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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10353

Ms LIVERMORE (10:43 AM) —I am very pleased to be involved in this debate today on the Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill 1999 . This bill implements the measures on higher education announced in this year's budget. I must say that, in researching this speech, I really wished that I had been around to enter into the debate on the budget measures of the last two or three years under this government because that is when serious damage was done to our higher education sector in this country. I am seeing the effects of that in my electorate, and I would have loved to have had the chance to have my say at the time when those very serious cuts were being made. It is not quite as drastic this time around, but there is no hiding from the fact that the government certainly has put higher education in this country into a very serious decline.

Education is certainly a priority for the Labor Party. We are greatly committed to the proper funding of our universities to ensure quality of research, quality of teaching and quality of outcome for students. Also, a very important part of our philosophy and our policies are those measures that guarantee students equity of access to higher education. After entering parliament last year, one of the things that struck me while listening to the first speeches of the new members was the consistency of that theme—that education had been a major part of each one's development and that we put a lot of emphasis on that in terms of our own lives and careers and, having come through that experience, that we had each committed ourselves as members of parliament to making sure that those opportunities were available to all Australians, now and into the future.

Sadly, the government does not share our passion for education. We have seen that demonstrated over the last few years with $840 million being cut from higher education during that time. It has been manifested in cuts to operating grants for universities, amongst other things, and also in changes to the HECS system and to the assistance that is available to students. Today, I would like to talk about what I have seen in my electorate as a result of those cuts being made to funding to universities. I will speak specifically of the university in my electorate, Central Queensland University, but I will start first by talking about how those cuts have affected the students in my electorate.

In that context, I turn to the measure set out in this bill which deals with the abolition of the Higher Education Equity Merit Scholarship Scheme. On a number of occasions during this debate we have been told of the background of that scholarship scheme and the fact that the funding cuts introduced by this government in 1996 came in league with increased HECS charges for individual students—up to $5,682 per year for some courses. Also, there has been a lowering of the threshold for repayment to a mere $21,334. This is a huge burden on students both when they enter education and when they try to meet those debts when they leave the institution.

These measures are emerging as a serious disincentive for students who are contemplating tertiary study. I would like to take this opportunity to tell the minister about the types of students who go to Central Queensland University, the types of students who are being affected by these measures. He can then judge for himself whether or not he thinks the merit based equity scholarship scheme was of value to these students. Certainly the people I talk to at the university, the students and the staff, are unanimous in saying that it was very valuable as an incentive—both a symbolic incentive and also a very practical incentive.

First of all, in DETYA's own higher education report for the triennium, Central Queensland University is listed as having the highest proportion of students from low socioeconomic groups. I suppose I was not terribly surprised by that. But, even so, 40 per cent is a very high proportion. The counselling service at the university in my electorate conducted a survey of 1,000 students at the university just to confirm the impression it was forming when it was being swamped by students seeking assistance. It found in that survey that 65 per cent of students at the university have an income of less than $125 a week. That signals the lack of assistance available for students under this government and also that their parents are struggling and are not in a position to help them. Another interesting figure to emerge from that survey was that 60 per cent of the full-time students at that university are working at least 12 hours per week just to make ends meet and survive during their studies. Effectively, students are being penalised for studying; they are being penalised for seeking better qualifications, even though the work they are doing at university will ultimately enrich our own nation.

The second group of students I would like to talk about are rural students. Clearly, Central Queensland University is a very significant regional university and, as such, has a high proportion of rural students. That group, as shown by DETYA's own figures from December 1998, has declined seriously since 1992. A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education was reported in a paper entitled `Helping prospective students make informed choices—equity and quality in student decision making'. That study examined the attitudes of students of school-leaving age towards higher education. It found that rural students were more likely to be of the impression that their families could not afford the costs of supporting them at university, that the cost of university fees may stop them attending and that there is no point in their going to university. The study found that rurality and socioeconomic status combine to produce the greatest educational disadvantage.

Those results are no surprise, but obviously there is no great compulsion on the part of the minister to try to address the findings of those sorts of studies—studies, I might say, that are backed up by the comments of people in my electorate. It is becoming quite common to hear people say, `We're just an ordinary family; we couldn't possibly afford university.' I think that is very sad.

The other group at Central Queensland University is first-time students. Seventy per cent of students at Central Queensland University come from families in which they are the first member to attend university. Central Queensland University is very proud that it provides for those students, very proud of being a regional university that is obviously making a big impact on our region in attracting people to it. It has a First Students Club to help support those students. The important thing about students who are the first members of their families to go to university is that extra incentives are very important. Those families often will be of that low socioeconomic status; also, they often do not regard university as a normal course of development but more as a privileged activity. I believe that the merit based equity scholarship scheme went a long way in trying to overcome some of that and in providing opportunities for students from lower socioeconomic families.

Central Queensland University has the largest number of indigenous students of any university in Australia. It does excellent work in incorporating their needs into the curriculum. The culture of the university reflects the input of those indigenous students. The Good Universities Guide recognised Central Queensland University as one of the leaders in indigenous education.

Central Queensland University is very proud of its achievements in terms of equity and promoting education to those students in our regional community who might not otherwise consider the opportunity. It also takes very significant steps throughout all areas of the university to promote equity and support students who need extra support because of either slight disadvantage or significant disadvantage in their lives and in their ability to study without being affected by those equity factors. I have a great quote from one of the staff of the university, whom I spoke to yesterday, which was that it regards itself as an enabling university; it sees its role in our region as providing opportunities to people who may find themselves prevented from participating in higher education if it meant that they were forced to leave the region.

The merit based equity scholarships were seen by all levels at the university—by the counselling services, the student representatives, the equity unit and the vice-chancellor —as an important part of the university's commitment to equity because the university gave them a chance to offer opportunities to students from those targeted groups. In 1999, 66 students received those scholarships. Each of those students had multiple disadvantages in terms of the target sectors. There was huge demand for those scholarships. How the minister can stand there and say that the scholarships were no big deal, people were not interested in them anyway and did not see them as important, is beyond me. At Central Queensland University we had six applicants for every merit based equity scholarship. The demand was huge. Everyone I spoke to at the university saw the scholarships as a significant part of what was offered at the university in terms of equity.

I have spoken about the impact on individuals. The impact on our region is also very serious. In Tuesday's Courier-Mail, I was sad to see an article which listed Rockhampton and the surrounding area as a vulnerable part of Queensland in terms of our future economic outlook. The Central Queensland University is a very important part of our future. It allows individuals to see higher education as an opportunity that they can take advantage of. It means that they can improve their qualifications and then use those qualifications to stay in our region and build our future. The university is building fantastic partnerships with our local industries and businesses to play a leadership role in our community. I am very disappointed that the minister has, so far in his handling of this portfolio, failed to make a serious commitment to equity in education and recognise the important role that higher education plays in regional communities.