Higher Education Support Amendment (Response To The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

04 September 2023

Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (16:54): I rise to make a contribution to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. The bill, which makes amendments to the Higher Education Support Act 2003, HESA, is part of the government's implementation of the priority recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, which was released by the Minister for Education on 19 July 2023. The Australian higher education sector has travelled through an agonising period of policy and funding uncertainty, including extraordinary ministerial vetoes and interventions into research funding over the last decade. However, the election of the Albanese Labor government is an opportunity for a reset for so many sectors in Australia. Most certainly, a reset was needed between the Commonwealth and the Australian higher education sector.

I note in the break the minister released the government's response to the Australian Research Council review, agreeing with the key recommendations to establish an ARC board that will be responsible for the appointment of the CEO and the approval of grants within the National Competitive Grants Program. This will improve the governance of the ARC and strengthen the integrity of decision-making processes. This is about a reset, not only with the institutions but also with the academic staff, researchers and students.

In the decade under the previous government, we saw it become harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. We saw legislation come before this place that caused students to pay more to attend university, saw thousands of students have their fees double, saw billions of dollars cut from universities and saw legislation that did nothing to get young people into high-priority courses or jobs. It is these reasons why the Albanese Labor government has taken the approach to work with the community to rebuild our higher education sector. Initially this is being done through the Australian Universities Accord. At its core, the accord is about a reset, an opportunity to build a long-term plan for our universities together, without any partisan political games which ultimately only sees the prosperity of our country suffer. The Albanese government is committed to opening the door of opportunity for more Australians to go to university. This is why we are acting so swiftly to implement the priority recommendations of the accord interim report.

I must acknowledge at this point the hard work of the accord team, led by Professor Mary O'Kane AC, chair and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide; Professor Barney Glover AO, Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University; Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, the first female managing director and chief executive officer of Macquarie Group; the Hon. Jenny Macklin AC, former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School and a professor of law and the Director of Research in academic programs at the Jambana Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney; and the Hon. Fiona Nash, a former senator for New South Wales, a former minister for regional development, regional communications and local government and territories, and now Australia's first Regional Education Commissioner.

As other speakers have already outlined, the interim report makes five priority recommendations: (1) that we create more university study hubs not only in the regions, but in our outer suburbs; (2) that we scrap the 50 per cent pass rule and require better reporting on how students are progressing; (3) that we extend the demand-driven funding currently provided to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas to cover all Indigenous students; (4) that we provide funding certainty during the accord process by extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025 with funding arrangements that prioritise support for equity students; and (5), that we work with state and territory governments to improve university governance.

The bill that we see before us today is about recommendations 2 and 3, which require legislative amendment. But all of the recommendations speak to the lived experience in my community. Our local university, the University of Wollongong, engages with the community from the south-western Sydney regions all the way to the Victorian border. As the university outlined in its response to the accord discussion paper, around 50 per cent of UOW students are first in family. On a personal note, this was the case for me. Leaving school after year 10, I did a business administration course and then entered the workforce here in the parliament. It was not until my 30s that I went to university as a mature-aged student while working as a full-time adviser in this place. I was the first in my family to complete university and I am a proud University of Wollongong alumni. So is Flying Officer Julia Cronan, who is participating in the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program in my office this week. Flying Officer Julia Cronan completed her degree in international relations at UOW.

In many schools across Australia, in excess of 65 per cent of students are still going directly into employment after school and are not accessing higher or vocational education. When education is a key to Australia's future prosperity and development, we must do all we can to support Australians to acquire the skills that our future workforce needs. Locally, UOW is striving to provide that support with a dedicated team that has been committed to widening the participation of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in higher education for more than 15 years. Despite its name, the activities of UOW are embedded in the Wollongong, Bega Valley, Eurobodalla, Shoalhaven, Sydney CBD, Southern Highlands, Sutherland Shire and south-western Sydney regions, where UOW has regional and metropolitan footprints. More than 3,500 students have graduated from UOW's regional campuses.

We must be more innovative when it comes to supporting the options of education in our regions. One example is UOW's coordinated aged-care traineeship programs in Bega, where the university works with local aged-care providers to offer cohort based traineeships whereby students gain paid employment with certificate IV level study in a face-to-face cohort model with mentorship as well as a guaranteed pathway into a local Bachelor of Nursing degree. The vice-chancellor has put to me that this model is proving very successful in terms of retention of the workforce and completion of qualifications, and industry groups have sought to replicate it in other regions.

The work that UOW has been doing in my community is very much consistent with where the accord recommendations are. However, as previously mentioned, this bill is making only two legislative changes: extending the current demand-driven funding for regional and remote First Nations students to all First Nations Australian undergraduate students studying bachelor or bachelor honours level courses other than courses in medicine from 2024 and removing the pass-rate requirements for students to remain eligible for Commonwealth assistance and introduce new requirements for universities and other providers to support students in successfully completing their studies.

The pass-rate requirements were originally introduced in January 2022 by the former coalition government as part of its Job-ready Graduates program to dissuade students from continuing in courses that they were not academically suited for. However, the practical effect of these measures has been overly punitive for students. I want to be clear that these changes to the pass rate are about increasing support, not about lowering standards. More than 13,000 students at 27 universities have already been hit by the rule. The pass-rate requirements have disproportionately affected students from First Nations, low-socioeconomic-status and other underrepresented or educationally disadvantaged cohorts. Those are the groups that achieve the most, particularly in social and economic development opportunities, when it comes to undertaking higher and further education. We must be helping students succeed, not forcing them to quit.

Students come from all walks of life and experiences. Undertaking higher education is in many cases a leap of faith for students who don't back themselves, their skills and their abilities. We must have institutions which can support students to learn, develop and meet the standards of a world-class education and more. For a lot of people, especially in my community, this is a balancing act of competing priorities, including work, family and caring responsibilities. Under these policies, universities and other providers will be required to demonstrate how they will identify students who are struggling and how they will connect those students with support services to help them.

The extension of the demand-driven places to metropolitan Indigenous students is a measure that will directly support efforts towards achieving Closing the Gap outcome 6 to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25 to 34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification, cert III and above, to 70 per cent by 2031. I note that the Department of Education estimates this may double the number of Indigenous students at university within a decade, and it has strong sector sport. The measure builds on the government's election commitment to deliver up to 20,000 Commonwealth supported places, including 936 at the University of Wollongong, and fee-free TAFE places. This bill is the first part of the accord reset process and seeks to reduce the narrowing of options that we have seen occurring in Australia's higher education system for far too long.