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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21441

Ms JACKSON (11:46 AM) —I rise to oppose the government's bills, the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 in their current form and, in particular, I oppose the general direction of the higher education policy proposed by the Howard government. I also intend to speak today in support of the fairly detailed amendments that were foreshadowed by the member for Jagajaga, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, with respect to this legislation.

As we know, the legislation introduces fundamental changes to Australia's higher education system in four key areas. The first is deregulation of tuition charges for undergraduate students. This is the first time we have seen this happen in 30 years. To borrow a phrase from a popular movie, it seems to me to be a step `back to the future'. If this legislation is passed, universities will be allowed to determine their fee levels for students, within certain limits—and universities can request that the minister allow them to increase those limits.

The second change we see with this legislation is an increase in regulation of the student profiles of our universities, giving the minister and his department the power to determine how many students are taught in individual courses at each university. This seems to me to be an extraordinary situation for Australia's education system. The third significant change is, as part of that increasing regulation, the explicit tying of core operating grants to universities complying with the government's policies in respect of industrial relations and governance structures. I will come back to that later. Lastly, the legislation gives the minister the authority to add new higher education providers, without any reference to this parliament. As I understand the legislation, such decisions by the minister would not even be disallowable.

I do not want to traverse the ground that has been covered by many other speakers with respect to this legislation, but I indicate for the record that I endorse in their entirety the comments of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Jagajaga, and the Leader of the Opposition in their addresses to this parliament. What I would like to do in the time that is available to me this morning is to address the impact that these changes are likely to have in my electorate of Hasluck.

Over the two years that I have been privileged to represent the electors of Hasluck in this place, I have had concerns about participation rates in tertiary education. Indeed, it was obvious from the background papers that were part of the minister's higher education review that the participation rates from rural areas and low socioeconomic suburbs, the like of which fall in my electorate, have actually fallen or remained the same. You would hope that, over time, we would have seen an increase in the participation rates of students in these areas.

In the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data on participation rates in higher education for the Perth metropolitan area, it is quite interesting to contrast the situation of people who live in Perth's western suburbs with those who live in Perth's eastern suburbs. Unlike the rest of the country, in Western Australia it is our western suburbs that are the leafy and perhaps more affluent suburbs in the metropolitan areas, as opposed to the eastern region, where my electorate is. I was distressed to discover that you are four times more likely to be participating in higher education if you live in the western suburbs of Perth than if you live in the eastern suburbs. Indeed, about a third of the higher education students in Western Australia live in the eastern suburbs or have eastern suburbs postcodes. But when you look at how the resources in higher education are spread around the Perth metropolitan area, we find that there are 5,000 residents for each higher education place in the eastern suburbs compared with 20 residents for each higher education place in the western suburbs. That is a huge disproportion in terms of the distribution of higher education places in the Perth metropolitan area.

In Western Australia we have only three universities. Of the 11 campuses that they operate only one is in the suburbs east of Victoria Park, an inner city suburb in the Perth metropolitan area. No doubt this is a contributing factor in explaining the far lower participation rate of people in higher education in the eastern suburbs. Between 1986 and 1996 the percentage of the population in Perth's western suburbs attending university rose from five per cent to almost 10 per cent. It also doubled in a corresponding group in the eastern suburbs, but it moved from a particularly low base of just 1.8 per cent to 3.5 per cent. When you look at how Perth benefits from resources in higher education of around $1 billion, it seems to me that that learning expenditure or investment is spent almost to the exclusive benefit of the communities in Perth's richer western suburbs.

The combined effects of increasing HECS fees for undergraduate students—which is the single greatest change in this legislation today—the continuing reduction in the number of student places, the deregulation of fees and the disproportionate location of higher education places will be devastating for poorer urban communities. In my view there must be equal access to higher education for all Australians, particularly for West Australians where this huge imbalance needs to be addressed.

I have spoken before in this place about the area of Midland in my electorate. It is an example of an outer metropolitan regional community that has a substantial level of unemployment. It is a low socioeconomic community, and we have high levels of unemployment amongst our youth. In my opinion, if we concentrated some resources in this area and we had appropriate government support, we could ensure that this situation would improve and that there would be quality jobs for the residents.

I know a wonderful group of people there from local, state and federal government, as well as the business and community sectors. They are working together to establish the Midland tertiary education precinct. They are in the process of lobbying both state and federal governments to establish a multisector educational campus based in Midland, with an emphasis on strong science and engineering programs—not just at the post compulsory level or TAFE level but also at the undergraduate, postgraduate and research and development levels. The slogan for the Midland tertiary education precinct group is `upskilling our region'. It could not be a more fitting description for the eastern metropolitan region, which is experiencing population growth at twice the rate of the Perth metropolitan area.

Midland was the historical centre of the West Australian railway industry. What was once a thriving area, with tradespeople working at the Midland railway workshops, now suffers from high unemployment, low income levels, low levels of skilled workers and a low level of school retention rates. Contributing to this problem is the lack of opportunities available to young people living locally. There is only one small tertiary presence in the region and only one private post compulsory education provider. This is a critical issue to the Midland area and it is one that the Midland tertiary education precinct group is trying to address. If ever there was an example of why more funding is needed to ensure that young people can access quality skills training and education, Midland is it.

In the minute or so that I have left, I have to say that Midland residents still talk about the 1996 election commitment made by the then shadow minister for education, Robert Hill, and the member for Pearce, Judi Moylan, to establish a university or to create higher education facilities in the Midland area. That would have contributed to the upskilling of people in this region. It is seven years since this government have been in place and have had the opportunity to deliver on that commitment to the Midland area, but they have consistently failed to do so.

In closing, can I say that I have just had the pleasure of meeting the scientists who have been visiting many MPs in this place. They indicated to me that Australian public investment in higher education as a percentage of GDP has fallen dramatically, to levels well below our international competitors. Let us hope that commonsense will assert itself and that people in this place will reject the proposed Howard legislation and support the alternative that is being promoted by Labor.