National Union of Students Education Conference 2011

Speech
  • Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations
  • Leader of the Government in the Senate

Curtin University of Technology—Bentley Campus Kent St, Bentley WA

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet—the Noongar people—and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I also extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are here today.

Thank you, Jesse Marshall, for the opportunity to speak today.

No one appreciates more than I do the contribution the National Union of Students makes to the interests of tertiary students across Australia.

Many of you will be the policy makers and leaders of tomorrow.

You and I want to see a system of higher education in this country where more students can grasp the opportunities that a university education offers.

Today I want to talk to you about what the Australian Government is doing to achieve that.

Already, as a result of the major program of reforms that the Prime Minister commenced as Minister for Education, we have succeeded in opening the doors of Australia’s universities to more students than ever before.

As a direct result of those reforms, we have seen close to 100 000 additional students grasp the opportunity of a university education since 2007.

Since 2007, we have already seen an extra 80 000 undergraduate students each year get the opportunity of a university education – from 408 000 in 2007 to 488 000 this year.

And we have also seen the number of Commonwealth-supported postgraduate places double from 16 500 in 2007 to 33 000 this year.

I am proud that the Government’s higher education reforms have been guided by the great tradition of delivering opportunity – a tradition that is central to Labor’s values.

We believe not only in the benefits of a strong economy, but also that the opportunities that arise from a strong economy must be shared by all Australians, not just an exclusive few.

We know how transformative a university education can be, particularly for those young Australians who might be the first in their family to go to university.

For that reason, a vital element of our reform agenda, following the Bradley Review of Higher Education, has been the commitment to ensuring that universities can extend the benefits of higher education more broadly.

In Parliament two weeks ago, in the debate over the Government’s legislation to introduce demand-driven funding for university places with effect from 2012, Liberal member after Liberal member stood up to criticise Labor’s decision to abolish full fee undergraduate places when we came to Government.

Let me say this.

I’m proud that we acted to abolish full fee undergraduate places.

It’s a decision that we do not resile from.

Entry to university should be on the basis of merit, not on someone’s capacity to pay.

That is a principle which Labor has always stood up for. We always have, and we always will.

We have also put our money where our mouth is when it comes to social equity in accessing the benefits of a university education and the determination to succeed.

Social equity isn’t a desirable add-on. It is essential to our nation’s success.

We simply can’t afford to continue to draw enrolments from a narrow base of potential students.

We can’t afford to overlook talent, wherever it is to be found.

The talent is out there in our suburbs and towns, right across our country, and we have to tap it.

This isn’t an easy thing to do.

But with effort, I believe that we can bring the dream of higher education to any Australian with the talent to achieve it.

In this year’s Budget the Government is investing $708 million over four years to help universities attract, support and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Today, we have opened applications to allow universities to complete for $119 million to develop partnerships with schools and vocational education and training providers to reach out to more low-SES students.

This funding will further support universities to grow the total pool of students from low-SES backgrounds in higher education through raising aspirations and educational achievement.

Our goal is that by the year 2020, twenty per cent of undergraduates will be from low socio economic status backgrounds, up from the long-term average of around 15 per cent.

As a consequence of this investment, more Australians, regardless of their background or where they live, will have the opportunity to gain a university education.

We are making progress.

Applications data released last month show that the numbers of low-SES students are estimated to be up by 12.7 per cent since 2009, compared with increases of 9.7 per cent for medium-SES applicants and 5.3 per cent for high-SES applicants.

That’s right – while more Australians are taking up the opportunity to go to uni, the highest growth has been among those who have historically faced the greatest barriers to entry.

That is progress of which the Government is rightfully proud.

Part of the reason for that success has been that the Government’s reforms to student income support are working.

The evidence is in.

The Government’s landmark reforms to student income support last year have already made it easier for young people to study, particularly those from families with low incomes.

Due to the reforms, more than 107 000 young people have received the maximum rate of Youth Allowance, a higher rate of Youth Allowance, or a payment of Youth Allowance for the first time.

More than 240 000 students have also received scholarships towards their education costs.

A key element of our reform package was to increase the Parental Income Test threshold by some $12 000 from $33 300 to now over $45 114, and to index that figure annually.

This change has significantly expanded the number of people who are eligible for Youth Allowance and increased the amount of support they are paid.

In just 12 months there has been a 35 per cent increase in the number of dependent university students now receiving Youth Allowance.

The number eligible to receive the maximum payment over this period has also risen by 15 000, or 36 per cent.

The task of reform is, of course, never complete.

I want to thank the NUS for its submission to the Government’s Review of Student Income Support Reforms, chaired by Professor Kwong Lee Dow.

