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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6445

Senator CROSSIN (7:00 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to put some comments on the public record about this response from the government. This government is in absolute denial about the state of the higher education system in this country. I was a member of the Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee that spent many months travelling around this country, taking quite a number of submissions, hearing witnesses and making the effort to go to each state and territory and to as many universities as possible during 2001. I clearly remember the President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, in about July last year, after we had heard from many lecturers, dozens of students and many university vice-chancellors, admitting to us on the record that the system was in crisis. That is why the committee came up with the title of its report: Universities in crisis. It is a report on the capacity of public universities to meet Australia's needs in respect of tertiary and higher education.

That was not a title that we orchestrated. It was not a title which was determined other than by an admission by this country's leading vice-chancellor at the time, who headed up the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the peak body to which the vice-chancellors of each and every one of our 38 universities belong. He actually admitted to us on the public record that universities were in crisis. Now we have a government that is in absolute denial—it believes that that is not the case. It has the blinkers on and it wants to pretend that the policies that it has instigated since 1996 have been good for this country and have tried in some way to assist the higher education sector in this country. This government has ripped out over $860 million from this sector in only six years.

During the inquiry we heard evidence about the stress being suffered by university staff as they try to cope with more hours of lecturing, increased numbers of students and dwindling resources. We heard about university libraries struggling to maintain their efforts to provide higher education students with the resources they need. University libraries have had to stop subscriptions to magazines, not renew resources and not buy new library books. We heard about universities that were unable to replace outdated information technology equipment or to replace simple things such as computers, let alone buy the state-of-the-art equipment that our engineering or science students need not only to get up to speed with what is happening in the rest of the world but also to become leaders in their area of research or study.

We heard from university students who told us time and again that they would enrol in university courses at the start of the year and turn up to the first classes only to find that they were cancelled. Why was that? It was because the university did not have enough operational funding or capacity to meet the demand of students around this country. We also heard from engineering academics, scientists and humanities staff around this country that they have had to cut courses and close departments because there was simply not enough money being put into those sectors by the universities.

The Northern Territory University has had three major restructurings since 1996. The first restructuring saw the demise of the English department. The second restructuring saw a range of faculties having to be amalgamated and some fine arts departments diminished. The most recent restructuring saw the announcement that 42 general staff would be made redundant. Why is that? It is because the sector has not had enough money put into it since 1996. It has been severely neglected by this government, to the point where it has withdrawn operational funding and made universities embark on private enterprise paths to cope with that shortfall.

One of the significant findings of our inquiry was that universities are relying heavily on the private sector to compensate for the lack of funds. We have a private institution attached to the University of Melbourne. We have a number of universities such as Adelaide University that need to encourage the donation of funds from big businesses such as Santos. While that may be a welcome development in higher education, it is becoming a replacement for the public funding that ought to be going into universities. It is not additional to it or a top up, it is replacing, and significantly replacing as the years go by, the amount of public funding that should be put into the higher education sector by this government. Students around the country were able to prove to us that they now need to undertake part-time work and, increasingly, complement it with their study. The changes to the youth allowance, combined with an anticipated HECS debt, were a very large financial burden for students. To compensate they needed to undertake significant part-time work just to survive while studying.

What have we seen this year? This year we have seen a government which is now responding to that report and of course denying that the university sector is in crisis and denying that any of these problems exist at all. This year we have seen a minister who has embarked on a review of the higher education sector and has released seven documents. Each of those seven documents or discussion papers—they are not so much policy positions, although they will become policy positions—go to the very areas that I have just talked about. They go to the funding of universities. They go to the role of students and the payments that they will need to make in order to obtain a higher education in this country. They go to Indigenous students participating in this country, and there are a range of other areas.

This is a minister who is going to pretend that he is embarking upon a national consultation process in relation to these papers. He has invited submissions—although I notice that there have been no public hearings in the Northern Territory, and I suppose that is the case for most regional and rural, let alone remote, places in this country—but, at the end of the day, all I would suspect that we are going to see is a repeat of the leaked cabinet document in 1999. This minister is a little bit clever though. He is going to embark upon what he sees as a consultation process, but there is no doubt that, at the end of the day, his policy that emanates will be no different; in fact, it may even reflect those positions that were put in the leaked 1999 cabinet document—that is, that students should pay more for their higher education in this country and that there should be less public funding. This is a minister that believes that universities are not in crisis. This minister is blinded by the fact that this is a sector that is struggling to survive because of the lack of funds and the lack of good policy that this government fails to provide for it.

Question agreed to.