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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18339

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:14 AM) —It is always a pleasure to follow my colleague the member for Bendigo, who I know pays considerable attention to all matters in his electorate, particularly issues of higher education. I say good morning to the minister who is at the table this morning, the Minister for Education, Science and Training. I always welcome the opportunity to talk on matters of higher education because it affects so many people in Australia and is so important to the future of Australia. That is quite clearly recognised by all parties in this House. The thing is that we have different ways of going about trying to achieve the outcomes that we think are so important to our nation. The bill before the House today, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, has a number of amendments and the opposition supports those, although with some reservations in terms of emphasis. The opposition's reservations have been clearly outlined by the shadow minister for education. I noted that in the minister's second reading speech he spent some time discussing his and his government's policy—Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future. I thought I would take the opportunity to comment on that and also to talk about Labor's higher education policies, in part for the future, named Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians.

Earlier on, when there was more considered and comprehensive investigation into the state of our universities in terms of higher education, the term `crossroads' was used, and this is most appropriate. Indeed, we are at the crossroads. For most Australians now, their choices are literally at the crossroads, because Australians will be given the opportunity at the next federal election to choose which way, which path and which journey that Australia will take in higher education, and they have clear alternatives—that is as it should be. When we talk about crossroads, we not only have choices but we also need to know where it is that we want to go and where we are coming from. I ask myself: where essentially is the higher education sector presently after seven years of this government? Constantly, on this side, we are berated by the statement: `Look what you did in 13 years of government.' Fair enough. If I had sat through 13 years of opposition, I would have a long memory too, and I would be able to cite examples of things that were done and were not done. But here we are, seven years on since 1996, with a government harping and continually commenting on what happened 13 years ago. The government has had seven years. I know the minister at the table is quite prepared to take his package forward. He is ready for the future and not harping on about 13-odd years ago plus seven. I welcome that opportunity to look forward to the future and for Labor to present its alternative view of the future in higher education.

Where have we been since 1996? As I am in opposition I have been able to observe what has been going on since 1996. We have had thousands of students throughout Australia discouraged from continuing further education, something recognised on both sides. We have had thousands of mature age students who have been discouraged from taking on the further higher education option for a variety of reasons. Since 1996, $5 billion has been gutted from our higher education sector. That has had to leave a negative impact and a deficit in many areas, right the way through from the development of curriculum to research and development, facilities, the provision of class ratios and so forth. The number of students per teaching staff member has blown out by more than 20 per cent. That has to have an effect on the quality of education and learning in our universities. There is a lack of student HECS funded places. I know in my university, the University of Tasmania, there is a shortfall of 1,000 places. We have made representations on this to the minister on a number of occasions, and indeed it was even accepted by the last opposition spokesman for education in Tasmania. I have spoken in this House of the number of students who have had to leave our state in order to do particular courses at other universities that we cannot offer. That is a brain drain from our state. Fortunately, that brain drain is being addressed now in Tasmania.

We have overcrowded classrooms—that is not denied. We have inadequate facilities that are depreciating in value. We have infrastructure in disrepair in our universities. Threats to quality and compromised standards have become increasingly common. Staff morale is low. Public confidence is being undermined in our centres of higher education. Rising student debt, through HECS and increased living expenses, has been greatly exacerbated by the GST. People are doing it harder and finding it harder to study. They are particularly finding it harder to study full time—that is, those who are able to get into their particular courses. We have an increased number of students required to work part time in order to meet the cost of living and study expenses. That has been clearly documented for some time, and I have spoken on it on several occasions in this House. We all know that this impacts on students taking longer to complete their courses and a greater number of students dropping out of courses. It is tough, and we need to be able to provide policies that encourage people to continue their education, not drop out.

More students are required to depend on their parents to financially support them. That was one of the social engineering policies that this government introduced: changing the age of dependants to 25. I was amazed that that slipped through this parliament and did not receive much societal debate until much later—until people had to face the fact that their children, adults most of them, were dependent to age 25. That has had a significant financial impact on families. The youth allowance threshold had increased and there was no rental assistance for Austudy students. These are significant imposts not only on the students who are studying but, importantly—and this is most difficult to measure—also on those students who made the decision not to go on to further their education in the higher education sector. So this is part of the legacy of the decisions that this government made in 1996 and of the gutting of funding for higher education.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training, who is at the table, assures us that he wants to do everything to get more students to be able to study in life-long education, particularly in the higher education sector including universities and TAFE, and he has produced his policy for the future, the Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future package. The government point their finger at our side and say, `You're a policy-free zone. What have you got to say about further education?' We do have things to say about further education and we offer an alternative. It is an alternative that does not look at the creation of the two-tiered education system that we presently have offered to us, indeed one that we have had offered to us for health. What Labor offer is the opportunity for all young people and people who wish to pursue their higher education options to do so on merit, not on how much they have got in the bank. We do not want to means-test people into or out of higher education. That is exactly what is at the heart of both the health and higher education policies of this government.

