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Tuesday, 16 September 2003
Page: 20155

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (4:02 PM) —Firstly, for the benefit of the member for Jagajaga and the member for Chisholm, $100,000 degrees are and were already available in Australian universities prior to the last federal election. This country's future will not be helped in any way by 15-minute or, indeed, repeated personal attacks on me as the minister or on other members of the government.

Australian higher education will drive Australia's economic and social development. What we do with Australian higher education policy over the next few months will play a very important role in determining what sort of standard of living will be delivered to the next generation. Over the last year the government has undertaken an extensive review of Australian universities. Whilst not accepting that there is any immediate crisis, if there is not acceptance in the Australian parliament for the reforms that are being put forward, it will, in the words of Professor Gerard Sutton, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong, precipitate a genuine crisis in Australian higher education.

I will not focus on everything that the government is seeking to do in Australian universities, other than to say in a broad sense that the case for reform rests on two inescapable but unpalatable truths: the first is that Australian universities need access to more money—and a lot more of it in the long term; the second is that money is only half the problem. If the government were simply to put more public money into Australian higher education, we would arguably compound the problems that beset the sector; equally, if the government were simply to undertake reforms in governance, administration, regulation, accountability, reporting, industrial relations and the way we administer the sector, it would set the sector up for failure.

As Australians, we need to realise, as difficult as it is, that the only benchmarks that are going to count increasingly—whether in education, in universities or in anything else—are going to be international ones; whereas for many of us when we were growing up it was a question of where do you rate in the state of New South Wales or, perhaps, where do you rate in Australia? We need to understand increasingly that Monash University, University of Melbourne, UNSW, Sydney University, University of Queensland and University of Western Australia are not so much competing with one another as competing with the rest of the world. We can no longer continue the fantasy that says, for example, that Sydney University is exactly the same as Charles Sturt University, is exactly the same as the University of Ballarat or the University of the Sunshine Coast or Northern Territory University. They are all outstanding universities, but they are all different and they face quite different challenges. We cannot expect a culture of excellence if we fund and run every university in Australia in exactly the same way.

There are a number of things that the government is seeking to do. The number of HECS places will increase over the next five years; 25,000 overenrolled places will be fully funded, at a cost of $347 million. In addition, there will be 1,127 additional places in medicine, 574 extra places in regional nursing, 1,400 growth places in 2007, 745 priority places in nursing and in teaching. Also, the government is responding to the requests of every one of the vice-chancellors of Australia's 38 publicly funded universities. They said that, if you want a vision of higher education for 2020 that sees Australian participation in higher education as being amongst the top five in the world, one of the things that is critically important is to allow universities themselves to set the HECS charge.

The government is increasing the number of HECS places; increasing funding to support the training of nurses and of teachers; providing additional specific funding for learning and teaching performance, for workplace reform, for collaboration and for structural innovation; and increasing the funding which goes to regional and rural universities. At the same time, the government is saying to universities that they themselves, for the first time, can set the HECS charge from a level of zero right through to a level which would be 30 per cent above the current level.

What that means in real terms is that the HECS charge for most courses in most universities will not change at all. In some universities charges will go up and in some courses, as I have already been advised by vice-chancellors, they may well go down—with every last dollar going to the university, not to the government. Every last dollar paid in HECS—up to a possible maximum of 30 per cent—will go to the university to improve the quality of education being provided to students.

I contrast that with not a word being said by the Australian Labor Party about 300 per cent increases in up-front fees in TAFE in New South Wales; the removal of the workers compensation exemption for trainees and apprentices in New South Wales—at a cost of $47 million, not to mention the hopes and dreams of young people wanting to do apprenticeships; the introduction of up-front full fee paying for degrees in Victorian TAFE, with no loans for those being provided by the Australian government, and certainly not by the Victorian government; $210 million in payroll tax relief for apprentices being removed by the Victorian government; and a 50 per cent increase in up-front charges for apprentices trying to get into TAFE in South Australia. Not a word has been said about those issues.

I will focus in particular on one aspect of this package. The Labor Party frequently says that no-one should get into university on any basis other than merit. For example, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Jagajaga, said on 1 February 2002:

Dr Nelson must stop uni queue jumpers ... People who don't make the grade shouldn't get special treatment ...

On 4 June last year, the following statement appeared in a media release:

Access to universities must be on merit.

I noticed that, in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 September this year, the member for Jagajaga said:

...thousands of school leavers will be turned away from courses that they are qualified to get into.

