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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21448

Ms GRIERSON (12:21 PM) —I also oppose the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I agree with the previous speaker, the member for Brand; it is time for a reformist government, not this government that reforms through division and neglect of what are perhaps the best institutions we have ever had in our nation. So I rise to oppose the legislation and support the substantive amendments to be moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I regret that my comments have been restricted by the time limit placed on this important debate, but this government constantly uses its power to gag its opponents, be they charity organisations, High Court judges or Labor parliamentarians.

This legislation represents the most significant change to higher education policy in 30 years and signals a departure from a fine tradition in this country where all citizens were encouraged to value our tertiary institutions, whether or not they or their family attended and studied in them. It also sets a new, and I would suggest dangerous, precedent in granting to individual universities the ability to set fees and to offer full fee paying places to Australian students. It now appears from the fine print in this legislation that the minister will have the ongoing power to decide which courses and what percentage of places in those courses will be full fee paying, as he sees fit. Our very own not so `brave heart', the Minister for Education, Science and Training, will now decide the fate of students once hopeful of an affordable education. Could this mean the minister would have the power to decide that all medical places should be fee paying or that all law places should be full fee paying? That would be a disaster for bright students from families of moderate means but okay for the thick and rich.

Already students are being forced to choose their courses by what is affordable. In my last employment as a principal, one of my school cleaners lived with the regret that her brilliant young daughter chose a commerce/law degree over medicine because of the availability of a scholarship. Without that financial assistance, her family could not afford to support her through her studies. I do not think many members of the government would know what it is like to work split shifts all week, commencing in the dark each morning and ending in the dark each evening, cleaning toilets and emptying garbage bins so that your child can have educational opportunities you did not have. That is a pity. I remember too well my own mother ordering me to my room to study so that I could get a decent job. At the time, as a sole parent she worked long, tiring shifts in a hotel, supporting her daughters so they could have opportunities she never had. Less opportunity and more financial hardship will be the result if this mean spirited government is allowed to bring about increased HECS fees and introduce full fee payment for Australian students.

Complete fee deregulation marks the beginning of elitism, the beginning of our own dinky-di version of Ivy League universities. That is just what we do not need: more Yankee Doodle, American style policy for this country. Our universities get the new variety at—you guessed it—a never to be beaten but always to be imposed and increased price. Agree to massive reregulation by the government, accept compromise to university autonomy and independence, and you can then set your own fees, decide who you enrol and how much they will pay. Sadly, after this government has ripped $5 billion out of our universities, some universities will accept the deal to gain access to a less constrained cash flow. Add some very special industrial relations conditions, throw in a little lecturer unrest and the deal is almost complete.

The minister claims there are too many universities, too much duplication, too many mickey mouse courses and too much mediocrity. He also knows there is much unmet demand and that in this new clever world more and more people will apply for university places. Simply, he does not want the government to have to pay for that. In this country already students and their families are paying some of the highest fee burdens in the world. Under this government, the average HECS fee has increased by 85 per cent. Student debt has doubled to $9 billion. My own daughter calculates when she may have children or purchase a house by when she will have her HECS debt paid off. And we wonder why the fertility rate is so low in this country.

Student fees and charges now constitute 37 per cent of the income of universities, up from 25 per cent in 1996. The level of government funding has fallen from 57 per cent in 1996 to a new all-time low of 44 per cent. At current projections under current policies student debt is expected to reach $13 billion by 2006. If this legislation is passed, the burden on students and their families will escalate to staggering levels. This legislation will see no caps on HECS fees, no caps on the cost of degrees and no caps on full fee paying places, as well as less places for Australian students and huge HECS debts. According to Professor Bruce Chapman, the architect of HECS, up to 60,000 students will be paying full fees for degrees under the government's package. But the government is determined to impose its ideology, which favours the wealthy and pushes them to the front of the education queues, applying the principle that it knows so well of `user pays'. And if you cannot pay, that is tough; too bad.

As an educator all my life, I know too well that education is the great leveller, the deliverer of opportunity to all, irrespective of position, status and wealth. Education more than anything else blurs the lines of any class system and allows anyone with merit and determination to achieve qualifications that enable them to succeed, allowing them to gain rewarding work and accumulate wealth. That is why we on this side will always defend so passionately a universal education system where merit, not wealth, determines access.

The legislation we are debating today has no interest in principles of equity. It must be remembered that this Prime Minister is our very own `behind the white picket fence' guy from a conservative era when class did exist, an era when the workers wore overalls, carried Gladstone bags and travelled on public transport, while the white-collar workers wore just that—and were easily recognisable—and the professionals and privileged got to wear suits and drive the latest model Holdens. He is certainly overdue for a reality check. Australia has changed. It is progressive and modern and will not accept that higher education should be available only to the wealthy. It will not accept that our skills and talents should be compromised in any way. Equal opportunity has been the hallmark of our democracy and our education system, and it is enshrined in Labor's new Aim Higher policy—which, of course, has my full support.

What does this mean to my university? I am very fortunate to have in my electorate the University of Newcastle, a fine institution which our community fought very hard to have established. Since the introduction of the new education policy we have been trying hard to get the minister to agree to us having regional funding. The government have taken out that regional funding, and they have also taken out 200 places. I pay tribute to our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian English, who will not cut those places but will continue to hold them. Even though we have had a $1.7 billion deficit in funding since 1995, those places will be there for our students. The minister tells us we are not entitled to regional funding, although he has reinstated $1 million of regional funding to the University of Wollongong. We are pleased for Wollongong but desperate in our own region to make sure that the sorts of community based and regional programs that enable students to have that second chance and gain access to university will be funded. Unless that regional funding is restored, it will be very difficult in our region to continue to provide those sorts of enabling and engaging courses.

But the minister claims that he has considered some new factors for the University of Wollongong: isolation and the inability of students to pay fees. However, he seems to have overlooked that in Newcastle the median individual income is only $306 a week—the 24th lowest ranked electorate in the country—and has not taken that into account. Isolation apparently does not exist because we have so many students we can draw from, even though they may have to come from across the Great Dividing Range, as far as the North Coast and south to the Central Coast. Apparently, isolation for those students living away from home is not a factor that he needs to consider.

Three hundred Indigenous students are enrolled in the University of Newcastle—the greatest number of such students in any university in New South Wales—but apparently the isolation they will feel from being away from home does not require any additional resourcing. I also point out that the University of Newcastle hosts two centres of excellence. I do not think that is matched anywhere else in the country. Having two centres of excellence in a regional university is a great tribute to the efforts of the staff and the management of the university. The university deserves a better deal.

Today is the eve of national industrial action by university staff. I must register my support for their protest. It is not acceptable that this government has tied $404 million under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to acceptance by universities of its divisive and combative approach to industrial relations. The minister says that he requires his universities to be compliant with the government's workplace relations policies and to accept his precondition that AWAs should be made available to each and every individual. His requirement that no encouragement be given to union membership and that no restrictions or limitations be placed on the forms and mix of employment types is quite unnecessary and has little to do with education. Universities rightly decide these issues themselves and should continue to do so. Fortunately, all vice-chancellors have opposed this attempt to undermine the conditions of their staff and the activities of their union, the National Tertiary Education Union. Enterprise bargaining already takes place in these institutions with little unrest and a great deal of cooperation.

In concluding , the Australian public are fed up with the paternalistic arrogance of the minister for education, Brendan Nelson. Most Australians want to live in a fair and decent country where we can look each other in the eye as equals, have some spiritual comfort from knowing we all contribute to making our country strong and clever and at least try to give everyone a chance to succeed. I strongly oppose the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the related bill.