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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21411

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (9:39 AM) —This debate is crucially important for this nation, but these bills do not show the way forward for us. Education is the bridge to the future for Australia. It is the lifeblood of the nation. It is the basis of opportunity for individuals. A nation that will not invest in education is a nation which is doomed—doomed to economic decline and social inequality. It is a nation that will not go forward. The Howard government claims that it is strengthening our higher education system; it is doing exactly the opposite. Its education policies are betraying the nation. Just as in health, the Howard government's philosophy is simple—it wants to shift the cost of education from government to the individual. It wants our education system to become a user-pays system.

I think that we are in danger of losing in education one of the foundations of egalitarianism in Australia. It used to be that any bright kid in Australia not only could dream of going to university but could get there, and their parents could encourage them without worrying whether they could afford it. Today, how many potential scientists, teachers or business leaders are facing the decision about whether they can afford to go to university? Their parents' income is now more important than their ability, their drive and their dreams. Labor have a different view from that of the government. It is a better view. We believe that education increases economic growth, transforms people's lives and builds a more tolerant society. We believe that education is overwhelmingly a public good. That is why we believe that, as a nation, we must invest in it.

Today I want to speak specifically on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Pro-visions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I pose this question at the begin-ning: could these bills be any more in-correctly named? Far from being the higher education support bills, they are the higher education destruction bills. If they are pass-ed, the great Australian dream that every child will have the chance to go to university and get a good career will be destroyed. Labor believes that our great universities and TAFEs need more assistance, but they do not get it from these bills. The member for Jagajaga, the Deputy Leader of the Opposit-ion, has foreshadowed a comprehensive series of amendments that will remove the negative features of these bills. They are amendments that, with our policy proposals, will create a stronger education system and a better future for our nation.

Before I detail Labor's solution, let us understand the magnitude of the problem that has been left to us by the Howard government. After seven years of that government, Australians are paying the highest taxes in our nation's history but are getting less in return. The government is not only taxing families more, it is charging them more for the services they depend upon—in particular, health and education. It is no wonder families are struggling under increased financial pressure, not just in health but in education as well. The record of the Howard government in education is a national scandal. When John Howard became Prime Minister, he cut $5 billion in investment from our universities. Between 1995 and 2000, public investment in education fell by 11 per cent—more than in any other country in the OECD. As a result, public education investment in universities is now the sixth lowest in the OECD. The rest of the world is leaving us behind.

Each year, 20,000 qualified young Australians are missing out on a tertiary place. There are now 120,000 fewer places in our universities than would have been the case had Labor still been in office. That is what the forward estimates projected—120,000 more places than this government is currently overseeing. Student fees have risen by over 85 per cent, and university class sizes have risen by more than 30 per cent. Student debt has more than doubled. It now stands at $9 billion and will soon rise to $13 billion. How will our young people ever be able to afford to buy a home and start a family with up to $100,000 in compounding debt hanging over their heads? Yet that is the legacy of the Howard government so far.

In the recent budget, John Howard expected the Australian people to thank him for giving them a $4 sandwich and milkshake tax cut. But the tax cut came at a terribly high price, including pricing average Australians out of tertiary education and reducing the productive capacity of our nation. It is a new tax, a knowledge tax, a tax on our nation's future. Once again, John Howard is giving with one hand and slugging Australians with the other. Also, the education minister constantly asks why Australian students cannot pay full fees to get into courses, just like overseas students. There is a simple answer: Australians and their families pay taxes here. They have contributed already. The real question for this government is: why does the Howard government want Australian students and their families treated like foreigners in their own country? I make no excuse for treating Australian students differently and making education accessible and affordable for them.

But as bad as the system has become under the 7½ years of the Howard government to date, these bills that are before us are going to make it worse. Under this legislation, universities will be free to increase their fees by 30 per cent. That is another 30 per cent on top of the 85 per cent rises since 1996. This means huge HECS debts: $15,000 for arts, $21,000 for science and $41,000 for law. And worse, there is no guarantee in this legislation that the fee rise will be capped at 30 per cent. There is nothing to stop the fees going up even higher again. I ask Australian families and students to contemplate that. This horrendous increase that we have seen in the last 7½ years will only escalate further if this government is returned.

Half of all university courses will now be eligible for full fees. And, if he chooses to, the minister for education can simply deem entire courses to be 100 per cent full fee paying. What sort of an opportunity does that present for students from struggling families, for kids that have ability but whose parents cannot afford to put them through university? Some degrees, like medicine, will cost up to $150,000. That is not our figure; it is the figure of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Alan Gilbert. We talk about doctor shortages and now we are pricing them out of the market. Average Australian families will never be able to afford to send their children to university if this becomes law. It is the end of the Australian dream of a fair go for every young person.

But the Howard government is not just content with putting up fees. It also intends to put up the cost of servicing the loans to pay for them. Real rates of interest—currently at six per cent—will see student debts compound year after year. What a burden to place on our young people just as they are starting their working lives. Our young people are being left with the choice of missing out on higher education or drowning in debt. It is a choice that they should never have to make.

