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On Good Universities & Great Teachers

I spoke in parliament today about higher education reform (thanking Michael McCormack at the outset for filibustering long enough to let me get out of the chair and over to speak!).

Higher Education Support Amendment (Further Streamlining and Other Measures) Bill, 12 March 2013

At the outset, I acknowledge the comments of the member for Riverina, who has demonstrated his passion for his constituents with his ability to speak for an appropriate length about an issue of importance to him and to the chamber.

I was pleased when I was an academic at the ANU to work alongside Bruce Chapman, one of the architects of HECS, who put in place a truly world-leading piece of policy. It is easy to forget now that HECS, now known as HELP, has become so much part of our social fabric. The notion of income-contingent loans was one in which Australia was stepping out as a world first. Milton Freeman mentioned the notion of income-contingent loans in the 1960s but it was Professor Chapman who really picked it up, put flesh on its bones and suggested it as a way of ensuring two big things.

The first was, because a student receives a private benefit as well as the public benefit from a university education, they should contribute a little bit back into the public purse. University education boosts earnings significantly, and HECS, now HELP, recognises that private benefit. But, secondly, it was the recognition that we needed to expand the sector. We needed to ensure that university education was not something just for elites but was attainable for all Australians. The only way of getting those additional resources into the sector was to ask students to give a little bit back.

So now, when we look at policies in which Australia is leading the world I think we should also look to the HELP policy—a policy which has proven its worth and is now being adopted by a suite of other countries around the world. The UK, Germany, Israel, Thailand and Chile are all adopting or considering adopting the HELP policy. I suspect that will be the case down the track with policies such as plain packaging of tobacco and putting a price on carbon pollution—we are moving with other countries in the world to put in place policies that future generations will thank us for. What we are doing with this policy is ensuring that the thresholds are indexed at appropriate levels. When HECS was originally introduced, repayment did not start until you reached average weekly earnings. That was based on the simple notion that you should not have to pay back your HECS debt until your university education had begun to pay off in earnings for you. When the Howard government came to office, that model was changed and the repayment thresholds were brought down substantially. I am pleased that now the HECS repayment threshold have been restored so that they are around average weekly earnings.

This bill is a part of a major university investment by this government. Since Labor has come to office there have been more than 150,000 extra Australians studying at university and total funding for the sector has been increased substantially. At the Australian National University, just to pick one of the many excellent universities in my electorate, there has been an increase in enrolments from 6,350 students to 7,086 students, significant investment in education and significant investment in improving access to youth allowance and the quality of student learning and living areas through our investment in housing. That matters, because high-quality university accommodation improves the learning experience.

Recently, we had the ANU alumni awards recognising extraordinary alumni. I acknowledge Alumni of the Year joint recipients Anne Gallagher and Martin Parkinson; Vice-Chancellor’s Special Commendations Adam Ford, Danny Bishop and Chris Duffield; International Alumnus of the Year Cheong Choong Kong; Young Alumnus of the Year joint recipients Sebastian Robertson and Jennifer Robinson; Student of the Year joint recipients Katrina Marson and Ray Lovett; and Student of the Year finalists Aditya Chopra, Julie Melrose and Georgia Majoribanks.

In closing, I also note some important reforms being put in place by the government in teacher education courses. This government recognises that it is important to improve the academic aptitude of new teachers. When I was at the Australian National University I did work with Chris Ryan looking at the academic aptitude of new teachers and those entering tertiary education, and what we found was deeply disturbing. From 1983 through to 2003 the share of teachers who were in the top fifth of their class for literacy and numeracy had halved. Over the same period, the share of teachers who were in the bottom half of their class had doubled.

So we had seen a fall in the academic aptitude of new teachers from the 70th percentile to the 62nd percentile, and we had seen a fall in the academic aptitude of those entering teacher education courses from the 74th percentile to the 61st percentile. It is a development that had also been seen over that period in the United States and it is a development that concerns this government. Literacy and numeracy does not guarantee you are going to be a great teacher but, all else equal, we want those who are at the whiteboard to have strong literacy and numeracy skills themselves. So, as the minister has announced, we will be putting in place literacy and numeracy testing, a more targeted admission process for teaching courses and more assistance to help all teachers over every stage of their career, recognising that there is no more important job in Australia than teaching students, particularly disadvantaged students. With those remarks, I commend the bill to the house.

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