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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1161

Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (18:57): I rise today to speak on the importance of the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. This bill will see a new higher education system which is necessary to make possible world-class education that Australian students want and deserve. Education breeds confidence. It unlocks the door to knowledge, possibilities, growth and employment, and where there is employment there are further opportunities. This bill will for the first time cast the blanket of opportunity further by offering more people in our community the chance to access an education.

This bill, through the deregulation of fees and under the careful watch of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, will give universities the certainty they require to be international leaders in higher education, our nation's third largest export. It will allow the largest Commonwealth scholarship program ever to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from regional and rural communities. Some 80,000 students studying in vocational education and training will benefit from the abolition of the 20 per cent loan fee for VET FEE-HELP and another 50,000 students will benefit from the abolition of the 25 per cent loan fee for FEE-HELP.

For student primary carers—that is, mum or dads of children aged less than five years of age—earning less than the minimum repayment threshold it will introduce an interest rate pause on debts. And university students will continue to receive a first-class higher education. Reform will strengthen Higher Education Loans, HELP, which sees the taxpayer support all students' tuition fees upfront and ensures that students have no upfront barriers and only repaying their loans once they are earning a decent income of more than $50,000 a year as a result of their education.

Our education minister has listened and the government has agreed to amendments to the bill to maintain the HECS indexation rate at the consumer price index. So Labor can stop scaring people with this untruth about indexation. HECS, which is part of the HELP scheme, is here to stay. We will also amend legislation guidelines so domestic fees are lower than international fees minus the Commonwealth subsidy.

As the budget papers show, government expenditure on higher education is going to increase each and every year and it will cover more people seeking it. The government is not increasing fees and will continue to support courses through Commonwealth funding, only now it will support more choices. A new system will cast the net of opportunity further by expanding the demand driven Commonwealth funding system. For the first time ever, all Australian undergraduate students in registered higher education institutions will be supported for all accredited courses—higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas, associate degrees and bachelor degrees offered at any Australian higher education institution whether public or private universities, TAFE's or colleges

Labor has misled the community and, in doing so, is robbing those they say they are committed to—the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the diverse and those who seek alternative study pathways. The new Commonwealth Scholarship scheme will create an unprecedented level of support for disadvantaged students to access university. Under the new higher education system universities and other higher education providers will be required to spend $1 of every $5 of additional revenue raised on scholarships for disadvantaged students through the Commonwealth Scholarship scheme. Universities and education providers will decide what to charge and students will choose what to pay. If fees are too high, lecture theatres will be empty. As with all consumables, if the price is not competitive you would look elsewhere.

Labor can now stop scaring people about $100,000 degrees. In a media release on 8 December 2014 the Chair of the Group of Eight, Professor Ian Young OA, said:

The changes in the reform package means $100,000 degrees are simply hyperbole.

However, to provide more certainty in this area, the government will also direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor university fees. Additionally, to protect quality and standards, the Australian higher education system will continue to be underpinned by quality assurance arrangements, including a national quality agency and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Professor Peter Shergold AC, Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, on his appointment as chair of TEQSA. In a letter to me last week, the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Western Sydney, Professor Barry Glover, said:

May I ask that you bring to the House's attention the need for an end to the current intolerable state of uncertainty. Mindful of higher education's status as a major export earner for Australia, it is exceedingly difficult to think of a comparable industry that could endure and, indeed, remain globally competitive amid this level of legislative limbo.

The University of Western Sydney plays an important role in education and research and for our community of Greater Western Sydney. I am privileged to have their Hawkesbury Campus in the electorate of Macquarie. Under the guidance of Professor Barry Glover, Greater Western Sydney has a first-class university which strives to inspire all to achieve and broaden their education horizons. I take this opportunity to congratulate Professor Glover. It was announced on Friday, 20 February that he would be the new chair of Universities Australia.

This government supports opportunity and, for all those who seek it through pursuing higher education, we want to widen your opportunities. I again quote Professor Young:

No change would mean fewer opportunities for Australia's students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Staying still—or moving backwards—won't help. Deregulation of price and student numbers can deliver the change Australia needs.

Those opposite who promote a false political message oppose a fair go and opportunity for all. I commend the bill to the House.