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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21438


Ms KING (11:36 AM) —The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 implement the government's agenda to change the face of higher education in Australia. They give unprecedented ministerial control over our universities and increase the burden of debt on students and their families. The government likes to refer to them as bills that reforms higher education, but in order to reform higher education you have to seriously invest in it, and invest in the right ways. These bills are essentially a patch-up job. After seven years of funding cuts, they do little to restore the funding that universities have lost under this government, whose answer to increasing funding is to shift the burden of cost away from itself to individuals and families. It is user pays in its starkest form. These are essentially bills that are about which young Australians will in future years be able to benefit from higher education and which will not. They are about who in the future will be burdened by higher education debt and who will not. They are essentially bills that limit the opportunities of young people from low- to middle-income earning families in this country to get ahead.

As such, there are no other bills before this parliament that so starkly shows the choice between the two major parties. You do not have to look very hard to see that universities are in trouble and are experiencing problems and that the problems are ones of this government's making. One bill, in typical government speak, is titled the Higher Education Support Bill 2003. More correctly, it should be called the `Higher Education Propping It Up Because We Have Mucked It Up Bill'. It is clear that the government's cuts to universities and its inadequate funding have led to pressure on universities, lecturers and students. Overenrolments, overcrowding of lecture theatres, significant increases in the student-staff ratios, pressure on infrastructure and other resources such as library facilities—all of these things have potentially undermined the quality and standards of Australian university education.

Universities across Australia have experienced over $5 billion worth of budget cuts since this government was elected. In my own electorate the University of Ballarat, a fine institution, has experienced $52 million in budget cuts since this government came to power. Universities such as the University of Ballarat, the Australian Catholic University and VUT, which many people in my electorate go to, have muddled through. But there is no doubt that the government's funding cuts have had a significant impact on the ability of universities to deliver high-quality, affordable education in this country.

And what is the government's response to this? The government's response to this is that people should pay more. Under this government we saw student-staff ratio increases of around 43 per cent at Ballarat university from 1996 to 2001. We have seen significant numbers of students unable to access university places. About 20,000 people qualify for university places each year and miss out. This government's policies have allowed and even encouraged universities to overenrol. Ballarat university is estimated to be overenrolled by about 350 places, the majority of which it is set to lose if the minister does not keep his promise as given to me and recorded in Hansard. The university is reported as being set to lose around 114 places under this government's proposal. In courses such as nursing and teaching—areas where there are desperate shortages of professionals—significant numbers of students are knocked back each year. At the University of Ballarat, nursing has been one of the courses in which we have experienced significant growth. Estimates are that around 900 students apply for nursing at the University of Ballarat each year. The majority of them miss out on a place.

The government's response has been to announce 210 new nursing places. I note that in the member for Mallee's contribution he called on the government to give some of these places to the University of Ballarat, and it is a call I echo. However, you do not have to look too widely to realise that 210 places are not really going to stretch very far across the country, and it is highly unlikely that they are going to go anywhere near meeting the demand at the University of Ballarat alone. Labor, by contrast, will create an additional 1,100 commencing undergraduate nursing places and 500 new fully funded HECS postgraduate nursing places every year from 2005. If the member for Mallee thinks that the government's tiny contribution will assist the University of Ballarat, I am sure he will recognise that Labor's proposition has a much better chance of actually addressing nursing shortages in rural areas.

The government's response to our problems in universities is simply that students and families should pay more if they want to access higher education. The government's so-called reforms will make it harder for young people to get a place at university and make it even harder for them to pay for it. Average student contributions to higher education have increased significantly already. Student debt has doubled under the Howard government and is now at $9 billion. These are significant barriers, not only to accessing education but to future home ownership and financial stability. There are claims that there are record numbers of students in Victoria who will carry their HECS debts to the grave. The government's proposal is to increase the burden of debt on students by allowing universities to increase their HECS fees by 30 per cent. This means that an arts degree could cost $15,000, a science degree could cost $21,000 and a law degree could cost $41,000. They are significant increases. Starting out in your first paid job is hard enough, but being burdened with these sorts of debts is absolutely crippling.

