Higher Education Support Amendment (Maximum Payment Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012 - Second Reading Speech

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (12:38): I thank the members who have spoken on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Maximum Payment Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012 and the member for Fowler for the tone of his contribution about the importance of education, which is certainly reflected in the broad agenda of the Gillard Labor government. This bill sits within that context.

The bill before the House amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to update the maximum payment amounts for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships. It also authorises wider use of disclosure of personal information collected for the purposes of the act. The bill also amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 in order to provide administered funding to allow the ARC to continue their support for highest quality fundamental and applied research and research training.

The maximum amounts for other grants under section 41-45 and Commonwealth scholarships under section 46-40 of the act are being updated to provide for indexation and other variations to funding amounts, and to include the next funding year. The bill will allow the minister to determine, by legislative instrument, the maximum payment amount for other grants and Commonwealth scholarships from 2013 onwards.

There have been annual amendments to the act since its enactment in 2003 to provide for indexation. The continual cycle of amendments is not the most efficient method of updating these appropriation amounts. Allowing the maximum payment amount to be determined by legislative instrument will avoid the need for recurrent amendments to the act.

The bill will also allow the departmental secretary to disclose information collected and created for the purposes of the act, including personal information, to a limited number of bodies for a limited set of purposes. Wider use and disclosure of personal information, including administrative data at the unit record level, will allow more accurate assessment and monitoring of the government's higher education demand driven funding reforms for planning and quality assurance purposes, including achievement of the Australian government targets. Consultation with higher education and VET providers and their peak bodies has consistently indicated the need to reduce the burden on the tertiary sector associated with the provision of data for regulatory and quality assurance purposes.

There were many submissions to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment—and I acknowledge the chair of that committee, the member for Kingston, who is in the chamber with us today. I acknowledge the work of the committee in their inquiry into the bill before the chamber. The committee strongly supported the bill, since it will reduce the reporting and administrative burden on providers. The bill's authorisation for wider disclosure of personal information would facilitate the development of the department's existing data management system, creating a single reporting interface for providers and preventing the duplication of reporting burdens.

The bill includes strong protections for individual privacy which were developed in consultation with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. These protections include authorising the use and disclosure of personal information for permitted purposes only, offence provisions for breaches of the act's privacy provisions and the requirement for the consent of higher education providers prior to disclosure. These are in addition to the provisions of the department's existing data protocols. The bill will authorise wider disclosure of personal information to meet the legitimate needs of higher education and vocational education and training data users to access personal information while ensuring that the reporting burden on providers is minimised and the privacy of staff and students is protected.

The Australian Research Council is also addressed in the bill. The bill amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 so that they can receive administered funding. This will allow the ARC to continue to support the highest quality fundamental and applied research and research training through competitive selection processes across all disciplines with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry. The appropriation bill supports the ongoing operations of the ARC to fund the high-quality research that we need to address the great challenges of our time, to improve the quality of people's lives, to support the development of new industries and to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy.

The ARC is the major source of funding for the innovative investigator driven research that has underpinned inventions such as the synchrotron and is supporting research into tomorrow's breakthrough technologies, such as the bionic eye. ARC-funded research has played and continues to play an important role in improving the lives of Australians and addressing the big issues of our time. This includes, for example, our need to transform our manufacturing industries to create greener, healthier and more resilient processes and products. The government is proud that stronger steel and cleaner and safer cars could be soon manufactured in Australia thanks to research made possible with funding from the ARC.

Ongoing funding for the ARC is essential to the vitality of the Australian higher education system and our commitment to strengthening Australia's research workforce. Excellent researchers across all areas of the university system must be able to compete for funding if we are to keep world class academics in Australia working in our universities and teaching our next generation.

It is important to note the key role that the ARC has been and is playing in attracting more Indigenous Australians to academia and keeping more women in research careers. This includes the Discovery Indigenous scheme, the addition of two new Australian laureate fellowships specifically for women and the introduction of the research opportunity and performance evidence to enable assessors to take into account any career interruptions, including those for childbirth and caring responsibilities. Through these initiatives, and through the whole NCGP, the ARC is helping to reduce research career barriers and to ensure that the nation reaps the benefits of all its research talent.

The ARC is not only supporting quality research and research careers but also helping the government measure our research investment and assure taxpayers that their money is being invested wisely. For these reasons, I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.