Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

It's with great pleasure that I rise to make my contribution on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. The legislation before the House acts on two key recommendations from the interim report of the Australian Universities Accord panel, commissioned to review Australia's higher education system. After a decade of sitting on the opposition benches and seeing the former government unpick things that had been carefully put in place to support our university sector, to ensure that our students were being given every opportunity to reach their potential, to engage in meaningful education for life, in a lifelong journey, the impotence that I felt over there can only be eclipsed by having the opportunity tonight to speak to this piece of legislation and to celebrate the actions so far of the Minister for Education, the member for Blaxland, and the speed at which he has moved in the higher education space.

I spent 27 years in classrooms, and I know that in the first decade of my teaching life I was very focused on the students I taught. I was an English teacher, with five sessions a week, five classes of 25 kids, generally speaking. I was intimately focused on those students that I was teaching, intimately focused on being ambitious for them and supportive of them, because I wanted all of those students to achieve their potential. After years in education, you start to look up and look across the school. Becoming a year level coordinator will do this for you. You start to worry about the 250 kids in the cohort that you're responsible for. A few more years, and you're starting to look across the school. A few more years, in the principal class, and you're starting to look at the region, at the system, at the state. It was with great pleasure that I came to this parliament to look at the national progress that we're making in education, and the higher education piece is obviously critical to that.

My life's work has been about supporting individuals to meet their potential, and what this interim report addresses is exactly that. Its crucial function is to look at our higher education system, what challenges are before it and what things we can improve. The interim report has been tabled. The report was commissioned last November. The review is the biggest and broadest in 15 years, looking at access, affordability, teacher quality, research, governance, employment conditions and how the elements of post-secondary education—that is, higher education and vocational education and training—can and should better work together.

The accord panel is led by Professor Mary O'Kane AC, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide and the first woman to become the dean of engineering at any university in Australia. She is doing this work with Professor Barney Glover, Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, the Hon. Jenny Macklin AC, Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, and the Hon. Fiona Nash, once a senator in this place. This group of people have heard from people all over the country, experts in the field as well as parents, students, people interested in higher education. Their recommendations in this interim report ring true to me. When I read the report, when I listen to them and when I think about the five things that they're calling for urgent action on, they speak to me.

The first is that we create more university study hubs, not only in the regions but also in our outer suburbs. As someone who represents an outer suburban region in the south-west of Melbourne, this rings true to me. We have gone, in my lifetime, from a country town of 13,000 people to a metropolis of over 300,000 people. That is an enormous number of young people who need opportunity, who need the support to make the most of that opportunity. So I welcome the outer suburban hubs.

The second is that we scrap the 50 per cent pass rule and require better reporting on how students are progressing. This speaks to the teacher in me. I was appalled when those opposite introduced this rule, because it was highly predictable what the outcome of this was going to be and which Commonwealth supported students were going to fall foul of this rule. They were going to be the students that I represent, people in my electorate. As it happened, that's exactly who did fall foul of it—people from the outer suburbs, young people from the regions, our Indigenous students. So the worst came to pass.

The third is that we extend the demand-driven funding currently provided to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas to cover all Indigenous students.

The fourth is that we provide funding certainty during the accord process by extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024-25, with funding arrangements that prioritise support for equity students.

The fifth is that we work with state and territory governments through National Cabinet to improve university governance. I'll echo the words of the member for Wills, who preceded me in this debate. The notion is that we are going to pay attention to having people in the governance of our universities who understand the business of universities as much as they understand universities as a business, to put it bluntly. The balance has swung too far away from those who understand education.

The report outlines the current state of play in terms of who makes up the 36 per cent of Australians with university qualifications. This includes, currently, almost one in two Australians in their 20s and 30s and where they live—or, rather, where they are least likely to live. It gives us insight into where we will find the increase in degree educated Australians that this report tells us is going to be required, and the projections are almost staggering. In 2035 we are going to need 1.2 million Commonwealth supported students, an increase of 300,000 on today's figures. By 2050 we'll need 1.8 million Commonwealth supported students, an increase of 900,000.

