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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21514

Mr LEO McLEAY (4:55 PM) —The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 are concerned with the Commonwealth's funding of higher education. When I look at this legislation, I often wonder if I am in a looking glass or back-to-front land. I read what the government says it is doing with education policy, I am aware of the rhetoric it puts out on education and I think, `That doesn't sound too bad.' But when you look at the detail in legislation such as the bills before us today you see that it is all quite different. The Minister for Education, Science and Training claimed in his second reading speech:

The government's vision of education, science and training is that our ambitions and our policies should enable every human being—especially every young person in this country—to find and achieve their own potential.

When you hear that, you think, `That's very sensible.' But in fact these bills will have the opposite effect if passed without amendment. There is a significant difference between the government and the opposition when it comes to higher education. Our view on this side of the House is that everyone has a right to higher education, irrespective of their ability, or their parent's ability, to pay. The view of those opposite seems to be that those who can afford to pay have a greater right to higher education than those who cannot. This legislation, if passed as currently formulated, will have the effect of saying yes to the rich and no to the poor. So much for the minister stating in the second reading speech that the government's ambitions and policies in this area `should enable every human being ... to find and achieve their own potential.'

In this legislation, the government also tries to bring in a number of issues that are completely unrelated to higher education by seeking to tie core operating grants to compliance with government policies on industrial relations. This government has really stepped down to a new low. It strikes me as being typical of the government that, when thwarted in getting its ideology across in a straightforward way—and we hear every day in this House from the minister how its industrial relations bills are being rejected in the Senate—the government then thinks it can be very clever and sets about finding a sneaky way of putting its ideological preferences into practice, going after the economy sector by sector. We saw the government attack the building industry, and now we are seeing it attack the education industry.

Industrial relations matters, such as the enforced introduction of Australian workplace agreements and the establishment of barriers to union presence on university campuses, should not be part of funding legislation. In fact, they should not be part of any legislation at all, in my view. But the government is so determined to kill trade unionism and have everybody on AWAs that it obviously could not resist the temptation to include these matters in the bills before us today. It is no wonder that the universities and others, including the unions that are involved in universities, are up in arms about this issue. It is offensive, and it is a gross interference with the way universities operate. It is forcing the government's ideology upon them, and the universities are effectively being held to ransom. Unless they agree to these things, they will not get funding. That is what the government is saying, and it is outrageous.

It has been suggested by some that the minister may be willing to compromise on this aspect of the legislation. I sincerely hope he does. But how time wasting to put forward proposals as divisive as these that he knows he will probably have to compromise on in order to get other parts of the legislation through. Years of consultation have gone into the preparation of this legislation. We would all have thought that the government could have got it right and come up with a reasonable piece of legislation—not one that contains outrageous features that the government knows in advance are not going to be acceptable to most people in the university sector and, odds-on, are not going to be acceptable to the Senate. Or, once again, are this minister and his colleagues being too smart for their own good? Is he thinking, `I will throw this stuff in just to get them all scared and outraged, then I can make a big person of myself and take it out of the legislation, and everybody will be so happy and impressed by my ability to compromise that they will accept the rest of the legislation without further demur'?

Is that what the minister and the rest of the government is thinking? Is that their tactic? If it is, this is an absolutely ridiculous waste of time and it puts this parliament in a terrible position, whereas those of us on this side who have a genuine commitment to education would like to be able to walk hand in hand with the government and get some decent education outcomes for this country. But when you have these sorts of smarty operations going on in legislation, it makes it impossible for compromise to be achieved.

The government has accused the opposition of wanting no change to the current system or of wanting to throw more money at the higher education sector, but there is much more to our policies in this area than more money. The Leader of the Opposition and our spokesperson have outlined our policies in the debate on this legislation. In fact, Labor and Liberal education policies, if you look at the published statements about them—as I have said earlier in relation to what the minister has said—seem to have similar aims but very different ways of going about them. But, unlike the government, the opposition does genuinely compare what the government does with what we do. The difference is that we care about the future and we are sincere about investing in Australia's future by investing in our young people and providing them with opportunities to obtain a full education, thereby allowing them to achieve their potential. The difference between us and the government is that we will increase the funding; we will provide better opportunities; and we will do our best to see that young people achieve their potential.

Some of the government speakers in this current debate have muddied the waters by implying, and sometimes stating outright, that Labor sees universities as the best and only educational option for young Australians. We see the minister in here every day at question time running that line. They then extrapolate from this argument that Labor regards those who do not have a university education as lesser beings or less deserving of support. Nothing could be further from the truth: we want equality of access and equality of opportunity both for poor people and for those who are better off.

Another aspect of this legislation which concerns me is the proposal to deregulate tuition charges for Australian undergraduate students, allowing universities to determine their fees within certain limits. But, as in all legislation put up by this minister, there is a catch in that this limit can be increased by the minister. In other words, the sky is the limit. Whenever the pressure is on universities for more funds in the future, the temptation and the facility will be there to raise fees. The universities may not want to do it, but it may be their only option if they find themselves in need of funds and cannot obtain money from the government or in any other way. This proposal is yet another tricky way for the government to ease its way out of funding and push the funding burden through the university administration back onto the students and their families a la the American system, which many members of the government are very enamoured of.

The government can try to justify its proposals to allow fee increases, but the facts speak for themselves. Average HECS fees have nearly doubled since the Howard government first came to power. Australian universities are already the fourth most heavily dependent on private funding in the OECD—only Korea, the USA and Japan are ahead of us. The changes proposed in this legislation have the potential to give Australia the highest cost public university system in the Western world—a dubious honour and not a situation to be proud of. Public investment in Australian universities is not high, despite what this government would have the general population believe. In fact, public investment in Australian universities is the sixth lowest in the OECD as a proportion of GDP, at 0.8 per cent.

Another bit of sophistry indulged in by some of the speakers opposite relates to the provision of full fee places for a greater proportion of students. If I remember correctly, full fee places were first introduced for overseas students who wished to study certain courses at Australian universities. In 1996 the Howard government announced that universities would be able to enrol full fee paying Australian students. At the time, this amendment was capped at 25 per cent of the total enrolments. The current bill would double the cap to 50 per cent; thus half of all Australian undergraduates could be full fee paying students. I have heard some of the government speakers suggest that it would be discriminatory not to offer overseas and Australian students the same opportunity to pay full fees for their courses, but how discriminatory is that system towards those who cannot afford to pay?

The universities will become increasingly desperate for funding and will have to take what they can get. If they are inadequately funded by the government, they will have to supplement their funding in other ways. Full fee paying students will be a more attractive proposition than those who need assistance, loans et cetera. Even universities with the best intentions will find that they have to constantly juggle competing demands and academic standards, ensuring that the best students may have to be sacrificed or at least compromised because of the need to attract funds and to take the students who can pay up front in preference to those who are not so well off but who may have greater academic potential.

Universities are not factories; they are not companies; they are not government businesses. They are unique educational institutions where the brightest of our young people should be encouraged to develop and become assets to our society in a variety of ways. I am not saying that universities should not be accountable, but they should not be treated in the way that this government is treating them. The powers that this legislation would give to the minister to intervene in the running of universities, both directly and indirectly, are unprecedented. It must shock and horrify all those who value academic freedom and student choice. I cannot believe that this government thinks it can get away with these outrageous proposals. Without amendment, this bill should be defeated in the Senate.