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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21537

Mr PRICE (6:27 PM) —It is a unique distinction to be the last speaker on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. From the outset I want to say to the House and again place on the public record that I am inordinately proud of the University of Western Sydney. I am very critical of the University of Western Sydney at times only because I have the highest expectations of it, and I think that the good folk of the University of Western Sydney understand where I am coming from.

As I have said before, the University of Western Sydney services one of the fastest growing regions in this country. Its six campuses cater for 10 per cent of the Australian population. It is now the seventh largest university in Australia, with more than 35,000 students enrolled in 2003. More than 70 per cent of the students come from the greater west of Sydney, and nearly 60 per cent of those students are mature age students. In most cases they move into the work force immediately after leaving school to raise sufficient funds to undertake tertiary study. They may not be well off financially, but they are certainly well motivated; they are determined to get to university.

Clearly the University of Western Sydney is doing a great job servicing its community, but the government's higher education package has placed the University of Western Sydney in an unenviable position. The malaise in higher education has not developed overnight; it is a product of more than seven years of neglect from the Howard government. Savage budget cuts have taken their toll, with the end result that thousands of young Australians are missing out on a university place.

Each year 20,000 qualified Australians miss out on a place at university. In 2003 the University of Western Sydney turned away 2,700 qualified students—that is, people who were eligible for a university place but who were turned away because of a lack of funded places. This is a tragedy. Of the 2,700 who were turned away, 70 per cent were mature age students—people who are showing great courage in later life, people who are determined improve their qualifications and employability. And what are we doing? We are closing the door on them. It is not as if we in Western Sydney have more than our fair share of university students. The reverse is the case. The participation rate of people from Western Sydney who go to university is now starting to decline. That is the sorry record of the Howard government: university participation rates in Western Sydney are starting to track down.

The government is taking action on overenrolment. The overenrolment system was a complete disaster. The scheme allowed universities to fund admissions above the Commonwealth quota at 25 per cent of the fully funded cost of university places. The end result was a skewing of student to staff ratios and a potential for erosion in the quality of education that institutions have been able to offer. Now the government is forcing the university to ditch those places. Almost 400 places at the University of Western Sydney are now destined for the scrap heap as a result of this appalling decision. In the first instance, 2,700 qualified students were turned away and now there is an additional loss of 400 places—3,100 places in total. We can ill afford this. The decision makes it even more difficult for school leavers in Chifley or mature age students to gain entry to a university course.

I well remember the controversy surrounding the Labor government's decision to introduce HECS. There were many arguments, many demonstrations, many representations and, even within the Labor Party and the Labor movement, a clash of views and ideals about the proposal. To give credit to the opposition of the day, they supported the proposal. What was the key thing underpinning HECS? Yes, we were asking people to make a contribution towards the cost of their university fees. They only became liable for that contribution when they were earning a certain amount of money. Every dollar and cent of HECS was put back into the system to expand it, to make even more places. And what is the central tenet underpinning this government's reform package? It is to increase the quantum or allow the universities to increase the quantum of HECS by up to 30 per cent in all undergraduate courses. I have said before in this House that people in Western Sydney are relatively debt averse. Compared to other universities, the University of Western Sydney has a higher rate of students paying HECS up front, because they do not like being saddled and burdened with debts. If you start increasing the HECS debt, you turn away more students. Already 3,100 students were effectively turned away, and now there will be more.

Unlike the sandstone universities, like the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, new generation universities already start at a disadvantage. From all sources of funding, including the Commonwealth, including the universities' own investments and fees—all sorts of revenue—the sandstone universities effectively have $26,000 per student. What is the comparative figure for a non-sandstone university—not the super 8, but all the rest like the University of Western Sydney? It is $11,000.

There is no argument that the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney are going to quite easily be able to increase their HECS fees by 30 per cent and still survive. But the University of Western Sydney is in a dilemma, because it knows that every time it seeks to increase the amount of HECS it will be a barrier to some students. But it also knows that it suffers disadvantage by comparison to the other universities. Therefore, if it fails to increase the HECS levels, the quality of teaching may suffer—and that is the last thing we want. By proposing to increase fees by 30 per cent, students could run up debts of $50,000—arts degrees could set students back $15,000; science, $21,000; and I have not tried to calculate the cost of combined degrees. Student contributions already make up close to 40 per cent of total income for universities, up from 25 per cent in 1996. The government always likes these comparisons. Let me give you one, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley: student contributions for the universities servicing your part of the world are up from 25 per cent in 1996 to 40 per cent—and rising.

The minister for education makes great play of the fact that we initiated the scheme to allow overseas students to come into this country and pay full fees. He says it disadvantages Australian students not to allow up to 50 per cent of places to be reserved for full fee paying students, including Australian students. The point that you need to make is that overseas students, or their parents, do not pay income tax or GST or the milk levy that you have put on, Mr Deputy Speaker, or the sugar levy that you have put on, Mr Deputy Speaker, or any of the other charges that have been increased as a result of the Howard government. Having paying overseas students is quite reasonable, and a whole export market in tertiary education has been developed. But it is anathema to me to have or to support a system whereby Australian students get into their places of learning based on their parents' cheque book, bank balance or assets rather than on merit and ability. In other words, if a very worthy person in my electorate were competing for a university place, I would like to see the ground rules being those of merit, so that they are not bumped out by someone from the North Shore or the eastern suburbs of Sydney—or anywhere else for that matter—whose parents can write out a cheque. There was a lot more that I wanted to contribute, but I understand that time is limited in the debate, so I will conclude my remarks at this point.