House of Representatives

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2006 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2006

Second Reading Speech

Curtin (Minister for Education, Science and Training and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues)

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The measures contained in this highlight the government's commitment to a higher education sector based on quality, sustainability, equity and diversity.

First, this bill will implement the coalition government's recent decision to boost training in vital health courses.

The government will fund 605 new commencing medical places and 1,036 new commencing nursing places, as well as funding a significant increase in the contribution to support clinical training for nursing students, as part of the Australian government's contribution to the Council of Australian Governments' health workforce package. In return, the states and territories are required to provide sufficient high-quality clinical training for these students through their hospital networks, community health, and other appropriate settings.

Some of the new medical places will be bonded to areas of workforce shortages to promote the improved distribution of medical graduates in rural and regional areas.

This bill also includes $25.5 million in capital funding to support new medical places at James Cook University, the University of New England and the University of Queensland.

In addition, this bill provides funding for 431 new mental health nursing places and 210 new clinical psychology places as part of the Australian government's contribution to the COAG mental health package. These places will help to expand the mental health workforce and ensure Australians have access to high-quality mental health services.

Further, the Australian government will also provide funding for 40 new places for a centre of excellence in Islamic studies to commence in 2007.

All of these new places will build on the new places the Australian government is already funding as part of the $11 billion in additional funding through the Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future package of higher education reforms and other initiatives. Through these alone, around 39,000 new places will be created by 2009.

The bill will also increase the general FEE-HELP limit to $80,000 and the limit for students enrolled in a medicine, dentistry or veterinary science course to $100,000. The current FEE-HELP limit is $50,950 (2006 indexed figure). The increases will apply from 1 January 2007 to all eligible students, regardless of when they commenced their studies.

The new FEE-HELP limits will encourage greater participation in higher education.

One of the most significant budget measures reflected in this bill is a commitment of an extra $95.5 million over four years for the Capital Development Pool program. In the May budget, the coalition government announced a 50 per cent increase in base capital funding under this program, enabling universities to undertake more projects that support quality learning and teaching. This additional funding, commencing in 2007, will assist universities to provide courses in areas that have high infrastructure needs.

In separate measures, the bill will give higher education providers increased flexibility to set student contributions and tuition fees. Student contributions will remain subject to the maximum amounts and tuition fees will remain subject to the minimum amounts specified in the Higher Education Support Act 2003. This flexibility will enable fees and contributions to be set to reflect the differing costs involved in providing the same course to different types of students, for example, those at different campuses or undertaking study via different methods of delivery.

The bill will also extend the summer school provisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to winter schools. This will also increase higher education providers' flexibility in the delivery of courses and further improve study options available for students.

This bill will make very minor technical amendments to permit the Australian government to develop guidelines to regulate higher education in Australia's external territories and set fees for such applications in the guidelines.

The bill contains other technical amendments to facilitate the administration of the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). The bill will repeal the HECS account, round amounts used in the calculation of accumulated HELP debts and clarify the arrangements for electronic communications between providers and students.

The bill also provides $1.5 million over four years in funding for the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) and the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS). This funding will support the activities of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, including the federation's role in policy formulation, raising public awareness and promoting the importance of science and technology in addressing important national issues. The funding for the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences will help the council build the contribution of the arts, humanities and social sciences to the national innovation system.

The bill will provide funding for around 250 new postgraduate research scholarships under a new scheme called the Commercialisation Training Scheme, announced as part of the Backing Australia's Ability-Building our Future through Science and Innovation package. The creation of these new postgraduate research scholarships will help students to develop skills in research commercialisation and intellectual property management. These scholarships will ensure the next generation of Australian researchers is equipped with the skills necessary to bring research based ideas, inventions and innovations to market.

The bill will amend the maximum funding amounts under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and maximum amounts for transition funding under the Higher Education Funding Act 1988, to reflect indexation increases, and add a new funding year-2010.

This bill will also update annual funding caps in the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to reflect revised forward estimates.

The bill before the House is a clear expression of the Australian government's strong commitment to higher education and will enhance the quality of our higher education system and the choices available to students. It reflects the government's commitment to ensuring that Australia's higher education sector continues to play a vital role in our economic, cultural and social development.

Full details of the measures in the bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum circulated to honourable members.

I commend the bill to the House.

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