PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: I rise also to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011. This bill does four things. Firstly, it updates the maximum public funds allocated to fund Commonwealth supported places as a result of projected increases in enrolments of Commonwealth supported students in Australian universities. Secondly, it provides for an increase in funding in line with indexation. Thirdly, it adds an additional year of funding for the 2015 calendar year, and fourthly, it implements changes announced in the 2011-12 budget to the discounts applicable when students either pay their HECS upfront or repay their fees early.
Many of these recommendations, as you would be aware, are largely based on the Bradley Review, which was a comprehensive review of the tertiary sector handed to the government in 2008. It largely provides a blueprint for reform of the higher education sector.
The key change in the review is to move our system of funding away from being a restricted one to being one which is student-demand-driven, so that all students who are eligible are able to attend university. Of course, this move to a student-demand-driven system will see an increase in enrolments in tertiary institutions. That is a good thing.
The aspirational target of the government, and which is outlined in the Bradley Review, is for 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds to have a bachelor’s degree by 2020 or 2025. That is the aspirational target, and the Coalition shares that aspirational target. We will not oppose the particular measures which are contained within this bill and, as I said, we support the aspirational target. But we certainly do have concerns in relation to the direction which the government is going, and I would just like to touch on a couple of those concerns without wanting to repeat things which some of my colleagues have already said.
Firstly, I give a note of warning in relation to the aspirational target. As I said, while we support that aspirational target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds having a bachelor’s degree by 2020 we need to make sure that in making this target we do not imply that other pathways are less important than the higher education pathway. There are equally good pathways in apprenticeships or in the TAFE systems. Indeed, for many students the right pathway will be to get a job straight after finishing high school. So while we support the aspirational target for tertiary institutions—for the university sector—I think it is important to note that we also equally need to emphasise that all pathways are good alternatives and that it is up to the individual to determine what the right pathway is for them. Indeed, at the moment we have a great shortage in some of the technical areas and we need to encourage more people to get apprenticeships in some of the trades as much as we need to encourage people to go to university and get a degree.
My second concern is that by setting a target of 40 per cent that we do not lower the standards at our tertiary institutions. I have made comments in the past in relation to some courses where I believe the entry level scores into those courses have already dropped down to quite alarming levels. For example in teaching, which in my view should be a course which is in very high demand, some university courses already have entrance scores down to 56. I was informed by a Macquarie University professor today that it is even below 50 in some cases—down to a TER of 40. I am already concerned about that level in terms of the quality of the students we are getting into those courses, and I would be concerned that, through setting an ambitious target of 40 per cent, we might drop the standards further in courses like teaching and other courses where we need to maintain very high standards.
My third and final point—and this is perhaps my most substantive concern about the proposals—is how we will actually get to this 40 per cent aspirational target by 2020 or 2025. How this will actually be implemented is the question. We have learnt on this side of the House that we should seriously question and find out what the plans are which underpin the government’s ambitious goals and targets. We have learnt this over the last few years because there have been so many ambitious programs which the government has embarked upon where the planning and the homework simply had not been done. All of the unintended consequences which resulted have come about simply because that planning work had not been done. It had not been properly thought through.
Let me take you through some of those examples. We had the school halls example, where $16 billion was spent on school halls but because the thinking had not been done in how that would be properly rolled out we only got about $8 billion worth of value out of those school halls. The pink batts program everybody knows about. It was the plan to put insulation into everybody’s roofs. But because the implementation steps had not been properly thought out we ended up with fires, with houses burning down, with dodgy practices across the country and with elderly people scared to turn on the lights in their houses for fear that there was going to be a fire. We have seen similar things from the solar rebate program. The national curriculum is currently being worked through and again I fear that the proper implementation and proper planning have not been done for the rollout of that. It is one thing to have the right ambition and the right documents, but there are many other steps that need to be done to properly implement this.
The final example that I use as an illustration—and I will not harp on this particular point—is in relation to preschools. I have made points about preschools in this chamber before as the government has set an ambitious goal of having 15 hours of tuition for all four-year-olds. Money has been put aside to support this policy, but this policy has not been thought through. In Victoria, we now have preschools announcing that they have to close their doors to three-year-olds as a result of this initiative for four-year-olds. What is happening is, the increase in hours for four-year-olds is squeezing out the three-year-olds program. We need to think through the consequences of ambitious government plans—and this is an ambitious one, to achieve a 40 per cent target by 2020 or 2025.
I notice that Senator Mason, my learned colleague in the Senate, has been asking some questions in relation to this particular bill and what sort of planning has been done. Through the Senate estimates process he asked the minister and departmental officials a number of questions. He asked about the estimated costs over future years. He asked about what infrastructure would be required and what it would cost to build that infrastructure to accommodate all of the extra students at our universities. He asked about the potential impact of a better educated population on increasing standards of living, the tax base, productivity and economic growth, and the impact on innovation and research. He asked about the impact it is likely to have on state, territory and regional communities.
But none of these questions could be answered. It seems that none of the thinking or planning work has been done. Some of those questions are difficult, I admit, but the government should be at least doing some modelling so we get an indication about what it is going to cost, how much infrastructure we need and the impact on regional communities, our cities, et cetera. If that work is not done, I am concerned that we, (a) will not achieve the target or, (b) will end up with debacles that have occurred with other programs that the government has tried to implement without fully thinking through the consequences.
Let me finally say that the key thing to getting more people into universities—and particularly more people from low-SES backgrounds which is a government ambition and one which we share—is to improve the quality of teaching in our schools. That is the key thing that we need to do because the barrier for people getting into universities is their final-year high school results and their tertiary entrance results. We need to be doing more to lift the quality of the schools in our communities, particularly in some of the low-SES areas where we need to improve the quality of schooling.
There are a couple of things that we need to spend more time and effort doing, including to increase the quality of the teaching. I know that is a goal of the government, but I think more can be done in that area. We need to aim to attract the cream of the crop into teaching. We need to raise the status of the profession overall. This should be one of the most prestigious professions in our community. I am concerned that over the years the prestige of the profession has declined. That has in part meant that we have not been getting the same calibre of people applying to do teaching courses as we did in the past.
We also need to take practical and sensible measures to move teachers into other career paths if they are not performing. As you would be aware, it is exceptionally difficult to move teachers into other career paths if they are not performing. That is something that needs to be looked at seriously so that we constantly increase the quality of our teaching profession. There are many other things we should be doing in relation to schooling and particularly in relation to schools that cater for low-SES communities that I have articulated in this House in the past.
I hope that the government does hear some of the concerns that we on this side of the chamber have articulated. I particularly hope that the government will hear our concern about the need to plan, to think through very carefully what needs to be done from an implementation perspective before embarking upon any ambitious initiatives. I commend the bill.