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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4525

Mr ANTHONY SMITH (8:07 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2008, which was introduced into the House last week. As members will know, this bill deals with a number of issues and proposes a number of measures with respect to higher education. Specifically the bill deals with a range of capital works projects at the James Cook University Dental School, capital infrastructure and additional Commonwealth supported places in medicine, nursing and education at the University of Notre Dame. It makes provision for additional Commonwealth supported places in early childhood education and nursing and for the expansion of undergraduate scholarships over the next four years. There are a number of other measures as well. One of the bill’s major measures, of course, is the reduction in HECS for certain courses, specifically maths and science, down to the minimum rate. For graduates of those courses who go into areas of workforce shortage, specifically teaching, there is a 50 per cent reduction in the HECS repayments. Finally, the bill deals with domestic full-fee-paying places. It provides for the abolition of those places and also provides for what the government says is the necessary number of additional Commonwealth supported places to compensate for the abolition of domestic full-fee places.

I say at the outset that all of these measures and initiatives within the bill were spoken about before the election. We say that quite up front. They were within the Labor Party’s policy platform. Obviously some of them are non-controversial, and by that I refer to the capital infrastructure grants to some of the universities and some of the other measures. Some of them received more prominence than others, specifically the longstanding policy decision by those opposite to abolish domestic full-fee places at Australian universities. The opposition will not be forcing a division on this bill. We do not wish to delay those good parts of the bill for Australian universities or for them to be delayed in the other place. However, let me just say in the brief time available that, with respect to the HECS reductions for maths and science and some of the other courses mentioned, obviously the government’s intention, as they stated before the election, is, firstly, to encourage more people into these courses and, secondly, to encourage them into areas of workforce need, specifically teaching. That intention is a noble one, but it is one we are sceptical about. We would hope to be wrong, but we do not think this approach is a silver bullet, particularly when it comes to teaching.

We think the big issues in teaching—and the shortage of science and maths teachers, if I can just take one example in the short time available—relate more to the teaching profession itself and the lack of performance pay structures and the like. That is a very big debate that is ongoing at the moment. We would all agree in this House that we need to attract the best and brightest into teaching and then we need to keep them there. I think most members here in this House would agree that, for a long period of time, it has not been the case that we have been able to attract the best and the brightest into teaching. We are not keeping them in that profession long enough. The statistics tell the story. It is not a matter of political argument or debate. Too many teachers leave within the first three to five years and we lose them forever.

Another thing we need to do is think about initiatives and incentives that will attract people into the areas of maths and science teaching mid-career. This is a big issue beyond the power of just this House; we need our state counterparts to think about this creatively. We all know intuitively, and members on each side say it in various debates on other issues, that in today’s modern economy in Australia people will change jobs or careers throughout their lifetimes. The structure of teaching is predicated on someone doing a teaching degree and never leaving. We need to be able to attract people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who will be looking for a second career and for whom teaching would be an attractive option. We need to be able to attract them into the profession. We think that, whilst the intent behind the measures within this bill is obviously to make a difference, these bigger issues that I have just canvassed will be what is required to actually make the real difference.

Finally, it is well known that those opposite have always opposed domestic full-fee places at Australian universities. This bill provides for the abolition of those places. We think that is a big mistake. This side of the House believes that students who have just missed out on a HECS funded place or a Commonwealth supported place who want to take up the option of a full-fee domestic place, and who want to work and save and make that sacrifice for their own future, should have the ability to do that. That is why we introduced that option of additional places above and beyond the Commonwealth supported places. Those opposite have been opposed to this for a long time, and we think that it is blind ideological opposition. Those opposite—the Minister for Education and members of the Australian Labor Party—operate on the assumption that there is not one single student occupying one of these places in an Australian university who comes from a poor background. They cannot conceive that someone who has had a difficult year in their final year of high school or has had a disrupted education, who has worked their guts out and who may have just missed out on a place will actually take out a loan and work and take up one of these places. It is their preference that they be denied that choice and that they instead, presumably, fly overseas to take up a full-fee-paying place or that they go to a private university.

I know that those opposite cannot conceive that such people exist. They do. They have been taking up these courses, and this legislation, which will prevent that from occurring, will remove choices for those people. I foreshadowed earlier that I would move a second reading amendment—a pious amendment—in my name on this issue, and I will do that now. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1)   condemns the Government for:

(a)   its blind ideological opposition to domestic full fee paying places in Australian universities;

(b)   its deliberate plan to legislate to prevent an Australian student from taking up a full fee paying place just as overseas students can and will continue to be able to do;

(c)   its restriction of flexibility for our universities to respond to student demand; and

(d)   its constant false claims that those full fee paying students are buying their degree when in fact they must meet the same academic standard as every other student at their university doing their course to pass each year of their course and obtain their degree; and

(2)   notes:

(a)   that students including some from low socio economic backgrounds who may have experienced disruption, difficulty and obstacles in their final year at high school will no longer have the option of making their own individual choice to take out a loan, or work and save, to access a full fee paying place if they have just failed to obtain a Commonwealth supported place;

(b)   the Government’s pious pretence that it cares for those students who may need access to assistance whilst at the same time outlawing access to their desired university course;

(c)   that the bill will further limit pathways for Australian students to get into a desired university course and embark on their chosen career; and

(d)   that this bill restricts further the choices available to Australian students in assessing the best courses to suit their own circumstances”.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Pyne —I second the amendment.