If we look at that data, it's pretty simple. To find people to fill those places, we're going to have to look at those who are not currently represented. We're going to have to look to our underrepresented demographics, and they are in the outer suburbs, where only 23 per cent have a university education; they are in remote and regional communities, where only 13 per cent have a university education; they are Indigenous Australians, of whom only 17 per cent have a university education; and they are poor families, low-socioeconomic families, across the country, of whom only 15 per cent have a university education. Those underrepresented groups are where we will find the increase in students that we need, and every corner of our country will benefit if we get this right.

This piece of legislation acts on two of those things immediately that require legislation. The first is the 50 per cent rule, which the report calls for to be scrapped.

For me and for Labor this has always been a moral imperative: equity and access—not just because it's the right thing to do, not just because it's the fair thing to do. We've always understood the moral imperative. This report outlines for us a practical imperative, a fiscal imperative, a productivity imperative, that we need to act on now. As I say, I'm a firm believer—because I've lived it every day of my working life—that postcode does not determine talent. It does not determine potential, nor does it determine inherent persistence. What it does is determine opportunity, and we need to change that to ensure we have the skilled population we need to create the prosperity we all desire and to be successful in a competitive global environment.

When you think about the changes in terms of energy, when you think about clean energy and that transformation, and you look at it from the perspective of the requirements for that, it is going to need a skilled workforce—not just skilled through a university degree but skilled through vocational education and training as well. The people that are underrepresented are clearly where we will find the students we need as a country, and this bill enacts the two things that the panel recommends and that common sense prescribes require immediate action.

All the 50 per cent pass rule, as a point, did was punish students who perhaps had potential but perhaps had complicated lives. If you look at the figures, that's what we find. Thirteen thousand students fell foul of that rule. It's pretty easy to fall foul of a study requirement to meet 50 per cent if you're travelling 2½ hours a day to get to university and 2½ hours to get back from university. It's pretty easy to fall foul of that rule if you're the only person in your family who happens to be working, as well as studying full time.

In my time here I've heard many of those opposite, when they were in government, talk about students, and they see students as something out of the 1950s, as though they've got a nice little job in the coffee shop or the hotel down the road and then they're studying full time. Guys, wake up! I have young people who work in my office who work full time and study full time.

In my community, in the middle of COVID, I had principals telling me that, in families in my electorate, 16-year-olds were the only people earning an income. They were doing night shifts at McDonald's to keep families afloat. Those same children could be at university now and could fall foul of this 50 per cent rule, not because they don't have potential, don't have capacity or don't have perseverance or persistence; they demonstrate that every day. What's missing? Support. What's missing is universities actually being held accountable and asked to do the job of every teacher in the country, which is to support the potential of that student, put the supports in place, know where the students are, know how they're coping and know whether they're on track to pass or fail—and to do it regularly. That's what this bill asks of universities. It asks them to do that and it provides them with support to give the support to the students that need to complete their degrees.

This measure was introduced by the former government under its job-ready graduate package, and it'll be removed by this bill. I celebrate that and I know that most teachers that I have worked with in my lifetime in schools would equally celebrate it because teachers understand, as do the universities, that students will meet their potential if they're given the appropriate supports to do so. The new measure will see the universities supported to support students to achieve, make them accountable for that success and make the universities part of the success. It shifts the goalposts and asks universities to fulfil their social contract of providing higher education to Australian students and to live their mission of demonstrating the power of education to enhance life outcomes and create a more educated population.

Let's face it; our universities run because we ask them to run. Our universities are there to provide education for our domestic students as much as they are there to provide education for international students. Universities should be the exemplar in terms of educative practice, and government should support them in this role, as well as hold them to account, just as it do in other sectors.

I'll go back to some of the points the member for Wills was making. I know in my electorate that I have many people who work in the university sector. What we have seen in our university sector across the last decade under that government, without any breaks on this downhill run, has been a casualisation of its workforce. Universities have been denuded of professors. How are you going to maintain international rankings without professors on board at universities? Universities are supposed to be the bastion of education. They're what we should be looking to. To be that you need to value those you're asking to educate.

In this country we demonstrate value by giving people permanency, by giving people what they earn and by showing them that we value their work and we value the support they're giving students. On those opposite's watch they introduced this ridiculous 50 per cent fail rate and then allowed universities to not give support to students. As a result, 13,000 students fell foul, many of them exactly the students that we as a country need to engage—not just this generation but the generation after that. I commend this bill to the House.

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