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.
Graham Freudenberg recalls in his book A Certain Grandeur Gough Whitlam was asked for concrete example of equality. Whitlam replied, 'I want every kid to have a desk with a lamp in his own room to study.' One can argue that for Whitlam the light on the hill shone from that lamp on the desk. I would like to think that at some of those desks they would be studying the sciences and mathematics, fulfilling their curiosity and passion for new insights and a deeper understanding of the world, building and developing skills that will enable them to make new discoveries, create innovations and be part of breakthroughs that will revolutionise our way of life. The sciences and mathematics are vital fields of knowledge for our prosperity and for our place in the world. Labor recognises this, which is why we are taking evidence based steps to ensure we foster the critical thinking, reasoning and creativity the sciences engender.
I want to outline the importance of supporting study in the sciences and mathematics and how this bill targets incentives for study in these areas. The Mathematics, engineering and science in the national interest report noted:
There is a global perception that a workforce with a substantial proportion educated in Mathematics, Engineering and Science (MES) is essential to future prosperity.
But it noted that Australia's graduation rates in maths, engineering and science are low by international comparison. Globally, policies are emerging that focus on science and technology recognising that Australia, like the rest of the world, needs to increase our investment in sciences and mathematics. I commend Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, formerly my vice-chancellor at ANU, for his activism on these issues.
The Chief Scientist recently published a paper comparing Australia's science, research and innovation system with other developed nations. He found we had a similar percentage of researchers in our workforce compared to North America and Europe. We have a low number of researchers working in business enterprises with relatively high numbers working in higher education. So the bulk of Australia's research and development in these areas takes place in universities. We are fortunate to have that base in universities, but the challenge for Australia is to capitalise on this and build more researchers and innovators in industry. The more students we have educated in maths and science, the more workers we will have in the workforce who are pursuing research in these areas.
I recently visited the Research School of Physics and Engineering. Professor Stephen Buckman, the director of the department, invited me to visit and to see the research taking place there. ANU school of physics is built around three big picture themes: quantum science and technology, advanced materials and technology, and energy and environmental science and technology. I got a chance to see Australia's largest accelerator and the H1NF National Stellarator Facility. They are doing impressive work at the ANU.
Earlier this year Professor Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, made the following comment when talking about funding extension of his research. He said that hiring extra staff at the facility allowed him to spend more time promoting science as a career prospect for young Australians. He said:
… science is a great career and I think we undersell it. There's this misbelief [within the community] that by being a scientist we are somehow making a sacrifice but we are very well supported in this country right now … and I think it really shouldn't be anything other than the first choice for our best young men and women across the country.
This was an optimistic vision from Professor Schmidt when he took time from his busy schedule to speak to a cross-parliamentary group of members and staff organised by myself and the member for Bowman. At the announcement of the extension of the Professor Schmidt's laureate fellowship, Minister Evans commented:
Everyone understands that we've had a drop off in interest in science … And one of the greatest vehicles we've got for that is using Brian's abilities to communicate and his standing in science.
I want to take a moment to note a few other innovations in this area. Melodie Potts Rosevear, Teach For Australia's founder and CEO, and Tanya Greeves, a teacher at Lanyon High School, came to parliament this week to speak with members and staff about the Teach for Australia program, which is, I think, one of the great ways of getting talented scientists into high school classrooms. Indeed, in the 2012 Public Education Excellence Awards in the ACT, it was a Teach for Australia teacher, Igraine Ridley-Smith of Calwell High School, who received the New Educator of the Year award—a testament to the ideas that she is conveying to her science and mathematics students.
Australia is fortunate to be hosting at the University of Queensland the International Olympiad in Informatics in July 2013. I commend Dr Benjamin Burton and his colleagues for the work they are doing to organise that important international event. Last week in this House the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering was convened by the members for Kingston and Higgins. The guest speaker was Professor Elizabeth Blackburn. I had the pleasure of chatting with Carola Vinuesa, Mahananda Dasgupta and other scientists in the ACT about the research they are doing.
Mathematics, statistics and science are classified as national priority units of study, so students are charged a reduced maximum student contribution amount for those units. But the 2008 Bradley review of higher education found that there was no evidence that lower student contributions had a positive impact on student demand. We thought when we were setting this policy up that it would have a positive effect, but the evidence found otherwise. We are therefore changing the policy. I would call on those opposite to likewise listen to the evidence when it is as clear as it is in this case. The policy was found not to be well targeted. It did not deliver value for money. Accounting for growth in the higher education sector, it was estimated the government paid over $150,000 for each place gained through transitional loading in 2010.
This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to increase the maximum student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study for all students from 1 January 2013. The maximum student contribution for students enrolled in science and maths units will increase to $8,363 in 2013. We will be using the savings from these fees to support additional investments in the new demand driven funding system for universities.
Just as the expansion of Australia's universities supported by HECS in the 1980s and 1990s brought about a revolution in higher education, so too will demand driven funding under this government expand the number of students who go to university. It is always pleasing to me when I meet a student who is the first from their family to attend university. There will be many more such students thanks to these reforms. The total level of funding provided to universities for mathematics, statistics and science units will be maintained with the government reinstatement of the maximum student contribution amounts for students who enrol in mathematics, statistics and science units.
As mathematics and sciences are priority units of study, we still want to encourage and provide incentives for students to study them. In this year's budget we announced $54 million for a range of measures to encourage the study of mathematics and sciences. Graduates from a natural and physical sciences course with a HECS-HELP debt who work in a relevant field can have their compulsory repayments reduced by more than $1,600. Those who work as a maths or science teacher—as Ms Ridley-Smith does—may qualify for both the HECS-HELP benefit for maths and science graduates and the HECS-HELP benefit for teachers. They can have their compulsory repayments reduced by more than $3,000. We believe that these measures will be more cost-effective than allowing students to pay a reduced student contribution amount and having the government paying transitional loading to universities. We are moving from policies that did not work to policies that will work.
The government does not believe it is appropriate that students residing overseas continue to receive large subsidies towards obtaining a higher education degree from an Australian university, so the residency amendment ensures government assistance is restricted to study predominantly completed within Australia. I am somebody who benefited from overseas study, but I believe it is appropriate that the Australian taxpayer support higher education that takes place in an Australian university. The funding priority should be those students who are most likely to pursue a career in Australia, to commence repayment of their HELP debt and to use their education to benefit Australia's workforce and economic needs.
The number of students currently enrolled with an Australian provider and not residing in Australia is relatively small. In 2010, for example, there were only about 1,000 full-time students enrolled in Commonwealth supported places or accessing FEE-HELP who resided overseas. With the growth in Commonwealth supported places under the demand-driven model for university funding and the growth in online delivery, it is important to clarify eligibility conditions before there are further increases in the number of students who are being assisted by the government and who do not live within the borders of this country.
The bill removes eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the HELP schemes for Australian citizens who commence a course of study on or after 1 January 2013 where a higher education provider reasonably expects that the person will not undertake any of their course of study in Australia. Students undertaking study as part of a formal exchange or study abroad program for some of the units in their course, including those students receiving assistance through the OS-HELP system, will not be affected by this change. The changes ensure that government assistance is restricted to people who will retain a strong attachment to Australia.
The reduction in student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units has not been effective in substantially increasing the number of students undertaking study in these areas at university. This government has a passion for education and we have a passion for evidence. Because of these passions, we have doubled investment in school education. We are providing more information to parents than ever before through the My School and MyUniversity websites. We now have an additional 150,000 students attending university. It is absolutely vital that we support the study of mathematics and science. It is critical education policy, and it is vital to Australia's productivity in the future. But we must have the right tools to do the job.
