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Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Page: 1548

Mr TUCKEY (5:48 PM) —This is a small piece of legislation but it is for a good purpose, and it has the support of the opposition. It is an opportunity for me to address a number of issues related to education—as other speakers have done. An interesting aspect of the Higher Education Support Amendment (University College London) Bill 2010 is its retrospectivity, which accommodates any students who wish to commence in the first semester, taking account of the fact that the legislation may not have completely passed all processes in that time. It is not often I find myself voting for a piece of retrospective legislation, certainly not in the area of taxation, but this is a positive move and should be recommended. As the minister said in his second reading speech, this legislation provides eligibility for FEE-HELP for students attending University College London as a type C provider. FEE-HELP assists eligible domestic students studying for all higher education courses, ranging from diploma to PhD by providing a loan for all or part of their tuition costs. That has been welcomed by students to help them get through these processes.

It is also interesting that University College London is a non-profit organisation established under UK law and has been approved to operate as a higher education provider in Australia by the South Australian government under the National Protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes. There is a point in there that is part of a culture I have never been able to understand—that is, the reference to ‘non-profit organisation’. I have never been able to see why, if a profit based education entity is giving a high standard of service and charging fees for the purpose, there should be a difference in the entitlement of a student to receive the support that this parliament provides. I know that there were times when our side of politics would have liked to have addressed that anomaly, but it has always been opposed vigorously by the Labor Party. There is this hang-up somewhere that, if a body is ‘for profit’, it offers a lesser service or in some other way is not to be trusted. Nevertheless, it is a minor issue and not really managed under this piece of legislation.

The member for Corangamite informs the House that this new university in the legislation before us is highly rated in the United Kingdom. I am delighted to see that the first enrolments will probably be for a Master of Science in energy and resources. To my mind this qualification is to be applauded, as we have seen a decline in enrolments in this type of tougher university course. It is one that Australia so desperately needs to carry us forward. It is very discouraging to read that the LNG plant for the major Gorgon gas project will primarily be designed overseas. Chevron, the promoters of that scheme, said in the newspaper that the capacity to do the work just does not exist in Australia, yet it would of course represent a very substantial amount of additional economic activity for the country.

We are constantly lectured about the government’s attempts to improve the training and skills of Australians. I do not disagree with that, but I am somewhat bemused by the constant lecturing about how much money the government are spending. Today, in a different circumstance, the minister proudly said that they had resolved the 10 hot spots, but the minister could not tell us one of them. It seems to be the case that the Minister for Education measures excellence by expenditure. There seems to be this argument that if you chuck enough money at it, it must get better. The only evidence of it getting better would be in the number of graduates in higher levels of learning, as is proposed with the University College London. They are very welcome to set the bar so high with their first intake.

It is a matter of grave concern to us, because they are always telling us how much money they have spent, be it in health—an area of grave concern to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Washer—or in other areas, but we so infrequently get the numbers. There was a claim that 8,000 nurses would be attracted back from retirement by giving them more money and that that was a good idea. I understand that the number who have taken up the offer is only in the hundreds. Yet, we are still told about all money and therefore it must be a successful arrangement. This legislation in itself is to be applauded. It resolves some outstanding issues with the creation of the University College London as an eligible entity for FEE-HELP by categorising it as a class C operation.

As I said earlier, there are issues that I have an opportunity to raise in this regard. A very significant area of concern for me I believe I had addressed some years ago during the Howard government with then Minister David Kemp—an issue about which I am rightfully proud given my long career in this place. I approached him in the knowledge that there was to be another issuance of fee-paid places for our universities and I asked whether a number of places, which turned out to be 30, could be allocated to Geraldton in my electorate. There was nothing in Geraldton; no facility whatsoever for university courses. One of the great advantages that flowed from the Kemp decision was that a large number of mature-age, married women became nurses. Quite clearly, 300 miles away from the nearest university, there was little chance of them saying to their husband and young children, ‘I want to go out and become a nurse. There will be a positive outcome for the health system, but I am going to leave home and go and live in Perth to do the course.’ Obviously, they could not do that. I was so proud that the first group of graduates were almost all in that category. So a service and a positive outcome were provided.

The issue I want to address is that then Minister David Kemp said, ‘Yep, Geraldton has 30 places.’ But the universities involved had to go and chase them. They had to service the places. As they committed themselves, a $3 million building was constructed and everything progressed from there, as I described with regard to the first group of graduates. As a consequence, then Minister Kemp looked at other areas—and I think the regional campuses in Ballarat and Bendigo might have been included—and he made some positive geographic allocations. Remember—and I stand corrected only on the figure—that when governments have made allocations to major universities, there is an obligation to distribute 15 per cent to so-called regional campuses. But they had to choose where. At the time, Rockingham, virtually a suburb of Perth in this day and age, was considered regional. If you are running around the place keeping an eye on your campuses, where do you send the money? Do you send it up to Geraldton, 300 miles north of Perth, or do you send it off just around the corner?