That in fact is not the case, but it is interesting that the member for Jagajaga says `from courses that they are qualified to get into'. The Labor Party's proposal is to ban full fee paying places for Australian students in Australian universities. At the moment universities are able to enrol up to a quarter of the total enrolment as full fee paying Australian students—that is, a quarter of those places can be offered to Australians as full fee paying places. That means that, unlike a HECS place, the taxpayer is not paying for three-quarters of your education; you, the student, pay for every cent of it.

After five years of that policy, with 531,000 undergraduates in Australian universities, we have 9,700 full fee paying Australian students. These are students who missed out on a HECS place in the course which they wanted to get into and for which, to use the member for Jagajaga's own words, they were academically qualified. For example, students who achieved a university entrance score of 99.2 did not get into arts-law at the University of New South Wales but were offered a full fee paying place.

The Labor Party says that it welcomes foreign students coming to Australia. Apparently we can—and we should—welcome more than 140,000 foreign students from North America, Europe and Asia as full fee paying students to Australian universities. If a student got, for example, 98.7 last year in Victoria, they would not get into veterinary science at the University of Melbourne but would be offered a full fee paying place. Under Labor's plans, the intention is to ban Australian citizens getting a full fee paying place in an Australian university.

We will be faced with a farcical situation should Labor come to power. Take, for argument's sake, two brothers who live in Kuala Lumpur. One chooses to immigrate to Australia, becomes an Australian citizen, goes to Homebush Bay Boys High School in Sydney, achieves a tertiary entrance score of 99.2 and does not get into arts-law at the University of New South Wales. His brother, who stayed in Kuala Lumpur as a Malaysian citizen, could be offered a full fee paying place in an Australian university when that opportunity would be denied to the Australian citizen. Where is the logic in that? So, under Labor, 10,000 Australian citizens will immediately be shown the door—`Get out of here; you're not welcome.' Under Labor, the only place you should get in an Australian university is one that is funded by the Australian taxpayer.

To take the argument of merit further, one in 15 students who got a HECS place in an Australian university this year did not get there on the basis of merit; they got there on the basis of money—a lack of money, because they were educated in difficult circumstances. These students include Aboriginal students, students from low-income families, students in schools in disadvantaged areas and students in, for example, the Fairway Scheme in the state of South Australia—students who did not get an entry score and got a place at university, at the expense of kids who did. Macquarie University will add five points to your university admissions index in the state of New South Wales before you even start your HSC if you happen to attend one of 58 schools in the area surrounding Macquarie University. So, if the Labor Party wants to push this idea of merit—and, for the record, I support the idea of students who have had a bloody tough education getting a bit of a leg up to get into university but, at the same time, I am strongly opposed—

Opposition members interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Minister, I would ask you to withdraw the word.

Dr NELSON —I withdraw that word. What hypocrisy, from the people who profess to support that, to say to students who are offered a full fee paying place in an Australian university that there is no place for them while at the same time saying, `We welcome students from overseas.' What about the students who go to TAFE? What about the 5,300 students who got into university this year without having done their year 12 exams because they went through TAFE and got recognition? Are they queuejumpers? Are they people who got there other than on merit? What about the students who went to any one of a number of private colleges or institutions who got into a HECS university funded place?

Mr Deputy Speaker, we are living in a world that is quite different from the one in which you and I grew up. One of the most rapidly growing areas of diplomatic, cultural and economic exchange is university education, yet Labor is proposing that Australian citizens be denied access to it in their own country. This government is proposing to expand the number of HECS places to provide more opportunities and to fully fund those overenrolled places, but at the same time to allow the universities to offer full fee paying opportunities to Australian citizens—no less than we offer to those from North America, Beijing or Jakarta. At the same time, and for the first time, this government will offer those students a loan that they will pay back only once they graduate and are earning more than $30,000 a year. Unlike HECS, 3.5 per cent will be charged in addition to the CPI indexation.

Given that I had to sit through 15 minutes of personal attack, in the absence of policy, I might point out to the opposition that, when I was accepted and had the privilege of going to university, there was no choice. If you missed out on a fully funded place, the attitude was `bad luck; go and do pharmacy or something else'. This government is expanding the number of medical school places and it is saying to students who miss out on medicine, `If you want to, you can take a full fee paying place, just like 1,000 foreigners in Australian universities, and, for the first time, the government will lend you the money so you don't have to deny taking up the opportunity simply because you don't have the resources.' This is rank hypocrisy from the opposition and it is misleading the Australian public.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Member for Lilley, just because you have your back to me it does not mean that I cannot hear the interjection.