House of Representatives

Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill 1999

Second Reading Speech

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs)

I table a revised explanatory memorandum relating to the bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

Australia needs a skilled and educated population to meet the challenges and opportunities arising from new technology, changes in the domestic economy, and globalisation.

Australia has a good higher education system; an achievement recognised by surveys of graduates and the large numbers of overseas students choosing to study here. But we are working in a rapidly changing environment and there is always scope for improvement.

The universities must be highly responsive to their students and to the expectations of employers and the general community.

The universities must take principal responsibility for increasing their income. They have already made substantial efforts in this direction, with total university revenue increasing by around $700 million since 1995.

The government's policies to diversify the mix between public and private funding for universities means that there will be an estimated $8.6 billion available to Australian universities this year.

The universities' efforts to expand their own income are on the base of a very substantial investment from the Commonwealth government. This year universities will, including money collected from students via the HECS system, receive almost $5.6 billion from the government.

The government has introduced two major flexibilities for the universities which enable them to increase their income.

It now pays around $2500 for each undergraduate enrolled above the number allocated to each institution. This makes it economic for the universities to utilise any extra capacity they have. On the early estimates for 1999 there are 36,000 undergraduate places that will be funded on this basis.

The government has also allowed the universities to offer full fee-paying undergraduate courses. This enables students to do their course of first choice. While it is disappointing that some universities continue to deny students this opportunity, there are now 1740 of these places.

These extra places come in addition to the increase in fully-funded undergraduate places.

The government has created an extra 12,665 Commonwealth-funded places for undergraduate students in the past two years. In 1999 the Commonwealth will fund 364,400 undergraduate student places in universities. No government in Australia's history has provided so many fully-funded undergraduate places.

The cumulative effect of these policies is that there is now a record number of undergraduate places in Australia's universities. The early estimate is that there are 402,372 such places, the first time the number has exceeded 400,000, and an increase of 40,000 places over Labor's last year.

The additional funding to James Cook University provided in this bill honours an election commitment for sixty medical places at James Cook University, with the first intake of students expected at the start of the 2001 academic year, following accreditation by the Australian Medical Council. The new medical school will increase the proportion of rural and remote students studying medicine. In each year's intake, five places will be earmarked for Indigenous students and fifteen for students from rural and remote areas.

In line with the government's election commitment to lift funding for research expenditure, the bill provides an additional $36.8 million in each of 2000 and 2001. This will bring total funding for research infrastructure over the next three years 1999, 2000 and 2001 to over $315 million.

This bill also enhances university and industry collaboration. It includes provision for $4.9 million in 2000 and $9.8 million in 2001 for Science Lectureships. The development of graduates with the knowledge and skills to work in emerging industries and technologies is vital for Australia's economic growth.

The bill includes savings resulting from the phasing out of the Merit-based Equity Scholarships Scheme. The Scheme was reviewed in 1998, with the review finding that the Scheme had little impact on encouraging people who would not otherwise have enrolled to attend university. Students currently holding a scholarship will continue to do so, but no new scholarships will be available from 2000.

The bill also provides funding of $4.0 million for 2001 for the international marketing and promotion of Australian education and training services by Australian Education International. This funding will support the continued growth of Australia's education and training export industry.

The measures in this bill continue the government's objectives of fostering a quality higher education sector that is open, accessible and responsive to Australia's future needs.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Denman) adjourned.