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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21362

Mr TANNER (7:17 PM) —The legislation before the parliament this evening—the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003—really gets to the fundamental philosophical division between the conservative parties in Australia and the Australian Labor Party. It focuses on the future for our higher education system and brings to the fore the core differences in opportunity for education and training and the role of the individual in society. The responsibility of government is to ensure that all Australians have opportunities to advance, learn and develop skills and aptitudes that will enable them to have a more fulfilling role in life, a more fulfilling working career, to earn a decent income and have a very reasonable standard of living. That is ultimately what this debate about. It is about that principle of opportunity for all, which has been at the core of the Australian Labor Party's commitment to the Australian people throughout its history and which, in its various forms, as the world has changed, remains at the heart of what we stand for and at the heart of the differences between Labor and the conservative parties.

I suppose that in a sense the government almost has to be commended for the approach it is taking on this legislation, but for one reason only: it is giving people a stark choice between particular approaches to society. It is highlighting the differences between an approach that Labor holds close, which is based on opportunity for all, and an approach which the Liberal Party historically has believed in—that is, the market can be relied upon to deliver opportunity no matter where people are situated in life. Ultimately government has little role in providing for our citizenry and ensuring that all people can participate in our society, play a valuable and worthwhile role, be rewarded for that and build a stronger, worthwhile life as a result.

Labor, in contrast, believe that an important role for government in the area of education, particularly higher education, is in ensuring that we maximise opportunity and that all Australians are able to access more learning and develop more skills, and in building the aptitudes that come from education at all levels—but, in this case, higher education—aptitudes not only narrowly and specifically vocationally related but also to be a better citizen, a better parent, to provide a more substantial commitment to our community and to live a better life, all of which higher education contributes to, as well as contributing to the vocational aspirations of the individuals who are fortunate enough to undertake it.

In the modern economy that we now have in developed nations, higher education is fundamental to skills and economic progress and is a critical part of the economic engine room that drives productivity gains, higher wages and better economic outcomes. The Howard government's policies build on their previous vandalism in this area. The Howard government have cut an aggregate of about $5 billion from the various budgets for higher education over the seven years that they have been in office. They have reduced the threshold for repayment of HECS debts, thereby imposing a much more onerous burden on former students to repay those debts, and increased the HECS repayments. Now they are proposing to increase HECS fees by 30 per cent, which means a massive increase in HECS debts for many students, and provide that half of all places go to people who are paying full fees—in effect, advantaging those who have the resources to pay those fees up front and therefore ensuring that we will see degrees costing in the vicinity of $100,000 plus; and allow people to jump the merit queue. They are very strong on queue jumping in immigration but they do not mind a bit of queue jumping in the higher education area, provided it is to people who are rich, and they do not mind people advancing in the queue irrespective of merit if they can afford to pay or, more particularly, if their parents can afford to pay.

The Howard government's legislation in this area includes draconian industrial relations provisions that are tied to over $400 million worth of grants. It involves a new loans scheme with excessive interest rates of CPI plus 3.5 per cent to encourage students to move into full fee places. Obviously, that will involve a crippling debt for many students who take that option. The legislation has only a net extra 5,500 full-time and part-time places by 2008, so it does not expand the system at all in real terms. It does little other than fix the government's own previous mistake from 1998, when it allowed the overenrolment by universities of places for which they had only partial funding. Most particularly, there is nothing new for technical and further education, where funding has languished and where there are widespread skill shortages and many problems with respect to quality and accreditation. Many students are missing out, but all the government can do in this area is continually rant about the state governments. It blames the states and, in spite of its rhetoric focusing in on people who do not go to university, it does very little for those people who are in or aspire to be in technical and further education.

