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Tuesday, 23 March 2004
Page: 26960

Mr MOSSFIELD (6:41 PM) —I am pleased to support the remarks of the member for Jagajaga on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2004. I think the intention of the bill is to implement some last-minute aspects of the government's deal with the four Senate Independents which could not be drafted when the Higher Education Support Bill was debated in the parliament last December.

The bill gives effect to a number of policies, including a couple that cause the Labor Party concern. Our first concern is that the first 2.5 per cent funding increases under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, payable in 2005, will be agreed at the discretion of the Minister for Education, Science and Training without necessarily all IR or government conditions being met. The indications are that the minister can exercise his discretion based on universities attempting to introduce the government's wishes. However, how this will be judged, we just do not know; it is a bit confusing at this stage.

The second concern is that this bill will allow all universities to set different HECS charges for the same unit, depending on which course of study it is taken in. The bill also provides $3 million—$1.5 million in both 2004 and 2005—to Batchelor College and Charles Darwin University for collaboration on Indigenous education, as well as other administrative and technical charges and other administrative issues. The issue of universities being able to set different HECS fees, up to an increase of 25 per cent, is already causing some concern in the sector. In the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend the Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland, Glyn Davis, said:

... making some subjects substantially cheaper than others might push students to “make a price judgement” when choosing between study options.

While other vice-chancellors hold different views, the possibility that price may influence students' choices, rather than appropriate education and career paths, is causing much concern in the sector.

What we have seen since the Higher Education Support Bill was passed last December, giving universities new powers to increase their HECS fees, is universities more or less on a daily basis making decisions to increase their HECS fees by some 20 to 25 per cent. It appears now that there are nine universities that have made this decision—not willingly, I might say; all have indicated that they regret this decision very much. As reported in the Herald Sun today, the latest is Monash University, which has increased fees by 25 per cent, following similar decisions by Deakin, La Trobe and Swinburne universities, which have all announced 25 per cent fee increases for the same course. The federal shadow education minister, Jenny Macklin, is quoted in the article as saying:

This means students will now be paying a massive $20,000 for a basic science degree from 2005.

She claims the responsibility for this fee hike lies squarely at the door of the Howard government. Ms Macklin stated further:

Since 1996 the Howard Government has slashed $5 billion from Australian universities, including over $337 million from Monash University alone.

We have also seen many thousands of students missing out on places in universities and the Australian vice-chancellors calling for an increase in Commonwealth funded places. We have seen qualified students missing out on places while others able to pay the full fee—some as high as $100,000—have been able to jump the queue ahead of students with better marks.

I now turn to the University of Western Sydney in my electorate. I had recent correspondence from the vice-chancellor of that university concerning university undergraduate programs. It stated:

We remain very concerned about the university's financial health going forward as the Commonwealth higher education reforms are implemented.

This statement is not surprising when UWS has suffered funding cuts of $270 million since the Howard government came to power. This is the third largest cut to any university in Australia, behind Melbourne and Monash.

Without over 100 years of building investments in property, as well as savings and a research base that can attract funding, UWS has been disproportionately hit by these funding cuts. It has not had the opportunity that other universities have had of building up investments and property and saving on the university research base. UWS is situated in one of the fastest growing regions in Australia and the demand for university places will increase each year, but during the Senate estimates process last year it was revealed that, if the current government's policy is allowed to continue, there will be 510 fewer places available at UWS in 2005 than there are today.

Speaking in an education debate last year, I indicated that UWS had lost half of its postgraduate research student places in the last round of changes, resulting in important economic, social and environmental research being curtailed. Fewer research places means less funding. In a recent visit to the federal parliament, university vice-chancellors stated that research infrastructure was a top priority for 2004 and 2005. In total, universities are seeking an extra $550 million in 2004 and 2005. In the Australian Financial Review on 22 March, Di Yerbury, President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, wrote:

We must also increase investment in today's research students, who are Australia's future researchers. There are first-class honours students in science and technology going overseas to do PhDs because of insufficient places in Australia. We ask that an additional 1000 funded research places be phased in from 2005 to 2007 (while the funding per research student should be increased by at least 7.5 per cent by 2007).

I think that emphasises the need for more additional funding to be ploughed into universities to help with their research programs.

I have also referred previously to remarks made by the vice-chancellor of the University of Western Sydney at a Senate references committee inquiry on higher education funding and regulation legislation. In brief, these remarks were to the effect that there should be real increases in public funding to higher education, that there should be no further strain placed on students and their families and that what Australia needs is not only one or two world-class universities but a world-class university system—very important words: a world-class university system.

The issue of income support is also a concern, and it goes hand in hand with fee increases. In an article in the Australian on 17 March this year under the heading `Students doing it tough' it was reported that student income support for university undergraduates will be reviewed by a Senate inquiry. In that article, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee president, Di Yerbury, `welcomed the inquiry into the student income support' and said:

The AVCC has always held the strong view that student should be able to reach their full potential. This is an onerous task if students have to support themselves by undertaking paid employment because suitable income support provisions cannot be accessed.

A key outcome of the major AVCC survey Paving the Way of over 30,000 undergraduate students, conducted in 2001, indicated the level of income support is too low and access to the schemes is too restrictive.

