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Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Page: 6649

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (13:43): It is said that the purpose of education is to turn an empty mind into an open one. As a nation, we should, and do, take pride in the calibre of our universities. That is why it is important that we encourage participation in tertiary education and break down the barriers for students who want to obtain a degree. It takes commitment and dedication to complete a university degree, and for young people especially that commitment and dedication can sometimes be considered a sacrifice. However, it is difficult to put a price on the diverse benefits a tertiary education brings—higher earning potential, increased and diverse opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to analyse and to be encouraged and enthused to learn.

The Bradley review, handed down in 2008, recommended that we aspire to have 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, the current education system will struggle to achieve this. This is why we are here today discussing a measure that will assist this aspiration by introducing a demand driven funding system. This measure was also recommended by the Bradley review, to move away from the current restrictions of a government imposed system.

For the past 25 years, the university sector has been highly regulated by the federal government. The government makes a decision as to how many places each university can offer for each course and how much they can charge each student for that course. In short, both the number of places and the price of those places have been capped. These caps restrict both universities and current and potential students. The caps represent a bar to the approximately 22,000 additional students needed annually to reach the above target from gaining Common­wealth enrolment. This bill removes those restrictions for most Commonwealth places from January 2012.

The current system is highly centralised. It is bureaucratic and takes little consideration of supply and demand—what is actually wanted and needed by our universities. Students have been limited in their choice. Should they miss out on a Commonwealth supported place, they have little option but to attend a private university. Their options were even further restricted upon the election of the Rudd government, which abolished their ability to enrol in a full-fee-paying place, where they could have chosen to pay upfront in order to get their degree. Contrary to the propaganda promoted by left-wing student unionists, full-fee-paying students were not taking up a position that could otherwise have gone to a Commonwealth supported place. They provided their own funding, which gave the university the ability to provide the resources needed for their place. By abolishing full-fee-paying places, the Rudd government simply took away an avenue for a student to gain a degree.

The current system is flawed and, by taking little notice of supply and demand, does not provide what students want or what Australia needs from its graduates. It allows the centralised federal government to dictate what is available to students and what universities can in turn offer. Moving to a student demand driven system would increase options and respond to what students want and, importantly, what industry needs beyond tertiary education. It would also diversify the sector, allowing students freedom of choice. By deregulating what a university can charge and how many places they offer, we should see a much wider range of options for students. This would allow them to weigh up what they value from an institution, be it price, reputation, learning outcomes, research or teaching access.

In short, a move to a demand driven funding system is reform that would benefit our university sector. However, a big part of any reform is to ensure that it is fiscally responsible. It has been estimated that implementing these changes will cost $3.97 billion, and I implore the government to make expenditure on this program a genuine exception to its track record of financial mismanagement and to keep within this 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.

This is compounded by the fact that the Treasurer has claimed that the student service amenities fee—a misleading name for what is actually just a student tax—will inject about $4 billion into the sector over the next four years. Whilst it amazes me that the Treasurer actually has the arrogance to claim this tax is a government saving when he knows full well it comes directly from the students' pockets, I am putting him on notice that the coalition will hold the government to account for the implementation of these changes.

Our university sector is vital, and student choice is critical to its success. I just hope that this Labor government acts contrary to its track record and implements this change. Education is our children's future, but equally it is our nation's future. Every barrier we remove will be repaid countless times over. Every step we as a nation take to improve access to education will open not just minds but opportunities and hope.