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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21423

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (10:31 AM) —The defenders of privilege in this country—the people who are not concerned at the blow-out in managerial salary packages, those who seek to casualise our workforce and to force conditions down to Guatemalan or Honduran levels—often argue that if anyone criticises this it is the politics of envy and if you dare say there is too much inequity in this country and that it is growing you do so because you are personally envious.

But what we see in the debate about education in this country and on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 is those very same people basing their arguments on innuendo and subterranean messages which say: `Why should you, who do not earn so much or are on a small pension, fund people to become doctors and lawyers? You should be envious of the possibilities that others might gain—more advantageous employment, the ability to go into a profession—and you should be greedy as taxpayers and do nothing to enhance their futures.'

They say that the current system favours those people living in the North Shore and in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, those in wealthy affluent suburbs, and that is what they aim to redress. But what they do not say is that the people in this government—the Deputy Prime Minister, who went to Kings School, the Minister for Finance and Administration, who went to Knox Grammar, the Minister for the Environment, who went to Scots College in Melbourne—and their families and associates will still be going to university, regardless of how much HECS costs. Essentially, those families will still be monopolising university places in this country because they can and will have the money to afford it.

The real target of this government policy is essentially to hit people in Western Sydney in particular, where 1.8 million Australians reside. We have one council out there in which one 60th of the Australian population resides, Blacktown council. It is a region that is characterised by unemployment higher than Sydney's average. Some of the municipalities in the University of Western Sydney area are Auburn, with 3.7 per cent higher unemployment than the Sydney average, Fairfield is 4.3 per cent higher and Campbelltown is 2.8 per cent higher. They are areas that very much disproportionately utilise the University of Western Sydney's services.

The government also speaks about aspirational people—people who no longer want to be in unions and who no longer want conditions and who want to go out there and get a larger house. But I have news for this government. Those people also aspire for their children to have a decent education and to be part of the tertiary experience in this country, whether it is through universities or TAFE. The reality is that many of those same families that the government cites as being subcontractors or self-employed and prospering—supposedly—and no longer wanting to be bound to organised labour are often people who did not go to university themselves and who would like their children to go. That is part of their aspirations. It is not simply about having a two-storey, five-bedroom home. This government's legislation will certainly circumscribe their possibilities.

What we are seeing is a government that is trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator and people's animal instincts by saying, `You should be selfish; you should not be interested in the nation's future; you should reduce taxation devoted to education in this country.' Basically, it is sink or swim. If families have not got enough money to pay for it they can essentially go jump. That is a very limited, a very short-term and a very ill-advised policy.

We have already had a situation such that, according to the OECD, Australia had the second worst growth of the most advanced countries in university enrolments over the period 1995 to 2001—four times worse than the OECD average. We have had the largest fall in public—that is, government—investment in our education system.

The member for Corangamite came in here and asked, `What could be better than having thousands of foreign students basically funding our education system?' The reality is that it is driving down standards in this country. We have seen example after example—particularly in New South Wales—where teachers and lecturers have been sacked, persecuted or demoted because they stood up for our standards in institutions where there is an increasing drive to decrease our standards so that people can remain the next year and keep paying the fees, regardless of how successful they are in university. The member for Corangamite asks, `What could be better?' I think a few things could be better. What could be better is the devotion of government money—taxation—to essentially protecting the status and the accessibility of our universities.

I turn to the University of Western Sydney in particular because, as I said, it is a major focus for 1.8 million Australians—quite a few people. In that region we have seen the irresponsible conduct of the member for Lindsay. Quite frankly, her performance leaves her with very few friends—even within the Liberal Party in the region. Her comments have included:

How much more can you spoon-feed UWS? At the end of the day, you've just got to have a dynamic board and senior administration.

She says that the University of Western Sydney can equal Melbourne university, Sydney university, New South Wales university and the other sandstone universities in going out there and getting dollars off Australian corporations. That is fantasy island. There is no possibility whatsoever that Western Sydney university can be competitive with those universities. It has not existed for 20 years; it has not reached their status; and, essentially, it is not seen as cachet as those universities. So, to say that we can solve the problems of the universities of this country by getting BHP to kick in an extra $50 million or something to the University of Western Sydney is a pipedream.

The member for Lindsay has attempted to say that the University of Western Sydney's criticism of the federal government has come about because they have a lot of Labor Party hacks on the board. It is interesting to note the comments of the acting chancellor, Geoff Roberson—a long-term Liberal Party member; the deputy major of Parramatta; a person who is respected in the business sector of Western Sydney. He made the point:

We only started in 1989. Our first graduates would have only just paid off their HECS debts by now.

It is reported that he said that, as a member of the Liberal Party, he resented Ms Kelly's remark that the board was full of Labor Party appointees. Geoff Roberson is also reported as saying that Ms Kelly was in danger of `losing every vote of every UWS graduate'. The situation is that, unlike the member for Lindsay, that Liberal Party alderman and the entire Parramatta City Council have voted to condemn the government's attacks on that university—attacks which have seen a reduction of $270 million in its funding and a blow-out of 28 per cent in its ratio of students to teachers.

I have only 10 minutes to speak here today, but I want to stress the importance of this regional facility. There are six campuses in the region—one at Rydalmere, very close to my electorate. The statistics show that that university is disproportionately made up of students whose parents and grandparents never went near a university. This university has practices and innovations which encourage students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and it has measures with a regional focus to try to ensure accessibility. I want to particularly associate myself with Professor Reid and the entire board in standing up to this government's attacks on universities in this country.

The situation, as other members have said, is not only about the move towards $100,000 and $150,000 degrees—which, I concede, those ex-graduates of Knox, Grammar and Shore will still be able to afford—but also about this government's determination to bully the universities into certain industrial relations practices. Members of the government often say in this House that they want freedom of association so as to protect the individual against powerful unions who bully them around. But what we are seeing in this legislation is extreme bullying by this government—saying that the universities of this country will not be able to make their own decisions with regard to work practices on their sites, otherwise this government will reduce their funding by $400 million. That is vital funding which these universities need to survive and enhance their performance. If you allow the union to have an office on campus that is not paid or you have functions where the union is allowed to give out pieces of paper, essentially you will have your funding circumscribed.

Today the Leader of the Opposition has very strongly stressed that Labor will not allow a 30 per cent increase in fees and that it will stop the move towards full fee paying courses in this country. I must confess that it surprised me at the launch of Labor's last campaign that there was a huge cheer when Labor promised funding for the ABC but it went very unnoticed by the crowd that Labor promised major commitments to the TAFE sector. Labor is saying that 20,000 places will be devoted to that sector which has been so vital with regard to skills accrual in Western Sydney.

This legislation contains a variety of measures that are aimed at depriving people access to higher education. The size of the repayments and the move towards full fee paying are all trends of a government that wants to deny access to the majority of Australians and a government that basically subscribes to a preference towards those people—many of whom are on the frontbench of the government in this country—who will be able to afford to go to university regardless of how expensive it is.