I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this bill today.
When you talk about the value of higher education, it is all too easy to just think in dollars and cents and the cost of an education. But it is vital that we look much broader than that and consider the opportunities that higher education presents to students, from developing critical thinking and becoming active participants in our society to forging lifelong relationships with peers and making valuable contacts in relevant industries.
It is also about the future of research and innovation in our institutions and whether we want Australia to be at the forefront of learning and industry, providing intellectual and moral education, nurturing teaching and general and professional education.
There is no doubt that these proposed changes to higher education and research in Australia are revolutionary. This reform package is fair and balanced. It will spread opportunity for students and ensure Australia is not left behind in global competition.
Coming from a regional area where residents suffer from the tyranny of distance in so many ways, I am pleased to see that these reforms will help strengthen higher education for students and institutions in my area.
Firstly, for the first time ever, all Australian undergraduate students in registered higher education institutions will be supported for accredited courses, from diplomas through to bachelor degrees. I have seen how diploma courses can be an important pathway to higher education for less-prepared students, giving them the opportunity to develop the skills they need for further study.
The government is investing $371.5 million to deliver this initiative. Expanding Commonwealth subsidies to these courses will make sure that our students have the best chance for success. This is especially important in regional and low-socioeconomic areas where students are less likely to enter into higher education compared to students living in our metropolitan cities. This means that over 80,000 students each year will be provided additional support by 2018.
As the budget papers show, government investment in higher education is going to continue to increase each and every year-totalling $37 billion in funding to higher education institutions over the next four financial years. That certainly puts paid to the previous speaker’s assumptions. There is more money, but it has to cover more students getting access to higher education subsidies, which is why the per-student rate is coming down.
Secondly, there will be more opportunities for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds through new Commonwealth scholarships. We will require that universities and other higher education providers spend $1 in every $5 of additional revenue raised on scholarships for disadvantaged students. We have been listening to students in regional Australia and what they have been saying about up-front costs in accessing higher education study.
These Commonwealth scholarships will be of enormous benefit to students from regional Australia and to others.
Thirdly, we are freeing up universities to set their own fees and compete for students. More competition between higher education providers is good for students, giving them more choices when it comes to course offerings and prices. Competition will drive quality and encourage providers to be more responsive to the educational needs of students. Universities will be empowered to set their own fees for their courses.
This will generate more competition for students between a greater number of providers. The fees charged to students will ultimately be up to the institutions to decide but could see many regional students paying less than they are now for their education as this government supports more higher education options.
In addition, many TAFEs and private colleges already work in partnership with universities. These universities have been seeking funding for pathway and other diploma courses that help less-prepared students succeed at university. This was evident at the launch of Queensland’s first dual sector university, created by a merger of the Central Queensland University and the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE. At the time, our education minister said:
“They will be able to compete with the sandstone universities, not just on living conditions … they will also be able to compete on price if those other universities exponentially raise their fees.”
“Universities like CQU will pitch their fees to the market that they represent and that means they will be able to keep their market share or in fact grow it.”
CQU Vice-Chancellor Scott Bowman saw a lot of potential in the changes. He said:
“There are two types of universities: those that see change, wring their hands and say ‘Oh woe is me’. And then there are others that lick their lips. We are a lip-licking university.”
He met the changes with a great deal of enthusiasm. That was further reflected recently when he announced that CQU are looking for a site to house a campus in the Cairns CBD; so they are expanding from where they are. We certainly welcome the opportunity to have CQU as a second university in our regional city.
Fourthly, we are strengthening the Higher Education Loans Program, or HELP, which will see the taxpayer support all student tuition fees up-front. With the debt and deficit burden that we have been left by Labor, everyone has to pay their share. Students are going to be asked to pay 50 per cent of the cost of their education. They are currently paying 40 per cent, with the taxpayer bearing the other 60 per cent. We are asking them to increase their contribution by 10 per cent.
I think a 50-50 split sounds like a fair deal, especially when higher education students can borrow all of that money from the taxpayer at a low interest rate and not start paying it back until they are earning over $50,000 a year, and then only two per cent of their income can be taken to start paying back those fees. Remember too that Australian university graduates on average earn up to 75 per cent more than those who do not go on to higher education after school. Given this fact, it is only fair that students contribute fairly to the cost of their education.
