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

04 September 2023

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. Universities are a major part of our economy. They educate our citizens, conduct groundbreaking research, drive innovation and employ many thousands of workers. In my electorate of Canberra, there are five universities: the Australian National University, the University of Canberra, the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the Australian Catholic University and Charles Sturt University. UNSW is also building a second campus in Reid, close to the civic centre. I'm not totally certain, but I'd be surprised if there was any other electorate that had more university campuses than mine.

In the 2021 census, approximately 4.2 per cent of people in the Canberra electorate were employed in the higher education sector compared to a national average of 1.3 per cent, which makes higher education the second-largest industry of employment in my electorate, following the Public Service. Fifty-three per cent of my constituents have attained a bachelor's degree or above, and 37 per cent of my constituents are currently attending a university to further their education. I think it's safe to say that Canberra is a university town.

Unfortunately, however, our university sector is not currently fit for purpose and requires serious reform. Fortunately, we've got a government and a minister who are very much up to and focused on that task. How refreshing it is to be standing here today talking about the positive changes coming to the university sector rather than having to defend it and trying to draw attention to the attacks from those opposite under the previous government. For a decade we saw attack after attack—ideologically motivated—on our universities, often because they told the government inconvenient truths. We saw the previous occupiers of the education minister's office launch warfare on the humanities. They picked up and chose the disciplines which would not receive extra funding be would be so lucky as to not have their funding levels cut.

We do things differently on this side of the House, and this bill is just one example of that. This bill implements a number of recommendations from the interim report of the Australian Universities Accord Panel. I want to commend the accord team, consisting of the chair, Professor Mary O'Kane AC, Professor Barney Glover AO, Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, my former boss the Hon. Jenny Macklin AC, Professor Larissa Behrendt AO and the Hon. Fiona Nash, for their work on the review to date. They're all eminently qualified, with experience from the university sector, from business and from the political sphere. This report outlines a vision for the future of Australians' higher education system and is a significant milestone in the accord process, which will release its final report at the end of this year.

The interim report makes five recommendations for priority action which the government is committed to implement. Two of those recommendations require legislative amendment, and it is that that this bill provides. The first recommendation being addressed in this bill is scrapping the 50 per cent pass rule. The 50 per cent pass rule is a requirement that students must pass 50 per cent of the units they study to remain eligible for a Commonwealth supported place and FEE-HELP assistance. This was a rule introduced under the previous government as part of the Jobs-ready Graduates Package. Unfortunately, the consequences of this rule have been that students from equity backgrounds have been disproportionately disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, our higher education system is inequitable. Opportunity and attainment are influenced by location and student background. Since 2016, participation rates for students from low-SES, regional, rural and remote student backgrounds have actually gone backwards. While First Nations' participation has increased, it still languishes at around 40 per cent below non-Indigenous rates.

When the Jobs-ready Graduates package was introduced, higher student contributions compounded the barriers to education for disadvantaged students, and the 50 per cent pass rule made it even worse. It doesn't take a genius to work out why. For a student from a low-socioeconomic background, consider the need to move out of home in a regional or rural area to attend university in an expensive capital city like Canberra or Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane. They might need to work multiple jobs to support their studies, and then they don't have the same time to study as their peers who don't have to go to such efforts to support themselves, particularly with the cost of living as it is at the moment. Therefore, they don't achieve the same grades as someone from a more privileged background, and they are probably under a great deal of stress.

Then you have the Commonwealth saying, 'Actually, sorry, you're not trying hard enough, and we're going to take away your support.' Can you imagine the impact of that on a young person? It makes sense then that this rule has had a serious impact on the equity of enrolment, and more than 13,000 students across 27 universities have been impacted by that rule. Universities across the country have urged us to scrap the rule, and that's exactly what this bill does. We should be helping students to succeed, not forcing them to quit because of an arbitrary punitive rule. Instead of this rule, the government is introducing measures to support students to complete their studies. This bill will introduce for universities a requirement to demonstrate how they will identify students who are struggling and how they will then connect those students with support services to help them.

This bill also extends the current demand-driven fundings for regional and remote First Nations students to all First Nations students studying bachelor-level courses. The existing measure, which these changes are expanding, was implemented in 2021 in response to the Napthine review of regional, rural and remote education strategy. This measure will aim to directly increase First Nations enrolment. It is a national shame that young Indigenous men are more likely to end up in prison than to graduate from university. That's an issue which is a direct result of government policy failures, and this measure will hopefully change that trajectory. This measure means that there will be no cap on the number of First Nations students that can enrol in Commonwealth supported places. All institutions will receive Commonwealth funding for all Indigenous students. Modelling from the Department of Education estimates that this could double the number of Indigenous students at university over the next decade.

