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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (7:05 PM) —It is indeed a pleasure this evening to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. In doing so, I would like to preface my remarks by saying how proud I am of the Labor Party’s long history when it comes to opening up access to education for all Australians, particularly in the area of tertiary education. I would like to very briefly set the historical perspective. It is worth going back two or three decades. Prior to the 1970s a university education was inaccessible for many Australians due to the prohibitively high costs that were attached to attaining it. It is a shame that many bright, talented Australians probably missed out at that time on the chance to achieve their full potential. Following the reforms of the Whitlam government, many Australians were, for the first time, given that chance to study at university in a far more accessible way. Some members of this House, in fact, benefited from those reforms. It makes me reflect on the fact that, historically, when it comes to the need for dramatic reform for the benefit of many Australians, the Labor government seem to be pretty good at doing that.

The steps that are contained in this bill yet again reflect that type of approach. I do not think we can honestly say the same when we look at the record of the other side of the House either during their last tenure of government or going back even to those comparative years. Over the term of the last government there was a marked decline in public expenditure in the higher education sector, especially in comparison, as a percentage of GDP, with other OECD countries. There was also an increase in some of the red tape requirements, there was an erosion of equity of opportunity and a greatly increased reliance on student fees for university funding.

In 2006, whilst in opposition, the Labor Party issued a white paper on higher education and research and we promised a ‘substantial increase in public funding’ and a ‘program of long-term reform’ if we were elected to government. Since being elected to government, we have been determined to deliver on this promise, a promise we find fundamentally essential and important to this community. In 2008, the government commissioned a review of higher education, now commonly known as the Bradley report. Many recommendations were made in the report and these now form the basis of what will be a comprehensive overhaul of the system and, as promised, a program of long-term reform.

From the Bradley report, the government has committed itself to two key targets. Firstly, there will be a national target of at least 40 per cent of 25- to 40-year-olds having achieved a qualification of bachelor degree level or above by 2025. This will be implemented by accepting one of the Bradley report’s recommendations: to introduce an uncapped student demand driven system to fund undergraduate places. Until now, there has been a capping on the number of overenrolled student places that universities have been able to offer under agreements with the government. This will be done gradually by increasing the cap on overenrolment from five to 10 per cent from 2010 to the removal of the cap altogether in 2013. This change to the allocation of places will allow universities to manage their own student intake numbers, but more importantly it will provide approximately 50,000 more student places by 2013. This bill introduces a student centred approach and will have an estimated cost of $491 million over four years.

The second of these key targets will be that by 2025 at least 20 per cent of university enrolments will be people from low-socioeconomic status, or SES, backgrounds. This will be achieved in part by allocating $108 million over four years of a new partnerships program to link universities with low-socioeconomic schools and vocational education training providers. The aim of this measure is to provide links between schools and vocational education and training providers, with links to universities. In this way, students will have a better idea of what universities do and what opportunity and potential a tertiary education can bring to their lives. It will expose them to a world beyond the scope of their own everyday experiences at that point. Students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds also need greater levels of support. This includes financial assistance, but also more counselling services, more extensive mentoring programs and greater academic support. In order to provide these services, the government is allocating $325 million over four years, not only to encourage universities to enrol students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds but also to fund the intensive support programs needed for the retention of these students and the completion of their studies.

As well as providing these important services to assist SES students, the government is also introducing major reforms to student income support. Students currently receiving support under the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarship, CECS, will continue to receive support under the current arrangement. However, as of 2010 the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships will be replaced by the Student Start-up Scholarship of $2,254 in 2010 and this will be indexed on an annual basis. This will be provided to all students currently receiving income support or those under veterans’ schemes.

Another major reform to tertiary education will be the provision of $57 million over four years for the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. This agency is being established to work with the higher education sector to develop objective and comparative benchmarks and carry out rigorous audits. This will allow for the access of more detailed information about the performance of various higher education providers that will assist students in making a more informed choice about where they should study. It will also protect the overall integrity of the higher education system, encourage best practice and streamline current regulatory arrangements to reduce duplication and provide for national consistency across our higher learning centres. Overall, the agency will work with our universities to strive for better student selection and retention, and provide better outcomes for our graduates.

The government will be revising the indexation arrangements for all programs under the act from 2012, including grants for teaching and learning, and research, the OS-HELP maximum loan amount for overseas Australian students and the FEE-HELP borrowing limit. The government will also be helping Australian overseas students under the OS-HELP scheme by discontinuing the 20 per cent fee that these students until now have had to pay on their loan. The 20 per cent fee has limited the success of the loan program, and removal of the fee will encourage students to undertake part of their studies overseas for an Australian qualification.

Another major reform contained in this amendment will be the government’s commitment to increases to the funding of research conducted through universities. Over the next four years the government will commit $512 million worth of funding to the new Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities initiative to cover the indirect costs of research. This is in addition to the current funding provided by the Research Infrastructure Blocks Grants Scheme. The objective of the extra funding is to raise the average support of indirect costs of university research to 50 per cent of direct competitive grant funding by 2014. The government will also be altering the structure of the existing Institutional Grants Scheme and complementing it with additional funding to become more focused on collaboration between universities, industry and other end users.

Another step that the government is taking to promote research in our universities will be to increase the funding to Australian Postgraduate Awards and Other Research Grants. The government has a stated commitment to double the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards by 2012, and as part of this commitment the value of the postgraduate stipend will be increased by over 10 per cent, from $20,427 in 2009 to $22,500 in 2010.

As I said earlier, this government came to office with a commitment not only to redress the neglect of the Australian tertiary system of the past decade but also to provide better access to education for disadvantaged groups in our community, to give more freedom to our universities and to burden them with less red tape to operate to their best potential whilst, at the same time, assisting them by rewarding them with agreed quality and equity outcomes.

Additionally, the government has greatly improved research funding for our universities and is increasing investment in our university infrastructure. These are significant improvements to the tertiary system and, in commending this bill to the House, I want to repeat again my pride in being part of a Labor government that really understands and values the pure economic investment in education in this country. We do not use the words ‘education revolution’ lightly. It is what we really mean to do. As I have said earlier, if ever there is something that a Labor government really know hows to do, it is basic good, strong reform in areas of the community where it is needed. We have done it many times in the past and we are doing it again with the contents of this bill. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to commend the bill to the House.