Senate debates

Monday, 16 March 2015

Matters of Public Importance

Higher Education

4:15 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

Senator Lines wants to talk about trust and what people can be trusted with. Yet again we see, through her contribution, that the Labor Party is unable to be trusted with money, unable to be trusted with sensible budgeting decisions and unable to be trusted with the nation's finances. It seems that yet again there is a need to explain to Senator Lines and those opposite. In relation to any spending decision this government takes, when we decide to commit to new and additional spending, we work through a process of finding savings to fund that spending—which should be the prudent approach of any government. We decide where the money will come from before we decide to embark upon new spending. The case in relation to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy research facility was that, when we decided in last year's budget that they were so important that we needed to find funding for them to continue—because the Labor Party had left a funding cliff, effective from 30 June this year—the way to fund them and find the additional spending required was through the savings contained in our higher education reform package. We identified the savings and came up with how we would fund NCRIS into the future.

Today we have decided that because of the fundamental importance of these higher education reforms, and so that there can be no distraction from their consideration, we will decouple them. We will find other means to find the savings and provide funding for NCRIS into the future. But let us firstly, in relation to NCRIS, be under absolutely no illusion: those opposite created the problem to start with. We have this remarkable situation where Senator Carr keeps putting out statements. He even says, with a straight face, 'The Labor government left 21 months of secure funding for NCRIS.' I do not dispute that. The budget did have, at the change of government, 21 months of forward funding for NCRIS until 30 June 2015. After that, zip—zero, diddly-squat, nada, nothing—was in the budget for NCRIS going forward. The Labor government left a funding cliff.

As everybody in this place appreciates, when the budget is handed down each year there is a four-year forward program in the budget. When we took office, there were 21 months of funding for this program that the Labor Party is standing on their high horse about now. There were also 27 months of nothing—27 months, in the forward four years, in which there was no funding. There were 21 months of funding and 27 months for which there was no NCRIS; there was no research infrastructure program of this nature being operated.

So we budgeted, in the last budget, for $150 million. We have also put in place arrangements for the review of research infrastructure needs, chaired by Philip Marcus Clark, which is being undertaken at present to ensure that by the time we get to the end of that extra 12-month extension—the financing that covers the gap the Labor Party left in place—we have certainty around how to fund research infrastructure sustainably into the future, without the type of funding cliffs and uncertainty the Labor Party left in place by not actually having any forward funding in this regard.

But far bigger than the future of NCRIS, important though it may be, is the future of the higher education sector in Australia. That is why we have made the changes we have today—to ensure we can focus the Senate's attention and the nation's attention on these sweeping reforms to higher education we are proposing. They build on the positive legacy of previous Labor governments. They build on the Hawke government's decision to introduce HECS. They build on the Gillard government's decision to open up access to universities. It is a fundamental change we are applying now, to build on that opening up of access to universities by saying we will allow universities to be masters of their own destiny. If any institutions in this country are smart and clever enough to be able to set their own fees, run their own budgets, innovate, specialise, compete with the rest of the world, strive to be among the best in the rest of the world and operate under their own terms, surely it is the nation's 41 universities. Surely they do not need anybody in government setting all the regulations and details of how they will be financed and how they will operate.

Certainly, the approach we are taking is welcomed by the nation's universities. Those opposite and those on the crossbench would all do well to heed some of the comments from the university sector in relation to the announcement made today. Universities Australia, the peak body representing all 41 universities, have made it clear that all the qualifications they had in relation to the original proposal before the Senate have now been removed. They unequivocally want to see the legislation before the Senate pass the Senate. That is critically important. Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight, has said:

This legislation is critical to the future of quality teaching for students, and quality research for our nation’s economy. For it to fail is unthinkable. These concessions by the Government should now pave the way for the Bill to pass unimpeded …

The Innovative Research Universities, or IRU, representing a particular group of the nation's universities—Charles Darwin University, Flinders University, Griffith University, James Cook University, La Trobe University and Murdoch University, have said they:

…call on the Senate to pass the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 following the Government's decision to focus on the important reforms to university funding and student charges it has proposed …

We need the new approach the Bill offers.

There is near universal support from across the university sector. We had, coming into today, 40 of the 41 vice-chancellors all supporting change. TAFE Directors Australia support the passage of this bill because they recognise the extension it provides in Commonwealth support to some of the non-university sector. The elimination of some of the fees that apply to loans beyond the traditional HECS loan is important. They all recognise the extension of access this legislation provides to those on pathway courses, to those undertaking diplomas. It will further strengthen the opportunity we have for the nation's students, be they from disadvantaged backgrounds or poorer income backgrounds, who do not necessarily get the highest ATAR, to be able to access a pathway course or a diploma course to provide the bridging opportunity to study then at bachelor degree level at university.

The new Commonwealth scholarship scheme this legislation will set up will provide further opportunity for students, especially for Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds, to maximise their involvement in the higher education system and access opportunities particularly for coverage of other expenses in their pursuit of higher education. We have already adopted other amendments to the package developed in consultation with some of the crossbench to maintain CPI on HECS and to provide an interest rate pause for new parents as proposed by Senator Madigan.

If you look at the reforms this government is proposing, they provide a world of new opportunity for more people to be able to access higher education in Australia. The reforms provide more pathways with more Commonwealth support to access higher education compared with those opposite and Senator Carr's desire to reintroduce his so-called compacts, which is code for capping and which is also code for Senator Carr—were he to be the higher education minister—to sit down with each of the nation's 41 universities and say, 'I, Senator Carr, know best. I can set up a deal with you where I dictate how many students you will take into each course, the fees that will be provided.'

There is a whole world of new regulations that the Labor Party wants to apply to the nation's universities rather than our policy package, which is a whole world of new opportunity for more people to access higher education, still with the protection of deferred income contingent loans that mean not one student going into a bachelor place in an Australian university need pay one cent up-front to access that place.

Those on board should heed the message from the university sector today and come on board with these reforms. (Time expired)


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