SPEECH: Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

06 September 2023


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle—Deputy Speaker) (12:47): It's a great pleasure to rise in the House today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill Like my colleague before me, I really want to thank the minister for his terrific leadership in this regard in making sure that we are really focused on having greater depth and greater width in particular when it comes to participation in higher education in Australia.

The Albanese Labor government has initiated this biggest and broadest review of Australia's higher education system in the last 15 years, and it is under the very able leadership of Professor Mary O'Kane. Many of my colleagues have spoken of her virtues, but I do want to acknowledge that she was the first woman to become dean of engineering at any university in Australia and I do like to make sure that women are acknowledged for the trailblazing roles that they take in our communities. She is an extraordinary Australian who is leading an exceptional team in this important task.

I join all my Labor colleagues who have spoken in this place in really underscoring the importance of equity of access to higher education. It's core to our Labor values, but I think it's core to Australians' sense of themselves and our sense of fairness and equity. My electorate of Newcastle is, very proudly, home to one of the top regional universities in Australia. The University of Newcastle has a strong history of achievement and strong outcomes even on those international university rankings, and it's currently ranked in the top 175 in the world. That is no small feat for a regional university in Australia. It is a university that knows a thing or two about achieving equity of access, as we have been doing that heavy lifting for the last 50 years. We know that for genuine transformation of universities to deliver high-quality educational opportunities there has to be a whole-of-institution approach. This is something we have learned from experience in the half-century now that we have been running what I would argue is one of the nation's best enabling programs.

It takes systemic change to shift the entrenched structures that continue to exclude underrepresented communities from higher education. For nearly half a century the University of Newcastle has engaged with and graduated now more than 70,000 students through its Open Foundation program, which is what we often call an enabling program. It is a free open-access enabling program. Let that figure rest with you for a moment: 70,000 people in Newcastle and the Hunter region now have a tertiary education that they would otherwise never have had the chance to get a foot in the door for. In the last 10 years alone that has meant that one in five students at the University of Newcastle has entered that university via an enabling program. When you go down to the Central Coast, which my fantastic colleagues the member for Dobell and the member for Robertson represent, it is one in four students for them that attend that university via an enabling program.

The success of Open Foundation and its related programs—so programs like the Yapug program, which is specifically designed for First Nations students—lies in the long-term commitment and continuous improvement that the university has undergone with these enabling programs for the last 50 years. It is through evidence based pedagogy and curriculum design alongside continuous research and feedback that this program has developed to ensure that students can be supported to get the skills they need to thrive at university while studying in areas of interest. Importantly, the University of Newcastle's enabling programs are free, and I underline that point because it is significant. I have stood in this chamber on three occasions now in the last nine years to save the enabling programs at the University of Newcastle because members now opposite, thankfully, sought to either cut those programs or put a price point in front of them, which would have effectively reduced those programs to almost being non-existent. I can say that with confidence because, as I said, I've spent nine years defending these programs in this House.

I am so excited to be part of a government now that recognises the value of enabling programs. When you come from a community where 70,000 of your citizens have gained a tertiary education through this enabling pathway, you're acutely aware of the value of this. I have sat with those students, many of whom are now completing PhDs and master's degrees because they are extraordinarily successful students, and they have said without exception that, had they had to pay for that first enabling program, the Open Foundation program, they would never have gone to university. I'll tell you why: those people traditionally enter university with such low self-confidence and faith in their own capacity that they don't see their value until they have been at university for a while and successfully completed this Open Foundation course, which gives them the necessary wraparound supports and services that give them confidence to know, 'I can do this.' They can not only do this but are smashing it out of the park now in postgraduate programs.

We know the value of that enabling program. In fact, the University of Newcastle has done some terrific survey work around the students in the enabling program, and they all advised, as I've just demonstrated, that they would not have entered that program had there been a significant price point—had it cost money. A breakdown of the students that have come through the enabling program in the past six years will demonstrate to you why not having a cost in front of that is important: 61 per cent of the students in those enabling programs are first in family to attend university; 35 per cent come from low socioeconomic backgrounds; 18 per cent are from regional and remote locations; and eight per cent of those students are Indigenous.

The success of Open Foundation and its related programs lies in the lifelong learning ethos; a depth of curriculum rather than the narrow competency based approach; and research informed practice. Equity, diversity and inclusion are integrated into and prioritised in all aspects of the university. It's part of everybody's job and everybody's obligation at that university to consider those factors of equity and inclusion.

There are 113 countries now represented in the student body at the University of Newcastle, and the university has got the highest number of First Nations students enrolled of any university in Australia. The Board of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Research and the Nguraki elders committee have guided the university now for more than 10 years. The Wollotuka Institute has operated as a support centre for Indigenous students since 1983. We're coming up to a very significant anniversary for the Wollotuka Institute. They've provided unparalleled leadership and have championed academically rich and culturally affirming education programs at every turn.

I join in the University of Newcastle's call for the expansion of enabling programs beyond pre-entry so that we can provide an ongoing foundation for those students that require some support. We've got some proven approaches to ensure that you can scaffold students through to complete their awards and their degree programs. I commend the University of Newcastle, its staff and educators and the students for the work they're doing to ensure that equity of access to high-quality education is always at front and centre of our thinking.

I want you to know that this Labor government wholeheartedly agrees with that approach. We'll be making sure that every kid, young and not so young, gets access to high-quality education. This is not a matter that is simply for those that get to live in capital cities or go to certain sandstone universities of this nation. I commend the bill to the House.