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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18343

Mr HATTON (10:34 AM) —I am happy to follow my colleagues in this debate, because they have got to the core of the problems that are attendant upon this Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. In and of themselves, the matters dealt with in this legislation go to the provision of more funding, under the aegis of the existing arrangements, because the government have not yet pressed forward to finality—and I doubt that they will—with their announced program for the wide-scale and broadly spread changes to higher education indicated by the Minister for Education, Science and Training earlier in the year. But in his second reading speech the minister indicated that he was intending to press forward with those changes. As an opposition, we have indicated that we will not support them.

We have put up an entirely alternative approach, one which we believe is fair, just and equitable. It is an approach that has an eye to not just the operation of this current system but also a sustainable higher education system for the future, for the benefit of all Australians who wish to access that in the manner that is most appropriate to their circumstances. Whether they are from the major cities—either the inner city areas, the mid part of the cities, the very centre of the cities, like my area of Blaxland, for instance, or the outer western suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne—or from regional areas, we believe that access to education is enormously important, and we are fundamentally opposed to the provisions that the minister would seek to incorporate, which would change the fundamental nature of the access regime and create a situation where some, through their ability to pay, would have greater access than others. The stress would not be on ability but on ability to pay.

In a range of different areas, we have seen over time from 1996 a hacking down of existing programs—in most cases, I think; in the 1996 budget we saw a hacking down of most of the programs that we had built up during our period in government—and then following that either a drift, where no major changes have been sought and where underfunded institutions have just been hacked back in successive budgets, or a situation where, instead of drift or after a period of drift, there is a great revolutionary charge to put in something new and different. Such a charge is often allied to people wanting to make a name for themselves in this place.

This particular bill is tangential to that, but it is covered not only by the comments of the minister in his second reading speech but also by the amendment that we have moved, and I will come to those. First of all, I want to deal with two specific aspects of the legislation directly before us. The first is that, since 1996, the department of finance has taken a particular approach to how funds should be provided to the higher education sector as against how they should be provided to the state government schools sector. Again, I am indebted to the Parliamentary Library for an excellent detailed and purposeful study of just what the problems are in the two different funding models that have been used.

The person who wrote this study points out that if you look at the way in which funds are notionally apportioned you see there is a way things are supposed to be done—a model way of doing things: a split of 75-25 between the safety net adjustment and the consumer price index. Seventy-five per cent is supposed to cover the salary cost of institutions and 25 per cent is for non-salary costs, and that is encompassed by the CPI. That is all notional. The reality is that the figures are different depending upon the actual expenditure. For instance, the author points out on page 2 that in 2001 salaries and salary related costs constituted about 59 per cent of total adjusted university operating expenses. If you look at those for academic activities alone, you see that those costs would constitute 69 per cent of the total. There is a disjunction between the notional formulas and the reality of these things, but there is also a fundamental disjunction in the way in which the indexation schemes operate to the great advantage of schools when they are seeking grants and to the great disadvantage of higher education grants.

The author argues that the significant variation is best pointed out over two years. In 2001-02, the average indexation for school grants was 5.8 per cent. In 2002-03, the average indexation for school grants was 5.9 per cent. What is the situation when we come to higher education grants? It is 2.1 per cent and 2.2 per cent. There is a pretty significant variation, one might think, in these figures. There could not be much doubt that the school grants must have a greater indexation factor at their base, given that there is more than twice as much as there is for higher education. There is a reason for that. If you look at the way the indexation is put together, you see that the average government school running costs index is based on the total expenditure on government schools less capital expenditure on buildings and grounds, redundancy payments and Commonwealth specific purpose grants. So that index reflects actual cost movements for the sector, unlike the index for the higher education sector, which is based on a different set of parameters.

The department of finance have their particular language for this. They say that school grants are based on program specific parameters and that higher education indexation is based on economic parameters. Whatever you call it, the reality is that if you are getting a school grant you get much more. The indexation is much greater at 5.8 and 5.9 per cent versus 2.1 and 2.2 per cent in the higher education area. Commentators and the Australian Labor Party have pointed directly to the fundamental fact that this disjunction has led, from 1996 to now, to a dramatic underfunding in the higher education sector. That underfunding has created extraordinary pressures on Australia's university system and it is one of the keys that have driven the vice-chancellors of universities Australia wide to look at their particular funding problems and to commit, as a group, to trying to redress that.

It is also part of the key for some of those institutions to loudly applaud what the minister put up earlier this year—I think it was in May—when he put forward a proposition for how things could be changed. If you have a captive population and you starve the captive population of funds, it is pretty likely that they are going to be looking at a number of means to try to redress that balance. But if you have done that progressively year after year since 1996, you have put them in a position where they are not only starved of funds but also told that there will be less in the future—they have to find much more than they did in the past—and that there is a way through that by bringing in full fees just for two per cent of the population. But we know, just like the experience of all countries overseas where a goods and services tax was introduced, two things have happened over time: first, the rate increased; and, secondly, it was extended to cover more and more goods and services that it originally did not cover.

So, equally, we know the ability to pay full fees to cover two per cent is just a foot in the door and, inexorably, that will be expanded. The universities are being told—and of course they know it from experience with overseas students—that full fee paying students are extraordinarily valuable to universities. The universities are being held on this promise: `We might have cut you back in terms of funding but, if you have this two per cent and more, you can make up that shortfall.' We believe that is reprehensible and we totally reject it. Our shadow minister has indicated that in what has come forward.

