Melissa Price speech Higher Ed Research and Reform Bill

Some say that I am a little obsessive when it comes to education in the bush. I make no apology for that. Today I am very pleased to be speaking on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 which will lead to great benefits for students in the bush and in the city. For those who can take a long-term view, there will be paybacks for the Australian nation. We will be making possible the world-class education that Australian students need and deserve, opening up higher education to those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and in remote areas, and creating the largest Commonwealth scholarship scheme ever, which can be accessed by my constituents in regional and remote Durack.

The bill will provide Commonwealth support for tens of thousands of students who currently do not get support, with over 80,000 students each year being provided with additional support by 2018. This benefit, this pay back will provide pathways into higher education for tens of thousands of students. Higher education support will be extended into non-university institutions, and unfair loan fees will be abolished. This is fair, this is reasonable and it makes sense. All higher education peak bodies such as the Regional Universities Network and TAFE Directors Australia support the reform.

This scare campaign on fees, of course, is false. Let's think like a business would think. If fees were too high, universities would have empty lecture theatres and the institutions would collapse. Clearly, this is not about to happen in Australia with this bill. The adverse implications are severe if the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill is not passed. We must take a long-term view because we do not want to lapse into mediocrity. We do not want our young people heading offshore in droves for a more competitive higher education experience. Our research capability will wane.

There are no credible alternatives to our higher education reforms. We know now is the time and now is the hour. If only we could all put politics aside, because our focus now needs to be on our young people including those living in the seat of Durack. Deregulation of higher education is the big bang reform that we have to have to open up education to more Australians, not fewer. It is indeed a compelling cause, and I ask those opposite—not that there are many there—to work through any impasse for the sake of your children and your grandchildren. This bill is a game-changer, a major piece of legislation that provides significant reform and benefits. It positions us for the 21st century and it deserves full support from both sides of the House.

Whilst Australian universities are developing strategies to boost performance, reputation and marketing, so also are institutions throughout the world; the game is on—global competition is increasing. There is nothing like competition to improve quality, value and options. We see that many times. So we must provide a policy and legislative framework that enables our higher education institutions to do their best. We must ensure they are able to attract our best students and increase our foreign student numbers. If we do not, Australia will be left behind—make no mistake.

The successful passage of this bill will be meaningful in my large electorate of Durack. Meaningful because higher education directly impacts the liveability of my communities such as Karratha and Port Hedland as well as towns in the Pilbara, Gascoyne, Kimberley and mid-west regions, and also in parts of the wheat belt. It resonates because opportunity and access to higher education drives families out of regional communities and into cities, and because it underpins decisions made around predominantly FIFO options. Words I hear all the time, and I am sure you have as well are, 'Can we afford to stay in this region and send the kids to Perth for uni or must we relocate the family to Perth, and then take on the FIFO option?'

The bill will enable reforms to increase access and opportunity in higher education. All providers with more than 500 Commonwealth supported places will be required to invest 20 percent of new revenue in a Commonwealth scholarship scheme for disadvantaged students, thereby enhancing access. It will be new money for scholarships which will enable universities to offer more scholarships. I understand some universities are now indicating that they will use these funds for accommodation costs for underprivileged, disadvantaged and regional students. This is a huge boost for young people and their families, and excellent news for Durack families in particular. FEE-HELP will be available to students studying at a sub-bachelor level—again, good news for young people in Durack who wish to study at TAFE for a trade or the like.

I remind you that my electorate of Durack does stretch far and wide, from the tip of Western Australia—that is, the Kimberley, Moora—to just 150 kilometres north of Perth and east out past Merredin. You may not be surprised to learn that there are limited opportunities for young people to attend higher education institutions. However, one institution is the University of Notre Dame Australia, which is a private Catholic university established in 1989 in Western Australia. Although it is a private university, Notre Dame receives substantial government funding like many others. It established a significant campus in Broome in 1994. Over the last 20 years its offerings have included degrees in nursing, education, the arts and sciences. Regrettably, last year, Notre Dame made the strategic decision to transition its Broome campus into an education pathways, professional training and research hub. Notre Dame ceased offering bachelor degree qualifications in nursing, education, arts and sciences and is now 'teaching out' their current students in these disciplines. Notre Dame is repositioning itself in Broome to ensure it is providing the people of the Kimberley with higher education opportunities in areas of demand.

