Working Towards A Fairer Higher Education Sector

19 October 2023

Senator AYRES (New South Wales—Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing)

(11:58): This bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023, amends the Higher Education Support Act to implement the priority recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord interim report, which was released by the minister on 19 July. It is of course not the sum of the government's response to the work of the Universities Accord team. A significant amount of work will be required to be undertaken by the government, by the university sector and by the stakeholders in the university sector.

The accord process is a significant process undertaken by the government. Apart from the policy outcomes that it is designed to drive—to listen carefully to the sector and groups in the community who have an interest in the sector and to undo the damage of almost a decade of hostility to the sector from the three previous governments of Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison—it is also designed to shift the tone and create an environment where the Commonwealth government—which has responsibilities in higher education—the state governments, the universities themselves, the relevant trade union in the sector, student organisations and others who've got a stake in the sector cooperate and don't finger-point and engage in the sort of culture war that those opposite engaged in when they were involved in government. It was all about sneering at the university sector, outrage politics—trying to find things to be outraged about and identify things in the curriculum that could be the subject of prurient interest—cutting funding and getting stuck into the sector, instead of actually finding points of agreement and a sense of common purpose, which is what the Universities Accord is about.

The outrage politics over there, which is all about getting a bit of an argument going at a Liberal Party branch meeting at Indooroopilly or the Bellarine Peninsula or whatever it is, is the opposite of what is required. Playing for the base and for approval at branch meetings is not what is required if we're going to build Australia's university sector, because of its importance, yes, for the education of our young people but also because, if we're going to tackle the big research questions that are going to drive Australian universities—in medical research, in agriculture, in the social studies that are required to build social cohesion and to understand more about the way that our societies and workplaces operate, and in the work that is required in engineering, in quantum mechanics, in robotics, in artificial intelligence, in space and in Australia's industry contribution in these areas—it requires not sneering and kicking at the universities, which Mr Morrison in particular specialised in, but building a cooperative approach.

The accord team is led by Professor Mary O'Kane AC, a very distinguished Australian and former chief scientist in New South Wales and former vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide. It also includes Professor Barney Glover; Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, who's the Chief Executive Officer of the Macquarie Group; the Hon. Jenny Macklin AC; Professor Larissa Behrendt, who is the first First Nations Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School and is a professor of law and the director of research and academic programs at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney; and the Hon. Fiona Nash, a former senator for New South Wales and also a former minister for regional development and regional communications. The government has cast the net very wide here in terms of the participation in the accord process, because our objective is to get Australians working together in the national interest and not to play the politics of this.

There are many issues that the Minister for Education, the government, the accord team and others will work on. This bill represents the first tranche of dealing with some of the priority questions that were raised by the accord group. Those go to equity of access and our objective of ensuring more Australians go to university. That is our job here: creating more university study hubs, not only in the regions but in the outer suburbs; scrapping the 50 per cent pass rule—and I've spent a little bit of time on that—extending the demand driven funding currently provided to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas; providing funding certainty during the accord process by extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and with funding arrangements that prioritise support for equity students; and working with the state and territory governments to improve university governance. The government has confirmed that it will implement each of the interim recommendations. We will do all of these things.

I was horrified when the previous government introduced the legislation that went to the 50 per cent pass rule. I was horrified because I understood what it meant in equity terms, particularly for students who come from families who have never had anybody in their previous generations experience the benefits of participation in the higher education sector. I was horrified because I know people who have become professors at university, who could not and did not pass their first year of university and who left university in no small part because they were from the regions and because they were the first people in their family's history to have gone to university. If that rule were applied to them, not only would they have been denied the opportunity to complete undergraduate and postgraduate education without upfront fees but also the community and the universities would have been denied their service, their knowledge and their contribution.

I'm reminded of a speech. I have always thought Neil Kinnock is one of my favourite British Labour leaders. He said in a very important speech:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Why is my wife, Glenys, the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?

Was it because all our predecessors were thick? Did they lack talent—those people who could sing, and play, and recite and write poetry; those people who could make wonderful, beautiful things with their hands; those people who could dream dreams, see visions; those people who had such a sense of perception as to know in times so brutal, so oppressive, that they could win their way out of that by coming together?

Were those people not university material? Couldn't they have knocked off all their A-levels in an afternoon?

… … …

Was it because they were weak? Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football?

The effect of the previous government's approach was to deny the people most likely to leave university in their first year, or to make a bit of a mess of things and not get through because they don't live at the university, they have to travel or their families don't have the experience or the resources to put them through. The previous government's approach said, 'Don't bother knocking again.' It drew up the stepladder of privilege and excluded those people from university. That's what it did. That's the message it sent. It sent the message, 'Don't bother to knock,' to young people concerned about whether they were going to make it through that first and most challenging year of the university experience.

I would have thought that, having heard the universal criticism not just from the sector but from ordinary people who saw that for what it was, there would have been a moment of self-reflection on the other side. That's what governments do when they leave office—they look at their mistakes, they reflect on them and they own up to them. That's part of a mature process that parties that want to form government ever again have to do. But no—what we've seen here is an affirmation that they believe that's the right thing to do. Well, on this side, we're going to stand with the sector. We're going to work in the national interest. This is part of the work that is in front of this government, but there is more work to do. We will make sure Australians are working together in this sector to get the university sector that Australia needs.