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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18334

Mr GIBBONS (9:55 AM) —I firmly believe that the best investment a nation can make in its own future is a properly funded and fairly based higher education system. On both counts, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 and this government fail miserably. There has been concern in the wider community for some time about the future of Australian universities and how they are funded. I intend to concentrate on the impact of the Howard government's so-called reforms, as contained in this bill, on regional universities such as La Trobe University in Bendigo, which is the centre for the Faculty for Regional Development; on the VET sector; and on the Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE.

My concerns are about access and equity for all students, the need for enough tertiary places for students who want to learn and the need for places to be equally and fairly available to all who qualify to undertake studies. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the ongoing economic importance of regional universities and TAFE facilities. We need to ask whether the proposed reforms and current funding schemes represent the aspirations of the majority of university communities and whether they acknowledge and accept the vital role that regional uni-versities and TAFE facilities provide within their respective communities. I intend to argue the case for maintaining and enhancing regional universities and TAFE institutions by acknowledging the significant contribution they make to their respective communities not just in the provision of education programs but also through their role in the economies of the regions in which they are located.

It is estimated that the federal government has effectively reduced funding to Australia's universities by almost $5 billion since gaining office in 1996. La Trobe University in Victoria has had an effective reduction in funding of $227.7 million since 1996. This has caused increased financial pressure and hardship for the university. At the same time, there has been an increase in demand for university places. The federal government claims that it is attempting to meet some of that demand, but in fact its response is inadequate and places a burden on Australian families. It disadvantages students and families by increasing HECS fees by up to 30 per cent. It reserves an increased proportion of university places for full fee paying students. It introduces $50,000 loans at six per cent interest and adds only 2,116 university places for new students by the year 2007.

We have already seen the administration of one university, the University of Sydney, readily fall prey to the government's push to slug students with bigger fees. That university has slapped a monstrous 30 per cent hike in fees onto its student population. Quite clearly, the government also wants to force La Trobe University to jack up its fees, because the government wants to impose new penalties and deterrents on students and their parents. The Bendigo region needs more university places, but it is going to get fewer places from this government's policies. The federal government encouraged overenrolment in universities in 1998 so as to allow universities to offer places that did not attract full government funding. It wanted to get away with offering higher education on the cheap in central Victoria and it still boasts that it is providing more places than it is actually funding. Places at La Trobe University are currently funded at only $2,700 per student, when the actual average cost of providing those places is nearly four times that amount—around $11,700.

This skinflint government is actually paying less than 25 per cent of the real cost of educating these students and it has been forcing La Trobe and other universities to make up the huge shortfall. In other words, universities like La Trobe can only get out of the government's financial straitjacket at the cost of a blow-out in class sizes and a mounting drain on their own finances. The situation has rapidly become untenable for Australia's cash-strapped universities, particularly for La Trobe University in Bendigo. The government claims that, through its reforms, it will provide adequate funding for these places. This is not a measure of generosity or vision. It is a transparent confession that it has placed our universities in the shocking position where they are struggling to survive.

I have no doubt that the Bendigo region will be deluged with rubbery coalition promises that it will not take away any of the 500 places it is threatening to eliminate at La Trobe University in Bendigo. But it is La Trobe University itself that has stated publicly that these places will be wiped out by the so-called reforms of the government. As for government promises, we in central Victoria have heard them all before with the Prime Minister's false promises that he would not bring in a GST, that he would not privatise Australian Defence Industries and that he would jointly fund the Calder Highway to completion with the Victorian government. He broke the lot! He has been breaking his promises to central Victoria for seven years. He is a recidivist pledge cheat.

The government's so-called reforms do nothing to address the needs of central Victorians who are missing out on a university education. They are among the 20,000 young Australians who, despite having the marks, are being locked out of university each year because of the shortfall in the number of places made available by the government. While other developed nations have been investing in higher education and increasing the opportunities for their young people to get into university, this government has virtually strangled the growth in new university places. Between 1992 and 1996 the number of university places increased from 194,000 to 233,000, an increase of nearly 40,000. This is nearly 10 times the increase that took place in the following five years. Between 1996 and 2001 just 4,000 new places were added to the system. The government plans to continue to choke university places. Over the next seven years only 2,116 new commencing places will be created.

