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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21456

Ms CORCORAN (12:54 PM) —The importance of education cannot be overstated. It is important for our society and it is important on an individual level. Australia needs more people undertaking higher education. As a society we need more people in higher education and, from a concern about the wellbeing of individuals, we need more people to have access to higher education. We need this to become and to remain competitive globally. On an individual basis education is important as it is the key to individual prosperity and a circuit-breaker of ongoing poverty.

The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amend-ments) Bill 2003 are excellent examples of the differences between the policies of this government and the alternatives offered by the Labor Party. The government's response to the need for more people in universities and TAFEs is to introduce full fee paying places, increase the HECS fees for those lucky enough to get into university with a HECS place and limit the time a HECS student can spend at university. In other words, the government's response is to shift the cost of higher education from the public purse to the students and their families and so deny many young people their right to higher education. The Labor Party's response is to create 20,000 new full- and part-time undergraduate places every year by 2008, create 20,000 new full- and part-time TAFE places, abolish full fees for Australian undergraduates, not increase HECS fees, increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 from July 2004 and not limit the time a student can spend at university in a HECS place.

I have heard the argument that education, particularly university education, is not of interest to many people, least of all those on low incomes. This is not my experience. I have met many parents who have not had the benefit of completing secondary school themselves and who have certainly not seen the inside of a university, yet they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their children get a good education. These parents define a good education as certainly finishing secondary school, with further education at TAFE or university as the goal. These parents understand that education is the key to their child's material success and to their fulfilment as a person.

It is very disappointing then that these bills do not do anything to make higher education more accessible to the general population but actually reduce or remove accessibility for many people. Right now too many school leavers who want to go to university are not getting there, and the reason is a lack of places. There are now 20,000 fewer fully funded university places than there were seven years ago in 1996. This means that this year 20,000 people who had the qualifications for entry into a university course—and the interest in doing so—have missed out, and 15,000 people have missed out on a TAFE place. This is a waste of our resources from a community and economic point of view and it is devastating for the young people involved. As a nation we should be focused on using our resources to the best advantage. By using the depth of the family pocket as the criterion for entrance into university we are certainly not doing this.

The Howard government is just not creating enough fully funded university places. Universities will be forced to cut 8,000 HECS places by 2007 because of a lack of adequate funding. These cuts mean that more and more students will miss out on a place. The number of available places will not even keep pace with population growth, and this means that the proportion of Australians with a university education will diminish. Since 1996 the government has taken $5 billion out of the funding it gives to universities. Australia has recorded the largest drop of any OECD country in public investment in universities over five years—a drop of 11 per cent. In contrast, the OECD average was an increase of 21 per cent.

An international comparison of private funding for universities, originally conducted by the Productivity Commission, shows that the contribution Australian students and their families make to the cost of higher education is already among the highest in the developed world—and it is continuing to rise. At a time when most developed countries are increasing their public spending on higher education, Australia is pushing more and more of the cost onto the private purse and reducing its contribution.

Until this government came into office, HECS was about 20 per cent of the cost of a degree. Today it is around 40 per cent, and this legislation will allow that percentage to move even higher. Under this legislation universities will be allowed to increase HECS fees by another 30 per cent. It is acknowledged that it is reasonable to expect university students to contribute to their course costs and that the HECS system is a reasonable way of doing this, but it is only reasonable as long as the contribution is reasonable.

I have heard a number of members opposite state that the argument that increasing the HECS debt is a real deterrent is a furphy, that debt is not or should not be a problem for students. My constituents are worried about taking on a debt that is way beyond their ability to pay within a reasonable space of time. The Howard government is always on about how bad debt is; it is constantly sniping at the Labor Party for incurring public debt. How can it say that debt is bad in government hands but okay in the hands of young people? The answer is of course that debt in itself is neither good not bad; it depends on the level of debt compared with the ability to pay and the reason the debt was incurred in the first place. Debt incurred to provide assets for future use is usually fine. We accept—in fact, we even encourage—our kids to buy a house funded by a mortgage provided that they can afford the mortgage repayments and still have a reasonable quality of life. The same goes for education. It is reasonable to go into debt to fund a university course provided the debt is reasonable and the repayments will not cripple the student later in life.

If one wants to take a technical economic cost-benefit analysis approach to higher education, I refer to a research paper by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in 2000 called Returns to investment in higher education. I should record here my indebtedness to the Parliamentary Library for this information. The research shows, using 1976 data—that is, before HECS was introduced—that the individual rate of return was 21.1 per cent while the social rate of return to the community was 16.3 per cent. The same calculations done using 1997 data—that is, after HECS was introduced but before the increases of recent years—showed the individual rate of return was 15 per cent and the social rate of return was 16.5 per cent, a more balanced allotment of costs showing that HECS was at about the right level.

But this has changed for the worse in recent years and will change again with this legislation. Higher education is just one more area in which this government is shifting the funding burden from the public to the private purse. If this legislation gets through parliament, one criterion for getting into university will be the depth of the family pocket. This legislation, unbelievably, allows and indeed encourages universities to offer those students who miss out on a HECS place a full fee place.

I recently spent some time with students at Patterson River Secondary College and these students made it very clear to me that this was not their idea of a fair education system. Current university students I have spoken to are similarly unimpressed. The point made by both groups of students is that many or most of them would not go to university if they had to pay full fees. How this is fair is a mystery to me and a mystery to these students. How it is even desirable is also a mystery. As a nation we should be doing all we can to get our best brains into university. And the best brains do not always have the deepest pockets. To run the risk of not taking the best advantage of our best resources is wasteful and short-sighted.

I have also heard the argument that runs along the lines of `Why should overseas students be able to buy their way into a university course while Australian students cannot?' Let me just make one point in response to that argument: why should Australian students have to buy into a course at all? All Australians pay their taxes and will contribute to our society. We should be able to offer university places to all students that qualify on academic grounds. All Australian students should have an equal opportunity to get into a university course. The ALP's policy is very clear on this point: there will be no full fee undergraduate places in our universities and we will significantly increase the number of HECS places.

This legislation also seeks to restrict the time a student can spend at university on HECS to five years. This is in a situation where Australian students already spend less time at university than those of any other country in the OECD. According to the education minister's own figures, only four per cent of students at university last year already had an undergraduate degree. This means that a very small number of people are furthering their education. This is alarming in an era where continuing education is becoming a necessity.

All in all, this bill is at best a backward step in providing for our future as a nation and in providing for the futures of our individuals. At worst it is a blatant attempt to create an unfair and wasteful education system—unfair because it will mean access to a university place is based on financial rather than academic credentials of students, and wasteful because it will mean that we are not necessarily educating those with the highest potential, which is a waste from a nation-building point of view and grossly unfair on individuals. In an era when we are becoming more and more reliant on knowledge, skills and research and development for our nation's growth and economic survival we are denying many capable students a place at university or TAFE. I will close on a comment which is not my own but which I have heard a few times before: if you think higher education is expensive, try ignorance.