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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21531

Mr WINDSOR (6:01 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. I must say that I am disappointed. I had assumed from the early discussions that were taking place in relation to this legislation that the government's intention was one of real reform to a process that has been wound down over many years. Most people, including the government, would recognise that there has been a withdrawal of something like $5 billion in funds since 1996 from the tertiary education sector.

Very early on in the piece it was said by the minister and others that the intention of the reform process was to improve the lot of universities so that they would be better off under the reform document than they are at present. Sadly, that is not the case, and I will spend a little time talking about the university within my electorate—the University of New England.

Mr Price —A fine university.

Mr WINDSOR —It is a fine university, as the honourable member mentions. I had the privilege of being able to attend that university and I have a son who is attending that university currently. I also happen to be on the council of that university, which is one of the things that the legislation would like to take care of—it would remove politicians from the councils and the governance of universities.

But before talking about those sorts of things, we all should agree—we say in public, anyway—that education and health are the prime priorities of government, of this parliament and of ourselves as parents and members of society. Particularly given that we are in Anti-Poverty Week—and I spoke to the various health professionals at a conference on Monday in relation to some of these issues—we would all agree that education provides the opportunity for people to remove themselves from the poverty trap. Education, as many members have said—both on the government and opposition sides—is an investment in our children's futures. It is an investment in human capital.

Even if we take a fairly economic line in relation to the way we look at education, if you invest in human capital and those people go on to have income levels above the norm they become contributors to the taxation system and there are quite massive returns in the economic sense. But we should look at education in a far broader way and look at the opportunities that it gives our children. Given the chance, people who may not otherwise be able to attend tertiary education facilities gain an opportunity to move on in life. I was one of those students, I guess. I lost my father when I was young. Not coming from a very wealthy family, I was fortunate enough to obtain a Commonwealth scholarship in 1969 and attended the University of New England, which gave me a whole range of opportunities and opened a number of avenues to where I could go in life. In that sense, I would be hypocritical if I in fact supported this legislation—and I will not be supporting this legislation.

There are a number of features in the legislation that make it doomed to fail not only in this chamber but in the other chamber as well. These include the tying of some of the industrial relations arrangements, the student union arrangements and even some of the governance arrangements—which are a state responsibility—to funding. The involvement of those three things, which really should be separate to the heart of the legislation—which is about funding for the future of these universities—should have been handled in a different fashion.

I feel a little sorry for the minister, Brendan Nelson, because he has been railroaded a bit on these particular bills because there is some philosophical dogma running through the legislation. Tying the $404 million funding block grants to the acceptance by universities of some sort of strategy to deliver industrial reform is not really what we should be debating here tonight in terms of the substance of this legislation.

I think, rather sadly, that someone within the government has determined that they are going to introduce a piece of legislation which has some money tied to it—which the universities are crying out for because they have been underfunded for many years. By tying some of these other provisions to the bills, we will see the legislation fail in the Senate in the form it is in at the moment, and that will obviously create some pain. I do not think there is any way in the world that this legislation, even in a modified form, will be available for universities to move into the next year. I think this legislation is doomed to fail in its current form, and that is very sad. If it had been attacked in other directions and the industrial relations reforms—the student unionism reforms—were addressed in other forms, maybe the legislation would have had a better chance of getting through. In my view, this legislation creates a two-tiered system. Particularly in regional Australia, we are seeing too much of that at the moment.

Ms O'Byrne —I wonder what Peter and Lindy think about it.

Mr WINDSOR —That would depend very much on the income circumstances of Peter and Lindy. Peter and Lindy have two children—one who was identified today: a boy child called Ronnie, apparently. If they lived west of Narrabri, for instance, and they sent young Ronnie to the University of New England—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Gambaro)—Member for New England, bring it back to the topic.

Mr WINDSOR —If they sent Ronnie to the University of New England, they would have some large accommodation expenses at the university. There are costs that country families have in relation to sending their children to university and there are also administrative costs that universities in the country have which are quite different from the costs of universities in the major metropolitan areas—the big eight. I appreciate that the Minister for Education, Science and Training has tried to address those costs through some of the transitional fund arrangements and also the regional loading but, as more and more people get put into the regional loading arrangements, it will be difficult to ascertain whether universities are going to be better or worse off than they were before.