There's a lot more to the accord's interim report than just these issues, and there is plenty to discuss. There is nowhere near enough time in this speech, but I want to briefly talk about some of the incredible work of the universities in my electorate, which I have the privilege of visiting quite regularly. I was incredibly fortunate to work at the University of Canberra for a number of years before entering this place. I worked at the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, which was instrumental in how we understand the impacts of social policy and economic policy on Australian households. The microsimulation methods developed at NATSEM continue to be used by the Commonwealth Treasury and also by other academics in social policy modelling to this day. The University of Canberra has been ranked as one of the top universities in the country on metrics such as graduate employability and student experience. It ranks as the second-best young university in the country and 18th in the world. This year the university rose a huge 81 places in the resent QS World University Rankings, an absolutely incredible achievement for a great Canberra institution.

At the ANU, which is just over the bridge from this place, we see some of the most groundbreaking research done anywhere in the world. At the John Curtin School of Medical Research I recently had the opportunity to launch the Shine-Dalgarno Centre for RNA Innovation. It is 50 years since John Shine and Lynn Dalgarno discovered what became known as the Shine-Dalgarno sequence. That sequence is far too complex for me to understand or try to explain here, but what I can say is that much of what humans know today about molecular biology and about RNA and gene expression came from right here in Canberra. Obviously, many of us hadn't heard about RNA until the COVID pandemic, but this was key in identifying vaccines. It's a great example of what science means for humanity that that was what gave us comfort and gave us a way through the pandemic.

Also at the ANU I saw the incredible research that the Research School of Earth Sciences is doing into the extraction of rare-earth elements like lithium, which are necessary to fuel the renewable energy revolution. And, at the Research School of Physics, I saw the huge heavy ion accelerator, which attracts researchers from all around the world, including from the CERN accelerator in Switzerland. Also at the school of physics I joined Professor Jodie Bradbury to smash diamonds together. It sounds fake, but I can assure you that it's true. The end result is a material which has a huge range of applications, including for the construction of solar panels and computer processors. These are just a few examples of the vast amounts of path-breaking, mind-blowing research that is occurring not just here in Canberra but around the nation thanks to the brilliant academics at our universities.

I want to take this opportunity to say that I and, I'm sure, many members of this place, when we have the opportunity to meet with academics at our universities, across a whole range of fields, are blown away by the things that they are grappling with day to day—the problems they are solving, the innovation they are driving and their role in teaching and educating university students, who are the future of this country and of the world. So it's always concerning to hear, when you speak to them, about things like job insecurity for some of the brightest minds in our country and how difficult it can be for academics, who are often incredibly highly qualified people, to go from contract to contract and, in many cases, to have unmanageable workloads of marking and other parts of their job. It would be good to see more sustainable support for these academics so they can get on with what they do best, which is making the discoveries, doing the research and teaching university students around the country.

Back when I was working at NATSEM, all those years ago, I got to author a report which was commissioned by AMP called What price the clever country? This looked at what students gained by getting a university education or a vocational TAFE qualification. All the numbers would obviously be vastly out of date by now, but it showed that it really was so worthwhile for people to pursue education post school and that it would make an immense difference to their lifetime incomes. It showed that, for students—and, as I've talked about, particularly students from rural and regional backgrounds—the costs of living are perhaps the biggest barrier to being able to pursue their studies. As I've said, our cities are expensive. Rent is expensive. Food is expensive. Often people are working multiple jobs to keep themselves able to pursue their studies, often at the cost of their studies and certainly at the cost of their wellbeing a lot of the time. Supporting yourself while studying is something that many students enjoy and want to do, but it can become so onerous that you really can't focus on the study that you have moved to the city to do. That is to the detriment of the objective, which is to encourage people to take up these opportunities, with the great gains that has for our future economy and society.

So I feel that the costs of living for students are something that needs to be looked at more closely, to see what we can do to better support students as they embark on studies, be it in university or TAFE. Our fee-free TAFE is a fantastic example of this. I had the great opportunity to meet with some students from the Canberra Institute of Technology who were meeting with Minister Brendan O'Connor and the Prime Minister today and to hear about the difference that being able to access fee-free TAFE has made to them. They were studying in a range of priority areas such as early childhood education, cybersecurity and hospitality. It is so important that people have a range of options when they finish school to pursue these things, so I wish those students the best again. As I've talked about, part of this bill is also about supporting students to be able to study while they're at university. I'm so proud to be part of a government that values our university sector and what it can offer for all Australians. I commend this bill to the House.