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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18323

Mr HARTSUYKER (9:01 AM) —I rise to continue my remarks on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. Over the next 10 years, the Commonwealth will provide more than $10 billion in new support for higher education, including an estimated $6.9 billion in additional funding to the sector and approximately $3.7 billion in financial assistance to students through new student loans. Each university will set its own student contribution levels within a range up to the maximum set by the Commonwealth. Notably, new Commonwealth learning scholarships will be introduced in 2004 to further assist rural and regional, low-income and Indigenous students with the costs associated with higher education. By 2007, 5,075 scholarships per year will be provided, valued at $2,000 each, to help students cover their educational costs, commencing with two and a half thousand in 2004. Another 2,030 new scholarships per year, valued at $4,000 each, will be offered by 2007, to assist rural and regional students with their accommodation costs when they move away from home. These will commence in 2004, with an initial 1,500 scholarships awarded.

From 2004, the Commonwealth will provide an additional $122.6 million over four years to incorporate a regional loading into the Commonwealth grants scheme for students enrolled at regional campuses of public higher education institutions. This measure will financially recognise the significant and unique contribution made by regional educational institutions. Additional funding will be available to encourage universities to differentiate their missions and to achieve improvements and reform in a range of areas, including teaching and workplace productivity. A Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, worth $83.8 million in 2006-07, will be established to reward those institutions that achieve excellence in learning and teaching. Commencing in 2006 with an initial $54.7 million, the fund highlights the Howard government's commitment to teaching and learning and will help to ensure the ongoing high quality of the Australian higher education sector. In 2004 a new National Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education will be established as a national focus for the enhancement of learning and teaching in Australian higher education. The Australian Awards for University Teaching will also be enhanced, to further heighten the status of teaching.

The Commonwealth will provide seed funding of $35.5 million for four international centres of excellence—in Asia Pacific studies and diplomacy; math-ematics education; water resources management; sports science and administration—and support for the existing Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism. Funding will also be provided to support a national language centre. We will also provide $55.2 million from 2006 to 2007 for a new workplace productivity program to encourage institutions to pursue a broader workplace reform agenda, with institutions encouraged to implement flexible working arrangements and focus on direct relationships with employees and improved productivity and performance.

All these changes in the administration of universities will be complemented by more opportunities for students. The government will provide institutions with additional student places to sustain growth and will better equip institutions to respond to demand. Increased funding of $347.6 million over four years will fully support approximately 25,000 new Commonwealth funded places. These will replace the marginally funded places which are potentially undermining the quality of education and contributing to overcrowding. In 2004, $17.1 million will be provided for 210 nursing places—rising to 574 by 2007. This will assist in addressing the current nursing shortages, especially in regional areas. In the areas of teaching and nursing, and for Indigenous students, 1,400 places will be set aside for allocation to eligible private higher education institutions, and 1,400 new university places will be provided from 2007 to meet population growth, at a cost of $10.9 million.

Additional support will be provided for areas identified by the Commonwealth as national priorities. This support will initially be in the areas of teaching and nursing to help ensure an adequate supply of high-quality graduates for Australia's schools and hospitals. Fees for students in funded places in the areas of teaching and nursing will not increase under the new arrangements and may in fact go down at some institutions. The maximum fee students could pay in these areas will be set as if the current HECS schedule were applying to these disciplines. The Commonwealth will provide an increased contribution, which will be directed towards the costs associated with clinical practice in nursing and teaching. Additional funding of $40.4 million over four years will be provided for nursing from 2004 and $81.4 million for teaching over three years from 2005.

When I read the detail of and some of the comments on these reforms it was interesting to note the comments of the Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University, Professor John Rickard. Professor Rickard congratulated the government and the minister on the package, which supports high-quality education in regional Australia. He went on to state that it encourages university collaboration with industry and the community, and that it backs innovation and the development of research skills. He also commended the fact that this package addresses the challenges facing regional and rural universities as well as the challenges facing Indigenous students. Professor Rickard said:

Regional universities make a substantial contribution to our communities, cultures and economies. But we and our students are often at a disadvant-age because of our location and size. This budget recognises that situation and attempts to address it.

