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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16521

Mr PRICE (6:09 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, out of deference to you, I just thought I should make a few remarks about the defence situation, but I might make those a little later in the speech. I will start with education because, in my part of the world—greater Western Sydney—we have the University of Western Sydney, and I think the changes in the budget are posing some real dilemmas for that university.

Before I start, I would like to look at the funding that goes to each and every university student and compare the sandstone universities like Sydney and New South Wales in my state with the new generation universities like the University of Western Sydney. From all sources of funding—government, fundraising and investment—each sandstone university has $25,000 per annum. For the new generation universities, that all sources of funding figure is $10,000 per annum. What is the point I am trying to make? There is already a significant difference in the disposable incomes of the University of Sydney and the University of Western Sydney—$25,000 per annum compared to $10,000 per annum. I think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you would agree with me that this is a very significant difference.

In question time today the Leader of the Opposition mentioned a very significant factor about the University of Western Sydney. It was that two-thirds of its students are the first in their family to attend university. This is something that we are very proud of. Although we have increased numbers of students from Western Sydney going to university, the proportion of students going is actually decreasing. Why is that? More students from Western Sydney are going to university, but the participation rate is actually decreasing. It is decreasing because, for the rest of Sydney, the participation rate is going up much further and much faster. In areas like the North Shore, the eastern suburbs and the southern suburbs of Sydney, they are going to universities in ever increasing numbers.

In this House the Minister for Education, Science and Training has almost made it a sin for anyone to get up and talk about university education. I am always happy to talk about all forms of education, but I remain wedded to the fact that in Western Sydney we should get our fair share of students going to university—to all universities but, of course, to the University of Western Sydney in particular. We want our fair share; we have never had it. Since the Howard government came in, the participation rate of students going to university in Western Sydney has declined.

The other fact I want to mention about the University of Western Sydney is that two-thirds of its applicants are mature age students. Approximately 55 per cent of the students who are enrolled, as opposed to the applicants, are mature age. This is something that we should be encouraging. Our economy is changing, growing and developing. As a nation we want people to be extending their skills, changing their skills and adapting to the needs of the economy. I think this is a very positive statement for Western Sydney. The problem is, of course, that the cost of going to university has always constituted something of a barrier. Ironically, one of the other interesting stats to do with the University of Western Sydney is that 10 per cent of its students pay up front, which is higher than the national average. That is an indication not of the wealth of those students but of people being averse to going into debt.

The government has said that you can increase the HECS fees by 30 per cent, but it has rightly precluded areas like teaching and nursing. That actually disadvantages the University of Western Sydney. Why do I say that? Not that I particularly want to see fees increase, but the University of Western Sydney has the second largest—and there is some debate about whether it in fact has the largest—cohort or training of nurses of any university in Australia. That very significant number of students and the health faculty will get a little bit extra from the government, but nothing like they would get should they choose to increase the HECS fee—and I will come back to that. The other area is education. Significantly, the University of Western Sydney produces many thousands of teachers each and every year. Those two faculties being, if you like, quarantined poses a financial difficulty for the university.

The university needs to act in good faith—that is, if the government has laid down a policy that you need to get extra revenue by increasing HECS fees by up to 30 per cent, the university cannot be like an ostrich and put its head in the sand and say, `We're not going to do it.' The university does in fact need to increase the fees because, after all, there is a significant disadvantage built into the system already—new generation universities versus the sandstone universities. If they were to refuse to increase the fees, clearly the quality of the education those students are getting would suffer.

My concern is that HECS fees have always presented a barrier to some students. Given the higher than national average mature-age students going into the University of Western Sydney, it is reasonable to presuppose that they already have commitments. They are not going straight from school to university. In many cases, they have families, mortgage repayments and all the costs that are associated with families. Often they are women who, after a period of being with their families, have decided to go back to university to increase their skills and get a job. So the issue of the size of the debt becomes a very critical issue. Increasing the HECS fee will be a barrier to students in Western Sydney—and the HECS fee will be increased under these arrangements.

I understand the university has declined to take the opportunity that the government has offered—that is, that all classes can have a 50 per cent component of full fee paying students. The university does have full fee paying students but they are overseas students, and I understand it is going to keep it that way. But of course, at other universities, if you cannot get into a course on merit and you have parents who are able to pay, you will be able to pay for that place in the university. I think that is utterly sad and it lowers the whole idea of educational institutions operating on the principle of merit.

There are some other issues that I want to raise. One of the catch-22s that are part and parcel of this new legislation is that universities will be penalised if they over-enrol or if they under-enrol. To be quite frank, I do not quite understand how this is going to operate. The national average is that 25 per cent of all students fail their first year. If we are looking at a university intake for year 2, this means that you have to over-enrol by 25 per cent. So first year comprises 125 per cent of what second year will be. Every university over-enrols to that extent to get their budgeted second-year cohort. I might say that, in the University of Western Sydney, it is 28 per cent and I am sure that the figure bounces around for different universities. How can we so finely adjust this scheme? How can we be so sure of all the factors about each faculty in the University of Western Sydney that we know that we have to over-enrol by precisely 28 per cent? If you end up getting too many year 2 students, you get penalised; if you undershoot it, you get penalised. With great respect, I think that this is a crazy system.

