Higher Education Support (Demand Driven Funding) Bill 2011

I rise today a proud supporter of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures Bill) 2011. I am, as many in this House know, a big supporter and a strong supporter of any measure that will increase the access of Australians to education, particularly to vocational and trade education. Education is one of my passions, because I know from the experiences of my own life that education changes lives and creates opportunities. It leads to not only better and more fulfilling working lives but also lives which are healthy, more prosperous and generally happier. It is a fact that education is the key to unravelling systemic poverty and disadvantage. It is the key to enhancing productivity and growth in the economy, which is why governments of all persuasions should have an absolute interest in educating their population.

In my own life, because of my mother's hard work and because I had access to an excellent public education system and a well-supported public university system, my sisters and I were able to leave behind the relative poverty of my grandparents and great-grandparents to reshape our lives and those of our families. I was able to build a career in public service and business and I now serve my community in parliament. Therefore, I know the value of a quality education. I know it firsthand. I know its power to change lives. That is why I will always stand in this House to speak in favour of measures to help others receive the educational opportunities I was so fortunate to receive myself.

This is a government that understands the value of education. It is a government that has access to a quality education at its core. In primary and secondary education we have delivered the Building the Education Revolution, a program that those opposite have scorned. They have done this despite the fact that they know that the BER program has been the biggest investment in education infrastructure in this nation's history. They have done this despite the fact that they know that the BER program has dramatically improved the quality of education in our schools. The school communities I have attended in my own electorate are extremely happy with the results of their BER projects. I cannot command the program enough to this House.

Similarly, the investment by the Gillard government in trades and trade training has transformed lives. As a result of this government's policies, there has been a 5.4 per cent increase in the number of people enrolling in vocational education. This is on top of the pleasing announcement in the budget of investment in apprenticeships. As a former union president and graduate of that esteemed institution the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology—the world's first workers college—and as a former tutor of the University of Canberra, I am a very strong advocate of vocational and trades education. One of the great results that the Gillard government's investments have gleaned in the ACT is an 11 per cent increase in those enrolling in vocational education, which is almost double the national average. That is an extraordinary achievement in the 12 months between 2009 and 2010.

This is a government that cares about education and cares about ensuring that all Australians have access to opportunities that will lead them to take part in the economy of the 21st century. This bill continues this government's education reform agenda and seeks to ensure that more Australians have the opportunity to go to university. This is a longstanding agenda of the Labor Party. It was, after all, Prime Minister Whitlam who made the first steps to opening the gates of our higher education institutions. It was Prime Minister Keating and Minister Dawkins who implemented policies that led to the largest expansion of higher education in this nation's history.

It is with this legacy in mind that the Gillard government is committed to increasing the proportion of 25- to 35-year-olds with a university degree to above 40 per cent by 2025. To deliver on this we are committed to delivering a demand driven higher education sector. As a result of this bill, the government will no longer set the number of places that a university can offer. This means that, as of January 2012, universities will be given the flexibility to respond to the needs of students, employers, industries and their local communities. With an expected growth of four per cent, this will mean an increase of another half a million places—a 20 per cent rise since 2008. This change is accompanied by the provision of $1.2 billion worth of additional funding, bringing total demand driven funding to almost $4 billion over successive budget years.

This bill also eliminates the student learning entitlement that limits a Commonwealth supported student to seven years of study. The elimination of the SLE was recommended by the Bradley review, commissioned by this government. The current limit adds complexity to an already complicated system— a system which for young students and their families is already daunting enough. I know this too well from a number of students who have approached my office seeking help with navigating the student learning entitlement rules. I therefore welcome the elimination of the SLE as part of this bill. It will make for a simpler system and one more capable of adapting to the dynamic and flexible requirements of a modern economy and its workforce.

Adding to this flexibility, the government, through this bill, will engage each university in a mission based compact. If Australia is to have a high-quality, flexible education system it is imperative that Australian universities adapt and have offerings that fit into a national framework. Through these compacts with institutions, the Australian government will ensure that universities align their teaching, research and innovation to national priorities. The result of these compacts, combined with the introduction of a demand driven funding model, will be a higher education system that can deliver high-quality education suited to the needs of not just Australia but the global community.

This proposal contrasts with the current approach that has seen a system of 38 publicly funded universities, with some of them teaching the same programs in the same way. This is no fault of the institutions or their dedicated staff. It is merely a product of the system that has developed in Australia. We must move away from this model to ensure that we are better placed to deliver on the future needs of our students, employers and economy. This bill helps create centres of excellence and clarifies difference.

Finally, this bill will also amend the Higher Education Support Act to promote free intellectual inquiry—an absolute essential to any academic institution. This bill will also require universities to have policies that uphold such inquiry. Many already do. We owe many important discoveries to such inquiry, even if we do not always understand their direct application to the real world.

This is a comprehensive and welcome bill. It is welcome because it comes after over a decade of neglect of the higher education system by those opposite. While they now try to position themselves as the great defenders of education and, most importantly, access to education, it is well remembered by those in the sector and the students at the time that they did not care about higher education. Those opposite are remembered for stripping over $1 billion of funding from the sector. They are remembered for increasing the cost of education for Australian students through tampering with HECS. In addition, they are remembered for using the higher education sector as an ideological punching bag. For example, it is not well known but, I feel, worth noting that the Work Choices legislation, which did so much damage to Australian families, was first tested using the higher education sector.

The Gillard government believes in the power of education at all levels, and this includes Australia's universities. We understand that if we are to wisely invest in our nation's future we must collaborate with them to deliver outcomes and opportunities to Australians. It is my pleasure to once again commend another major educational reform to the House.

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