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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21435

Ms BURKE (11:25 AM) —I consider myself very fortunate to be the member for Chisholm. In addition to having constituents from diverse backgrounds who continually give back to the community, there are numerous industries and businesses within my electorate. Moreover, within Chisholm there are two outstanding internationally recognised universities: Monash University and the city campus of Deakin University, in Burwood. I am also privileged to have one of the state's largest and most advanced TAFEs, Box Hill TAFE.

These universities and TAFEs are, however, under attack from the very body that should provide their lifeblood—the federal government. The government has cut a staggering $1.3 billion from Victorian universities since 1996. That is just from Victorian universities—$1.3 billion. This includes nearly $340 million from Monash University alone. Monash University is this country's largest university. It is surviving with $340 million less in its budget. Public funding has fallen way behind the increase in the cost of running a university under the Howard government. The Howard government's Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 will make this even harder, not easier.

This legislation will make it harder for our young people to get a university education. The Higher Education Support Bill will reduce the size of our universities. It is a bill that will reduce education and ultimately reduce the amount of knowledge in our country. This bill aims to restrict participation in Australian universities and significantly reduce the opportunities Australians have to go to university. Australians want an education. They deserve an education. They deserve to get an education if their abilities qualify them for a university place. Higher education is not a luxury and should never be viewed that way. It is not a privilege or a prerogative of the rich in this country.

Education ensures a better future for Australians both within our borders and on the international playing field. A lack of education will mean that we as a country will not compete at all on that field. We need a world-class university system that delivers teaching and research of the highest quality to students across the system, not just to the lucky few who can afford it. I think it is very self-evident today, when we have Science Meets Parliament taking place, that we should be looking not only at universities but also at research and the wonderful benefits that science brings us. It is easy to provide high-quality education to a few; it is much harder to provide high-quality education to everyone.

These bills would make the Australian university system the most expensive public system for students in the Western world. They would allow universities to increase their fees by up to 30 per cent, by shifting from public investment to user pays—the very ideology the Liberal Party prides itself on. It is worth noting that, amongst countries within the OECD, Australia had the second lowest increase in the rate of university enrolments between 1995 and 2001. This is unforgivable, considering that this year alone there are 20,000 qualified Australians missing out on university places. This is not even a brain drain, because it is not giving Australians a chance to get an education to begin with.

With these measures the government is trying to force universities to cut around 8,000 HECS places by 2007. In my state of Victoria this means over 1,200 university places will go in the next year alone. Over time this means more and more people will miss out on courses they would otherwise have got into. It will also mean that we will not have the necessary skills in our society. Teachers and nurses are in short supply; if they do not have university places, they cannot be educated. But why is the government doing this dastardly deed? It wants to introduce more full fee places.

I was on a round of visits to universities to discuss with VCs, students and staff how they viewed the package that the government was introducing. One VC looked at us and said, `In the future there will be no distinction between full fee paying students and HECS students.' That is the way this government wants it to be—no differentiation and all students to pay full fees. Those who have already contributed through their taxation, either directly or via their parents, will be forced to pay up to $150,000 for a full fee university place, which is an enormous sum by any measure. As if this is not horrendous enough, publicly funded places will decline even further after 2007, creating a greater rift between the haves and the have-nots. I think the proudest day in my mother's life was when my younger brother graduated from Monash University. That meant she had five first-generation university graduates. It was something my parents could never have contemplated if they had had to fork out $150,000 times five on our father's bank clerk salary.

What the Howard government is effectively doing is discouraging aspiring students, and in turn their families, because of their socioeconomic bracket, from the prospect of ever getting a tertiary education. This is nothing short of shameful. This government's package means huge HECS debts of up to $50,000 for Australian undergraduates. An arts degree could cost $15,000; a basic science degree, $21,000; and a law degree, $41,000. How can anyone deny that these figures would discourage a bright yet financially challenged teenager from pursuing an education, a goal and a future?

As if these figures were not daunting enough, these nasty pieces of legislation include a provision for the minister to raise HECS fees over and above 30 per cent, which means either his statement that 30 per cent would be the absolute maximum is a little less than truthful or the minister needs help defining 30 per cent. This minister is very good at using stats, though I am not sure how many of them are actually ground-ed in truth, and this is yet another one that is slightly wobbly. This discretion fortifies the rationale that the Howard government wants to allow even bigger hikes in HECS fees but to do it in the grotty, sly manner in which it gets things done.

In case those on the other side of the chamber think this is a stunt, let us demonstrate the callousness with which the Howard government have treated education. The university fee structure in Australia is now one of the highest on the world scale. Our country is currently the fourth most heavily dependent on private funding in the OECD. Australia has had the largest drop in public investment in universities over five years of any OECD country—it dropped by 11 per cent. In stark contrast, the OECD average was an increase of 21 per cent. Australian students already spend the shortest amount of time at university of students in any OECD country. So, instead of spending money where we need it in education, we are ripping money out of the sector. But it seems this is not bad enough for the government. It now plans to have no limit on the number of full fee places at Australian universities. At one stage the education minister said it would be capped at 50 per cent of the number of students, but of what significance is this if he has the discretion to exclude entire courses from this 50 per cent limit? In reality this means that some courses will not have one single HECS place. It seems apparent that, for the government, it is always about the bottom line and the almighty dollar, doesn't it?

I have spoken in this House before about a constituent of mine, Claire, who got 98.5 for her TER score in her HSC year and was the Monash Law Prize winner. The cut-off for law that year was 98.7—she missed out by 0.2 of a per cent. She could have got into a full fee paying place with a score of 91. She was only off by 0.2 per cent and had won the law prize from Monash, but she did not get a place. She could have got a full fee paying place if she had not been one of nine children of Italian migrant parents. Instead, she got to university, did arts and transferred to law. I think this demonstrates starkly that this legislation tends to disadvantage bright kids from poor backgrounds.

There will be no full fee places for Australian undergraduates if a Labor government win the next election. That is right: in stark contrast to this government, we will not have full fee paying places. The university system in this wonderful country is an excellent one. This is evidenced by the number of foreign students that have the privilege to come here and study, as many do at Monash and Deakin universities in my electorate. But should we or our children have to buy a university place because international students can and do? Of course not. We and our children are a part of the Australian community that has contributed to the tertiary education system through tax and other forms of support. Why do we have to now compete financially with foreign students who, most likely, are here on a transient basis?

Let me remind the House that the Howard government has cut $5 billion from our universities since 1996. What has this caused? In my various meetings with staff in the universities within my electorate, I have seen stress levels rise dramatically. Stress is now the No. 1 cause of illness at universities. This is due to the rising disparity in student-teacher ratios and the resultant substandard student support, which has allowed this stress to reach the point where it is severely impacting on staff performance in the delivery of service.

On a regular basis, my electorate office receives calls from constituents expressing their decreasing confidence in the university system and the concern that their projected debt for their children's education is expected to snowball. This concern is most evident in the number of foreign students who are nowadays determining to go to other universities because Australia does not provide the level of education they seek. To address these problems, indexation of university funding has been identified by universities as the priority issue—and it was applauded as a significant initiative when it was announced in the ALP policy—as it would deliver more money for most universities than they can extract from students through HECS increases. At this stage it is important to recap where we stand with this Liberal government. Unaffordable degree costs, increased HECS fees, insufficient student places and ministerial discretion on HECS places make this legislation a tragedy and legislation we should reject.