This is an inquiry, conducted by the Senate, which I am quite sure will be closely watched by universities, particularly UWS, who have consistently argued against fee increases for students because it is unfair to raise the total financial burden on students and their families. While some universities have embraced higher HECS charges and the new fee arrangements, UWS, to its credit, has said that fee increases are contrary to the access and equity needs of the region it serves. However, UWS has yet to make a decision in relation to fee increases, and what the outcome of the deliberations will be we do not know, but I certainly hope that it sticks to the policies it has indicated on previous occasions. Financial decisions may require it to increase fees, which would be very disadvantageous for the people I represent.

The mission statement and social charter of UWS do not fit well with the prospect of increasing the debt burden for students, particularly when students come from families of modest means who are unable to underwrite the additional costs of university education. Professor Reid expressed the view that fee increases and interest-bearing loans reinforce the hidden face of privilege and increase the burden of disadvantage that characterise many of the communities in Greater Western Sydney. She was concerned that this divide would lead to differentiation in the sector, based on individual or institutional privilege and wealth, and needed to be strongly opposed. I support Professor Reid's concern, as I am sure all Western Sydney MPs on both sides of this House would.

The 2001 census showed that, compared with people who live in other parts of Sydney, half as many people who live in Western Sydney are graduates. The potential growth of UWS has been retarded due to the federal government's funding cuts. In 2003, UWS turned away 2,700 students who met the university's entry requirements. Unfortunately, this year it has turned away nearly twice that number; that is, 5,000 people who qualified have been rejected because of a lack of places. These potential students were mainly in the fields of teaching, nursing, communications and business. This is an enormous waste of talent. In spite of funding cuts, the university continues to provide quality education to the students of Greater Western Sydney, a region that has one-tenth of Australia's population and a GDP of over $38 billion.

The University of Western Sydney was founded in 1989 with the purpose of providing high quality and accessible higher education and research in a region which has been historically underresourced. This has been difficult to achieve under the policies of the Howard government. However, as a reflection of the wide geographical area that UWS covers, with six campuses—at Campbelltown, Bankstown, Parramatta, Penrith, Richmond and Blacktown—UWS is now the fifth largest university in Australia and the second largest in New South Wales, and that has been achieved in just over 15 years. UWS has over 35,000 students, but this figure would be higher if all students who met the university's entry requirements were able to be accepted. Of the 35,000 students, 60 per cent come from Western Sydney. I would like to see this figure a lot higher. UWS has developed partnerships and agreements with other educational groups such as TAFEs, high schools, local government and private industry, but it has the potential to do more in this area if more funds were available.

New universities such as UWS have the potential to create a new educational culture in the regions they serve. In Western Sydney, university provides higher education opportunities for students from a diverse background—many of whom come from families who have never previously had a family member educated at a university. In fact, some two-thirds of students attending UWS are the first in their families to go to university. There have been universities in Australia for over 150 years, yet the overwhelming majority of the current crop of students at UWS are the first ones in their family to be able to access university education. Without UWS—the university created by the Whitlam Labor government to serve the Greater Western Sydney region—many of these families would still not have any members attending university. The impact on these communities, in both the short term and the long term, cannot be overestimated.

As I wind up, and prior to making a final statement, I want to come back to another concern that has been expressed by people in higher education, and that relates to the fact that the growth states will lose out in these reforms. This concern was expressed in the higher education supplement of the Australian on Wednesday, 10 March. I will briefly quote from that article. It states:

Queensland and West Australian students face paying full fees while “the kids of Hobart and Adelaide will have an effective walk-in right to a HECS subsidy”, a former senior bureaucrat has warned.

Pinpointing for the first time the likely losers under Education Minister Brendan Nelson's reforms, Michael Gallagher, head of policy and planning at the Australian National University, said Queensland and Western Australia faced exceptional growth in demand in the coming years.

Mr Gallagher, who was previously head of DEST's higher education division, said unless the federal Government injected more publicly funded places into growth regions, universities in those areas would have to admit more fee-paying students.

The article goes on:

“The kids of Hobart and Adelaide will have effective walk-in rights to a HECS subsidy, whereas their peers in Brisbane will have to pay fees,” Mr Gallagher told a seminar at Griffith University.

He said that after 2010, demand growth would be concentrated in Queensland, WA, parts of NSW and, on a much smaller scale, in the Northern Territory.

But almost 70 per cent of commonwealth-supported undergraduate places this year were locked in to universities supplying regions where demand was not growing.

“Some 12,500 new places are to be funded from 2005, representing 8 per cent of commencing student opportunities, whereas demand in Queensland alone is growing by more than 10 per cent.”

The article goes on:

His concerns came as private institutions dismissed increased full-fee places at public universities as a threat to their livelihood.

Let me conclude by reiterating some of the remarks made by the member for Jagajaga, who emphasised that this is the first time we have had the opportunity to discuss higher education since the bill was introduced in December. Labor have expressed concern about the minister's discretion in giving additional funds, relating to the need to meet the government's industrial relations requirements. We also have some concerns about the power that the minister is seeking to determine the size of university governing bodies and about students missing out. Quite frankly, we believe that there should be more places for young, qualified people to attend university, and that is certainly not going to happen under the government's policy. The member for Jagajaga has said that Labor will abolish full-fee university degrees, some of which now cost $100,000, and will not raise fees for other courses. Labor will also create 20,000 new places. Labor will reverse the 25 per cent HECS increases and introduce a new formula for indexing university grants. I have great pleasure in supporting the remarks of the member for Jagajaga.