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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21520


Ms JANN McFARLANE (5:19 PM) —I rise today to speak on a package of bills which are part of the changing landscape of higher education in Australia. They are the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. My Stirling constituents often say to me, `What is the difference between the major parties? They seem so similar.' When replying I point out two major areas that affect the lives of everyone: health and education. The Labor Party has fundamentally different views on higher education than the Howard government. My colleague the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Jagajaga, has articulated the difference extremely succinctly in the following comment: `Labor believes that Australia's university system needs vision, investment and longterm reform—not just some mishmash of measures to increase student costs and force universities to fall in with the Howard government's extreme industrial relations agenda.'

Education is the mortar that holds together the bricks of nation building. Education is responsible for creating the vision, designing it and putting it together. It is the driver of change. Without a world-class education system, there will be serious economic and social effects. It should be the aim of government, regardless of political persuasion, to ensure that Australia's education system is a world leader. Labor sees all forms of education as an investment in the skills, knowledge and employment of the nation; this should be recognised. People with TAFE and university qualifications are more likely to get a good job and to contribute to social and economic development.

This all seems pretty clear cut, so why is there a difference of opinion between the Labor Party and the Howard Liberal government? The answer is quite simple: a conservative government is scared of change; it stands for the status quo. This Liberal government is scared that, by educating our young people, we will somehow change the social fabric of the nation. It seems scared that, if children from disadvantaged families are educated, they will ask, `Why am I disadvantaged? What can I do to make sure that I am not disadvantaged? How can I change society so that I am not disadvantaged?' So how do conservative governments manage this problem? We only have to look at the current state of our higher education system to get some idea of their strategy. The easiest way is to make it economically impossible for families on low incomes to properly educate their children. This is what the changes introduced by the federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, the member for Bradfield, essentially do.

The problem for this government is that the Australian electorate is a lot more sophisticated than it thinks. People are not mugs. They will not take long to realise that this government has the policy aim of making students and their families pay more. My personal philosophical view is that there should be universal free education. Unfortunately reality dictates that students should contribute to the cost of their university study. That is why Labor introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) in 1989. Although it was criticised by students at the time, it is generally accepted now that HECS is a reasonably fair way to ensure that people contribute towards the cost of their education.

But HECS has been bastardised by this government. Since 1996 we have seen this government change thresholds, increase the rate of payment and make a whole range of other changes that have increased the burden on students and their families. Students and their families already contribute a substantial amount to the cost of study. Student fees and charges make up nearly 40 per cent of university education costs, up from 25 per cent in 1996. Continuing to increase these contribution levels creates the risk of turning too many Australians away from university. Labor see university income as a shared investment that has important public as well as personal benefits.

What is the current situation? I will outline the problems facing the sector and also examine the effectiveness of the Howard government's response to these problems. Oppositions are often criticised for not offering a different policy alternative. In this debate I will outline what Labor would do if we were elected at the next election. There are not enough HECS places in our higher education institutions. Too many talented young people are missing out on university places. Each year, over 20,000 Australians miss out on studying at university even though they are capable, qualified and motivated to further their education. So over a five-year period, 100,000 people are being denied the chance to make a meaningful contribution to our society, and our society is being denied their contribution.

How do we compare with our major trading partners and competitors? According to the OECD's Education at a glance: 2003 report, Australia has the second lowest increase in the OECD in the rate of enrolment in universities. This is a disgrace and it is an indictment of the policies of this government. How is this in the national interest? It is a fact that universities are being forced to cut around 6,000 HECS places by 2007 because the Howard government is not properly funding education. After 2007, publicly funded places will not even keep pace with population growth. A diminishing proportion of Australians will be going to university, due to the Howard government's policies.