The third-year university students who dedicate their summer holidays to work at the CSIRO and be part of new research and innovation show that the passion for mathematics and science is still there. You only need to take a stroll through Questacon to see the excitement in science among young Australians. We need to encourage that excitement at school through such things as: Teach For Australia; at university, the hard work of groups such as the ANU physics school; here in the parliament, groups such as the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering; and the right, effective policies at our universities.
The light of opportunity Whitlam spoke of as shining from a desk lamp is for our maths and science students also the light of discovery, of innovation, of prosperity. This government wants the light to shine even brighter. I commend the bill to the House.
The changes that we debate to the Higher Education Support Act in the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill exemplify a Labor government that is confused and interfering in higher-education policy. The previous speaker, the member for Fraser, made a florid attempt to disguise this bill as evidence-based policy when in fact it represents little more than a backflip and a sell-out of the many maths, science and statistics students who undertook their courses trusting the government of the day.
We have agreed that there are areas of national workforce priority—nursing and education among them—and that for a time, certainly since 2008, this current Labor government extended a discount HELP fee of not $7½ thousand per unit but closer to $4,000 for those in the physical sciences, essentially. This was an important and universally welcomed policy from the then Labor government and the previous Prime Minister. Today I am not making an attack on what is being brought before this House or making any effort to suggest that we will vote against the bill, but I think that Labor's constant policy interference needs to be pointed out in this chamber. This interference by a government that simply cannot make up its mind has been a constant annoyance for the tertiary education sector.
Bruce Chapman, an expert in income contingent loans, has done some great work out of ANU. It is all very well to say that the demand inelasticity for study simply does not support the evidence that reducing the price to study gets more people doing it, but the evidence in fact says otherwise. We know that from as early as 2009, after the changes made in the previous year, there was an increase in both applications and enrolments. We know that in the first year applications alone increased by 17 per cent and that in the second year—2010—they increased by 13.1 per cent. When we look at enrolments there is a similar story: up 13.6 and 9.6 per cent against nine and six per cent for the rest of the tertiary education sector. That is a significant influx of new people which we can only put down, when comparing it to the rest of the student cohort, to the intervention that reduced the cost of study in the areas in question.
It is up to this government to note this, faced as it is with information that extends right through 2012 when the largest increase in enrolments was by 10 per cent in the physical sciences. This shows clearly that we were on the path to fixing the problem. The government suddenly wants to change tack, to not grandfather any students whatsoever and to say that as of next year once again all the rules are changing—and doesn't that sound familiar from other areas of this government's conduct. Those changes mean that, whether you are halfway through a degree, close to completion or just finishing your first year, up go these fees per unit to $8½ thousand. That is right—if you are studying maths, science or statistics in some way you are now less needy than those doing nursing or education. The fact that there was no grandfathering indicates the level of fiscal panic, with which we have become familiar in this government. Is there an inability to roll out parallel, concurrent and more effective measures? No, the government is simply chopping away what it promised to do in 2008 and then promising that there is a whole host—as the member for Fraser said, a whole swathe—of new measures which are likely to be more evidence-based and even more effective. That is nothing more than an idle promise. The government is leaving entire cohorts stranded and paying double. These cohorts are stranded and will not have the promise fulfilled that the government made.
Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute referred to this constant introduction and withdrawal of incentive measures. There is almost a form of tertiary education sovereign risk, which is that students today simply cannot trust their government to make one decision and stick to it through the period of their study. That is what is so completely clear today. The saving is around $315 million over the forward estimates, which is not insignificant. But let us remember who is paying for this saving. They are students of maths, science and statistics—the very people who responded to the government's call in 2008. The previous Prime Minister was elevated by many for his great words about rescuing science and allowing for the growth of CSIRO by recentralising the role of that group in the nation's psyche and providing for its needs, but that has all been thrown out in the rush for a surplus and a petty political promise, which comes directly from the pockets of students.
That is right—there are plenty of areas where one could have saved and there are plenty of memories of the waste which we are rolling through while listening to this debate. But the government have hit up the students of science and maths, who will in turn become our future maths and science teachers in secondary schools. Around the country we see campuses holding up their hands looking for new graduates to take up the challenge. We talk about $150,000 being a large price to pay. But what is the price high schools pay when they cannot get a great maths teacher to inspire the next generation?
We have had this debate and agreed that our maths and science students and our enrolees who become graduates and then teachers of the next generation are incredibly important for Australia's future. Little has changed between 2008 and now. In fact, all that has changed is that the government's intervention delivered more graduates—more people willing to take on this really important area of intellectual pursuit only to have it ripped away from them in a MYEFO last year. This was done for no reason other than to meet this government's grubby attempt to fulfil its political promise of a surplus.
While we are not going to oppose this bill and while we recognise that in a time of fiscal pressures we have to support certain elements of savings, let no-one forget when listening to this debate or reading it in the years ahead that this Labor government—the self-professed friend of the student—reached into the pockets of science, statistics and maths students and made them pay twice as much per unit because it had to find some way to deliver the surplus it promised two or three years before. Let us remember that when the options appraisal time came we had an education minister who chose to hit the most vulnerable but also potentially the most valuable graduates we can ask for after nursing and education. Let us and all the future scientists never forget that it was this government that embarked on a two- or three-year sensible policy of attracting more students into the field only to rip the carpet out from under them in 2012.
There are a certain number of changes which people can expect to be inevitable, but there is no need to be enforcing this on thousands of students around the country who believed and trusted the government. There were plenty of options to grandfather this, which this government has chosen not to do. There were plenty of options to roll out concurrent measures which might potentially have been more effective or more targeted, but no—the government elected not to do that either. This was a late-night drawing of lines through programs to desperately find a way to achieve a surplus because, after three years of ill discipline and of spending money where it did not need to be spent, this government now finds itself with the cupboard bare. It finds itself in the pickle that it cannot meet a political promise, and it is because of this that we see the victims we are seeing today.
People responded to this initiative. I accept that the Bradley review found that the money could have been targeted in better ways to achieve similar outcomes, but that is cold comfort once you have started studying. The shock to a student of having enrolled for a science or a maths course and being halfway through it having budgeted to get through the degree and found a way to work part-time to get through only to be hit by the doubling of fees which is effectively achieved by this government's return to band 2 charging—which means over $8,500 per course—should not be underestimated. Many students do not have the luxury of switching from one course to another. Many of them are too far through their degrees to be able to do that in an efficient way.
This government made a commitment to this nation to assist and to recharge the forces that we need in schools, TAFEs and universities around the country and to re-energise the teaching of maths and sciences. We identified this as a priority a decade ago. It is not inappropriate to use the HELP system to achieve those outcomes. The evidence that the government does not fully support what it is proposing today is that the discounts will remain for other fields of study. The question we should all be asking is: what is so different about studying maths and sciences? What is the government proposing to do if its new changes are not as effective? The figures that we have presented today are not insignificant; they are significant increases to have the physical sciences at 10 per cent this year. As this is the fastest growing area of enrolments, clearly something was working well.
In closing I say that we have a government that is inconsistent. We have a government that is penny-pinching and nickel-and-diming some of the most vulnerable who are studying as undergraduates at present. Exemplified in this bill is a form of sovereign risk where people cannot trust that the government is not going to twiddle the knobs again next year in some way. It is a government that does not respect that when it makes a promise to a student there is some chance that the promise will be stuck to, at least through the period of that student's undergraduate study. We have a government that is using the evidence available to it through the Bradley review which suits its fiscal benefit but not necessarily the long-term needs of Australia.
