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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9744

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) (3:53 PM) —Can I say at the outset that the government totally rejects the motion proposed by Senator Stott Despoja, which is based on an entirely false premise, and that is that the government somehow has some proposals to deregulate the higher education sector and introduce a whole system of fanciful measures. The Prime Minister has made the government's position absolutely clear, as has Dr Kemp, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. We have to go no further than the Prime Minister when he was interviewed today and he stated:

We have no intention, no intention at all, of introducing an American style approach to universi ty funding in this country. It won't work. It's not good for Australia and it's not something that I can support or would ever support. I make that very clear.

Today in question time the Prime Minister reiterated that commitment.

In fact, it was the Leader of the Opposition who asked, `Can you guarantee that you will never allow higher education in this country to go down that path?' The Prime Minister replied, `Look, don't be silly. If you are asking me to do that you are assuming I am going to remain Prime Minister forever and this government is going to stay in government forever.' What he did was a very realistic thing. He gave an undertaking that, while he was Prime Minister, he could rule these things out. You can ask for no more or no less. He can give an undertaking only as to what can and will happen while he is Prime Minister, and he did that. He said in this interview today:

The other thing I want to make clear is that any decisions the government takes will fully honour the promises made both at the time of the election and previously in relation to vouchers, in relation to deregulation of university fees, and also the commitment we made not to introduce HECS charges for TAFE courses.

Those commitments were made quite deliberately and quite explicitly after we got the West review last year.

It is well known, and Senator Stott Despoja and members of the opposition know, that we have had the West review around for some time. It is no secret that the government have been looking at ways of improving the higher education sector. We have been looking at ways of increasing access for young Australians—in fact all Australians—to higher education. That is precisely what the government have been doing. The Prime Minister pointed out that, whilst we are always on the lookout for ways to improve the higher education sector, we also had a system which was pretty good and one which was recognised internationally as being so. I cite the headline in the Australian dated 29 September this year: `Overseas students flock to our universities'. It stated:

Overseas students have continued to pour into Australian universities despite the Asian crisis, with new international enrolments up 20.5 per cent from last year.

That hardly tells the tale of a tertiary education sector in a parlous state. What it tells you is that across the world, internationally, our higher education system is regarded very highly. Of course, what the government are saying is that, whilst we have a good system and whilst it is recognised internationally as such, we still need to look at ways of improving it.

But we do have some achievements that we can be proud of. For instance, under the coalition increased numbers of students have had access to undergraduate university education. In 1999, this year, there will be 13,235 more Commonwealth fully subsidised places than there were in the last year of Labor, back in 1996. This will increase to over 15,500 more by the year 2001. That is an increase in Commonwealth funded places for tertiary education students. What we have done as a government is expand the opportunities for universities to operate. We have allowed for fee paying students so that undergraduates who are capable of paying a fee can enter a course of their first choice. We have not only made more resources available to universities but also given more choices to Australians. I ask you, what is wrong with that?

We have also allowed the private sector to contribute more to universities. I know that in my home state of Western Australia the University of Western Australia has one of the highest rates of private contribution to a university. It does that by all manner of means, one of them being going into joint ventures with the private sector. What we as a government have got to do is make it more attractive for the private sector to donate and contribute funds to universities, and we have done that with tax incentives. That will encourage industry, for instance, to become more involved with universities. We do want to see universities become more entrepreneurial. Senator Stott Despoja mentioned that today in question time. She asked, `Is it true that this is what you want?' Of course it is. I think most universities would want that too. You want to be forward thinking not only in your research but also in the ways that you can offer courses and opportunities to people and in the ways that you can have support from the private sector.

I also mentioned today the advances that we are seeing in indigenous education. In the second quarter of this year from March to June, we saw a jump of just under 2,000 indigenous students in Abstudy take-up rates. That spells good news, going from some 16,000 in the first quarter to 18,000-odd in that second quarter from March to June. So much is happening in the indigenous education sector of tertiary education, and that is something which we as a government are strongly committed to.

What is being lost in all this is the assumption that this is all going to happen today, that these aspects of vouchers and deregulation of fees are foregone conclusions. I have mentioned that they have been ruled out by both the minister for education and the Prime Minister, but you still have Senator Stott Despoja saying on Adelaide radio today:

I just don't see why the government would embark on this so-called vision, and I'm very concerned about it.

I can tell you, Senator Stott Despoja—through the chair—that there is no need to be concerned because it is not happening. It is not happening because the Prime Minister has ruled it out.

What we are ruling in is looking at ways to improve access by Australians to tertiary education, and we have had a number of innovations. I could point to the total research funding for higher education being up from $396 million in the last year of Labor to just over $450 million in the financial year 1998-99. What we are doing is increasing funding for research. But, as well is that, we have established the Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development. We recognise the needs of those who are engaged in teaching and lecturing in the tertiary education sector and we have developed that committee to encourage improved teaching. We have also provided the Australian awards for university teaching, to help give greater status to university teaching. These are very important steps in the recognition of those working in the sector.

This government has done much in the tertiary education sector and the opposition, before it attacks the government, should look at how it locked out tens of thousands of Australians who wanted to take up a university course but could not. They had the money to pay for a course but they could not take one up, because you had a wholly funded government-set enrolment target. As well as that you had Labor's Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which was unfair because students in courses with lower income prospects paid the same amount as those in courses with higher income prospects. Of course, it was only fair for us to recognise the differences in the incomes that those students would be deriving when qualified. What the community ought to realise and should remember is what Labor did not do and then remember what we have done to increase access for all Australians to tertiary education. I urge all Australians not to succumb to the scaremongering by the Democrats and the opposition. (Time expired)