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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18353

Mr ORGAN (11:14 AM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. The bill seeks to amend both the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 and the Australian Research Council Act 2001. Commonwealth funding for the higher education sector is provided under the Higher Education Funding Act, which enables grants for universities, and under the Australian Research Council Act, which funds the research grants schemes administered by the ARC.

The indexation of higher education grants, as we are all aware, has become a subject of some controversy in recent times, and this bill lies at the heart of that controversy. The government has come under increasing pressure to alter the current indexation regime and replace it with one that reflects the real cost increases faced by Australian universities. This bill indicates a maximum aggregate funding of approximately $2.8 billion in 2002 and $2.9 billion in 2003. These figures reflect the various liabilities, overenrolment commitments and supplementations applying to the sector.

Higher education grants are currently indexed on the basis of movements in the higher education cost adjustment factor—the CAF. Unfortunately the CAF does not measure actual price increases in the sector. It has been criticised accordingly. The CAF has two components: 75 per cent is based upon the safety net adjustment, which is determined by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and is meant to reflect the salary costs of institutions, which notionally constitute 75 per cent of grants; and 25 per cent is based on the consumer price index. This component is meant to reflect non-salary costs, which notionally constitute 25 per cent of grants. These proportions are notional only because they bear no relation to the actual expenditure of higher education institutions. In recent times, wage increases have exceeded the amount of money provided under indexation. The result is that universities have been forced to fund staff wage increases from other sources—sources which are also needed to support infrastructure developments and teaching resources.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has called for reform. It has called for a more realistic indexation formula to be put in place that reflects actual costs so that our universities can more appropriately pay their staff and provide up-to-date facilities to enhance the education experience. We need to halt the so-called brain drain from our shores as talented academics and support staff head overseas to higher paying jobs and students do likewise to avoid a HECS debt.

In his second reading speech on this bill, the Minister for Education, Science and Training claimed that the coalition government is committed to the development of a sustainable, quality higher education sector. Sustainability and quality have driven developments in the sector over the previous decade. However, what the government is in reality delivering is not a quality higher education sector at all but a higher education sector which is diminishing in quality due to sustained funding cutbacks.

Since coming to office in 1996, this government has slashed some $5 billion from the sector. The $1.5 billion in new funding, announced as part of the recent Crossroads budget package, does not go far enough in righting the wrongs of the past six or seven years and addressing the current funding shortfalls. The fact that our universities continue to operate at a high international standard, despite the not inconsequential financial pressures, is an absolute credit to the hard work and commitment of the staff and students in those institutions who, despite the mounting difficulties, struggle to maintain the quality educational standards which were more readily achievable before the current government came to power.

I can speak from first-hand experience in this area. I was the first person in my family to attend university and, prior to being elect-ed to this House last year, I spent approximately 15 years working at both the University of New South Wales and the University of Wollongong in academic and general staff areas. Over that period, I saw ever increasing wage pressures placed upon university administrators and a cut-back in infrastructure funding—that is, funding for classrooms, libraries, computing facilities et cetera.

The failure to adequately fund the sector resulted in staff cuts, which impacted most severely upon the general and support staff, although academic staff were not exempt either. With less support staff, higher academic staff to student ratios and cuts in capital works funding and equipment allocations, there is no doubt that there was a decrease in the quality of the educational experience provided by Australian universities after 1996. Staff morale also plummeted. New technologies, improved teaching methods, the introduction of quality assurance and the onset of the Internet and online learning made a difference, but they did not, in my opinion, make up for the negative impact of increasing student numbers along with fewer staff and facilities. Staff, both academic and general, were working harder because there were fewer of them. The result was less face-to-face time and support for individual students.

Of course, during this period we also saw more and more emphasis from this government on making students and their parents pay for a university education. HECS levels rose, course fees became more common and Austudy assistance became significantly harder to obtain. This has placed increasing pressure on individual students, many of whom are now forced to take on casual work in order to scrape up enough money just to survive. This increased work commitment takes away from the time they can give to their studies, and it must result in a decrease in the quality of their educational experience.