In offering tertiary enabling pathways and VET programs in Broome, Notre Dame is providing Kimberley students with training and qualifications as well as pathways into higher education degrees. Through the changes in the scholarship scheme proposed in this bill, Notre Dame will be able to use funds to assist Broome students to finish off their higher education degrees at its Fremantle campus, ensuring access and unique learning opportunities for the people of the Kimberley. That is indeed very good news.

And now to the Pilbara, which is such a significant contributor to the national economy. Acting Deputy Speaker Griggs, I know you have heard me say that numerous times.  The Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia heard evidence from a very passionate woman Jan Ford of Port Hedland.

She talked to us about the Pilbara community's strong desire to have tertiary education service providers in their region, in either Port Hedland or Karratha, or perhaps both, if we were fortunate enough. Jan advised that the community is not seeking a large campus—perhaps initially an offering of first year accounting, engineering and nursing. This keeps families together, provides opportunity, access, and importantly, better affordability, given that the student can continue living in their community rather than relocating to Perth or Melbourne universities, which are often unaffordable. Essentially, a first year regional tertiary offering in the Pilbara would keep the young adults at home for that little bit longer, help the family budget and provide the young adult with an opportunity to perhaps earn some money while living at home, before heading to the city to continue with their education. It would also dissipate or perhaps delay a decision around family relocation and, potentially, a FIFO arrangement.

Another passionate woman in the Pilbara—and there are plenty of them there—is the mayor of the Town of Port Hedland, Kelly Howlett. She agreed with Jan's sentiments and explained that the Pilbara DevelopmentCommission has funded a Pilbara tertiary education study, which is currently being undertaken by the University of Western Australia. The study will determine the feasibility of establishing a university offering in the Pilbara, against a background, as Mayor Howlett advises, of declining TAFE services.

Further south, in the mid-west, the City of Greater Geraldton is able to present the successful Geraldton Universities Centre, which is an independent, not-for-profit, incorporated body supporting university courses in Geraldton on behalf of a range of universities, including Central Queensland University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Southern Queensland. This very successful co-operative model is bearing results, with degree courses available in accounting and business, communication, psychology and nursing, early childhood and primary education, and an associate degree in engineering. The objective of the Geraldton Universities Centre is to facilitate, deliver, promote and provide access to university education for people residing in the regional mid-west. It was established in 2002, but was reconstituted in 2010 to the current co-operative model. More than 200 students have graduated with degrees and around 200 students are enrolled for this year.

Their key platforms of success are: they always use online teaching, accompanied by face to face; they ensure equity—that is, value for money—as well as quality, for regional students; and they have local partnerships that are mutually beneficial. By way of example, local accountancy and engineering firms are placing their young staff, on a part-time basis, through the university centre programs. It is a great initiative. This is a model that is working and that might be investigated for wider application not only in the north-west but in other regional areas around Australia.

I have spoken recently with the vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Professor Paul Johnson, about providing tertiary education offerings in WAs north-west. His view is that universities could be encouraged to invest in tertiary education in the north-west if there were possibilities to use existing infrastructure, such as partnering with local TAFE's. There are several local TAFE's in Durack, so I think the plan is feasible, at least on the surface.

You may note that, when I mentioned who was in Geraldton, there is not one Western Australian university currently providing course offerings in Geraldton, which is disappointing for me personally, but so be it. So I would encourage all the Western Australian universities to consider investigating these possibilities and to look at the successful Geraldton Universities Centre model.

I reiterate my support for this bill, which will reform higher education for the 21st century.