The Government is receiving the report today and we will carefully consider the review’s recommendations and respond in the coming months.

Government’s commitment to quality

Opening the doors of our universities to more Australians does not—and must not—result in a drop in quality.

This is an absolute priority for this Government—to ensure that the quality of education doesn’t suffer as the number of students attending university grows.

While Australian universities are responsible for maintaining the quality of their academic standard, the Government has measures in place to ensure Australia has a quality higher education sector.

We established a new national regulatory and quality agency for higher education, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—or TEQSA.

TEQSA is an independent body with powers to regulate higher education providers, monitor quality and set standards.

It will ensure the overall quality of the higher education system and standards are upheld as universities grow.

But, important that our new quality regulator will be, it would be wrong to think that the Government’s commitment to quality is encapsulated by that reform alone.

The government’s quality agenda also includes new performance funding arrangements to reward universities for delivering outcomes for students.

It also includes funding to support structural adjustment to allow universities to improve pathways from VET qualifications and to expand course offerings to better respond to what students and employers need.

Transparency is also an important part of the Government’s quality agenda.

Informed student choice is particularly important as we move to a demand-driven system.

It’s for this reason that the newMyUniversitywebsite will have information about courses, campus facilities and support services—and that, over time, we will seek to make more information available to students and prospective students in this way.

Restoring student services

We’re also working to rebuild vital support services and amenities for higher education students and to secure student advocacy and representation.

In November last year, the Student Services and Amenities Bill was passed in the House of Representatives.

I expect that the Bill will be debated by the Senate when we next sit.

The Bill allows universities to choose to charge a fee for student services and amenities of a non-academic nature of up to $263 for 2012.

While students can pay the student and services amenities fee upfront if they wish, most will be able to take the option of deferring payment, through the HECS system, until they are earning a decent income.

This will ensure the fee does not act as a barrier to accessing higher education.

It is estimated the Student Services and Amenities Fee will provide universities with more than $250 million over four years for much needed student amenities and services.

I recognise that students have a clear interest in having a say on how their fees are spent.

Universities will be required to consult with students on the specific uses of the proceeds from any services and amenities fee charged.

The National Union of Students has made a number of suggestions on the Guidelines that sit under the legislation with a view to ensuring that the consultation that universities undertake with students is genuine and gives students a seat at the table.

I understand those concerns and am giving further consideration to how the Guidelines ensure that students have a proper say in how their fees are spent.

But ultimately, we need to draw a line under this debate and get the legislation passed, after years of ideological attacks on students by the Liberal Party, so that students have access to better services when they start uni next year.

Base Funding Review

Before taking your questions, I want to briefly mention the Base Funding Review, the next element in the Government’s commitment to deliver higher education reform.

The review came out of the recommendations of the Bradley Review. I have asked the panel to develop a set of principles to underpin investment in higher education for the long term.

As you would expect there is a lot of interest in this review and the panel has been consulting widely, including with the National Union of Students.

I want to thank the union for its comprehensive submission — one of 160 that the review received.

I look forward to receiving the recommendations of the review in October this year.

I have previously made it clear that the fiscal environment that we face is still one of recovery and return to surplus, and so any increase in base funding, if there is to be one, must be supported by solid evidence.

We have provided substantial additional funding for the higher education sector in response to the Bradley Review, including $3.15 billion in additional funding for indexation to 2015 and almost $4 billion in new funding to support the transition to the new demand-driven system.

In fact, the Government’s total investment higher education this year will exceed $12 billion, more than 50 per cent higher than the level of higher education spending in 2007.

I’m proud of the major investment that we have made in higher education and the results that are being delivered both for the nation as a whole and the difference that we are making in the lives of individual students.

Conclusion

This Government is deeply committed to reforming higher education and, in particular, increasing students’ access to university.

I personally will not be content until we have a system in which all students have every opportunity to gain university qualifications and reach their full potential.

We have made significant investments and reforms to the way that higher education and vocational education and training is delivered in Australia.

We are transforming the tertiary landscape to ensure that more Australians are able to reach their full potential – including those who, for too long, have been locked out.

It’s about providing more Australians with the education and skills they need to get a new start, a better job, a higher pay packet.

It’s about giving Australians the chance to reach their full potential and share in the nation’s prosperity.

Investing in the Australian people—making the most of our tremendous reserves of talent —is critical to our economic reform agenda.

Our commitment is to the continued expansion of a high quality university sector, to educate the graduates needed by an economy based on knowledge, skills and innovation.

I know that the National Union of Students shares these objectives and I thank you for your support of the Government’s reform agenda.

I wish you all the best for the rest of the conference.

Thank you.

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