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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8235

Dr JENSEN (7:04 PM) —The Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 is very important, given the significant role universities play in the Australian economy and the community. However, any sentence which contains the words ‘Labor’ and ‘budget’ in close proximity should send shivers of fear down the spines of every thinking and taxpaying Australian. The debt burden imposed by this government has reached horrendous proportions, which is why this government is trying every trick in the book to raise extra revenue except, of course, the most obvious ones. In fact, I am beginning to think that the Prime Minister is aping his Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts and starting a rock band. It looks like being an echo of a famous British band the Animals, the difference being the name of the lead singer. Instead of Eric Burdon, we are seeing ‘Tax Burden and the Animals’ and their first smash hit ‘The House of the Rising Sum’—that ‘sum’ being the massive debt which the next generation of Australians will owe—or perhaps he and the Deputy Prime Minister are Australia’s Ike and Tina Turner, with the outpouring of cash being ‘river deep’ and the scale of debt ‘mountain high’.

All Australians by now are aware of the appalling levels of debt being incurred by the Prime Minister to buy the next election—debt which we will all have to pay back, with younger Australians having to shoulder the lion’s share of that burden. Despite this, the Prime Minister is continuing with the good old Labor first option: when there is a problem throw taxpayers’ money at it. This is definitely the case with this bill. Yet again, the root cause of the problem is Labor’s tired old ideology, which is a nightmarish flight back to the 1970s and Gough Whitlam—the ideology of class war, bloated bureaucracy and making people fit the system, not tailoring the system to fit the people. The most egregious ideological financial blunder this government has committed in tertiary education is a direct attack upon Australians and their freedom of choice by banning full fee-paying students. On one hand, the government is saying that the sector needs more money and, on the other, Labor is deliberately not only denying this sector a significant source of finance but trying to play the ‘bash to rich’ card by denying full fee-paying students a chance to attain higher education.

I reminded the House of this class war mentality two years ago when debating the excellent legislation introduced by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition when she was education minister. What a contrast to the current incumbent. I said of Labor’s contempt for full fee-paying students:

This is yet another attempt to dress up tired, old class warfare and the politics of envy—ideological wolves—with the sheep’s clothing of concern for students.

In fact, this expressed disdain, bordering on hatred, of the so-called rich people, has never been better exposed than in the words of a close friend of the member for Kingsford Smith—who would fall into the despised category of ‘rich’ himself. Rob Hirst, former drummer and songwriter for Midnight Oil, described the permitting of full fee-paying students in the Bulletin of 26 January 2007 as:

We’re getting thicker. Our unis are filling up with dumb, rich kids whose daddies have paid to queue-jump them over the heads of their brighter, poorer peers.

Nothing has changed, has it?

The government claims that universities are in need of money, yet Labor is happy to deny universities this source of funding because of some stupid inbred hatred of people who want to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own education—people who are prepared to accept the financial cost of doing this without help from the taxpayer. How intolerable! How incomprehensible to Labor this self-sufficient, independent kind of thinking is. More importantly, how dangerous! Imagine if we had our universities flooded with people who showed such subversive tendencies of independence and self-reliance. Who knows? These fiscal dissidents might even infect other students with their revolutionary ideologies, and then what would happen? More people might start thinking they could actually manage something on their own, by themselves, without using the crutch of the taxpayer. Who knows? They might even turn into—shock, horror—liberal thinking people. We can’t have that, can we? So the Labor government would deliberately starve our universities of funding just to keep out seditious types who have the gall to think they can get something by paying for it themselves.

The government also cannot seem to see the difference between people paying for the cost of their own university education and buying a degree. Despite having paid full fees, these students would still have to pass exams, so there is no suggestion of unfairness or privilege, except the privilege of choice. And of course these students are not necessarily rich. They and/or their families may have to go without a lot to pay for this education, which would tend to make them better students because they prize and value the education more because of the sacrifices they have to make. Not for them the lifestyle of a dilettante who wanders through a smorgasbord of courses being a perpetual student with absolutely no intention of paying their massive HECS fees back. Many of these full fee-paying students have one, two or even three part-time jobs, as do many HECS students, and yet they are denied a chance to better themselves by this callous, ideologically hidebound government.

