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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17306


Ms GEORGE (4:03 PM) —I am amazed that in the contribution by the Minister for Education, Science and Training he began by asking us to contemplate the kind of future we want and then boldly asserted that what his government is doing is right for Australia. I beg to differ—and so do other people whom we represent—because the future that you are painting for education in this country and for the notion of equality of opportunity is a future that many out there do not wish to contemplate. We should be building a future that builds on the best traditions of our past—a past, Minister, that gave people like you and me the opportunity of accessing tertiary education and, in your case, at no cost.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Throsby will address her comments through the chair.


Ms GEORGE —Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I find some of the statements made by the minister quite hypocritical—himself a product of a free tertiary education system, now wanting to defend and justify shifting the burden from public investment in what is so important for our nation back onto the shoulders of families. It is a burden that many students are finding very hard to bear. So, Minister, I do not want a future along the lines that you are portraying—a future where wealth, not merit, will open the doors to our universities. I want a future that builds on the best traditions that the party that I represent has always believed in, and that is a future which posits the idea that education is a key and instrumental factor in ensuring equality of opportunity for all Australian citizens. As you know, Minister, that equality of opportunity is at risk.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Throsby finds it difficult, apparently, to understand that comments should be addressed through the chair.


Ms GEORGE —That, Mr Deputy Speaker, the minister should acknowledge, is very much at risk as he moves down the route of a user-pays philosophy in a very important area that is so critical to our nation's and our citizens' future. But this is at risk not only in the area of higher education but also in the public education system. Let me say a little about public education.

The minister seems to be arguing that the choice that is made by parents of less than two per cent of children in the elite level 1 schools is a more important choice than the choice made by parents of 70 per cent of our nation's children who are in the public education system. Instead of funding policies that address the needs of non-government schools—to bring them up to reasonable standards—you are now pursuing, as minister for education in this government, the notion of an almost exclusive entitlement to that choice for two per cent of the nation's children to be funded at the taxpayers' expense and at the expense of the parents of 70 per cent of students in the public education system. When we look at what has occurred we see that, since 2001, the level 1 schools—the 56 wealthier schools that cater to less than two per cent of students—have had a funding increase of $74 million. By 2004 these schools will be the beneficiaries of $122 million of public funding, taxpayer funding—an increase of 154 per cent.

What the minister does not seem to realise is that that funding comes at the expense of a reasonable standard of education and the attainment of excellence and opportunity by all those children and their families in the public education system. While schools in my electorate struggle with problems of overcrowding, demountable accommodation, lack of security and inadequate resources, your government, Minister, has committed an extra $74 million since 2001 to these elite schools. And in case, Minister, you have forgotten what some of these schools provide by comparison, let me remind you of the King's School. I ask members to consider the provision at the King's School compared to the average public and Catholic systemic school in their electorates. The King's School has 15 cricket fields, five basketball courts, 12 tennis courts, a 50-metre pool, an indoor rifle range, 13 rugby fields, three soccer fields and a gymnasium. How can you, Minister, and your government justify an expenditure of $3.23 million to this school at a time when schools are desperately begging their P&Cs to raise funds for things like shade areas and toilets?

I would like the minister to explain to parents in my electorate this obvious injustice. It is so obvious when in one of my schools a computer is shared between 14 students and that same school has no wet weather protection nor a gym facility. I repeat that the choice of parents to send their children to elite private schools rates in this minister's priorities as greater than the choice that parents make to put their children through the public education system or the Catholic systemic schools. The potential for excellence in education at all the schools in my electorate, government and Catholic systemic, is being jeopardised most profoundly by this minister's funding policies. While the public system, which is open to all, caters for about 70 per cent of students, one needs to be reminded that the recent Vinson inquiry in New South Wales found—and I bring it to your attention, Minister—that less than 10 per cent of students from the poorest 50 per cent of families attend independent secondary schools. So what you and your government continue to do is to prop up—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Throsby should address her comments through the chair, not personally.


Ms GEORGE —So what the minister and the Howard government continue to do through their funding and education policies is to prop up privilege at the expense of opportunity and excellence for all. If that is the kind of future that this minister wants, it is certainly not the future that our side of the chamber believes in, and we will fight it tooth and nail.

I now want to discuss the tertiary education sector, Minister, because I really do believe that you are quite divorced from the real world. We often hear homilies and anecdotal evidence that you present in this chamber, but I ask: when did you last go to an electorate like mine? Let me just give you one example of what I mean. In my electorate of Throsby, Minister, only 5.2 per cent of residents have university qualifications—compared to your electorate, where 33.7 per cent of people have that advantage. Throsby has the third lowest rate of people with tertiary qualifications; your electorate, Minister, has the third highest. It is time the minister left the leafy suburbs of the North Shore area and visited the real world. The real world would teach him a lesson or two about the impact of his funding policies on families that I and many other members represent. The example that I drew to your attention—the comparison between my electorate and yours—highlights the current inequities and shows quite clearly how disadvantage, under your policies, continues to be perpetuated.

Your planned changes in the higher education sector can only make matters worse, especially the proposal to allow universities to increase fees by 30 per cent and double the number of full fee places. The costs of university education are already placing insurmountable burdens on students and families in my electorate. Despite the wonderful things that the University of Wollongong does, it has the second lowest rate of participation among regional universities of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds—currently at 9.6 per cent. Think about this, Minister: if your policies allow fees to be deregulated, could you please tell the families in my electorate—one-third of whom bring in incomes of $500 or less a week; where the median income is just over $800—how on earth they are ever going to afford the opportunity for their children to have the advantages that you and I had under past regimes? As the deputy leader of our party, the member for Jagajaga, outlined, there are many universities where up-front fees of over $100,000 are quite common, including at the University of Sydney if you take a combined arts-law degree or in the area of vet science. So your future is a future that denies average Australian families, who aspire to the best for their kids—just as your parents and my parents did—the opportunity of availing themselves of tertiary education. You know the importance of ensuring that opportunity and access are genuinely available to all, not just to the privileged few. (Time expired)


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Before I call the member for Macquarie, I would ask the member for Throsby to have a look at the green when it arrives and see how many times she has used the words `you' and `yours' personally. The reason the chair insists that the debate is put through the chair is to remove the personal invective in debate and make it third person. That is a requirement of this House.