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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1044

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (11.47 a.m.) —I rise briefly to join this debate for a number of reasons. I take the opportunity to commend my colleagues Senator Teague and Senator Tierney for the leadership they have shown not only in this matter, in fighting for the interests of students, but in the education debate generally over a long period. Both, of course, have come from periods of professional work within tertiary institutions and have carried through that interest in practical ways within the parliament. I think it is important to put on the record the continuing role they are playing which the coalition certainly appreciates, as should the Australian people.

  I also join with them in condemning the government for a foolish attempt to provide a further disincentive to education. The scheme that was proposed by the government to double HECS—the double fee on students seeking a second degree—was, in our view, as we said at the time, punitive and unfair. It disadvantaged not only women, but the disabled who needed to retrain to enter the work force, and migrants who needed to upgrade their qualifications—in many ways people who were more disadvantaged than the average in our community. Why a labor party would seek to impose such a disincentive one can only wonder, but it is not in the national interest. What this country needs is more and better education, not less. I think the Senate's role in defeating the government's attempt to impose this disincentive is one that should be applauded.

  I would also like to use this occasion to make a couple of general comments on the state of higher education, having shadow responsibility in this portfolio. I am particularly disturbed at the effects that reduced funding over the term of the Labor government on a per capita student basis has had on our tertiary institutions and their capital infrastructure, such as high-tech equipment, libraries, modern information technology systems—in fact, all that is essential for the efficient running of any institution but particularly an educational institution.

  I would like the Senate to note some comments made by those who know about this. On 13 April this year, Professor McNicol, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, said of that institution:

I think we're pretty close to the wire now. I need $30 million a year just to get the buildings up to scratch.

At about the same time, Professor Yerbury of Macquarie University said:

We have had very little money for capital works. Our universities have been so starved of funds for more than a decade that the size of the task of bringing them up to scratch is colossal.

That is just to bring them up to scratch, not further improve them. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee raised the matter I mentioned a moment ago about the effect on libraries and other infrastructure. On 25 March it said:

Because of the inadequate level of support that has been provided in the past, universities have experienced a serious run-down in their facilities, particularly in the area of major equipment, library holdings and in the provision of modern information technology systems.

It is difficult to understand why this Labor government has so neglected our tertiary institutions. Even it should recognise that they are critical to a prosperous Australia. On 6 May Professor McNicol said:

Over the last decade the teaching and research infrastructure of Australian universities has been considerably weakened as universities have accomplished important and substantial changes to their direction and operation with increasingly limited resources.

It is highly disturbing that someone as respected as Professor McNicol would be talking about a considerable weakening of our teaching and research infrastructure. That is something for which this government should be condemned. Many of our leading academics have been voicing this concern. Unfortunately, the government has remained deaf.

  The last comment I shall mention was made by Professor Charles Oxnard of the University of Western Australia, who was reported in the Australian of 6 May as saying:

The country's leading doctoral degree-granting universities are slipping into mediocrity. The best individuals at the present time are not willing to settle for the life of genteel poverty and second-rate thinking that is now being forced upon the graduate universities.

That is highly disturbing. It is about time this government addressed that issue of the decline in infrastructure. While it is doing that, it also needs to address the fact that, even though the recession had the effect of encouraging students to continue with education, our participation rate, which has risen, is still less than that of many of our competitors. It is still lower than countries such as the United States of America and Canada. I am one of those who believes that qualified students should be able to maximise their potential through the best available education. Obviously, that is not being received courtesy of this government.

  Going back to 1992, under this government's policies in the range of 34,000 to 50,000 students could not even gain a place at university. The following year, between 29,000 and 43,000 could not gain a place. We on this side of the chamber believe that that is an appalling situation and that the failure of the government to address it is something for which it should be condemned.

  Finally, I want to raise a matter that I intend to pursue further—the low level of students in this country undertaking courses such as engineering, which I think will be vitally important in a highly competitive region. It is interesting and disturbing to note that the number of engineering students in Australia is only 5.3 per cent of total student enrolments compared with an OECD mean of 12.1 per cent. So the level of enrolment is less than half that of the OECD figure. I think we will suffer in the years ahead unless something is done to address that inadequacy.

  I look forward to continuing the education debate in the months ahead and to pressing this government, during the time it remains in office, to do better. I also look forward to developing policies that the Australian people, I am sure, will find more attractive at the next election. The immediate issue, however, is this bill, which arose from the government's foolish attempt to impose double HECS. The Senate should be commended for bringing that to an end.