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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21470

Ms PLIBERSEK (1:46 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I was prompted when preparing for this legislation to have a look at the government's 1996 higher education package. I was, of course, hard pressed to find anything in this current legislation that relates even remotely to the 1996 commitments that this government made in relation to higher education. The government's higher education package, Our Universities: Backing Australia's Future, does nothing to address the problems that are already being experienced by Australian universities. Instead it makes university education less affordable and less accessible. Rich kids will be able to buy their way into Australian universities and poor kids will rely on noblesse oblige—they will be waiting for scholarships.

It is interesting that the Minister for Education, Science and Training often talks about how unfair it is that universities are supported with public funding because your average factory worker will never see the inside of a university. Well, my mum worked in a factory, and I do not think she begrudges any of her tax dollars going into the education system that supported her three children through university education. The sad thing about this package is that the sorts of children of factory workers that a decent publicly funded education system gives opportunities to will be locked out by this package.

The package also includes the government's old bugbears of voluntary student unionism and attacking the industrial provisions of academic and non-academic staff in universities. These are ideological obsessions of the government that have absolutely nothing to do with educational quality at Australian universities. Voluntary student unionism has been a project of this government since its election. The aim of it is, of course, to ensure that young people do not see the benefits of joining a union too early in life. We know that the sorts of services that student unions provide at universities are things like subsidised food, subsidised child care and subsidised sporting facilities, counselling services and student loans. The fact that they would make voluntary student unionism such a central part of their higher education agenda means that all of these things are obviously seen by the government as threats to civilisation as we know it.

The other area that the government has taken up in this package is that of tying funding to changes in industrial relations at a university level. Academic and non-academic staff are being told that they have to engage in individual bargaining and that they have to bargain away the conditions that they already have. From what I see from my visits to universities, academic and non-academic staff have been forced for many years to do a lot more with a lot less. They are already struggling with massively increased teaching loads and 30 per cent more students in most classes than just a few years ago. To add to their burdens, they are going to be told that they should all sign individual contracts, that their workplace security is being threatened and that extra funding is contingent on them bargaining away their industrial conditions—again, absolutely nothing to do with educational quality at institutions and all to do with the government's bizarre industrial relations agenda and its obsession with this area.

The contents of this package are so vastly different to what was promised in the area of higher education during the 1996 election campaign that I thought you would be interested to hear just how far the government have departed from their promises at that time. In fact, it might be simpler to go through and pick out what they have stuck to, because in the document that I looked at there was probably not a single truth in the whole document. The 1996 commitments included a commitment to:

Promote quality and excellence in both teaching and research dimensions.

They have not done that.

Promote diversity and choice within the higher education sector.

They certainly have not done that.

Support the development of regional universities.

The member for Lindsay has been foremost amongst those attacking the outer metropolitan universities and has certainly not won any friends at the University of Western Sydney in her own electorate by calling them a bunch of whingers, so they certainly have not done that.

Ms PLIBERSEK —It is interesting that Penrith Panthers are able to support the University of Western Sydney but their own local member is not. Anyway, the next commitment was to:

Maintain Commonwealth funding.

This is the best, I think. The government promised that they would, if elected, maintain Commonwealth funding. They have cut $5 billion out of the higher education sector. The burden has fallen on students through higher up-front fees and massive hikes in HECS fees. According to the OECD's Education at a glance: 2003 report, between 1995 and 2000 Australia's public investment in universities declined by 11 per cent. That is more than any other country in the OECD and it contrasts with an average OECD growth of 21 per cent. I think that the package would be more appropriately titled `Limbo learning: how low can we go'—lowest public investment and lower participation rates. Student fees now make up 40 per cent of the income of universities, which is up from 25 per cent in 1996. In contrast, Labor's pledge is to invest $2.34 billion in universities and TAFEs and improve the quality of university education through a new indexation measure that will deliver an extra $312 million to Australian universities between 2005 and 2007.

