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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 89

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (3:15 PM) —What a surprise! Eleven long years of complacency, neglect and blame shifting, with four months to go before an election, and suddenly the government discovers an interest in education. What a surprise! No prizes for guessing why in the budget on Tuesday night the government trumpeted its so-called education credentials. For 11 long years it has failed to invest properly in education at every level and has allowed, at every level, our competitive position with other countries to slip. Now, with four months to go until an election, suddenly the government is taking an interest. For 11 long years it has done nothing and now, suddenly, it has taken an interest. The only reason for it doing that is that it is a political fix for an election—a John Howard political fix, a political hoax, a political smokescreen.

The attitude of the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party is that, if they win the next election, that is it for education. What they have announced in the budget will be the end of it, because it serves their political end. It has nothing to do with a long-term enduring commitment to increasing investment in education at every level, raising standards of education at every level and increasing our competitiveness in education at every level—not just on the state by state level but at the national level compared with the educational levels of other nations, particularly our regional competitors.

The single most important thing we can do to continue to be internationally competitive, to continue to be a prosperous nation and to continue to have a good lifestyle for future generations is to invest in the education, skills and training of our people and our workforce. For 11 long years the government has been underinvesting. It started by slashing and burning and then has run an approach that essentially says, ‘If there’s a problem with standards, that has nothing to do with us; blame a state, teacher or a trade union. If there is a failure to invest in a university, it has nothing to do with us; blame a vice-chancellor or blame a university.’ The government’s whole approach has been to reduce Commonwealth investment in education at every level—and then, with four months to go, what a surprise! There is only one reason that it has acted different at this point in the cycle. That is because throughout this year the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, and Labor have made education such a central focus, such a central issue.

Historically, Australians have regarded education as an important social issue, where an individual, a young Australian, is given the given the chance to maximise his or her potential—the chance to finish school, the chance to go to TAFE and get some vocational education and training, the chance to go to a university. It gives young Australians, particularly those from disadvantaged or lower socioeconomic families, the chance to get ahead and to break out of a cycle. It remains the case—and I might be old-fashioned—that the single most important thing we can do for a young Australian is to give them the chance of a good education. That gives them the chance to get ahead in life—and that applies particularly to young Australians from disadvantaged or lower socioeconomic families.

However, in the face of international or global competition, education is now front and centre a mainstream economic issue and we need to view it in that light. One of our successful industries at the moment is the minerals and petroleum resources industry, and that is because that industry for a long time has known that it is competing internationally. We are now in an international competition when it comes to investment in education.

Our starting point is to increase the level of investment at every point in the cycle: early childhood education, primary education, secondary education, vocational education and training, universities and then on-the-job training or professional development. That is the difference between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. That is the difference between the opposition and the government. We have a long-term enduring commitment to that approach to education; the government is about having a short-term political fix in the face of an election in four months time. There is the odd notion that the Prime Minister here is being just a little too desperate to try to claw back some credentials that are long since lost and have long since gone and have long since faded away.

Despite what the government has done in the budget, it remains the case that our investment in education—comparing it with those investments that are being made internationally—lags behind and does not match the investments of our competitors. Most compellingly, the government’s own budget papers show that, in the budget period from 2005-06 to 2010-11—the budget funding cycle—education spending goes from 7.4 per cent of total spending by the government in 2005-06 to 7.7 per cent in 2010-11. Even after what the government has done on budget night, over its period of the budget papers, over the period of the outlay years—the forward estimates—this government is responsible for a declining investment in education spending. That is why this is just a short-term political fix to try to slide the government through the election. If it wins the election, that will be the finish of any interest it has in education. If Labor wins the election, there is a long-term enduring commitment. Tonight, in his budget reply, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, will show that there is much more to be done in this area—not just in the weeks and months but in the years ahead.

There are a couple of central points that can be made. Firstly, our secondary school retention rates have stagnated for a number of years at about 75 per cent. We saw a substantial increase from the early eighties to the mid-nineties and then there was a stagnation at about 75 per cent. We need to be doing much more to increase that secondary school retention rate. Why is that? It is because all of the evidence, research and statistics show that, if a young Australian—or young student anywhere—completes secondary school, they have a much better chance of going on to vocational education and training, to university or to a semiskilled or skilled job in the workforce, which will give them a much better chance of being productive in the future.

