Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The bill before the House today seeks to reinstate the full student contribution amount for people enrolled in maths, statistics and science units of study at tertiary institutions to the pre 2009 levels.
The axeing of the discount, which came into effect under the Rudd Labor government in 2009, will impact all domestic students who commence units of study after 1 January 2013. This bill will also affect Australian citizens who plan to study their maths, statistics and science units overseas through online providers like Open Universities Australia. Students who do not reside in Australia for their study will no longer have access to Commonwealth supported places and the Higher Education Loan Program. The bill, however, will not affect students who undertake a formal exchange study program overseas.
The discount to the student contribution amount for key subjects was introduced when Prime Minister Gillard was the minister for education. This backflip, which is yet another one for Labor, will see the contribution amount reclassified from the national priority band rate of $4,696, to the band 2 rate, which will be $8,353. These changes were originally only intended to affect new students in maths, statistics and science courses, but that has since been changed to include all continuing and new students who enrol in those units after 1 January 2013. The government has justified the removal of the discount by saying that the policy did not deliver a noticeable increase in maths and science graduates. But I feel it is a step backwards in attracting our best and brightest into areas where we critically need them. In fact, it is highly likely that many students in recent years may have commenced study in degrees in maths and science under the assumption that the discount to their student contributions would apply throughout the duration of their course. I am concerned with any measures that would have the effect of discouraging students from studying maths and science subjects, and also engineering subjects, at tertiary levels.
As we saw in the Mathematics, Engineering & Science in the National Interest report published by Dr Ian Chubb last month, science and maths enrolments are falling at 'dangerous rates'. The report shows that between 1992 and 2009 year 12 enrolments in biology fell by 32 per cent. They fell in physics by 31 per cent and they fell in chemistry by 23 per cent. Dr Chubb says that while you cannot force students to study degrees 'in the national interest', making maths and science subjects more interesting could be the key to improving participation rates. Dr Chubb's sentiment is echoed by the principal of the Australian Science and Mathematics School in Adelaide. Principal Susan Hyde has admitted that science and maths at school can be 'boring' and that is why she advocates for sparking students' interest in maths and science in primary school through an innovative curriculum. When you think about it, it really is a common-sense approach to dealing with young minds that are prone to wandering.
I have firsthand experience with one of the online programs that is currently available, called Mathletics, and I have seen how it does engage the younger students. There are other programs including online programs available, but my experience has been with the Mathletics program. Why is it attractive to these younger minds? I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an online program so it certainly engages our younger students who seem to favour working online rather than working from hard-copy textbooks. Also, it is an innovative and fun program so it engages our younger students in learning whilst they are still having fun playing games. It is almost teaching them about maths whilst they are engaged in a fun and interactive online program. Clearly, engaging our young students is a critical step in generating an interest in maths and the science subjects.
The Australian Academy of Science has also been vocal in its efforts to convince the federal government to spend more energy on encouraging students to pursue mathematics and science units. The number of young people studying maths and science at high schools and universities has been in steady decline for two decades, according to academy president Professor Suzanne Cory. Professor Cory has expressed concern that Australia is slipping behind neighbouring countries in maths and science in secondary school grades and that our workforce is lacking young people with adequate maths and science skills. I believe that we must be proactive in trying to attract more students to maths, science and engineering subjects. Part of that will be addressed through properly identifying the target groups. One of those groups is female students whose take-up rates in traditionally male dominated subjects are proportionately low.
There are numerous articles explaining how the engineering sector could be improved with more women. The Queensland President of Engineering Australia and University of Queensland mechanical engineering lecturer, Steven Goh, actively encourages female high school students to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in his role as an ambassador for the Women in Hard Hats initiative. Mr Goh says a successful engineer requires 'good communication skills, creativity, innovation, critical and analytical thinking and the ability to find and solve problems'. He says females in particular are capable of excelling in these attributes. But while that may be so, it seems the message, albeit incredibly positive, is not getting through to young women.
Currently only 14 per cent of engineering students at universities in Australia are female. It is a figure that needs to be seriously addressed by our education bodies. They could start by encouraging female high school students and even primary school girls to challenge themselves and even society, which still dictates to an extent that the engineering industry is a largely male domain. Figures released in April this year show year-12 female students in Queensland were largely represented in arts and humanities subjects in 2011. Dance attracted 92.6 per cent of the cohort, closely followed by home economics and tourism. Technology subjects were clearly less popular with girls, with engineering technology only drawing 5.3 per cent. We need to ensure female students get the right support to reach university and go on to challenging and rewarding professions.
Current statistics show take-up rates by females have improved. It should be noted that there are more women enrolled in engineering courses than there were just 20 years ago, and that is a positive. In 1983, fewer than six per cent of students commencing engineering degrees in Australia were women. I myself graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1983. There were only two women engineering graduates from the Queensland University of Technology in that year, both in mechanical engineering. So the numbers have improved, but they are significantly lower than they should be.
Engineers Australia has noted a steady increase in the number of female engineers over the past few years. The latest available census data shows that approximately 23,000 or 10.5 per cent of the engineering labour force are women. As a mechanical engineer, I would like to see more young people expand their curriculum choices to take in senior level mathematics and science. It is very disappointing to see the government pull a policy aimed at attracting more maths and science graduates. But, like so many of Labor's initiatives, it should not come as a surprise that it was not successful.
Fortunately, however, there are a number of programs already in place for our schools to access which actively encourage students to embrace science and maths. The CSIRO has been running Scientists in Schools for a number of years. The program involves a scientist mentoring students on their science projects, helping school teachers run activities and organising visits to their workplace. When you think about it, what could be better for a budding scientist than to see a professional in action?
Another initiative run by the CSIRO is CREST, which encourages students to pursue topics of particular interest to them, and that is a great way to keep students engaged and feeling in control of their learning. Under CREST, the subjects do not have to be taught in the classroom; learning can be accomplished through projects or extracurricular activities.
A fun, problem-solving interschool program for students of both primary and secondary school years is Tournament of Minds. Students are faced with open-ended challenges from four disciplines, including applied technology and maths engineering. The tournament allows students to demonstrate their skills in a public way and the program attracts thousands of young participants with a passion for learning from across the country.
Australia needs to develop as an educational centre for excellence, rather than become an educational backwater because of government inhibitions. We need more Victor Changs and Professor Ian Frazers who help advance our understanding and contribute towards the wellbeing of our country and the world. The only way to do this is to encourage education and to encourage study in fields where there is a critical need.
The Gold Coast, where my electorate is based, already has the infrastructure to develop into an education city and it has the potential to benefit from growth in the higher education sector. I have outlined to the House previously on a number of occasions my passion for a fly-in fly-out hub at Coolangatta airport. For the proposed hub to become reality, the Gold Coast would need to invest in mining and resources education and training. I am certainly working with local training providers at all levels as well as with industry bodies to make this become a reality for the Gold Coast. Notwithstanding the develop of a FIFO hub, any growth in the Gold Coast's higher education sector would greatly help the local community by bringing in increased income for local businesses and providing a skilled workforce for the city and the rest of the country.
Goals like these are important in helping to grow our nation, but this current government's policies are making the pathway to success increasingly rocky. Australia deserves a government which takes full advantage of opportunities. The higher education sector is vital to the success of our nation. Only through giving our students the right tools to make their way in the world can we ensure the future prosperity of our country. If the government continues to act as it has for the past five years, the lives of thousands of students will be affected.
As a member of parliament with two universities and many other registered training organisations in my electorate, I will continue to stand up for the higher education sector. Our hard-working students deserve a fair deal. They are, after all, the future leaders of Australia.