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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18330

Ms HALL (9:35 AM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 is about tertiary education. It is about Australia's future, and I think it is really appropriate that we have so many young students from schools throughout Australia visit this parliament—and we have some in the gallery at the moment. This legislation provides funding for the indexation for cost increases, and it also has some technical adjustments in higher education funding through the Higher Education Funding Act 1988.

I think this really forces us to focus on the issue of what higher education is about and who should have the opportunity to access higher education. I think that is the issue that is important for the young people who are here in parliament today. I do not think there is probably any other area where there is a greater philosophical difference between those of us on this side of the House and those on the government side of the House. We believe that each and every one of the young students in the gallery today should have the opportunity to go to university if they choose to. We believe that the only thing that should determine whether or not they can attend university is their ability to undertake the studies and their ability to complete those qualifications—unlike the government, who believe that whether or not you go to university should be determined by your ability to pay. That is a real difference between us and the government, and that is why we have some real problems with the approach to higher education by the government in Australia.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 deals with the indexation of Commonwealth grants and changes in funding to universities. Whilst we are supporting that indexation, I think it is very important that I put on record that it is quite inadequate and that the formula that the government uses is inadequate and really does not reflect the needs of the universities. It is also important to put on record that this government's performance in the area of higher education funding has been deplorable. One of the first acts of this government was to rip money out of the universities and the TAFE colleges. In doing that, it is condemning Australia to a system of second-class higher education and it is creating a substandard higher education sector. The only way around it is for the individual to pay. This government is a master at taking money out of our public institutions, and this has a long-term effect on the kind of education available and the accessibility of education.

It is important to put on record that the secret to success, for both a nation and an individual, is education. Education removes barriers and opens horizons for people. As a nation, our future lies in our ability to embrace new technologies and sell those technologies overseas, and in our ability to be leaders in the field of education. In Australia, education is one of the things that we have an opportunity to present to the rest of the world. Without it we cannot compete. We need to have highly skilled people to work in our industries and, under this government, we have developed shortages in a number of areas. I think it is important to highlight a few of those areas where there are shortages. We have shortages in child-care coordinators, child-care workers, engineers, registered nurses—and nursing is an area that is worth spending a little bit of time on. It is not just one area of nursing that we have a shortage in; it is all areas, includ-ing accident and emergency, and aged care nursing. It is also important to note that the average age of nurses in Australia is over 40. We have short-ages in cardiac, intensive care and Indigenous health nursing—and the shortage of nurses in that area is deplorable. In every area of nursing there is a shortage.

We also have shortages of dentists, pharmacists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and doctors. It is important to talk a little about the shortage of doctors. In 1996 the government introduced legislation that restricted the numbers of providers. There has been a decrease in the number of doctors that are training, and that has created quite a shortage of doctors. Throughout Australia people are having to wait to see their doctors. In the electorate that I represent, a Central Coast electorate, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of doctors in the area, and that decline is projected to increase. To a large extent, this can be attributed to the fact that there is a shortage of doctors. I visited my own GP recently and she emphasised to me the need to train more doctors.

Mr Lloyd —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. My point of order goes to relevance. The member should be speaking on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. I ask you to bring her back to the subject of the bill, please.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—I understand that there is a second reading amendment, which I believe and hope the honourable member for Shortland is taking into regard in this debate. I will be listening most carefully to make sure that that is the case.

Ms HALL —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand the member for Robertson's sensitivity on this issue because he also represents the Central Coast. He should be arguing for more places in universities for doctors. Unfortunately, under his stewardship the number of doctors on the Central Coast has continued to decline. The member for Robertson is noted for his inaction in fighting for more doctors on the Central Coast. As I was saying, in Australia, because of the government's policy, we have developed shortages in a number of areas. That means that we lack skills and that innovation has declined in Australia, and it has all been under the stewardship of this government.

The other thing I would like to say is that tertiary education should be for all; tertiary education should not be for a select few. Unfortunately the government's approach to tertiary education is that the deserving few should have access to education. The government policy, Backing Australia's Future, was released in March 2000. It would be more appropriate if it were called Back to the Future, because it is dragging us back to a future where only those people who have money, position and go to the right schools will be able to access higher education. I think that is very sad.

Yesterday in this House the Minister for Education, Science and Training asked why a talented student with a score of 99.2 should not be able to go to university. A talented student with 99.2 can go to university. May-be they cannot get into medicine or the faculty they wish but they can still go to university, and if they achieve in one course they can transfer to another course a little further down the track.

