Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2014


Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading

5:34 pm

Photo of Marise PayneMarise Payne (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

I thank those senators who have spoken on this extremely important Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.

The bill before the Senate amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to implement a fair, balanced and necessary set of reforms to Australia's higher education system. The passage of this historic bill will spread opportunity to more students and ensure Australia is not left behind in an environment of increasing global competition.

This bill is of the utmost importance to our nation's future. It is a reform whose time has come. It is reform that has to happen. The government has listened to concerns about certain measures in the bill and has agreed to amendments.

The status quo in Australian higher education is untenable. Universities Australia and every peak body for higher education in this country are in complete agreement with this statement and support the reforms with amendments. Therefore, the parliament of Australia and this chamber now has a choice: should we as a nation continue with an outdated higher education system and let Australia's universities fall behind the rest of the world? Are we prepared to deny current and future generations of students the opportunity to obtain a world-class education? Or will we actually embrace the challenges of the 21st century and equip our higher education institutions to compete in a global, changing economy?

This bill provides an opportunity to achieve these necessary reforms now, and disadvantaged students will particularly benefit. They will benefit from the biggest Commonwealth scholarship scheme ever, which means that there will be more help than ever for disadvantaged students to go to university. They will benefit from the abolition of loan fees, which will benefit 130,000 students a year and which has merited barely passing reference in the comments of those opposing the bill from the other side. They will benefit from the uncapping of Commonwealth supported places for pathway diplomas and other diplomas that leads straight into jobs. These reforms ensure that every person from any background who has the ability and who wants to go to university can do so.

There has been a crescendo of support for these changes from the higher education community. This is what universities, TAFEs and private higher education colleges know is needed for the future of higher education and for the future of our country. Universities Australia, the Australian Technology Network of Universities, Innovative Research Universities, the Regional Universities Network, the Group of Eight, the Australian Council for Private Higher Education and Training, and the Council of Private Higher Education have all said that the parliament should pass this bill, although they do see the need for some amendments.

Universities Australia said:

The introduction into Parliament of the Federal Government's higher education legislation is a chance for all parliamentarians to seize the opportunity for making real, lasting changes that are needed in positioning our universities for the challenges of the future.

The Australian Technology Network of Universities said:

Deregulation is a threshold issue for the sector and its passage through the Senate is crucial to protect the international reputation for quality higher education, representing around $15 Billion in export earnings for Australia.

Last week the chair of the Regional Universities Network, Professor Peter Lee, said that it was time to end the uncertainty around the higher education reforms. He said:

A new approach to university funding is needed to maintain the quality education that students expect.

I would add: 'that students deserve'. With some changes, he said the bill 'will help regional students attend and succeed at regional universities and will increase the number of professionals working in regional Australia'—surely an objective of all of us. This unprecedented consensus of support from the higher education sector is as a result of truism as expressed by Professor Sandra Harding, the chair of Universities Australia. We should not underestimate the importance of the reforms, she said, adding, 'The status quo isn’t an option.'

This bill provides a basis to transform Australia's higher education system and allow it to be the best in the world. There are four key elements to the bill. Firstly, it will see a significant expansion in access to higher education. The bill removes the current limits on Commonwealth supported sub-bachelor places. Any Australian student who wishes to study a higher education diploma, an advanced diploma or an associate degree will be able to do so with Commonwealth support for the first time ever. These are qualifications that lead to jobs in fields like child care and aged care, and jobs for computer technicians. These jobs are in increasing demand with our changing economy and our ageing population. These qualifications also form pathways to university, which the Kemp-Norton review of the demand-driven funding system found are important in helping underprepared students to succeed at university and stay at university, and to reduce the dropout rate. The bill ends the discrimination against students who study at private universities and non-university higher education institutions by giving them access to Commonwealth support places. For tens of thousands of Australian students who participate in the higher education sector in those particular institutions, that discrimination will be removed by this legislation. These two measures alone will allow an additional 80,000 Australian students each year to receive Commonwealth subsidies by 2018. That will particularly benefit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, those from rural and regional communities and those who need that little bit of extra assistance to complete their studies.

The bill also creates the Commonwealth scholarship scheme. The Commonwealth scholarship scheme will provide what is likely to be the largest scholarship support in Australia's history for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It will include students from rural and regional Australia as well, of course. These scholarships will assist students with the cost of tuition fees, but also with the cost of living, with textbooks, with materials—the core fundamentals of coming from a challenging background and being able to be a successful, productive and good student.

