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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 11238

Senator NETTLE (2:37 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Senator Alston. Is the minister aware that it would cost the Commonwealth approximately $1.7 billion per annum to abolish HECS and to forgive existing HECS debts so as to return us to a situation of free public tertiary education? Can the minister explain why the government made the decision to prioritise delivering a tax cut that has been described in today's media as `the piddling $4' rather than investing in the future of this country and supporting the building of a clever country that this government has been so keen to promote in the past?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I think Senator Nettle demonstrates the fundamental misunderstanding of why the Labor Party introduced the HECS scheme in the first place. Things are not free; there are always more demands on the system than governments can afford to meet. We take the view that there is a fundamental unfairness in the fact that 70 per cent of students do not go to university and that the overwhelming bulk of them are taxpayers and are therefore effectively required to cross-subsidise those who are, in all probability, going to earn a lot more money in their lifetimes than those who did not go to university. We think that is very unfair. I am sure that is why the Labor Party took the view that it was only reasonable to expect people to make a contribution to their education.

To be paying about a quarter of the total cost still means the Commonwealth is up for very substantial sums of money. Of course, we are putting another $1.5 billion into the system over the next four years and $10 billion over the next 10 years. These are very substantial and ongoing increases in real terms from the Commonwealth. The notion that, somehow, it should all be free just ignores the very importance of price signals for many people. On what basis do you decide? If anything is available and you do not have to pay for it, you regard it as free. You do not understand that the taxpayer is actually having to pay very substantial sums of money.

The universities do not think that is a sensible system. Why do you think they have been asking us for flexibility? It is in order to increase their fees in certain areas to allow a sensible market response. We have put caps on those. We have limited the ability of fees to increase, just as we have put limits on the amount that HECS payments can increase. But unless you go down that path—unless you are committed to excellence, as we are and as the vice-chancellors are—you end up with a recipe for mediocrity. I think you should read some of the articles in today's press if you want to get a sensible assessment of it rather than just an ideological one. For example, the chairman of the Vice-Chancellors Committee, Professor Schreuder, says of the four principles they have committed to, `Australia should be ranked in the top five nations for higher education excellence'. He says there should be `at least one world-class research centre in each significant academic field' and that higher education services should be one of the top three value adding Australian exports. And he says more than `60 per cent of Australians should be completing higher education' over their lifetimes. Before we introduced the fee help scheme—

Senator Carr —None of those things will be measured in this package! Not one of them will be reached!

Senator ALSTON —If you have a question, ask it. You have been around for a long time; you have not gone anywhere. This is your chance. Just ask a question. The fact is that for the first time we are allowing full fee paying students to actually take out a significant loan—up to $50,000. That will not break the bank, because they will make their own judgments about whether or not it makes sense for them to go to university. As we know, many families will scrimp and save to send their children to high-quality education institutions. Students themselves can make those choices about which universities they go to and which courses they value. The universities will have to be very conscious of not simply catering for people who have substantial sums of money and who are prepared to buy their way into courses irrespective of quality. If you are really interested in outcomes, Senator Nettle, you will be interested in a system that frees it up, that removes the dead hand of bureaucracy and that does not have all those workplace relations schemes that put premiums on grades rather than performance, and you will make sure students get a much better opportunity in the future than they are getting now.

Senator NETTLE —Mr President, I have a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that approximately 30 per cent of high school age students in this country attend private schools, and yet this government spends half a billion dollars on handouts to the richest private schools in this country? Does the minister endorse a user-pays system for those school students who choose to stay on for their HSC or equivalent? This follows from the argument you have just given me in response to my question, Minister Alston. Do you support a user-pays system for those 70 per cent of students who attend our public school system?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I got a bit lost there. You talked about 30 per cent going to private schools; you ended up with 70 per cent for government schools. The fact is that a lot of people and families vote with their feet and send their children to private schools, where the parents do make a very substantial contribution. They get Commonwealth assistance but, fundamentally, those parents are prepared to reflect value for money. The reason people often do not want government schools is that they are concerned about the quality levels. If you had someone like Senator Carr teaching you, you would be very concerned, wouldn't you.

Senator Carr —You might have learned something!

Senator ALSTON —Not everyone has that sort of a parachute to be able to go to a place where you probably get three times the salary you were looking at previously, and come up here and spend 10 years doing nothing. Most of those students at secondary level are very conscious of the opportunities available to them once they leave secondary school. They are interested in picking and choosing between courses. They do not want a one-size-fits-all approach. They are prepared to pay a bit extra—that is why a lot more students work part time. (Time expired)