There is no doubt that quality education, whether it be at the primary, secondary or tertiary level, all comes down to money: money to pay the wages of good teachers and support staff; money to pay for classrooms and equipment; money for books; money for online access; money for all manner of educational resources; money for food and accommodation for students; and money to provide a quality educational experience for Australian students, regardless of their ability to pay. It is here that this government is out of step with the Australian community. All fair-minded Australians accept that education is a right; it is not a privilege. A quality education is the right of all Australians. Yet we constantly hear from this government that education is a privilege and that we must pay for that privilege.

The government is not delivering a sustainable public higher education sector. The government is obviously not intending that our universities continue to be sustained by the public purse. Costs are being shifted onto individuals, while educational services are becoming increasingly privatised. The mantra is `user pays'. Just as with Medicare and the increasing privatisation of the Australian health care system, we are now seeing the privatisation of Australia's higher education system by this government. This government is obviously a firm believer in the capacity of privatised services to deliver quality services over a sustained period of time, despite evidence to the contrary. Apparently, the core aim of this government is to shift the costs of funding education back onto the so-called consumers or, to use a more old-fashioned term, students.

The value of an accessible and quality education system cannot be measured just in dollar terms. The provision of quality and accessible health care and education to citizens lies at the core of government responsibility. Yet this government is seeking to off-load these core responsibilities and push more and more costs onto individual students and their families. We have seen how the government has dramatically and drastically increased the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. It now wants 50 per cent of all university courses to be filled by full fee paying students.

The whole culture of Australian universities is changing for the worse. When a university is continually stretched for funds—the very circumstance that this government has deliberately created—the university is forced to operate more like a business than an educational provider. This leads to compromises in quality. The fact is that high-demand courses can attract more full fee paying students. Therefore, if allowed to, vice-chancellors will embrace the opportunity of making money from rich students who can afford to pay.

The government will argue that this is fair, but the ultimate impact of this policy is that students who do not reach the academic requirements for prestigious and attractive courses will gain entry only through the back door, by paying. Their academic scores do not have to be as high and, ultimately, the standards expected of students in such degrees will drop. They will take the places of eligible students with higher marks who are excluded because they cannot pay or the government will not support them. Is this fair or just? No, of course not. If this is how the Howard government plans to deliver a quality education system into the future, I would suggest that this plan is doomed to failure.

If this government truly valued quality, it would not pursue such an agenda. Instead, it would seek to provide a freely accessible higher education system for all eligible Australians, not one in which the size of your parents' bank balance is the determining factor. This shift of responsibility from government to individuals will have a long-term impact on the social and economic fabric of this nation. We are already seeing statements in the media from families and students indicating that they will not be pursuing a university education because they cannot afford to pay and they are fearful of the debt burden and its impact on their lives post-university. As the member for Ballarat said, fear of this debt exists throughout Australia and is turning people away from universities.

If you visit any university and talk to the students, they will tell you the problems they are facing. Based on discussions I have had in recent times with students at the University of Wollongong and with the National Union of Students, I can say that there is no doubt that more and more are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the cost of attaining a university education. They are faced with rising HECS debts, the loss of income during the term of the degree, the effects of holding down casual employment whilst studying and the impact on family and friends who may be called on for support through loans, accommodation et cetera. The government must play a greater role in supporting the higher education sector, as it has in the past, so that students can concentrate on their studies and not be lumbered with the distraction of economic worries and debt.

One's capacity to flourish as an individual should not be determined by the ability to pay or by an accident of birth or circumstance. This flies in the face of the very foundations of Australian society. This is a democratic society which aims for egali-tarianism and non-elitism. This government is committed to a higher education sector which favours not an academic elite but a financial elite. Those who can afford to pay are now finding it increasingly easy to pursue a tertiary education, whilst those from the poorer sections of our society are finding it harder.

It is ironic that the minister should argue that, in his view, the changes that need to be made to our universities will ensure that the excellent reputation of Australian universities is not eroded. Yet the government, in its time, has dealt a massive blow to Australia's tertiary education sector through financial strangulation. Students, parents and academics alike awaited with dread the recent Higher education at the crossroads review and shuddered when they heard the proposals that emerged from it. It is clear that the government no longer wants to be responsible for this investment in Australia's future. It prefers instead to pass this responsibility in large part over to the private sector.

