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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21459

Mr HATTON (1:04 PM) —I am happy to join my colleagues on this side arguing for the extensive list of amendments that have been moved by the shadow minister and arguing against the main elements of the government's bill. The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, showing the government's approach to higher education reform, which I would call `change' rather than `reform', and Labor's approach to that in attempting to amend these bills here—and no doubt we will lose here, but we will attempt to amend them in the Senate—demonstrate that there are fundamental lines of cleavage between the coalition government and the Labor opposition.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I interrupt the member for Blaxland's speech. The question was that the bill be read a second time. You referred to amendments moved by the shadow minister. For your information, there have not been any amendments moved by the shadow minister.

Mr HATTON —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I mean those foreshadowed to be moved in the Senate on our behalf and on behalf of the shadow minister. Those lines of cleavage are clear and dramatic. They are clear in higher education as they are clear, and made forcefully dramatic, in terms of the approach to Medicare and bulk-billing. No-one in the Australian community could be under any illusion whatsoever about the fact that the government's approach is entirely opposite to that taken by Labor on Medicare and so it is with higher education.

With these bills, the government seeks to remake higher education for the worse. But, in its time-honoured fashion since 1996, when the government comes up with a set of new proposals as part of a package, the marketing is all. The propagandising that can be done on the basis of that is the fundamental driver in terms of the way the government presents things.

These bills largely give effect to the package that the government put forward, after about a year of review, called Backing Australia's Future. It is a wonderful phrase, isn't it—backing Australia's future. You would have to ask who could gainsay any package that was prefaced in that way. Rather than the way in which it is put, I would say that the measures taken in these bills collectively would in fact back Australia into the future. We would not be walking into it bold-faced and openly; we would not be walking into an expansion of opportunity for Australian students from whatever background, however unequal the circumstances were. We are facing a government intent on backing Australia into the 21st century and, as with so many of the predispositions of the Prime Minister and this government, intent on trying to drag Australia, kicking and screaming or willingly or unwillingly, back into some nether region or nether century, such as the 19th century, when things were simpler—when the Master and Servant Act operated and when higher education was allowed only to the very few.

This government seeks to fundamentally fracture the compact of the Australian people about the importance of higher education and its open capacity to be provided to everyone in Australia who is capable of satisfying the entrance requirements. This government would effectively reward those people who have the money to purchase their way into university. I well remember those people who had that capacity while I was at the University of New South Wales—those people who spent a decade or more wandering around the university doing course after course because they had the money to do it. Entry was denied at that university to those people who had an equal or greater ability but who could not get into a course because the places were being taken by the people who had the money to keep themselves there.

The fundamental plank of this bill, and really what the government seeks, is to deregulate tuition charges for Australian undergraduate students for the first time in nearly 30 years and allow universities to determine their fees within limits. That limit can be increased by ministerial determination. You have to ask yourself: would you trust this particular Minister for Education, Science and Training with regard to this? Would you say that if you allowed him the regulatory power to raise that amount that that would not happen in future years if this government were still in power? In fact, would you trust any of the ministers for education of this coalition government not to do that?

I would think that that is not the case. That is why Labor have proposed amendments, which will be put to the Senate, to remove the 30 per cent increase in HECS fees that is proposed. We also propose—and this is an interlocking step—to increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000 in 2004-05. This is based on a question of equity and it is also based on an appreciation of the inequalities between people, but the fundamental test is: what is a person's ability to pay at the end of their university education? In fact, if you look at all the budgets since 1996, you will see there has effectively been a doubling of the full fee places in terms of what is required with regard to HECS. People have been required to pay much more and also to pay much earlier.

When the Howard government came to office, they cut the threshold from $28,495 to $20,700 in 1997-98. Labor think that that is wrong. They think that, because people are carrying that burden at that low an income level, coming straight out of university with the other impacts on them, this needs to be readjusted. So we will move—and there is wide support within the community and from the higher education sector for this—for that threshold to be lifted to $35,000 because the fundamental principle when we introduced HECS was that people's capacity to pay had to be taken into account and people would not be forced to start to pay until they were in a position to be able to do so.

The cleavages that are apparent in the Medicare area and the higher education area are very strong and very apparent. They go to a fundamentally different philosophical approach to higher education and its place and importance for Australia. Labor believe in public investment in higher education. We believe in public investment in the public sector and we believe in public investment in the university sector. Since 1996, when this government came into office, we have seen an erosion of our higher education sector, deliberately and determinedly put into place by this government.

The government have put the university sector into a situation where they have had to beg and plead with the government to return moneys that have been taken from them that could have been used for the further advancement of the university and their teaching role with young Australians. The universities are being denied that money. I think it is in the order of something like $8 billion from 1996. I may stand corrected on that, but from memory that is the case. The universities are in a position where they have realised that they will not get another zack out of this government because these bills demonstrate what the future is for Australian universities. If you are a sandstone university, you will be allowed to raise your fees. You will be able to raise HECS as much as you want until you get to the 30 per cent level. But beyond that the minister can exercise his discretion.

You can see the argument developing over time: here are the Australian universities approaching the government and demonstrating that the income they have is insufficient—because they have already done that over the past number of years; even the Group of Eight has done that year after year. They will be putting the case that they need extra money in order to function. What minister in the coalition would therefore be able to deny them an increase in HECS charges? They would argue that an equal approach to these things means everybody's HECS charges should be increased.

This approach fundamentally hamstrings Australian higher education in the future. This government is not just about determinedly eroding what is there already but about trying to make a cash-and-carry approach to higher education, as it has in Medicare and a range of other areas. If you have got the cash, you will carry the entitlement away. If you have got the cash, you will take the diploma. If you have got the cash, you will take the university degree. I had 10 minutes and I have finished my time, but I completely condemn what is being done in these bills and will support Labor's amendments as they come through.