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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21380

Mr JOHN COBB (8:36 PM) —I stand to affirm my support for the amendments in the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I would like to talk about the legislation in the context of the benefits that it will certainly have for my electorate of Parkes, which is the biggest electorate in New South Wales—covering a third of the state. It includes two cities 800 kilometres apart—Dubbo is in the east and Broken Hill is in the west—and they are as diverse in approach as the distance that exists between them. My electorate takes in some of the most remote and isolated pockets of the state—including Tibooburra, Wilcannia, Milparinka and White Cliffs—and students from those places need the same opportunity to have a tertiary education as those from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

One thing I would say about myself is that I am a very strong advocate for keeping country kids in the bush. The welfare of students taking tertiary studies is something that cannot be overlooked. It is extraordinarily important, not just for their sakes but for the sake of the community in which they live. In the last census some 1,610 people in the Parkes electorate were undertaking university or tertiary studies. I have a duty, obviously, to look after the interests of those students and everyone else in the community. They will all benefit from every person who attends such studies. I have every faith that the measures that the government have taken in this bill will certainly serve that purpose.

Charles Sturt University is one of the best known and most respected universities in New South Wales, with a long and proud tradition. It does not matter whether it is in nursing or communications or whatever it offers, Charles Sturt University has done extraordinarily well in the time that it has existed. My electorate is particularly fortunate that we have a CSU campus in the city of Dubbo. While the main campus in Bathurst is outside my electorate, many country children have been fortunate to use it as it is the obvious place for them to go.

While the Dubbo campus is very new—it is some three years old—it continues CSU's commitment to provide regional Australia with access to quality higher education. In their own words, CSU Dubbo provides an environment where the focus is on student choice, flexibility and independence. The community, the town and the campus give the students every support that they can. The campus is focused on nursing and education. Obviously, allied health and teaching would be the two major areas of need in an electorate like mine, which takes in a third of the state and has very scattered communities. We have an enormous need for nurses and teachers.

Under the measures announced in these bills, Dubbo campus will share in a regional loading payment for their internal student load. Loading of funding to regional universities will ensure that campuses like CSU Dubbo continue to grow and develop and maintain their excellent standard of education. Nothing could be more important. That is the thing in these bills which is most important to a country electorate like mine, to a city like Dubbo and to all the towns in the electorate.

Through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, loading to regional universities will be allocated according to the size of a campus and its distance from a mainland capital. Charles Sturt University's Bathurst campus will receive 2.5 per cent loading which, I am very happy to say, will flow though to Dubbo. Quite obviously, this is an enormously positive step towards investing in the future of regional or country universities and in the interests of country students. More importantly, it is in the interests of all the communities, large and small, that exist within our region. It is also a positive step toward providing country students with a quality, competitive, well resourced campus in a country centre. It actually gives them real choice.

Around 25,000 marginally funded places will be converted to fully funded places in the three years to 2006-07. An additional 1,400 places will be provided in 2007. The total additional cost of these measures will be around $139 million in 2004-05, $252 million in 2005-06 and $384 million in 2006-07. That is a total for these universities of $775 million.

I have listened with enormous interest to members of the opposition. They have all applied the same free-for-all formula that they continue to dig out when they do not have a policy to match ours in taking universities or higher education forward. If they do not have a reasonable alternative, they tend to fall back on the idea that we must give everybody something for free.

That is all very well and good but we cannot afford to live in a welfare state. We do not need to go back into that abyss called `recession'. We are all well aware that the last time we went into that we came out of it owing $96 billion, paying interest of around 20 per cent on ordinary borrowings and with the Commonwealth itself having an interest bill of somewhere between $7 billion and $9 billion a year. This free-for-all attitude is great stuff and it sounds good, but at the end of the day the piper has to be paid. What this government are about is striking that balance between what we must provide for people and how we can pay for it.

We are about making sure there is a range of different options for people from all different backgrounds. We still have to maintain a responsible fiscal approach to spending. These bills—despite what the opposition want to say about them—are visionary and also responsible, something that the opposition has yet to learn the meaning of. Certainly the last time they were in government they lost sight of it. These bills are economically, socially and strategically responsible. They are about what is possible, not what is farcical.

The federal government always have to provide a safety net; certainly we do. Whether it is through social welfare, health, defence or education there have to be incentives for individuals who need a helping hand from government to reach their full potential or in their struggle to get there. There are a lot of people who deserve that choice or deserve that opportunity and this government is about giving them that. It is a fact of life.

We now live in a user-pays society, by and large. A person wanting to undertake professional studies to improve their quality of life and their long-term future must bear some of the costs of that end. Without doubt, somebody who goes to university will come out of that—if they do their job and do their work—with greater earning potential than those who do not, or certainly they should. What we are about is giving students, particularly students from poorer backgrounds, some options to help them through those studies.

No student is expected to pay their fees up front. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme is the government's safety net for everybody. Students have the option of deferring their payments to when they begin working and, thanks to the extra measures included in this legislation, the criteria in that system will now be relaxed to give students more of a head start than they previously had. The minimum repayment threshold for HECS will be raised to $30,000, with the two bottom repayment bands removed. This means that those with a HECS debt will start paying four per cent of their income when that income reaches $30,000. They now pay three per cent when their income reaches just over $24,000. The maximum rate of repayment will be raised to eight per cent when their income exceeds $60,000. I do not think that is asking too much. The government will also reduce the discounts for up-front payments from 25 per cent to 20 per cent and the discount for voluntary repayments will be reduced from 15 per cent to 10 per cent.

I would also like to touch on partial deregulation, which is a measure that I believe will hold enormous benefits in the future not only for the universities but for the quality of degrees that are on offer to students. Partially deregulating universities will make them strive to be more competitive. They are actually going to have to be more attractive to a paying student and they are going to have to provide the best courses. I do not have any problem with a university having to compete. Competition has worked everywhere it has been put in. Whether it is in relation to Telstra or any ordinary commercial area, competition is the only thing which ensures efficiency. Universities will have to aim to build on their strengths and they will have to be more flexible, especially where there are people who are paying the full cost of a course and even where there are those who are not. Universities will be able to increase fees to a maximum of 30 per cent above HECS. That means they will be forced to be more competitive, because obviously nobody is going to pay more than they have to to go to a university that does not provide the very best of opportunities and the very best of courses. Regional universities have an opportunity to capitalise on this fact. With new funding of $123 million over four years going towards the cost of education in regional campuses alone, we are going to be well placed in Bathurst and Dubbo to offer a very attractive package to city kids, not just our own. It will be an enormous turnaround for a regional university to be able to do to the city what the city has historically done to it.

On 18 September this year, the Australian Financial Review commended the vision of the government's higher education reform package. I quote:

Ironically, the three Higher Education Support bills introduced into parliament yesterday are all about giving universities more certainty. But this important legislation will be now stalled by the Senate obstructionists, possibly into next year. Yet none of these critics has produced an alternative reform plan that deals with the cost and quality pressures on universities.

The government wants to liberate cash-strapped universities from their uniform funding straitjacket, allowing them to tap more fee revenues and respond to price signals and student demand. Better and more diverse courses would result, and industrial relations would be modernised.

And the article goes on. We have to look at every opportunity, not just to help students but to keep education moving ahead. Without doubt, this legislation does that. It safeguards students who might have fallen through the cracks in the past; it certainly gives them an opportunity to have better courses than they have had in the past. For regional universities like Bathurst and its satellite, Dubbo, this is good news and it is certainly good news for country standards. I commend these bills to the House.