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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21432


Mr ZAHRA (11:15 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, which are being debated cognately. We are very fortunate in the Gippsland region to have outstanding higher education institutions. We have Monash University's Gippsland campus, operating in Churchill in the Latrobe Valley, and we have the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE, operating mostly in the West and South Gippsland districts. We are also very fortunate to have Gippsland Group Training Ltd, which is one of the best group training companies in the country. It directly employs about 1,100 apprentices. Most people in this place would accept that it is one of the leading group training companies in Australia. There has been quite a bit of academic research done on and academic literature written about the great success of the group training model which has been pioneered in the Gippsland region by Gippsland Group Training Ltd. We are fortunate to have these great institutions in our district and we get great benefit from them.

When you speak to people who are in leadership positions within these institutions, they tell you that they would like to be doing more. They tell you that there is a lot more that is demanded of them than they are able to supply as a result of the funding with which they are provided. In our district we have a lot of identified skills shortages and we have these wonderful institutions which are in a position to resolve some of these skills shortages, yet this government does not provide these institutions with the funding that they need to be able to deliver on those courses or to provide the number of places being demanded by people in our local district.

In speaking about higher education generally, it is worth noting that the federal government's approach to higher education is as far removed from meeting the needs of people in our district as it is possible to imagine. We are not a region that has a lot of millionaires and, Mr Deputy Speaker Price, I know that you know what it is like to represent an area where there are not too many people who have got big flash houses and hundreds of millions of dollars. We might not have a lot of millionaires and big flash houses, but our kids are just as smart as—or probably smarter than—those from the affluent North Shore of Sydney, for example. The kids who go to the secondary schools in our areas deserve to have the same chances and opportunities to go on to university, TAFE or other forms of higher education as the kids who come from families that have got a lot of money. This is a basic idea that has always been central to what Australia is about.

But the higher education system being developed by this government is not about providing opportunities for families from the Latrobe Valley, West Gippsland, Pakenham or the South Gippsland district to send their children to university. It is all about cementing privilege in Australia and making sure that the only kids who can go to university are those kids whose mums and dads went to university and who have quite a bit of money. That does not really work too well for us in the Gippsland region. In our district, we do not have a lot of people who have gone to university and who are working in professional, management or business positions. We have a lot of tradespeople; we have a lot of people who are working in services and in retail, in the power industry, in the pulp and paper industry, and in the agricultural sector. We do not have a lot of people who have gone to university. Cementing privilege as the key driver of who gets to go to university in real terms means that kids in the Gippsland region will miss out.

When I go und the district, I am continually impressed by the quality of the young people who are being produced by the schools in our region. It really is a tribute to people in the secondary school system in our district that so many outstanding young people are being produced. These students are getting incredibly high marks in their TERs and their outlook towards their community is very civic minded. But although our secondary school system is producing outstanding leaders—people who are getting good marks, have a good world view and a sense of putting something back into the community—they are locked out of opportunity as a direct result of the federal govern-ent's approach to higher education.

I graduated from year 12 in 1990, and shortly after I attended the ALP campaign launch for McMillan at the Traralgon hall. When I graduated in 1990, one of the great things that we loved and really enjoyed was that the kids whose mums and dads had lots of money but who were not smart and did not work hard would not be able to get a university place. We used to love this; it was a great equaliser. If you were smart and you worked hard, you could get a place at university. We loved the fact that, if you lived in a small house and did not have much money or your dad did not earn too much in a flash job, it did not matter. You were able to get ahead of other people based on who you were, not who your mum and dad were. We used to love it, and it was great thing.

But now when I visit secondary schools in my electorate and speak to the young kids in years 11 and 12 who are contemplating the move to higher education, they tell me how bitterly disappointed they are. They are angry and frustrated that their chance to go to university is not what it should be, that they have a restricted opportunity of going to university. Yet they know that some of the kids whose parents have got money will be able to go to university despite the students from less well-off families getting higher marks than the kids from rich families.

I think that is a disgrace. I think that is a disgusting thing. I think it is an offensive idea, considering what Australia has always been about. We are not just talking about one or two students; we are talking about some 9,500 students who have made their way into university using this crook method. And it is a crook method. It is the wrong way to go about determining who should go to university. The basic test for who should go to university or TAFE or anywhere else associated with higher education is that they should be people who are smart enough to get into those institutions and who work hard enough. Under the government's system someone can get into university because mum and dad have a lot of money and can send them to university because they are able to pay their way in.

At the same time as these 9,500 people have been getting into the university sector using this crook method, the federal government has put in place policies which have made it harder and harder for people to afford to go to university by increasing the fees associated with courses. The government says, `It's all just money they can pay back later on. It doesn't matter if someone's got to pay $100,000 for a degree through HECS; the main thing is that they can pay it back later on.' That might be right if it were not for the way this thing has worked in terms of practical outcomes. The federal government knows what these practical outcomes are. I know what these practical outcomes are and I think that most people in this place do too. All the research tells us that, if you are from a rich family with a million-dollar house and a lot of money coming into the household and someone says to you, `Your degree will cost $80,000. You have to pay back $80,000 at the end of your studies; you have to pay it back through the HECS system,' you will say, `That's no big deal, $80,000. That's how much Mum and Dad spent on my first car. That's not that much money.'

But we know that when battlers, people without much money and particularly those from country districts, hear `$80,000' they think about how much their house might be worth—and there are many houses in my electorate that are being sold for $80,000—they think about how hard their parents have to work just to make ends meet and they think that taking on a debt that size is more than they can afford. This is the reality of the difference between rich and poor in this country and in their attitudes towards higher education, and this is why it is so important that we have a system in Australia where the people who get into university are those who are smart and who work hard, not just those who have hundreds of thousands of dollars and come from privileged backgrounds.