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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 871

Senator BELL —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment, Education and Training. I refer to an article in the Australian on Wednesday, 14 September where the minister is quoted as saying that he `would be concerned if universities around Australia followed the Australian National University's lead and charged for professional training diplomas', and that the ANU `should have been prepared to look sensibly at the circumstances in this particular exercise'. Will the government itself `look sensibly at the circumstances' and revise the HECS and fees administration guidelines so that universities are discouraged from following this lead, that is, charging for professional training diplomas? Is it not the case that the `circumstances' are that the government has manipulated tertiary funding and allowed the universities to charge such fees and that the government has encouraged the universities to adopt a corporate view of the world, considering education as a product and students as clients, thereby actively encouraging this very outcome of government policy?

Senator SCHACHT —I do not think the Australian Democrats or anybody else should try to make any criticism of our policies on tertiary education based on the HECS policy, which has been very successful. The government has no intention of changing the policy about HECS, so we should put that to bed immediately.

  I am advised by Minister Crean that the decision for the ANU to charge this fee was entirely a decision for the university. The attempt to represent this move as something that was forced on the university by the government is nonsense. In fact, a recent letter from the ANU Vice-Chancellor to Simon Crean categorically states:

At no stage did the council consider it was taking this action as a direct consequence of government actions or policies in relation to the university.

As my colleague Mr Crean has previously stated, the facts of the situation are that the government's decision to deregulate postgraduate fees was taken after strong pressure from the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the AVCC, on which all universities were represented, including the ANU. The new arrangements do not affect the overall level of Commonwealth financial commitment to higher education. Total funding for higher education will increase from $4.86 billion in 1994 to $5.02 billion in 1996. In fact, Commonwealth funding of higher education will increase in real terms by 42 per cent between 1988 and 1995.

  Government funding for postgraduate courses at the ANU is increasing. Between 1994 and 1996 the Commonwealth will fund growth from 995 to 1,030 full-time postgraduate places. Some reports have incorrectly indicated that there is a link between the introduction of the fee and a fall in the ANU's research funding. This fall of about $1.5 million represents only 0.8 per cent of the ANU's operating funds from the Commonwealth. This resulted from a national reapplication of research funds according to a formula which reflects actual research performance. Once again this was agreed with the AVCC. The sole responsibility for the decision to introduce this fee at the ANU and the level at which it is set lies with the ANU.

Senator BELL —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In answering the question Minister Schacht repeated the claim that HECS and the manipulation of the financing are working well. Obviously this is a direct indication of how well they are not working. In answering the question the minister missed the point that it is the government's conditions and the manipulation of the financial situation that has led the universities to take this step. Minister Crean suggested that it would be wrong if other universities followed. What is the government doing to stop other universities from following this course for professional training diplomas, whether they be teaching, nursing, chiropractic or law? The minister has not answered that part of the question.

Senator SCHACHT —As I have said, we have carried out a policy whereby universities have greater autonomy to make decisions about the way they manage themselves. I have to say to Senator Bell that if we had tried to do it in the opposite way and directed as he is prescribing he would be the first one to jump up and say that we were interfering with the academic autonomy of universities. We have let the universities make those decisions. The university itself has said that this decision to impose the fee was in no way connected with any government policy. It made that decision of its own free will and it will have to live with it.