Those out there who are concerned that maths and science will not be adequately staffed by inspired and educated Australians of the future should be looking at this legislation. It will be remembered in history as an opportunity this government had, despite a bit of political pain, to support this cohort. That support has been removed and the government has saved a few hundred million dollars in the process. We hope that the measures it has put in place in return will be just as effective in making sure we continue to see spirited growth for those in the physical sciences, because we are nowhere near fixing the problem. These 10 per cent increases over the last three years are simply not enough. We will need much more than that, and this opposition will be watching closely to see that the government's measures are effective and that those measures are not a form of penny-pinching for the government to meet its commitment to a political surplus in the year 2012-13.
Anyone listening to this debate would think that there is fervent opposition to the measures in the Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The coalition is supporting the government's measure, but I rise to speak against the measures in this bill.
Schedule 1 of the bill increases the student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study from 1 January 2013. The Greens oppose this measure because we believe that government investment in science is critical to ensure that this country is well positioned for a low-pollution, post-carbon economy. If we are to meet the challenges of addressing climate change and the transition to a sustainable society then we must invest in science. More than that, if we are to have an economy which can compete in the world when the mining bubble bursts, we are going to need massive investment in science and education. Our future economy will rely on high-quality science and maths education in this country.
Unfortunately, we rank in the bottom half of OECD countries—we are 20th of 30—when it comes to the number of university graduates emerging with a science or engineering degree. In 2008 the government reduced HECS contributions for maths, statistics and science from $7,260 per unit to the lowest level of $4,077, equivalent to the national priority places for education and nursing. As a result of that, in 2009 undergraduate applications for natural and physical sciences went up by 17.1 per cent compared with 2008 and increased again in 2010 by 13.1 per cent. According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations:
… the two years' growth more than reversed the declines in demand for this field between 2004 and 2008. This growth follows a suite of measures introduced in the 2008-09 Budget to encourage enrolments in Mathematics and Science.'
In 2009 the now Prime Minister and then Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations welcomed those increased applications, stating that the 17 per cent increase was 'reversing declining interest and falling applications since 2004'. In my electorate, the University of Melbourne science program went from approximately 800 students in 2007 to 2,000 students in 2011, more than doubling in four years. The government appeared to recognise the long-term need to encourage students into science and maths by introducing the priority HECS rates. However, it did not take a long-term approach when it cancelled the priority rates last year—a move that would almost double HECS fees for new maths and science students. How can science and maths be national priorities and then, three years later, not be?
In the original MYEFO announcement we were told existing students would be spared the increase but this is no longer the case. Students who began their studies under one set of financial rules will be hit with a HECS increase they could not have foreseen, did not expect and do not deserve. While wealthy mining companies get close to $9 billion a year in handouts, we should not be taking close to a billion dollars from science and maths education to balance the budget. This saving is a false economy. We welcome the government's budget measures which reinstate funding for important programs in maths and science education in schools. The $54 million government investment in programs such as Science by Doing and PrimaryConnections is welcome. Boosting maths and science education in schools is smart; cutting it in universities is not. Fifty-four million dollars is a lot of money but it is tiny compared to the amounts that will be removed by this bill.
I am also concerned that the government used the report of the Bradley review to justify the HECS increase. HECS fees for the sciences and for maths were lowered in 2009 when they were made a national priority—however the Bradley review was completed in December 2008. My concerns regarding these cuts were echoed by the Australian Academy of Science, which noted:
Australia’s robust economic future depends upon innovation. This is not the time to withdraw support for the next generation of scientists and mathematicians.
When the measures were announced last year the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute asked, 'Where to now for maths and stats?' I ask this question again today. The government stated that they did not believe the reduced HECS rates for maths and science were delivering value for money. If they truly believe that, where is the alternative proposal?
We should spend more on science, not less. I note that the recent report by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, Mathematics, engineering and science in the national interest, opened with the observation:
There is a global perception that a workforce with a substantial proportion educated in Mathematics, Engineering and Science (MES) is essential to future prosperity.
I concur with that and the Greens concur with that. We need a culture that addresses national goals and prepares Australia for emerging challenges and opportunities. We need a culture that invests in science. We need a society that values research and innovation.
My vision is that Australia should increase both public and private expenditure on research and development until it represents three per cent of GDP. This call has been echoed by the Australian Academy of Science, which called for an increase in Australia's research and development expenditure to at least three per cent of GDP by 2020. Research excellence is precious but researchers are often in a battle for survival, where costs are rising more quickly than the level of funding and career opportunities are limited. We should be encouraging people to study science and maths and creating career paths for them that harness and reward their skills. We can only benefit from such measures.
It will cost money in the short term but science and research are long-term investments and they should be made with a long-term vision. Dr Ian Dobson, who reported to the Chief Scientist on the state of enrolments, is reported as saying:
These things take time. It takes a generation, but you just can't do it in the political timeframe. [Politicians will] never admit this, but basically they're just thinking of the next election and the next budget.
Unfortunately I think Dr Dobson is correct, but I suspect he would be happy if this House proved him wrong. I urge the government to reconsider, and I urge coalition members—who will no doubt make strong statements about the government measures—to justify their support for the government on this.
We live in a society where we are giving at least $9 billion in handouts a year to wealthy mining corporations who send up to 83 per cent of their profits overseas. We only get to dig these things up and sell them once. We should be taking some of the proceeds of this mining boom and setting ourselves up for the post-mining economy. That economy is not only going to be a low-carbon economy but one based on our brains—on science, mathematics, research and innovation. I heartily commend the government's $54 million investment in science and maths education but, given that it is dwarfed by the cuts to science and maths made by this bill, one wonders what it means for something to be a national priority.
I rise on this Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012. I want to say at the outset that the coalition will not be opposing this bill, but I want to make a few comments regarding science and maths being the target area of the cuts made by this bill.
As a nation we have to make sure that we are investing more in the sciences and maths and supporting those students who want to take on those courses to make sure that they get the best opportunities to study at university level—because it is the sciences and maths that will lead to research and development in a whole host of fields that are going to be so important to Australia's future in the world. It is also important that we be out there leading the world in many fields. I will touch on a couple of those issues in my address.
My other concern about this bill is that I would have liked to see the government grandfather existing students under the scheme. Those students who have taken on the sciences and maths in good faith, in the knowledge that they have the support of a government program. I acknowledge that the Bradley review found that the money could be better targeted. It is always important to support those things that target and spend taxpayers' money wisely and get the maximum 'bang for your buck' from taxpayers' money; but in this case it is the areas of maths and science that are subject to cuts that could well see students look elsewhere—perhaps overseas—for courses. We really do not want to lose this cohort of Australians. We want them not only to study in Australia but to get the best opportunity to apply their skills in the areas of science, research and development and maths which are so essential if we are to stay in front of the game in the future. We are a smart country and also a very lucky country. I often tell people in my constituency that we would be the luckiest country on earth, and by our very own birthright. I sometimes wonder whether all Australians truly appreciate just how lucky we are to be Australian. We are the luckiest country on earth. That, I believe, is unchallenged, and I will debate it with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
I mentioned the importance of staying in front of the rest of the world, but also of making sure that we have our scientists and researchers and that—through what they invent or are able to develop through R&D—there are products that we can take to the rest of the world and have a commercial advantage from. I can think of one: Professor Ian Frazer developed a vaccine for cervical cancer. He is an Australian, Scottish born, and a great Australian—in fact, the Australian of the Year. That was a science development, developed here in Australia. It was groundbreaking. It has been an important breakthrough in the prevention of cervical cancer, providing women are vaccinated prior to a particular age.
