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Thursday, 4 December 2003
Page: 24001

Ms MACKLIN (2:41 PM) —Voters will have a very clear choice when it comes to education at the next election. On the one hand, they will have the choice between the Howard government's 25 per cent price hike or Labor's commitment to reversing these fee increases. They will have a choice between a third of Australian university students jumping the queue or paying full fees of up to $100,000 or Labor's abolition of full fees and our commitment to entry on merit, not money.

The government, of course, wants a shrinking proportion of people going to university. Labor wants 20,000 extra people a year going to university and another 20,000 going to TAFE. Do we want to see this government sit back and do we want to see quality decline? Or will the public vote for Labor's commitment to properly index university funding, to put an additional $312 million into universities to make sure that they are properly funded and that class sizes are reduced and the quality of education is improved? It is only Labor that will make sure that the University of Western Sydney and Victoria University are properly funded. This government has let those two universities down so severely.

This is a very sad day indeed for Australian universities. I say to the Howard government: this is only the beginning of the fight. We will be taking this fight right up to the election and beyond. A Labor government will reverse the unfair changes in this bill and provide universities with the support they need to become world class without making Australian students shoulder more and more debt. I can tell you we will be campaigning on these issues right up to the election and right through the election. We will not be supporting any legislation that drives more and more Australians, especially young Australians, into deeper and deeper debt.

This is always what has been at the heart of this legislation. There has been one thing that the previous minister for education, Dr Kemp, and the current minister have always wanted: a huge price hike. That is what this legislation has been about—only a price hike. That is not reform; it is just a price hike. For Labor, the battle to keep our universities open to all qualified Australians is not over just because this legislation passes the parliament. We will reverse these changes and we will make sure that those young Australians and older Australians who are qualified to go to university will have the opportunity to do so.

This legislation is all about hiking up the cost of a university education. We want to make sure that there is a fairer way. We have put our policy on the table. It has been out there for six months for everybody to see. We will show that there is a different way from the Howard government way: a fairer way, a way that actually gives all talented Australians a chance to get a university education. It will not be based on their bank balance. That will not be Labor's way. That is the Liberal way—the Liberal way is about how much money you have in your bank balance. But Labor's way will be about how hard you have worked—that is the Labor way. If you have worked hard, if you have got the marks, you will get a university education. We believe in expanding opportunities, creating more publicly funded university places, not fewer. We do not believe that Australian students and their families should be driven further and further into debt. That is at the heart of this legislation. These students are going to be driven further and further into debt just because they want to expand their university education and contribute to the nation's prosperity.

We will see the figures when the university offers come out next year, but we know that at the moment there are about 20,000 qualified Australians who miss out on a university place. The minister acknowledges this. Of course there are not 20,000 new places in this legislation. (Extension of time granted) As I said, there are 20,000 students already missing out on a university place—20,000 students who have studied hard. We know that many of them have just finished their exams. Many of them will be applying to go to university and at least 20,000 of them next year are going to be sorely disappointed because this legislation does not include 20,000 new places.

Can you actually believe—I must say that I find it extraordinary—that this legislation does not even create enough publicly funded places to keep pace with population growth? The proportion of people going to university as a result of this legislation will decline. How can that be good for Australia's prosperity? What sort of government does that? This government's answer is that 35 per cent of places at universities can go to those who pay full fees.

Mr Gavan O'Connor —If you've got the money.

Ms MACKLIN —If you have the money, you will get a university place. We know how much we are talking about. We are talking about $100,000 or more. So it will be the case that if you have the money you will be able to buy your way into university ahead of other students who have better marks than you. This is certainly not fair. It is not the Australian way of doing things. This government is determined to limit the number of publicly funded places and to basically say, `If you've got the money you will be able to buy a place.'

I thought—and many of you would have heard this catchcry—that the government were against queuejumping. Many of us have heard the argument time and time again from this government that they are against queuejumping, but not when it comes to a university place. When it comes to a university place and making sure that the privileged and the wealthy can get into university without the marks, the government are all for queuejumping. That is exactly what they are on about. Labor, by contrast, will abolish all full fee paying places for Australian undergraduates, because we want to make sure that it is merit, not money, that determines how you get a university place.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Let me point out to people on both sides of the House that while their body clocks may compel them to interject between 2.00 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. the chair makes no such provision.

