Matter of Public Importance - 12 September 2017
Tuesday, 12 September 2017
It is an absolute delight for me to be able to speak on the MPI today. I absolutely support the reforms that the Turnbull government is making to higher education.
From a local point of view, the electorate that I represent on the Gold Coast has two universities in it, and in fact there are three universities on the Gold Coast: Griffith University, Southern Cross University and Bond University. And it's Southern Cross University and Bond University that are in my electorate of McPherson. Southern Cross University is a public university and it has been going from strength to strength. They have embarked on a significant building program which has been in place for a number of years. They are doing a fabulous job in South-East Queensland, and also in northern New South Wales. Bond University, a private university, is on the northern part of my electorate, and it has topped institutions from around the country to earn the highest level of student satisfaction.
There are a number of criteria that are measured, and the indicators include the quality of the education experience, teaching quality, learner engagement, learning resources, student support and skills development. Bond University is an outstanding university, and it has significantly punched well above its weight for a number of years now. It is a university, clearly, that has high levels of student satisfaction. It is very well regarded in a number of disciplines, particularly law. So I congratulate Bond University. There are many things that I would say that the public sector could learn from Bond University and how it has developed and evolved over the years.
Australia does have a world-class higher education system. It's a modern and a successful system. We have 16 universities in Australia in the top 300 world university rankings for 2017-18, and our Australian universities support about 1.4 million students. Our higher education system provides job and career opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young Australians every year, and the reforms that this government has put forward will ensure that it continues to provide those same opportunities for generations of Australians to come.
Our reform package follows extensive consultation with stakeholders, and I really do congratulate the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham, because he has done a terrific job, making sure that he has consulted widely for well over 12 months, and the reforms that have been put forward are based on that very extensive consultation that he in particular has undertaken. Our reform package focuses on three key issues: improving the sustainability of higher education, providing more choices for students and increasing transparency and accountability. Our reforms are fair. They will continue to drive quality and excellence in higher education and ensure that Australians who want to study have the right support and the right opportunities.
The growth in both student debt and taxpayer costs is significant to us, and it's an issue that we have taken on board. The demand-driven system has certainly led to a significant but unsustainable growth in higher education loans that has to be addressed, and our reform package clearly does that.
I'd like to put today's MPI into some context. There is legislation that's currently being debated in the House, and that is the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill. That bill delivers on the Turnbull government's commitment to a stronger, more sustainable and student-focused system that preserves and expands access to education while, importantly, achieving savings that were outlined in the budget. I'd just like to go through some of the key features of the bill that is currently being debated in the House, and there already has been some debate and I understand that that will continue this afternoon.
The bill before the House rebalances the costs of higher education between the government and students by adjusting the relative shares of taxpayer contribution amounts and student contribution amounts for courses, whilst still ensuring that the majority—about 54 per cent, on average—of the cost of a degree is paid for by the taxpayers. It does introduce an efficiency dividend for universities, of 2½ per cent in each of 2018 and 2019, so that universities are sharing in the cost, along with students and taxpayers, of keeping the sector sustainable.
The bill lowers the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, thresholds for repayment, and it introduces new indexation arrangements to encourage more of the $50 billion in loans to be repaid and to be repaid sooner. It strengthens the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, which supports disadvantaged and under-represented student cohorts to access and to succeed at university.
We will retain the demand-driven arrangements for undergraduate qualifications and we will extend them to sub-bachelor places, with significant safeguards to ensure quality and industry links. We'll provide a subsidy for units of work experience that count towards a Commonwealth-supported qualification. We're allocating subsidies for postgraduate places directly to students, rather than to universities, so that students can exercise choice in their provider. The bill does introduce performance benchmarks for universities, linked to funding, that increase transparency on how funding is used to support student achievement, and the metrics will be developed in consultation with the sector.
The key features of the government legislation are that it's a fair, sustainable package of reforms; there's no fee regulation; the helplines will stay; and accountability of higher education institutions will be increased with expanding access for students.
Those are the key features of it. All of us in this House would agree that education is vital to Australia's future successes, but so is lower debt. The Turnbull government's reforms are focused on encouraging quality and excellence in Australian higher education. They ensure that students have the support that they need to succeed while also making sure that the system is sustainable for future generations so the students that are yet to come have the sorts of opportunities that this and other generations have had.
We're going to keep growing our record level of funding for higher education. However, it will be better targeted and provide equitable access for underrepresented groups. It will meet the needs of industry and the community and hold higher education institutes accountable for the taxpayer funding that they receive.
The reforms start from a clean slate. There will be no fee deregulation and no 20 per cent funding cut for universities. We've been through a comprehensive process including a discussion paper that attracted more than 1,000 submissions and worked with an expert advisory panel. Out of that consultation—and again I congratulate the minister—we have come up with a responsible suite of reforms. That's in stark contrast to the brash approach from the Labor Party when they were last in government and announced over $6 billion worth of cuts to the higher education sector.
We believe that this gets the balance right. We have a very high quality higher education system in Australia, and it's important that we build on our current strengths. Education is our third largest export, and higher education is a key part of that. I was recently in India as part of the Australian Business Week in India program, and it was very pleasing to see that there were a number of our universities at that forum. They were very focused on building opportunities for their university in the Indian market and also encouraging Indian students to come and study here in Australia. To do that, it's very important that we maintain our high-quality higher education system and that we ensure—as we are doing—that the reforms that we are putting in place will ensure that that system is sustainable into the future.