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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21523


Mr MURPHY (5:30 PM) —I support the shadow minister's foreshadowed amendments and oppose the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 and register the protest of thousands of high school students, university students and hardworking families in my electorate of Lowe and across Australia, who are deeply disturbed that, as a result of this bill and the Howard government's failure to adequately support and invest in higher education, their children will not receive the educational opportunities they once possessed.

Shamefully, the Howard government is determined to withdraw its commitment to affordable and fair access for all Australians to opportunities for higher education—opportunities in higher education that Australian parents understand are crucial to realising their children's potential and that Australian industry understands are essential to Australia's future prosperity. I am saddened and disappointed but not surprised by the government's decision to cut investment in higher education in Australia. I am shocked by the government's decision to severely increase the cost burden on students and their families, which will limit the number of public university places and replace those enrolments with an American style system where money, more than marks, opens university doors.

That is why I am pleased to support the substantive amendments to be moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for employment, education and training, Jenny Macklin, which remove the worst aspects of the proposed legislation and give effect to key elements of the opposition's education and training policy, Aim Higher, which represents an investment in Australia's future by supporting fair and affordable access to higher education. The key elements of our policy include: removing the 30 per cent increase in Higher Education Contribution Scheme fees, removing provisions allowing full fees to be charged to Australian undergraduate students, increasing the number of fully funded and part-time places by 20,000, and increasing the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 in 2004-05.

Higher education is an investment in Australia's future that should create a work force that can meet the skill and training requirements of Australia's economy and highly specialised work force. Australians expect the government to ensure universities are filled with students with the greatest talent and potential to benefit from that learning experience. A university place is meant to be earned—a reward for student effort and family commitment as measured by results, however imperfect that measure happens to be—not a privilege based only on their ability to pay $50,000 or $100,000 fees. A place in a university should not be conditional upon a student's ability to manage a mortgage-like student fee debt.

The minister for education's answer to my question on notice No. 952 on 22 October last year revealed that almost 7,000 students from my electorate of Lowe already have a HECS debt and, in addition to them, over 11,000 people living in my electorate are repaying a HECS debt. The Howard government has hit these students and their families with a shocking increase in fees and, as a consequence, a debt burden. The government is forcing them to make up for its $5 billion cuts in higher education. Since 1996, student debt has more than doubled and has blown out to more than $9 billion.

Hardworking families in Sydney's inner west and across Australia, who are working to provide their children with the best primary and high school education they can and encouraging their children to study hard, do so expecting their government to at the very least match this commitment and ensure university places are determined by merit not privilege. Shamefully, the Howard government has instead cut investment in higher education and ensured that cost and the ability to pay is a barrier to a university education and that young graduates will spend a large part of their working lives weighed down by a massive, mortgage-like debt.

The consequences of the government's failure to support fair and affordable access to higher education, and the burden this places on students and families, mean more and more young Australians are unable to buy their own home. They are delaying having children, which has given rise to our negative birthrate. This is a serious threat to our economy unless we promote more migration. A Labor government will address Australia's skills shortage by reducing HECS fees for science and mathematics students by $1,600 per year and by funding an additional 1,100 new commencing full-time and part-time undergraduate teaching places.

Australian families deserve a federal government that will support their children's achievements, not abandon them by creating enormous student debt and ensuring universities have little choice but to charge full fees. Under the Howard government, far too many talented young Australians are missing out on a university place. Universities are being forced to cut around 8,000 HECS places by 2007 because the government is not funding enough places. These bills will ensure there are not enough publicly funded places, making it even harder for those students relying on their talent and hard work for a place and easier for those students lucky enough to be able to afford to pay five- and six-figure fees. This is disgraceful.

The crisis in higher education is explained in the National Union of Students' August 2003 submission to the Senate's inquiry into higher education funding and regulatory legislation. The submission highlights the degree to which the government is increasingly relying on higher student fees and debt:

The share of total university revenue contributed by the Commonwealth fell from 57.2% in 1995 to 43.8% in 2001.

At the same time:

Treasury has re-calculated that the accumulated study debts on graduates will have reached $13 billion by 2006-7, and will balloon out as more students incur the increased HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP debts.

Unfortunately, the Howard government sees higher education as something which must be reserved for the privileged who can afford to buy one. Australian families in my electorate and across Australia understand that higher education is an investment in the skills, knowledge and employment of young Australians. We share that understanding and will always promote fair and affordable access because Labor believe education is a shared investment, with important public as well as personal benefits. Privately, it means increased skills and better jobs, but there are public benefits for all Australians in higher living standards, business investment and improved productivity.

Labor believe that students should make a contribution to the cost of university study, which is why we introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in 1989. Students and their families already contribute a significant amount to the cost of their education. Student fees and charges make up nearly 40 per cent of universities' income, up from 25 per cent in 1996. The Howard government's main policy objective, as illustrated by these bills, is to make students and their families pay even more.

In contrast, a Labor government will ensure adequate university funding and fair and affordable access for all students. This commitment to support fair and affordable access is acknowledged by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee in a September 2003 document titled Fairness and flexibility: ensuring sustainable Australian universities for the futurethe AVCC response to `Aim higher: learning, training and better jobs for more Australians', the higher education policy of the Australian Labor Party. The fourth paragraph on page 3, titled `Support for access', reads as follows:

A major part of the Labor plan is to increase the number of funded places in universities to meet demand pressures and future expectations for higher education provision. In addition to properly funding 25,000 places (presently partly funded) Labor is committed to funding a further 32,000 places by 2008. This represents a major commitment to access, and should go much of the way to ensure that all eligible Australians can find a suitable university place.

Australia desperately needs a Labor government to restore merit as the primary criterion for getting a university place and ensure access to university remains affordable. Aim Higher will relieve the financial burden on students and new graduates, address the national skills shortage and ensure higher education is equally and fairly accessible to any student who has achieved the results required, rewarding students and their families for their hard work.