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Monday, 14 August 2000
Page: 18906

Mr GIBBONS (9:16 PM) —I rise to participate in this important debate on the Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000 and to support the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Dobell. I commence by acknowledging that an appropriately targeted and funded education policy is the best investment a nation can make in its own future—a view which is obviously not shared by the current government. The Bills Digest states that the purpose of this bill is to:

adjust grants for funding year 2001 for price movements;

set the maximum grants available for funding year 2002;

vary the maxima for operating grants for 1999-2001 to reflect revised estimates for the Higher Education Contribution Scheme; and

provide additional funding for measures announced in the 2000-01 Budget concerning research programs and university places for students on bonded medical scholarships.

This so-called initiative must be viewed with total cynicism, because the Howard government, especially with Dr Kemp as minister, has been relentless in its obsession to reduce education spending to the disgraceful levels we experience today. Indeed, we could be forgiven for believing that this government and this minister have set about deliberately dumbing down this nation to almost Third World standards. I use the term `dumbing down' advisedly, because Dr Kemp will undoubtedly be regarded by history as the Don Quixote of Australian politics. His total paranoia regarding education unions would provide a major challenge for even the most gifted psychiatrist. In fact, it is rumoured that there is enough material for a full-blown, 500-participant psychiatrist convention inside the minister's head every day. The mind boggles at the thought of this minister seeking to dumb our educational standards down to his distorted level.

The member for Dobell, our spokesman on higher education, has estimated that there is now a $3 billion education deficit because of the cuts that the Howard government has made since 1996. Almost $1 billion has been cut from universities. There have been cuts in funding for vocational education and training of $240 million. There have been HECS charges which have stripped away almost $1 billion from students. The enrolment benchmark adjustment has so far cut about $60 million from federal funding to public schools right across the country, and that continues to grow. There have also been cuts to student assistance of more than $500 million. Universities in regional areas have lost almost $171 million from their budgets. It is these universities that are the real drivers of development in regional communities. Regional universities give local kids and mature age students their best opportunity to study for a degree and to get the skills they need to gain the high quality jobs of the future. The Howard-Kemp cuts of $171 million from our regional universities will deny students in regional communities the chance to study for a degree. This massive reduction in funding will deny regional communities opportunities for economic development and new jobs.

La Trobe University in Bendigo has felt the impact of the Howard-Kemp cuts most severely. La Trobe Bendigo's budget from the Commonwealth government has been reduced by almost $2 million over the past four years. This faculty—and I emphasise the word `faculty'—had a total income in 1999 of $35.6 million: $26.7 million came from Commonwealth grants and the balance came from other areas generated by La Trobe Bendigo's initiatives, including fees of $2.4 million from full fee paying, predominantly international, students, which is an increase of almost $350,000 over the previous year. Other locally generated income has increased by $800,000 since last year.

La Trobe University Bendigo is responsible for $18.1 million being placed in Bendigo's economy each year in salaries and wages, and a further $8.9 million comes from maintenance and repairs, materials and equipment, and other administrative overheads. This is a total of $27 million injected directly into Bendigo's economy. In addition to these factors, there are various business operations associated with the faculty. Together with the multiplier effect of the personal consumption of 3,600 students and 432 staff—which makes it one of the region's largest employers—La Trobe University Bendigo estimates that it makes a financial impact on the economy of the Bendigo region of approximately $130 million per year.

The Howard-Kemp cuts to universities have cost central Victoria almost $3.5 million. Bendigo's problems are worsened by internal transfers of dollars—and control—to La Trobe University's Bundoora campus. The reason for this is obvious: La Trobe University Bundoora is attempting to alleviate the budget problems caused by the Howard-Kemp cuts by extracting almost $3 million per year from La Trobe Bendigo's budget. The effect of this is severely hampering La Trobe Bendigo's ability to continue to provide its excellent service. This loss of over $3 million each year limits the Bendigo faculty's ability to provide its excellent range of courses and services and results in a deskilling of administrative support and a substantial stripping of much needed and valuable assets. This is all a direct result of the Howard-Kemp plan for education.

La Trobe University Bendigo has recently appointed a Regional Advisory Committee consisting of prominent Bendigo community representatives and successful business leaders. Mr Gordon McKern is the group's chairman. I know that Mr McKern and indeed all of the other committee members have La Trobe Bendigo's interest at heart and indeed the wider Bendigo region's interest at heart. They commence their task at a crucial stage of the university's development. I know that this move will lead to improved communications, which is a matter of much concern to the faculty staff and student body. I wish the new committee well in their deliberations.

