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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21359

Mr NAIRN (7:00 PM) —It is a pleasure to speak in this cognate debate on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I believe that higher education is one of the more important areas in need of reform, and these bills will certainly go a long way to doing the sorts of things necessary in that area. We need to look to the future and we need to look at educating our future work force and at the competitiveness of our nation. That competitiveness will increasingly depend on knowledge, on problem solving and on innovation within our work force and our businesses. Much of that education and training will come through our higher education sector.

The education sector has grown substantially. It now needs access to more funding and greater flexibility. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation, which I chair, recently brought down a report titled Riding the innovation wave: the case for increasing business investment in R&D. In that inquiry we certainly saw the need for change in the higher education sector. In fact, a number of the recommendations in that report go to many of the things that this reform is all about. While there are numerous recommendations in that report that I think are relevant to the higher education sector, recommendations 36, 38, 39, 40 and 41 specifically look at aspects of the way universities operate. While those recommendations were made in the light of the committee's inquiry into research and development—R&D—they are fundamental to some of the changes and flexibilities that universities need to be competitive in the future and to provide the best possible education for our young people. We are still awaiting the government's response—which I understand is going very well—to the report of that inquiry, but many of the issues we talk about in it fall within the reforms that form part of this legislation.

Prior to this legislation being introduced in the parliament, quite extensive consultation took place throughout the community and the sector, and I congratulate the Minister for Education, Science and Training on the extent and comprehensiveness of that consultation. That consultation showed that funding and regulatory constraints, if they are not made more flexible, will affect teaching choices and learning outcomes. Relevant to my electorate, if these reforms are not carried through, is the threat to the role of regional universities. I do not have a regional university in my electorate but, since the Howard government came into government, a regional university has established access centres in two parts of my electorate—Batemans Bay and Bega. They have been hugely successful. Future higher education for rural and regional areas is all about being able to take tertiary education to the people rather than having many of our young people being forced to leave home and go to the cities. I will come back to a few points on that shortly.

It appears to me that the opposition are opposing this legislation for opposition's sake, and I think that is a shame. They did not even participate in the review. There was an opportunity for the opposition to fully participate in the review. The minister conducted it in such a way that we could have had very good input from the opposition, but they chose not to do so. It would seem that the opposition are dictated to by the tertiary education union in this respect and, before the detail was even on the table, they basically wrote off agreeing with much of what we were trying to do. It is unfortunate that the Labor Party once again seems to be again trying to drag everything down to the lowest common denominator rather than trying to elevate things further. As a policy in tertiary education, I suppose no better example is the Dawkins changes that were made. Most people you talk to, even those from the Labor Party—although perhaps not publicly—will acknowledge the huge errors made with that particular restructure of higher education which effectively created the lowest common denominator.

If the reforms in this legislation do not get passed into law, I fear that we will have a university sector that will not have flexibility. If it does not have flexibility, it will not be competitive—we have to be competitive globally; we cannot just be competitive within Australia anymore—and we will end up with a very mediocre tertiary education sector, resulting in universities being unable to provide the innovation needed to deliver higher education in our rural and regional areas.

As I said before, it was extremely helpful for the people of my electorate when the University of Wollongong established access centres in Batemans Bay and Bega. We have something in the order of 150—it may be closer to 200 now—people doing degrees through those centres. I heard a story not that long ago about a young lady in Bega. Her employer said to me that, if the university business course that was offered through the Bega access centre had not been offered, there was no way this young lady would have left home to go to university to gain that qualification. She was the type of person who, when she had finished school, would not have been prepared to go off to Wollongong, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne or wherever. Therefore, she probably would have enrolled in a particular certificate course that was offered through the TAFE in accounting and business systems and things like that, which would have been fine. But she was capable of a lot more. She has been topping the year in the degree course in business being offered through the Bega access centre. She will ultimately graduate and become a fully qualified accountant and continue to work for the practice that she works for now in that region. That is one of the good news stories to have come out of higher education being taken to rural and regional areas.

We have to give the universities every opportunity to expand those services. We have been able to expand that particular one out at Bega recently with additional places for nurse education. That is another huge success. We are training our nurses at degree level in country areas so they are more likely to stay there. I want to see that happen more and more and see more access centres set up in my electorate so that more of our young people can attend a university without having to leave home. To do that, they certainly need the flexibility that we are offering under these reforms.

