Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014

Given the statements of the previous speaker, I would like to read one quote. To reject the legislation out of hand—the easy path of populism and publicity—would be to sign the death warrant on a globally respected higher education system. The demise would not be overnight of course, it will be slow and painful. That was from Vicki Thomson, the former education director of the Australian Technology Network in The Australian 2 July 2014. The Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 is the main piece of legislation providing funding for higher education in Australia. It will reform higher education by deregulating fees and extending demanddriven funding to higher education qualifications below the level of bachelor degree including higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas, associate degrees, and also to private universities and non-university higher education providers. This will expand pathways, opportunity and choice for students seeking higher education in Australia. I repeat those wonderful words: expand pathways, opportunity and choice for students seeking higher education in Australia. As members would know in this place, I have been a long-term advocate for more equitable access to tertiary education for rural and regional students—the students from electorates just like mine in the south-west of Western Australia. I had a very direct example of just how important access is when Labor changed the eligibility for access to Youth Allowance. The response was immediate. Young people and their families were just distraught. For many of them, this meant the end to their higher education plans and dreams. They knew that without Youth Allowance there was no way their families could afford to support their living costs in the city. I will never forget that mother who was heartbroken by having to decide which one of her children she could afford to have living in the city to attend university. Many of us who represent rural and regional electorates on this side fought Labor’s unfair cuts and changes to Youth Allowance for young students living in rural and regional Australia, the words ‘expanding pathways, opportunity and choice for students seeking higher education in Australia’ represent exactly what we have been working for, for many years. So often, all our young people—the great young people from the south-west of WA in my electorate and right around Australia—are asking for is the opportunity to have a go, the opportunity to simply access higher education, to pursue their education and career dreams, to simply be able to afford to live in Perth and go to a university, which is something students in metropolitan areas take for granted. Often their only issue is: which university offer will I take? For rural and regional students and their families, the decisions and often sacrifice are much tougher. Students and their families in rural and regional areas are well aware that the HECS-HELP loan scheme means they do not have to pay a dollar up front for their university tuition fees. However, often their hardest problem to solve is: how on earth can I actually afford to live away from home in Perth? I heard it often during the whole Youth Allownace debate and I can still hear it now, ‘Can my family afford the at least $20,000 or $30,000 a year extra costs for me relocating to the city and living away from home?’ and ‘Can my family afford to send not just me but any one of my brothers and sisters to live and attend university in Perth?’ As I said repeatedly, some families had the heartbreaking choice of deciding which one of their children they could afford to send to university. They could afford the university process because it was covered by HECS and HELP but they simply could not afford the living-away-from-home costs. So I cannot overstate the importance of measures in this bill that are directly designed to improve access to higher education. It is intended that providers will use measures in the bill to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students. Scholarship funds will be used for accommodation, travel, learning support, tuition, and other basic living costs. Some of the positive news I have heard with this Higher Education and Research Reform Bill is the response from the University of Western Australia, often the university that so many young people in my electorate aspire to attend. Given my experience with the youth allowance issues, there is some very good news for rural and regional students. The headline in the Australian Financial Review stated, ‘Uni of WA targets help to rural students’. UWA has identified that students living outside the Perth metropolitan area are, in their words: … specifically disadvantaged in terms of access to university. … … … … students from regional and remote Western Australia are likely to attend university at about 60 per cent of the rate of their city counterparts. Sixty per cent! This is not because they lack university offers: Analysis shows that WA rural applicants are receiving offers at a comparable rate to metropolitan students, but their acceptance rates are considerably lower. So what does that tell you? To put it simply, UWA is directly aware that students who live in rural and regional areas in Western Australia are disadvantaged in their access to university education. The article states: … 50 per cent defer them in order to meet the “financial independence” requirements to qualify for Austudy and obtain financial support for their living costs while studying. And that is not all the students. Even worse: Many who defer do not subsequently take up their offers. So we lose them. But