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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21406

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (9:14 AM) —In rising to speak on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the related Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, may I say good morning, Mr Speaker and colleagues. Yesterday I was speaking about this government's miserly approach to the University of Tasmania—

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Minister Truss, I do regard you as a colleague. The financial data indicates that the cumulative funding cut to the University of Tasmania from when this government came to office, in 1996, until 2002 was in the order of $119 million. That is part and parcel of the $5 billion cut to higher education under this government.

In contrast, under Labor there will be additional funding of $8 million for the University of Tasmania from the indexation clause in Labor's policy. During this government's term, since 1996, there has been a student-staff ratio increase of 36 per cent, and that is by no means the highest increase in student-staff ratios of our universities throughout Australia. The solution to meeting unmet demand for places at our universities could therefore not be more stark. The Nelson proposal will not even meet demographic growth after 2007. On the other hand, by 2008 Labor will create over 20,000 new full-time and part-time university places every year for Australians starting an undergraduate degree, as well as 20,000 TAFE places.

Another key policy difference concerns fees. Since 1996, students and their families have already been faced with massive increases in HECS fees. Indeed, as Lincoln Wright pointed out in the Sunday Tasmanian on 12 October, student HECS debts are set to top $13 billion in three years, as low-income graduates struggle to pay off what they owe. They currently owe as much as $10 billion. The Nelson plan proposes, in proposed section 93-10 of the main bill, to deregulate HECS, allowing universities to set their fees at 30 per cent higher than existing rates, with the exception of teaching and nursing, which are capped at existing rates. That is recognition of the dangers of increasing fees, because it will have a detrimental effect on important professions and courses, such as teaching and nursing.

Will these fees be capped at 30 per cent? The bill provides the minister with the ability to vary them, and we know that HECS debts could reach $50,000. Already, too many students and their families are burdened with debt. Too many students have to take up more part-time employment or, indeed, almost full-time employment. They carry more debt and, under this government's proposals for higher education, that will increase.

In deference to my colleagues, because they all wish to speak, I quickly point out that a Labor government will remove the 30 per cent increase in HECS fees; we will remove the provisions that allow full fees to be charged to Australian undergraduate students; we will limit FEE-HELP loans for postgraduate study; we will remove the insidious 3.5 per cent surcharge, above the consumer price index, on FEE-HELP loans; we will increase by 20,000 the number of full-time and part-time funded places, as I mentioned earlier; we will remove the industrial relations and governance conditions and the caveats on the $404 million of Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding; we will increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 in 2004-05; we will include Labor's indexation formula based on wage cost indexation, which is a far more equitable system of indexing formulas; and we will make the scope of funding agreements less prescriptive and more of an incentive rather than a stick.

There is a stark contrast between our policy on higher education and this government's policy. We believe in investing in Australia's future and its social and economic capital, and we do not necessarily see it as a cost.