Higher education reforms warranted

I rise to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014. I will focus my remarks on three areas, one of which I believe is one of the reasons that reform is needed, secondly is the importance of the uncapped number of diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, and finally, the government’s investment in research.

For those in this House—I see Parliamentary Secretary Fletcher at the table—we certainly understand that the university and higher education sector in Australia is facing a number of challenges.

Universities have made this particularly clear. Reform and flexibility are absolutely necessary. Universities themselves acknowledge that reform and flexibility are necessary for several reasons. Australian universities are competing in a global education market and they literally cannot afford to stand still. The ‘business-as-usual’ model is not an option for them.

Our universities are not only competing with the constantly improving performances by universities around the world for both international and domestic students but they also have to deal with major changes in the way higher education is being delivered to students of all ages, driven by the internet. This is one reason I believe flexibility for our university and higher education sector is so important.

We are seeing increasingly sophisticated, constantly evolving new digital technologies delivering not just online courses but complete online degrees. I am not just talking about MOOCS—the Massive Open Online Courses—mostly provided by Cousera, edX and Udacity. We all know that the most prestigious universities in the world—for instance, Harvard, Stanford and MIT—are offering completely free online courses.

We also know that millions of people around the world are taking up this opportunity. They are often mature aged students who have to be flexible in how, when and where they learn. Pure online courses in Australia are growing at 19 per cent per annum. I understand that 60 per cent of American higher education institutions are now offering complete online programs.

Improvements in this sector are absolutely guaranteed to the delivery of online degrees by prestigious international universities. That makes the environment in which our universities are competing even tougher.

In time, as we know, we may well see some of the best courses in this space coming out of India and China, I suspect partly through demand and opportunity and partly through necessity. Given their vast populations, this will provide potentially millions of students of all ages with access to courses at the same time.

Almost every Australian university is already providing some online courses. As well, several of our regional universities have built on their traditional distance education models to provide strong online platforms.

As I said, the market has changed and it will continue to change and there are viable challenges to traditional university models. They are coming in all forms. Standing still is not an option. By the same token, changes and challenges are providing opportunities for our Australian universities.

Many of our higher education institutions are moving to take advantage of this. They are very well aware that they need to be able to respond to constant change, both in the domestic and international market, which is why this reform bill has been supported by the higher education sector. They know that a ‘business as usual’ policy is simply not an option. As Professors Gareth Evans and Ian Young of the ANU said:

The bottom line is that if Australia is to develop universities which can truly compete internationally, that can provide an excellent educational experience for students and produce really outstanding graduates of the kind that are so vital to our nation’s future, we have to not only allow, but encourage, diversity by removing the constraints that prevent innovation.

It is a very clear statement which reaffirms the need for the very reforms contained in this legislation. The second issue I want to cover is that this bill will give a new cohort of students the support they so badly need, particularly those from low SES backgrounds and those from regional areas who find it much more difficult to get to university.

I see this all the time, as you do Deputy Speaker Randall. I saw graphically in my electorate—and have heard some interesting comments made in this chamber by members of the other side—the effects of changes the previous government made to access to independent youth allowance, the profound impact on young people and their families, the changes they had to make to their education decisions, their plans and dreams and the absolute despair in families having to decide which one of their children they could afford to send to university in Perth.

I strongly support expansion of the demand driven system to over 80,000 students each year by 2018 who will be provided additional federal government support. Through the measures in this bill, an estimated 48,000 students in diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses and 35,000 additional students in bachelor courses will be supported. I want to see regional education providers and regional students taking advantage of this. That is exactly what we need to see in regional areas.

What an opportunity for our great young Australians and for students of all ages who need to or have to use a variety of pathways to get achieve their higher education. They will now get that opportunity and they will be supported. This support will improve their access, expand their choices and, most of all, expand the opportunities for students in the higher education sector. The Regional Universities Network also said:

The provision of demand driven places to non-university providers could build on the significant partnerships or dual arrangements that already exist between regional TAFEs and regional universities.

More options for higher education study, including sub-bachelor pathways, would be available to regional Australians, including low SES students. The reforms would be good for regional Australia. More highly skilled graduates are what our economy and communities need.

… Extension of the demand driven system to sub-bachelor places would allow universities to be more responsive to the needs of less academically prepared students.

Like other university students, none of this new category of Commonwealth supported students will have to pay their tuition fees up-front—none—and no student will have to repay their HECS-HELP loan until they are out in the workforce and they are earning over $50,000 a year.

As well, the government is removing all FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loan fees. I hope this offers opportunities to students in the South West Institute of Technology in Bunbury.

I also must mention Busselton, where I have been working for several years with a higher education task force—a community and stakeholder working group that has been looking at options to offer higher education in Busselton. We have been working on a potential dual-delivery model with the proposed new SWIT Busselton campus. I see the reforms that are contained in this bill as being very useful in that process, offering more opportunity to young people—and people of all ages, not just young people—in my region. Education is a lifetime opportunity.

I also want to briefly touch on our commitment to securing Australia’s position at the forefront of research, through—and this is significant—$150 million in 2015-16 for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and $139.5 million for 100 new four-year research positions a year under the Future Fellowships scheme.

Then there is $26 million to accelerate research in dementia. What an extremely worthwhile cause that is. There would be very few people in this place whose families have not been affected by dementia in some form. There is also $42 million to support new research in tropical disease and $24 million to support the Antarctic Gateway partnership.

This bill is the main piece of legislation providing funding for higher education in Australia. Through it, the government seeks to expand opportunity and choice in higher education in Australia. The safety net is protected. The HECS-HELP scheme in Australia is the safety net that allows all tertiary students to defer their HECS-HELP debt and pay it off once they join the workforce. This allows all Australian students the opportunity to study.

The Commonwealth subsidy for places at non-university higher education providers will be discounted to recognise the unique responsibilities of universities, while still ensuring that providers receive sufficient funding to compete with universities.

These changes put alternative higher education options back in reach for all Australian students by supporting equitable treatment of students, regardless of where they choose to study. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said:

The government’s higher education reforms are a major milestone, and deliver equity and fairness for the growing number of higher education students choosing to undertake their degree or sub-degree program at a non-university institution. Currently students outside the university system are significantly disadvantaged with additional administrative costs on top of their income contingent loans and they are currently ruled out from receiving any government support.

They went on to say:

In what is clearly a difficult budget environment, the government is to be commended for its commitment to significant reforms to the tertiary sector to provide more support to more students and enhance Australia’s productivity.

The one thing that we cannot ignore—and I am very interested to hear the speakers on the opposite side recognise this—is that it is, as that last quote said, a very difficult situation that we inherited.

I am sure all the members on this side understand the issue of $1 billion a month in interest that this country has been left with by the previous government—$12 billion a year. That is the type of funding that could have many applications. We have to deal with the reality of what we have been left with, and that is exactly what we are doing. I am supporting the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014.