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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21528

Mr JENKINS (5:50 PM) —These two pieces of legislation, the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003, are part of a package by this government to institute their fundamentally flawed strategy for improvements in Australia's higher education system. They are fundamentally flawed because the prime element is to champion private provision over public provision. That is the clear difference. As in other areas of public policy, that is the clear difference. If we look at health, it is the same story—an emphasis on private provision over public provision.

Labor do not believe that that is the way to go. Labor believes that higher education is a shared responsibility. We believe that there should be public provision of resources and a responsibility by individuals to make a contribution. But this government, with its expectations of the way in which individuals must provide, has gone too far. Especially since the 1997 increases in HECS, the proportion that we expect to be provided by individuals has become a disincentive.

This whole debate characterises the fundamental differences in the way in which we look at public investment in higher education. The minister would have us believe that, because there is an advantage to individuals, others are being asked to pay through their taxes for something that is purely for the gain of individuals. This decries the notion that an investment in higher education is an investment in a public good. It decries the benefit that arises to the nation out of an investment in its human resources.

During this debate today—and as we go forward into an election where this will be one of the topics of discussion and one of the things that help people make decisions about their vote—we see this basic difference: a lack of understanding that, through the involvement of government in properly resourcing the higher education sector, we are increasing Australia's advantage in a whole host of areas. We decry the view that an investment in our human capital is of the same nature as our investment in physical and other capital. I find the most infuriating and annoying aspect of the debate is that the government genuinely cannot see the outcome of a properly funded higher education system.

Labor support a merit based education system whilst believing that people who face disadvantage have an equal opportunity to access education. The Howard government are stopping thousands of Australians who are capable, qualified and motivated from realising their potential and gaining the skills and education they need for better job opportunities. As I have said, Labor see higher education as a shared investment which has important public as well as personal benefits. Why should it be that this package is based on somebody having the ability to pay, and therefore the ability to access education, to get that personal benefit? As a result of the initiatives back in the Whitlam days, we saw higher education as something the whole community could aspire to. As has been said in this debate, many people who are at universities today are the first generation of their families to have access to universities. If we increase the impost on that generation, regrettably they may be the only generation of those families to have access to higher education.

As the opposition have emphasised throughout this debate, further education—whether it be TAFE, university or even courses at a community level, such as the University of the Third Age—is all part of lifelong learning. We recognise the importance of education being a continuum and, that we should not look upon each of these stages or each part of a person's education as being the be-all and end-all. As has been stated on many occasions, students who are embarking upon their early primary education will end up in jobs that we have not even thought of. But once they get into the work force they are likely to have a working life that is characterised by changes of job. For each of those changes they will require an upgrade of their skills or will need to learn new skills. At this point in time we are preparing students through primary and secondary education to have continuing lifelong education.

Regrettably, since 1998, full fee payers have been able to buy a university place ahead of people with higher marks. Now the government proposes through these measures to allow universities to increase the cost of HECS courses by 30 per cent and to double the allowable number of full fee places by 50 per cent. Student fees and charges already constitute 40 per cent of Victorian universities' income and, on a national level, 37 per cent of universities' income. Students are already paying for this government's failure to properly fund higher education. The government wants to introduce a loan scheme, called HELP. Help? It is far from being a help. The Higher Education Loans Program, with a six per cent interest rate, will not encourage more Australians to pay full fees, as is its purpose.

The Australian Nursing Federation has expressed its concern that under the government's proposals nurses who go on to specialise in areas such as midwifery, mental health or emergency nursing could face debts of $37,800 or more, adding to the already adverse effects that the current education debt is having on specialist nursing numbers and Australia's health system. Remember that this $37,800 debt arises as students are obliged to repay their outstanding HECS debt first, before they can gain access to the full fee loan that they would be taking out for their postgraduate qualifications. It is a full fee loan that would grow at six per cent a year. That means somebody studying for a specialist nursing degree would have to pay over $4,300 in interest alone, over and above the cost of living. Postgraduate degrees allow people to refine and specialise their skills. Having to pay market interest rates could hardly be a bigger disincentive to upskilling. Remember these people are likely to be doing it at a time when they are still juggling other commitments family and work.

Australia has severe skill shortages in a number of industries. We only have to look at the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations' own figures. In a document for 2003, areas such as nursing, teaching, multimedia, vehicle trades and metalwork are highlighted. There is hardly a speciality that is not listed in this National and State Skill Shortage List for Australia 2003. Let us look at secondary teachers: manual arts textile studies, math, physics, chemistry and general science are listed. Today the Science Meets Parliament program is in Parliament House. An article in the Canberra Times, headed `Science degrees in decline: report', states:

A leaked draft of a Federal Government report on science and innovation admits that there has been a “relative and absolute decline” in university degrees in science and engineering since 1995.

... ... ...

It ranks Australia 16th among OECD countries for gross expenditure on research and development relative to its Gross Domestic Product.

The reports says that the impact on the quality of Australian science has declined relative to other countries. Science should be something that we celebrate. It is an area of endeavour that Australia has a fine record in.

There are other measures that we can talk about in the context of this debate. The opposition, through our policy Aim Higher, have set out a whole raft of measures that we see as being very important to the way in which we develop our skills as a nation. This legislation does not go to those areas. It does not go to the areas which we see as being very important, such as increasing the numbers of nursing students and increasing the numbers of teaching students and the types of things that would address those shortages. It does not recognise the community benefit of institutions like those immediately in the area of my electorate—RMIT Bundoora Campus and La Trobe University—and the way in which they impact upon the local regional economy.

Labor recognises that in outer suburban areas like the electorate of Scullin universities are key elements in the way in which local economies develop. Through the community engagement fund that we have outlined in Aim Higher we would establish a $150 million fund to support regional, rural and outer suburban institutions in leadership roles in their local communities. That is so important. The nursing faculty of RMIT has a relationship with the Northern Hospital to teach graduate diploma students. There is a win-win benefit for both those institutions.

Simply put, this package is fundamentally flawed. It does not address the types of ills that have developed in higher education in Australia. It does not redress the $5 billion worth of federal government resources that have been ripped out of the sector. It is something that we reject and unless these pieces of legislation are dramatically amended we will oppose them not only in this House but also in the other place because they do nothing to benefit Australia as a whole or the individuals that aspire to higher education.