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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4527

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (8:17 PM) —The blind hypocrisy of the opposition in relation to this second reading amendment to the Higher Education Support Amendment (2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2008 is absolutely unbelievable. Of the areas that were neglected in our economy—in our country—it is higher education that has suffered more than most over the last 11½ years. Not only has it suffered through a reduction in money being invested there, but the former government’s ideological approach to higher education in trying to tie the unfair Work Choices to the funding for universities makes an absolute mockery of this particular amendment. 

Under the former government, in order to guarantee that they retained their funding, universities were forced to offer AWAs to all university staff. The former government blindly forced an unfair ideology—one that was completely rejected by the Australian people on 24 November—onto both the academic and general staff of universities around this country. The member for Casey came into this place today and moved an amendment that accuses the Rudd government of blind ideology—it just bowls me over. It shows the hypocrisy and the gall of the opposition. It clearly shows that they do not take education seriously. It shows that they have not changed and they have not learnt their lessons from 24 November. What they are about is cheap political stunts to try and cover up for the fact that for 11½ years this was an area that suffered greatly from the neglect of the former government. In fact, the neglect of the former government was so bad that, while other OECD countries on average increased their funding by up to 48 per cent in the 10 years leading up to 2004, in Australia we saw a decline of four per cent. That is a 52 per cent difference between what happens everywhere else and what happens in this country. They did it even though they knew that there was a skills shortage in this country—one that was growing. It was growing because of the inaction of the former government in relation to their approach to education generally but particularly to higher education.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2008 and part of some other bills that were outlined in the budget and are now before this place seek to redress some of these issues and make sure that we can start to look at those capacity constraints that have been brought about by skills shortages throughout the country. In particular, the budget identified two key infrastructure initiatives: the Better Universities Renewal Fund, which is a $500 million fund available now for use by universities to address the rundown in facilities; and the $11 billion Education Investment Fund, which is available from 2009-10 for major infrastructure investments. With this bill we are looking to restore equity to higher education, firstly, by abolishing full fees for domestic students. This is not an ideological position; we are not saying that we are not going to increase the number of places. In fact, universities will have 11,000 new Commonwealth supported places by 2011. With this legislation we are saying that students will be able to compete for these places on merit rather than on ability to pay. That has always been a tenet of Labor Party policy and it is something that those on the opposite side simply do not get. Education is a social imperative, but it is also an economic imperative and it is one that should not be based on someone’s ability to pay.

In relation to capacity constraints that are there, it was very interesting looking at what the Reserve Bank Governor had to say in relation to capacity constraints and the opportunities that the former government had over 11½ years to try to address those issues. Earlier this year in the review of the RBA, Glenn Stevens indicated that indicators of capacity utilisation had reached their highest levels for two decades and firms continued to report considerable difficulty in expanding operations due to shortages of suitable staff. Mr Stevens added:

The economy has for a few years now been approaching a point where the level of utilisation of labour and capital is very high, and we are as fully employed as we have been for 30 years.

The Reserve Bank Governor was making the point that there are capacity constraints because of the need to reskill. These warnings had been given to the former government on numerous occasions, but what did they do in terms of higher education? They effectively cut funding. They did not look to the future; they did not say that there were going to be problems. Their approach was simply to slash and burn and look at reducing the federal contribution to universities. On this side of the House we believe in the education of the country. We believe in an education revolution, and we believe that an education revolution is vital for the economy of the country to put downward pressure on inflation and therefore keep interest rates lower.

The key initiatives in this bill will restore equity to higher education by abolishing full fees; providing incentives to study and work in priority areas for our community and the economy in maths, science and early childhood education; and helping to increase access to higher education by doubling undergraduate scholarships and postgraduate scholarships. As I said, by 2011 there will be 11,000 new Commonwealth supported places. This bill also looks at funding valuable places and infrastructure for the James Cook University Dental School and the University of Notre Dame in medicine, nursing and education. Under the previous government these were areas where we saw cuts in numbers at universities, contributing to the skills crisis that we have.

This is an important bill. It is just one part of the Rudd government’s ongoing education revolution. It is an important piece of legislation that needs to be seen in the context of the other measures that were announced in the budget, and it is a piece of legislation that I commend to the House.