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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1042

Senator TIERNEY (11.38 a.m.) —I rise to support my colleague Senator Teague and some of the comments of Senator Bell on the Employment, Education and Training Legislation Amendment Bill. I will go into what I agree with and what I disagree with in a minute.

  This bill will do four things, but I will concentrate mainly on one. Three things it will do is change the Maritime College Act, transfer funds from the Canberra Institute of Arts to the ANU, and repeal other acts relating to employment, education and training and related purposes, all of which I have no problem with. However, I do have some problems with what is happening as a result of an outfall from a move in this Senate to stop this government doubling the rate of HECS. We now have before us the financial consequences of that, and how the government has reacted to those consequences.

  To go back to what happened, the government—despite its election promises at the last election when its members went around the countryside bagging us and our policy—within a 12-month period tried to bring in the doubling of one particular payment, the HECS payment. I cannot remember—and I do not think Senator Teague or Senator Bell can remember—the ALP saying anything about this at the last election. I cannot remember ALP members trumpeting this around campuses. But just as they told lies throughout the whole election campaign about most of our policies and about what they had up their sleeves in their own policies, we had a very rude shock following the election when we learned they were going to double HECS. At no time did we ever propose to do that. Obviously we opposed such a measure in the earlier legislation, which was supported by the Australian Democrats.

  It is absolutely amazing that this government, which is supposed to be committed to the principles of access and equity, would propose to double HECS in the first place. The Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training was quite alarmed by what the government was doing and produced a unanimous report stating that this should not happen. The matter was debated in the Senate and, with the support of the Democrats, the government was defeated on that measure which was inequitable and certainly would have created huge access problems for some of the most disadvantaged groups in the community.

  Let us look at some of these groups. There were women who needed to upgrade their training after an absence from the work force, usually for family reasons. Many of these people have been away from work for quite some time. Often, the jobs that they did before do not exist. They needed to retrain and, even though they might have a first qualification, it might have been in the wrong field, it might have been too general, or they might have needed something more specific. Many of these people were not very well-off; a doubling of HECS would have been devastating for them and they would have dropped out.

  There were people who were currently completing additional training. I had calls from quite a number of the universities regarding people doing course-work for degrees such as a master of education. These were teachers who were trying to get a better education, to place themselves better in the more competitive race for positions in schools. One of the deans in Victoria said, `We are going to lose half to three-quarters of our people if you let this double HECS go through.' That group is particularly grateful that such a measure did not eventuate. Migrants are another group who are desperately in need of greater training to compete in the workplace. That group was going to be affected as well. The stopping of this bill was a very good thing from the point of view of all of those groups.

  While the government is claiming an extra cost on the budget, and it is outlined in the statement that it will have to increase outlays by $27 million, that figure was based on the original proposal to have a double HECS. The government would have had to find the money, anyway, without the double HECS. The double HECS is an inequitable measure which should not have been there in the first place. Fairly obviously, we are not really talking about additional expenditure; it would have been needed in the first place.

  There is another problem with what the government is doing with HECS now that it has not achieved a double HECS. They have fiddled with it to some extent to allow for a change in repayment arrangements that will make it harder for students. The basic reason for this is that the Department of Finance is seeing all of this unpaid HECS debt. We have set up with HECS a very generous scheme—a scheme that is seen worldwide as a leader in this field. Through the tax system, people have the opportunity over some period to repay their HECS debt.

  The coalition supports that sort of approach and it is widely popular in the community. Therefore, we are a little dismayed that the government is interfering with this basically to increase its revenues in the short term. It is trying, by fiddling around the edges of this arrangement, to claw more back from students over a shorter period. That, of course, will create additional hardship for students. We are not talking about a large amount of money at this stage. One would have thought, within a $4 billion budget for education and a $100 billion-plus budget overall, the government could have found savings in other sectors rather than hitting these groups of students. I have already pointed out that these students are some of the poorest in the community and therefore in need of greater funding.

  I foreshadowed earlier that I would be disagreeing with some of the things Senator Bell said in relation to the provision of support for students. One point on which I will disagree with him relates to the provision for student loans. He seemed to be saying, if I picked up his comments correctly, that there needed to be realistic increases in support for students, but funded from the budget. I challenge Senator Bell to say where those things should really come from. Our Senate committee has conducted major inquiries into the area of educational research. What it uncovered was a university system that, because of lack of funding support, is on the verge of breakdown in a number of areas, such as infrastructure, the research area, teaching loads and library and electronic support systems. I wonder which areas of the budget Senator Bell thinks should be cut to pay for these things.

  A better approach—the one which the government is increasingly developing—is through the provision of student loans. This is based on the Chapman report. What is happening is that the limits are going up so that students can borrow more. They can repay it through the tax system in a HECS-style arrangement. It gives students from a wide range of backgrounds and financial circumstances a better opportunity to go to university and gain an extra qualification. We applaud that sort of measure. I am surprised that the Democrats are not supporting a measure which will allow students to have greater access to funding and greater flexibility in the funding arrangement.

  Basically, the coalition supports the main provisions of this bill, but we do express concern about a number of things that have been raised—the penny-pinching way in which the government is creating for itself extra funding through its variations on the HECS measures. I acknowledge again the great victory in this chamber in calling the government to account for its election promises and for establishing that it did not indicate at the election that it was going to double HECS. It has been prevented from doing this by this chamber.