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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18347

Ms KING (10:54 AM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003, which has three main purposes. In addition to some technical adjustments, the bill amends the Higher Education Funding Act 1998 to provide indexation for cost increases, it amends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to change research grants administration and it provides an additional $7 million to rebuild the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

In general I support the changes in the bill, but the government must improve its position on indexation. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that there are some very real problems within our higher education sector, many of which are of this government's making. A bit later I will refer to some of these, but it is clear that the government's cuts to universities and inadequate funding have led to pressure on the higher education sector, lecturers and students themselves. Overenrolments, overcrowding of lecture theatres, a significant increase in the student to staff ratio, pressure on infrastructure and other resources, such as libraries—all of these things have potentially undermined the quality and standards of university education in Australia.

The level of indexation provided through this bill is inadequate. Labor has a much stronger proposal and I urge the government to consider it. Labor's proposal reflects the proper process of indexation that would see the universities' operating grants from the Commonwealth being far more reflective of their actual costs. The bill also provides $7 million for the rebuilding of the Australian National University's Mount Stromlo Observatory. The observatory not only is an important part of our heritage but has enormous significance within the scientific community across the world. Its loss in the Canberra bushfires was a devastating blow, and it is appropriate that the Commonwealth commit to assisting with the rebuilding of this national icon. The minister and I are both graduates of the Australian National University and I am sure we are both very proud of—

Dr Nelson —No, I am not. I attended a dinner.

Ms KING —Sorry, I misunderstood, but you did attend the ANU parliamentarians dinner.

Dr Emerson —I am.

Ms KING —I am proud, and certainly the shadow minister at the table, as an ANU graduate, is proud as well. We are both exceptionally proud of the Australian National University. It is one of Australia's premier universities. Certainly the Mount Stromlo facility has been one of the most significant scientific facilities within this country. Its loss has been a devastating blow to the scientific community. I think that it is incredibly important that this facility be rebuilt. The ANU needs $20 million to rebuild the facility. The $7 million that is being offered within this bill is certainly welcome, but the government needs to continue to talk to the university and assist it in finding the funds for the remainder. Seven million dollars is just not enough to rebuild this facility. The Australian National University has very limited options in terms of where it can actually go to get additional funds to rebuild this facility. The Commonwealth does have a fairly significant responsibility in this regard.

Whilst this is not the bill to introduce the government's regressive higher education policy, Labor has moved a series of amendments that outline the very different approaches the two sides in this debate have to higher education. On the one side we have the minister who believes that if you value education then it is up to you to pay for it, no matter how much it costs, while on our side we believe that the values underpinning education policy should be affordability and access.

Interestingly, the Minister for Education, Science and Training had a bit to say in his maiden speech about the difference between `value' and `values', but that was not the first time we have seen him wax lyrical about his views on the world, only to have a bit of a change of heart. Jokingly, we on this side refer to him as `Braveheart'. His first campaign slogan was `Put your heart into it'. Given the minister's capacity for changes of heart, both in his political affiliations and in his commitment to values, I really wonder if he should be called the `Tin Man', the man desperately in search of his heart.

Labor have moved a second reading amendment which outlines our concerns about the government's lack of vision in higher education policy and its failure to address the problems experienced by university students and TAFE colleges. Given that we have heard so much from the Prime Minister over the last couple of days about the importance of context, let us just have a look at the context in which this legislation and Labor's amendments are occurring.

Universities across Australia have experienced over $5 billion in budget cuts since this government came to office. In my own electorate, and now in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, the University of Ballarat—a fine institution—has experienced cuts of over $50 million. This has put significant pressure on the University of Ballarat. Universities such as the University of Ballarat and the Australian Catholic University, which also operates in my electorate, have muddled through, but there is no doubt that the government's funding cuts have had a significant impact on the ability of uni-versities to deliver high-quality affordable and acc-ess-ible education. At the same time, the government has increased the burden of debt on students.

Universities—and regional universities in particular—have experienced significant problems as a result of the cuts this government has instituted. Pressure on infrastructure, with the need to keep up with new technology, has outstripped universities' capacity to pay for it. We have seen lecture theatres in need of upgrading, cramped conditions and scheduling problems to accommodate tutorials and lectures. We have seen student-staff ratio increases. On average, between 1999 and 2001 the number of students to teaching staff increased by 22 per cent. Students have been complaining about lack of access to lecturers, lack of tutorial time, lack of individual attention in relation to their learning needs, time-consuming enrolment and other administrative procedures, and lack of library resources. Academic staff have been warning about the slip in academic standards and the low morale amongst academic teaching staff.