I want to touch also on the issue of the great food challenge that we have in this country. We are a land that feeds not only ourselves but also something like 60 million people around the world every day, based on the value of our exports each year. If we are to continue to be at the forefront of that in the future then science, technology and R&D are absolutely essential elements.
In our plant and animal breeding programs, it is science that is going to give us the leading edge into the future, whether in cropping or horticulture. Science and R&D will provide the inventions that will make sure that we can beat the diseases that could, and often do, destroy crops. It will be science that will find those breakthroughs.
I have one very important research station in my electorate. I am very pleased that the new LNP government in Queensland has decided to make sure that the Hermitage Research Station, near Warwick—which does wonderful plant research, particularly on barley, sorghum and green leaf crops, related to Queensland and the hot tropical climates where many of these crops are grown, as opposed to the southern states of Australia—is retained and enhanced.
That is one element of it. But the other element of it is the researchers who work there, who are working on programs for crops, particularly barley and sorghum, and green leaf research. We need scientists. We need the best scientists, because that is science and that is a development that we can not only utilise in Australia to make sure that we continue to stay in front of the pack when it comes to food production, but also sell on a collaborative basis overseas.
Each and every day in the world today there are another 240,000 mouths to feed. To put it another way, that is an increase in the global population that is occurring each and every day. I mentioned earlier that Australian farmers each year feed some 60 million people outside of the 22 million we feed with clean, green and very affordable food in Australia today. To put it yet another way, there will be 40 million more within the next 12 months. There will be people out there clamouring for available food resources.
For those communities around the world, and for Australia, we have got to make sure that our R&D effort goes into being able to provide ever-increasing amounts of food in the limited agricultural land we have available—land that is continuing to come under pressure from the urban sprawl which so often occupies those food baskets that surround many of our capital cities. We need to make sure that we have the research and the scientists.
Scientists start their career path at university, and that is why I am sad to see what is in this bill, as to the science and maths areas, as it could well be those students who would be attracted to take on a career in these areas who will look at other options because of the cost to them or their families of studying at university, particularly in the areas of science and maths.
I do want to touch on another issue which is important in relation to this bill: how students get access to university courses. What is alarming me is this. I have seen higher education statistics for students; it was in 2010 that I originally saw these figures. The Australian participation rate for regional students at universities was some 18.23 per cent in 2010; in 2006 it was 18.08 per cent. So really there has been no significant shift at all in participation rates of students from regional Australia at university. The Queensland rate was 22.64 per cent in 2010 and in 2006 it was similar: 22.69 per cent. So there has been no substantial shift at all in the participation rates for students from regional Australia at university. Sadly, in remote Australia the national rate was 1.02 per cent in 2010. That is a tragedy for those students who are classified as living in remote Australia—and that is a vast amount of Australia; when you look at the ABS index of remoteness, it is a huge area. You might as well say 'no-one' if you have only got one per cent of students participating in university courses; you virtually have a nil sum when it is one per cent. The university participation rates for students from metropolitan families has increased faster—from 28 per cent to 35 per cent—than the rate for students from rural, regional and remote areas. The gap between regional and metropolitan participation has increased 12 per cent in the last six years. Whilst that is encouraging for those students who have access to university by virtue of where they live—and it is wonderful to see the participation rate increasing—I am concerned that we are not getting an increase of students from regional, rural or remote Australia participating in courses at university level. That is why I find this bill rather sad, because it is the maths and science areas that are targeted for a budget saving. We have got to make sure, if we are to be the smart country, that we have much better participation rates for students from rural, regional and remote Australia. I call on the government to make a greater effort to ensure that those students who live in regional, rural and remote Australia are supported to a greater extent than they have been in the past.
I believe that there is a real case, for both sides of the House, for providing a non-means-tested, post-secondary education access allowance to ensure that we can get more students from regional, rural and remote Australia. Whilst I know that the argument sometimes goes, 'There are scholarships available,' that will not meet the sort of demand that I think is out there and that is being hampered because of the lack of financial support for those students, particularly where their families just cannot afford it. They remain out there and these figures really do confirm that the participation rate for students aged between 19 and 21 from regional Australia is lower—21 per cent as compared with 35 per cent for metropolitan students. I call on the government to look at those numbers and make sure that we do all that we can to support those students who do come from regional, rural and remote Australia. We must increase the participation rate for those students who are from those agricultural and mining areas out there in regional, rural and remote Australia if they are going to be the ones most likely to return to regional, rural and remote Australia and work there. I call on the government to do more to make sure that we get financial support for those students. I think this bill is more about being a budget saving measure to see whether it can deliver in this financial year, coming on 1 July this year until 2013, a budget surplus—and only time will tell. I do not want to see the next generation of Australians, the next generation of scientists, being the ones who are denied an opportunity to take on maths and sciences at university.
Whilst the opposition will not be opposing this bill, I think it is a harsh measure for students from regional, rural and remote Australia who are already behind the national figures for metropolitan Australia in terms of participation rates. It does cost them more, and this bill will certainly not encourage more students from regional, rural and remote Australia to take up courses at university level.
I rise to make a very brief contribution on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012.
I am very fortunate to have an electorate that contains the Queensland University of Technology, referred to as QUT, which has campuses at both Kelvin Grove and Gardens Point. I am also a very proud graduate of QUT. I would like to particularly pay tribute to Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake and his academic staff. They do a terrific job and I was very honoured to have the opportunity to tutor there before I came into this House in 1996 and then a couple of years ago in the business school before I re-entered the House. In the time that I taught at QUT, I taught a number of business and engineering students, particularly in the schools of business and international marketing.
I want to congratulate QUT on a number of areas but in particular on a course that has been developed under the stewardship of Professor Peter Little. It is a complex project management course which basically brings together the world's leading companies in the defence area—such as Lockheed, Boeing and many others—and the Department of Defence and works in those particularly complex areas of project management. It is a world first, and they really do need to be applauded. This is an area that gives us world capability, particularly in the areas of defence industries. But a lot of the people who are studying these courses would not have done so if they had not had a strong grounding in science and mathematics. Many of the students I see in the electorate of Brisbane who are studying at QUT are international and regional students. Many of my colleagues and others have spoken to this bill and have indicated that the coalition does not oppose this legislation. In fact, the intention of the legislation is very clear. It reinstates the student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study to its pre-2000 level for domestic students completing a course of study on or after 1 January 2013. The bill also removes the eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the Higher Education Loan Program for Australian citizens who commence a course of study after 1 January 2013 and do not intend to reside in Australia during their course of study.
The discount on the student contribution for mathematics, statistics and science courses was introduced by the Rudd government in December 2008, taking effect from 1 January 2009. Prime Minister Gillard was the minister for education with the absolute aim of encouraging more students to undertake these courses identified as being a great domestic need for graduates. It was the implementation of a 2007 ALP election commitment. The reversal of this policy stems from the MYEFO 2011-12 announcement of 28 November 2011. Tertiary education minister, Senator Chris Evans, said the reason maths and science undergraduates would have to pay the full rate of student contribution, which went up from $4,691 to $8,353, was that the government's policy of making them national priority areas had simply not delivered a noticeable difference in the country's dearth of maths and science graduates.