Government spin doctors have called this higher education package Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future. `Living in the past' would be a more appropriate title, I feel. It promises an extra $1.5 billion over four years, but it also allows universities to lift fees by up to 30 per cent as an added source of funding. Once again, the government is slowly stepping back from its financial responsibilities to the sector, forcing university administrators to rely on other sources of funding. It is interesting to note that in 2003 the largest single funding source for the University of Wollongong was overseas student fees. For the first time, government funding was not the No.1 source. This, of course, has implications for how universities operate.

Also, ironically, in his second reading speech the minister talked about extra funds for regional universities. As many would be aware, the University of Wollongong, somewhat strangely, missed out on this additional $2 million to $4 million per annum in funding as it was not classified as regional. This government wanted to play with words and definitions to avoid its obligations to this significant regional university. I hope the government will reconsider its decision on the University of Wollongong and recognise this award-winning institution as one of Australia's premier regional universities.

With money being such a core issue in the higher education sector, it is interesting that the government is also tying allocations to workplace relations reforms and attacks on student unions. The minister stated:

There will be ... more funding for each Commonwealth supported student, linked to improve-ments in how universities are managed.

This means that the minister will impose new governance protocols aimed at administration and decision making. We also see within this bill changes to the way in which the minister can interact with the Australian Research Council and influence its allocations. In both instances, it appears increasingly to be a matter of: `Do what we say and we'll give you the money.'

The government's proposed reforms also mean that staff unions will be denied campus facilities and services so that universities can qualify for extra funding under the government's proposed reforms. In order to qualify for $404 million in extra funding, universities will have to demonstrate compliance with the government's workplace relations policies. It has been reported in the media that one option the government is considering is that universities would be able to demonstrate their compliance by denying staff unions access to office space, telephones and other services on campuses unless they pay for them. Not surprisingly, the workplace rel-ations minister has lobbied hard for tough new industrial relations reforms to be includ-ed in the government's Backing Australia's Future package.

At the end of the day, the government's present policies are adversely impacting on staff and students in our universities. The government is trying to deny this and to hide the reality. The paper `HECS and opportunities in higher education' issued late last Friday found that the changes introduced by the government in 1996 reduced the number of older people applying to study at university by about 17,000 per annum. The number of school leaver applicants fell by 9,000 per year. The number of men from poorer families studying in the most expensive courses such as law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science had dropped significantly by 38 per cent. The report said:

The lesson from this study is that any future changes to HECS arrangements would need careful design to minimise their impact, particularly among groups more sensitive to student charges.

Being careful in its design of HECS arrange-ments is not necessarily in keeping with the government's plans for tertiary education in this country. The crisis in education is not, as the government suggests, due to poor management in the sector; it is due to a failure of this government and previous governments to recognise their responsibility to the higher education system, which makes a fundamental contribution to our economic, social and cultural growth as a nation.

In real terms universities now receive on average $1,173 less per student than they did in 1996, yet the number of government subsidised student places in Australian universities has steadily increased since then. As a result, students are paying a higher share of the cost of their education. Australian universities, as I have shown in the example of Wollongong, are now more reliant on private income than their international counterparts. According to the latest OECD data, Australia has the fourth highest proportion of private investment in higher education. Australia's standing in research and development has slipped from fourth in 1998 to sixth in 2000 in the OECD nations due to the government's expenditure cuts in research and development areas.

The government's approach to the higher education sector has resulted in overcrowded lecture theatres, erosion of basic infrastructure, higher student-staff ratios, a decline in the number of academic staff in key areas and the casualisation of the work force. All of these factors have a profound impact on the quality of the education environment, and this bill is part of the problem. It does not go far enough in providing the necessary funding for our higher education sector. The problems caused by reduced public funding and increased competition will not be solved by more reductions in public funding or by increased competition, yet this appears to be exactly the direction the government is taking. The Greens call on the federal government to rethink its fundamental approach to funding our tertiary education system and the indexation regime associated with this bill.