Labor's recent announcements on our higher education plan—and we have not finished with education by a long shot—have some really exciting initiatives. It is a $2.34 billion plan to rebuild our gutted higher education system, to reform it and expand our universities and TAFEs without crippling students with debt, because that is at the heart of this government's policy on higher education. We want to offer over 20,000 extra places in our universities and TAFE colleges. That is one of the major stumbling blocks for people going on to further education: they cannot get in, they cannot get a place. Those places cannot be offered—unless they charge you. That is at the heart of this government's policy of being able to offer courses to the highest bidder, so if you have got money you can get in; if you do not have it, it is too bad.

Labor will improve the quality of university education through a new indexation measure that will deliver an additional $312 million to our universities. It is pretty fundamental to the funding of universities that we have a proper calculated indexation system that will allow our universities to sustain themselves and plan and prepare for the future. We want to relieve the financial burdens that I mentioned are on students by extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients, who do not receive rent assistance at present. We want to progressively lower the age at which students become independent and make the means test on parental income for youth allowance cut out at 23 years of age. That will significantly help families and students. We want to establish a competitive $450 million Universities of the 21st Century fund to support university reform. That is an incentive and an initiative, not a stick to beat universities over reform.

Most importantly, and certainly so for my university in Tasmania, we want to provide $150 million to support regional, rural and outer suburban universities. We want to establish a $150 million fund to reward excellence in teaching and learning. We want to fund all university places at the full Commonwealth rate, including 25,000 places which are currently funded at a marginal rate, at a cost of $347.6 million. We want to increase funding for Indigenous participation by $20 million and create 200 scholarships for Indigenous university students. We want to provide an additional $6 million over three years to help people with a disability to access and complete tertiary education.

We want to expand the opportunity to get a TAFE and university place through a number of initiatives, and I have mentioned those that are most important: the creation of 20,000 new full- and part-time commencing TAFE places each year by 2008 and providing $35 million to support secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university and TAFE. We want to ensure fair access to affordable tertiary education. How can we do this? By increasing the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000, to add a greater incentive for people to do higher education and to make it a bit easier for them to carry that debt, and by having no increased HECS fees and no deregulation of HECS fees. We want no real rate of interest on loans for postgraduate courses and we want to abolish full fees for Australian undergraduate students.

Given the whole story of education, particularly higher education, we need to address national skills shortages in key professions like nursing and medicine and teaching itself. We want to fund an additional 3,125 new full- and part-time undergraduate nursing places by 2008. We want to create 500 additional new full-time HECS funded postgraduate nursing places. We want to provide $43.4 million in extra funding for clinical training for undergraduate nurses. We want to fund an additional 1,404 bonded medical places by 2009. We want to cut HECS fees for science and mathematics students by $1,600 per year.

We want to fund an extra 4,600 new full- and part-time teaching places by 2008. We want to create 500 additional new full-time HECS funded postgraduate teacher education places, as well as provide an additional $86 million to increase the quality of teacher education, which is so important in our nation. We want to provide $43.9 million to establish 300 postdoctoral fellowships and provide $9 million to establish a new multimedia design and technology centre. These are the things that Labor wishes to offer the Australian people, Australian families and prospective Australian students to assist them to take up the option to further their education in higher education.

Now it is not as if I am the only person making a comment about the minister and his government's policies in regard to higher education: I would like to share an email I have just received from an education officer from the Tasmania University Union. This person writes in part to express their concern on behalf of university students from all over the state at the proposed changes to our higher education system as outlined in the government's policy. The author says:

These changes will adversely affect students and their families, as well as academics and staff, and, ultimately, the whole country.

The proposals set forth will be bad for students because the deregulation of fees will lead to a potential 30% increase in the financial burden for students and their families. This increase will clearly lead to many prospective students opting out of a university education in preference to taking on this rather formidable debt. These trends, already apparent, result in university enrolment favouring the wealthy and further exacerbate the shameful gap between rich and poor in this country, which prides itself on its sense of a `fair go'.

The author, an education officer from the University of Tasmania, talks about how staff and academics will be adversely affected by the government's proposals, going on to conclude:

... the proposed changes will be bad for our future because the introduction of a financial criterion into the selection process for university (through increased HECS and new full-fee paying places) means that good students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be lost to the system. This represents a criminal waste of human capital that will lower the quality of Australian graduates and short changes Australia at a time when we should boost public investment in education and not shift the cost to students.

That comes from an education officer from the Tasmania University Union. That is a student's assessment of this government's proposals on higher education. I now look forward to seeing this student's assessment of my own party's policies for higher education. When I receive it, I will be happy to share it with this House so that we can all appreciate it. The Labor Party offers a different path at the crossroads. Our path is about offering students places in our higher education institutions based on merit—not means tested and certainly not based on how much money they and their families have now or will have in the future.