PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: Mr TUDGE (Aston) (12:34): I start by commending the Member for Forrest’s contribution there in outlining, particularly, the impact of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012 on regional and rural students. She is a very strong advocate in this parliament for those students particularly. This bill—as you would be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker—reinstates the student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study to its pre-2009 levels for domestic students commencing a course of study on or after 1 January 2013. It also removes the eligibility for Commonwealth-supported places in the Higher Education Loan Program schemes for Australian citizens who commence a course of study after 1 January 2013 and do not intend to reside in Australia during the course of study. The second purpose of this bill—to capture those students who do not intend to reside in Australia—I think is a step in the right direction. Our focus should rightly be on trying to support students who want to study here, pursue their careers here and make a contribution back to our nation. So we support the intent of that measure.
But I would like to focus on the first purpose of the bill, which is the removal of the HECS discount for maths, science and statistics courses. As you would be aware, the HECS discount for maths, science and statistics courses was introduced by the Rudd government in December 2008, and it took effect on 1 January 2009. It was while the now Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was the Education Minister. The aim of providing the discount was to encourage more students to undertake these courses, because indeed we do have a shortage of students undertaking these courses. The government is now reversing that decision three years later, and this reversal is effective from 1 January next year.
The stated reason for reversing this decision, as the new Education Minister has explained to us, is because the measure was not working. That is the stated reason that they have given to us. They have said that there has been no change in terms of the numbers of students studying those subject areas at universities and hence they are going to abolish the HECS discounts.
Some of the evidence put forward by some people suggests that the measure was in fact working. Indeed, the Parliamentary Library looked into his question and produced a report, Are Maths and Science Enrolments Increasing? It is dated 2 December 2011. It actually concluded that the measures which Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard introduced had an immediate effect. It said that in 2009 undergraduate applications for natural and physical sciences increased by 17 per cent on 2008, and increased again in 2010 by 13 per cent. It said that this reversed the declines from the previous years just in those couple of years. It also said that the increases in applications carried over to increasing enrolments. For example, the commencing bachelor places in all science subjects showed an increase of 8.7 per cent in 2009 and 19.4 per cent in 2010 when the overall increase in undergraduate student numbers was only 15 per cent. So at least the Parliamentary Library believes that this measure did make a difference in terms of increasing the number of applicants and the number of people who are studying maths, science and statistics at university.
I suggest that the reason the Government is abolishing the discounts is not because the program did not work. I think they are using that as an excuse, frankly. I think that the real reason for the measure that we are debating today and that is contained within this bill is because the Government has wasted so much money over the last five years that they are now scrambling to try to find savings in every single portfolio to bring some semblance of integrity back to the budget for next year. That is the real reason that we are debating this bill right now.
The Government over the last five years, as you know Deputy Speaker Grierson, and as every Australian knows, has wasted billions of upon billions of dollars on all sorts of wasteful programs. We know about the pink batts scheme: billions wasted to put pink batts into people’s roofs and then billions spent to take the pink batts out of people’s roofs. We know about the Green Loans Program. We know about the school halls which were built at double the price they should have been. We know about set-top boxes being installed into people’s houses costing $700 per set-top box when you can get one from Harvey Norman $450. We know about the shambolic border protection regime, which is wasting billions of dollars, when previously our border protection system only cost us in the vicinity of $80 million or so. And, of course, we know about the $1,000 cheques that were sent to dead people and were sent to family pets.
Mr Symon: I rise on a point of order—that of relevance.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Grierson): Thank you. I will listen more carefully. Go ahead, Member for Aston.
Mr TUDGE: The reason for this bill in front of us is because the Government has wasted so much money it has brought the net debt figure up to $145 billion and we now have to cut programs, many of which have actually been effective.
The Member for Fadden yesterday was reminding us of the fact that the government is cutting back on the Defence Force personnels’ trips at Christmas time to see their families. We have wasted billions of dollars on pink batts but they are now going after Defence Force personnel and preventing them from being able to go home to their families at Christmas.
This Bill in front of us is in a similar vein. They are trying to save $1 billion over the next four years and they have to make the savings because we have net debt of $145 billion and we have net interest payments of $8 billion per annum. We just have waste after waste after waste which this Government has made over the last five years. That is why this point is relevant. Never have we had such a wasteful Government in the history of this Federation.
