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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 17302

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (3:48 PM) —We are here in the year 2003 and we have crossed the threshold from the 20th to the 21st century. What would be obvious to those Australians who are thinking about the future would be that, firstly, as a relatively small country—we are only 0.3 per cent of world population, we are about one per cent of world trade and still only about six per cent of APEC—our future in this century will rely entirely on our ability to learn how to learn, to develop ideas in this country and commercialise and apply new technologies to not only the existing industries that gave the country an economic and social legacy that, sadly, some people seem to take for granted, but, most importantly, to help us transform and support new and emerging industries.

This government has examined the role that will be played in creating the future we want—not the one imposed upon us by the rest of the world—by Australian universities and, indeed, education, in creating not only a standard of living but also human and social objectives that we think are desirable for our children. It is always easy to pander to some of the sentiments that have just been expressed by the member for Jagajaga but the much more difficult thing is to do what is right and in Australia's interests. Along with my colleagues in government, the university sector and my department, I spent a year very closely examining the policy choices we have as a country in relation to Australian universities. We released seven ministerial discussion papers, I established a reference group from a cross-section of Australian vice-chancellors and people in the business community, we ran 49 focus groups over 200 hours and invited 800 people to come in and give us advice about what they think the choices are.

As a result of that and the Productivity Commission examining Australian higher education and comparing 23 Australian universities with those in North America and Europe, the government developed and announced in this year's budget a transformational package of reform for Australian universities. It includes $1½ billion of extra public investment in the first four years, $6.9 billion of direct extra public investment over 10 years, and $3.7 billion in additional financial assistance to students over 10 years. From 2009 it will result in another $870 million in extra money going into Australia's 38 publicly funded universities.

One of the many things that was argued to the government by every single one of the vice-chancellors of Australian universities was that, in addition—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Port Adelaide!

Mr Sawford —Gee, they are great champions higher education!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Port Adelaide is on thin ice.

Dr NELSON —to significantly more public investment in Australian universities, the vice-chancellors said that it was important that we ended the fantasy that every one of Australia's universities was exactly the same—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Port Adelaide will remove himself from the House under a standing order 304A!

Dr NELSON —and that they should be administered and funded in precisely the same way. One of the eight enabling policy changes they argued for, to deliver a 20/20 vision for Australian higher education, was that there should be flexibility in terms of the HECS charges that universities levy on the students and those students then repay once they start working—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Port Adelaide has been asked to leave the chamber under standing order 304A.

Mr Sawford —What for, Mr Deputy Speaker?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Because of three interjections—warned on the second one—I have asked the member for Port Adelaide to remove himself. If he does not, I will invoke standing order 303.

Mr Sawford —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sorry, I did not hear you.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —You should have heard me. It was very clear.

The member for Port Adelaide then left the chamber.

Dr NELSON —It is a pity that, having been heard in silence, the opposition is not prepared to listen to serious policy changes that are required for this country to build its educational future. The vice-chancellors argued that they should be able to charge the HECS fees which they think are appropriate, up to a limit that would be determined by the Commonwealth government. Many of the vice-chancellors of universities which are non-research intensive in the regions of the country argued to me and have subsequently said publicly that they have no intention of changing their HECS charges. Perhaps for one or two courses where there is a high demand and good income earnings following graduation they might increase their HECS charges, and for others they may decrease them. But all of them said—whether it be Professor Paul Thomas from the University of the Sunshine Coast, whether it be Professor Kerry Cox from the University of Ballarat, whether it be Professor Millicent Poole from Edith Cowan University—this is an important policy change.

The government responded to their arguments by saying, `The government will increase the amount of money we provide under the Commonwealth grants scheme to $404 million. We will put $138 million into a learning and teaching performance pool which can be accessed by universities which wish to focus on the quality of the teaching that they provide. We will provide regional loading—in this case from 2½ to 30 per cent extra public money into universities—to recognise the higher costs that are met by universities in delivering services in remote and rural parts of the country.' The government also responded to their requests for increasing places, fully funding the 25,000 marginally funded over-enrolled places that are in the process of disappearing from the sector. In addition to that, over the first five years in total there will be another 6,500 new places into Australian universities, particularly in nursing, teaching and medicine.

One thing that is very disappointing about the Australian Labor Party is that it is seeking to deliberately deceive and mislead Australians and to evoke in them feelings of fear about things which are not likely to occur. I will systematically go through a number of things which have been said by opposition members. Firstly, on 20 May 2003, when interviewed on radio 5AN in Sydney by David Bevan and Matthew Abraham, the member for Jagajaga said:

When I go to primary schools, parents are saying to me, `Gee, are we going to have to start saving almost from that time to make sure we can afford to send our children to university?'

