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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10351

Ms PLIBERSEK (10:31 AM) —The Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill 1999 sets out the maximum amount for operating and other grants to higher education institutions. It varies the amounts already legislated under the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 for 1999 and 2000 and it inserts an amount for 2001. It also sets the maximum funding level for expenditure on the international marketing and promotion of Australian education and training services by Australian Education International for the 2001 funding year. The bill amends the Higher Education Funding Act to make provision for the funding of 60 medical places at James Cook University for 2001 and it provides funding for science lectureships of $14.7 million.

That is not the part of the act that I want to specifically address in my comments today. First of all, I want to speak a little more generally about funding trends in relation to higher education and, secondly, and most particularly, about the Higher Education Equity Merit Scholarship Scheme, which is being defunded under this legislation. To start with, I think it is important to recognise that the Australian Bureau of Statistics, when it released its Expenditure on education report on 17 September this year, noted that, in this government's first two years, total Commonwealth expenditure on education decreased by more than $500 million—from 1.99 per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 1.9 per cent of GDP in 1997-98. University funding specifically has fallen by a massive 12.7 per cent—from 0.94 per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 0.82 per cent of GDP in 1997-98.

When we look at those funding cuts, I think dollar figures are perhaps the most striking illustration. In the first Howard budget $840 million was taken out of university operating grants. The HECS burden for university students was increased by $1.1 billion. TAFE funding was cut by $167 million, $128 million was ripped out of public schools and student assistance was cut by half a billion dollars. Universities are finding that they have to shift the costs of education to students via the Higher Education Contribution Scheme and up-front fees because of the government's neglect of the tertiary education sector.

In 2001 the real level of Commonwealth contributions to operating grants will be about the same as it was in 1983—yes, in 1983, more than 15 years ago—although student loads will have increased by 57 per cent. Universities are being expected to do a lot more with a lot less. That means much larger class sizes than are manageable, it means run-down libraries and it means academics with workloads they find very difficult to manage. The Commonwealth contribution to operating grants per equivalent full-time student unit will have declined by 37 per cent between 1983 and 2001. Commonwealth grants will drop below 50 per cent of university revenue in the current triennium. This is similar to the proportion that existed before the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for the funding of tertiary education in 1974. There has been a real decline in per student funding, resulting in emerging issues such as declining teaching standards, lower progression rates, postgraduate courses being little more than undergraduate courses with a fee, a reduction in the maintenance of infrastructure and equity and access issues.

Turning to equity and access issues, I do not think we can ignore what is happening now to the Higher Education Equity Merit Scholarship Scheme. This scheme was introduced by this government; indeed, I am able to quote from a media release on 9 August 1996 by Senator Vanstone, the minister at the time, in which she announced the establish ment of these HECS-exempt scholarships targeted at disadvantaged students. She said:

These measures are aimed at bringing higher education within the reach of ordinary Australians. They are a practical demonstration of the Government's real commitment to fairness and equity in higher education.

This practical demonstration of commitment certainly has not lasted very long. In 1997, 1,000 scholarships were offered, and this was to build to a pool of 4,000 by 1999. So it has barely begun to operate before being disbanded. I think, as the former minister said, it certainly is an illustration of this government's level of commitment to equity and access in higher education to be disbanding this scheme just as it is really beginning. The types of students who have been accessing these scholarships include indigenous students, women in non-traditional areas of study, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from rural and isolated areas and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Of course, these are groups that must have better access to public education, particularly higher education, and they are dramatically underrepresented in the figures at the moment.

While the absolute number of students from these equity groups may have increased in the last few years because of the growth during the 1990s in the number of people participating in higher education, the proportion of students from these backgrounds has actually fallen, and it is this proportion that is significant for us to have a look at. For example, looking at the 1997 figures we see that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—who make up 1.7 per cent of our population—account for only 1.3 per cent of our student population.

Looking at the number of students from rural backgrounds, isolated backgrounds and low socioeconomic income backgrounds we see that the numbers have fallen since 1991 from 18.5 per cent to 17.4 per cent for students from a rural background, from 1.9 per cent to 1.8 per cent for students from isolated backgrounds and from 15 per cent to 14½ per cent for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Minister Kemp said in his second reading speech that this scheme:

. . . had little impact on encouraging people who would not otherwise have enrolled to attend university.

I think that is a little unfair, given that 3,000 students received benefits of up to $5,682 per annum from this scheme and that the phasing out of this scheme actually reduces the money allocated to equity access in universities by $7.8 million in the year 2000 and by $10.4 million in the year 2001. Those thousands of people who have attended university who otherwise would not have would certainly disagree with the minister in saying that it has had little real effect.

Turning to issues of quality, it is important to note that the government has encouraged universities to offer a lower standard of teaching by encouraging them to overenrol students in order to receive the funding necessary for them to survive. The government pays an extra $2½ thousand for each undergraduate above the number allocated to each institution. Dr Kemp said in his second reading speech:

This makes it economic for universities to utilise any extra capacity they have. On early estimates for 1999 there are 36,000 undergraduate places that will be funded on this basis.

That actually means that 36,000 students are taking up places that have not been adequately funded, using university lecturers who are already overburdened and libraries that are poorly maintained and cramming into buildings that are stretching at the seams.

Funding arrangements have not always been expressed in the most transparent manner. In late August the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee was forced to access freedom of information laws to see a series of academic and consultant papers prepared for the minister relevant to university funding. All of the reports were commissioned by the Research Evaluation Committee, which includes members from DETYA and the Australian Research Council. In the past, the reports from the Research Evaluation Committee were published as a matter of course to help foster debate and ideas.

When Dr Kemp became the minister he ordered that they not be released without his approval. The majority—a total of six major reports—have not been released, and this was reported in the Financial Review in August this year. The most important report was by David Phillips about university infrastructure requirements. The Phillips report surveyed universities about the best way to disburse infrastructure funding. Its recommendations were withheld from the freedom of information release, but it is understood—from leaks from the department reported in the Financial Review—that the recommendation strongly opposed abolishing the block grant scheme. Yet for the years 2000 and 2001 the research infrastructure block grant total is zero. It totalled $98.3 million in 1998 and $85.3 million in 1999.

It is a sad state of affairs when we see a minister bent on destroying the capacity of universities regardless of the information that is coming to him from the universities and from the people who are commissioned to report on these matters. The reports were commissioned externally because the department's capacity to undertake this research has been depleted due to funding cuts in recent years. While this bill contains a number of measures that Labor is prepared to support, we must remember that it comes after constant attacks on higher education from this government, years of decline in funding and a university system which has been stretched to its very limits.