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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23426

Mr SOMLYAY (2:42 PM) —My question is also addressed to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Would the minister inform the House of recent enhancements to the government's plan for the future of universities? How important is the reform of the university sector for the future of higher education?

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) —I thank the member for Fairfax for his question and for his long career in support of university education in general and the University of the Sunshine Coast in particular. The government has before the Senate—and it has been opposed by the Australian Labor Party—a $2.4 billion additional investment in Australian universities over the next five years, some $10.6 billion of additional investment in universities over the first 10 years. I announced late last week a further $200 million enhancement to that package, which will include another 1,400 HECS places in the sector. That brings it to 33,000 over the five years. It includes an extra 7,500 scholarships for low-income rural students to help them with their living costs whilst they are at university—worth $16,000 each. In addition, there are a range of measures which include increasing by three times the amount of money for universities to support students with disabilities and doubling the amount of money into the fair go performance program.

I am asked about other statements in relation to higher education. The Leader of the Opposition seems to be particularly mindful of what happened 30 years ago, so he should not have much trouble coming a bit closer to 2003. I bring the Leader of the Opposition to 1999 and a paper he delivered to the University of Western Sydney's senior staff conference in the Blue Mountains on 11 November 1999. Let us keep in mind that today the members of the Labor Party have not only chosen a new leader; they have chosen the views and policies that this person represents. The Leader of the Opposition said on 11 November 1999 that he is arguing for a group of institutions with greater emphasis on private revenue sources rather than public money. He argued:

They would need to make strong use of their large endowments and positional goods. Their fees would be deregulated, with the equity role of government pursued through publicly funded, means tested scholarships.

The Leader of the Opposition believes that there are universities in Australia—and he named them: Queensland, New South Wales, Macquarie, Melbourne, Monash, Adelaide and Western Australia—whose fees would be deregulated. In other words, should he ever be the leader of his party, that would be the policy that would be adopted by his party, yet the Labor Party is opposed to what this government is doing in response to advocacy from every one of the 38 vice-chancellors of Australian universities. This government did not support full deregulation of universities, but what we did say in relation to the leadership of the universities is that, at the same time that we will invest another $2.4 billion of taxpayers' money in the first five years, we will allow the universities to set their own HECS charges between zero and a level which is a maximum 30 per cent above what it currently is, with no change for teaching and nursing.

The Leader of the Opposition said this morning, `I am not here as opposition for opposition's sake. I'm here to do the right thing by Australia's national interest.' My challenge to the Leader of the Opposition is to stand by those words, and the Leader of the Opposition can start today. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee on 25 November this year said, `Australia's universities need a reform package'. On 28 November they said:

We are on the cusp of crucial reform across the higher education sector.

Australia's universities deserve a new deal to serve our students well and to make us internationally competitive.

That sounds like national interest to me. I ask the Leader of the Opposition and the Australian Labor Party to now stand by those words, support the government and pass the higher education reforms in the Senate.