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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 96

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (3:46 PM) —It seems quite strange that for some time we on this side of the chamber used to get criticised by those on the other side of the chamber because we talked about universities. We have just heard 15 minutes of nothing but universities. I just reflect upon that as I begin my comments.

Education is central to a prosperous future for Australia. Education is about fairness. Education is the pathway to prosperity. It is the pathway out of poverty. It is the pathway to a career, to security and to a decent standard of living. Education is the core challenge for any economy. Labor has always demonstrated an enduring commitment to this issue, emphasised again by our leadership on the issue with the commitment of a Rudd Labor government to an ‘education revolution’. On saying those words ‘education revolution’, I am immediately reminded, sadly but amusingly, of Crocodile Dundee. It was Crocodile Dundee who said, ‘That’s not a knife; this is a knife.’ It is the Prime Minister who is saying, ‘That’s not an education revolution; this is a genuine education revolution.’ I have to say to the Prime Minister that this issue is far more important than trying to put some copycat behaviour as against Crocodile Dundee. It is a far more important issue than one-upmanship. It is a far more important issue than singing that old Broadway song Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better. It is a serious issue that should stand on its own as a serious issue of government.

Those opposite have for 11 years given the pretence that they believe in education, but they have really done nothing to formulate a longstanding view to take education into the 21st century in this country. Despite what the Minister for Education, Science and Training has just claimed, those opposite have underinvested in our schools, our colleges, our TAFEs and our universities. As my colleague the member for Perth said a few moments ago, we have seen 60 per cent Commonwealth funding reduced to 40 per cent Commonwealth funding for universities alone in the time this government has been in power.

Five minutes before midnight, in what I can only describe as a cynical act of desperation with an election coming on—and, I believe, in total reaction to Labor’s leadership on this important challenge to build a world-class education system for the future—the government have put together some headline-grabbing education commitments. Whilst we on this side of the chamber welcome the announcement of some of these measures, they only begin the task of addressing the challenge of filling the education hole—an education hole this government has dug for itself over the past 11 years and is now attempting to fill. In its latest budget, this government has continued to fail to present a vision to the Australian people—a comprehensive plan for education that will take our community well into the 21st century at all levels of education.

Let us briefly look at the government’s record on education spending. We continue to slip behind our competitors. Australia’s overall investment in education is 5.8 per cent of GDP—behind 17 other OECD economies, including Poland, Hungary and New Zealand. Despite the new measures in this budget, as the Prime Minister in this place conceded, funding for education as a proportion of total government expenditure is forecast to drop from 7.7 per cent of total spending in 2005-06 to 7.4 per cent in 2010-11. What does this budget do to address this? Let us take a look at a couple of the budget’s key education announcements.

We heard 15 minutes worth of description from the minister about the Higher Education Endowment Fund—an interesting proposal and one that in principle we do not really object to. But it is like the Christmas package: sometimes the wrapping is more exciting than what is inside it. The vice-chancellors and the university sector in general are saying that this is a welcome initiative. The minister quoted probably half a dozen of them as saying that it is far beyond their expectations. Of course it is, because, given this government’s behaviour over recent years in relation to funding for universities. Their expectations have been made so low.

Let us look at the $700 vouchers to help with literacy and numeracy. I notice that the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals are most upset about this. They are not at all impressed. They say:

The tutorial vouchers are a complete waste of money. Why not put the money directly into schools so we could lower class sizes, have more targeted literacy and numeracy programs? And then we wouldn’t have these problems.

In other words, why put it in another glitzy package? Why not put the money straight into the education system and allow the system to use it? The Primary Schools Principals Association says:

The $50,000 reward for schools for improvement in literacy and numeracy would reach less than three per cent of schools.

In relation to technical trade colleges, there will be three new colleges in addition to the past commitment for 25 colleges—from which we are yet to see any graduates. By the government’s own admission, Australia faces a shortage of 200,000 skilled workers over the next five years. The government’s plan for new Australian technical colleges will provide opportunities for fewer than 10,000 students by 2010.

What doesn’t this budget address? Most seriously, in my opinion, early childhood education is the foundation of our education system. What is in the budget for it? Virtually nothing. The government continues to ignore the body of national and international evidence that highlights the importance of a strong early childhood education.

The government is doing nothing, in my view, to improve affordability or accessibility to a university education for young Australians. The government has increased the HECS contribution rate for accounting, administration, economics and commerce degrees from the present annual rate of $7,118 to the highest annual rate of $8,333. In effect that means from 1 January next year universities will be able to charge new students an additional $1,215, should they decide to do so. We have heard the government say it is not compulsory. The reality is this: the last time the Howard government allowed HECS to be increased, all but a handful of universities quickly passed on significant increases in fees to their students. The government has to face and admit the fact that that will be the reality.

What else is this government up to? Again it is the stick and not the carrot—no commitment to effective, constructive collaboration. Let me give an instance concerning the ACT. I understand that, when education ministers met with the federal education minister in Darwin three weeks ago, none of these proposed changes—to universities, for instance—were even raised. There was a throw-away line in the budget papers about external assessment for year 12. I imagine the people in the ACT would be a little unsure as to whether the Commonwealth wants the cessation of our extremely successful continuous assessment model. Our college system is extremely successful, and continuous assessment is part of the success of our students. I understand the ACT government is very concerned that the ACT does not have a large enough population to support a model of designated selective entry high schools, for example.

On selective high schools, we in Canberra have programs within our schools at the moment, such as gifted and talented programs, which can be accessed by those particular students, but that does not prevent those students who may not be so gifted or talented from attending those schools. There are issues to do with equity of access to public schools, and we believe we have the mix right. So why are the government demanding that we think about selective high schools—possibly with a connection that you do it or you do not get any funding? One could not be blamed for having that belief, given this government’s attitude. What we need if we are to achieve the best outcomes for students and their families is genuine collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. But this government prefers to grandstand, not to work collaboratively—to be almost megalomaniacs with the power and money that they have.

Federal Labor is committed in government to what we call a true education revolution. What will we do? We will support parental choice by funding all schools—whether government, non-government, religious or secular—based on need and fairness. We will set up a national curriculum board to develop a rigorous, consistent and quality curriculum for all Australian students. There is much that we will do. For example, we will invest $450 million to provide four-year-olds with 15 hours a week, for 40 weeks, of high-quality early childhood education—the very beginning of an education process for our children. We will provide up to $200 million for 260 new childcare centres based on school sites. There is absolutely no question that the budget has been filled with glitz and glamour at the last minute. What the Australian people really want is a vision for a high-quality accessible and equitable education system for everyone into the future. (Time expired)