I believe fundamentally that there should be, by decision of the department, the minister and government, a continuing allocation of these places on the basis of geography. Whether it slipped away under Howard or under this government, I am not sure, but I have not been able to see evidence of ministerial decisions in this regard. Let me give the example which is enraging me at the moment. As you would know, Deputy Speaker Washer, two iconic campuses in Western Australia were the Muresk Agricultural College and the Kalgoorlie School of Mines, with the latter probably having the higher level of importance. As the university system changed they became the property of Curtin University, which was originally the Western Australian Institute of Technology. It is not surprising that they picked up those sorts of hands-on academic activities.

The reality is that Curtin has now decided that they do not want Muresk and they want to move those people onto the Bentley Campus in the metropolitan area. That has gone to a virtually irretrievable position. Now I am getting rumours as the new representative of Kalgoorlie that they are up to their old tricks there. Their vice-chancellor has this economic drive on—and why you would pay people a bit extra to live and teach in Kalgoorlie? Let us not worry about the fact that it is the ultimate mining centre where you can go into deep mines and into the biggest open pit, I think, in the world. You can see all the processes of mining—not only gold but also nickel down the road and other developments in the region.

My one attitude to life has always been that, unless you have got hands-on experience, you have not learnt much at school, whatever level of schooling is involved. So why would anyone want to relocate the teaching processes of mining out of what is probably the mining centre of Australia, notwithstanding the others that exist? I have made a preliminary approach to our shadow minister for the coalition to promise the people of Kalgoorlie that upon election we will guarantee tertiary training in mining to Kalgoorlie. I would like to think that a similar consideration would be given to Muresk.

If Curtin University does not like it then let one of the other universities take it on. That is what happened in Geraldton, when two or three of them went rushing up there—and, of course, 30 becomes 60 and 60 becomes 90 in the normal process of events in a three- or four-year course. In the end I think they then took a backwards step and aggregated the responsibility under one or two of the universities in Perth. If the University College London wants to take over those places in Kalgoorlie, in the absence of a willing Western Australian or Australian university, that is alright with me provided the economic activity and the appropriate teaching environment is retained for Kalgoorlie. As I said, I am not talking about some bright new idea; the precedent was established by Minister Kemp in the circumstances I have described.

When we talk about fees and new university organisations, here is an opportunity for the government to beat the opposition to the point and tell the workers and all those people interested in mining throughout Western Australia, ‘We are going to ensure that the Kalgoorlie School of Mines is retained as a campus in Kalgoorlie by the allocation of fee-paying places to that locality’. This is what occurred in Geraldton and I am aware that a similar allocation at that time was given to the existing places in Albany, another part of my electorate. I am sure that when the announcements came out later the minister had taken that view about a number of regional campuses and made sure they got their fair share and did not leave it to the vice-chancellor moguls, whom the Minister for Education was quoting again today—and I want to make a few comments about that with regard to the Youth Allowance and the university scholarships.

I find it outrageous—and I will write to them individually—that a group of vice-chancellors put the profit of their organisations ahead of the rights of the kids in my electorate, some of whom sometimes have wealthy families, but those families bet their entire wealth on one crop each year. They bet against the weather, they bet against the prices and they bet against the pests. Yes, on paper they might appear to have some money, but to fully fund their kids’ university education away from home is beyond their resources. One has to be very careful about means testing.

I might say—as I have made a couple of comments on health—that we were being lectured today about rich people receiving a subsidy for their private health cover. Of course, the argument is that they will still stay in the process. I can tell this House positively that I know of a prime minister, on a prime minister’s salary, who did not have private health insurance. It was Paul Keating. He boasted about it, so I am not telling any secrets about him. Nevertheless, when his wife had a gall bladder operation she had a private room at Calvary and a doctor of choice—which only goes to prove that if you are big enough you do not need private health cover. But everybody who does not have private health who goes into a public hospital, —as they do—shoulders aside the ones who have no muscle: the pensioners and others whom the public hospital system should take as their priority.

Years and years ago I was at a conference of doctors and I listened to a leading administrator from New Zealand who said, ‘Waiting lists are a part of the management of the public hospital system’ and then went on to complain about the administration of waiting lists and the abuse—and I think this might have come up in the public arena just the other day—with some people being pushed up the queue because they have a friendly member of parliament or because they know someone.

I want to take the last couple of minutes to come back to the issue of the rights of country kids to have the protection of the Howard government’s youth allowance system. It was fair, it allowed them to go out and earn money within their notified period—the gap year—and then attend university with the protection and the assistance of youth allowance in the following year. As the shadow minister has just said, the concept of any person in my electorate—with the exception of the very large centres—getting employment at 30 hours a week continuously for 18 months is impossible. It is just like Julia Gillard writing to those kids and saying, ‘We don’t want you in university.’ Furthermore, if there is an issue of means testing, why not just put that in the legislation? And if it is an issue of finding the money—(Time expired)