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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21539

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (6:39 PM) —I thank all of those members of the House who have made a contribution to this very important debate on the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003. This is all about Australia's future. The kind of country that the next generation and subsequent ones will live in will be determined in a very large way by what happens in Australian higher education, and that is why it is important. Whilst I, on behalf of the government, disagree with many of the contributions from the other side, I nonetheless respect the sincerity with which many of the arguments have been put—though, unfortunately, in many cases they were not founded in fact. I would particularly like to thank the member for Macquarie, who I thought made an outstanding contribution to the debate.

There are a number of things that I would like to focus on in summing up that are important. One thing is to go back to why the government is even considering changing higher education. The changes are important for a number of reasons. The first reason is that there is a need for Australian higher education to have access to considerably more money—a lot more of it—in the longer term. Whilst there is no immediate crisis facing Australian higher education, as Professor Gerard Sutton, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong, said in speaking to the Bulletin a couple of months ago, if these reforms are not passed there will be a genuine crisis in higher education. The second reason for needing change is that money is only half of the problem facing the sector. The way in which universities are governed, regulated and administered by both the government and the institutions themselves is as much a part of the problem. If any government were to simply increase resources to universities without addressing their regulation and administration, it would be doing a great disservice to the sector—as indeed would a government that simply undertook regulatory reform without increasing financing.

The other thing that many of us might not necessarily like but which is a reality we, and our children even more so, face is that, increasingly, the only benchmarks against which higher education in this country is going to be judged are international ones. Whereas once—perhaps when you and I were growing up, Mr Deputy Speaker—it was important to know where your institution was rated in New South Wales or in Australia, the interest now is increasingly in where an institution rates internationally. The reality that we face today is that some of the best students in this country are being recruited to North American, Singaporean and some European institutions on the basis that if they want to have `an education in a world-class university' that is where they are going to have to go.

What the government has proposed in these bills is to increase the public investment by the Australian taxpayer by $1½ billion in the first four years. Contrary to what has been said by some, there is an increase in publicly funded HECS places in Australian higher education. The government is proposing to fully fund 25,000 overenrolled, marginally funded places over the first four years at a cost of $347 million. In addition to that, there will be another 6,500 fully funded HECS places in the first five years. It also ought to be remembered that every one of the vice-chancellors of Australia's universities said that, in order to have a world-class higher education sector, HECS flexibility is important; that each university and university council should determine the value of the course to the students who will go through as graduates and the socioeconomic profile of the communities from which those students come; and, for the very first time, that there would be a situation created where the HECS charge for a course in one university would be different from that in another. These reforms increase the funding for regional universities and campuses by $122 million, increase funding for the education of teachers and nurses, and make sure that there are scholarships available—$161 million worth of scholarships; 25,100 scholarships in the first four years of the package. That specifically addresses the real problem that faces students when they get to university.

Whether you come from a high- or low-income family, HECS is not the problem at university. In fact, the biggest barrier to getting into university is a poor year 12 result—and the biggest contributor to that, by the way, is poor literacy skills in year 9. The biggest problems for students are accommodation or rent, trying to run a car or pay for transport, trying to feed themselves and trying to survive while they are at university. Once a student graduates and is earning money, they will pay their HECS contribution—which under these reforms will still amount to around 26 per cent of the total public investment in higher education—back through the tax system.

One of the many things that many speakers, in particular those on the other side, have focused upon is the notion that Australian citizens who pay full fees are in some way jumping queues—that in some way they are unworthy of taking up a fee paying place in an Australian university—whereas, as we have just heard from the member for Chifley, we welcome, quite rightly, about 130,000 international students to Australian universities. I say to the parents and young people of Australia, who have been sought to be misled by a lot of what has been said during this debate, that HECS is not only continuing but being strengthened and enhanced.

I think the most dispassionate and intellectually and scientifically based analysis of HECS and its impact on participation by students has been done by Professor Bruce Chapman at the Australian National University. He co-designed HECS, was an adviser to the former Prime Minister, Mr Keating, and is certainly not an uncritical supporter of this government. He points out that HECS can increase as long as, at the same time, its repayment threshold also increases—and there is no evidence at all that changes to HECS introduced over the past 14 years have had any adverse impact on participation from low-income families.

I say to the young people of Australia and their parents that the Labor Party is proposing a ban; it is proposing to say to people who do not get a HECS place that, even if they are academically qualified, they will not be allowed to take up a fee paying place in an Australian university. From the government's point of view, it defies logic that, if a student achieves a tertiary entrance score of 97 or 98—of which any parent would be proud—and misses out on the course of his or her choice, they cannot take up a full fee paying place which is not subsidised by the taxpayer. Essentially HECS places are distributed on merit. In fact, as I said earlier in the debate, 40,000 people who got a HECS place this year did not exactly get it on merit; they actually got it because they had been educated in difficult circumstances. Eight per cent of the people who got a place at QUT this year, for example, never fronted up for a year 12 exam; they went through TAFE. Four per cent of those who got a HECS place this year at QUT alone were assessed on the basis of `life skills'. In other words, the universities themselves have recognised the inadequacy of a year 12 assessment and what a blunt instrument it is.

The government is saying, `If you miss out on the place of your choice but you are considered to be academically qualified, the university can offer you a full fee paying place where you will not be subsidised by the taxpayer but for the very first time, under these proposals, the government will lend you the money, as it does with HECS, adding a 3½ per cent interest rate to be paid back once you actually start working.' Also for the first time loans will be available for students who choose to go to any one of a number of private higher education providers the length and breadth of Australia.

There are things in this package which obviously are not supported by a variety of people in higher education—and certainly not by the opposition. However, the government is doing these things because they are important; they are in Australia's longterm interests. It is important that we have HECS flexibility, with every last dollar of HECS going into improving the quality of education being delivered to students. It is also important that there be increased public investment, increased flexibility in terms of working relations, and reform of the way in which universities are governed and administered. All of these measures are absolutely necessary if we want a world-class education for our children. There is no point in any of us, on this side or the other, guaranteeing them a place if they subsequently find, to their great disappointment, that they have graduated from a university that is considered to be mediocre.

Question put:

That the motion (Dr Nelson's) be agreed to.