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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1038

Senator TEAGUE (11.10 a.m.) —We are debating the Employment, Education and Training Legislation Amendment Bill, which makes a number of adjustments to existing legislation. Indeed, it repeals several acts that have now achieved their purposes and no longer have any practical effect. So there is a tidying-up aspect to the legislation and some other changes which take into account debates in the chamber and we in the opposition do not oppose this bill, nor have we any amendment to it.

  We welcome, even if only for a few minutes, the opportunity to make some observations, not only about the legislation before us but also about some aspects of higher education. The bill repeals three funding acts; from 1976, 1987 and 1989. The parliament has before it two times a year, through new legislation, the mechanism for funding higher education around Australia. When, by the lapse of time, those measures have all been fulfilled, by and large those twice-a-year bills expire and are no longer relevant. This legislation will repeal entirely the three acts I have mentioned.

  The bill also makes some changes to the Maritime College Act. The Maritime College is an important institution in Tasmania. The legislation provides that the chairperson of the academic board of the college automatically will be a member of the college's council. It also has some drafting changes to remove gender specific terms. All these changes are acceptable to the opposition.

  The bill makes adjustment to maximum levels of funding for higher education institutions in this triennium; that is, for 1994, 1995 and 1996. Inflation is running at about 2 1/2 per cent, but even with this happily low nominal level of inflation there are periodic adjustments to achieve in real terms what was intended in any disbursement of moneys to higher education. We are constantly having top ups to achieve the intended level of funding for our institutions. This is the case here. The amounts are not very large.

  One of the aspects is that, as a result of this legislation, Commonwealth funding for the Institute of the Arts at the Australian National University will no longer pass through the ACT government. It will now flow directly from the Commonwealth government to the Australian National University.

  Other changes in this legislation are amendments that make legislation consistent with the Senate's rejection last year of the then government proposal to introduce double higher education contribution scheme charges for those doing second undergraduate degrees. The Liberal and National parties opposed this attempt to put a burden on Australia's students and to cheat the students of Australia with a burden which was never discussed prior to the election and which was, in fact, contrary to the bland warm feelings put to students by the Labor Party before the election. Accordingly, and for the reason that this was an unjustifiable burden upon those students in any event, and because it was very difficult to make some distinctions as to who were taking second degrees, the Liberal and National parties—I am proud it was on my motion—knocked that government policy over.

Senator Bell —Not alone.

Senator TEAGUE —The Australian Democrats, I see, had exactly the same view. It was another instance of what must be now 20, 30, 50 amendments that have been put up in these last dozen years that have shown the Senate at its best, where we have exhibited the arguments that have led to the majority of representatives in the Senate amending government measures. The government has fully accepted that outcome. I hope it is repenting and making proper apologies to the students of Australia. Having listened carefully to the debate in the Senate, and as a result of its decision, it is necessary to make some changes to the legislation. Of course we support those changes.

  The second reading speech of the Minister for Employment, Education and Training (Mr Crean) notes that advice from the Attorney-General's Department gives assurance that this method of slotting these financial changes into this bill, rather than waiting for a higher education funding amendment bill, is legally valid. A question had arisen in some of our minds as to whether or not this legislation was in a form that was acceptable to the Attorney-General (Mr Lavarch) and was appropriate legislative practice. Accordingly, I ask the duty minister, Senator Cook, and his advisers whether I may see a tabled copy of the Attorney-General's advice about the validity of this legislative approach.

  I take this opportunity to refer to criticisms currently being made of the way higher education policy is being directed by the Labor government. Professor Don McNicol, the President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, has urged—and I refer to the Sydney Morning Herald report of 9 March as one example of his urging—that universities be allowed to have full-fee paying students in addition to government funded places.

  I refer to this plea from the chairman of the most important advisory body on higher education, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee because those are views that I have been putting in the Senate for many years now—that we keep and increase the taxpayer funded places in higher education around Australia but, in addition, open a new door altogether to allow fee-paying students to also enrol, and to do that on a most responsible basis, not as some thin edge of the wedge to undermine the government's provision of the places that are currently provided. I want to give recognition to the universities which are calling for that kind of flexibility. The government has already conceded in the last few years the ability for this to happen with postgraduate students, particularly in very applied courses that are of service to a particular industry.

  The minister for industry, Senator Cook, fully understands that Australian industry needs very skilled people. We are involved in continuous education, and people with particular skills at age 30, 35 or 40 may well gain from a six or a 12 months course that will suit them to extend their skills, to adapt their skills to the needs of that particular industry. Often the best place for the provision of that skill will be at an established university.

  So the old rule of three years ago that there was no flexibility for specially designed, fee-paying, postgraduate courses, diplomas and so on, was not on. The government has actually bent to that and accepted the principle that the opposition has been arguing for all these years with regard to those students.

  I make the parallel plea, quoting the Australian Vice-chancellor's Committee again, that there be that kind of flexibility with regard to a wider range of courses in Australia. We ought not to have some ideological hang up, some bar in the Labor Party's approach to this matter to rule out fee-paying enrolments at universities. I say again: this should not be done at the expense of any of the places that are provided on the HECS basis and not as a thin edge to any wedge that would see a decrease in the number of such places.

  I also refer to my good friend, the person who above all I have respected these last 20 years, for making a contribution to higher education, and that is Professor Karmel. In the Age of 29 April he has again attacked the approach that has been forced on higher education from the time that Mr Dawkins was a minister in the Labor government. I continue to listen to Peter Karmel. He is above politics. He is arguing on the merits as he sees them—it is his experience—and as a person who has contributed in the greatest way not only to higher education but also to education in schools over these 20 years. He is standing aloof and criticising the broad centralist intrusion that has especially flowed since 1987 when then Minister Dawkins become Minister for Employment, Education and Training.

  The kinds of straitjackets, the kinds of centralising interventions by the Commonwealth not only are not acceptable to the Liberal and National parties but are not acceptable to independent experienced observers such as Peter Karmel. I have already referred to this article in the Age. Given that I want to be brief, I will not quote further from that.

  I conclude with my third and final point. The vice-chancellors of Australia continue to criticise this Labor government for taxing postgraduate scholarships in a new way. I have hopes that the government will actually listen to these criticisms and make it possible that the postgraduate students of Australia will not suffer as a consequence of a new tax ruling. This relates to a scholarship given by a particular institution to a postgraduate student who is undertaking some service to the university. There has been a tax ruling that some element of the scholarship, if not all of it, is in fact of an income form rather than a scholarship form. There is an implication under the tax ruling that the scholarship in the hands of the postgraduate student would be taxable.

  I like to think, when I have my warmest thoughts about my colleagues sitting opposite, that they would not wish this to be the outcome for the postgraduate students. We do not want to see a hurt, a harm, a new barrier placed in the way of good postgraduate outcomes in a wide variety of fields around our universities. Because this affects the scholarships given by the institutions themselves it is no surprise that the heads of those institutions, the vice-chancellors, are therefore putting the plea on behalf of their own awardees, that is, these postgraduate students.

  I referred to this in Estimates Committee E last Friday and I am hoping that the assurances that this matter will be investigated and solved will be soon announced by the government. With these remarks, I note again that the opposition will not be opposing, nor will there be any amendments to, this legislation.