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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 23

Senator COLBECK (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) (11:03 AM) —I would like to thank those senators who spoke on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 today, and particularly those who actually addressed it. The bill before the Senate is a clear expression of the Australian government’s strong support for quality research and a world-class higher education sector. The bill will provide around $41 million to assist our universities to implement the research quality framework in recognition of the initial costs to participate. Additional support will be provided to the sector for specific requests of the research quality framework, including the remuneration of the RQF assessment panel members and the further development of appropriate metrics.

The research quality framework marks an important reform for Australian research. It is primarily about assessing the quality and impact of Australian research and it will deliver real benefits to the higher education sector and, importantly, to the broader community. The bill also contains measures which will enhance the quality and diversity of Australia’s higher education system. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to reflect changes to the National Protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes, and these changes are the outcome of extensive consultation involving state and territory governments and the higher education sector. The revised protocols will also make possible the emergence of specialist universities, aligning well with the government’s vision of a more diverse higher education sector. Greater diversity will benefit students, staff and employers by promoting greater choice and competition.

A number of senators have said that the UK is dumping its research assessment exercise, RAE, so why is the government proceeding down this path? In fact, the UK is not dumping its RAE, in a sense. Essentially, then, the statement that has been made is not true. The UK is simplifying its RAE, as it has been in operation for 20 years, and is combining the full peer review process with a range of metrics. The Australian RQF is a combination of expert reviews and utilises metrics where appropriate.

This bill makes a number of technical amendments which will clarify existing Higher Education Loan Program and Commonwealth supported student arrangements and ensure that the legislation reflects original policy intent. The Higher Education Loan Program is recognised internationally as one of the fairest higher education systems in the world. Today virtually every eligible person who wants to undertake university studies is able to do so in a government subsidised place.

Since 1989, almost two million people have been able to access higher education opportunities through Australian government funded income contingent loans. For every $1 a student contributes to their education, the Australian government contributes $3. There are record numbers of students studying at Australian universities. According to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, more than 185,000 eligible applicants received an offer of a university place this year. Offers to school leavers grew in every state and territory. This year, 92 per cent of eligible school leavers who applied for a university place in their home states received an offer. This is the highest figure on record. Unmet demand for undergraduate university places has declined for the third year in a row. The AVCC estimates unmet demand to be 13,200 in 2007—a drop of seven per cent since 2006. This follows a 26 per cent decline in 2006 and a nearly 50 per cent decrease in 2005. This demonstrates that the higher education system has got the balance right. Students are taking advantage of the choices now open to them thanks to the Australian government’s investment in higher education, which is obviously—as indicated last night in the budget—a dividend of strong economic management.

I note with interest the report on this bill by the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education. I welcome the report’s recommendation that this bill should be passed without amendment. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.