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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21418

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (10:10 AM) —The bills we are debating here today, the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, are the latest instalments in the Howard government's plan to regress tertiary education in this great country and give effect to its higher education package, Backing Australia's Future, announced in the 2003 budget. In a previous debate in this place I referred to the title of the government's package as a misnomer because the government would want us to believe that, having ripped $5 billion out of tertiary education since coming to office, it is really in the business of backing Australia's future. Only in the coalition of the Liberal Party and the Nationals that forms the government of this country could such a delusional exercise be undertaken without so much as a twinge of guilt for the damage they have already inflicted on Australia's tertiary education sector by the withdrawal of that $5 billion.

The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amend-ments) Bill 2003 repeal the Higher Education Funding Act 1998 and replace it with a similar base structure. However, there are important differences contained in these bills to make them quite different from the 1998 act. They indicate the absolute philosophical confusion of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, who, as I have said, has the gall to publicly masquerade these measures as reforms. For example, the minister seeks to deregulate tuition fees for undergraduate students for the first time in 30 years—in that particular initiative, he is on the deregulation kick—yet he reserves for himself substantial powers and control of the student profiles of universities and arms himself with the authority to add newer higher education providers to the system without any reference to this parliament.

On more than one occasion the minister has trumpeted the extensive process of consultation he undertook to produce the initiatives that are contained in this legislation. It is legitimate for members on this side of the House to at least ask how anyone could have gone through an extensive process of consultation and produced such a bad, internally inconsistent, philosophically confused and poorly resourced package of educational initiatives. It is a matter of some regret that members on this side of the House are not going to be able to access their full debating time on this legislation, because in my own electorate this self-styled reform package from this conservative government minister will impact adversely and quite heavily in a financial sense on many of my young constituents and their families.

The implications of this legislation for the tertiary education sector are not really too hard to comprehend. Massive student fee hikes will flow from this legislation and, whether members opposite want to admit it or not, there will be $100,000 degrees. There is another simple reality, and that is that the Howard government's policies are going to lead to a blow-out in student debt to more than $9 billion—the transfer of resourcing responsibility of an enormous magnitude from the public to the private sector.

There are two consequences of this legislation that I would like to deal with in greater detail in the context of this debate, because they say much about the ideological obsessions of the government and their blind inability to acknowledge and change policy in the face of mounting evidence of the damage those policies are causing to this nation in the long term. The first consequence is the massive disruption across university campuses as a result of the government's attempt to blackmail universities into implementing the government's extreme industrial relations views. At stake is more than $400 million of badly needed funds which are contingent on the universities implementing over three pages of conditions before they can access those funds.

Let me outline for the House some examples of the more celebrated and stupid attempts by the minister to micromanage our universities. These conditions include: institutions must not hand out union membership forms during staff induction processes; related funding must not be used for union salaries, facilities and activities; institutions must not provide union offices on campus free of charge; Australian workplace agreements must prevail over certified agreements; existing conditions, including current levels of redundancy payouts and maternity leave are threatened; limits to casual employment levels must be removed; and union involvement in dispute resolution must be reduced. Not one of these conditions has one iota of relevance to the universities' core functions of teaching and research.

These are the policies of a control freak minister. They are the policies of an egomaniac. They are the policies of a minister who wants to establish himself as `mein Fuhrer' of the Australian higher education system. Thankfully, people within Australian universities are resisting the attempts of this minister to micromanage the affairs of their universities and to poke his nose in an area where he should not.

The second consequence of this legislation is related to the fact that there is disturbing comparative data that suggests that Australia is falling behind its competitors in key performance areas in the tertiary education sector. There is no doubt that our universities are in crisis after seven years of this government; how could they be in any other position, given that $5 billion has been slashed from their budgets? There is evidence that Australia's public investment in higher education is falling backwards while other countries are increasing theirs, and the bald implications of this trend are that our children—our future generations—will not enjoy the highest standard of living that they could; indeed, their standard of living might well be reduced.

According to the OECD report, Education at a glance: 2003, between 1995 and 2000 Australia's public investment in universities declined by 11 per cent—more than any other country in the OECD. We are slowly being left behind as this government sacrifices the tertiary education sector on the altar of its own ideological obsessions. The result of this lack of investment is that we have seen a lowering of standards in our universities, with overcrowded classrooms, and infrastructure which is in a terrible state of disrepair.

The opposition have released, for public debate and comment, a raft of initiatives which we believe will substantially restore the fortunes of our tertiary education sector and put Australia on the best possible footing to maintain the standard of living of all Australians into the future. I urge members opposite to look at Aim Higher: Learning, Training and Better Jobs for More Australians. In it, we have taken the waste and the misplaced priorities of the Howard government and redirected that expenditure to the purposes for which it should be used in this sector. We will expand opportunities to get a qualification by creating 20,000 commencing full- and part-time university places and 20,000 full- and part-time TAFE places. That means that, by 2008, there will be 40,000 additional commencing TAFE and university students in the system each year.

We have provided $35 million for a program to support secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to progress to university and TAFE. This particular funding is relevant to my electorate, which in certain areas has a very low socioeconomic profile, where families find it very difficult to send their children to university. More importantly, we are going to restore merit over money as the primary criterion for getting a university place and ensure that access to universities remains affordable. I urge members to read that document, because in it is the future of this country. Our country's future is not in the regressive set of measures that are contained in these particular bills but in a broad, comprehensive program for the tertiary education sector that will put Australia on a sound footing in the future and will go a long way to maintaining the standards of living that we have enjoyed, and passing on those standards to our children.