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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21428

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (10:53 AM) —As the member for Burke indicated, the government would have the Australian community believe that the debate on higher education is about the politics of envy. I think it is about time the government got the message from the Australian community that it believes Australia should make a decision that we are required, as a nation, to invest in our future by putting more into the education and skilling of our nation. The government is presenting this debate as being about Backing Australia's Future. Contrary to that, if the government has its way as a result of this debate, it will really be about Australia looking backwards, in terms of both decency in life and also our investment as a nation in making the economic cake in the future bigger by skilling Australia to maintain a competitive position both domestically and internationally.

I hope that, just as we have a real debate about health care in the Australian community today because of announcements made by the Leader of the Opposition in the May budget, we will see a debate take off in the lead-up to the next election about the fundamentals of life in schools, TAFE colleges and universities. I hope that we accept that the next election is about our requirement to invest in our future; that it will not be an election about border protection and Tampa but an election about whether, in the 21st century, Australia is prepared to take up the challenges and provide adequate attention to such fundamental services as health and education and to our requirement to invest in and improve the environment to overcome some of the man-made damage we have inflicted in the past.

Let us go to the crux of the debate. The Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 are not about backing Australia's future. They are a clear demonstration of gov-ernment hypocrisy and doublespeak. They are not about flexibility for our universities; consider, for example, that the legislation provides for much greater centralised control and ministerial direction.

Let us go to some of the fundamentals of these bills. Firstly, the bills provide for the minister to determine the limits to which universities can increase tuition charges. Secondly, they provide for the minister to determine how many students are taught in individual courses at each university. So much for flexibility at a campus level! Thirdly, they provide for the minister to add new higher education providers without reference to the parliament. Fourthly—and this is even more concerning—there is an insidious proposal to tie core operating grants to university compliance with extreme government policies on industrial relations and governance structure. I think back to the huge improvements made in the industrial relat-ions framework in Australia in the eighties and nineties. They were about flexibility at a workplace level and the right for workplaces to determine their futures. These bills are about big government directing universities on the industrial relations front and are a complete reversal of what we achieved in the eighties and the nineties.

The debate is also about the opportunity of many millions of Australians to access university. It is no more important than a previous debate, a couple of weeks ago, about the capacity of Australians to also access TAFE places. It does not matter whether it is an apprenticeship or a university opportunity; we, as a nation, have a requirement to provide opportunities for our young people, and some in later life, to pursue education—not only to ensure that they have an opportunity to be gainfully employed throughout their working lives but also to guarantee that we, as a nation, seize opportunities by educating and skilling Australia.

As you move around Australia, the facts show that there are simply not enough HECS places being funded by the government at the moment. I know that from the situation at La Trobe University, which will soon go into my electorate as a result of the recent redistribution in Victoria. La Trobe Univer-sity has indicated that, because of this government, it will be forced to cut 500 HECS places in 2004. I contrast that to the Labor Party commitment to provide an additional 20,000 fully costed new full- and part-time places each year. That is the divide in the education debate in Australia. It is about us making sure that universities are able to offer to all in the Australian commun-ity an affordable opportunity to pursue a university degree.

In that context, let me say I actually support HECS. It is right that we as a community make a contribution to the cost of our education. But, having said that, I totally oppose the suggestion by the Howard government that as a result of these bills they will allow an increase in university HECS fees of about 30 per cent. That would be a barrier to education for a range of Australian people, especially people in the northern end of my electorate, close to La Trobe University. I want to create opportunities for those people to seize educational capacity. We should not be condemning our young people to a life of debt. How can we ever consider increasing HECS fees beyond what young people are capable of meeting? Having completed a degree, they are then expected to go out into life, commence work, think about purchasing a home and, in a country with a declining fertility rate, think about having a family. They are some of the considerations that are part and parcel of this debate. It is not simply a debate about higher education. It is a debate about Australia in the 21st century.

I simply say that the content of these bills proves how out of touch the Howard government is with the Australian community on the higher education front. If the government has its way—if the Prime Minister has his way—higher education will become the preserve of the rich and powerful in the Australian community, the elites. It will be a class determined question of whether or not a young person is able to go to university in the future. I thought that those days were gone in Australia. It was the debate in Australia in the lead-up to the 1972 election won by Gough Whitlam. We put that debate to bed, but here we are over 30 years later having to re-engage in it.

It brings to a head, as I indicated at the outset, a fundamental debate in the lead-up to the next election. It is about where we go with respect to a requirement as a community, a decent community that wants to invest in the future, to embrace the following type of policy agenda: firstly, as the Labor Party in opposition proposes, we should increase the supply of places in Australian universities; secondly, we should ensure that those places are affordable now and in the future; thirdly, we should guarantee that merit—yes, merit; why should we be ashamed of the issue of merit?—should be the only criterion for getting a university place; fourthly, we should provide a mechanism for restoring the quality of university education; and, fifthly, we should, as part of that debate, recognise the key role of apprenticeships in shaping Australia's future.

A commitment to those fundamental requirements in our education system is also a commitment to returning to a productivity debate in Australia. A productivity debate is also about a bigger economic cake for all Australians to receive the benefit of. I note that skills growth was a driver of productivity in days gone by. It drove productivity through considerable improvements over the last couple of decades, but I note that it has fallen by 75 per cent in the last 10 years. The Productivity Commission is also warning that it will fall further, unless we embrace a government commitment to invest more in skills and training as a nation. It is not just about training lawyers and IT experts; it is also about training nurses, teachers, childcare workers, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and carpenters, to name a few of the areas of skill that we require in Australia in 2003.

In conclusion, I say that this debate is important. I hope the government does not have its way in the Senate. I urge all Australians to think about the issues before the House today and to give a commitment that they will not allow the Australian government to sidetrack the Australian community on a debate about issues such as border protection and defence in the lead-up to the next election. Let us have a debate about the future of education and health, our requirement to clean up the environment, and doing something about productivity growth and creating a bigger economic cake. I commend the second reading amendment moved by the opposition and, in doing so, plead with the Australian community not to accept the lies that are perpetrated with respect to higher education and our future in the bills before the House today.