Then David Bevan said:

And you would say to them, `No, of course not,' because there is a loans scheme here if your child wants to take a higher degree—they can take out a loan. They won't have to pay it back until they start earning over $30,000, so there is nothing to worry about.' You would say that to them, wouldn't you?

Mr Downer —What did she say?

Dr NELSON —She then said, `Let's go through the facts,' and she wriggled out of that corner. Five days later on 25 May, having been challenged by David Bevan and the ABC, she issued a media release with the heading `Start saving now for your baby's university education', which read:

Parents with a baby born today should immediately begin saving up to $44 a week if they want to be able to afford to send their child to university ...

That is the kind of reprehensible campaign which does no honour at all to any member of parliament, let alone someone who purports to be Australia's shadow minister for education. The fact is that the Higher Education Contribution Scheme was introduced, to its great credit, by the Australian Labor Party in 1989. It did so because it recognised that the Australian taxpayer could not possibly afford to provide a taxpayer subsidised university education for every Australian, particularly in moving from what was described as the elite system of higher education to the mass system of higher education following the amalgamation. The things that are being said now about these changes are precisely the things that were said in 1989 by critics of John Dawkins, who was then the Labor education minister. What we have 13 or 14 years later is a doubling of the number of people in Australian universities and a doubling of the proportion of the population that has a university education. The member for Jagajaga's second deception was this morning, in fact outside Parliament House, when she said:

We do expect to see many other universities put up their fees by the full 30 per cent because the government is saying to universities, `This is the only way that you are going to get increased funding. You are only going to get increased funding at our universities if you put up fees.'

Nothing could be further from the truth. The universities are having, in total, $1½ billion of additional money invested in them in the first four years of this package alone. The universities will now have the ability to set the HECS charges themselves. Macquarie University, the University of Western Sydney, Wollongong University, the University of Tasmania and, informally, the University of Ballarat have all said that they will not be changing their HECS charges much, if at all. We also heard today that the University of Sydney has not decided to do anything at this stage. It is considering the options that will be available to it. We ought to remember that all of the money that is charged in HECS, every last dollar of it, goes to the university. It does not go to the government; it goes to the university.

Whatever the HECS charge is, under these arrangements the maximum possible increase in the HECS charge—which is only paid back once you have finished university and you are working and, under these proposals, earning in excess of $30,000 a year—you could face as a lawyer, a dentist, a veterinary scientist or a doctor is $2,000 per year of your course added to your HECS debt, all of which goes to the university to benefit your education. It is also interesting if you look at science, engineering, commerce and economics. The maximum possible increase those students could face, if the university decided to increase its HECS charge by 30 per cent, is $1,500 to $1,600—again, to benefit your education. Finally, in arts, humanities and social sciences there is a maximum of $1,100 per year added to your HECS debt. For 14 per cent of the students in the system—that is, teachers and nurses—the maximum HECS charge will not change at all.

It needs to be remembered that three-quarters of university funding is provided by taxpayers—the vast majority of whom have never seen the inside of a university but aspire for their children to go to university and recognise the important social benefits that we derive from higher education. I challenge anyone—and I say this as a medical graduate myself—to suggest it is unreasonable for a medical graduate to contribute a maximum possible $50,000 to his or her education, three-quarters of which is financed by the taxpayer, to face lifetime minimum earnings of $4 million in today's dollars. I challenge anyone to say that that is an unreasonable contribution, when all of the money is going to the university.

It is interesting when you actually look at HECS debt and who has it. There are 1,079,000 Australians who owe the Commonwealth money in HECS. Six hundred thousand people have already fully paid back their HECS debt since 1989. The average HECS debt carried is $8,000. Eighty-one per cent owe less than $12,000 and 90 per cent owe less than $16,000. There are only 3,615 people in the entire country who owe more than $30,000 and 138 who owe more than $40,000. People who went to university last year had an average graduate starting salary of $35,500 for males and $33,500 for females. Average graduate starting salaries are 83.5 per cent of average weekly earnings. Forty-two per cent of Australian men between the ages of 25 and 44 earn less than $32,000 a year—and they are principally funding what happens inside Australian higher education. I might also add that graduates have a lifetime unemployment rate one-quarter that of those who do not go to uni-versity and they earn, on average, $622,000 more than a person who does not go to university.

These changes, which were argued for by Australian higher education and vice-chancellors, are in the long-term best interests of Australia. The government has developed and is promoting this package because this is what is right for Australia. It is right for Australian higher education. Of course it is easy for opportunists and those who simply seek political mileage to misrepresent what these changes are all about, but it ought to be remembered that, in the end, this government is about doing what is right for Australia. It may not always be popular, but what we are doing is what is right. The Labor Party knew what that was about in the late eighties when it changed the higher education system. It is time for change again. If we do not undertake change now, this sector will be on a collision course with mediocrity. (Time expired)