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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21464

Mr SAWFORD (1:26 PM) —I have spoken many times on transport issues in this House, but the best transport policy of all is a properly funded education system that provides access to higher education to everyone who needs it, on the basis of ability. That is because a good education system can transport young people from dead-end jobs and low incomes to lives rich in potential and optimism, and this in turn has enormous economic and social benefits for our nation as a whole.

Yet in South Australia last year, around 1,400 young people who had worked hard to achieve scores sufficient to undertake tertiary education were denied the opportunity by the Howard government's cuts to higher education. According to the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the national total of young people denied access to higher education because of insufficient funding is around 25,000. The University of Adelaide's Vice-Chancellor, James McWha, says that South Australia could lose 2,000 HECS places under the government's legislation currently before the House.

This legislation—the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003—ironically called the higher education support bills, would cause enormous harm to universities and to tertiary students now and in coming years. Chopping 2,000 HECS places, including around 1,100 at Adelaide University, may not seem a big deal to the minister or to the bureaucrats here in Canberra. To them it might be just a number on a page but, to young people and their families who have worked hard and sacrificed much to gain the scores to open the doors to higher education, it means a great deal more.

Letters to the Adelaide Advertiser, in response to a recent piece by the minister, make the important points very succinctly. For example, a year 10 student at Mitcham Girls High School, Lindsey Webb of Edwardstown, says that the government's legislation to increase HECS and charge students $50,000 for a degree would necessarily make her reconsider her options. She says that private school students, who are generally from higher income backgrounds, could take most HECS spots and leave those from lower income backgrounds with no choice other than to pay full fees for a degree. This, as Lindsey points out, is unfair.

That unfairness is amplified by another section of this legislation that increases the number of full fee paying places at the expense of HECS places. Emily Davis from the Flinders University Students Association highlights the irony of the minister's claim that he is providing students with more opportunities. He is providing, as she writes, `More opportunities to pay $50,000 for their degrees.' She also notes with irony that the minister's higher education qualifications, from which he has benefited mightily, cost him not a cent. That is because he was a beneficiary of Labor's reforms some decades ago which dramatically increased access to higher education according to merit, not ability to pay. It is those reforms that the government has been busily overturning since coming to office in 1996.

Another letter writer, James Frazer of Darlington, focuses on how the government has shifted the cost of higher education from government to students. He presents figures to show that student fees and contributions have doubled in this time to the point where the federal government now contributes just 40 per cent of the cost of a degree. Elicia Savvas of Glandore, in her letter, provided the minister with a helpful suggestion that the government `dip into the $7 billion surplus to restore some of the $5 billion it has stripped from universities since 1996'. That the government has made severe cuts to higher education funding since 1996 is a matter of public record and it is very well known to South Australian families, as the correspondence to the Adelaide Advertiser testifies.

What is now also on the public record is the deleterious impact these cuts continue to have on student aspirations and opportunities. For example, according to the OECD, Australia now has the second lowest rate of increase of enrolment in universities of all member countries. How dumb is that! How could you blame students for reconsidering their options when the option of higher education debt takes on the crushing proportions of home loans. For students from higher income backgrounds this may not be so much of a concern because they often have family assistance to settle the debt. It is those from lower income families, as usual, who will bear the brunt of the Howard government's funding cuts. They are the ones who face repayment of the debt from their pay packets for most of their working lives. The one thing this country does not need is talented people forgoing higher education because they cannot afford it, yet that is exactly what the OECD figures show is happening. This is a shocking indictment of the government, especially as the decline in the rate of student enrolment is happening at a time of strong economic growth in this country and around the world. We are falling behind our competitors.

That this legislation before the House would deny 2,000 South Australians their hard-earned right to undertake tertiary study is bad enough. But the news for those who still manage to gain a place is no better, with the provision to allow a 30 per cent increase in HECS fees heading the list of charges that may deter people from undertaking higher education. The HECS fees increase will again fall heavily on those from lower income backgrounds because HECS debts mean a lot more to them than they do to those from well-heeled backgrounds. The well-heeled are also looked after by the government's legislation with the proposed increase in full fee paying places, places that come at the direct cost of HECS positions. This provision to give an unjust leg-up to tertiary qualifications for the well-heeled was one of the first things the Howard government did when it came into office in 1996. Those well-heeled students—the BMW and Volvo drivers—gain entry with scores of five university admission index points lower than HECS students by paying fees of up to $100,000 for a degree. These places come directly at the expense of HECS places. That is, better qualified students get bumped out of a higher education place by students who are less qualified but have a fatter wallet—or their daddy's or mummy's share portfolio.

The enormity of the injustice of this provision, despite being matched by other Howard government legislation over the years, remains staggering. It is a provision that panders directly to the Liberal Party's big end of town constituency and its born to rule mentality. That constituency has been pandered to again with the legislation currently before the House, which increases the cap on the number of full fee paying students from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. That is, the legislation would allow for half—this is absolutely incredible—of all undergraduates to be full fee paying students. Currently, about 3,500 full fee paying students commence study each year, denying better qualified students a university place. This bill also allows the minister to exempt entire courses from this limit without having to come back to parliament for approval, a sign that the injustice will become more commonplace in the future and less scrutinised.

All Australian citizens who want to should have an equal opportunity to earn a university degree. It is almost the definition of injustice to have students from wealthy families taking the place of others who are better qualified. I am proud to say that we on this side of the House will, when we win government—and we surely will—restore merit as the only criterion for getting a university place and will abolish full fees for Australian undergraduates. The government's failure to provide sufficient support for the university education sector has caused the current dire situation. The OECD has determined that Australia's public investment in education has declined by 11 per cent.

Mr SAWFORD —The member for Lindsay laughs, but she will be a casualty at a future election, make no mistake about that. In fact, on average, OECD countries have increased their public investment in universities, not decreased it—we are the only country that has not—and the average increase in OECD countries is 21 per cent. We have dropped it by 11 per cent. That is so dumb!

The impact of the government's continued withdrawal of funding from Australian universities is seen with overcrowded classrooms, insufficient student resources, deteriorating infrastructure and higher student to staff ratios—but the story is true for secondary education; it is also true for TAFE and primary schools. For example, the student to staff ratio at the University of South Australia has increased by 30 per cent since 1996, by 26 per cent at Adelaide University and by 20 per cent at Flinders. Put simply, this means that today's students can expect a lot less personal attention and assistance than students received just seven years ago.

I am limited to 10 minutes with this particular address but, as I said earlier, a properly funded university system is the best transport system this country can have for young Australians. I said that this is so because there is no more important task for governments than to provide the avenues and the bridges that people need to realise their full potential—and that is in the best interests of everyone in this nation. The avenues and the bridges are the properly funded and resourced learning institutions, from primary schools through to universities and other tertiary centres of learning, both for young people and older people seeking retraining. Equally important is that access to each stage must be on the basis of merit and not on the ability to pay. It is entirely inconsistent with the basic tenets of the fair society we seek to build to have the wallet override merit. I ask the government to put justice and equal opportunity before politics and accept the amendments to make the legislation fair to everybody.