The federal government's reforms for university funding will impact severely on all regional universities that have been struggling under the weight of the huge funding withdrawal of around $5 billion. As I have said in a submission to the Senate inquiry into the government's tertiary education plans, reforms should take into account the differing aspirations of individual universities, their need to relate to their local communities and their role in each region. La Trobe University campuses, for example, provide essential economic and cultural support for the regional Victorian community. They provide vital centres of learning throughout regional Victoria. It is important to stress that they are indispensable components of the economies of the regions in which they are located.

Statistics from La Trobe University in Bendigo indicate that 83 per cent of its students are from Bendigo and country Victoria. I am delighted that the minister is at the table. I have a meeting with the minister tonight with representatives from La Trobe University to speak about the very matters that I am raising in this speech. In 2002 around 7,500 students indicated they were interested in studying at La Trobe University. Only 1,042 first-year undergraduate places were available. More than 1,500 students nominated Bendigo as their first choice. Country students choose to study at La Trobe University in Bendigo because the university's courses are being increasingly appreciated as quality degree programs that are equal to those offered by metropolitan universities. La Trobe provides a more personal study environment and there is more staff-student contact in smaller classes.

La Trobe University in Bendigo estimates it could lose up to 500 places by 2005 under the federal government's reform package, which will massively scale down enrolments through the simple technique of scaling back overenrolments to around two per cent. This would mean a reduction from 3,000 places in 2003 to 2,500 places in 2005. The Bendigo region simply cannot afford these losses. Let me highlight just how important the university is for its region. The student population of 4,167 of La Trobe's campus at Bendigo represents around 19 per cent of the total student enrolments for the whole of La Trobe University in Victoria. The university is directly responsible for generating 532 full-time, part-time and casual jobs in the Bendigo region. When the effects of student expenditure are added, another 344 jobs are generated. On the university's own calculations, once flow-on effects are taken into consideration the university is responsible for the generation of 1,359 jobs in the Bendigo region. This amounts to about 4.2 per cent of the total regional work force. La Trobe University in Bendigo is responsible for an initial $62.4 million effect on Bendigo's economy each year. The flow-on effect is estimated to be an additional $58.8 million, bringing the total to $120.2 million in outputs—that is, it generates $120 million in household income.

The federal government's cuts to universities have cost central Victoria dearly. In addition, La Trobe University in Bendigo has lost in excess of $15.5 million over the past five years as a result of internal transfers. Internal transfers of dollars and control to La Trobe University's Bundoora campus have worsened Bendigo's problems. The reason for this is obvious: La Trobe University in Bundoora is attempting to alleviate its own budget problems caused by federal government cuts by extracting about $2.5 million per year for the past five years from La Trobe University in Bendigo's operating budget. This is in addition to various off-the-top funding amounts withheld for specific centralised services which, to Bendigo's detriment, have increased progressively. Approximately $3 million in capital funding has been withheld from Bendigo. This has severely hampered La Trobe University in Bendigo's ability to continue to provide its excellent service. The loss of over $2.5 million each year limits the Bendigo campus's ability to provide its diverse range of courses and services. It also results in a de-skilling of its administrative support staff and a substantial stripping of much needed and valuable assets. This is all a direct result of the federal government's policies for higher education.

The federal government has shown through its self-styled reform agenda that it thinks more of the big end of town and less of the country. It is creating a two-class system of higher education. A study of the higher family incomes in the electorates of key federal ministers compared with the lower incomes in the country electorates says everything. La Trobe University in Bendigo draws the majority of its enrolments from central and northern Victoria, which include the electorates of Bendigo, Murray and Mallee.

ABS median weekly family income statistics show Bendigo has a median weekly family income of $736, Mallee has a median weekly family income of $755 and Murray has a median weekly family income of $813. This contrasts decisively with the Prime Minister's electorate of Bennelong, with a median weekly family income of $1,300; the Treasurer's electorate of Higgins, with a median weekly family income of $1,570; and the higher education minister's electorate of Bradfield, with a median weekly family income of $1,759. In other words, the average weekly family income in the three country electorates that are the backbone of central and northern Victoria is $768. The average weekly family income in the three elite electorates represented by the elite coalition politicians is $1,543—twice the income of families in northern and central Victoria.

Young people from the wealthy city electorates are already far more likely to go to university than young people from country areas and lower income suburbs. They expect to. This is the advantage they already have in abundance through coming from well-off and well-educated families in the big cities. Any decent government would be setting out to increase the proportion of country kids who go on to higher education, but this government just keep shifting the goalposts and making sure that the playing fields are kept uneven. That is what these so-called reforms are all about: rigging the rules, playing foul and tripping people up while pretending all the time that they are making the game fairer.

