04 September 2023

Today almost one in two Australians in their late 20s and early 30s has a university degree. This is true for major cities, but for regions like mine it's a different story. In the outer suburbs of our major cities, it's only 23 per cent of young adults who have a university degree. In the regions, it is almost half that, at 13 per cent, while only 15 per cent of young adults from disadvantaged families have a degree. If you're a young Indigenous Australian it's even lower again—only seven per cent. If you are a young Indigenous man today, you're more likely to go to jail than to university. These statistics are alarming. They're a red flag to the serious challenges we face. The Albanese government understands this and recognises that quality education is vital for our workforce, our productivity, our international reputation and our capacity to advance as individuals and as a nation.

That's why I stand today in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. This bill is all about taking the first important steps to overhauling our tertiary education system. It builds on our fee-free TAFE reform and ensures better access and outcomes after nine years of neglect and incompetence by the former coalition government.

An OECD report released last year reveals just how woeful the coalition's education policies were, resulting in one in five Australian adults having low literacy and numeracy skills. This is unacceptable. Over the past decade, we have also seen an alarming decline in employment rates of university graduates and a growing level of employer dissatisfaction with the quality of graduate skills, adding to our current acute skills shortage.

The bill before us today includes key recommendations from the Universities Accord interim reportthat directly respond to these challenges. In acting on these recommendations, and in taking guidance from experts like Professor Mary O'Kane and her amazing team who led the Universities Accord, we are creating a strong foundation for our future prosperity. The interim report recognises that we need better representation and equity in our student university admissions, that we need to encourage Australians from regional areas, from First Nations communities and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue further education.

That's why the Albanese government has committed to enacting each of the five priority recommendations ahead of the accord's final report later this year. These five recommendations of the interim report include that we create more university student hubs—that makes sense—not only in our outer suburbs but throughout the regions; that we scrap the 50 per cent pass rule and require better reporting on how students are progressing; that we extend the demand-driven funding currently provided to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas to cover all Indigenous students; 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 disadvantaged students; and that we work with state and territory governments, through the National Cabinet, to improve university governance. This is important work, and that's why our government will act on all priority recommendations as soon as possible.

In response to recommendation 2, the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act to remove the requirement that students pass 50 per cent of the units they study to remain eligible for the Commonwealth supported place and FEE-HELP assistance. It was the now opposition that introduced the 50 per cent pass rule, as part of its Job-ready Graduates Package, which has had dire consequences, with a disproportionate number of students from poor backgrounds being forced to leave university. More than 13,000 students at 27 universities have been hit by this in the past two years, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. We should be helping these students to succeed, not forcing them to quit.

A uni student, Jack, from my electorate of Corangamite said this to me just recently, when he approached me at a market stall to raise his concerns about our tertiary system. We had a very interesting conversation, and Jack said to me: 'Universities can't seem to keep up. They recycle lectures. They consistently re-use old content and don't often chase up students who are struggling with workloads. I've seen too many of my mates drop out because they don't have academic support. They can't afford to move to the city for study. They find it too hard to juggle part-time work to pay the bills and study full time.' These challenges that Jack identifies are real. I acknowledge some universities do well to address them. Others must do better.

It is our government's job to go on this journey, to work with universities and equip them so they get the best education outcomes possible. As part of that journey, and in response to the second recommendation of the report, the bill will require universities and other providers to have a dedicated plan—a robust support-for-students policy—that will proactively identify students who are at risk of falling behind in their studies and set out what they will do to help them to succeed. These student support policies will make sure universities assess students' academic and non-academic suitability for continuing study; connect students to support, and identify students who are not engaging with that support, before their census date; and provide sufficient non-academic support for students such as financial assistance, housing information and mental health supports. It will also ensure universities have appropriate crisis arrangements and, importantly, provide access to advisers who can help students to identify what's holding them back in their studies; proactively offer special circumstances arrangements where a provider is aware of a significant life event for a student; and offer access to targeted individual literacy, numeracy and other academic and peer supports. And, finally, it will provide targeted in-course support from academic staff such as check-ins and flexibility on assessment arrangements.

Further to this, the bill provides the removal of the 50 per cent pass rule. This reform has been called for by universities right across the nation: universities like the University of Adelaide, Monash University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the University of New England, the Queensland University of Technology and Western Sydney University. Universities Australia has described the 50 per cent pass rule as a 'punitive measure widely regarded as being unnecessarily harsh' and noted that students most likely to fall foul of the 50 per cent pass rule are first-year students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. Universities Australia has welcomed this recommendation and the government's plan for action. Innovative Research Universities also called the rule 'punitive' and congratulated our government in moving to abolish it.

The other priority action addressed in this bill is recommendation 3, which will ensure all Indigenous students are eligible for a funded place at a public university if they meet the entry requirements for the course. This means those students will be able to access support in the form of a Commonwealth supported place, and a HELP loan. Since the Hawke government, this has increased access to university for underrepresented groups. Under current legislation, only Indigenous students from regional or remote Australia can access demand driven places. This bill means demand driven places for bachelor level courses will now be available to all Indigenous students wherever they live. The Department of Education estimates this could double the number of Indigenous students at university within a decade.

It should be noted this is another reform strongly supported by universities. Universities Australia said this about the reform: 'Universities have long called for uncapped places for all Indigenous students and the removal of barriers to a university education for students from underrepresented backgrounds. The creation of more study hubs will help to facilitate this.' On that matter, and in response to recommendation 1, we will double the number of university study hubs. There are currently 34 in regional Australia. The Albanese government will establish 20 more in the regions and, for the first time, introduce 14 into outer suburbs of our major cities where the percentage of people with a university degree is alarmingly low.

In response to the fourth recommendation, we will extend the higher education continuity guarantee into next year and the year after that. And finally, in response the fifth recommendation, we will work with the states and the territories on improving university governance. Our Minister for Education has already written to the ministers responsible for higher education in each state and territory to convene a working group. Its job will be to provide advice to our minister and to others ministers on the immediate actions we must take to improve university governance. There are three areas this working group will focus on: firstly, ensuring that universities are good employers providing a supportive workplace; secondly, making sure governing bodies have the right to expertise, including in the business of running universities; and finally, making sure our universities are safe and supportive for all students and staff.

In closing, we recognise that after nine years of the coalition government undermining and eroding the tertiary system, it requires a substantial rebuild to make sure that all Australians are given every opportunity to go to university if they wish to. Whether you're from Geelong, the Bellarine, the Golden Plains or the Surf Coast, and whatever your cultural background, gender or finances, we want to see every Australian have the opportunity to further their education, and that is what this bill is about. That's what this report is all about. And, thanks to the accord panel, we now know the scope of the problem. For millions of young Australians, it is time to act. To quote former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke:

We cannot continue to waste the talents and destroy the hopes of our young people … We cannot afford to lose so many able students from our …universities.

Like the Hawke government before it, the Albanese government is committed to this cause not only because it builds productivity and capacity but because it means today's young people and those transitioning to new careers will be able to secure rewarding work and a decent wage. These are the building blocks of a strong, dynamic country. I thank the Minister for Education for introducing this bill and I commend it to the House.