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Wednesday, 13 September 2006
Page: 136

Dr EMERSON (7:22 PM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2006 Budget Measures) Bill 2006 will fund 605 new commencing places and 1,036 new commencing nursing places. In addition, the bill will fund 431 new mental health nursing places and 210 new clinical psychology places. That is part of the Commonwealth government’s contribution to the Council of Australian Governments’ mental health package. The legislation contains a number of other funding commitments. I know the public perception is often that in this parliament the government and the opposition never agree on anything. I can assure the public that on these matters—increased funding for higher education and, in particular, nursing, medical and mental health places—Labor fully supports what the government is doing.

I wanted to say that, and I also want to support the second reading amendment moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, which includes the provisions:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for:

(1)   jeopardising Australia’s future prosperity by reducing public investment in tertiary education, as the rest of the world increases their investment;

(2)   failing to invest in education, training, distribution and retention measures to ensure that all of Australia has enough doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to meet current and future health care needs; …            …            …

(7)   an inadequate and incoherent policy response to the needs of the university system to diversify, innovate and meet Australia’s higher education needs”.

The Queensland election has just been decided, and one of the big issues there was health. It had been suggested that the Commonwealth government under the leadership of the Prime Minister had been very generous in providing medical places at university; the trouble is that the number was not adequate and the delays were extraordinary. It points to the benefits of a cooperative federalism rather than a confrontational federalism—a cooperative federalism made possible by the election of a Beazley Labor government which, in a consensus style of political behaviour, would ensure that these problems did not continue to develop to the point of a crisis in the number of medical places being made available in Queensland, which they were allowed to develop to under this federal government.

More generally, in the area of higher education in this country, I can scarcely imagine an area—other than industrial relations—where this government has been so poor and so appallingly bad in the development of public policy. It is clear that the Howard government does not have a commitment to higher education. We have just heard the member for O’Connor saying that the private returns for a higher education are such that essentially it should be funded by those people who enter the university system. Labor fundamentally disagrees with this philosophy. Labor has always held the view that, in addition to the private benefits from higher education, there are very large benefits for the nation as a whole. There are so-called positive spillovers where the wider community is the great winner from young people going to university. That establishes a philosophical divide between the coalition and Labor.

It also explains why there has been such appalling underfunding of our public university system in Australia. That underfunding has become so chronic that all of the enrolment growth since the change of government in 1996 in Australian universities has been in full fee paying students—predominantly in foreign full fee paying students but more recently in Australian full fee paying students. The government is so committed to full fee places that it deprives young Australians of the opportunity of getting into university on a subsidised basis.

Over the period about which I am speaking there has been zero growth in the number of Australian undergraduate places. Indeed, in the last couple of years there has been a decline in the number of Australian undergraduate places that are subsidised by HECS, and that has occurred for the first time in half a century. Just as disturbingly, the government forecast in a statement made by the then education minister—and now the Minister for Defence—that there will be fewer undergraduate students in Australia over the coming decade. So, where Labor has an aspiration to increase access and increase the number of university graduates, the coalition government is forecasting a decline. The outlook for our public universities is a very sombre one. Some of them will succeed because of their reliance on foreign full fee paying students, but the truth of the matter is that we are losing competitiveness as a destination for foreign full fee paying students. As a consequence, as a revenue source that is now beginning to taper off.

I am conscious that I will be continuing my remarks tomorrow on this matter, so I will not go into this particular dimension of the problem in detail now. But it is clear that a number of universities in Australia will be in very severe financial straits if the government does not inject extra funding into our public universities in the coming year. A number of our universities will be looking at insolvency unless the Minister for Education, Science and Training is able to convince her cabinet colleagues that there is a funding crisis and that it will need to be resolved and resolved quickly. I am putting it clearly on notice that a number of our universities will be in great peril because of the tapering off of growth in full fee paying students and in domestic full fee paying students, despite a big increase in the year before last. We do not have the latest figures, but I am told that even domestic full fee paying students are not providing the revenue that was anticipated.

Debate interrupted.