We can find nothing in the budget for early childhood education. The positive early childhood education proposal from Labor is just one illustration of the sort of positive initiatives that can be taken up. Just this year, in addition to the proposal of half a billion dollars for early childhood education, we have seen a $110 million proposal to: encourage young Australians to both study and teach maths; ensure that we get greater consistency in our national curriculum by having a national curriculum board; raise the standards of our curriculum; and get national consistency in the core discipline areas of maths, English, science and history. We have a proposal to substantially improve and increase our literacy and numeracy performance with Labor’s literacy and numeracy plan. These are just half a dozen measures which Labor has announced this year to improve standards and to give young Australians better opportunities.

The debate this week, post budget, has centred upon universities. Let us just understand what the government has done when it comes to universities. When the government came to office in 1996, 60 per cent of the revenue which supported universities came from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth in 1996 discharged its obligations to support its universities by effectively funding universities with 60 per cent of the funding pie. That funding is now 40 per cent of the pie. We have seen a drop under the Howard government in the funding of our universities from 60 per cent to 40 per cent. The Commonwealth contribution is down. How has that been replaced? That has been replaced in a couple of key areas: firstly, by massively increasing the HECS of individual students—massively increasing their individual HECS debts and also massively increasing the national HECS debt. Secondly, there has been an increase in reliance by universities on fees from full fee paying overseas students and full fee paying domestic students. The proportion of revenue that universities derive from fees and charges increased from 13 per cent in 1996 to 24 per cent in 2004. The Commonwealth contribution under the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister and his government, is down. The HECS contribution for students and the debt burden of the nation are up. Fees from domestic full fee paying students are up. Fees from overseas students are up. After 11 years of neglect and of finding excuses for not making that investment and discharging that obligation, and with four months to go until the election, up comes the government with a desperate attempt to pretend it has been interested.

Let us have a look at one of the proposals to put it in context. In September last year, the minister’s own department did work on infrastructure in our universities and recorded a $1.2 billion maintenance deficiency. The government says that the $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund solves all the problems of the world. We support the notion of a fund, but that fund will provide about $300 million worth of income. We have 38 universities, so, if you divide the $300 million by 38, that is less than $10 million per university. And we know that a decent modern infrastructure project for a university will cost anywhere between $50 million and $100 million. The ANU in the city of Canberra, just down the road from here, has a new medical research facility which cost $125 million. That is why the so-called endowment does not make up for the $1.2 billion neglect in infrastructure and maintenance which the government has allowed to occur.

The national accumulated HECS debt increased from $4.5 billion in 1996 to more than $9 billion in 2003 and to $13 billion in 2006, while personal HECS debt on average for individual students went up from $2,000 in 1996 to $8,500 in 2003 and $10,000 in 2006. I have made the distinction between 1996, 2003 and 2006 because it was in 2003 that the government last allowed universities to substantially increase the HECS contribution. Yesterday in question time I asked the minister what she had to say about the fact that, under the budget, students studying accounting, economics and commerce would have their HECS contributions increased by $1,215 a year. When you work on the basis that we have about 55,000 students in those disciplines and cascade that through the system, that is just under $200 million in increased accumulated HECS debt burden. The minister—and she repeated this on the 7.30 Report last night—said, ‘That has nothing to do with us. It is the universities who charge.’ The last time the government increased the HECS caps for universities, all but one university took advantage and we saw a substantial increase in HECS. So we know now that there will be a substantial increase in the debt burden for those students.

There is so much more to be done when it comes to education. The Leader of the Opposition tonight will show that and it will be illustrated again in the weeks and months ahead. There is a stark contrast here. The government’s view of and approach to education at every level is complacency, neglect, underinvestment, blaming others, and cost and blame shifting. But four months from an election, in a desperate attempt to slide over the fact that this is occurring against our national interest, we see the decisions made in the budget. I do not think that in the end the community will be fooled. The community want what Labor offers, which is a long-term, enduring commitment to improving our education standards and increasing our investment in education at every level. (Time expired)