Secondly, the bill gives institutions flexibility in how they are able to set their fees. The government has been very clear that fee deregulation is critical to drive greater competition, drive innovation and drive quality, so that our universities are able to compete with the best in Europe and America and the fast developing universities in Asia. The minister has spoken on a number of occasions about the number of universities in China and other countries in Asia which are rapidly reaching the top of the world scorecards in university rankings. Australia is not currently in a position to keep up with the pace. Australian institutions will in turn be more creative and will improve the quality of their teaching and learning, and that will give students the quality of education that they need and that employers are demanding in the 21st century environment. This change is crucial to ensuring the quality and the sustainability of the higher education sector in Australia. As Belinda Robinson, Executive Director of Universities Australia has said:

It is simply not possible to maintain the standards that students expect or the international reputation that Australia's university system enjoys without full fee deregulation.

Importantly, this bill provides this flexibility without reducing access or affordability. Every Australian student will still continue to be able to defer their tuition fees through HECS so they do not have to pay a cent up-front or pay a cent back until they are earning more than $50,000 a year.

That brings me to the third element of the bill, which recognises the key role that HECS plays in our higher education system. HECS is critical to ensuring that no student is denied the benefit of a higher education. Our HECS system has been and will continue to be the envy of the world.

This government is acting to make reforms fairer by removing inequities in the treatment of students and institutions under the HECS. The bill removes 20 per cent loan fees for VET FEE-HELP and the 25 per cent loan fees for FEE-HELP. These loan fees are an unfair cost on those students who are currently not receiving a Commonwealth subsidy. Removing the loan fees makes the system fairer. This measure will simplify and improve the consistency of loan arrangements for students and institutions and will benefit over 130,000 Australian students a year.

Lastly, the government is committed to ensuring Australia has a strong, competitive research system. As part of the higher education reform package, the government will invest $11 billion over four years in research in Australian universities, including $139 million for the Future Fellowships scheme and $150 million in 2015-16 to continue the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. The previous government left funding cliffs for both of these vital research programs.

I would not like anyone listening to or observing some of the commentary being made today to think that this is some development that the government thought up last week and thought it might put to the vote this week. This is a discussion which has been happening in reality over years but in the parliamentary sense and budgetary sense over months, since May of this year.

We have seen from particularly those opposite the most extraordinarily irresponsible scare campaign. Their claims that students will face $100,000 degrees and that that will mean that disadvantaged students will not be able to go to university are, quite frankly, deceptive, cruel and duplicitous. They are factually wrong, in fact. Going to university is now and will be based on whether a student has the ability to go to university, not the size of their bank balance.

Labor shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, gave the lie to the scare campaign on deregulated fees when he wrote: 'There is no reason to think that fee regulation will adversely affect poorer students.' In fact, as a result of these reforms, equity and access will be improved through the new Commonwealth scholarship scheme and the Higher Education Participation Program, the HEPP. All of the university groupings that I mentioned previously have made it clear that $100,000 degrees will not be the norm or even common. For instance, Vicki Thomson, the executive director of the Australian Technology Network, destroyed the scare campaign when she said:

… the university sector is not looking to introduce standard $100,000 degrees and deregulation won't deliver them.

It is shameful the fear such myths are creating in the community. As I have said previously, as a result of this package, many thousands of students will experience fee reductions.

It is the government's view that there will be very serious consequences if the bill does not pass the parliament. If the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill is not passed we as a country will be left behind. For our universities, the funding system will continue to operate like a straitjacket. There will be little scope or incentive for them to develop and market new and innovative courses to Australian students much less a capacity for them to shine internationally. Australian universities will be forced to continue to deal with the continuing instability and uncertainty of the current funding system.

If the Senate needs any further evidence of that, it need look no further than the $6.6 billion worth of cuts that Labor announced for 2011-12 to 2016-17. That is hardly the way to run the country's third biggest export industry. Let us not forget that what Labor did not cut they left unfunded. So, if the bill does not pass, the Future Fellowships scheme will cease and many of our best researchers will be forced to go elsewhere. The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy will cease, putting 1,500 researchers into limbo. The loss of these two programs alone will do irreparable damage to our capacity to support high-quality research. For the higher education activities of our TAFEs and private colleges we will be closing the door in their faces.

If the bill is not passed, students will continue to be locked out of pathway qualifications which, as identified by Dr Kemp and Mr Norton in the review of the demand driven system, have a significant impact on the dropout rate of students with lower ATARs. If the bill is not passed, 80,000 Australian students a year will miss out on receiving Commonwealth support to study. If the bill is not passed, we are going to forgo the largest scholarship scheme for disadvantaged students that this country has ever seen.

The government has listened to the concerns of both the crossbenchers and the higher education sector. Just today we have announced a number of responses to those concerns. The government has said that it will accept Senator Day's amendment to keep the indexation rate for student debt at CPI rather than moving to the 10-year bond rate as previously indicated. We have also said that—and I note that he is not in the chamber—we will accept Senator Madigan's amendment for a HECS indexation pause for the primary care giver of newborn children. I particularly acknowledge Senator Madigan's very considered and working contribution to the second reading debate.

The government has also today circulated other amendments that provide for the creation of a structural adjustment fund for universities focused on those with large numbers of low-SES students—


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