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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21443

Mrs IRWIN (11:57 AM) —The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 will turn back the clock to a time before the Whitlam government came to office in 1972. It will turn back the clock to a time that the Prime Minister seems to think was ideal for Australian life—back to the 1950s, back to the days of white picket fences and listening to the cricket on the radio, back to the time when a higher education was the privilege of the lucky few who won a Commonwealth scholarship or whose parents were rich enough to send them to university. For the rest, a university education was something that could only be dreamed of.

Of all the changes made by the Whitlam government, the one which affected more lives and which offered potential to more Australians was the change to higher education that abolished fees. The effect of those changes took some time to influence the ambitions of young Australians. But, from that time, every Australian child who started school should have known that financial restrictions would not prevent them from going to university. I do not think there was ever a survey of this type but, if you were to ask an eight-year-old child what they wanted to be when they grew up, the answer—apart from the usual choices like a fireman or a pilot—before 1972 would have been be very different to that after 1972.

That difference was because, for the first time, Australians had a real choice about their career. For the first time they could decide on a career which required a university education; for the first time Australian kids did not have a ceiling on their ambitions; for the first time Australian kids could think about careers that were once the exclusive choices of the rich; for the first time Australians could consider themselves to be part of a nation that embraced equality; for the first time every teacher and every student could see educational potential limited only by ability, not by economic status.

A few weeks ago I was speaking with some retired teachers who taught in our schools in the 1950s and 1960s. The comments that struck me most were their regrets about the hundreds of bright students who had the capability to go on to university education but did not—kids who left school at the intermediate level and went into a trade. As the retired teachers said to me, it was just the accepted thing at the time. Kids did not expect to go to university. Many of those students have done well in life, but the big difference is that for many kids today the expectation is now the opposite. They expect to go to university. Not all of them will but through their years at school they can at least hold onto that hope.

It is true to say, as many critics do, that free higher education did not bring about a great levelling. Today, kids from rich families are twice as likely to go to university as kids from poorer homes. But that is a big improvement on the figures before 1972. The important thing is the issue of access. There are many reasons why more kids from poorer homes do not go to university, but the cost of an up-front fee or debt burden for life should not be one of them. I will not deny that it was the Labor government that introduced HECS fees and I know that even under Labor HECS fees became a burden. But at the same time it is only fair that university graduates should be expected to meet part of the cost of their education after their income has reached a reasonable level.

But the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 go much further than the changes made when HECS was introduced. These bills allow universities to set their own level of fees. While this is limited to 30 per cent above the set level, the way is clearly open for this limit to be removed at some future time. While the message given to every Australian child in 1972 was one of hope and opportunity, these bills slam the door shut on the hopes and ambitions of a growing number of Australian kids.

When I visit schools in my electorate and I look at the faces of those young Australians I like to think of each and every one of them having the chance to reach their full potential. But if these bills are passed I will not be able to do that. I will not be able to look at those beautiful faces in quite the same way. That is what I mean by turning back the clock: going back to a time when so many kids faced that ceiling on their ambitions; a time when our society was less fair and ambition was framed by how rich your parents were, not by your dedication to achieve your potential.

As someone who grew up in Western Sydney, nothing gives me greater pride than the achievements of the University of Western Sydney. If ever the dream of Gough Whitlam to give Australian kids the chance to reach their full potential is being realised it is at the University of Western Sydney. More than two out of every three students at UWS are the first in their family to go to university. That combination of affordable university fees in an institution that caters for the needs of students from Western Sydney is an important reason for the success of UWS.

That success is a source of great pride for the people of Western and south-western Sydney. Like other members of this House from there, I too am proud of the achievements of that great university. As someone who advocated its establishment as a young girl, I am proud to say that my daughter is a graduate of UWS and my son, Blake, is currently a student there.