The University of Ballarat has stated that given the average income of our catchment area it does not think that it will be feasible to increase university fees, and it has stated that the real benefit will go to the sandstone universities. So the University of Ballarat is not even going to benefit under this part of the government's proposals. At the University of Ballarat, 75 per cent of students come from the catchment area of the Wimmera through to Ballarat and surrounds, where the average household income is around $33,500. Sixty-three per cent of all commencing students at the University of Ballarat are the first generation to ever to go to university. There is no indication as yet from the university as to what courses are going to cost more—and I am sure that some of them will—but I agree with the vice-chancellor's assessment that the income levels experienced by people in my electorate mean that the government's proposals would place a significant burden on Ballarat students and would dissuade many of them from attending universities were fees to rise.

Labor are opposing the 30 per cent increase in HECS fees and are instead expanding opportunities for students to get a qualification by creating 20,000 new commencing full- and part-time university places and 20,000 new full- and part-time TAFE places. This means that by 2008 there will be 40,000 additional new commencing TAFE and university students every year. We will also be providing $35 million for a program to support secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university and TAFE. Labor also want to directly address the issue of financial hardship for students. Many students are currently living in dire financial circumstances. Labor will extend rent assistance to Austudy recipients and reduce the age of independence for students on the youth allowance. We will also increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 per annum in 2004, which is a year earlier and a threshold $5,000 higher than the government is proposing.

Higher fees do create barriers to university education. In 1998, the government for the first time allowed full fee paying student places, meaning that 9,000 students who had the money could buy their way into universities. We now have the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University pricing a full fee paying medical degree at $150,000. Instead of access being on merit, the government wants to increase the opportunities for students and families with money to purchase a university place by increasing the number of full fee paying places. The government is also introducing a loan scheme with prohibitive interest rates that will do little to allow kids from poorer to middle-income families to access university education.

The minister likes to pretend that he is not playing the race card when he asks, `Overseas students have access to full fee paying places, so why shouldn't Australian kids?' Overseas students and their parents do not pay taxes in this country, so in my view it is reasonable to ask them to pay extra for their education. I am not ashamed of saying that we should be charging overseas students for courses in Australia. But when Australian parents have already paid their taxes, why are we now saying to them, `If your kids cannot get access because the government has not funded enough university places, the only way they will get access is if they can buy their way into universities'?

What this government is trying to do is entrench privilege in this country, and it is creating barriers to university participation. Not satisfied with making it harder for those on lower incomes to attend university, by raising fees, the government wants to make it easier for the rich to attend. Labor will, by contrast, abolish full fees for all new domestic undergraduate students. Labor opposes the government's plan to increase HECS and introduce a loans scheme with a six per cent interest rate. By contrast, Labor is going to increase the number of university and TAFE places, creating more opportunities, not fewer, for all Australians to attend university and TAFE.

The Howard government has made over $400 million of desperately needed university funding contingent on its extreme ideological industrial relations agenda. This proposal has the stamp of the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations all over it. None of the conditions that the government is proposing have any relevance to the core functions of university teaching and research. This legislation does not create enough fully funded university places to meet population growth—let alone unmet demand. For those seeking a university or TAFE place, it does little to provide hope that they will be able to get one, let alone afford to pay for it if they do. Under this government, too many of our young people have already missed out on a university place.

With Labor's policies, we are trying to make sure that more kids get to go to university, regardless of their background. Countries with highly skilled, know-led-geable and well-educated populations do better economically. Regionally we do better because we have the University of Ballarat and the Australian Catholic University in our area. This is why I will support Labor's amendments to this bill and why I oppose the government's regressive provisions, which will limit growth in my region and opportunities for young people and mature age students to get a better chance in life.