been recognised by the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the very organisations who represent many of the employees of future graduates. A major reason for this is the benefits to students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds through our new Commonwealth Scholarships. This is the greatest scholarship scheme in Australia's history. It makes sense, because the brightest students from disadvantaged backgrounds should not have to miss out on forging pathways into education and employment.

Under these reforms, universities, along with other higher education providers, will play their part in this. Along with other higher education providers, they will spend $1 in every $5 of additional revenue raised into these scholarships for disadvantaged students. The institutions will also provide support to students from a low-socioeconomic background. This could assist students with the costs of living, as well as to cover fee exemptions, tutorial support or other assistance throughout their study.

The government are determined to widen opportunity and give everyone a chance at university. We know how important this is and we are working hard to ensure we get the reforms right. That is why we have proposed five key amendments in this bill, which builds on the strength of what was previously put to the House. The first is to retain CPI indexation for HECS debts, rather than moving to the 10-year bond rate—and I acknowledge Senator Day's contribution to this important amendment. The government have also accepted Senator Madigan's amendment, introducing an interest rate pause on debts for primary carers of children aged less than five who are earning less than the minimum repayment threshold. This is a good thing for new parents and it makes HECS even stronger.

The third important amendment will establish a structural adjustment fund so that universities can transition to the new environment, especially benefiting regionally located universities. In addition, a dedicated scholarship fund for universities with high proportions of students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds will be funded directly by the Commonwealth. This will add to the already generous Commonwealth scholarship scheme, which means thousands of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and in rural and regional communities will have even more help to get to university. Finally, we will also amend legislative guidelines so domestic fees are lower than international fees.

These amendments all add to the heart of these reforms: to deliver a higher education package that is fair and balanced, that spreads opportunity for students and ensures Australia is not left behind in global competition. It is worth repeating: students will remain protected by HECS. No Australian student has to pay even a single cent up-front. And no-one needs to fork out a cent until they are earning over $50,000 a year.

These groundbreaking reforms, including these amendments, expand a demand-driven system. Over 80,000 students each year will be provided additional support by 2018 under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. This includes an estimated 48,000 students in diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses, and 35,000 additional students undertaking bachelor courses. For current and future students, 50,000 students can look forward to benefitting from the abolition of the 25 per cent— (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The honourable member will have leave to continue her remarks when the debate is continued.