What will Labor do to address this serious problem? The Deputy Leader of the Opposition recently released a policy called Aim Higher. This policy is available on the ALP web site at www.alp.com. I will just give my constituents a brief overview of the policy. Labor will expand the opportunities to get a TAFE or university qualification by creating 21,660 new full- and part-time commencing university places each year by 2008, to be distributed throughout Australia; create 20,000 new full- and part-time commencing TAFE places each year by 2008, to be distributed throughout Australia; and provide $35 million to support secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university or TAFE.

Labor will ensure fair access to affordable tertiary education by not increasing Higher Education Contribution Scheme—HECS—fees, by not deregulating HECS fees, by not introducing real rates of interest on loans for postgraduate courses, by abolishing full fees for all new domestic undergraduate students, by relieving the financial burden on students and new graduates by extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients, and by reducing the age of independence for students on Youth Allowance to 24 in 2005 and 23 in 2007. Labor will also increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 per annum in 2004 and address national skill shortages through a variety of measures, including reducing HECS fees for science and mathematics students and funding extra places for teaching and nursing. These are only a few of the measures that Labor have outlined in our Aim Higher package.

Our education system needs a boost. I would like to quote from a media release from the Australian Council of State School Organisations:

Governments have a primary responsibility to address educational disadvantage—not ideological preoccupations. What we urgently need is a coordinated approach by all Ministers to put in place funding policies that close the resource gap between the educationally rich and poor. When total funding for non-government schools is greater than that provided to our universities then it really is time to take a very hard look at the way governments distribute their educational dollars and the accountability required by taxpayers from those receiving that government funding.

We do need to close that gap. If we do not close that gap now, it will become insurmountable for a lot of families. This would be a national tragedy.

Let me localise this debate for a moment. I do not have a university campus in my electorate of Stirling, but this does not mean that my constituents do not participate or have not participated in higher education. At the time of the 2001 census, 5,460 of my constituents were studying at university or another type of tertiary institution, and a further 3,975 of my constituents were studying at a TAFE. If you add these figures together, the total is over 10 per cent of the total number of electors in the Stirling electorate. This is a large percentage of people to kick—but kicking them is exactly what this government is doing through its introduction of full fee places. These are great for those who can afford them, but for those who cannot it sets the bar even higher, especially in cases where universities are going to be able to charge fees on top of HECS places offered. This will create a two-tiered higher education system.

How does this affect Stirling families? Most of my constituents have heard about the $100,000 degrees that these changes will introduce. I recently visited some students at Balcatta Senior High School and Tuart College with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Jenny Macklin. At both of these institutions we had sit-down discussions with year 12 students. I was amazed by some of the students' comments; they were saying exactly what Labor had been saying. They identified the concerns that I am trying to highlight in this debate. How can they afford this education? The simple answer is that they cannot.

What these changes will do is increase the burden on the family unit. Kids will have to stay at home longer because they will not be able to afford to live away from home. We are already seeing children stay at home longer; this will just exacerbate this trend and put a further financial burden on parents. As a mother of two children who have studied and are still studying at university I know first-hand that this can be a financial strain. The loan proposals of this government also need some serious scrutiny. Unlike the current HECS system, in which money is paid back through a person's tax, this scheme is more like a commercial loan. The fact that commercial interest rates are going to be charged raises serious issues about how this loan is going to be treated.

I am extremely concerned that the following scenario may occur. A student leaves home at 23 with a law degree and decides to buy their first home. The student goes to the bank and is refused a loan because a $100,000 student loan exists and the bank says the student has to repay that loan before being able to get a loan for their first house. What is the solution? Under this Liberal scheme the student is forced to live at home for another seven years until he or she has paid the loan off. Again the poor parents have the financial strain of their child living at home until the parents are close to retirement age. Not many families in my electorate would be able to afford this situation. This government's package not only makes it impossible for low-income families to send their kids to university or TAFE, it also makes it difficult for middle-income families. There are many other issues I could go into, such as the university in Western Australia cutting courses for small numbers. If the government is serious about higher education, it will support Labor's foreshadowed amendments. With those amendments I commend the bill to the House.