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Tuesday, 7 December 2004
Page: 34

Senator LEES (2:40 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Senator Vanstone. Does the minister agree that medical work force shortages go well beyond shortages of doctors and nurses? Is the minister aware that there are also severe shortages of allied health professionals—in particular, of podiatrists? Despite this, the podiatry school at Curtin University in Western Australia has closed; the University of Western Sydney has closed its first-year intake from next year; and the podiatry program of the University of South Australia is severely constrained by lack of funding. Will the minister ensure that there are sufficient funds available so that more allied health professionals can be trained, particularly podiatrists, and that they are able to be trained right across Australia in all states?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank Senator Lees for the question. She has had a longstanding interest not only in higher education but in allied health. I am advised that, across the whole sector, the government funds about 60,000 higher education places in allied health areas, excluding medicine and dentistry. In 2003 there were about 1,500 domestic chiropractic and osteopathy students and over 770 domestic students in podiatry.

The government has also allocated a significant number of new places in allied health areas. By 2008, for example, the government will be providing about 5,000 additional places in nursing. A figure of 104 new podiatry places by 2008 were allocated through this process. In terms of health places overall, the government will be providing more than 7,000 places to assist in meeting the needs of the allied health sector. That will go a long way towards alleviating some of the shortages and problems that have been experienced by a range of health professionals.

However, it is important to say that state and territory governments are going to have to examine pay and conditions for health workers in an effort to lift the retention rate of the existing work force, particularly nurses. The minister will be writing to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, Professor Reid, expressing concern at the way in which the decision to suspend the intake of students in podiatry and osteopathy was announced. The minister will also be writing to all vice-chancellors advising them that he will be including an additional condition of grant funding in funding agreements, requiring that any closures of specialist courses be negotiated and agreed with the Commonwealth.

The department is developing a set of strategic principles for higher education priorities that will be used to inform the government's decisions about and investment in higher education provision. The principles will provide the sector with guidance on how this additional clause in funding agreements will operate in practice. The department is also liaising with the health departments in all jurisdictions to ensure that we address health work force issues and shortages strategically.

Senator, I will send you some of my fabulous foot rub. I quite understand the need for good podiatrists—they are the most under-rated people in the world.

Senator Patterson —It hasn't been to the TGA!

Senator VANSTONE —It does not have TGA approval; it comes with no promises but I will happily send you some.

Senator LEES —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer. It is pleasing to note that the government's attention has been drawn to this issue. I asked specifically about the level of funding for allied health courses. The universities are arguing that they simply are not funded to the level they need to run allied health courses. For example, is the government prepared to consider funding courses such as podiatry to the same level that it now funds dentistry, because a lot of similar requirements are in place for both those courses?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I will take the detail of that question on notice. Senator, I cannot believe I heard you ask whether we were prepared to fund podiatry to the same level that we fund dentistry. Dentistry is terribly expensive. I will ask the minister to give a detailed answer on the cost requirements for each course. If we have happy feet we can have a happy nation—podiatrists of the world unite! I am in favour of these people and I think they do a tremendous job. I am not opposed to it in any way, but we will see what the minister can tell us. Just as a little hint, Senator, it has been my experience that vice-chancellors will always tell you that there is not enough money to do what they want to do, and when their salary packages are open to public scrutiny we might all believe it.