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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21451


Mr BEVIS (12:32 PM) —I join with my Labor colleagues in strongly opposing the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amend-ments) Bill 2003 which are before the parliament. The Howard-Costello government's arrogant and elitist attitude towards education and training is one of this nation's great hidden tragedies, the effects of which will linger for a generation. The Prime Minister John Howard's boast some years ago, that he was the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had, is evidenced more than amply in the Higher Education Support Bill and the government's approach to education and training. How ironic that we are having this debate in this chamber on the very day that science meets parliament, the very day on which some of our leading academics, scientists and researchers are here to meet with us and to impress upon us as members of parliament, if we needed it—and clearly those on the government benches do—the importance of investing in our future, our knowledge base, our creativity and our people. How ironic that on that day we have before us a bill that runs counter to all of those ideals.

I was taken by the information given to me at one of those meetings that graphically sets out the way in which our investment in education and training and in research and development has declined so badly since John Howard became Prime Minister. Most members of this parliament will have an opportunity to see the graph that I am holding; unfortunately, the standing orders do not allow me to have it included in Hansard. It depicts very capably Australia's commitment to research and development over the course of the last 10 years. It shows Australia's performance in investment as a percentage of our gross domestic product steadily increasing year on year. Not surprisingly, it peaks in 1995-96—the year of the last Labor budget. From there on, it slides down. It is measured against the OECD average. In 1995 our performance was above that of the OECD average. It took this government just two budgets to drop us below the OECD average.

Of direct relevance to this bill, elsewhere in that document is a graph depicting the amount of money as a percentage of GDP that we put into higher education. From 1996 until the present, it has declined every year. Each year there has been a new decline on the decline of the previous year; that is, every year since John Howard became Prime Minister, the priority that has been given to higher education and to research and development in this country has declined. What a disgrace. Worse than that, it is a tragedy for our nation and our nation's future. The wealth of this country in the years ahead will be built on the creativity and intellectual property that we are able to generate. In the 18th and 19th centuries, countries that were wealthy found their wealth from what they could dig from the ground or grow from the plains. Those days are behind us. The wealthy nations of the future will generate their wealth from the intelligence, creativity and intellectual rigour of their people.

It is not possible to spend too much money on education and training. You can waste money—you can waste a little bit. You can spend a little bit and waste it all. But it is not possible to have a population that is too well educated, too well trained and too knowledgeable. Yet here we are as one of the few countries in the OECD reducing our commitment to education and training and, in this bill, to higher eduction, where our scientific advancements and so much of the economic fruit of the century ahead lie. This bill seeks to do that and more.

Each year in Australia 20,000 qualified Australians miss out on studying at university. That is a tragedy—a tragedy for them and for all of us. The government's own figures show that the number of Australians starting an undergraduate degree has dropped for two years running, and the OECD tells us that Australia now has the second lowest increase in the rate of enrolments in universities across the entire OECD. These are not statistics of which we can be proud. If the government has its way, after 2007 publicly funded places will not even keep pace with population growth. That is going to be a major challenge in my home state of Queensland, where the population growth is very substantial indeed—something which is drawn to our attention by redistributions in that state every couple of years as the state gets a new seat in this parliament. In Queensland, the fact that the Commonwealth will not even be funding enough places to cover growth means that young people, particularly in my home state, will be denied access to university places. Yet the government proposes to put in place full fee paying students and increase HECS to increase the burden on those who can get there. An increase in HECS fees of 30 per cent means that some students are going to be lumbered with a HECS debt of $50,000. An arts degree will cost $15,000; science, $21,000; and law, $41,000.

But you can buy a degree under this government's plan. If your academic performance is not good enough to earn you a place at university, the government wants to let you buy a position if you are wealthy enough to do so. We need to put to rest one of the arguments that the minister has used and that a number of government backbenchers—the few who bothered to speak on this important matter—also raised. They referred to the fact that there are people who fall just short of whatever the cut-off might be in the various states and that they should not be denied the opportunity to buy themselves a place, because there are people from overseas who can buy themselves a place.

There are a couple of clear distinctions that need to be made. The people from overseas who buy themselves a place have not been paying taxes in this country like every other Australian pays taxes. But the real test is not the comparison of that Australian child who just fails to make the cut-off with an overseas full fee paying student. The real comparison is between the two Australian children who both get identical academic results just below the cut-off, one of them in a wealthy family, one of them in a low- or middle-income family. One of them is given a second bite at the cherry—the one who is rich enough to fork out the $100,000-plus. This is not a test of equity, fairness or ability. This is purely and simply a test of wealth. You are rewarded for your wealth. You are rewarded not for your intellect, for your industry or for the future contribution you can make, but just because you happen to be lucky enough to have wealthy parents. When John Howard said he was the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had I did not think it went that far, but we know now it does. This is a reversal of every fundamental principle of education and equity that this nation has embraced on both sides of politics for 30 years.

I am just old enough to remember the system before that—the system John Howard wants to put back in place. I finished my secondary education in 1971. I started tertiary education in 1972. Thankfully, Gough Whitlam was elected at the end of that year and tertiary education immediately got an injection of funds and support. When I did my secondary education I was fortunate enough to get a state and a Commonwealth scholarship, without which it would have been very difficult to believe I could have done tertiary studies. I came from a family with a father who was a truck driver on a low income. I grew up in an area where you did not go to the dentist, because you did not have enough money; you went to the dental hospital for the students to practise on. People in that situation did not have the option of going to university unless they were fortunate enough to snare a scholarship, and I was fortunate to snare one of those scholarships.

I was so proud as an Australian to see Gough Whitlam change that system—so proud to see that turned on its head and merit put in place and to know that my children would have an opportunity to realise their academic and personal potential based on how they applied themselves and the abilities they had, not on my bank account or wealth. I have been proud ever since of that fact in our system. I find it disgusting that we now have a government that wants to revert to the system which I knew when I was a school student—a system that says, `You may not have the academic performance to earn your place, but as long as mum and dad have $100,000 ready to pay out you can get yourself a degree.' That is the test that needs to be applied when we look at this, and it is remarkable that any government in this day and age would do that.

I have cited but a couple of statistics to refer to the declining priority this government has given to education, training and research and development. Sadly, there is insufficient time in this shortened debate for me to go through the other examples that illustrate that. But in conclusion I do want to make one other comment, and it is that this government has an infatuation and blind obsession with pursuing its industrial relations policies. It is forcing a very prescriptive industrial relations straitjacket on universities and saying to universities, `If you don't do what Peter Reith, Tony Abbott and John Howard want you to do'—because it has all been the same agenda—`then you do not get $400 million.' That is nothing short of intimidation and standover tactics. If it were somebody outside the parliament threatening that, they would be in breach of even this government's industrial relations laws. The only reason it can do it is because it is the government. That is a disgrace. The government has not told the truth about the details of the issues that it is imposing upon the universities. The minister did not tell the full truth in relation to that matter in his second reading speech. The details have been included in other material from Labor members, and unfortunately time will not permit me to go through them in relation to these bills. I am opposed to the legislation and I look forward to its defeat in the Senate.