Labor are not ashamed to assume the responsibility of government to ensure that Australia has a high-quality tertiary education system that is available to all on the basis of merit and that is going to ensure, into the future, that we have many high-skilled jobs driving a productivity based economy with good returns and high living standards for all. We are not ashamed to say that government has a fundamental role in delivering those outcomes, and we believe it is absolutely scandalous that, for the first time ever, the Australian government is now spending more money on private schools than it is on public universities. In the 2003-04 financial year the Howard government will spend more money on private schools than it will spend on public universities. Labor's approach is to remove the 30 per cent HECS increase, to abolish up-front fees, to restrict the FEE-HELP loans that the government is instituting for postgraduates and to remove the punitive interest rates that it is proposing, to increase places in higher education by 20,000, to remove the onerous and interventionist industrial relations conditions being imposed on universities and to increase the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000.

I am a proud member of the Whitlam generation. I first attended university in 1974. I was part of the first intake not to have to pay fees, and I was part of the first intake to have the benefit of the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme, as it was then known; it later became Austudy, Youth Allowance and so forth. Ironically, I even marched in a demonstration in 1975 against the then Whitlam government for not increasing the TEAS funding and education funding in the 1975 budget. So I have a reasonably long history of dealing with these issues, even demonstrating against Labor governments. I did not know how good I had it, but I was only 19 at the time.

I have also seen in more recent times, as have other members of this House, a Labor government which changed the face of higher education by introducing HECS, by allowing much more commercial and private sector involvement in our universities in a variety of ways, by increasing the focus on vocational outcomes from higher education, and by amalgamating institutions, universities and colleges of advanced education. Although I was concerned about these changes and, in fact, spoke against some of them at the time—I was not a member of parliament, but I was active in public debate—I now acknowledge that they were necessary for a number of reasons, most particularly because changes in our economy and the production process were massively increasing demand for higher education, and the capacity of the public sector to fund all of that was being outstripped by the incredibly rapid increase in demand.

The Hawke and Keating governments increased federal government funding of higher education by 40 per cent in real terms over the time they were in office. It is interesting to look at the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme and then Austudy as an illustration. In my final year of being on that scheme the total federal expenditure was $150 million. That was in 1981, so it was shortly before the Hawke government came to office. By the time Labor lost office, the budgetary figure for that scheme, or Austudy as it became, was approximately $1 billion—a massive increase. So, even though private money in the higher education system, from both students and companies, increased very substantially over that period, federal government money increased dramatically as well.

The Howard government is now trying to load up students and their families more and more with the burden for their higher education and to gradually reduce the contribution of the federal government, based on outdated market ideology and on the notions that individuals are able to cope for themselves, that opportunity is available for all in our society and that the various differences in access that exist are really just a fantasy. The reality is that Australian students and Australian families have pretty much reached the limit of their capacity to contribute to their own education or their children's education. It will not be long before we see the impact of major disincentives having an effect on the behaviour of individuals if the Howard government is able to get the changes it is proposing through the Senate. We will see people being discouraged from participating in higher education. The disincentive effect of the individual economic burden being imposed on them will have a major impact on students, and it will have a very unfairly distributed impact. People from poorer backgrounds, people from country Australia and people less able to finance their own education and to take risks for their future will be deterred.

There is a big need for more money in higher education, and some of that does have to come from the private sector. But government has to take to the lead. The Australian government has to take the lead in ensuring that we have a well-financed, productive education sector, not one that is hobbled by the inverse snobbery of people like the Minister for Education, Science and Training, who is constantly using cheap populism and cute fictional anecdotes about people outside the higher education system and how terrible it is that their taxes are actually helping to pay the costs of people inside the higher education system. This kind of divide and rule approach, which sets people in vocational education against people in higher education and seeks to use some kind of inverted snobbery to downgrade the value and importance of higher education not just to the individuals who are successful in getting entry to it but to our broader society, will take Australia nowhere. It will ultimately lead to a broader community denigration of the value of higher education and to lower overall commitment to higher education in our society.

As a society and an economy we all benefit from systems of higher education and training. Individuals benefit, but society as a whole benefits a great deal, and we have a collective obligation to see that future Australians are able to access these opportunities built on that core principle of opportunity for all. We should not set one group against another; we should not divide Australians on the basis of their roles in these systems. We need to ensure that we have a properly and decently funded higher education system, with the government taking the lead and with fairness for all students—and the same applies in the technical and further education sector.