If the minister was actually genuine, this announcement was effectively an admission by the government that their policy did not work. The government has also argued that the student contribution discount was opposed by the 2009 Bradley Review of Higher Education in Australia. This policy rationale is, however, little more than a convenient excuse for a savings measure in the area of higher education.
The removal of eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the Higher Education Loan Program schemes for Australian citizens studying overseas implements a 2012-13 budget announcement. The removal of the discount will affect all those who are currently undertaking maths, statistics and science courses in that, from 1 January 2013, they will have to pay the full student contribution for any units commenced after that date. At least some students have commenced their mathematics, statistics and science degrees in reliance on the fact their student contribution is discounted. The government is changing the position of the goalposts in the middle of the game.
I would like to put my concern regarding this on the record. If a student has commenced a course in one of the relevant areas, solely on the premise that they would not have to pay the full rate of student contribution, then they are clearly going to be hamstrung by this announcement. Perhaps the government could give us an indication of the number of students that will be affected in this way by these changes.
In addition, the government argues that the majority of students undertaking maths and science units following the discount coming into place in 2009 were not enrolled in a maths or science course of study, nor were they studying an education course. It was therefore clear the policy was not substantially increasing the number of maths and science graduates in the workforce as intended and it was not improving the supply of quality maths and science teachers. The coalition is not seeking to exempt those who have already commenced the relevant courses as this would have a significant revenue impact.
The removal of eligibility for CSPs and the HELP schemes for Australian citizens who commence a course of study after 1 January 2013 and who will not be resident in Australia for any of their course of study will affect those Australian citizens who are living overseas and intend to study online with Australian providers. Students undertaking study as part of a formal exchange or study abroad program for some of the units in their course will not be affected.
The government believes its funding priority should be to support those students who are most likely to pursue careers in Australia, commence repayment of their HECS debts, and use their education to benefit Australia's workforce and economic needs. The coalition agrees with this policy approach.
While the explanatory memorandum to this bill states that these amendments provide savings to the government of $1 billion over four years, it is interesting to note that the 2012-13 budget papers list the total savings as $340 million over the forward estimates. So perhaps the minister could clarify this apparent anomaly during his summing up on the bill. In conclusion the coalition does not oppose this bill.
I thank my colleagues for going ahead of me on the list on this bill today. As the shadow minister, I have responsibility for its carriage in the House but, given I was doing an Indigenous literacy and launch with the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Minister for School Education on the lawns of Parliament House, they have very kindly filled in for me in the intervening period.
I now rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012. This bill seeks to reinstate the student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study to its pre-2009 level for domestic students. The discount on students' contributions for these courses was introduced by the Rudd government in December 2008, taking effect from January 2009, while Julia Gillard, the current Prime Minister, was the minister for education.
This initiative was promised by the Labor Party during the 2007 election with the aim of encouraging more students to undertake these courses identified as being areas of domestic need for graduates. I think it was a well-meaning policy and the coalition had hoped—I think along with the government—that it had been more successful.
This bill reverses the policy that the Gillard government announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2011-12. Specifically, they announced that student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units would return to the band 2 amount. As a result, maths and science undergraduates will now have to pay the full rate of student contribution, estimated to be $8,353 in 2013—up from around $4,690. The government has estimated that this measure will save them about $1 billion over four years from 2012 to 2016, so it is not an inconsiderable saving.
The student discount for maths and science has not been without sceptics since it was first announced. Shortly after the details were released by the Labor Party in 2007, the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, Steven Schwartz, predicted a HECS discount would have little effect because it was seen as too far away in the future and abstract—that is to say that many students do not fully repay their HECS debts until many years after completing their study—and he thought the policy would fail to boost enrolments, given that students would not immediately receive any short-term financial benefit for undertaking these courses of study.
He came to this conclusion because the university had trialled a similar incentive in 2005. The university dropped its fees altogether in some advanced science subjects, including biology, physics and chemistry, in an attempt to make these subjects more attractive. But it became apparent that this did not significantly increase enrolments.
Professor Bruce Chapman, well known for his involvement in designing the architecture for our student loan scheme, also suggests that HECS discounts do not necessarily correlate with an increase in enrolment figures. Another well-known higher education expert, the Grattan Institute's higher education program director, Dr Andrew Norton, has also been very critical of the scheme. He suggests the discount for science students should never have been offered in the first place.
I find it interesting to note that the reasoning of the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Senator Chris Evans, for discontinuing the scheme is not very dissimilar to what was predicted all those years ago by some in the higher education sector. Specifically, the minister—in his press release of 29 November 2011—in respect of the government's decision, suggested:
The reduction in student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units since 2009 has not been effective in substantially increasing the number of students undertaking maths and science at university…
Students are predominantly motivated not by price but by their interests, abilities and career preferences when selecting courses.
Others have called on the government not to abolish this incentive and instead have argued for the scheme to be retained. But the most outspoken critic of the Gillard government's decision to axe this particular discount has been the member for Griffith, Kevin Rudd. I suspect, given his heavy objection on this issue, he will not be rising to speak in support of this bill; although, there is still the opportunity for him to do so, as the debate has not yet concluded and the opposition would be more than happy to hear his views on this particular matter.
Shortly before this year's leadership challenge in February, he expressed deep concern about the decision taken by the Prime Minister. Of course I have to specify the dates of these leadership challenges, as they come thick and fast in the Labor Party. So, just to be clear, it was the one in February 2012, not the one in June 2010 or the one that might well be coming today or tomorrow. The member for Griffith was quoted as saying, 'I am disappointed, deeply disappointed, at the government's decision to axe a scheme which I introduced.'
There are others in the higher education sector who have expressed disappointment about the decision. For example, when it was announced, then Chief Executive Officer of Universities Australia, Dr Glenn Withers, suggested the removal of the subsidy was 'disappointing' for students in these fields. For the most part, though, those who expressed disappointment over the decision have mainly been from student unions and the Greens—and, surprisingly, the member for Lyne, Mr Oakeshott. The member for Lyne vowed last year to fight this savings measure, in his response to MYEFO, suggesting that 'any cut to higher education funding, at a time when Australia's long-term strategy has education and innovation at its heart, is a concern'. The opportunity is there for the member for Lyne to come into the House, indicate that he will be voting against this measure, call a division and see what the result is. But I fear that the member for Lyne has forgotten that particular 'fight them on the beaches' speech that he made last year and that he has yet again rolled over for the government.
Alternatively, some stakeholders in the maths and science community have conceded that, while perhaps the incentive has not had the desired effect of boosting student enrolments, governments should maintain the search for sound policy solutions to increase the number of maths and science graduates—and that is a goal that both sides of the House share. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, both sides of the House agree we need more maths and science graduates. For example, Geoff Prince, Director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, argued shortly after the announcement that the HECS discount for mathematics, statistics and science should be replaced with more direct measures to encourage enrolments.
Given that there is mixed evidence on the success of this policy, the coalition has decided not to oppose the measure in this bill today. But I want to take this opportunity to talk about the need to reverse the poor state of mathematics and science education in Australia.
I flagged some issues around the government's lack of attention to the areas of maths and science toward the end of last year, as it had come to my attention that the government were increasingly failing to commit to a number of small school based programs designed to engage students in these areas. To me, this seems completely illogical. If evidence suggests that it is too late to get students interested in maths and science at university, common sense would suggest that we should concentrate even more effort in schools.