On the surface it seems that the University of New England will in fact be worse off, particularly if the industrial relations component of the legislation does not get through the parliament—and I do not think it has any chance in Hades of getting through the Senate. That would mean that the University of New England would be worse off under this legislation than it is currently. For that reason alone, I will not be able to support the legislation. I do however thank the minister for his attempts to remedy the regional loading and for the inclusion of external students, to which the University of New England is a major contributor through its distance education. When we ran the numbers, we saw that did have a significant influence on the viability of the university. It has made a significant difference, but not significant enough to make this package represent what was promised six to 12 months ago—that all universities would be much better off under the reform process—and that is sad.

We are talking about $1.5 billion in funding over four years. But that is an absolute pittance. When you have had the extraction of $5 billion over the last seven years, we are not even talking about $400 million a year to go into the system. Currently we are looking at a surplus of somewhere between $5 billion and $7.5 billion that could be available to be spent. I would have thought that the key area that the government would be concentrating on—and a way in which they could actually get this legislation through the parliament—would be to start putting more money into the higher education sector.

It is obviously not enough money in terms of the block grants and the regional loading provisions. It relies very heavily on the capacity of families and students to pay increased fees. In that sense, it runs the risk not only of creating a two-tiered system, because the elite students from country areas will be the ones who will be attracted to the major metropolitan areas, but also of the universities that feel that they cannot increase the fees by the 30 per cent limit being seen as the poorer cousins. That leads into a spiral of not being able to attract the elite teaching professionals and not having the capacity to pay, and we end up with this almost self-fulfilling prophecy of the feedlot in terms of education. I do not think the big eight would be terribly opposed to that. They would probably suggest: `Why don't we close some of these smaller universities and they can all come to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and be educated there?' I think it is a very sad view of the future if we do in fact go down that road.

There are a number of issues that I will go through. I spoke of the regional loading. It has improved but should at least be doubled. The governance provisions are doomed to fail once again. I do not have a particular problem if I am thrown off the university council as a representative, but I do not see that having a couple of members of parliament on a university council is necessarily a bad thing. I think it gives input from the governments of the states in which those universities reside. I see that as a red herring and it probably will be thrown out in the Senate as some sort of bargaining chip. Tying industrial relations to the grant funding is, to start with, fairly stupid. I think even most of the vice-chancellors are opposed to that. All it will do is infuriate a lot of people who can make flexible contractual arrangements and other arrangements about their employment anyway.

The students, in particular, have problems with the increases in the HECS fees and some of the loan arrangements—but I will not get into that. I know there is a lot of concern about the capacity for the government to involve itself in the course mix arrangements of universities. It seems to be a bit of an indicator of this current government's position on controlling various agendas. I would have thought that encouraging universities to be places where students have the freedom to learn, to express themselves and to look at a whole range of issues during that particular part of their lives would be something that all governments would be pursuing. What we seem to have here is a control mechanism being imposed on the availability of courses—a whole range of checks, blockages and control mechanisms to be built into the system through this legislation.

Indexation is another issue that has been raised by the vice-chancellors in particular. It seems odd that for school funding we have an indexation factor of 5.8 per cent whereas for universities it is something like 2.1 per cent. That needs to be remedied; otherwise in a few years time we will all be back here again arguing the same sorts of things about the smaller universities not being able to survive and the bigger ones not having enough freedom—we will have to go through the whole arrangement again.

I congratulate the minister on attempting to come to grips with overenrolment. I think there are something like 12,000 new places in this package. The government has extended the tolerance band from two to five per cent which will make a difference to a number of universities and is a positive step. Student unionism, as I have mentioned before, is going to be negotiated in the Senate. Why it is here to start with is beyond me—I guess it is an overhang from Tony Abbott. The student body at the University of New England, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of work. It is a commercial body that has injected an enormous amount of capital. It has provided not only jobs for many students but also cinemas, and it owns one of the hotels. It has been a very successful commercial operation, and I am sure that the majority of students at that university are quite comfortable with the arrangements.

I have never been a member of a union and I am not particularly fussed with unions, but I do not see student unionism in the same light as some people who see student unions as being some sort of trade unions. I think they are completely different, particularly in regional circumstances where they make an enormous contribution to the operation of some of the other facilities at universities. I understand that the opposition is proposing some amendments. I will be looking very closely at those amendments and possibly supporting some. I make it quite plain to my electorate and to the parliament that I will be opposing the legislation.