We have also seen significant numbers of students unable to access university places. About 20,000 people who are qualified for a university place miss out on a place each year as a result of the government not providing enough funding to universities. In courses such as nursing and teaching where there have been desperate shortages of professionals, significant numbers of students are knocked back due to lack of university places. At the University of Ballarat, nursing has been one of the courses to experience significant growth in demand, yet each year large numbers of eligible students have been denied a place because of the government's underfunding of the university.

We have significant shortages in TAFE places, and each year people who want to go to TAFE are knocked back and unable to do so because that sector is not being funded adequately for its places. We have also seen the loss of a number of courses, and there is a very real concern that universities during the time of this government are being forced to focus on purely vocational education—which is important in itself—but that the broader concept of education as learning and the importance of education as learning are being sacrificed because of this government's budget cuts.

The government's response has been pretty simple, I have to say, despite the enor-mous amount of review resources and effort that have gone into looking at how we are going to reform higher education into the future. It has been a pretty simple response: students should pay more. That is basically the crux of this government's policy. Students and their families should pay more. That is basically it. That is what they have decided after all that time, after that enormous amount of money and effort and all the consultation and submissions that went into the higher education reform package: students and families should pay more. That is pretty much what they have decided.

In our amendment we have focused on the government's failure to address the crisis in higher education. They have fundamentally failed to tackle the issue that was before them—the underfunding of universities—at the same time as tackling problems of student debt, lack of access and improving the quality and standard of higher education in this country. They have failed, I would say, to actually show any vision in relation to higher education at all. What they have done is to simply say: `The only solution that we can see to the crisis in higher education is that middle- and low-income families in particular should pay more and that people who come from higher income and more privileged backgrounds should be given a special fast track to their higher education through full fee paying courses and increasing the number of full fee paying courses in the higher education sector.'

You would have thought, given that the minister claims to be incredibly across his portfolio and that he quotes statistics to us endlessly in this House, he might have been able to come up with a more complex solution, a solution that actually deals with the problems that universities are facing in this country. But no, the solution that we have seen from this government is a pretty simple one and one that we think is going to lead to increasing student debt. Average student contributions to higher education have increased significantly under this government, and students are increasingly in debt.

The government's proposal to fix this is to increase the burden of debt on students by allowing universities to increase their HECS fees by up to 30 per cent. Clearly, some universities will benefit more from this policy than others. The University of Sydney has indicated that it intends to put fees up by the full 30 per cent, which increases the cost of an arts degree to around $15,000, a science degree to around $21,000 and a law degree to $41,000. These are significant increases.

Starting out in your first paid job is hard enough, particularly when you come from a low-income family or from a middle-income family—particularly where you are often the first person in that family to have ever been able to access higher education. They are significant increases and they will place a significant debt burden on Australian families. Starting out in your first job is hard enough without being burdened with these sorts of debts. They are crippling debts, particularly if you have to pay back a $41,000 HECS debt for your law degree. Your first year of earning is quite significantly a year of low earnings. If you come from a low-income family, often there have been significant sacrifices within your family to actually get you there in the first place. So not only do you have your HECS debt; you generally have some debts that you have to pay back to your family as well. I think the proposal that is on the table really is a disincentive for students from low-income and middle-class backgrounds to access those sorts of degrees.

Getting back to my electorate, the University of Ballarat has stated that it does not think that, given the average income of the catchment area for its university—and 75 per cent of students who attend the University of Ballarat come from the actual catchment area—it will be feasible to increase university fees. The real benefit of the government's proposal to increase HECS fees by 30 per cent—and the vice-chancellor has stated this—will go to the sandstone universities. That is where he thinks the real benefit will be. So the government is really not assisting the University of Ballarat in that way at all.

I am pleased to say that the vice-chancellor has seen the reality that, given the average incomes across my electorate—the average household income is around $33,500—and given that 75 per cent of students who attend the university come from the catchment area itself, it is a realistic assumption to make that increasing university fees by up to 30 per cent will not be realistic. There is no indication yet from the university as to whether any of the courses will increase their fees. I suspect there will be some. But I agree with him that, with the income levels experienced in my electorate, the government's proposals would place a significant burden on Ballarat students and, if fees were to rise, that would dissuade many from attending universities.

The minister, in his maiden speech, decried the lack of opportunities available to our young people. He even said:

Every hour of the day our children are going into debt ...

