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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21415

Mr QUICK (9:59 AM) —I am delighted to follow my leader in this debate on higher education. As a former teacher, it is wonderful to hear the news, just announced by Simon Crean, of the application and dedication of funds to ensure that not only are universities looked after but TAFEs and the early education sector of our education system are looked after as well. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003—bills that seek to disadvantage universities as institutions, strip university staff of their working conditions and place students and prospective students in a debt trap for years to come. These bills are examples of the lack of vision of this government with regard to education. They represent the ideological bent towards cost shifting from the government to the people. They represent a shift from affordable education to a system allowing only the rich to buy their way into a university education.

Labor does not support a system that favours full fee paying student places at the expense of HECS university places. Labor also does not support increases to HECS fees of up to 30 per cent. The 1996 changes to HECS by this government had the effect of reducing demand for higher education amongst our school leavers by around 9,000 students per year. The DEST paper on higher education found that around 17,000 mature age applicants had been discouraged from applying for university places. The fear of changes proposed in these bills will dis-courage even more students from applying for university places—fear of the debt, fear of the cost and, for many prospective students, fear of living on the breadline because they have no access to either Aus-tudy or Youth Allowance. That, of course, is another sore point with this government.

The vision that people are looking for—the vision that Labor espouse—is that of equitable access to education so that the talents of Australian students can be further developed and nurtured. Ours is a vision where Australian students from all geograph-ical areas, from all socioeconomic back-grounds and from all cultural experiences contribute to Australian society and build Australia's economy. As the leader said, Labor will provide an additional 20,000 university places each year to allow all those who want to go to university to fulfil that dream. Labor will also reduce the HECS fees for science and mathematics courses by $1,600 per year. I have just come from a meeting with three scientists—we are all being lobbied this week by scientists—and they are delighted with Labor's commitment to reducing fees in science and mathematics. These are measures that will revitalise the education sector and stimulate students to aim higher.

The accumulated HECS debt in this country is estimated to reach $13 billion by the year 2006. We all know the results of repaying HECS debts for new graduates: delays in purchasing homes, delays in having children and, for some, a brief visit to the poverty line. I can speak from personal experience of my two daughters, Sarah and Hannah. Sarah did a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism at RMIT, and Hannah, who has just finished a diploma of education, is now teaching in her first year in the Victorian education system. I know what they went through. Labor supports the increase in the repayment threshold to $35,000 but the point needs to be made that it should never have been lowered in the first place.

On September 26 this year, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania, Professor Daryl Le Grew, told the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee:

We were looking for vision. We were looking for some evidence that the system would become differentiated, that the University of Tasmania could see this package as a way of shaping its future.

He went on to say:

So we have some problems with the package as it exists at the moment and as it is translated into projected legislation.

... ... ...

On the basis of the industral relations reforms, we find that what is being proposed is unworkable.

... ... ...

We do not know why there is a continuing and obsessive commitment to something which appears to be more ideologically driven than logically driven at the present time.

These are strong words indeed that are now on the public record from the Vice-Chancellor of the Uni-vers-ity of Tasmania. What more can we say about a system devised by a government that is more intent on stripping the conditions and pay from academic staff in universities than it is on improving the system and thereby increasing the way we value those with the knowledge and skills to develop our children and our friends? All I can do is agree with the vice-chancellor and repeat: it is ideological and obsessive.

The former minister for workplace relations and the minister for education have agreed to tie workplace relations reforms to the university funding package. I am not sure what the two ministers were saying about academic staff when they dreamed up this stunt. Were they alleging that academic staff are overpaid? Were they alleging that academic staff have cushy jobs? Why have the ministers not come out and stated exactly how the staff of universities are overpaid and underworked, as they allege? Where do they think the savings should be made? The reason we do not hear details is that ideology has no detail, just the capacity to derail the proper functioning of an excellent university system. Professor Le Grew puts it very simply:

What it does not recognise, also, is that the staff of a university are its intellectual property, its intellectual capital. Without that intellectual capital nothing happens.

There is only one course of action open to the minister on the industrial relations front: cut the industrial relations dogma from the package; it serves only to aggravate what is already a contentious piece of legislation. Again the vice-chancellor is clear in his views:

There are unworkable provisions in here that are, frankly, unacceptable. The industrial relations precondition is unacceptable to the University of Tasmania. To that extent, it threatens the viability and sustainability of the government's package.

Hear, hear. These words from the specialists who know the industry speak volumes. I endorse these sentiments wholeheartedly. We should encourage universities to continue to be shrines of learning rather than tombs of disappointment and bitterness. With great regularity I mention the special problems of Tasmania, particularly the difficulties associated with our population distribution, and I agree with Professor Le Grew that the regional outreach of the University of Tasmania needs special and additional support. He and I both know that there are kids in schools who are desperate to get into university.

Tasmania's participation rate is very low, and yet we are still 1,000 university places short. Nothing in this package will fix that shortfall—in fact, it is more likely that the formula will see Tasmania with even fewer places. It is outrageous that Tasmania should be faced with this prospect—the prospect of places being redistributed to other universities rather than it receiving funding for an increase in the number of places to take up the 1,000 students who want to come to the University of Tasmania but who cannot.

I reflect sometimes on the contest between the two ideologies: Labor's belief in a system with equity against the government's push for a system weighted in favour of those with wealth; Labor's strongly held belief that a nation benefits from educating as many of its citizens as possible against this government's wanting to educate only the elite; Labor's belief in wealth distribution against the government's support of wealth accumulation. The differences are stark. You do not need a microscope to see that Labor are way out in front on education policy; take a look at what we will deliver when in government. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, there will be an additional 1,100 new undergraduate nursing places; 500 HECS funded postgraduate nursing places every year from 2005; an extra 1,700 undergraduate teaching places; and 500 additional HECS funded postgraduate teacher education places every year from 2005. More importantly, Labor will establish strategic settings for long-term reform. Labor will not ask students to pay more. We will provide the vision, investment and direction needed for a world-class Australian university system.

The universities themselves have spoken out against this reform package. All the arguments I would want to put here in this debate have already been put—before the Senate committee and in the media. The government seems to be unable to bring itself to fund the public sector. Across this great country of ours people are calling out for improvements in public health and public education. With some irony, we see that in health it is the doctors' union speaking out and in education it is the vice-chancellors' group. It is quite astonishing to see groups that traditionally align with conservative policies being transformed into advocates against this government's policies. It seems that everyone in the country can see what needs to be done except this government. The government is driving education and health in a downward spiral. Labor is about raising the bar and about accepting challenges. Labor stands for learning, training and better jobs for more Australians. Labor is about aiming higher, not lower.