The minister may feel that someone in his electorate of Bradfield, with a score of 99.2, should be able to pay money to go to university—should be able to buy their way into university—but I ask why that student, with 99.2, should have a better opportunity of attending the university of their choice than a student from my electorate living in the suburb of Windale, which is very disadvantaged, who maybe comes from a single-parent family or a working-class family with a low income. Why should somebody with money have a better opportunity of going to university than someone from the suburbs of Windale, Belmont, Swansea, Lake Haven, Gorokan or Toukley who comes from a working-class family and whose parents do not have the ability to pay $150,000 up front? I think it is quite immoral for the minister to stand up in this parliament and argue that someone with 99.2 cannot attend university. They are being disadvantaged if they cannot pay.

I argue that, under this government's policy, not only will those people be disadvantaged but all Australian students will be disadvantaged. Each year there are 20,000 people who qualify for university and miss out. This is because this government has provided insufficient funding to the universities. Once again, this government has committed itself to fee-paying students. Further down the track it is looking at increases in HECS fees and postgraduate loans for which students will be paying real interest rates. In the area of nursing there is a shortage of midwives. For a student to undertake postgraduate studies in midwifery it would cost $4,300. Rather than charging people, we should be paying them to do it. We need to encourage people to train to be midwives and to take on postgraduate training in nursing. That is why I concentrated on nursing when I spoke earlier.

Under the government's policy, loans for students to attend university will become a reality not only for postgraduates but for all students. The implications of that and the higher HECS fees are enormous for us as a community. Under the government's proposals, at Sydney University a bachelor of arts degree will cost $15,000, a law degree will cost up to $85,000 and a science degree will cost $21,000. I must emphasise that science is an area we want more people to study in.

Under this government, a young person who finishes university will be faced with an enormous debt. This will mean they will not be able to afford to buy a house, because they will be constantly struggling to pay off their HECS debt or student loan. When it comes to having a family, they will have to think twice about whether they can afford to have children. I think this will link into our already declining birth rate. If people cannot afford to have children, the implications for Australia are enormous. As I mentioned, we are already an ageing population. It will increase the impact of the brain drain. More students will be going overseas, because they can get around their financial obligations and get away from the impact of this government's draconian legislation.

It also means we will lose these people—along with all their expertise—who are our future. Postgraduate students are going overseas all the time because of the costs involved here and because of the opportunities. I think this government has a very narrow approach to education. There is an alternative: the proposal put forward by the Labor Party—an outstanding proposal, I might add—in the document Aim Higher which was recently released by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for employment, education and training and science. It is a $2.34 billion package. It emphasises that, under a Labor government, $150,000 degrees and university places for sale would be gone. We believe that all students should have equal access. Labor's policy will create 21,660 new full- and part-time places in university and 20,000 new places in TAFE colleges.

The government's education policy will force more and more students into TAFE—if we were to go down that track. There is already a shortage—they have already ripped the guts out of TAFE. We believe we have to create places in both universities and TAFE so that we have a variety of skills and occupations available for young people to train in.

We will be providing $35 million to secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them go to university. Rather than making higher education more accessible to the people of the minister's electorate of Bradfield who can afford to pay, we believe that people who come from suburbs like Windale in my electorate should be supported and helped to go into higher education. There will be no increase in or deregulation of the HECS fees. I think that is very important when you are looking at those cost factors. There will be no introduction of a real rate of interest on loans for postgraduate courses. As I mentioned earlier, there will be an abolition of full fees for all new undergraduate course students. We will extend the rental system and reduce the age of independence of students on Youth Allowance from 24 to 23 in 2007. The HECS threshold will be $35,000 a year from 2004. These are all things that make higher education more accessible for young people and mature age students.

I think it is really important to mention that, under this government, there has been a decline in the number of mature age students attending university—a decline of some 17,000 students—which I think is very sad. I attended university as a mature age student myself and I must say that, under the changes this government has brought in, there is absolutely no way that I would have been able to afford to go to university. I think that more and more people are being put in that position. The Labor Party will also reduce HECS fees for science and mathematics students and it will fully fund an additional 3,125 new undergraduate nursing places by 2008. As I was saying earlier, it is very important that we address these areas of shortage.

This vision will ensure that, as a nation, we move forward. It gives us hope and vision for the future. It will ensure that we will be a nation that can embrace the 21st century, not a nation that is always playing catch-up. Our position in relation to the rest of the world has fallen considerably under this government. The Labor Party's vision and aim is to bring us forward, not take us backwards. We aim not to look back but to actually aim higher for the future. (Time expired)