I just want to say a few words about the sorts of political tactics it seems are being used to oppose this reform. The main things you hear are, `It's going to cost a fortune to send your kids to university,' and `People from low-income families will not be able to afford to go to university.' Jibes such as, `You didn't pay to go to university when you got your degree,' are being thrown across the chamber at the minister. This mentality irritates me a little. HECS fees, which were introduced by a Labor government and supported by the coalition, have enabled universities to `survive'—if I can use that word—over the last decade and a half. But now a blockage is being applied by the Labor Party. They say, `We cannot proceed with further reforms because, if there is any increase in HECS fees, people from low-income families won't be able to go to university.'

I think back to when I went to university. I am one of the lucky ones who did go to university. When I went to university—and possibly when you did too, Madame Deputy Speaker Corcoran—it was not free. In fact, university fees had to be paid up-front—not when you had finished university and had a job and were earning a good income but actually up-front before you went. When I was finishing school I had the strong goal of going to university. Nobody in my family had ever been to a university. Nowhere in my broader family had there been somebody who had been to one. Right through school I was determined to get to university. But it was impossible for my parents to pay up-front for me to go to university. So I decided that when school had finished I would get the highest paying job I possibly could for the holidays and save enough to be able to pay the first-term university fee.

I worked in a wool store. I was 17. I probably looked 16 but told them I was 21 so I could get on the higher pay level. I joined the Storemen and Packers Union, which was compulsory, and did every bit of overtime I could and saved enough money to be able to pay that first-term fee so that I could get to university. My parents did not own their own house so they could not take out a mortgage to pay my fees; they only rented accommodation. Fortunately, as it turned out, I won a Commonwealth scholarship, which actually paid my fees. So the amount of money that I had earned was then able to help with living expenses instead of paying my fees. I am not trying to be any hero or anything; that was a fairly normal occurrence.

I hear people saying, `Because HECS fees might go up a certain amount, a low-income family will not be able to afford to send their kids to university,' and I find it very difficult to accept that sort of scare tactic. You do not pay until you are in a job and well and truly finished university. There are issues about people being able to move away from home to go to university and rent assistance and those sorts of things. Sure, let us talk about issues that might prevent people from going to university, but do not talk about HECS fees as being a barrier to preventing supposedly somebody from a low-income family being able to afford to go to university.

These overall reforms give quite substantial scope for our universities. There are a whole series of points that I could go through but they have been raised already by various speakers—the additional Commonwealth supported places from 2005 and the opportunity for students who cannot get into a HECS place but who are absolutely determined to do a particular course to actually pay to do it. Currently, unlike somebody from overseas, they cannot do that. Under these reforms somebody from Australia would be able to and they would also be able to get a loan. As a result students are given greater access. From 2005-06 the HECS threshold for repayments will be increased to $30,000—and so anybody going to university will not have to pay a cent until they are earning $30,000.

There is additional support for the regional universities. I was very pleased to make representations, along with my colleague the member for Gilmore, for Wollongong University to be included in that additional funding for regional universities. Originally, it was not, because it is just outside the population threshold. We argued strongly that it was so close that it ought to be included and, as a consequence, I think it will give that university greater opportunity to extend its courses into access centres such as the ones I have in Bega and Batemans Bay. I was pleased to make those representations and I thank the minister for making that change. Gerard Sutton, the Vice-Chancellor of Wollongong University, is a very innovative vice-chancellor and is really determined to take education as far out into the regional areas as he can and I congratulate and thank him for his support as well.

There is an additional $160 million for 25,000 new scholarships over the next four years. There is a whole series of things that are so beneficial to the overall education sector and which go to making Australia's universities better and more competitive globally. These are very complex reforms. I encourage my constituents to look very closely at the full detail of these reforms and not to be fooled by the very narrow focus. Usually only one per cent of the population fall into a particular category of people opposed to the reforms but this is often portrayed as 100 per cent. I encourage the Labor Party to look beyond the ideological argument put by some of their union masters and to look to the future so that we have the best possible higher education sector competing globally with universities right around the world and providing the best possible education for our young people. I commend the bills to the House.