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Thursday, 10 November 2016
Page: 2480

Senator SCULLION (Northern TerritoryMinister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (13:48): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill, and this is a great opportunity for me to correct a couple of assumptions made, particularly by Senator Leyonhjelm. But, first of all, I would like to thank the opposition for their support. In fact, I know that in the former Labor government Larissa Behrendt actually recommended to your government that the supplementary Indigenous support programs be amalgamated, made flexible and more practical. As I have said before, it is important that we do not see that as being some opposition position and have us take a different position. We need to take the good work that you started and we need to continue through that, so thank you for the support.

To Senator Leyonhjelm, I am not sure where you got your data, but, just to help you understand, the important element of this is: today there is $253 million being invested over the forward estimates. At the end of the forward estimates, after we pass this bill, there will still be $253 million being invested. There is no more money. This is to provide efficiency dividends, because we do not embark on a journey, find something out, stumble a bit and then do nothing about it. This legislation is all about ensuring what we are motivated by.

What are we motivated by? When we assist anyone going through university, there is a cost. We want to make sure that is an investment. Quite clearly the outcome we want is people graduating from university. So, instead of measuring how many people we got into university, we will be measuring how many people graduate from university to ensure that the cost of the investment we make is an appropriate investment. So this particular legislative amendment is there to ensure that we give the right level of support at the right time.

Aboriginal students, from what we know, are enrolling in universities in greater numbers than ever before. Enrolment rates are increasing. As I indicated, there was a recommendation to the previous government that the supplementary Indigenous support programs be amalgamated. We worked with universities through 2015-16 to develop the Indigenous student success in higher education measure that was announced last budget.

What this measure does is shift the focus from getting Indigenous students in the door—which I have to say, Senator Leyonhjelm, is very, very important, I know, to both myself and yourself—but more importantly helping the students to succeed and graduate. The new flexible arrangements mean that university staff working with Indigenous students will actually have a greater say in the assistance they provide, and we worked with universities to see how that will actually be effected.

It is racist, in an absolute sense, to say Aboriginal students, or any other students, who go to university are going to have exactly the same challenges at exactly the same time. Of course they are not. Some students might excel in one element of going through university but not so much in others. Instead we will allow the university to have the flexibility to understand that the level of support they need to provide is timely and appropriate to that particular student. Quite clearly these amendments that we are introducing are going to lay the foundations for reforms. We think they are going to be good for the students and they are going to be good for universities—in fact, good for all sides of the chamber.

Our guidelines are going to require that universities that provide scholarships and tutorial assistance this year will be required to provide them in the future. The other element that is really important is that we are moving to no longer just paying on when you start. As we will be staggering the payments there will be an incentive for the university in considering this flexibility to ensure that the individual who is going through stays there, because that is the nature of the payments. Instead of getting everything as a lump sum at the beginning, we are considering graduating that so that there are other payments and so that there is an incentive to provide for the students in that regard.

I thank the senators for their contribution to this bill that will improve support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students, and improve the administration of the VET FEE-HELP scheme and the VET Student Loans program. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.