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Wednesday, 30 August 2000
Page: 16946

Senator O'BRIEN (2:58 PM) —My question is to Senator Ellison representing the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Is the minister aware of a report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 24 August which draws attention to the fact that the commercial arms of a number of publicly funded universities have made losses of millions of dollars over the last few years? Specifically, is the minister aware that Unisearch Ltd, a wholly-owned company of the University of New South Wales, received a loan of $10 million from the university last year in order to keep it afloat? Can the minister assure the Senate that no Commonwealth moneys were involved in the making of that loan?

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —It is a fact that we have encouraged universities in this country to be more entrepreneurial, because we believe in giving those universities a greater resource in relation to raising funds and in them not just being reliant on the government purse. In fact, there is a record amount of funding—I think it is just over $9 billion—available to universities in Australia today as a result of that policy. We are allowing them to set fees and to go into partnership with industry. We have provided incentives in relation to donations and tax. And, of course, there is the increased funding in relation to the higher education sector.

In fact, it is quite interesting to see the universities which form the group of eight developing a policy position in respect of the future direction of the sector. This is a group of universities which are entrepreneurial and looking to the future. They are not looking backwards to the old days of just relying on the government purse. We are saying that universities should have some autonomy in this regard, and we are saying that this will only make more funding available for the higher education sector.

Senator Carr —You're driving them into bankruptcy.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The level of noise is far too high. And, Senator Carr, there is no need to shout.

Senator ELLISON —The government is pleased that this sector is actively pursuing options for its future in respect of funding, and it looks forward to this forming part of the debate on the government's white paper, `Knowledge and innovation'. The government is taking this initiative—something which the opposition is not doing and never did in relation to the higher education sector.

Senator O'BRIEN —Madam Deputy President, I ask a supplementary question. I reiterate, Minister: can you answer the question whether any Commonwealth money is involved in the making of the loan to Unisearch Ltd? Further, is the minister aware that, of the six sandstone universities that have private commercial arms, four are in serious financial trouble? Does this represent a failure of the government's policy on higher education? Isn't this government's cavalier, destructive approach to higher education funding responsible for the fact that Australia's universities are being forced into dodgy and questionable commercial ventures in order to pay their staff and to meet their running costs in a climate of severe funding cuts?

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —The opposition is trying to beat up an issue to bring discredit on this sector which is trying to do good things. In fact, what the group of eight—which comprises the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia—are calling for is deregulation of the sector so that they can have greater freedom to pursue this source of funding. What we have here from the opposition is going back to the days of the dinosaurs, where universities would be entirely reliant on the public purse. That flies in the face of the initiatives that these universities are seeking so that they can seek further private, as well as government, funding.

Senator Hill —Madam Deputy President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.