But the changes will not just hurt the students and their families; they will also hurt the universities. Under the bills, universities will be blackmailed into accepting unfair industrial relations changes or losing $400 million in funds. If they refuse to accept these impositions on their independence, that is $400 million less that will be available for investment in extra staff, extra buildings and extra resources for their libraries. It just highlights the ideological nature of the government. It is a government that talks about freedom for our universities but now, through this industrial relations agenda and new funding system, wants to impose new restrictions on them. This is not just an attack on intellectual freedom; it is an attack on institutional autonomy.

Students and parents have condemned this package. The only endorsement that this package has got is from some of our vice-chancellors, who have been forced to accept it as their only lifeline after seven years of cuts. But now that they have seen the details, even these vice-chancellors are backing off. And also, now that they have seen Labor's alternative, they are embracing that. Labor's package offers them a real alternative.

Australian people do not want these changes to their higher education system. They offend a core Australian value: a fair go. Labor's approach is based on the principle that access to education should be on ability, not ability to pay. Today, Labor make these pledges to Australian families. We will not allow this government to slug you and your children with a 30 per cent increase in university fees. Labor will make higher education more affordable. We will not only stop John Howard making half of all university places liable for full fees; we will also abolish full fees for Australian undergraduates altogether. There will be no $100,000 degrees under a Labor government. We will not allow this government to saddle you and your children with $800 million of new debt at real interest rates. We will abolish real interest rates for these loans. And we will not allow the wealthy to jump the queue and take the university places that rightly belong to the hardest working and the most able young Australians.

I have outlined what is wrong with the government's approach. Let me tell you about my vision for the future of our education system. The world is changing—changing so rapidly, in fact, that our children will be working in jobs that they have not even imagined yet. They will have to update their skills throughout their lives, not just when they are young. This requires no less than a revolution in the way we think about our education and the education of our kids. Our goal must be the creation of a world-leading system of lifelong learning. That means learning must start with the crucial early years; it must be developed intensively during the school years and it must continue throughout life.

Instead of educating just some of our children to the highest possible standard at the start of their lives, we must educate every person to that same high standard right throughout their lives. We cannot afford to leave a single child behind if we want this nation to become all that it can be. Too many of our children are slipping through the net because they are not getting the help they need to develop their learning skills when they are young. That is why Labor will expand early learning programs so that every child gets the help that they need in the vital early years. It is the best investment our country can make in its future. Every dollar we spend in the early years will save up to $5 down the track.

Opportunities are also being lost because not enough money is being invested in our schools. Labor will repair this damage by increasing investment in our public schools. While we encourage everyone to get a year 12 qualification, we do not provide enough apprenticeships or enough places at university or TAFE for them. That is why Labor will create 20,000 more TAFE places and it is why we will create 20,000 extra university places. This will include extra investment in our teachers and nurses through the creation of over 3,000 new full- and part-time places for nurses and around 4,600 places for teachers. Our universities will benefit from Labor's plans for the better indexation of their operating grants—a policy that will deliver an extra $312 million over four years to our universities. We will reform and modernise our universities with a $450 million universities of the 21st century investment fund—again, a commitment over four years—and we will boost our nation's research potential through 300 new postdoctoral fellowships.

Not only will we create more places and fund our universities better; we will make education more affordable for our students. We are going to do this by extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients; by reducing the age of independence for students on Youth Allowance to 23 years of age; by lifting the HECS repayment threshold to $35,000; and by lowering the cost for students of maths and science at our universities. Labor's investment in education, outlined in this document, Aim Higher, is fully costed and fully funded, because budgets are about choices and Labor choose to invest in education—to make it more accessible and affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy.

Earlier this year I met with students at the Penrith campus of the University of Western Sydney, just as I met with many other students around the country, when we were developing this package. At that campus, two-thirds of the students are the first members of their families to make it to university. I am going to make sure they are not the last. Together with my vision for early education and early intervention, these new higher education policies will help us become the type of nation we want to be and must become: a richer, stronger, fairer and more tolerant place. Labor's policy of investing in education will be good for our young people, good for families and good for our nation.

That is why these bills before the House should be rejected. That is why the amendments moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition should be supported. But that is only to stop the problem. What we have to do is build and build again as a nation. Labor has been the only party in this parliament that has seriously invested in education—that has understood the importance of opening up opportunity, making it available to everyone, and recognised that it has become a lifelong learning exercise. That is why it is not just a question of opposing these pieces of legislation; it is about proposing an alternative. Labor's policies are outlined in this document, Aim Higher.

It is not just a question of blocking these bills that are going to put a further tax on knowledge in this country; it is the reason why we need a Labor government returned to office—a Labor government that is prepared to invest in education, a Labor government that understands that education is a public good and that is why we as a nation must invest in it. A nation investing in education is not just giving opportunity to young people; it is giving opportunity to us as a nation. It determines whether we advance. That is why this country needs a Labor government—because under 7½ years of a Howard government we have simply had a reduction in opportunity. We have had the introduction of fees and the pricing out of the reach of young people the opportunity to get an education in a university or TAFE college. Labor will not only oppose what the government is doing in these bills; we will propose the alternatives—the alternatives that give accessibility and opportunity. That is what the country needs. (Time expired)