But not every member representing Western Sydney electorates shares that pride. In recent comments in the Penrith Press the member for Lindsay has shown her contempt for the University of Western Sydney. She is quoted as saying, `The UWS board and management are left wing, politicised, inflammatory and inefficient.' The member for Lindsay refuses to stand up for UWS. Her name is not even on the speakers list for this most important debate. Instead, she claims that UWS receives above average funding and even claims that the funding changes would lead to more equality in university funding.

But then she goes on to say, `We are providing them with transitional funding, so there will be no funding cuts to UWS.' But the member for Lindsay does not explain why you need transitional funding if there is not going to be a funding cut some time later. There will be funding cuts. That is the view of the founding vice-chancellor of UWS, Sir Ian Turbott. Sir Ian is also quoted in the Penrith Press as saying that he believes the federal government's higher education reforms would cut funding to the university. Sir Ian said that UWS should be considered differently from other universities because the majority of people who used it were not able to afford the increase in fees.

To quote from the article, Sir Ian said:

University gives an opportunity to people who would never have had it before. Whereas universities such as Sydney can increase their fees, that's not an alternative of the University of Western Sydney because the people are not in the high income area.

Sir Ian went on to say:

It is hard to understand why the federal government intends to cut funding to UWS and deny our region the opportunity to have a well funded university which can serve people in western Sydney.

In response to those remarks by the member for Lindsay, Sir Ian described her attacks as `troubling'. He said that in his time as vice-chancellor he had not experienced such an outburst and had no idea why Ms Kelly made the statements she did.

I could clear that up by saying that the member for Lindsay does not understand the needs of the University of Western Sydney—which is in her electorate—and, for that matter, she does not understand the broader needs of the people of Western Sydney either. But the facts speak for themselves. Only one person in 10 in Western Sydney holds a university degree, while the figure is one person in five in the east. The forty-two per cent of Sydney's population living in Western and south-west Sydney have one university. In the east of Sydney there are four universities.

According to the member for Lindsay, these changes will lead to more equality in university funding—but she does not understand the needs of Western Sydney. The member for Lindsay should be visiting the campus in Western Sydney and speaking to the students who go there—speaking to the students who live in her electorate and who go to the University of Western Sydney. As I said, the member for Lindsay does not understand the needs of Western Sydney, not like Sir Ian Turbott who guided UWS through its early years and saw clearly the needs and the role of the university in and for Western Sydney.

I have spoken about the impact on the University of Western Sydney and the Western and south-western regions of Sydney, but we should also look at the impact on individual students of a 30 per cent fee increase. For a start, we should recognise that, under this government, HECS fees have just about doubled and their repayment, even with the latest changes, cuts in at lower levels than when HECS was first introduced. At a time in life when graduates are setting out on their career—and for many it is also a time when they are setting up a home—HECS fees are taking a large bite of their income. With high house prices and the need to take out large mortgages, graduates saddled with a large HECS debt are hurting—and hurting badly.

This government is transferring the burden of the cost of higher education onto graduates when, in many cases, they can least afford it. Before too long, as they start families, the old HECS debt—and if this bill passes, the extra burden of the higher fee debt—will be crippling for many young families. We will have gone back to the time—that pre-Whitlam era—when we had the full fee paying universities. When the children of this generation's graduates see the burden faced by their parents, they will wonder if it is all worth the effort. In 50 years we will have come full circle to another generation of bright kids who do not go to university. They will be the poorer for it and our nation will be the poorer for it as well. But that is the white picket fence vision that this government wants to take us back to. That is the vision of the member for Lindsay: a population in Western Sydney without hope of a career ambition.

I am afraid that the next time I visit a school in my electorate—and I will be visiting a lot in the next couple of weeks—I will look at the faces that hold so much hope and I will think, `What chance will they have?' Will they and their parents be able to afford a university education? If this bill is passed, I do not think I will ever be able to look at those faces in quite the same way as I do now. The member for Lindsay should hold her head in shame and should get out and visit the university that is in her electorate and speak to those students.