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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 3030

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (09:07): Tertiary education brings invaluable benefits not only to those who pursue a degree but also to the nation. Our Australian universities are world class. Our top-performing institutions consistently rank in the top 50 in the world. Our Group of Eight research-intensive universities are at the forefront of research and innovation. I am proud that my electorate of Ryan is home to the University of Queensland, an institution which is world renowned. It is said that the purpose of education is to turn an empty mind into an open one. As a nation, we should and do take pride in the calibre of our universities. That is why it is important that we encourage participation in tertiary education and break down the barriers for students who want to obtain a degree. It takes commitment and dedication to complete a university degree and for young people especially that commitment and dedication may also prove to be a sacrifice. It is difficult to put a price on the many benefits a tertiary education brings: higher earning potential, increased and diverse opportunities, and perhaps most importantly the ability to analyse and to be encouraged and enthused to learn.

The Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 in items 1 to 9 is intended to 'clarify the application and operation of the indexation provisions of the Higher Education Support Act'. As a result of the government's delay, the original service and amenities amendments were not passed by the parliament. Therefore, instead of an original commencement date of 1 January 2010 with subsequent indexation, the start date will now be 1 January 2012. In line with the government's keen intent to take as much money as possible from tertiary students in Australia, the fee as at 1 January 2012 is $263 and indexation will occur from 2013.

Some might say that this is a very minor amendment, that the bill is only about some minor details. But most Australians are learning to their cost that this government is really not very good with attention to detail, especially financial ones. This is a government which still has not told Australians who the so-called top 500 companies are who will be the basis of revenue gathering under the carbon tax—another minor financial detail. And we know the Gillard Labor government was not really paying very much attention when it began to rack up more than $167 billion of accumulated deficits—more minor financial details.

Today, the government are paying a lot of attention, however, to one financial detail: making sure they increase the student amenities fee from $250 per semester to $263. And yet again there will be no choice in the matter—it is a compulsory charge for every single student. Whether you are full time or part time or perhaps only doing one subject after hours one evening a week, depending on your institution you will also pay the same.

In the past, this government under former Prime Minister Rudd demonstrated that, far from being about a fair go, it would not even allow people in this country the choice about how to improve their lives. It removed full-fee-paying places in universities. Under that program, students had the option to pay upfront for their degree. By abolishing that program, it took away a source of funding for universities to reinvest in their students—another minor financial detail.

Australians are already doing it tough and full-time students are one of the worst affected by cost-of-living pressures. And it is not always possible to work more to cover your costs when students are also supposed to be devoting 40 hours a week to their studies. If members opposite had spent more time in their classes at university and less time at their union offices, they would be aware of this. Yes, payments can be deferred through FEE-HELP, but we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, so in the future students will then incur an interest bill from the government for their FEE-HELP debt.

So the consequence of this increase to fees is another contribution to Australia's net debt. The Labor government have already accumulated $167 billion in deficits, so I guess that their approach is, 'Well, what's a little more added to Australia's bill?'—yet another minor detail.

The coalition does care. This is why, when we form government, we will look to review this service-and-amenities fee, just as the Howard government did. The government want to maintain the proposition that this is a very minor bill, but it will cause major problems for the tertiary education system as well as the science and research industry in this nation. Reintroducing compulsory student unionism by proxy was bad enough, but the Labor government also halved the rate of upfront discounts for students from 20 per cent to 10 per cent and they halved the reduction for voluntary payments in excess of the minimum requirement. They changed the conditions under which a student is eligible to receive Centrelink benefits to make it virtually impossible for them to get a job, work hard earning money and then study knowing that they have the support of their government. Tertiary students in Australia are not supported by the Labor government.

The Labor government have abandoned their commitment to NCRIS, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, implemented by the Howard government in 2005. The NCRIS provided $542 million between 2005 and 2011 so that universities could actually ensure they had access to world-class technology with which to do their research. Even more importantly, this program meant that world-class professors and researchers had a reason to come to Australia to do their research and to share their knowledge with Australian scientists. In 2011, the government threatened to cut more than $200 million from medical research. In 2012, they are cutting the funding by stealth by not recommitting to this very critical scheme. Knowing the poor and reckless financial mismanagement that the government practises, I would be very concerned if even a single dollar were being taken by them from taxpayers. In a small way, it is fortunate that the money goes directly to the university. It is even more fortunate for the residents of Ryan at the University of Queensland that there is a very professional and well-organised team managing the student union who I know will spend the funds wisely and judiciously. I have spoken before in this House of their very laudable successes. Indeed, many businesspeople have commented to me after their dealings with the University of Queensland Liberal Club and Fresh team that they would be more than delighted to employ them in their own companies.

Our university sector is vital and student choice is critical to its success. Education is our children's future, but equally it is our nation's future. Every barrier we remove will be repaid countless times over. Every step we as a nation take to improve access to education will open not just minds but hope, reward and opportunity.