The other matter in the proposals that I want to deal directly with is the $7 million for the rebuilding of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. After the fires which ravaged Canberra took one of the great scientific institutions that the national capital and, indeed, the nation had, one might think it laudable that this government has taken the decision to bring back the Mount Stromlo Observatory. There was a determination that had to be made at the scientific level as to whether, given the encroachment of light with the expansion of Canberra and its suburbs, Mount Stromlo Observatory was still viable and could be actively used as an observatory in the future. The determination of the experts was that this was indeed so and that this historically important institution should be rejuvenated and brought back to the condition it was in.

What do we get from this government? As a response, it said, `You can have half the money and go and chase the rest.' This is a major scientific institution with a proud and great history. But, after it has been burnt to the ground and when so many people in Canberra have suffered so much, this government's response is: `This is not fully a national government responsibility. We'll give you $7 million. You go and set up a bushfire fund. We'll let people pay into that. They can show their charitable natures by putting money into that bushfire fund and into the redevelopment fund for Mount Stromlo. We'll allow the corporates in Australia and people generally to pay for it.' This is a federal government responsibility that the government is choosing in this bill to only half meet. We argue that it should not half meet it; it should fully meet it.

The people in Australia's major scientific institutions, the people working at Mount Stromlo and the Australian community deserve no less. It is not just niggardly; this is indicative of this government's approach. Where they have not contracted out, they have told people to take the McDonald's approach to the funding of major institutions. We have seen this Australia wide, where McDonald's, Coca-Cola and every other organisation around the country have been told that they should provide funding for schools, which allows them corporate entry and marketing within schools Australia wide. I think that is a reprehensible approach. A number of governments Australia wide have chosen to do that at the state level.

Equally, it is reprehensible to put the burden of the refunding of destroyed Commonwealth infrastructure on the back of the general Australian community and the corporate community. Most of that will come back to the federal government in terms of having to pay at least half that impost in giving benefits at taxation level. Why doesn't the minister just get real and amend this, and get the Prime Minister and his cabinet to change it and to do what they should have been doing all the way and fully fund it?

The shadow minister moved a second reading amendment, the first part of which relates to seven issues. The very last one is in relation to the underfunding of the rebuilding of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. In the time remaining I want to go through some of those issues. The opposition:

(1) condemns the Government for:

(a) the failure of its policies to tackle the real issues facing higher educ-ation in Australia, including in the following areas:

(i) the increasing financial burden its policies are placing on students and their families, and the related growth of student debt ...

These issues have been extremely well dealt with by my colleagues who took part in the debate prior to me. The amendment goes on to state:

(ii) the continuing inability of uni-versities to enrol qualified students who wish to take up a publicly-funded place ...

The shadow minister and others prior to me have dealt with these important matters which go to the question of viable access to higher education. The amendment further states:

(iii) the inadequate provision for growth in higher education, especially in the period 2004-2007;

(iv) the inadequate planning for meet-ing key areas of skill short-age through higher education, includ-ing teaching and nursing—

and the matter I have dealt with already—

(v) inadequate indexation of uni-versity funding ...

If you take all those matters and lump them together and if you deal with the key question of adequate provision and what the government proposes to do with the new changes it wishes to impose by either getting them through the Senate or a double dissolution election, you will find that particular universities—those that are non-sandstone universities, those that can never pretend to be world-beating universities up there with what the United States offers—will not be advantaged by the government's package and deliberately so, because it is part of the government's attempt to try to build this notion that at least a couple of our uni-versities, through private funding and access to private students, should be able to build into something like the United States model, something that is antithetical to the way we have proceeded so far.

However, if you go to the electorate next door to mine—the electorate of Banks—to Milperra, Campbelltown or Hawkesbury, or if you look at the campuses of the University of Western Sydney, or if you do as I did and attend a briefing lunch in town with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney and two of her colleagues—the member for Banks and the state member for Canterbury were also there—what becomes utterly apparent is the level of alarm. At the University of Western Sydney, once they had done their figures and had effectively analysed what the government proposes, their initial slight disquiet became raging alarm at the prospect of how the university, which in the past few years has already gone to extraordinary lengths to sort out its financial basis, was to be funded. It would be seriously underfunded and put in a position where it would be not be able to adequately offer a university education to the people of Western Sydney that is in line with not only their aspirations but also their needs and the necessities that face this nation in terms of training young people for an increasingly complex future. Their arguments are very cogent and very well put together.

Yesterday, during the debate on the matter of public importance, the minister wanted to be asked questions about this today. He said that the Labor Party's proposals are not adequate for the University of Western Sydney. No doubt, we will get an enumeration of different figures all over the place, as we do almost on a daily basis. But you cannot hide from the students of Western Sydney, from their parents, from the educators and academics and from the staff and the people of the university system the fact that they will take a caning if this government's proposals get through either the Senate or a joint sitting of the houses after an election.

That is in there by design because this government's entire procedure is to dramatically alter the structure of Australian higher education. We do not believe that is right, particularly for people who come from a city such as Sydney. This government has taken us from a situation where we had the lowest immigration intake in the history of Australian immigration in the four years of the Keating government to a point where we are now taking in 120,000 people a year, with very high retention rates. Those people are feeding into Sydney, which is 40 per cent of Australia's economy. Their education needs and their education demands will be met in large part by the University of Western Sydney, which would be deprived of funds and gutted in terms of its capacity to deliver a key part of our program: the teachers and nurses that we so much need now and in the future.

The last point I want to stress is that there has been inattention to the links between higher education and TAFE, save for the minister's rhetoric, which is nothing but rhetoric. In our program we seek to add tens of thousands of higher education places in the TAFE area. I believe this very fundamentally, and I will come back to it in other speeches. Unless we have an equality of vision between higher education at the university level and higher education at TAFE, this country cannot prosper. We have a giant, yawning gap in the education of our tradespeople and that needs to be amended. (Time expired)