The Howard government always governs for the wealthy. It not only preserves the advantages of the wealthy but wants to give them more—and it wants to give other families less. It sees universities as refuges for the rich. Its idea of social justice is to burden lower and middle-income students with bigger fees and longer debts while it piles up more places for wealthy queuejumpers whose well-heeled families have no hassle paying the government's big up-front fees. The average family income in the electorate of the education minister is more than double the average income of families in the Bendigo electorate. The education minister represents the second wealthiest electorate in Australia. It is not surprising that the federal government's policy of moving to a user-pays principle for higher education funding clearly favours families from the wealthy metropolitan suburbs at the expense of rural and regional Australia. Labor sees higher education as an open road to a fairer society and a way for more people to get a better start in life. The Liberals and Nationals see higher education as a fortress of the privileged. They think that they are the kings of the castle and they want to keep what they fancy are the lower orders out.

I now turn to the vocational education and training sector. Publicly funded providers of vocational education and training received $95 million less in their total revenue from government in 2000 than in 1997—a reduction of 2.7 per cent in real terms. Revenue from the Commonwealth government declined by $149 million between 1997 and 2000—a reduction of 12.7 per cent in real terms. Revenue from the state and territory governments increased by $57 million, or 2.6 per cent, and other forms of revenue from government declined by $3 million between 1997 and 2000. The main reduction in revenue from the Commonwealth was suffered in income from the specific purpose programs. VET revenue from this source more than halved, from $220 million to $98 million, between 1997 and 2000. Reductions in revenue from the Commonwealth SPPs affected all states and territories, with the biggest losses occurring in Victoria and Tasmania. The Commonwealth's share of VET revenue declined from 28 per cent of total revenue in 1997 to 24 per cent in 2000.

The Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE has been meeting the training needs of central Victoria since its establishment in 1854. It operates from its two main campuses in Bendigo and has other facilities at Castlemaine, Kyneton, Maryborough, Echuca and Kerang. Its annual wages bill in 2001 was $16.57 million, and it has 519 full-time, part-time and casual employees. In EFT terms, that is a work force of 362. It had 10,469 enrolled students in 2001 over all campuses. Applying to the Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE, or BRIT, the same analysis for estimating the economic importance of the university I have mentioned, I estimate that together BRIT and La Trobe University, Bendigo, are responsible for contributing around $120 million worth of economic benefit to our region. So any loss in education and training opportunities caused by a reduction in government spending would severely impact on the region's economy.

Labor has higher education policies that offer a real alternative. Labor will invest $2.34 billion to provide a secure tertiary education funding base which does not rely on $100,000 degrees and driving students into massive debt. Labor's TAFE and university funding policy, entitled Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians, will provide vision, investment and direction for a diverse, world-class Australian university system. Labor will address the funding crisis in our university system and encourage reform by providing $312.7 million in additional funding to maintain the value of funding to universities. This will be done by including the wage cost index in education in a composite index to increase university grants over and above existing increases and improve the quality of university education. Labor will establish the competitive $450 million universities of the 21st century fund to encourage universities' transition to 21st century learning institutions. It will establish a $150 million com-munity engagement fund to support regional, rural and outer suburban universities in their leadership roles in local communities. Labor will also establish a $150 million teaching and learning fund to recognise and reward teaching and learning excellence, including the provision of support for new university teachers.

Labor will encourage the transformation of universities through increased forms of collaboration, nationally and internationally, between and across education sectors, with different sectors of the community and through new forms of information technology. Labor will also secure the foundations for high standards and improved quality by funding all university places at the full Commonwealth rate, including approximately 25,000 full-time equivalent places which are currently funded at a marginal rate, at a cost of $347.6 million. Labor will provide $3 million to establish quality assurance of student assessment in consultation with the university sector and an additional $2.4 million to the Australian Universities Quality Agency to audit offshore campuses to the same standard as domestic campuses of Australian universities. Labor will also introduce an enforceable national quality and accountability code.

Young people make a fantastic effort to get a higher education, and they get enormous support from their families. They are not asking for the world, just a fair start so that they can show what they can achieve. They want a level playing field, not the minefield that the coalition parties have laid for them. Labor will give them the support and encouragement that they deserve.