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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21382

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (8:51 PM) —Many times in this House I have heard members opposite say that the Labor Party does not have any policies.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —I am full of policies, do not worry about that! It is very interesting, though, that we have just had a complete government cabinet reshuffle. It was in response to one thing, which is the fact that Labor's policies are biting in the electorate. The Prime Minister, who is very poll sensitive, is well aware of that. Two policies in particular are biting: one is on health and Medicare and the other is on higher education.

For those who are not too sure about that, particularly those sitting opposite, Labor does have a well worked out and fully funded policy, called Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians. If they just took the time to look at that they would see that there is plenty of policy choice, and the Australian people will make that choice. They are going to have choice too over superannuation. They have definitely got choice on Telstra and tele-commun-ications. As I mentioned, there is also a clear choice on health and Medicare for sure and indeed on higher education.

The stark contrast in policies between the two parties is best represented in the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 before us. This legislation provides an opportunity for the people of Australia to choose between philosophies on higher education—between Labor's view that higher education is a social and economical investment in nation building and the Howard government's view that higher education is a cost to the nation.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the government claims choice as the raison d'etre for universities to take up its package. So what is that choice? It is the choice to deregulate tuition charges for Australian undergraduate students. That is the choice at the heart of the issue, the raison d'etre. But it is choice in name only when various caveats are applied to receiving core operating grants. Rather than offering greater flexibility to our universities, deregulation and core funding are more closely tied to compliance clauses. So on the one hand we have the rhetoric of flexibility but in actual fact there is more compliance and regulation. For example, the legislation explicitly ties core operating grants to universities complying with ideologically driven policies on industrial relations and governance structures. The hand of the current Minister for Health and Ageing, who was formerly the minister responsible for workplace relations, is in that caveat.

Another aspect of the government's claims is that the package is based on offering greater flexibility to universities. But this is not borne out in reality, nor in this legislation. Rather than being characterised by greater flexibility for universities, the package is characterised by much greater—not less—centralised control and ministerial control. Make no mistake: the strict caveats and compliance conditions laid out in this legislation have not been received well by the universities, even amongst those who advocate the general thrust of the government's policies. But of course there is always the stick with this mob. The regulatory caveats include increasing regulation of the student profile, giving the minister and/or the department the power to determine how many students are taught in individual courses in each university. That is the classic definition of the finger in the pie approach. They also give the minister the authority to add new higher education providers without reference to the parliament. Indeed, such decisions would not even be disallowable.

Let us look at the choices facing Australian families and students. The government's higher education policy is expected to cost $14.4 billion over the period 2004 to 2007. Of the $1.4 billion increase over the current allocations, $1.1 billion falls within 2006 to 2007. Labor's policy investment, on the other hand, is $2.34 billion, an increase of $642 million over the government's proposal. This would take effect not in 2006 and 2007 but from the 2003-04 budget. The government's policy will force universities, in the main, to cut around 8,000 HECS places by 2007 because this government is not properly funding enough student places even now. Indeed, the situation will get worse.

I have referred in this place on several occasions to the fact that in my home state of Tasmania the University of Tasmania is underfunded by nearly 1,000 undergraduate places needed to ensure an equitable outcome for Tasmanians. I am not the only one who has made this submission over a number of years. It is, indeed, supported by the Liberal opposition in Tasmania. The underfunding occurs across a range of criteria, such as population share, high mobility and increased year 12 retention. The underfunding is based upon historical statistics of Tasmania's relatively low participation and poor retention rates to year 12.

Retention to year 12 in Tasmania has increased significantly from 54.2 per cent to 75 per cent between 1996 and 2002. However, this government's massive funding cuts in the higher education budget have led to a reduction of 650 undergraduate places. Further demonstrating the inequalities faced is the fact that, while Tasmania has 2.42 per cent of the fixed 15 to 64 age cohort, it receives only 2.29 per cent of the funded places for higher education in Australia. If you remove the Australian Maritime College funding, as that college serves a national and international market, then Tasmania's funding is only 2.18 per cent of funded places for higher education in Australia.

Sadly, the hidden aspect of unmet demand is that nearly 2,500 Tasmanians study through interstate higher education institutions each year. Only about 25 per cent of these students at other institutions study in courses or specialisations not offered by the University of Tasmania. Almost 18.7 per cent of Tasmanian home residents are studying interstate. This compares with a national average of only 9.4 per cent of students studying outside their state of home residence. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.