Ms MACKLIN —In the policy that Labor announced in July, we showed that we aim to do what no Australian government has ever contemplated—and certainly this government does not contemplate it. Labor in government will give every Australian with the motivation and the marks the opportunity to get a tertiary education. That has never been done before. We on this side of the House do not believe in turning away qualified Australians who are committed to furthering their education. That is why we are determined to create 20,000—

Mr Tuckey —You're getting a message.

Ms MACKLIN —There would be no hope of you getting it, Wilson. We are determined to create 20,000 additional university places and another 20,000 TAFE places. While we are talking about places, last night it was the case that government senators voted against Labor's amendment to create an additional 20,000 places. They voted against it. They should be ashamed of themselves, because they do not want to provide the places that are necessary.

Let us look at what has happened to student fees. This is not the first time this government has put up fees. In 1996 a degree in a middle level course like economics or science cost $7,300—before Dr Kemp got his hands on it. Now it costs students $15,700. That is your legacy. (Extension of time granted) With today's changes, the HECS fees will go up by another 25 per cent. So those students doing a basic science degree who were paying $7,000 when this government came in will now have a debt of $20,000. That is what you are putting on the shoulders of these young people. And this from a minister who paid nothing for his degree—nothing! So the government has already increased fees for students by 115 per cent. Students are already overloaded with heavy debts at the same time they are about to start a family and buy a home. We are already near the top of the world scale when it comes to student contributions. We also know that Australian university graduates are already delaying starting a family and buying their homes—that is already happening without this further increase in debt. There were 90 amendments that Labor moved in the Senate. Each and every one of them was voted down by the government and the Independents. I will not test your patience by going through each and every of the 90—

Mr Gavan O'Connor —Give us 50 of them.

Ms MACKLIN —No, I won't do that. I just want to highlight a few, because people need to know where the government stand and what they voted against. Labor amendments would have stopped the 25 per cent fee hike. We would have stopped it in its tracks. We would have banned universities offering new Australian undergraduates full fee degrees that already cost $100,000. We would have created 20,000 places, but of course the government did not want to do that. We would have made sure that universities received proper indexation, but of course the government voted against that. We would have prevented the 20 per cent penalty on student loans; improved student financial assistance; scrapped the seven-year learning limit; and scrapped all the ideological industrial relations conditions. But, no, the government did not want to do that. And, most importantly, in some ways, when it comes to our democracy we would have safeguarded universities from ministerial interference in what they teach students. These amendments were critical to making this flawed, shoddy and, most of all, unfair bill acceptable. But the government and the Independents could not even sustain an argument. Senator Vanstone was not actually capable of answering any of our amendments or dealing with the question of whether or not they should be addressed.

I want to touch on a couple of final issues which have been very, very important in this debate. Time and again the minister has been told that the No. 1 priority for our universities is the lack of indexation of grants. Time and again the minister has been told that by the Australian vice-chancellors in particular. Time and again he ignored this concern and continued to push ahead with his plan to make students pay more. Without proper indexation of university grants, it will be the case that universities will have to put up their fees by the full 25 per cent—just to tread water. The minister likes to talk about reform and flexibility. But forcing all universities to put up fees to pay for this bill is not reform. Anyone can put up a price, and that is what this bill is really all about. I must say I am extremely disappointed in the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee not pressing the government to make sure that this package included full indexation. It was at the top of their list of concerns, but did they press the government to deliver this? No, they did not, otherwise we would have seen it in this bill.

By contrast, Labor's policy does contain a fully funded commitment to indexation: $312 million to properly index university funding. You cannot tell me this government does not have $312 million to make sure that universities are properly funded and students do not have to pay any more. (Extension of time granted) The government's university changes are also still a bureaucratic nightmare. They give this minister—and all future ministers until this legislation is changed—unprecedented power over what universities can teach and students can learn. That is an extraordinary attack on one of the institutions at the heart of our democracy. Any suggestion that the amendments made in the Senate as part of the deal—part of what I have to say was a backroom deal between the government and the Independents—are to reduce the minister's intrusive powers over universities is completely wrong.