Fifthly, we will grow regional education providers to build stronger communities. As I mentioned earlier, for the first time regional education providers will have the opportunity to offer more courses and be able to compete to attract more students. We will continue to support regional higher education directly through the regional loading that is provided to universities in recognition of the higher cost of operating in regional campuses-a total of $274 million over the next four years.
All these reforms tie in with two of my key focuses: developing northern Australia and getting rid of the burden of excessive red tape.
In my work as the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia, I have seen that there is huge potential to position educational and research institutions in the region as the keepers of tropical expertise. Overall, however, Australian universities are dropping in world rankings, and we cannot afford to be left behind. Through these reforms, we are securing Australia’s place at the forefront of research with more than $400 million in investment. This includes $42 million to support new research in tropical disease through the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine based in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and the Torres Strait-a project that I have strongly advocated for quite some time.
Labor has left a complicated and expensive mess, with large increases in regulation, compliance, reporting and unnecessary red tape applying to universities. This has meant universities spend around $280 million a year on compliance and reporting-what a waste that is! It makes sense that higher education institutions, not governments, are the best judge of how they can maintain and promote a world-class higher education system.
From 2016, institutions will be responsible for setting their own levels of student contributions, freeing them from bureaucratic restrictions. The response from industry to this proposed reform package has been mainly positive. I note that in his contribution to the debate the member for Charlton, the previous speaker, made frequent references to Universities Australia, and he quoted negative comments. This is rather interesting, because I have had discussions with Professor Sandra Harding, who is not only the Vice-Chancellor and President of James Cook University but the Chair of Universities Australia, and she has called on parliamentarians to support fee deregulation, describing it as:
“… an important and a very timely innovation reform for higher education.”
“Fee deregulation will allow JCU to potentially be a price setter within the market in those courses for which we are renowned globally and where there is a value added experience.
Even though JCU has outstanding assets, such as the Orpheus Island Research Station, the Daintree Rainforest Observatory, and the ‘James Kirby’ (the biggest vessel of any University in the country), which enhance our teaching and research, currently JCU receives the same funding per science student as another university that offers a largely laboratory-based science program with some field trips.
We should be able to put a premium price on these courses to reflect the cost-but also the value presented.”
Professor Harding cautioned, however, that some improvements need to be made to the package to ensure affordability for students, including moderating the size of the proposed 20 per cent cut in the federal government contribution to tuition fees and maintaining the interest rate applied to HECS-HELP student loans at CPI. Professor Harding further states:
“A support package should also be provided to universities, to address possible market failure-especially for institutions that serve disadvantaged and regional communities.
Other industry sectors such as sugar and forestry, which have experienced major change as a result of changes to public policy, have had access to a support packages.
At this stage, it is difficult to foreshadow what impact the changes will have and therefore what, if anything, JCU might be looking for.”
TAFE Queensland also supports extending opportunities for students, including disadvantaged students, to access higher education qualifications though reform of funding arrangements. TAFE Queensland cautions that, to ensure equity and achieve the policy objectives intended, it will be important that any fee deregulation arrangements treat government owned TAFEs and universities equally. This recognises the public good delivered through these organisations.
In the Leichhardt electorate, 21 per cent of publically funded VET students at the TAFE Queensland North Cairns campus are Indigenous, in comparison to an average of 4.8 per cent of publically funded VET students and 1.4 per cent of university students. Extension of Commonwealth supported higher education funding will allow TAFE Queensland to offer niche market qualifications and increase opportunities for students, including disadvantaged students, to access employment-focused higher education in Leichardt.
There has been a lot of comment from the community, but here I have to condemn the Labor Party for their careless and provocative scaremongering. The current debate about these changes has led to some inflated claims about likely fee levels and repayments for students. These claims should be treated with a great deal of caution. I can state unequivocally that the government is not increasing fees. Fees will be up to what universities choose to charge and students choose to pay. In addition, students who accept a Commonwealth supported place at higher education institutions after 13 May 2014 will fall under the existing arrangements until 1 January 2016, when they will move to the new system. For existing students there will be no change in fees.
There is no doubt that we live in a time of great change. The international economy is evolving and the employment market is changing. Global competition for higher education is intensifying, especially when there are world-class universities emerging on our doorstep in Asia and new technology driving the growth of online education.
We must make sure that Australia’s higher education providers are able to meet these demands in the 21st century, and we have a game-changing opportunity to do that now. I embrace this challenge and I call on the Senate crossbenchers to join with us. We can work together to create a better higher education system and a world-class system for our country.
To view the official Hansard, click here