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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18326

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (9:14 AM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 makes some amendments and technical adjustments in the higher education funding area, particularly in relation to the latest estimates of HECS liabilities. I have just heard the honourable member for Cowper waxing lyrical about the benefits of HECS and, of course, the access of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to university places. Later in this debate I would like to take up some issues that he has outlined.

This bill includes an additional allocation of $50 million for the reconstruction of the Mount Stromlo Observatory following its destruction in the recent Canberra bushfires. I am involved in the bushfire inquiry currently being conducted by a committee of this House. Although I was not able to attend the public hearings here in Canberra, I am familiar with the local destruction caused by those fires, as until quite recently I held the shadow ministerial portfolio of the territories. The destruction of the Mount Stromlo Observatory was a blow not only to the ACT but also to the nation's scientific and research effort. The staff at the observatory have an enviable reputation internationally in their respective fields, so one can appreciate their devastation at losing their workplace to fire. The nation felt the pain as well when this facility was reduced to cinders.

These were indeed ferocious fires, fuelled by two years of drought and aggravated by extraordinary climatic conditions that saw dry lightning strikes all around the country, causing many fires in remote places—fires that ultimately threatened settled areas and destroyed vital infrastructure such as the Mount Stromlo Observatory. That initiative in this bill is one that I think all members of the House can support. The observatory's reconstruction will not only serve as a fitting symbol of the spirit of the ACT community in the face of the adversity that they have recently suffered but also signal a new start for research of this type in this country. We are naturally disappointed at the underfunding of this reconstruction effort, but it is important that the reconstruction proceed at the earliest opportunity.

However, it is not this aspect of the bill that I intend to debate here today. The member for Jagajaga has moved a second reading amendment which I wholeheartedly support and which I would like to speak to now. It is very important to canvass the elements of that particular second reading amendment, because it outlines the real issues facing higher education in Australia, particularly the impact of the government's policies on students and their families; the inability of universities to publicly fund places for students; the inadequate planning for growth that we saw in the recent budget, especially for the out years 2004-07; and the failure of the government to plan adequately for meeting key areas of skill shortage throughout the sector, including the areas of teaching and nursing. This second reading amendment also homes in on the inadequate indexation of university funding, the inattention to the links between higher education and TAFE, and a lack of focus on quality, innovation and global changes in higher education.

These are all very important matters and they are very important to my community in Geelong. We have a university that on several occasions has won the University of the Year award—Deakin University. It is held in very high esteem by not only the higher education community in this country but also the local Geelong and regional community. It is a place where local students as well as others go to study. We are very proud of the achievements of this university, but sadly it has suffered under the policies of this government.

The government is really in the business of deceiving the Australian people again in this particular policy area, because the recent initiatives that the government announced in this area had the misnomer `Backing Australia's Ability'. This must be the only government in the world that can rip $5 billion out of the higher education sector and then claim that it is backing Australia's ability. That is not backing Australia's ability; that is putting Australia in a very vulnerable position vis-a-vis our competitors in an economic and cultural sense around the globe. We live in a global economic environment—one that demands a high level of sophistication in our economy and one that demands innovation and research and the translation of that research into products that we can sell in international marketplaces. We have a very small marketplace here in Australia and, of course, we rely very heavily on our ability to innovate, to develop new products and to get them into international markets to sell.

My region is one such region. Only yesterday I attended a demonstration at the front of Parliament House, where delegates from the textile, clothing and footwear industries from all around Australia had come to press their point about their particular industry. There were delegates there from Geelong TCF companies. I pay particular tribute to Beth McPherson, who has done a terrific job amongst TCF workers in Geelong to make them and the community aware of the problems that are coming up the straight for their sector.

I mention this because we have a company in Geelong called Godfrey Hirst that manufactures carpets. The proprietor of that company, George McKendrick, who died several years ago, had a particular philosophy of linking Godfrey Hirst to the university and drawing upon the skills of universities to assist his company. He was an older gentleman, but he appreciated the value to his enterprise of higher education and he sought to get very strong links between his company and the tertiary sector. The company relied quite heavily on the recruitment of skilled university or higher education trained people for the company. That company is a major exporter, so we can see in a very practical sense the link between higher education, the development of skills and the economic development and future of a very important regional company.

Of course, if Australia is going to hack it in the big league internationally—and we do that in so many areas of economic activity—we have to have a broadly based set of skills in this country that enable us to innovate, research, develop new products and get them into marketplaces. Our economic future depends very heavily on the tertiary sector and, in particular, the higher education sector.

I go back to my first point: how can a government claim that it is backing Australia's ability when it rips out $5 billion from the tertiary sector? How can it claim to be backing Australia's ability when it restricts the choices that are available to young Australians who have talent to undertake tertiary courses and to contribute to our economic and social system? How can it claim to be backing those people if it makes it quite hard for them to attend higher education? What is the legacy of seven years of the Howard government's so-called reform in this area? I just mentioned one: $5 billion ripped out of the sector. As far as student fees are concerned, under this government the top rate of HECS has more than tripled since 1996, from $2,442 to $8,355.

