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Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (1.47 p.m.)—Australian universities are attracting overseas students because of the quality of the education they provide.

Higher education is an extremely competitive commodity in the world and students from Asia, from the Middle East and, in fact, from countries where there is a more than adequate university provision look around the world to find a university which best suits the components of their professional career—and Australia is a part of that competitive environment. Students from Singapore will look just as easily to the United States as to Europe, to Britain or to Australia. Why is it that we are attracting so many overseas students to our places of higher learning? It is because of the quality and the components of the courses that students coming to Australia can participate in. They are relevant to our environment, they are relevant to the South Pacific and South-East Asia, they carry a typical Australian practical bent and they are usually linked with a capacity to acquire the English language. That, as a package, is something that really attracts students to our shores.

Unless we remain competitive, in the sense that we continue to offer the very highest quality and the very best value in higher education in this competitive world, students will not want to come to Australia. What does that mean? That Australian universities would not carry the regard in the international community that they now carry. They would not be looked upon as great places of learning. They would not be regarded by businesspeople, governments and academia around the world as a place for an appointment, for a placement or for an opportunity to begin a career or a profession. That is what this Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2005 Measures No. 4) Bill 2005 is about. This legislation is about providing and building on the groundwork already laid down by successive governments, but it is only through this government that the competitive edge and the need to meet that competition and to survive in the world around us has been recognised.

It will not serve us well if the universities of Australia were only for Australian students, if our universities were not open to this competitive demand. What would it mean? We would become an isolated academic backwater where our students would work within Australia and provide for Australia’s needs perhaps but would not be in demand, as they are at the moment around the world, to go into high positions of all types. The number of Australians running large corporations throughout the world, in Europe and the United States indicates the quality of our education. You can go anywhere in academia, in large corporations and in government and find Australians punching well above their weight because the quality of that individual and their training and their education is valued—and it is valued because they can make a contribution in the wider universal environment.

This legislation seeks to retain that advantage for this nation. I know there are some who would say, ‘We have a brain drain going on; we are losing some of the best people.’ Most Aussies come back—most of them say home is where they want to be eventually. They may marry overseas, they may have some of their family overseas, but eventually they want to come back here. What is it about Australia that attracts Australians back and attracts overseas students as well? It is the lifestyle, the environment and the attitude that Australians have of being able to cope with any problem and to use their initiative to solve anything that confronts them. This combination of environment, lifestyle and basic, quality education is what we must foster and what we must encourage. This legislation seeks to do that in a very mild way. Listening to the Labor Party, you would think that the sky is going to fall in. But what is the proposition in this legislation put forward by the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson? The proposition is that universities should offer a choice to their staff of whether they go onto salary and conditions set by an academic board or whether they should be given an individual contract, an Australian workplace agreement. Minister Brendan Nelson has said that universities need to do this to stay competitive to attract some of the best people from around the world.

But he has gone a step further and said, ‘Unless you have done that by the middle of next year, you are not going to have the advantage of increases to your budget supplied by the federal government.’ Universities are strange: we supply all the money and they come under state law—but that is Australia. So universities will not be able to gain the increases in funding of five per cent in 2006 and 7.5 per cent in 2007 unless they give that choice. It does not seem a difficult proposition, yet it is being opposed by the Australian Labor Party, who cannot understand why people should have choice and why they should not be regimented into a single stream of academic control.

We need to make this change. The Australian government has committed an additional $11 billion to higher education over the last 10 years, including through the 2003 package, Our Universities: Backing Australia’s Future. That seeks to provide the funds but, to listen to the Australian Labor Party, it is all about the money and not about the quality. It is not about the working conditions and your aspirations. It is not about your visions, your goals and what you are seeking to achieve; it is about how much money there is. That is not the total consideration. There must be more to it than that. If we are going to maintain our position in world education then we need to start with the questions: ‘What are our universities going to be offering over the next five or 10 years? Are they going to remain as competitive, relevant and significant in our region?’ That is what this legislation seeks to do.

On 29 April 2005 this provision was announced by the Hon. Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and Dr Brendan Nelson, the Minister for Education, Science and Training. They announced these reforms, which are consistent with the government’s agenda. There is no coercion or force behind this; there is just the offer of choice for people about the circumstances under which they may choose to work. It adds greater flexibility than certified agreements. It allows universities to choose particular staff of great value or prize and to offer them—that is, the individual staff member—something a little different to what is currently being offered.

As with collective agreements, these Australian workplace agreements are subject to the no-disadvantage test, so a person coming in at a certain level will not get less; they will get the same or more. The no-disadvantage test applies to this choice being offered to people coming into Australian universities. This enhances the flexibility. It gives people an opportunity to broaden the courses offered. It means that they do not have to continue with courses that have lost relevance and are no longer significant in the Australian environment or in demand in the international community. That flexibility of staff is something that universities have been seeking for some time—the flexibility to be able to offer courses that are relevant to needs, that will respond to market pressures and that will respond to the demands of our immediate environment.

By November this year, all universities will need to meet the requirements in their workplace policies and practices, except where compliance with the requirements would be directly inconsistent with a higher education provider’s obligations under its existing certified agreements as at 29 April 2005. These are reasonable propositions. It is not a harsh process but one of encouragement to move in a certain direction and at the same time remain flexible and competitive. All universities will be required to comply with the workplace reforms and national government protocol every year after 2007, in order to maintain their funding.

I think the advantages are many. Australia needs to be committed to promoting the sustainability of universities, to enable them to attract, retain and reward the very best people in their academic staff. This legislation is in line with the government’s broad workplace relations agenda. The reforms are not driving down the conditions and wages of university employees or giving staff fewer rights than other Australians. The reforms are designed to support a workplace relations system in universities that is focused on greater freedom, flexibility and individual choice. There can be no argument about the benefits of that, and Australia is moving, in a general sense, in that direction. The workplace relations reforms that will be in place before the end of this year in the broader community will reflect the government’s wish and, I believe, the wish of most Australians that there should be greater freedom, flexibility and individual choice in our workplaces.

The Australian workplace agreements offer greater facility than the certified agreements commonly used in universities. Australian universities need to be able to attract and keep the very best staff and reward them appropriately so that those staff can provide for the graduates who add lustre to Australia’s reputation and who can take the positions that they go into so easily in any part of the world and return to Australia, making a wonderful contribution to our life here. If universities fail to attract and retain those talents, Australia is the loser. It is not the intention of this government to focus on a narrow union- or academic-driven agenda that restricts choice and options as regards staff and limits our opportunities and capacity to compete in the wider world of education. In response to issues raised by this sector, there have been two amendments to the legislation. I commend this legislation to the House.

The SPEAKER—Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.

Author: The Hon Alan Cadman MP
Source: House Hansard - 14th September 2005
Release Date: 14 Sep 2005


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