House of Representatives

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act 201

Second Reading Speech

Mr Hartsuyker (Minister for Vocational Education and Skills and Deputy Leader of the House)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I introduce the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015.

This bill combines six, routine, non-controversial measures. As such, there are six schedules that amend three acts.

Each of the measures achieves a non-controversial but nonetheless significant change.

Schedule 1 of the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow certain New Zealand special category visa holders to access the HELP scheme from 1 January 2016.

It will assist New Zealand citizens who first came to Australia as children and have lived here for at least 10 years. They deserve the same support as Australian students to go to university, TAFE or study private higher education providers.

While these New Zealand citizens have access to Commonwealth supported places in higher education, they have been denied the option of deferring their tuition fees through HECS-HELP and similar schemes.

Tertiary education plays a crucial role in creating opportunities for individuals and it enriches their lives and careers.

It also provides the skills needed to boost productivity and improve Australia's economic competitiveness.

The HECS-HELP schemes ensure that eligible students do not miss out on these benefits because they cannot afford up-front fees.

As Prime Minister Turnbull announced during his visit to New Zealand last weekend, this bill honours a longstanding commitment by Australia.

It provides opportunities for New Zealanders who have called Australia home for a long period of time.

And it provides fairness, given Australians on certain visa categories have long had access to New Zealand's student loan scheme.

If the bill is passed this year, around 2,600 New Zealanders are expected to be eligible for loans to help them study in 2016.

Australia and New Zealand have begun cooperating on the ways to share data that will help overseas student loan debt recovery efforts occur.

These efforts are being supported by legislation that is currently before this parliament that will require anyone living overseas to repay their Australian student loans.

We look forward to the opposition's support for this bill, to ensure that it can be in place by 1 January 2016.

Schedule 2 of the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2013to add Torrens University Australia to the list of 'Table B' providers.

Torrens is a new Australian university.

It was registered by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in 2012 and commenced operations in January 2014.

However, because it is not currently listed on Table B, it is not eligible for the same research funding support as other private Australian universities.

Adding Torrens to Table B will address this inequity.

It will mean this promising university is eligible to receive research block grant funding. The funding includes tuition fee support for PhD and masters research students, and funding for research scholarships including the Australian postgraduate awards.

This measure advances a fair and competitive university research system and supports greater access and opportunity for students.

Like the previous measure to extend access to HELP for certain New Zealand citizens, this measure is only necessary because the opposition failed to support the government's higher education reforms.

Those reforms contained measures to ensure the minister could extend access to such programs beyond those institutions listed on tables A and B. This would have made it possible to extend research funding eligibility to Torrens.

Another measure previously presented to this parliament, but rejected by the opposition, is schedule 3. This schedule amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to reflect the change of the name of the University of Ballarat to the Federation University Australia.

This name change took place in mid-2013 and the new name took effect on 1 January 2014.

This amendment to the act serves simply to update the list of 'table A' providers to reflect the new name.

Schedule 4 inserts a provision that confirms the relevant heads of constitutional power that part 2-3 (other grants) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003relies on, in addition to the effect that part 2-3 otherwise has.

This measure makes the constitutional head of power for these grants clear and provides the confidence and assurance to our universities and their students that Commonwealth support for university research can be maintained.

Schedule 5 amends the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act 2011to streamline and clarify the reporting responsibilities of TEQSA following the passage of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.

It removes the requirement for the Commissioner of TEQSA to prepare annual operational plans, as the PGPA Act now requires commissioners to prepare and publish a corporate plan.

As the annual and corporate plans cover the same material, this measure removes duplication and reduces regulatory burden, in line with the government's broader agenda to cut unnecessary red tape.

Importantly, it means TEQSA is able to direct more of its resources to supporting high-quality higher education and less to unnecessary paperwork.

Further, the amendment revises the day by which TEQSA must provide its corporate plan from 31 January to 30 April. This provides commissioners sufficient time to prepare the plan in alignment with the relevant portfolio budget statements, whilst ensuring the minister may properly consider the plan prior to its commencement on 1 July each year.

Schedule 6 increases the funding caps in the Australian Research Council Act 2001in line with inflation and ensures that the government can continue to provide support for thousands of research projects.

The Australian Research Council (or ARC) invests in excellent fundamental and applied research that helps improve the quality of people's lives, that supports Australian businesses and that ensures our nation remains at the cutting edge of research, innovation and global competitiveness.

For example, earlier this week, the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, and the Minister for Health and Minister for Aged Care, Sussan Ley, announced 76 researchers would share in $43 million in joint ARC and National Health and Medical Research Council funding to tackle the impacts of, and to find ways of preventing and curing, dementia.

This is part of the coalition government's $200 million election commitment to dementia research.

The ARC is the most significant single source of competitive funding in Australia for research across all disciplines.

The amendments in this bill to extend funding through to 2018-19 provide certainty that Australian researchers will continue to have access to critically important taxpayer funding for their work.

The bill will also remove the specific provisions contained in the act requiring the development of an annual corporate plan.

As with the TEQSA amendment, this will reduce duplication of effort and resources, while ensuring the ARC, like all other Commonwealth departments and agencies, remains accountable through the PGPA Act, which requires the development of an annual corporate plan.

Conclusion

Each of these measures makes an important change to Australia's higher education system.

Australia has one of the world's best higher education systems, with some of the world's best universities.

This higher education system, along with our world-class vocational education and training system, will help ensure Australia has the workforce it needs to grow, to be innovative and to remain globally competitive into the future.

Debate adjourned.