At a time when the concerns of regional Australia are at the forefront, the university must take the opportunities available through the strong regional presence that La Trobe Bendigo has enjoyed for many years to better serve the region and its own long-term interests. The Bendigo faculty should not be regarded as an asset to be raided and bled to resolve short-term problems at other La Trobe University campuses. I call on Professor Osborne, the Vice-Chancellor, to outline his strategy for the positive development of the Bendigo faculty. I know the Bendigo community is watching with great interest the developments at the Bendigo university.

Education is always a priority for Labor but, as these figures show, it is certainly no priority for the Howard government. Labor's plan for Australia to become a knowledge nation is vital if we are to keep pace with other countries. This can take place only in a country which is lifting its national investment in education, training and research. Australia will never be the knowledge nation whilst Dr Kemp continues to preside over our fund-starved institutions and continues to blame the education unions for his own shortcomings. Shortly I will highlight some of the Labor Party's policy commitments that will offer a better deal for university and school education. I will highlight some of the commitments the opposition leader, Mr Beazley, has announced as part of Labor's strategy of developing Australia as a knowledge nation. But first I want to draw the attention of the House to the effects the GST has on tertiary students, present and past. The GST punishes tertiary students, especially country tertiary students. Bendigo is a university city. As I have said, the university is vital to the region's economy and education. However, the GST makes education dearer for all. The GST especially punishes regional tertiary students.

The federal education department has confirmed that there will be an increase of 5.4 per cent in HECS repayments in the financial year 2000-01. This is thanks to inflation and especially the inflation explosion caused by the introduction of the GST on 1 July. Nearly one million Australian students past and present have HECS debts and they will be worse off because of this. The government will rake off an extra $323 million this financial year because of this. The National Union of Students has estimated that the GST will increase the HECS debt in 2001 of an arts student by $433, of an architecture student by $616 and of a law student by $720. University graduates who find employment after graduating will be paying not only the HECS repayment but the extra burden of the GST on top of it. This GST burden will eat heavily into the tax cuts that the government boasts will offset the effects of the GST. The government claimed education would be GST free, but this is not true. And there was no mention of this GST burden on students during the 1998 election campaign.

The GST is discriminatory. It affects HECS repayments. It is not paid on up-front fees. It penalises students who are not well-off enough to pay up-front fees and who must defer fee repayments under HECS. As honourable members would know, students paying up-front fees are eligible for a 25 per cent discount on their fees. This GST burden targets country students. They are less well-off than their city counterparts and they are more likely to have to defer payments and use HECS. I wish to refer to the case of La Trobe University and its city and country campuses. Sixty-six per cent of its city students who are subject to tertiary fees defer their payments, but 76 per cent of its country students, including those at Bendigo, find it necessary to defer payment. So the GST burden fails on more country students than on city students. It hits students from the Bendigo district more than it hits city students.

I turn now to the exciting commitments that the Labor Party has announced to date as part of its strategy to develop Australia as a knowledge nation. Honourable members are aware that the opposition leader, Kim Beazley, outlined Labor's direction in education policy at the ALP national conference held recently in Hobart. He set out that Labor in office would substantially increase public investment in our tertiary institutions, school education, and research and development. I believe this all adds up to bringing in new energy in education policy making so that our universities, research institutions and schools can play a vital role to help Australia meet the challenge of the third millennium and the IT revolution.

Let us start with the research commitments. When in government Labor will double the number of research fellowships available to Australian researchers. This means the number of Commonwealth funded fellowships available at our universities and cooperative research centres will increase from the current 390 to 780 over the next three to five years. Labor will double the number of early career researchers supported at any one time from 165 to 330 by the end of three years. The number of mid-career researchers supported at any one time will double from 150 to 300 by the end of five years. The number of outstanding researchers—people with established reputations and unusually high research ability—funded at any one time will increase from 75 to 150 by the end of five years.

Labor will also create a prestigious new fellowship to attract expatriate researchers back to Australia and to stop our best and brightest leaving our shores. We will create a substantial number of these new fellowships worth $200,000 per year for five years, including salary and research costs. These fellowships will recognise that our future as a knowledge nation will depend on keeping our best minds in Australia to create the industries, the economy and the society of the future. As the opposition leader said in Hobart, Labor believe that, while it is beneficial to Australia for our best brains to spend time overseas and to bring back their knowledge and experience, too many are having to go overseas simply because of the lack of opportunities in Australia.