I will give you an example of why it is wrong. It is wrong because it is with these powers that this minister—and we all heard him say this in question time, so we know it is true—has threatened to make the University of Melbourne cover the $5 million funding cut. This is true, isn't it, Minister? The minister intends to make the University of Melbourne fund the cut that is facing the Victorian College of the Arts. That is what this bill is all about. The minister has the power to do it. That is why the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne has likened this minister's proposals to those of `authoritarian regimes'. That is what this legislation is about. He went on to warn that giving that sort of power to a minister in perpetuity is a real disaster. That is what the University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor had to say, and he used to be one of the minister's chief supporters—not anymore. The amendments passed in the Senate to address these concerns do not reduce ministerial control. They in fact simply change the mechanism through which he can exercise it. The minister will still have the power to micromanage the types of courses offered and the numbers of students enrolled in them. I can say this to the parliament and the universities: Labor will not dictate to universities what they teach or how they employ their staff.

At the eleventh hour last night we had the final attempt at a cave-in by the Independents. I understand the minister actually had to go, cap in hand, to a very late in the night emergency cabinet meeting to finalise his deal with the Independent senators over industrial relations. I gather there are a few in the cabinet who did not want this to happen. They have come up with a quick fix in the final hours of this two-year process that once again does not remove industrial relations conditions from all university funding.

Mr Barresi —Good!

Ms MACKLIN —We hear `good' from the other side. They are clearly still committed to the government's ideological conditions. We will make sure all the staff at Deakin University know exactly what the member thinks. Despite the `line in the sand' claims from the Independent senators, every one of the extraordinary conditions—and they are extraordinary—that this minister and, of course, the previous minister for industrial relations want are going to remain. They are not gone; they have just been moved from one funding pool to another. They are still there; this government still wants to put its fingers into the way in which universities manage their industrial relations.

This of course has always been a threshold issue for us. The government should not be imposing industrial conditions on educational funding. This money is supposed to be for improving the quality of education in our universities and not coming through blackmailing the universities to implement this government's industrial relations conditions. Funding for universities is far too important to be left to the ideological obsessions which we know the current minister for health certainly believes in. There are of course also a number of universities which continue to be worse off as a result of this package. I cannot actually see the member for Lindsay here at the moment, but we know what her advocacy has meant for the University of Western Sydney.

Mr Kelvin Thomson —Advocacy?

Ms MACKLIN —It is advocacy. I know you will be surprised, but she has in fact advocated that they not be given additional funding. (Extension of time granted) Universities like the University of Western Sydney and Victoria University in Melbourne serve some of our most disadvantaged communities. They will be millions of dollars worse off as a result of this package. The Victorian College of the Arts will be devastated by a funding cut of more than 30 per cent. The Minister for Education, Science and Training shakes his head, but of course the only way in which they are not going to lose money is by him forcing the University of Melbourne to pay up, and not because he is actually giving the Victorian College of the Arts any more money.

There is nothing in the amendments that we are currently debating which will make sure that the University of Western Sydney, Victoria University or the Victorian College of the Arts have their positions improved. The member for Lindsay, the member for Macquarie and the member for Parramatta, who is sitting over there—and we know he has not done anything; in fact, he says that his constituents are just a bunch of whingers if they talk about Medicare or if they complain that the University of Western Sydney does not have the funding that it needs—have not made sure that the University of Western Sydney is properly funded. They have done nothing to protect the university that provides such outstanding services for the people of Western Sydney.

I say to the Australian people today: this provides us all with a very real choice at the next election. The Howard government will have increased—because we know this bill is going to go through—university fees first by 115 per cent and now, today, by another 25 per cent. That is the first thing—it is a substantial difference between the Labor Party's policy and that of this government. Labor will not agree to any further increases in university fees. There is another major difference that the public have in front of them. This government says that you can jump the queue and buy your way into university if you have the money. Labor will abolish all full fee paying places, because we do not think it is fair. We think you should get into university based on your marks, not on how much money you or your parents have in the bank. Under Labor there will be no increase in fees. There will be no $100,000 degrees. I say to the Australian people: we will fight every way we can to make sure this does not happen.