with the passage of this legislation UWA will have a dedicated scholarship stream to direct to disadvantaged rural and regional students; for instance, those who cannot afford living away from home while they attend university in Perth. UWA has identified that the scholarships they will offer as a result of the passage of this legislation will be targeted at increasing the participation of these types of disadvantaged students. So as well as with relocation costs, such scholarships may help the young people who have to work to support themselves while they are living away from home so that they can actually spend more time on their studies than on ever-increasing amounts of time in paid employment to help with those simple living-away-from-home costs. In addition to this, there will be a dedicated scholarship fund for universities, with a high proportion of low-SES students funded directly by the Commonwealth on top of the university based scholarships. But, firstly, before any aspirational young student who desperately wants and needs the opportunity of this university education and living away from home gets that opportunity, the legislation has to be passed by Labor. Labor is blocking this legislation. Labor is saying ‘no’ to rural and regional students who cannot afford to live in cities. UWA has said that they will fund these types of students and Labor is saying, ‘No. No, you can’t have that opportunity.’ Labor is saying ‘no’ to students in the south-west of Western Australia who desperately need that scholarship pathway. Labor is actually saying ‘no’ to young people right around the country; it will not just be UWA that offers this opportunity. I just wonder why Labor is so determined to entrench and extend disadvantage for students, the disadvantage that is clearly acknowledged by UWA. We need to remember in this place that these students will be disadvantaged for life; it is not short term. Our regions—the growing regions that underpin the economy in this country—will miss out on the economic and social benefit that young professionals bring back to our communities. They go away, they do their education, they often get experience and work elsewhere, and they come back. They know what quality of life they have and they know the opportunities in regional areas. They go on to become a critical part of the future development and the ideas that drive regional areas: the young people in my electorate and in other parts of rural and regional and Australia who cannot afford to live away from home while they go to university. These are the people we are talking about. Labor is also saying ‘no’ to students right around Australia—again, often those in rural and regional areas. They have to take alternative pathways to a higher education. The South West Institute of Technology, once accredited, could attract federal government funding through the funded students and courses offered. Most importantly, the availability of the HECS-HELP program will be extended and, of course, this will assist in making a range of pathways for providers. This is a really important thing in my part of the world—a range of institutions that have developed out of technical and further education will be able to offer courses and pay off for the first time under the HECS-HELP system. It is important for education providers that face challenges in servicing a state that is the size of Western Australia—a huge geographical area. And most of the population outside of Perth is located in the south-west, in my electorate. In spite of this, for some regional campuses critical mass—the number of students—is a major issues. For students the choices and availability of course options are even more critical, especially if the student comes from a low-SES background. There is a much higher percentage of students from lower-SES backgrounds in regional areas than in the broader higher education system, again reinforcing why expanding the demand-driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees is so important—the extension of Commonwealth funding to all Australian higher education students in non-university higher education institutions studying bachelor courses. We will see thousands of students each year given additional support by 2018. This bill also removes all VET FEE-HELP and FEE-HELP loan fees for students. But with no changes, the universities are facing even greater challenges. I have said repeatedly in this place—and it has been said by others as well—that no change is not an option. Current settings and viability are unsustainable and no change will see continuous decline and long-term damage to the university sector. And it is a sector that is facing global challenges, because it faces disruption through online courses. Some of the best universities in the world are now in this space of online courses, and that offering will expand more and more. The competition for our universities is now global. It is not just domestic. They are in a globally competitive market that will keep changing, so the universities are going to have to constantly adapt to change. There will be new and emerging top 100 universities from around the world, from China and Asia. Saying no to this legislation means there will not be the largest ever Commonwealth scholarship scheme ever seen in Australia’s history. There may be young students sitting out in my electorate, or anywhere around Australia, for whom that type of scholarship is their only opportunity to be able to afford to live away from home and go to university. How do you think those young people are feeling right now, with Labor saying no to their opportunity? That is exactly what is happening. I commend the bill to the House.