He got that right. Certainly under this government that has been the experience. But what we did not know was that he meant: `Every hour, children across Australia are going into debt, and—guess what?—I am going to increase it. I am going to make it less affordable for you and your children to go to university.' That is what he meant. Somehow I think he may need to revisit the sentiments he expressed in his maiden speech.

We also think, and I believe quite strongly, that the government's proposals are creating a significant barrier to university participation. Higher fees create a barrier to university education. The government already knows this and was complicit in a decision by the minister's department to remove comments and evidence from a government report that highlighted this. The government has been sitting on this report, but it was released at 5.30 p.m. last Friday in the hope that it would not get too much news coverage. In that report the research highlighted that we are already seeing young people, and over 17,000 mature age students, being deterred as a direct result of the government putting up fees for our university students over the last seven years.

In 1998 the government introduced full fee paying student places, meaning that students who had the money could buy their way into universities. Instead of access being based only on merit, the government for the first time created the opportunity for students and families with the money to purchase a place at university. The minister likes to pretend that this is all okay because overseas students have to pay full fees for their university places. Of course they do, because their families do not pay taxes in Australia. Of course we expect them to contribute significantly if they are going to get an education in Australia. Their parents do not pay 35 to 40 years of taxation in Australia; our parents do. The minister likes to pretend that he is not playing a race card on this issue. In fact he decides that questions that are about that will become `inaudible'.

Ms O'Byrne —Or `misspeaks'.

Ms KING —Or if he says something that he does not think he should have said it suddenly becomes a `misspeak' in the transcript. It is quite extraordinary editing of a transcript. The minister likes to pretend he is not playing a race card on this. He really needs to have a bit of a think about that. If he is quite prepared to take the words `race card' and `Hansonism' out of a transcript of a journalist's question to him, he has to wonder why he thinks those words suddenly become inaudible to him. Are they things that he just does not really want to hear, so they become `inaudible' to him in a transcript?

Not satisfied with making it harder for those on lower incomes to attend universities by raising fees, the government wants to make it easier for the rich to attend. That is what the government wants to do. Its solution to the crisis in higher education is to say, `We're going to make sure that you pay more and we are also going to say that the rich, even if they don't get the score that's required to get to university through the competitive system that we have at the moment, can buy a place. That's okay, they can buy a place into university.' I do not think that is okay.

At the University of Ballarat, as I have already said, 75 per cent of students come from the catchment area—from Wimmera through to Ballarat and the Ballarat surrounds—where the average household income is around $33,500. Sixty-three per cent of commencing students at the University of Ballarat are the first from their families to ever attend a tertiary education institution. Seventy per cent of the students are currently employed part time or are seeking part-time employment in order to meet their basic education costs and their rental housing costs and to buy books and food for basic survival.

I recently visited one of the secondary colleges in my electorate and spoke with the year 12 students to find out what things were influencing their decisions as to what they were going to do after year 12. At this school, 40 per cent of the parents are unemployed, and 40 per cent are in part-time, low-skilled jobs and have not got any qualifications at all. Only three per cent of the parents of the students at this school have got any tertiary qualifications at all. I asked the students—and I was very careful about how I phrased it, because I am very careful when I go to schools about not politicising things too much; I think young people have to make up their own minds about these issues—what they were going to do next year. They had a range of options. Some of them were going to seek work and almost 50 per cent of the students there wanted to go on to tertiary education or to TAFE. But they were saying that they did not think they were going to be able to afford it. All of them had contacted the institutions they were thinking of going to. They were not sure what the fee structures were going to be yet, but they were hearing things that had them very worried. I am worried that we have VCE students out there this year who are having to make choices about what to do while being faced with this government's proposal to increase university fees and make it more difficult—particularly for students from the secondary school that I visited—to attend university.

In the short time I have remaining—I have not managed to get to Labor's proposals, but I will have the opportunity to speak in this debate more broadly—I want to speak about the issue of overenrolment. I am very pleased that the minister has come back into the chamber, because I wish to ask him to do something. The University of Ballarat is currently overenrolled by 350 places, which is about nine per cent. Under the government's proposals, it would have to reduce that amount of overenrolment to around one per cent. We are already seeing some impact of that within the university as it tries to reduce its overenrolments. In the Main Committee, the minister promised that the university would be able to keep those 350 places. He made a promise, which is in Hansard, that the University of Ballarat will keep those 350 marginally funded places. I would like the minister to write to the University of Ballarat to confirm that that is the decision he has made—it is on the Hansard record—because the University of Ballarat is awaiting that confirmation before it can decide what to do with its courses. (Time expired)