Thursday, 18 February 2021
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020. Before I get into the details of the bill, I do want to pick up on an issue that was raised by my colleague Senator Chandler. It's not an issue; it's actually a success story. It is a success story of this government's commitment to higher education and reform.
Because of changes that this government passed last year, we are already seeing the results of those changes. The ABC reported this week that the enrolments in agriculture courses in the university sector are booming, and this is good news. This is good news not just for our agricultural sector but for our regional communities and for our young people, because they can see a career path in agriculture. They can see a future. My friend and former colleague Professor Jim Pratley said it's great because agriculture is no longer 'plough and cow'. I thought that was a great quote! Agriculture is all-encompassing. It is now high skill, high technology and a real career option for young people who don't want to spend their futures locked in an office working nine to five. They want the challenge, they want the excitement and they want the variety that agriculture provides.
Agriculture, in particular, is so exciting. There are so many innovations happening in agriculture at the moment. And it is all encompassing. You can work in agriculture and IT. You can work in agriculture and climate change. You can work in agriculture and product innovation. So I am very pleased that, as a result of this government's reform, we are already seeing real outcomes on the ground, and these are practical outcomes. And I am sure that we will see further results from our reform in higher education: more job-ready graduates and more people going through the higher education system and coming out the other side actually qualified to work and ready to work. I think it is fantastic and it is proof also that our government is absolutely committed to trying to reduce the education gap between regional and urban students.
Our government will be spending more than $400 million over the next four years, including for more university places for Australian students. The fastest-growing part of that will be in regional universities. We know that, if you learn in the regions, you earn in the regions. We have seen it time and time again. If people go out to the regions and experience regional living, they love it out there. So I'm very proud of our government and the National Party's commitment to regional education. We are increasing the Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to regional university campuses by 3.5 per cent per annum. Our annual grants for regional universities to enable them to develop research partnerships with other education providers and/or industry collaboration is going to be over $48 million, and that's really important. The industry collaboration part of that is so vitally important, because that is research that will make a difference. It is research that industry knows is needed to fill the gaps.
We've also got the new Regional Partnerships Project Pool to support activities aimed at young regional school students to increase their participation in university. We've allocated $21 million to establish additional Regional University Centres, and the education and employment committee heard last year from Mr Duncan Taylor, from the Country Universities Centre, just how important it is for people to be able to progress a university course from their home base. We know access to university is one of the biggest impediments for regional people seeking higher education. We're spending almost $178 million from 2021 over four years to support higher education students from outer regional and remote areas who have to relocate to undertake full-time study, and, early this year, we hope to establish a regional education commissioner to monitor the government's regional education strategy and to provide further advice to address the barriers that regional and remote students face to access higher education.
All of these are critical initiatives that make a difference to the education attainment and opportunities for people who live in country Australia. To complement all of that work, we need this bill to pass. It simplifies university classifications. I always thought a university was a university. Who knew that we had multiple classifications of 'university'? It is common sense to streamline that and just have a single category of what an Australian university is, and to be able to identify the highest quality higher education institutions that don't do research so don't fall into the university category and allow them to be called 'university colleges'.
This will result in very good outcomes in regional Australia. We all know that, when it comes to education, one size does not fit all. We also know that being able to undertake university-quality research and development, research in particular, is not a simple process. By allowing university colleges to exist, we are allowing people to access high-quality education without also having those increased burdens and allowing our universities to concentrate and focus and be the pre-eminent institutions of research that they are. The university college category will allow a pathway for institutions to grow and develop and, if it is their goal, then progress to becoming a university.
Another change included in this amendment bill is the ability for students to access their records going forward. The bill also allows universities and higher education providers to use Indigenous student assistance grants not just for existing Indigenous students but also to promote and encourage new Indigenous students. These are all a positive for our university sector and our higher education sector more broadly. It is for that reason that I commend this bill to the chamber.