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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20142

Ms PLIBERSEK (3:06 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Has the minister seen a report in today's Sydney Morning Herald that at least 1,350 places will be cut from New South Wales universities next year because of the Howard government's university changes? Isn't it true that the New South Wales Universities Admissions Centre has already warned year 12 students that competition for places will be fierce and advised them to apply for lower ranked courses as a safety net? Minister, don't the Howard government's university changes mean fewer HECS places over the next three years and thousands of school leavers missing out on courses that they are qualified to get into?

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) —I thank the member for Sydney for her question. Before I answer it, it should be fairly obvious to the House that the preoccupation of the Australian Labor Party is universities, universities and universities. They cannot even go to the ACTU National Congress and mention the word `apprentice'.

Mr Latham —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The minister said that before he answered the question he was going to go off and make other commentary. Surely that other commentary by definition is out of order because it is not relevant to the question that has been asked.

The SPEAKER —Let me point out to the House that, when the minister made that comment, obviously I was alert to the very point the member for Werriwa is seeking to make. However, the minister then addressed the issue of universities, which the question was targeted on. It seemed to me that is where his remarks ought to focus, so I did not interrupt him. Following the point of order raised by the member for Werriwa, the minister made a reference to apprentices, which I could not see as being relevant. But the member for Werriwa had already at that stage drawn my attention to a point of order. The minister is in order.

Dr NELSON —As the government has been reviewing Australian universities for the past year, I have been pointing out on behalf of the government a whole variety of real problems that face Australian higher education. Two of those many problems are, firstly, that the sector needs access to more money and a lot more of it in the long term; and, secondly, that the way in which we regulate and administer universities is as much a part of the problem as is the level of resourcing.

One of the reasons why Australian students are packed into universities likes sardines is that there are more than 25,000 students in Australian universities who are currently overenrolled. Universities receive what is called `marginal funding', which is one-quarter of the public funding they would get if they were enrolled up to the quota. What universities have been doing over the last two years is systematically reducing those levels of overenrolment which range, I might add, from 40 per cent at Charles Sturt University down to two per cent at the University—

Dr NELSON —The Labor Party is not interested in facts.

The SPEAKER —The most persistent interjector in this parliament is the Leader of the Opposition. He interjects more frequently than any other member of the opposition front bench. I have today for the third occasion risen to draw his attention to the obligations he has. I have extended to the Leader of the Opposition all the licence that can be extended to him. He will exercise a good deal more restraint in the interests of his office and the order of the parliament.

Dr NELSON —This government is concerned to see that Australian students not only get access to universities but also receive a good, high-quality education when they get there. The government has announced in its reforms that 25,000 of those overenrolled places will be fully funded by the government at a cost of $347 million.

The SPEAKER —The member for Ballarat is warned!

Dr NELSON —That means in practical terms that over the next five years there will be 31,500 additional fully funded places—including the fully funded overenrolled places—in Australian universities. The other thing that ought to be pointed out to the House is that the Labor Party is so impressed by what the government is doing in relation to overenrolled students that it has adopted the government's policy: $347 million to fully fund 25,000 overenrolled places.

One of the finest intellects in the country, the former and probably the future president of the Australian Labor Party, Barry Jones, told Channel 7 on Sunday:

No, I think what Jenny's doing is very valuable, but you'd have to say that as yet it hasn't caught the public imagination.

He then said:

I think we perhaps have not sufficiently recognised the degree of the policy vacuum that we've got ...

I could not have said it better. The Australian Labor Party is entirely obsessed with universities. It is failing to address the key policy initiatives in industrial relations, in governance and in changes to the way universities are regulated in order to face Australia's future—and it cannot even mention the word `apprenticeship' in the parliament, let alone to the ACTU. No wonder it is in trouble.