The other points I would like to make about this Bill being introduced—and I would reinforce the Member for Forrest’s comments—is that it is retrospective for some students. Although it takes effect from 1 January next year it effects some students who are now studying maths, science and statistics who only undertook to take those courses because of the discounts which were in place. They thought that those discounts would be there for the duration of their course. Now the Government is coming in and saying, ‘Actually, despite you having made your course selections, in part on the basis of those discounts, midway through, we are going to change that policy.’ That is not a good way to conduct public policy, but it is the type of thing that we have come to expect from this Government.
The bigger issue that this bill brings up—and I would like to spend the remaining time that I have available talking about this issue—is that we do need more maths and science graduates. How do we achieve this? In some respects the issue, though, does not start at the university level; it actually starts before there at the school level. We simply do not have enough students at year 12 level anymore who are studying the tougher maths, science and biology subjects. If you look across the statistics over the last two decades you see that the number of year 12 graduates in those areas has declined markedly. For example, the Chief Scientist tabled a report merely a couple of months ago that looked into this question. A number of year 12 students across Australia taking physics, chemistry and biology fell by 31 per cent, 23 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively—incredible drops in the course of two decades. http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Office-of-the-Chief-Scientist-MES-Report-8-May-2012.pdf
This is the real nub of the problem. If people are not studying it at the high school level, they will not be going on and studying it at the university level. As the Chief Scientist said in his report:
‘These science and maths subjects are fundamental to shaping the future of Australia and the future of the world
They provide enabling skills and knowledge that increasingly underpin many professions and trades and the skills of a technologically based workforce.’
There are many reasons people are not studying these tougher subjects of maths and science anymore at the year 12 level. I hear anecdotally in schools in my electorate that part of the reason, is that they are harder subjects and that other subjects can be done and count equally towards the students’ ATAR scores to get into the university courses that they like. I think that needs to be looked at and a proper examination be done on that matter.
I think the bigger reason for it is that we have a severe shortage of passionate maths and science teachers in our schools. The Chief Scientist pointed this out in his report. In that he stated:
‘Inspirational teaching was time and time again identified as the key to future study choices of students.’
Getting higher quality people into teaching, and particularly into maths and science teaching, is a subject that I have spoken about at length in this chamber. I have written about it at length as well.
I am greatly concerned generally about the decline in the quality of the applicants going into teacher courses and I am particularly concerned about the decline in the maths and science graduates going into teaching. In 2010, only 550 students enrolled in graduate Diploma of Education courses had a science degree. That was out of nearly 73,000 students undertaking teacher training courses that year. It is remarkable that there are so few.
What can we do about this? That is the real question. That is what we should be focused on, that is what the Government should be focused on. How do we get outstanding, passionate maths and science teachers into our classrooms? The Chief Scientist in his report outlined a number of recommendations. Those recommendations should be closely looked at. He pointed out some of professional development needed, some of the careers advice which needs to be improved. He talked about professional development standards.
I think, however, that the nub of the issue goes beyond that and that we need to look at the salary structures for maths and science teachers, in particular giving discretion for school principals to be able to offer higher salaries for maths and science teachers if they have a shortage of such teachers in their schools. This was something that the Productivity Commission looked at and what they recommended in their report which they handed down earlier this year. It is something that needs to be done.
The other thing I raise here, is that we need to be looking at how we can fast-track outstanding maths and science graduates into the classroom. I have been involved with a program called Teach for Australia and I remain on its Board. It targets outstanding non-teacher graduates and fast-tracks them into the classroom. It has had fantastic success.
But one of the problems that we have had with this program is that we have had some brilliant applicants who want to teach maths and science but are prevented from doing so. Let me just give you one example. A person who was a Fulbright scholar and had completed a PhD at Yale University in econometrics was approved only to teach legal studies and humanities. He was not approved to teach mathematics because the bureaucracy and the clipboard checkers said that he did not have sufficient qualifications to teach maths. He is exactly the type of person we want in the classroom to teach mathematics. We need to fix up these problems and we need to encourage similar people likewise to be in our classrooms. (Time expired)