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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21534


Ms O'BYRNE (6:17 PM) —New York Supreme Court Judge, Justice Leland DeGrasse, once said:

Poverty, race, ethnicity and immigration status are not in themselves determinative of student achievement. Demography is not destiny. The amount of melanin in a student's skin, the home country of her antecedents, the amount of money in the family bank account, are not the inexorable determinants of academic success.

I believe that Justice DeGrasse would be as disappointed with this government's attempt at higher education reform in Australia as many Australian's currently are. Labor does not support this legislation—the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003—in its current form and will only support it with significant amendments. These amendments include: the removal of the proposal to deregulate university fees, the removal of the provisions allowing full fees to be charged to Australian undergraduate students, increases in the number of funded places, the removal of the industrial relations conditions on Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding, and an increase of the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000.

Contrary to the government's hollow arguments about the need for greater flexibility in university regulation, this legislation centralises control. It gives the minister increased and disproportionate discretionary powers. Members of this House who have already spoken have identified the biggest impacting factor on students as the proposal to deregulate the Higher Education Contribution Scheme fees. This will allow universities to set their fees at a rate that is 30 per cent higher than the current capped rates. Such an increase will rule out the chance of a university education for many from low-income families. I am the product of one of those families—my father was a painter and my mum was a cleaner. The first members of my family to go to university were my brothers and I. We would not have had that opportunity if we had had to pay these sorts of fees.

The cost of tertiary education has meant that students will incur a dramatically increased debt if they go to university. Debts hanging over students for many years will undoubtedly have an impact on their ability to make financial investment decisions later in life. This is not the first time that this crowd has hiked up university fees. This government has already increased HECS fees by 85 per cent since 1996 and now it wants to slug students and their families with an additional 30 per cent increase in fees. This is almost a doubling of fees in only seven years.

I, along with the shadow minister for education, employment and training, recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of year 11 and 12 students in my electorate about what they believed to be the biggest concerns in choosing how they were going to manage their further education. Overwhelmingly, they told us that it was not their academic performances, or even the academic performance of tertiary institutions, that were the defining factors in their choices; it was the cost and whether their parents could afford to help them. Too many Tasmanian families are feeling that they are failing their children because their bank balance just does not add up to what this government is going to require. Some students said, `I've got two or three older brothers and sisters and there is no way my parents will be able to afford to pay for all of us so it is just not an option.' This should serve as a wake-up call to this government.

Students and their families need assistance, not a government that is out of touch and uncompromising. Students need financial support to help them achieve their goals, not major increases in fees that will place them further and further in debt before they even have an opportunity to start their adult lives. In my electorate of Bass only 30 per cent of students in matriculation go on to university. This is in comparison to some wealthier cities where many schools have 90 per cent or more of their students going on to university. This increase in the amount that students and their families are expected to pay comes on the back of figures recently released by the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training which show that students are already propping up universities financially because of increasing funding cuts by the Howard government. Student contributions as a proportion of universities' income rose from 25 per cent in 1996 to 37 per cent in 2002. If further fees are imposed then these figures show that student fees and charges will eventually overtake government funding as the single greatest component of universities' revenue.

At the same time, government funding fell from 57 per cent in 1996 to 40 per cent in 2002—the lowest level of government contribution since the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for higher education. The DEST figures show that more than half of the surplus of the education sector is concentrated in four city based universities, while the combined income of every other university in Australia has gone backwards by $200 million.

Of the two tertiary institutions in Bass, one, the Australian Maritime College, has joined the esteemed group of eight universities which recorded a deficit, making this the second largest number of universities to record a deficit in the last decade. The other tertiary institution, the University of Tasmania, is on the verge of recording a deficit and has a surplus of less than $1 million. The figures have shown that the AMC is losing $3.6 million of its $10.8 million in funding a year, and there is no way that this highly internationally recognised facility can sustain its high level of education and remain viable with these sorts of cuts. If these cuts happen, it will not only affect the students and staff at the AMC but also have a profound impact on Australia's maritime industry.

In the recent Senate inquiry the University of Tasmania Vice-Chancellor, Daryl Le Grew, made some interesting points in evidence. He said:

We have argued long and hard that the University of Tasmania has not had its fair share of university places on a population basis.

... ... ...

We are still unhappy about the equity provisions of the package. We have special problems in Tasmania. I think everybody understands that there is a special character to the distribution of the Tasmanian population, and the regional outreach of the university needs special support.

Whatever happened to the idea of Australians valuing education as a right and not a privilege for the select few in society who can actually afford to put up with the government's funding failures? Labor's Aim Higher policy will reverse the trend by investing $2.34 billion to rebuild universities and provide increased public investment for every university and no increases in student fees.

Australia's universities are in crisis, with equitable access to education becoming another chapter in history as we watch this government continue its slash and burn agenda on university funding. Australian universities are struggling. They are struggling to meet the demand of places for students and they are struggling to deliver the type of educational standard that we have come to expect. In Tasmania there is a 36 per cent increase in the ratio of students to staff, and I understand that in some other areas that ratio has increased to levels approaching 80 per cent. Surely the government can see that cutting university funding has a direct result on the standard and level of staffing and the standard and level of education and tuition that these educators can deliver. It means that classrooms are overcrowded, infrastructure is deteriorating and access to appropriate resources is in serious decline.

Another concerning aspect of this bill—and the previous speaker, the member for New England, made some comments on this—is the proposal to implement industrial conditions on university reforms. These conditions, in effect, will link university funding to industrial reform, and universities that do not abide by these reforms will risk losing their funding. This is forcing universities to put harsh industrial relations practices and requirements ahead of what they want to do, which is improve teaching, improve learning and improve research.

What sort of agreement is this? Months of discussions between universities and unions broke down because the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations hijacked $404 million of Commonwealth university funding. Hopefully the new minister will leave university staff and management to progress their own industrial discussions and agreements. This type of action by a minister is effectively blackmail. The former minister wanted to blackmail universities into implementing his extreme industrial relations agenda, and he was planning on using university funding as a ransom in his war on working conditions. The really interesting question is: where was the Minister for Education, Science and Training during all of this? We did not hear a word from him. He should be standing up for universities, and instead he stood back and let the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations use university funding as a political football. It is now time to stand up and say: `Enough; enough to increases in fees, enough to further reductions in university places, enough of unmanageable tutorial sizes, and enough of slugging essential university services in order to reduce costs.'

In the recent Senate inquiry, Professor Le Grew from the University of Tasmania said:

... I would like to point to the lack of provision for anything after 2007. Are we going to go into another period of systematic decline? ... What the universities are looking for is something that actually allows us to plan over a decade because that is the time line for getting new courses up and running with graduates coming through the other end, with research projects maturing and so on. We simply do not have a year-by-year or even a three-year planning cycle; we have a five- to 10-year planning cycle and we need to at least have a mechanism for dealing with that.

If university funding continues to decline it will be an even more elite group of Australians that will have access to tertiary education. At the moment the government is continuing to decrease funding and increase the number of full fee paying students, meaning that half of all university places could go to people who buy their way in. Where does merit fit into the government's agenda? It is unfair that wealthy children are encouraged to take an education for granted but students who earn a place but cannot pay $100,000 for a degree must forget their education dreams, and the dreams of their parents, because their place has been taken by someone who can afford to pay for it.

The education minister got his education for free, and now he wants to reduce access to education to only the wealthy, perhaps only those who associate with his new found political associates. Education is the basis for a developing society, and we need to fight to make sure that our universities are accessible to everyone—to smart kids from ordinary families as well as the wealthy.