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Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Page: 6636

Mr TEHAN (Wannon) (12:48): I will just touch on two points that the member for Braddon made. I will go first to the issue of income payments to students from regional Australia. I agree with the member for Braddon that this is an issue that we all hold dear to our hearts and one which we all—especially those from regional and rural campuses—would like to see progressed, but we must make note of the fact that there is a discrepancy between how those students in inner regional areas are assessed and how those in the outer areas are assessed. Although we might have seen some increase in the number of students accessing some form of payments, the figures do not show the level of those payments and how much those students are receiving. It would seem that it could be the case that a lot of those students are receiving minimal amounts, which is not going in any way to address the costs of country students accessing tertiary education.

So, as far as we on this side of the House are concerned, although we agree in principle with you that this is an area of real importance to country students, the devil, as always, will be in the detail. We need to wait and see the detail, and we also need to make sure, I think, just on the pure basis of fairness, that those in inner regional areas are treated the same as other country students. As a matter of fact, on the day that the government was heralding its changes, I received a letter from a father in Ararat, which is in the inner regional zone, expressing to me his great discomfort, unease and unhappiness about why one of his three children could not access payments to help him, struggling with higher costs of living, send the child off to a tertiary education.

I would also like to pick up on what the member for Braddon had to say—and his lovely quote—about our need to operate in a resource limited world. I think this goes very much to the heart of what we are discussing in the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Bill 2011, because we have a wonderful aspiration, which is supported by the coalition, that we would like to see 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 holding at least a bachelor's degree by 2025. The sad thing is, and the G8 have pointed this out, where are the resources going to come from to support this aspiration. So far, from what we have seen from this government, it is not going to come from the Gillard government. We have seen four deficits in a row. The last deficit handed down in the recent budget was $47 billion. Just to put that into some perspective, the entire budget handed down by the Victorian government this year, for health, education and police, was $47 billion. So the federal deficit was the size of the whole budget of our second largest state. That gives an indication of where our finances are at the moment. We have a rather illusory target to try and hit surplus again in 2014—

Dr Leigh: Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I would ask that you return the honourable member to the subject of the bill, which is higher education funding.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): I am listening to the member for Wannon, and it is about education, and I am sure that he remains relevant to the bill. But I am certainly listening to him.

Mr TEHAN: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As I pointed out, this bill seeks to increase student participation in universities. It is demand driven, and that requires funding—and that funding has to come from somewhere. What I am pointing out is that every indication we get from this government is that it is not going to be able to provide that funding. I think that is directly relevant to this bill. It is all very well for us to talk about aspirations to get student numbers increased in universities. That is fine. But you also have to provide the resources to do it. I will give a very quick example so I can get back to the three important details of this bill. We only have to look at mandating hours for kindergartens for four-year-olds and what impact that is having in country areas. In my electorate it is likely that we will see country kindergartens close because the mandating of those extra hours has not seen the government provide extra resources. So this is directly relevant. I am happy to take the honourable member to my electorate and to sit him down with the relevant kindergartens so they can deal with the issues.

Dr Leigh: I again raise a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The legislation is about universities, not kindergartens. I would ask you to direct the honourable member to the legislation before the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: There is no point of order. The member for Wannon has the call.

Mr TEHAN: The member for Fraser seems to take great dislike to the facts being pointed out to him about how good government policy is funded government policy and policy which is funded in a sensible way.

I will now get to the specific matters pertaining to this bill. Sadly, this is going to require some criticism of the government as well and I hope the member for Fraser will be able to sit there and take this criticism in the spirit in which it is meant. We need to try and get in this country some reasonable government, to get government which is not all about making knee-jerk reactions and then all the unintended consequences flowing across issues and harming great sections of the Australian community.

The first is on the first amendment which we will be putting with regard to this bill, on the student learning entitlement. This once again sends the wrong message to students who want to become perpetual students, and we had the shadow minister for education detailing this in his speech. I would assume probably all members on both sides have been to university and met a lot of perpetual students. There is a responsibility when you are a tertiary student to understand that the taxpayer is funding your place at a university in most cases. Therefore you should do your degree with speed and then step out into the workforce or out into the community to enable other people to come up and fill those places. This is why we are moving an amendment to see that the perpetual student will still face some restrictions under the Student Learning Entitlement. It is an entitlement that was introduced by the Howard government, a very sensible improvement to higher education. Melbourne University is introducing general degrees and then you go on and do your specific degree, so there is probably a need to move this limitation from seven to eight years, and that is what we are proposing in our amendment. I think it is a very sensible amendment and I would hope that both sides will agree to it.

The next amendment we are moving is with regard to compacts. While we generally support the concept of compacts, what we do not want to see is the government micromanaging our universities by placing more red tape on our universities. This is something that universities do not need, because they are burdened enough with red tape. I point out at this stage that, along with cash for clunkers, this is another policy which was talked about in the lead-up to the Rudd government. The one in, one out policy unfortunately has been ditched, along with a lot of the other policies which were put forward by the Rudd government. The shadow minister for education clearly articulated and outlined this. We have a 220 regulations in, one regulation out policy now under the Gillard government. It was meant to be one in, one out but that is what it has become. So we do not want to see any more red tape or regulation. Once again the opposition has put forward a very sensible amendment to stop this occurring under this bill. I think it is an amendment which both sides of the House should be able to support. The third amendment we are putting forward goes right to the heart of education and what education should be about—that is, both students and academics having the right to express their views and opinions in a way that will not penalise them. The bill set this out for our academics, but we need similar protection for our students. I think we all know and have heard of examples where students expressing their free will, especially their views politically, have at times been marked down when they should not have been. While this amendment will not rule out this happening, it at least sets a very clear precedent and guideline and sends a very strong signal to universities and faculties that students as well as academics should be free to express their views.

Once again, I would hope that we will see on both sides of the parliament people recognising the importance of this and understanding that our students should be able to go to university with the knowledge that the government through its actions supports their right to speak and write freely on whatever matter they would like and to make sure that, when those pieces they write are assessed, the academic understands that he has to ignore the political philosophies underpinning what has been written and just look at the merits of the arguments and how those arguments have been articulated. Of all the amendments we are putting forward, I think this one in particular, especially when we have the other side prepared to put in the bill the need for it to occur at the academic level, shows there is no reason whatsoever why we should not also make it similar for students.

This is a bill the aspiration of which the coalition supports, but we do question where the resources will come from to support this aspiration. We call on the government to show some rigour in how they set their budgetary policy to ensure that the education sector can get the funding and support it needs, so that we do not have the need for the G8, for instance, to come out and say that base funding needs to be increased. It is fine to have aspirations, but if you do not have the money you will not get anywhere with the aspirations.

I also call on the government to look seriously at the three very sensible amendments that we have put forward on the student learning entitlement, on compacts and on ensuring that red tape is limited, especially in the education sector but also across the board, and to move to implement once again the one-in one-out policy which they were very strident about when they were seeking political power in 2007. I call on them to get rid of the current Gillard government policy of 220 in and one out and to go back to their one-in one-out policy. I call on the government to support students as well as academics in making sure that students get the protection and freedoms they deserve to make sure that they can write whatever they want. (Time expired)