The coalition spoke out strongly in favour of continuing a number of school based programs and of engaging young people specifically in the areas of maths and science. For example, the government axed, without any sound reason, the coalition's PrimaryConnections program run by the Academy of Science. This initiative seeks to improve the quality and quantity of science teaching and learning in primary schools. I am sure if many members of the Labor Party had known about the importance of the PrimaryConnections program run by the Academy of Science, they would have spoken up against the axing in their Labor caucus, including the Acting Deputy Speaker.
The Leader of the Opposition pledged last year that if a coalition government were re-elected, we would spend $2 million to bring back the program. We recognised—as does the Australian Academy of Science and the 2011 Nobel laureate for physics, Professor Brian Schmidt—that it was not worth discontinuing this program, due to the risk of further decline in science education in schools. Brian Schmidt went even further to donate $100,000 of his own prize money to sustain the program. There is a man who has seriously put his money where his mouth is. The government's initial decision to cut funding for the PrimaryConnections program was raised by the coalition in the parliament on many occasions, including through a private member's motion—moved by the member for Forrest, Nola Marino, who is in the chamber today, demonstrating her very keen interest in science and maths education programs.
I also express deep concern about the government's initial lack of commitment to continue funding to the mathematics and science Olympiad programs, which have been operating since 1990 and which would be very familiar to members of this House who are good local members close to their electorates. The mathematics and informatics programs are run by Australian Mathematics Trust, and the physics, chemistry and biology Olympiads are run by Australian Science Innovations. Together, these programs engage tens of thousands of students each year and they have an international component where our most gifted and talented students have the opportunity to compete with students from around the world.
So concerned were we about the need to support our upcoming generation of maths and science innovators that the member for Indi and shadow minister for innovation, Sophie Mirabella, and I wrote a joint letter to the invisible minister for schools, Peter Garrett, and the then minister for innovation, Senator Kim Carr, urging them to continue the funding needed to support this program. It is interesting to note that both ministers did not bother to reply with an immediate confirmation to continue funding for these programs. In fact, the invisible minister for school education did not even bother to respond to the issues I raised with him in my letter. Instead, he handballed the issue of maintaining efforts for maths and science initiatives in our schools to the minister for innovation to respond to.
After ongoing concerns raised by the maths and science community towards the end of last year, the government finally responded. Professor Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist, was commissioned by the Prime Minister to advise on replacement measures following the abolition of the HECS discount, for students studying maths and science at university, by the end of February 2012. After receiving this report, the government finally announced, in response, a $54 million package in this budget to increase participation in schools and universities in the areas of maths and science.
As part of this year's budget package, the government recommitted to the very same programs the coalition had been arguing should never have been on the chopping block to begin with. The coalition recognises that it is essential to have a number of policy solutions in place, in schools, not only to engage students in maths and science but also to support our teachers so they can engage young people in the maths and science discipline and possibly spark within them a desire to pursue these areas in their tertiary education and careers.
Rather than putting these programs, like the PrimaryConnections program and the maths and science Olympiad programs, at risk and creating uncertainty around them, which took months to resolve and money to evaluate, with the appointment of Professor Ian Chubb to evaluate it, why did the government not just get it right in the first place? It would save taxpayers millions of dollars. More importantly, it would save the uncertainty for thousands of volunteers who look after the maths and science Olympiads around our schools when putting them through the misery of not knowing whether their program would be continued to be funded.
The government, whenever it has a choice between a good decision and a bad decision, unfailingly chooses the bad decision. There are many better people on the Labor Party backbench, like the two parliamentary secretaries sitting in front of us at the dispatch box—the member for Cunningham and the member for Ballarat—who would make much better decisions as ministers in this government than the minister for school education, Mr Garrett, the invisible minister for school education, who we never see and never hear from. We never hear him talking about education. He spends most of his time trying to hang onto his marginal seat of Kingsford Smith. If he does not have the time to talk about education he should get out of the way and let the member for Cunningham or the member for Ballarat take the job that they would be so much better suited to—that of minister for school education.
Ms Bird interjecting—
Australia needs mathematicians and scientists. The member for Cunningham said she would be happy to have the job! I think she would be good at the job.
Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: the shadow minister has just verballed me very incorrectly. I said, 'The minister does a great job.' Perhaps the member could ask some questions in question time if he has some issues about it.
You are quite right, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the member for Cunningham. I had misheard what she said. I felt sure that she had said she was happy to do the job. I would be happy for her to do it too.
In conclusion, Australia does need mathematicians and scientists to join the Australian pantheon of science and maths greats who have contributed so much to our world and to Australia's reputation overseas. With that, while the opposition has reservations about this bill, as I have already indicated, we will not be opposing it.
Australia has always been colloquially known as 'the lucky country', but we also need to become a smart country—the smart country. To achieve this, we need to invest in the education of our young people, and once they are educated we need to keep them here to contribute to the Australian knowledge base and the Australian economy, and through research. We also desperately need educated, skilled people in regional areas like my electorate of Forrest, in the south-west of Western Australia, in the same way that we need lifetime learning opportunities for those people.
We need to nurture our best and brightest but we need to nurture and support all of our students. As Thomas Edison famously said of genius and the development of new advances in science, 'What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.' Not all of our advances or inventions will come from someone who is identified as a genius. Many will come, and we see this, from a sound scientific education, from good old-fashioned hard work and from a genuine interest and great instincts. These will come from a great range of people with a diversity of talents, all of whom we need to value.
Australia has a shortfall in science education, which inevitably results in a shortage of scientists. We know about the shortages in biology, physics and chemistry. As we know, science in its purest form is not necessarily a popular choice and something that is quite notable in Australia. Our academic and scientific success provides a major contribution to the welfare of Australians, especially for our future generations—something that is not always recognised. Whilst some have been hailed by the wider community—we hear them recognised—most are not. That is the problem. Part of the problem is the profile.
There are scientific rock stars, like Barry Marshall, but there are thousands of others and we meet them busily working away, completely unheralded and unnoticed, just getting on with the job. Most Australians could name quite a few footballers and they could name quite a few cricketers, but how many scientists could they name? That is something that we need to look at as well. Whether they are current or historical most of us probably do not get past counting on our fingers the first time, although I would make an exception for the member for Tangney, who is in the chamber; I am sure he could list a number of scientists. But the lack of popular support and recognition for scientific achievement makes it more important that this parliament supports such endeavours.
We saw in 2008 the government introduce the discounted student contributions for those studying mathematics, statistics and science courses. At the time, the government said that this was supposed to make studying such courses much more attractive. The students we have heard about today, the ones that I am concerned about, will be affected by these changes and are midway through a course. They are the ones who really do bother me. They have taken up this course believing that probably more than half of the cost was going to be contributed by the government. They have made a decision based on that information, and the government is changing the rules part way through. I imagine that those students come from a diversity of backgrounds, and this will have an impact on them. This is the problem with the decision that the government has taken. They are midway through their course; can they finish the course? Can they not? What does this do to their plans and ambitions?
In spite of this we do know that there have been some increases in student numbers as a result of this, but there is a diversity of evidence and information about the success of this program. We know now that the minister and government have said that, in spite of them supporting it initially, this policy has not worked; and through the very introduction of this bill the government is saying that this is not working and is their latest failure. I ask: why is that? Or is it that the problem of a lack of science students still exists? It does. I wonder whether it is just a direct budget cut, and that is something that does bother me given that these students are part way through their courses.