I suppose the thing that really saddens me is that there are a lot of reasons why students fail. I do not argue in this place that someone enrolled should automatically pass their first year at university. But, as we have moved from education being a free good—as it is in infant, primary and high school—to a good for which people are paying significantly, either up front or via a long-term HECS debt, there is an increasing obligation to try to ensure that students are given every help and support to pass their exams. I am not talking about lowering the pass mark. There are some accusations that that is what is happening with full fee paying students. I am not arguing that at all. What I am arguing is that, firstly—intrinsically—it is in the national interest to ensure that people meet their potential. If, via some extra assistance at university, we can get these students through, that is meeting the national interest and it is a good investment.

For the 25 per cent nationally, or the 28 per cent at UWS, we have a double whammy. We are spending Commonwealth money—I understand that it is in the order of $1 billion a year in Commonwealth provided taxpayers' money—for these students who end up failing in year 1. The students themselves—and I apologise that I do not have the figures—also get a HECS debt for that one year at university. This is an issue we need to address. I am sad to say that the failure rate for Indigenous students is 60 per cent nationally. I do not have the UWS figures, but there are significant numbers of Indigenous students at UWS. I think that that 60 per cent figure is an utter disgrace, and it is something that we really should do something about.

Last but not least, the University of Western Sydney services Sydney's greater west. It has a sense of regional mission, by any test. We see that the Geelong campus gets regional funding and that the remote campuses of Wollongong University now get regional funding. Why does this university, with such a dispersed campus network and all the diseconomies of scale that that implies for Sydney's west, not get some of that regional funding as well? I certainly hope that this is something we would be able to look towards achieving.

I wanted to say a couple of things about Medicare. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, bulk-billing will be out for those people who earn household incomes of $32,000 per year.

Mr Neville —That's not right; it's the doctor's choice.

Mr PRICE —I accept that the doctors can choose. I guess the point that I was trying to make—and I take it that was an unofficial intervention, but I have a great deal of regard for the member for Hinkler, as he knows—is that I have got the highest rate of bulk-billing in my electorate—

Mr Neville —I have the lowest.

Mr PRICE —Well there you go.

An honourable member interjecting

Mr PRICE —On whose authority? The Prime Minister's during question time—98 per cent. It is the doctors' choice and currently they choose to, but the point I am making is that I am not sure that that choice will be sustainable in the future.

The other point that I would make is that if you look at the income test for Medicare in my electorate, that is $32,000 per household income, 75.6 per cent of households in my electorate earn incomes of $33,000 or more—it is not $32,000, so a degree of conservativeness on my part—and will not be eligible. Using 2001 statistics of non-family households—where two people may be living together or someone is boarding with a family—and add that to all family households in my electorate then nearly 70 per cent will not be eligible. I was talking to a doctor who does bulk-bill and he said the great fear is that these changes will bring in a two-tier system.

I mentioned that I wanted to say a little bit about defence. Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, during the committee that produced the report associated with your good self From phantom to force Senator Sandy Macdonald and I were told about proposals to develop a highly prepared reserves—they were not called high readiness reserves at the time. I have been continuing to ask questions about it because I was astounded by what I was told. I put questions on the Notice Paper about whether it was individual reserves, or whether it was company and how it would work. Some of those answers have been disappointing because they have not been as direct as I might have thought. But we are now going to develop high readiness units and part of that will be in a counterterrorist role. In this budget we are not spending $1 more on those reservists and we are going for a scheme of high readiness and active reserves that I am deeply troubled by. I do not say this in a partisan way. I thought some of the recommendations in your report, Mr Deputy Speaker, were very good. I have read the government response to them, and they have rejected things like having a principle of one unit deployed, one in training and one resting. I would have thought that it was utterly axiomatic to have an army configured in that way, but that recommendation is rejected in this report.

Both the white paper and your report, Mr Deputy Speaker, recommended we should be able to deploy a brigade and, concurrently, a battalion. But we get into a hell of a debate about what size a brigade is and what size a battalion is. We need some straight answers. Every time you try to look at the current situation of the inquiry into the maritime strategy, we need to understand what the sustainability model is that this new reserve structure is based on. We have not got it but I hope we do and, as a committee, we would need to handle it very sensitively. And the same with regard to threat scenarios. We cannot have proper parliamentary accountability unless committees like the one you chair have full access to information. We have not even had a ministerial statement about the new role of the reserves: how they are going to do it, how it is going to be funded and who is going to miss out. I sincerely hope that we do have an opportunity in this parliament to get more answers from the defence department. (Time expired)