He was referring to the measures announced in the budget. He continued:

Our Coffs Harbour campus will attract a 7.5% loading on commonwealth funding from next year. Together with a 5% loading for Lismore campus, this means we can look to improve and develop programs, perhaps offering components of courses for the first time at the Coffs campus, or perhaps expanding the range of units already offered.

He said that that would enable the university to confidently continue to develop its international opportunities, collaborative research and innovative and flexible teaching programs.

I note the comments from respected Australian commentator Paul Kelly who, on 21 May in the Australian, quoted the Australian National University's Bruce Chapman, who incidentally is a former Keating adviser. With regard to the impact of student fees on enrolments and, in particular, on those students who are from a lower socioeconomic background, Mr Chapman said that the Whitlam government's abolition of fees `had no discernible effects on the socioeconomic composition of higher education students'. It is very interesting to note that there were no discernible effects on the socioeconomic composition of the student population. Most notably, free university did not lead to a greater proportion of poor students going to university.

The article goes on to state that the overall distribution effect was `from poor to better-off', since a greater proportion of better-off students attend university. Chapman described the free university system as `unquestionably regressive'. It is interesting that a former Keating staffer would describe free university as `unquestionably regressive' because of the redistribution effect. Kelly makes the important observation that HECS, which was introduced by Labor with the support of the coalition, `had no detrimental effect on access to university', and that, in a recent paper by Chapman and Chris Ryan, they found that `those from less privileged backgrounds were no more discouraged from attending university in 1999 than they had been in 1988', the year when HECS started. They formed the view that `there's nothing in a HECS system that disadvantages the poor'.

The opposition seems to forget these very important points. The fact is that HECS is a scheme founded in equity. Under HECS, both students and government contribute to the cost of education, and the students' contribution is in fact deferred. Students will actually pay only 27 per cent of the cost of a university education, with the government and the taxpayers of this nation contributing 73 per cent. It is interesting to note the very important point, as the minister constantly advises this House, that most taxpayers who contribute to university education have not had the opportunities that a university education provides.

The supposed impact of HECS on poorer students is more myth than substance. Access to university has expanded under HECS. Total enrolments of domestic students have increased from 505,000 in 1991 to 600,000 in 2000—up by 95,000. Commencing students increased from 127,327 in 1992 to 167,575 in 2000—up by 40,000, representing a 31.6 per cent increase. The number of commencing students from low socioeconomic backgrounds actually grew from 20,320 in 1992 to 28,056 in 1999. Thus, around 8,000 more disadvantaged students, if you like, entered university after the introduction of HECS fees. Research undertaken by the minister's department under the title `Does HECS deter? Factors affecting university participation by low SES groups' has addressed the issue of whether the introduction of HECS discouraged persons from low socioeconomic backgrounds from undertaking higher education. This research indicated that the primary reason influencing choices as to the participation of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds in higher education related more to values and attitudes towards higher education than to financial considerations.

This bill will set a new maximum funding amount for special projects such as the Mount Stromlo Observatory. It will set new maximum funding amounts, reflecting indexation increases and other technical adjustments. The bill sets new maximum aggregate funding to reflect actual HECS liabilities, budget decisions and other technical adjustments. Most importantly, the Australian Research Council Act 2001, ARCA, which establishes and appropriates money for the Australian Research Council, is being empowered to improve its organisational productivity and accountability, and to simplify the ARC project and program administration.

In conclusion, it is important that we look at all alternatives when it comes to the future direction of higher education in Australia. There are fundamentally three alternatives. The first is to maintain the status quo and watch our higher education sector decay over time. Do nothing and eventually our academic standards will fall and the sector will become unsustainable. The second alternative is to adopt the coalition approach of investing more in our universities, which will allow our tertiary sector to realise its potential both domestically and internationally. When you think that the Coffs Harbour campus will secure an additional 7.5 per cent funding for the same student numbers as this year, you realise that we are empowering our universities to become major economic drivers in our community.

The only other option is to look at what the Labor Party has to offer. To my knowledge there has been no vision and very little detail about how the opposition would empower higher education into the future. However, I did welcome one small detail from the member for Jagajaga, when she released some information about maths and science students. The net result of that one small policy detail was a $218 million black hole in their costings. If you relate that to Southern Cross University in my electorate, that will mean a $2.1 million loss of income for Southern Cross University—$2.1 million lost to our regional university on the New South Wales North Coast. (Time expired)