There may be mixed evidence on the success of this measure, but in many instances cost is an issue for students and it is an issue in the decisions they make both in their education and in their life. We cannot afford to discourage our students by changing the rules part way through. How do they know when they take up a course that this is the support they are going to receive all the way through? And if they are on a tight budget, which so many are, this does have an impact on the decisions they make and on the length and type of course that they study.
I know, being in a rural and regional area, that for students who come from that background—and I would be interested to know how many students who took up these courses on the back of this assistance by government actually are from a rural or regional area—cost is a far greater issue than it is for a student who comes from a metropolitan area. I know because these students talk to me, as do their families, on a regular basis about how costs for regional or rural student and their families are an absolute barrier. And the evidence supports this. So I will be very interested to see how many rural and regional students are part of the cohort that is affected by this decision.
We do know that these students not only face the cost of textbooks and courses—the same as those shared by urban students—but they also face massive relocation, living away from home and accommodation costs. Those costs are at least $15,000 to $20,000 a year; more than those faced by a student living at home in and around an urban area close to a university. And it does keep regional students out of tertiary education—that is the way it is. So this type of decision, made midstream, will have an impact on those types of students.
We do know, though, that their parents help them, and we know that often there are two and three jobs taken by parents to support their students when they are studying away. So if we do have students from rural and regional areas affected by this it is going to have a major impact not just on that student but also on their families, and perhaps the intentions of any other siblings, because increased cost to one student may put education for another one in the family out of the question.
I know that because that is exactly what happened during the changes to youth allowance. I had parents coming to me and saying, 'Now, because we don't have access to youth allowance, I actually have to choose which one of my children can go to university.' I hope that this decision midstream by this government does not do the same thing. I would ask the government and those responsible for making this decision to think of those things. Perhaps to some people $3,000 or $4,000 does not seem like a lot of money. But let me tell you: in relation to your education in rural and regional Australia it is a lot of money. And it can be the difference in whether you go to university and study your selected course or you do not. We have seen this over and over. I had family after family and student after student saying exactly that to me: 'The changes to youth allowance made a massive difference.'
And I will tell you what made another difference: when I walked into the classrooms and the schools the students said to me, 'We have actually decided, because of the extra costs, to take a different vocational education course instead of going on to tertiary education.' So cost does matter, and it does matter most specifically in rural and regional areas because they face additional costs to achieve an education. As I said, the sum of $3,000 or $4,000 may not seem like a lot of money, but it certainly is to students in rural and regional areas.
We know with the changes to youth allowance that the government, in another backflip, reversed this decision in part; however, they have applied a means test. So students in the outer regional areas either have to meet the means test or have two years away from their education. So as opposed to having a one-year gap they now would have to have a second year. It is something that I find really extraordinary, because 'independence' is defined in the Oxford dictionary as 'not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence'. The reason that the students are classified as independent is that they are not dependent, including on their parents for income; they are physically independent of their parents. But, conversely, the government has then applied a parental means test, so the government by default is saying, 'Yes, you are dependent on your parents, because we're taking their income into account.' Either you are independent or you are not, but not with this government.
I have seen so many students and families, and so many other siblings in families, affected by the issues surrounding cost. I would say to this government: I know that not many of your members represent rural and regional areas, but there are certainly quite a number on this side of the House, and we understand very directly the impact that cost has on decisions people, including young people and families, make in relation to their education.
We know that the Bradley report said that regional students remain seriously under-represented in participation rates in higher education, and that has worsened in the last five years. We know that regional students are already disadvantaged, and I would say to the government: you have made this worse. Without knowing exactly who these students are, I would hope that there is not one student from that background who is going to be affected by these cuts, because it will not just affect them; it will affect their family and it could well affect other siblings in that family.
We know that there remains a shortage of students studying science in Australia, and I know that, as the shadow minister said, the government cut the PrimaryConnections program. I will never forget that I was at a dinner that night with a range of primary principals. How horrified were they? A program that was just starting to find its legs and deliver benefits was just cut. It was just appalling. I want to touch briefly as well on some of the issues surrounding agricultural sciences; science covers a broad range. We have a real shortage of those studying agricultural sciences. There were 69 submissions to the recent Senate inquiry, and a number of issues came out of that. As I said, there is a reduction in the number. There are only around 700 university graduates a year in agriculture and related fields. The skill shortage is not just confined to university graduates. I know from the report that the committee itself received evidence indicating that in occupations from farmlands right through to agronomists there are pervasive shortages. We have seen that even with the closure of Muresk in Western Australia.
There are great opportunities in this sector. I know from talking the other morning to a great young man by the name of Lachlan at the primary industry and science breakfast that he sees a great opportunity in the future in the ag sciences. Lachlan Hunter was from Bruce Rock, and he was one of the inaugural Primary Industry Centre for Science Education ambassadors. What a great young man. He sees a great opportunity, and he wants to go on and study science. These are the sorts of initiatives that we need to encourage, as well as the pure education of students in science and maths.
But I would once again go back to the fact that, by changing this program midstream, the government has affected young people and the decisions they have made. It is something that, as I said, really bothers me for those students who may be from a rural and regional background. It does concern me, having witnessed my community, my students and my families—the people who used to grab me in a supermarket to say, 'What do I do now? I have a second job. I'm assisting my child to go through university. I can't do any more, but we can't afford to send them.' I would hope that there is not one student who, as a result of this decision, will have to change their decision about the course that they have already started. On that basis I make my comments.
I start by commending the member for Forrest's contribution there in outlining, particularly, the impact of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012 on regional and rural students. She is a very strong advocate in this parliament for those students particularly. This bill—as you would be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker—reinstates the student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study to its pre-2009 levels for domestic students commencing a course of study on or after 1 January 2013. It also removes the eligibility for Commonwealth supported places in the Higher Education Loan Program schemes for Australian citizens who commence a course of study after 1 January 2013 and do not intend to reside in Australia during the course of study. The second purpose of this bill—to capture those students who do not intend to reside in Australia—I think is a step in the right direction. Our focus should rightly be on trying to support students who want to study here, pursue their careers here and make a contribution back to our nation. So we support the intent of that measure.
But I would like to focus on the first purpose of the bill, which is the removal of the HECS discount for maths, science and statistics courses. As you would be aware, the HECS discount for maths, science and statistics courses was introduced by the Rudd government in December 2008, and it took effect on 1 January 2009. It was while the now Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was the education minister. The aim of providing the discount was to encourage more students to undertake these courses, because indeed we do have a shortage of students undertaking these courses. The government is now reversing that decision three years later, and this reversal is effective from 1 January next year. The stated reason for reversing this decision, as the new education minister has explained to us, is that the measure was not working. That is the stated reason that they have given to us. They have said that there has been no change in terms of the numbers of students studying those subject areas at universities and hence they are going to abolish the HECS discounts.
Some of the evidence put forward by some people suggests that the measure was in fact working. Indeed, the Parliamentary Library looked into his question and produced a report, Are maths and science enrolments increasing? It is dated 2 December 2011. It concluded that the measures which Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard introduced had an immediate effect. It said that in 2009 undergraduate applications for natural and physical sciences increased by 17 per cent on 2008, and increased again in 2010 by 13 per cent. It said that this reversed the declines from the previous years just in those couple of years. It also said that the increases in applications carried over to increasing enrolments. For example, the commencing bachelor places in all science subjects showed an increase of 8.7 per cent in 2009 and 19.4 per cent in 2010 when the overall increase in undergraduate student numbers was only 15 per cent. So at least the Parliamentary Library believes that this measure did make a difference in terms of increasing the number of applicants and the number of people who are studying maths, science and statistics at university.
