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Shadow Minister claims a Government report into higher education has been censored.

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Tuesday, 12 August 2003



MARK COLVIN: Did a top public servant nobble a report into higher education to remove material that could damage the government? That was the thrust of a federal opposition attack on the government today over claims published in today's Sydney Morning Herald about the former head of the federal Department of Education, Peter Shergold. He is now the head of the Prime Minister's Department.


The Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, says he doesn't know who in the department altered the report into higher education, but he claims the decision was taken not to censor the document but to remove material that hadn't been adequately researched.


But the opposition says Dr Shergold had the material removed to cover up evidence that high HECS fees had deterred less well-off students from studying some courses. Chief political correspondent, Catherine McGrath


CATHERINE McGRATH: The charge made by the opposition is serious. Shadow Public Service spokesman, Senator Kim Carr.


KIM CARR: The politicisation of the Australian Public Service is out of control, with news that the nation's most senior public servant, Dr Shergold, has now doctored an official report to please his political masters. The Education Minister, Brendan Nelson's office, has been directly involved in this shameful cover-up.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Two years ago the Department of Education commissioned a crucial 10-year snapshot, a national report on the higher education sector, and it was ready early last year. Those facts are not in dispute. But what is being argued over is what was cut and why. Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, says the material was cut by the department because it wasn't adequately researched. The opposition says the material was cut because it was politically sensitive, and they said it showed that HECS fees were leading to cuts in the numbers of students enrolling in universities from low-income families.


Senator Carr outlined his allegations in the Senate this afternoon.


KIM CARR: The then head of the department, Dr Peter Shergold, saw the report and he wasn't happy. He insisted that chapters 4 and 7 of the report be heavily edited. Line responsibility for this surgery was given to the current head of the higher education group, Mr Bill Burmester. Key sections of this report, which challenged the oft-repeated view that the Howard government's 1996 HECS changes had no equity impact were cut.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Dr Nelson says the report was altered in the final stages because some of the research was flawed.


BRENDAN NELSON: The department concluded that methodologically its own research which it considered to not be of its sufficiently and usual high standards, the department decided itself that that should not be a part of the 10-year retroview of higher education.


CATHERINE McGRATH: But Senator Carr disputes that, claiming that when the then head of the Education Department, Peter Shergold, looked at the report, he wanted aspects removed.


KIM CARR: The work showed that the HECS changes had discouraged students from the lower socioeconomic groups and led to a sharp decline in the numbers studying the high education of costs subjects such as medicine, law and dentistry. The new research challenged the established wisdom on these issues. It shone a spotlight on the government's policy and it did not look very good at all.


CATHERINE McGRATH: So was Dr Shergold the person who ordered the research be removed? Dr Nelson didn't answer that question directly when he was asked by Shadow Education Minister, Jenny Macklin, in the House of Representatives, saying instead that the matter of who edited the material is a question for the federal Department of Education itself. And he defended his record on helping poor students reach university.


BRENDAN NELSON: And the last thing I'd say to the opposition is if the Labor Party really believes that contrary to all research and evidence that the HECS changes have an adverse impact on participation in these courses, then the Labor Party will now amend its policy to reduce HECS for lawyers, dentists and vets.


MARK COLVIN: The Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, ending Catherine McGrath's report.