So far I have been referring to the peak of what has become the education pyramid. The base of the pyramid is the schools. It is essential that the nation's education system has a firm foundation. That is why I want to refer in particular to the importance of the concept of education priority zones announced by Labor in Hobart. Country youths suffer serious disadvantages in comparison with city kids. Fewer of them finish their secondary education and fewer of them go on to tertiary education. The inequity of opportunity between country and city, like the inequity between the poor and the wealthy, has to be tackled. We need to see more country kids finish their secondary education and we need to see more country kids taking on tertiary education. The two are linked.

Labor's program of establishing education priority zones will make the Commonwealth an active partner with schools and local communities in dealing with problems holding back young Australians, particularly those in country and regional Australia. This program means setting up priority zones in areas of social and economic need and getting funds and resources to areas where they can make a difference. In each zone, which is to be selected in partnership with state and territory governments, the Commonwealth will work with local communities to develop a local plan. This will include looking at the literacy and numeracy needs of students, at how many complete their schooling, at how performance can be improved and of how the improvements can be documented.

There will be specific Commonwealth initiatives to help meet the local needs. These may include employing specialist remedial literacy and numeracy teachers, providing mentors and work experience, and funding extra professional development for teachers. What a contrast there is between this positive approach of Labor and the negative anti-state education mentality of the federal education minister. In 1996, Dr Kemp brought in the enrolment benchmark adjustment or EBA scheme, which takes money from the state schools when the proportion of private enrolments increases, even when the public system is growing. The scheme is discriminatory. Labor will abolish it and will channel those funds back into public schools.

Over the past three years the EBA has taken more than $60 million from government schools around Australia, while those same schools have enrolled more than 26,000 extra students. The EBA is inequitable and unjust and has aroused unnecessary divisions between state and private schools. Even many private schools, which are the supposed beneficiaries of the Howard government's EBA policy, privately oppose it on the grounds that it has provoked resentment towards private schools from the community.

Everybody knows about Dr Kemp's obsession with the extremes of economic rationalism and his dislike for the public education system. When Liberal politicians like Dr Kemp think of education, they think only of the elite grammar schools. The state schools, the Catholic and non-Catholic parish schools barely exist as far as the would-be blue blood Liberals such as the education minister are concerned. But it is the state schools and the parish schools that make up the real world—the world of most Australian kids—not the world that the conservatives like to think of, inhabited by only the rich.

Australia needs a national education policy that is not just a shield for the privileged but a pathway along which the nation can advance together towards a common goal. That goal is not only prosperity but also fairness in the IT age, ensuring that the community as a whole and not just the lucky few shares in the fruits of technological advance in the third millennium. We need a Commonwealth government that will raise the standards of our schools and the opportunities of youth across the board. Labor's pledge to abolish the EBA is part of our plan to make the knowledge nation a fairer nation.

Labor wants to help raise the standards in all our schools. That is why it is important that Labor is committed in government to establishing the concept of the learning gateway. This is an information site on the Internet that teachers, parents and students can use for professional development and curriculum content as well as links to overseas and domestic education information. Parents will be able to use this gateway to obtain access to a wide range of information on their child's performance. This will include what is in their child's curriculum as well as information on assessment criteria and sample tests.

Teachers will have access through the web site to professional development advice, information on interesting new teaching ideas, curriculum resources and other material. Students will be able to use the learning gateway to gain access to information for use at home and at school to assist them with essay writing and problem solving and to complete self tests. The gateway will also provide after-hours access online for teachers' advice on a variety of subjects. The learning gateway will also provide high-quality online content relevant to vocational education and training courses, adult and community education, and tertiary education. It will help adult education students find the right course and make it easier to enrol and complete their studies with distinction.

In addition to these education measures announced recently, Labor will also implement two new programs designed to improve the quality of teaching in our schools. As previously outlined by our education spokesperson, Michael Lee, a Beazley Labor government will establish two programs to improve the quality of teaching. Firstly, Labor's teacher development contracts will be a partnership between the federal government and teachers who share a commitment to improving student results by lifting teacher quality. Teachers forced to teach outside their areas of expertise will be the first to be offered the new contracts. In some states, through no fault of their own, almost 25 per cent of people teaching maths and science are simply not qualified to do so. The shortages are most obvious in country towns.

Secondly, a federal Labor government will also offer teacher excellence scholarships to high achieving school leavers to study education with a focus on areas of undersupply—currently maths, science and IT. Labor will strive to ensure that, by 2010, nine out of 10 young people leave their teens with a year 12 qualification or its equivalent and to ensure that all Australians achieve some kind of formal education or training qualification. As more youths complete their secondary education, more will take on the challenges of higher education. It is only a Labor government that will provide an equality of education for all.