The coalition, when it was still the opposition, in the good old days, promised to:

Ensure student access.

The quote continues:

The Coalition is committed to ensuring that financial, social and geographic factors do not act as a barrier to higher education for appropriately qualified students.

In discussing HECS, it is important that the deferred payment is reasonable and not subject to sudden alterations.

The Coalition will oppose attempts by public universities to introduce pay-as-you go fees at the undergraduate level as an alternative to HECS.

The reality seven years on is so very different. Each year 20,000 qualified Australians miss out on studying at university. Student debt has doubled since the election of the Howard government, with contributions exceeding $9 billion, and student contributions to HECS have more than doubled since 1996. The government wants to allow universities to increase HECS fees by up to 30 per cent. You are looking at $15,000 for an arts degree, $21,000 for a science degree and $41,000 for a law degree. For degrees like vet science and law, the HECS fees could increase by over 240 per cent.

The coalition also promised in their pre-election commitments in 1996 that they would increase research funding. That is another broken promise. I quote:

Other opportunities for growth funds, such as through the commercialisation of research and direct support from alumni associations, will also be supported—

That is not very controversial. I quote further:

Expansion of the revenue base must be to enhance quality. If a university compromises its independence or its intellectual honesty, the increased revenue will be counter-productive.

They certainly have not been interested in what the motivations are and what the consequences are of allowing the universities to rake in every spare dollar they can get from students. The only increase in research funding from this government occurred five years after they were elected, in 2001, and it was pretty insubstantial at that.

The government promised in their 1996 package to maintain HECS. They certainly have maintained it—they have maintained it and increased it, and they are looking at allowing it to increase again. They also said that they would maintain Austudy and Abstudy—that is a joke. The minimum age of independence was raised from 22 to 25. Labor will reduce that minimum age again. The reality is that most university students that I speak to now are so busy earning enough money just to get by, week to week, that they are dropping subjects, they are working part-time and their studies are suffering. The reason is that they have no access to any income support. Their families cannot afford it and the government are not prepared to give it to them. That is one of the things that constantly is raised with me. I know students who are working 40 hours a week and are trying to manage a full-time university load as well, because they cannot afford to be studying part-time at university for the next six or eight years either.

The coalition also promised in that 1996 document to:

... at least maintain the level of funding to universities, both in terms of operating and research grants.

That is so laughable. The document also said:

The coalition government will enhance the autonomy of each institution by being less prescriptive in relation to expenditure of public funding.

I attended a rally at the University of Sydney a couple of weeks ago, organised by the NTEU and the CPSU. Academic and non-academic staff were protesting against the government's proposal to link industrial bargaining conditions to extra funding in the university sector. The staff at that rally were talking about some of the hardships that they are already facing in their work. They are facing lecture theatres that are so crowded that they actually present a fire hazard. At the beginning of each year students spill out of lecture theatres, and it is a process of attrition. The students who can hack the crowd-ed, inappropriate lecture facilities might hang on a little bit longer into the semester than those students who drop off because the learning conditions are so absolutely inappropriate. Academic staff are already dealing with class sizes 30 per cent bigger than only a few years ago. The resources spent on things like books and periodicals for university libraries have been whittled away by the cuts to university funding. The idea that, if university staff will not sign on to the government's industrial relations agenda, extra funding will not be provided to universities is one of the worst pieces of blackmail that I have seen in some time.

The coalition policy in 1996 also suggested:

Good moral. A commitment to quality and excellence and a pride in the institution are all important ingredients in building a successful university.

That is something that we can all agree on, but it is certainly not something that this government has been able to deliver. In contrast, Labor have promised that we will allow university management staff and their union to be free to negotiate their own industrial arrangements, that we will provide extra funding for universities, that we will fund unfunded places, that we will make an extra 20,000 university places available to students, that we will prevent full fee university places and that we will stop any increase in HECS fees.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and other members will be called.