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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5334

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (11:18): I also rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, particularly as a senator with an electorate office based in the Illawarra—of course, with a very successful university in the Illawarra. I will very much focus my comments on that regional space.

The coalition government is providing record high funding for the university sector. But, having said that, I think it's time for the sector now to adapt and to play its part in supporting Australians through this very difficult period.

Senator Stoker made a number of very important points, and I think it's important for Australians to understand that it is not necessarily a measure of one's success to have a university degree. There are many things that we ask Australians to do. Regrettably, in the 1980s, through some of the changes that were made by Labor and then Education Minister Dawkins, we saw many technical colleges simply become B-grade universities. As a consequence of that, in the passage of time, we devalued the importance of a trade. In effect, I think, we've seen the loss of a generation of young people who have not undertaken trades and who have been forced into circumstances in the belief that they had to have a university degree to succeed in life, and now we're facing skills shortages which are a direct consequence of those actions.

Therefore, I think it is important to put into context that the Australian economy needs people to do all sorts of jobs. Some of those require university degrees, and some of them do not require university degrees. But, as far as those jobs that do require university degrees are concerned, I think it's very important to look at where we need people trained.

This package is very important, because it does support regional universities. I'd like to make reference, if I may, to an article in The Australian Financial Review on 29 September by Robert Bolton. He starts his article by saying:

New data on university research shows the fastest rate of growth is happening in regional and smaller universities, a finding University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Paul Wellings says should reprioritise budgetary thinking.

Universities such as Curtin in Western Australia, Deakin in Victoria, Griffith in south-east Queensland and Newcastle and Wollongong in NSW are "snapping at the heels" of giants such as Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland in the growth rate of research citations.

In a speech that the education minister gave on 30 September, he obviously refers to the importance of this bill, but he also underscores the support that the bill is receiving from entities such as the Regional Universities Network and the importance of investing in regional education also paying a dividend for regional communities. He quotes the Napthine review, which I'd also like to quote:

Increasing the participation of RRR—

rural, regional and remote—

students will directly and positively contribute to the economic and social development of RRR areas.

I would also like to refer to a piece that Professor Wellings, who is also the Chair of the New South Wales Vice-Chancellors Committee, wrote on 30 June in The Australian. He says:

Australia has been shaped by many forces over the years, so it's not remarkable that the structure of universities and the way they operate have constantly evolved to align with the needs of the country.

History has shown that interventions into higher education policy by the Commonwealth Government have often been part of moves to safeguard the country's prosperity when a black swan swoops. The crucial role in coronavirus recovery that universities play at present can be likened to the aftermath of World War II.

The Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme of the 1940s assisted thousands of returned servicemen and women to enter higher education, with a focus on medicine, dentistry, engineering, veterinary science, agriculture and science.

So let's look at the reform package. Basically, the package provides opportunities across three important objectives that will increase the number of graduates in areas where there will be employment growth and demand, such as teaching, nursing, agriculture, STEM and information technology. It will lift the educational attainments for students in regional Australia, and it will strengthen partnerships between universities and business to drive participation in workforce and increase productivity. We know that the reforms will provide the necessary funding to support additional university places—39,000 by 2023, and almost 100,000 places by 2030.

The new funding model and the approach to the new funding model are more nuanced, to one that determines a share of costs that need to be met by the government and students in different fields. In the article that I referred to, the one by Professor Wellings, he points out the key features of the package that are cause for optimism, and I'd like to refer to some of the key ones. The HECS-HELP scheme remains unchanged. It provides certainty for the future. The income contingent loan scheme, which was delivered by the Hawke government in 1989 with the aims of expanding the higher education sector and promoting greater access to promote economic growth, demand and affordability, will not change. Let's not forget, despite all the hype by those opposite, students will be free to study what they want, and the universities will have the necessary flexibility to adjust the number of bachelor, sub-bachelor and post-graduate places within their funding allocations.

The funding from the Commonwealth is aligned to the actual costs of teaching, as presented in the 2016 Deloitte Access Economics report, Cost of delivery of higher education. This, importantly, recognises and supports the activities that are conducted by universities and the benefits that they generate. We know the unemployment situation is dire and, as we have seen, universities are already providing short courses that address the national priorities of teaching, health, science and IT. There will be tremendous opportunities for growth in metro and urban areas on the fringes of Sydney, Melbourne and south-eastern Queensland in particular, and this will be due to the fact that more places will be provided for domestic students in areas where there will be employment prospects.

As I have said, and as others have said, there are very strong regional and social inclusion elements, and the increased funding for the universities will provide for greater focus on regional, rural, low socioeconomic status and Indigenous students. There will be a three-year transition period for these reforms, and that will enable the universities to adapt and to prepare themselves for the necessary changes.

I think it is important to also, at this point, stress—and I will do this in conclusion—that, at the moment, the university sector is facing headwinds from different areas. Now, let's be honest: some of those are of their own making. I have had the opportunity to speak to different people in the university sector, and I have stressed to them that, for some universities, the dependence that they have placed particularly on overseas students, and most especially on students from China, has now resulted in them facing financial difficulties. Clearly, not all universities followed the advice and the edict of their own business schools in practising diversification, which I would have thought was 'business practice 101'. And, yes, while the rivers of gold were flowing in relation to foreign students, and most especially from China, we now see that universities will have to cut their cloth according to a different design. At a time when the government is in circumstances where it has to bring into this place foreign relations legislation, which most particularly will address the activities of universities, it is a telling factor that universities have undertaken and have engaged in activities which have created a negative perspective as far as they're concerned by the Australian public.

So I say to those universities: you have made mistakes—I think it's important for you to admit those mistakes—but the government is now putting in place a very good package. My very strong advice to those vice-chancellors in particular who have engaged in seeking to provide, I think, misinformation in relation to this package is that it's time for you to get on board and to accept that the circumstances have changed, that it's time for you to do things differently and that this is a good package and to support its passage.