The 30 per cent increase on the average HECS fee announced in this budget will cost students and their families $1,650 per year by 2005. That is some $32 a week more that students will pay. Under the Howard government the average HECS fee will be up by over 116 per cent. I would like to put into the Hansard record some of the increases that we have seen under the Howard government in these particular HECS bands. In band 1, which incorporates arts, humanities, social studies and behavioural sciences, education, visual and performing arts, nursing, justice and legal education, there has been an increase in HECS fees of up to 105 per cent. If you go to band 2, which incorporates mathematics, computing, other health sciences, agriculture and renewable resources, built environment and architecture, science, engineering and processing, administration, business and economics, there has been an increase in fees of up to 192 per cent. If you go to band 3, which incorporates law, medicine and medical science, dentistry and dental services, and veterinary science, we have seen increases in fees of up to 242 per cent. That is some record of reform! That is simply burdening the sector, students and their families with debt.

When we look at the recent budget that was handed down by the government, it is very clear that students and their families will have to go into heavy debt to pay for their full fee university places. Student debt is projected to increase by $800 million—that is almost the cost of the Iraq war in this one particular aspect of the budget alone. If the government has made such a great concession here, students will be able to borrow $50,000, which will partially pay for their university fees, and they will be charged a rate of interest of 3.5 per cent, plus CPI. The ultimate effect of this will add $16,000 to a $50,000 loan. This is a new burden of $125 a week being put on students.

When we go to the area of university places, we see that a huge demand has built up in this sector. There are people with talent who want to get to university but who cannot, and there were only 444 new places in the budget recently announced. The only additional non-health places are for those students who have the capacity to pay full fees of up to $100,000. That means 20,000 qualified Australians will not get access to university this year. I find that a quite extraordinary list of so-called reforms and achievements. You have ripped $5 billion out of the sector, you have burdened students with debt, you have restricted places for people with talent and made those places available to people with money, and you claim that—

The SPEAKER —Order! I remind the member for Corio that I may not be the most perfect Speaker, but I am not guilty of all the things he has just accused me of.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —Mr Speaker, I would never cast aspersions on you. I might have a crack at the member for Corangamite here in this House, but I would never cast aspersions on you.

The SPEAKER —I just invite the member to address his remarks through the chair.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —The Howard government certainly cannot claim that these so-called reforms have advanced the tertiary sector in this country. I might say that Deakin University in Geelong has been hit by this government's cuts. Since 1996 we have seen $192 million ripped out of Deakin University by this government. Of course, that has meant that young people in the Geelong area have not been able to get access to a decent tertiary education in their own locality.

I was very interested in the contribution to the debate by the honourable member for Cowper, who claimed that the opposition did not have any policies in this area. This is the mantra that goes out from members of the Howard government. If the honourable member wants to read a real document of reform, I suggest he read this one: Aim higher: learning, training and better jobs for more Australians. That is a program of real reform to the higher education sector in this country. That is a document that sets out very clearly how the Labor Party intends to fund real reform to the higher education sector.

Let me canvass some of the elements of that package for honourable members opposite. It is a $2.34 billion package, and it has these elements: it looks to improving the quality of university education through a new indexation measure that will deliver an additional $312 million to our universities; it intends to relieve the financial burden on students by extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients, and progressively lowering to 23 the age at which students become independent and the means test on parental income for when youth allowance cuts out; it establishes a competitive $450 million universities of the 21st century fund to support real reform in our universities. I am particularly pleased at the element which provides $150 million to support regional, rural and outer suburban universities. The package establishes a $150 million fund to reward excellence in teaching and learning, and it will fund—at a cost of $347.6 million—all university places at the full Commonwealth rate, including the 25,000 places which are currently funded at the marginal rate.

The package has some further interesting and important aspects as well in that it increases funding for Indigenous participation by $20 million and creates 200 new scholarships for Indigenous university students. It provides an additional $6 million over three years to help people with a disability to access and complete tertiary education. We will achieve this by redirecting nearly $1.5 billion from the Howard government's unfair university package and reversing the Howard government's decision to increase the diesel fuel rebate to mining companies—that will contribute $467 million. We will cut out $160 million of the Howard government's tax breaks for foreign executives, and we will be opposing the abolition of the student financial supplement assistance scheme, at a saving of $159 million.

If anybody is any doubt that the Geelong community takes this issue seriously, I would refer them to a forum that was held at Deakin University last week. The Deakin University Student Association sponsored the forum, and I pay particular tribute to Bridget McKenzie and her fellows in that association organisation for their initiative; they went to considerable trouble to put this particular forum on. A representative of postgraduate students spoke; there was a representative from the union which represented staff, and Senator Kerry Nettle from the Greens and Senator Lyn Allison from the Democrats were there. I attended to put a real package of reform before the students. But who was not there? The honourable member for Corangamite was not there. No member of the Liberal Party fronted that particular university to explain their package to the students, the staff and the larger community. I ask myself why they were not there. They are at every other function to dole out a few dollars in a Work for the Dole scheme. They are there to hand out money, but the government members never front to defend the indefensible—that is, their higher education package. You have a higher education package that is called Backing Australia's Ability. The honourable member for Corangamite has a strange way of backing Australia's ability, because he rips $192 million out of Deakin University and he stands behind his minister in ripping $5 billion out of this very important sector. (Time expired)