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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21461

Mr McMULLAN (1:15 PM) —In speaking on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 I want to focus on two things. Firstly, I briefly want to focus on the impact on the tertiary sector here in the ACT, particularly in my own electorate of Fraser, and then, more particularly, on the continued failure of the Howard government to address the education needs of Indigenous Australians. If passed, these bills will have the same damaging impact on tertiary education in the ACT as across the country. The impact in the ACT will not be particular but will simply be greater because higher education is very important here. My constituency has more higher education institutions than any other constituency in Australia.

The ACT has already suffered severely from reductions in funding, from Howard government policy, since 1996. The Australian National University has accumulated funding cuts of $190.5 million until 2002 and the University of Canberra has taken a hit of $123.5 million. There have been similar negative impacts on the ACT campuses of the Australian Catholic University and Charles Sturt University. The effect of these government policies has been to increase staff-student ratios by more than 25 per cent, and each year nearly 300 eligible students from the ACT and the region who want to enrol cannot do so because there are insufficient funded places.

I know and accept that the Howard government does not care about Canberra. My constituents and those of my colleague the member for Canberra commit the continuing sin of voting for the Labor Party, so they do not expect to get fair treatment from the government. But I advise the Howard government that the ACT's higher education sector serves a much wider region. These changes will be felt by people living on the South Coast and in Yass, Goulburn, Wagga and Griffith and in the many other communities which see Canberra as their primary higher education service centre. Therefore, as the local member, I express my profound concern about the compounding impact of this package, on top of the damage that has already been done to higher education in the ACT since 1996.

In the limited time remaining, I want to turn to the importance of education generally, and higher education in particular, for Indigenous Australians. It is a similar picture. This package will compound a problem already made worse by the adverse impact of the changes made since 1996. Let us start with the most fundamental position: education is the bottom line for all policies and initiatives to reduce the appalling levels of Indigenous disadvantage in Australia and to enable greater Indigenous self-government, self-determination and responsibility in the future.

The Howard government talks about Indigenous people and communities taking responsibility and working towards practical reconciliation, but the reality is that the Howard government has failed to fundamentally address the major practical policy area that could turn the rhetoric of `responsibility' into reality for Indigenous Australians—that is, education policy. The Howard government has in the past and still is today—through measures including this very package of legislation we are dealing with now—actively introducing cuts and changes to policy that make access to higher education for Indigenous students more and more difficult. After all—and sadly and ironically—it is the current minister for Indigenous affairs who executed the massive $1.8 billion cut to higher education when she was the minister for education.

In relation to the particular area I am concerned about in today's address—Indigenous education—the minister was warned. But, against all the advice and warnings from the Indigenous community, from independent commentators, from academic analysts at Deakin University, from the National Tertiary Education Union and from the National Union of Students, Senator Vanstone went ahead with these drastic cuts. It was predicted at the time that almost 95 per cent of Indigenous students in higher education would be disadvantaged by the changes. Just think about it: a minister is advised that the changes she is proposing will disadvantage 95 per cent of Indigenous students in higher education, and she goes ahead with them. Sure enough, Indigenous enrolments fell by 14 per cent in just two years, from 1999 to 2001, falling back to pre-1995 levels and wiping out steady gains made in enrolments during the mid-1990s.

While higher education enrolments for Indigenous students have picked up very slightly in the past year, I believe we are only now beginning to see the long-term impact of Senator Vanstone's cuts. One area in which this is disturbingly clear is the dramatically declining number of Indigenous students commencing degrees in education. In 1997, the president of the Australian Councils of Deans of Education, Professor Adey, wrote to the minister and expressed the following concerns:

I am writing to you to express the grave concern which the ACDE—

that is, the Australian Council of Deans of Education—

has with the changes ... announced in the May budget ...

The letter goes on to highlight one of the most serious consequences the ACDE foresaw:

The long term reduction in the provision of qualified Indigenous teachers, especially for remote Indigenous communities.

In that letter, the ACDE then urged the minister `to reverse the decisions of the May budget' so that `access by Indigenous people to tertiary education is not diminished'. Sadly, I can advise the minister that the latest figures released by her department show that this is exactly what has happened. The number of Indigenous Australians commencing degrees in education has dropped from 1,224 in 1997 to 826 in 2002. That is a significant drop—33 per cent over five years—and it is in stark contrast to the 45 per cent rise in Indigenous education commencements in the five years before that, under a Labor government. As I have said already: how can the government possibly claim to be working towards practical reconciliation and greater responsibility—for example, with regard to substance abuse and family violence—when they are not even bothering to ensure there is a sufficient number of Indigenous teachers who can appropriately educate the rest of the Indigenous population, empower them to take on more responsibility and encourage them to be proud and effective Indigenous leaders?

I spoke recently at a business forum in Perth, and the forum was looking at how government and business can work together to close the gap of shame between Indigenous and non-Indigenous living standards. The businesspeople were very positive. I was encouraged by what they had to say. But it became clear on that day that it is impossible for business to maximise the employment of Indigenous Australians if the Australian government does not invest sufficiently in education. Education outcomes for Indigenous Australians are already far behind the national average. A vital element of any program to overcome these differential outcomes is an increase in the number of Indigenous teachers.

So what do we have? First, we have a minister for Indigenous affairs who is the very minister who put in place the policies and reforms that did the damage. Second, today we have a package of higher education legislation which is increasing HECS fees and forcing the universities to cut thousands of HECS funded university places. Higher university fees and greater HECS debts are the last things that Indigenous Australians, struggling against great odds to get a higher education, need. And, to compensate, all that the Howard government has to offer is a higher education scholarship scheme that lumps Indigenous students in with all other students in lower socioeconomic circumstances. Of course, scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are necessary, but this very modest proposal will not overcome the adverse impact of these and previous Howard government changes. In the Sydney Morning Herald recently, ACOSS noted:

Fewer than one in five poor or indigenous Australians will receive a scholarship to help finance their university studies under the Federal Government's planned shake-up of higher education ...

Even with its narrow focus on so-called practical reconciliation, a growing population of Indigenous people who have difficulty articulating the practical needs and responsible ideas of their communities is the last thing the Howard government wants. There is no way that we can give Indigenous people a real say and lift their standards effectively without addressing the current educational disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians. I agreed to limit my speech to 10 minutes, so I cannot outline the extent of that disadvantage, but let me just say that they are behind. A report released and available today from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research says that in education, as in other vital areas, the relative disadvantage of Indigenous Australians is getting worse.

There is no effective redress to this crisis, this gap of shame, without more Indigenous teachers. A good teacher can overcome many of the negative effects caused by the problems and barriers facing Indigenous children. A good teacher can improve a student's learning. The data available shows clearly that the current strategy in this respect is failing. The training of Indigenous teachers is declining, not improving. Everything in this bill will make this problem worse. Nothing in it will seriously address our status as the worst country in the Western world with regard to this gap of shame between the living standards of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. That is why we need to reject this unfair package. It is bad for the higher education system. It is bad for low- and middle-income families. It will exacerbate the looming crisis in Indigenous education just when we need positive action to combat this crisis.