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Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Page: 55

Senator MASON (3:46 PM) —I thank Senator Carr. I have read the statement, and there is much the coalition agrees with. Indeed, the debate is not so much about the objectives or ends but about the means. There is much commonality between both the coalition and the government in the area of higher education.

The general policy contrast is that the coalition trusts universities, it trusts students to control their destiny and it believes that in general universities and students should be the architects of higher education, not governments and not the bureaucracy. The minister is right. The most important skill Australians need in their career or in their life is the ability to continually acquire new skills and the capacity for lifelong learning or training. Our universities—the minister is quite right—are central to this challenge.

It is 30 years since I first went, as an undergraduate, to university. It does seem like yesterday but the difference is now stark, because when I went to university I was competing for jobs with young Australians living and working in my city, which was the city of Canberra. But it is not like that anymore. Young people studying in Canberra or indeed in Sydney are competing for jobs not just with young people living in their local district, not even young people living in the same state or indeed anymore in the same country, but increasingly with young people living in Hanoi, Budapest, Warsaw or London. That is what has changed over the last 30 years since I first went, as an undergraduate, to university. That has changed enormously the impact and the importance of universities on the lives of young Australians. That is why increasingly today every Australian university is now competing not just for students but also for staff, for funding and for growth opportunities.

As I move about talking to universities—and I am sure Senator Carr hears the same thing—they will say, ‘Look, Senator Mason, we are having to compete to attract people from overseas to our universities and to keep staff here in Australia.’ The government’s document understands that and acknowledges that. But that again is a huge change from 30 years ago where far more people stayed in Australia as academics and their entire lives were spent at one, two or three higher education institutions. Today many of our best and brightest go overseas.

The Bradley review was the government’s flagship review of higher education. The coalition supports much of what Professor Bradley and her team recommended. But the Bradley reforms are not the end of reform; they are just the first stage of the debate and the ongoing reform. The move towards a student demand-driven system proposed by Bradley and endorsed by the government is a good start. The coalition acknowledges that. But we believe the future holds scope for yet greater freedom and greater flexibility to be introduced in the higher education system both for students and for institutions themselves. Some flexibility has been built in but we believe there is room for much more, at least in the medium term.

There are some risks. The document discusses this but there are risks that I have spoken about on several occasions and Senator Carr has heard me speak about this at estimates. The government talks about compacts. The compacts are, in a sense, what the government uses to govern their relationship with universities, and funding will be based on these compacts. In a sense I have nothing against that and neither does the coalition. But the problem is that I would hate for compacts to be used to, in a sense, cement the status quo.

It is terribly important that universities can move up and down in the league tables—in other words, that an ambitious new university can become one of the top 10, or the top eight, and other universities, if they are not up to it, can fall down. I would hate for the system to be calcified by these compacts. That is what I would not want to see. The university that I used to lecture at, the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, has been a great success story over the last five years. I am sure Senator Carr would acknowledge that. It has moved up the Times education rankings enormously—after I left, I might add! But it is true. I would not want to see compacts used to calcify the status quo. Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, is now one of the world’s top 10 universities and yet it is a very new university. I just say to the government: let us hope the compacts allow for competition and flexibility.

I know that increased participation is one of the government’s key objectives in higher education. Again, the coalition has no objection to the idea of increasing participation, particularly in those target groups that the Deputy Prime Minister and Senator Carr have addressed in the past, quite rightly: Indigenous students, kids from rural and regional backgrounds and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. That objective is noble, but what worries me is this. It is all very well to talk about creating more places for disadvantaged students—that is fine—but that is not really the problem. There is virtually no unmet demand in this country for young people, properly qualified, to go to university. If you are properly qualified, you can get in, basically. I do not think the problem is with the supply of places to university; it is with the demand for university places.

I look back to when I was young and Mr Whitlam abolished tertiary fees. I am sure he did it with the best of motives, thinking, ‘This will open the doors for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ But did it do that? No, it did not. What it did was encourage more middle-class young people to go to university, and it did not change the social composition of those who went to university. Why? Because the issue is not so much about money; it is about the culture and about aspirations even more than it is about money. So the coalition is far more concerned with concentrating on creating demand and increasing the aspirations of students in those disadvantaged groups than it is with increasing the supply of university places. In essence, if you are qualified today basically you can get in, although I admit there has been a slight blip given the global financial crisis.

When it comes to creating demand, the government has touched on some of the issues. It is about increasing literacy and numeracy. The My School website, which Senator Carr mentioned today in question time, is part of it. I agree with that, but of course the architecture of that was devised by the coalition. NAPLAN, the national testing, was the coalition’s idea. I should just correct Senator Carr. We do not oppose the My School website or the My School proposal; we simply think it does not go far enough. The coalition believe that in fact if schools are given greater autonomy—if school principals are given greater autonomy, if school communities are given greater autonomy—that will mean that student education is far better. It will mean a more flexible school community and, most importantly, far greater accountability. When you have got school principals who are accountable to their school communities, you then have a situation where results really do matter. That is really what the coalition is concerned about.

While I agree with much of what the ministerial statement on higher education says—and I think the Bradley review was a very good start—the great failings are simply a concentration far too much on the supply of university places as opposed to the demand for them and not enough concentration on creating that demand in disadvantaged areas where we need to create it. That will only happen with greater accountability in our school system.

Question agreed to.