I suggest that the reason the government is abolishing the discounts is not that the program did not work. I think it is using that as an excuse, frankly. I think that the real reason for the measure that we are debating today and that is contained within this bill is that the government has wasted so much money over the last five years that it is now scrambling to try to find savings in every single portfolio to bring some semblance of integrity back to the budget for next year. That is the real reason that we are debating this bill right now.
The government over the last five years—as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as every Australian knows—has wasted billions of upon billions of dollars on all sorts of wasteful programs. We know about the pink batts scheme: billions wasted to put pink batts into people's rooves and then billions spent to take the pink batts out of people's rooves. We know about the Green Loans Program. We know about the school halls which were built at double the price they should have been. We know about set-top boxes being installed into people's houses costing $700 per set-top box when you can get one from Harvey Norman for $450. We know about the shambolic border protection regime, which is wasting billions of dollars, when previously our border protection system only cost us in the vicinity of $80 million or so. And, of course, we know about the $1,000 cheques that were sent to dead people and were sent to family pets.
The reason for this bill in front of us is that the government has wasted so much money that it has brought the net debt figure up to $145 billion and we now have to cut programs, many of which have actually been effective.
The member for Fadden yesterday was reminding us of the fact that the government are cutting back on the Defence Force personnel's trip at Christmas time to see their families. We have wasted billions of dollars on pink batts, but they are now going after Defence Force personnel and preventing them from being able to go home to their families at Christmas.
This bill in front of us is in a similar vein. They are trying to save $1 billion over the next four years and they have to make the savings because we have net debt of $145 billion and we have net interest payments of $8 billion per annum. We have just had waste after waste after waste by the government over the last five years. That is why this point is relevant. Never have we had such a wasteful government in the history of this federation.
The other points I would like to make about this bill being introduced—and I would reinforce the member for Forrest's comments—is that it is retrospective for some students. Although it takes effect from 1 January next year, it affects some students who are now studying maths, science and statistics who only undertook those courses because of the discounts which were in place. They thought that those discounts would be there for the duration of their course. Now the government is coming in and saying, 'Actually, despite you having made your course selections, in part on the basis of those discounts, midway through we are going to change that policy.' That is not a good way to conduct public policy, but it is the type of thing that we have come to expect from this government.
The bigger issue that this bill brings up—and I would like to spend the remaining time that I have available talking about this issue—is that we do need more maths and science graduates. How do we achieve this? In some respects the issue, though, does not start at the university level; it actually starts before there at the school level. We simply do not have enough students at year 12 level anymore who are studying the tougher maths, science and biology subjects. If you look across the statistics over the last two decades you see that the number of year 12 graduates in those areas has declined markedly. For example, the Chief Scientist tabled a report merely a couple of months ago that looked into this question. The number of year 12 students across Australia taking physics, chemistry and biology fell by 31 per cent, 23 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively—incredible drops in the course of two decades. This is the real nub of the problem. If people are not studying it at the high school level, they will not be going on and studying it at the university level. As the Chief Scientist said in his report:
These [science and maths] subjects are fundamental to shaping the future of Australia, and the future of the world … They provide enabling skills and knowledge that increasingly underpin many professions and trades and the skills of a technologically based workforce.
There are many reasons people are not studying these tougher subjects of maths and science anymore at the year 12 level. I hear anecdotally in schools in my electorate that part of the reason is that they are harder subjects and that other subjects can be done and count equally towards the students' ATAR scores to get into the university courses that they like. I think that needs to be looked at and a proper examination be done on that matter.
I think the bigger reason for it is that we have a severe shortage of passionate maths and science teachers in our schools. The Chief Scientist pointed this out in his report which was tabled a couple of months ago. In that he stated:
Inspirational teaching was time and time again identified as the key to future study choices of students.
Getting higher quality people into teaching, and particularly into maths and science teaching, is a subject that I have spoken about at length in this chamber. I have written about it at length as well.
I am greatly concerned generally about the decline in the quality of the applicants going into teacher courses and I am particularly concerned about the decline in the maths and science graduates going into teaching. In 2010, only 550 students enrolled in graduate Diploma of Education courses had a science degree. That was out of nearly 73,000 students undertaking teacher training courses that year. It is remarkable that there are so few.
What can we do about this? That is the real question. That is what we should be focused on, that is what the government should be focused on. How do we get outstanding, passionate maths and science teachers into our classrooms?
The Chief Scientist in his report outlined a number of recommendations. Those recommendations should be closely looked at. He pointed out some of professional development needed, some of the careers advice which needs to be improved. He talked about professional development standards.
I think, however, that the nub of the issue goes beyond that and that we need to look at the salary structures for maths and science teachers, in particular giving discretion for school principals to be able to offer higher salaries for maths and science teachers if they have a shortage of such teachers in their schools. This was something that the Productivity Commission looked at and what they recommended in their report which they handed down earlier this year. It is something that needs to be done.
The other thing I raise here is that we need to be looking at how we can fast-track outstanding maths and science graduates into the classroom. I have been involved with a program called Teach for Australia and I remain on its board. It targets outstanding nonteacher graduates and fast-tracks them into the classroom. It has had fantastic success.
But one of the problems that we have had with this program is that we have had some brilliant applicants who want to teach maths and science but are prevented from doing so. Let me just give you one example. A person who was a Fulbright scholar and had completed a PhD at Yale University in econometrics was approved only to teach legal studies and humanities. He was not approved to teach mathematics because the bureaucracy and the clipboard checkers said that he did not have sufficient qualifications to teach maths. He is exactly the type of person we want in the classroom to teach mathematics. We need to fix up these problems and we need to encourage similar people likewise to be in our classrooms. (Time expired)
I thank those who have spoken on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contribution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012, particularly those who spoke with great relevance to the bill. The bill before the House amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to increase the maximum student contribution amount for units of study in mathematics, statistics and science. The bill removes eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the Higher Education Loan Program schemes for Australian citizens who will not undertake any of their course of study in Australia. From 1 January 2013, all students will pay the increased student contribution amount for units of study in maths and science, regardless of when they commenced their course of study. These students will continue to be eligible to defer their fees via HECS-HELP which does not have to be repaid until they are earning a good wage.
The government believes the reduction in student contributions for maths and science that commence for students starting a course of study from 1 January 2009 was not delivering value for money. The majority of students undertaking maths and science units in 2009 and 2010 were not enrolled in a maths or science course of study, nor were they studying an education course. It is clear the policy was not substantially increasing the number of maths and science graduates in the workforce as intended or improving the supply of quality maths and science teachers. Improving the supply of quality maths and science teachers is a priority for the government which is why we have announced a $54 million package in the 2012-13 budget to enhance student engagement in maths and science from primary to tertiary levels.
The government is removing eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the HELP schemes for Australian citizens who will not undertake any of their course of study in Australia. The amendment applies to Australian citizens who are living overseas on an ongoing basis. The government believes its funding priority should be to support those students who are most likely to pursue careers in Australia, repay their HELP debts and use their education to benefit Australia's workforce and economic needs. The small number of students who are not resident in Australia and are currently enrolled in Commonwealth supported places or are accessing HELP will continue to be eligible for the schemes for the duration of their current course. This amendment complements last year's changes to the act, clarifying that Australian citizens are not entitled to Commonwealth support or to access HELP when they are undertaking courses of study primarily at an overseas campus. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.