Here is the irony. Full fee-paying students are only permitted if they are from overseas. How can the government discriminate so disgracefully against its own people? What other national government shows such contempt for its own citizens in comparison with overseas citizens visiting here to study? Only Labor. Instead of alleviating the financial situation of universities by permitting these students, the government is forcing the students already here to add to the HECS debt many are incurring by imposing the disingenuously entitled student services and amenities fees. Fortunately that has, I think, gone down in the Senate today. Again, there is no freedom of choice—as is espoused by coalition governments—but there is a blatant extortion of money from students, most of whom neither want nor need these services. In many cases those students are already paying for those services via the normal taxation system, as in the case of subsidised child care.

Returning to the big picture of funding, despite the financial chest thumping of this inept government on how much money they are putting into universities, it is a bit like a socialite heiress making a big deal about a donation to charity—it is easily done when you have not had to work for it. Even the $11 billion funding of higher education is a typical sleight of hand by Labor. We are all aware of the $22 billion surplus left by the Howard/Costello administration, which was blown by Labor to the tune of the odd hundred billion or three in the blink of an eye. However, in addition to that surplus there was funding specifically set aside for higher education. Under the coalition government it was called the Higher Education Endowment Fund. Labor is trying to make it appear as though their $11 billion fund—called the Education Investment Fund—is somehow new, or its own achievement.

So let us have a look at this $11 billion of funding and see exactly where it has come from. The first $6 billion—more than half—is a direct steal from the Higher Education Endowment Fund established under the coalition government by the then Treasurer eighteen months ago. This was the same coalition government under which a record 186,000 Australians were offered a university place. So more than half of Labor’s higher education funding was actually coalition higher education funding. No surprise there.

Furthermore, as my colleague the shadow minister for education, the member for Sturt, has observed, the Labor government has not only used our higher education funding and promoted it as theirs but topped up our $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund funding with $2.5 billion from the last Howard-Costello surplus, naturally changing the name again to hide its fiscal origins. Finally, as also pointed out by the member for Sturt, the final $2.5 billion is only going to happen if there is sufficient budget surplus next year, which, given the looming massive deficit, is about as likely as the sun rising in the west. Therefore this ‘new’ $11 billion fund is actually just an $8.5 billion fund entirely paid for by the excellent economic management of the coalition government. This rebadged, renamed reiterating of the coalition funding has been launched under the banner of the Bradley review into education.

This report has been welcomed by the opposition, and was an extremely thorough review. Dr Bradley and her team considered 353 written submissions and held discussions with hundreds of representatives of student bodies, businesses, academic institutions and governments. This is a most significant review, but as the opposition has pointed out, it is also the 25th such review since Labor was elected, which is more than one a month.

Since receiving the Bradley report, the government has done what Labor does best—hold a review into a review! Labor held a series of roundtable discussions into this most extensive review, which in itself held wide-ranging and inclusive community consultation, as I have mentioned. So we had a roundtable into a review of a conference into the discussions of the inquiry into a paper on the summit into the examination of proposals regarding higher education. The only really concrete decision that is apparent so far from all this consultation is a decision to scrap Commonwealth Scholarships, with the replacement appearing sometime in the future.

One result of all this consultation which the opposition would really like to see is the philosophy re-emerging of providing educational services with the focus on the students. Unfortunately, the Labor mindset is to favour the organisation over the individual. The ideal is for universities to be responsive to both students and business.

The introduction of vouchers, or student learning entitlement, is a great idea, which came from the Bradley review. Instead of the federal government funding courses directly, students would receive vouchers which they would be able to use at any university prepared to admit them. This would change in a major way how universities and their funding are organised, by giving more power to consumers—in this case, students. The students’ fees would, however, remain capped and universities would not be able to set their own.

Australia’s universities play a vital role in our community, firstly by providing a first-class education for our students. This high level is reinforced by the number of overseas students who wish to avail themselves of this education. The universities also provide valuable research and development resources for the benefit of our whole society.

Secondly, our universities build on our proud heritage of critical and creative thought. As my colleague Senator Brett Mason has said, universities are an important part of our ever-changing world, and therefore must be flexible enough to respond to these changes. The last thing universities and students need is for these institutions to be so bound up in red tape that any meaningful response to these changing circumstances is almost impossible to make.

The Bradley review has provided a very thorough examination of our higher education system. It is now up to the government to make sensible changes which will improve our tertiary education system. I live more in hope than expectation.