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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20164

Mr WINDSOR (4:37 PM) —I wish to speak briefly on the matter of public importance before the House. I endorse some of the comments made by the member for Riverina, particularly in relation to the situation at the moment concerning TAFE students and the New South Wales government. I think there is a real need for the New South Wales state government to re-examine some of the things they are doing in relation to TAFE students. Obviously they are a very important part of our education system and should be considered as such, as should our regional universities. I am very pleased that the Minister for Education, Science and Training is here, and I will not delay him terribly long. I am pleased that a Senate committee is going to be in Armidale next week not only to consider some of the issues confronting regional universities in particular but also to look at the overall plan that the government has in mind for the higher education system. I am hoping to address the Senate committee next Wednesday.

But I say to the minister that there are still some concerns, particularly those expressed by the regional universities—and I think some of those concerns are shared by the University of Western Sydney—over the calculation of the regional loading. The fundamental flaw in the regional loading seems to be that it is based on the number of internal students at an institution. It excludes external students studying through a regional campus. One of the peculiarities of the University of New England is that 74 per cent of the students studying there are external students, thus the university is penalised to a certain degree by the regional loading that was put in place to compensate for some of the changes that were going to occur but which has inadvertently harmed some of the country based universities.

The other thing about the University of New England that I do not think the government is fully considering—and, to my knowledge, the University of Ballarat suffers from a similar problem—is that a lot of the language within the minister's briefing notes, which I believe will flow through into the legislation, talks about regional campuses. The University of New England and the University of Ballarat are not regional campuses. They are not part of other greater structures, they are integral universities in their own right and as such they will not benefit from some of the economies of size that some of the other universities campuses will have. The government really needs to revisit the language it is using because the country based universities do not necessarily have the advantages that, say, the university based at Orange has, being based off the University of Sydney. There are certain cost and administrative savings that do not seem to be reflected in the way in which the formulas have been put together.

The University of New England, for example, was told by the government that there was a need for reform and that it would be better off—and I do not think anybody disagrees with that, as there is a need for reform. One of the things we were told for over 12 months was that through the reform process all universities would be better off in a financial sense and they would be able to plan better into the future. But, unless some arrangement has been agreed to in recent days, the University of New England, as I understand it, is going to be $1.8 million worse off than it was before. That will be one of the issues that I will be raising in the Senate committee hearings next week.

I know that the package that the minister has put out includes a transitional fund—I think it is $12 million or $15 million—and that more and more people are trying to take a piece of that transitional fund, but it indicates to me that there is a basic flaw in the system when you need a transitional fund to step through the first couple of years. Unless that fund or the recurrent funding arrangements are dramatically increased, you are going to see universities that were supposed to be better off under the reform process starting from a weaker position than they were previously in and, in some cases, being compensated by this transitional fund to get them through those first few years before they then start to slip back once again.

There are other issues that I will raise next week but I will not hold the minister in the House any longer. The student union issue is of some concern, not only in terms of membership—and maybe there are some compromise arrangements that could be reached on this particular issue—but also in terms of the services and the jobs that are delivered to students through the union. I know that in Armidale, for instance, there has been an enormously successful student union business activity that has branched out into many activities in the community and employs in those jobs well in excess of 100 people, most of them being university students. I thank the House for the opportunity to raise these issues and I ask the minister to particularly look at the way in which the regional loading is calculated and at the external student component of that calculation and how that impacts particularly on country universities that have a high external enrolment, such as the University of New England. That university, for one, can be very proud of the way it has delivered external studies to many thousands of students over many years.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The discussion has concluded.