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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9740

Senator MASON (3:33 PM) —We have heard from Senator Ellison, the Prime Minister and Dr Kemp that there will be no deregulation of fees and no US style voucher system.

Senator Carr —Do you believe them? No-one does in the Labor Party!

Senator MASON —Senator Carr often misunderstands the politics of the eighties and the nineties. The Left are irrelevant in the nineties. Let me explain why. I had the privilege the other day to address students at QUT, Brisbane. They all accept, down to a student, that they should help with their fees.

Senator Stott Despoja —And they do in this system!

Senator MASON —That is right. I will get to that in a minute, Senator Stott Despoja. They all accept that they should pay fees. They accept that the government gives them a subsidised tertiary education and that they should contribute to that. All of them believe in the ethic of mutual obligation in tertiary education. Of course, the only ones who gibbered at that were the old Vietnam generation hacks, who sat there going on and on about how dreadful it was. Do you know why? Because the last time this debate came up—the great scare campaign—was back when I was at university. In those days, just before the end of the Fraser government, there was a big debate. The debate was about whether, when tertiary fees were introduced, it would decrease the accessibility of tertiary education for students. That was the argument of the Left and the trendy academics, and they were wrong. What has happened over the last 20 years? Accessibility to tertiary education has increased enormously. It has more than doubled—against every single projection your lot made. Wrong again! The great problem was—and here Senator Carr and I agree, strangely—

Senator Carr interjecting

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Carr!

Senator MASON —Senator Carr and I could have walked down Collins Street, Melbourne or, better, Anne Street, Brisbane both with one aim in mind: to increase access to tertiary education for everyone—not just for the children of the middle class. That is what tertiary education was a generation ago and now accessibility has more than doubled. That is the great difference. It has helped enormously in this country.

Under the HECS system, tertiary students pay about 30 per cent of their total fees. They still receive subsidy. That is a fair thing; that is a good thing. The question is about how much they pay. I agree with what the minister has said. It is now about right. The current system is a great thing because it has increased access for everyone, and that is a great thing. As Senator Ellison pointed out before, it also enables people to pay fees to enrol in a university course when they would otherwise have missed out even if they qualified. That is a great advantage.

It has also enabled universities—and I make no apologies for this—to be much more entrepreneurial and much more flexible. That is also a great thing. The tired, old, leftwing hack view that, somehow, the state is there to provide a teat for all and that people need not give anything back is absolutely dead and finished. That is the difference. It worries me that this is such a time warp. This debate comes back, and all I can hear ringing in my ears is Senator Susan Ryan standing up and suggesting that the whole system would crumble if we had tertiary fees. A great thing—one of the greatest achievements of your government and one of the greatest achievements of our government—is the enormous increase in access to tertiary education.

I know it does not accord with left wing views at all—it would not because it is relevant. What is important to the future is this: the quality of tertiary teaching. That is important because at the moment academics are simply talking to each other and not engaging in public debate. That is very important. Also very important is how we are going to fund top-class tertiary education into the next millennium. That is becoming very difficult. We are going to have to do that as well. They are the big questions for the next century—not bleating about scare campaigns being revisited from the 1980s, Senator Carr. You and I agree on one thing for once—that is, that access to tertiary education is all important. You and I should be arm in arm on this question. It is a great pity that once again you are engaging in a bleating scare campaign. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The time for the debate has expired.

Question resolved in the affirmative.