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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 12004

Senator CARR (2:52 PM) —My question without notice is to Senator Alston, the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Is the minister aware of the assertions of the minister for education that all Australian universities will be better off under his funding package and that this specifically includes regional universities? What then is the minister's response to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England, who has identified a funding shortfall of $1.5 million by 2005 and has publicly claimed: `UNE will be worse off following this budget, not better. We will be going backwards'? Isn't this proof that regional universities will in fact be worse off under Dr Nelson's proposed changes to higher education funding?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —It is an interesting logical deduction to say that, because one person from one regional university expresses a view that the opposition jumps to identify with, somehow that proves that all regional universities will be worse off. It is a ridiculous proposition. It is really just a smokescreen to disguise the fact that they have not yet tackled this particular area of policy, despite the fact that Mr Crean seems to have got up as the policy preferred alternative. It is quite ironic in many ways. We certainly recognise the unique contribution that regional universities and regional campuses make to regional Australia. They provide easier access to higher education for students from rural and regional areas.

Senator Crossin —Why do you have to read this?

Senator ALSTON —So you can take it down. I don't want you to miss any of it.

The PRESIDENT —Minister, ignore the interjections and address your remarks to the chair.

Senator ALSTON —Thank you, Mr President. The higher education reform package contains a number of initiatives that will assist regional universities and regional campuses. An additional loading will be incorporated into the funding of student places, which will be allocated according to a campus's regionality as determined by its size and its distance from a mainland capital city—an increase of $122.6 million over four years. In 2004 the government will provide an additional 210 nursing places to regional campuses, rising to 574 places by 2007—an increase of $40.4 million over four years. From 2004, Commonwealth accommodation scholarships will be available to specifically assist financially disadvantaged students and Indigenous students from regional and rural areas who have to leave home in order to study. Commonwealth education costs scholarships will provide $2,000 per year for up to four years to assist with education costs. Rather than simply seizing on the remarks of one person who made a general, sweeping statement that somehow he thinks his university is likely to be worse off—

Senator Carr —It's a she.

Senator ALSTON —She—I am taking Senator Carr's word for it, which I normally don't do. Senator Conroy has warned me repeatedly against taking anything Senator Carr says at face value, and I value his advice on that matter. In this instance, if Senator Carr assures me that we are talking about a she, I will use that terminology. The fact remains that a general piece of rhetoric is no substitute for serious policy analysis. The unfortunate part about Senator Carr's whole approach in this area seems to be that he is not prepared to tackle the hard issues. Labor's only solution seems to be to throw more money around—not their money, our money—rather than look at the real challenges ahead and the real benefits available to students from increased student places and an increase in HECS payments, designed to facilitate more places and to make students overwhelmingly better off because they will be paying around a quarter of the total cost of access. The end result, of course, is that all we get is sniping. That is a very sad reflection, but I think it is a pretty accurate one of where you are after seven years. You have a long way to go, and this is a very good place to start getting serious about policy.

Senator CARR —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. If it is only one vice-chancellor who has been able to identify that they will be worse off at their university, when will the government release the detailed analysis of the individual university finances under the proposed Commonwealth course contribution scheme? How many other regional universities will be financially hit in the same way as the University of New England?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I simply counsel Senator Carr that, rather than taking a general, sweeping statement from one vice-chancellor from one regional university, he should go and do the hard yards. He should dig down and see—

Senator Carr —When will you release the data?

Senator ALSTON —What Senator Carr is saying is, `I can't do it until I get the detailed data,' yet he is perfectly happy to run off one vice-chancellor who makes a sweeping statement. That is not the way you tackle policy issues. Go away and do your homework and it might make a bit more sense.