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Thursday, 19 June 2008
Page: 2889

Senator MASON (4:19 PM) —The opposition will not be opposing the Higher Education Support Amendment (2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2008, because the government made it quite clear before the election last November that it would be implementing these arrangements. However, I would make four points with respect to this legislation. First of all, the policy reflected in this bill assumes that more university students will take up maths and science with the reduction in HECS that has been announced. The assumption, of course, is that students base their course choices on cost—or at least principally do that. I am not yet convinced that that is the case. I think there are all sorts of reasons that students take up particular courses, and I am not sure that the cost of the course is in fact the prime inhibitor or, indeed, the prime motivator. This has happened before in the context of nursing and education. I suppose over the next few years the government, as it should, will be looking at the effect a reduction in the HECS costs has on the retention of students at university and how many students choose to take up these courses. It will be interesting to monitor over the next few years whether, with a reduction in HECS, more students take up the offers. Let us wait and see.

Secondly, the issue underlying much of this legislation, and this bill in particular, is about teacher shortages. This is a serious issue that I know the federal government is looking at in a serious way—perhaps more seriously than some of the state Labor governments. I would make two points about that. I think it is worth remarking on the fact that the teaching profession, to my mind, is too industrial rather than sufficiently professional—that being dominated by the union movement has not necessarily helped the profession of teaching. In the same way that lawyers, accountants and engineers having professional bodies to organise their professional arrangements has meant that those professions have higher status, perhaps in the future, as I know the federal government is concerned about this issue—

Senator O’Brien —Yes.

Senator MASON —I accept that, although I am not convinced that some of the state Labor governments are as concerned. If the industrial status of teachers perhaps played second place to their professional status, that would be a very, very good thing.

Senator McLucas —That is highly offensive. As a former teacher, that is highly offensive.

Senator MASON —I think that is very appropriate, Senator McLucas, because, as you know, education is very important. You know I know that. We both understand that. I am very concerned that, over the next generation, it will become a far more sought-after profession that many more people will go into—high achievers—and that will mean that we perhaps have to pay teachers more, but it will also mean that the profession has to start looking after itself and not rely totally on the trade union movement. That has not helped the teaching profession, sadly. Also, if we are talking about outcomes here, students benefit when teachers know how to teach. One of the great problems with the teaching profession and their education—this goes back to the education of teachers—is that they are taught how to critique pedagogy, critique the most recent educational theories, but they are not taught to deliver a syllabus. In other words, teachers must—

Senator McLucas —Brett, this is absolute rubbish.

Senator MASON —Senator McLucas says that this is rubbish, and yet there is a crisis in teaching in this nation. Everyone says that except for you, Senator. There is a crisis in public school teaching in this nation and it is time that the federal government recognise that. One part of the problem is the trade union movement and the other part is that teachers do not know how to teach. That is the problem. It is time that the federal government woke up to it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Mark Bishop)—Order! Senator Mason, it would be useful if you ignored interjections and addressed your comments to the chair.

Senator MASON —I am happy to take interjections on the subject of education. As the Senate knows, I take education very, very seriously, and to say that there is no problem in public education is an absolutely disgraceful thing to say in this chamber. There is a crisis, and every single public school teacher that I know says so. Those young teachers say to me that they walk into the classroom and do not even know how to teach. It is time that university educators taught teachers how to teach—less critiquing of the most recent French pedagogy and more about how to teach a syllabus in Australian primary and high schools. That is what is at stake, and it is a great pity that a former teacher does not quite get that.

The third issue that I want to raise this afternoon is the abolition of domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying students. There is a whiff of class envy here. I concede that before the election the government did say that they would abolish domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying places. That is true, and that is why we are not opposing the bill. I accept that. But there is a whiff of class envy about this policy. Why is it that overseas students can come to this country, go to a public university and pay to do these courses? They can pay, whereas our students cannot. And why is it that Australian domestic students can go to a private university and then they can pay to do these courses? Well, of course, they can. The problem with the Labor Party is that they believe that people who choose to use their own money to pay for their education must somehow be rich. That is the old class envy thing—that people who choose to spend money on education, whether it is primary, secondary or tertiary, are somehow rich. That is wrong. That is a whiff of class envy, the old cloth cap, and it is not on. Still, they did announce this before the last election. I acknowledge that and for that reason the coalition does not oppose the bill. It opposes the policy but not the bill.

The fourth point that I want to raise is compensation for the abolition of domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying places. The government is providing 11,000 new HECS places to compensate universities for the loss of domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying students. The question is: will universities be adequately compensated? That is the question.

Senator Trood —No; they will not be.

Senator MASON —They may not be. Senator Trood says that they will not be, and he may well be right. The precise question should be: will universities be adequately compensated in the proportion to which they currently enjoy domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying students? That is the question. The universities have been a bit equivocal on this. They argue that they might be, yet their arguments are perhaps tempered by a certain fear of government response, so their view has been rather equivocal. But what we do know from Senate estimates is that domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying students were a source of growing revenue to universities. That is the point; they were a source of growing revenue. There were more and more domestic undergraduate full-fee-paying students. This was a source of growing revenue, and the 11,000 new HECS places that have been promised by the government are ongoing, but they are frozen in that number. That is the problem. So, in a sense, a growth of revenue will now be terminated. Universities will miss out, but I say again: the government did make clear this policy before the last election. So, while we oppose the policy, we do not oppose the bill.

I am a bit disappointed with Senator McLucas’s interjections. There are many things we can disagree about in this chamber, but I know that Senator McLucas and Senator Carr, the minister principally responsible for education in the Senate, care a lot about education. Let us not kid ourselves. Public education in this country is at crisis point. We cannot attract and retain sufficient teachers in our public schools and we must do everything we can to retain them. The profession must be professionalised, not industrialised. We must seek to retain our young teachers and bring mature-age teachers into the profession. Only if we continue to promote the profession of teaching, get away from the idea of critiquing the most recent education theories and start talking about delivering serious syllabus to our children will the teaching profession again been respected as it rightly should be.