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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 18

Senator NETTLE (10:43 AM) —The Treasurer is trying to convince people to believe that last night he announced money for education. The Higher Education Endowment Fund is not money for education; it is education money being put into the bank. The $5 billion put into the Higher Education Endowment Fund should have been spent on education and on students. If you look at the budget papers you will see that the proposal sets aside $300 million per annum to be shared between 38 universities for capital works. That is not investing money in education.

This government, and therefore this country, is way below the OECD average for government spending on education. In fact, this government needs to invest $7 billion per annum in education just to get to the average for OECD countries. Yet, last night, $5 billion—supposedly for education—was put into the bank rather than invested in education. It is there in the bank. The budget statements say that there is $300 million to be shared between 38 universities for capital works. Last year’s budget had an announcement of $310 million per annum to be spent at universities on capital development and research infrastructure. Does the $300 million in last night’s announcement replace the $310 million in last year’s budget? The government needs to answer this question. The government said, ‘Here is our big expenditure on capital works—$300 million per annum, shared between 38 universities.’ Last year it announced more than that. Does this replace that?

Senator Colbeck —It’s on top of. Read the papers.

Senator NETTLE —It is not clear from the papers. Let us make it clear that what is in the papers is that there is $300 million per annum to be shared between 38 universities on capital works. That is not investing money in education and in students. And we need to do that. We need $7 billion each year put into government spending on education just to bring us up to the OECD average—the kind of public money that comparable countries are putting into education. We are way below that average. And just to bring us up to that average, we need $7 billion. And we did not hear that last night.

In fact, there was a small amount of money—smaller than even the year before—put aside for capital works. It was not for spending on education and students. Due to the announcements last night, more students will now be charged full fees. That means that more students will have a larger student debt at the beginning of their working lives. That is not good for the Australian economy. That is not good for Australia’s future prosperity. To do as the government did last night—saying that more students can be charged full fees—means that more students will have a larger debt when they start their working lives. That is a clear indication from this government that it does not want to be the one to invest in university education in this country. It wants students and their parents to pay for it. That is what the announcement last night was: more students paying full fees—that is, transferring the cost of investing in education away from government coffers and on to the shoulders of students who are going to universities and their families. That is what we heard from the federal government last night.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 brings in two major changes to higher education in Australia. It seeks to legislate changes to the national protocols which define what a university is, and it provides funding for the implementation of the new research funding regime formulated by this government—that is, the research quality framework. Before I go into the detail of the legislation, I want to set the context in which this piece of legislation is being proposed. I came into this parliament in 2002, and since then there has been an almost endless stream of pieces of legislation that have rearranged or modified the higher education sector. We have seen a whole range of different ministers seek to fiddle the figures in the way in which they have explained this expenditure, and we saw that again last night. In this period of time we have seen them trying to hoodwink university management, bullying staff and betraying students. And we saw more of that last night.

We did not see $5 billion invested in education; we saw it put into the bank, and we heard students told that they could pay more money for going to universities. Students can pay more to go to university, and money will not be invested in education; it will be put in the bank. That is what we heard last night.

Senator Payne —The $5 billion investment.

Senator NETTLE —Five billion dollars is being put into the bank. Of that, the budget papers state that $300 million will be spent per annum, shared between 38 universities. Last year, there was $310 million to be spent on capital infrastructure. This year, $300 million is to be spent on capital works, shared between 38 universities. That is not money invested in education and in students. And, at the same time as doing that, the government is saying that students can pay more to go to universities—that is, the government funds universities less and students fund universities more. That was the government announcement that we heard last night. And it fits in with the pattern of the way in which the government has approached higher education—to rip government funding out and to seek to replace that with costs that they want students to cover. That is why we are seeing students starting their working lives with massive debts. The announcement we heard last night is going to mean that more students start their working lives with a larger debt, because this government does not want to be the one putting money into the education of students; it wants students and their families to do that.

We have seen 50 pieces of legislation about higher education go through this parliament in the time that I have been here. We have seen so many aspects of the higher education landscape moved, and these goalposts have been moved so often that it is very difficult for people in that arena to even work out what is going on. We have seen changes to core funding, to grants, to research grants, to governance, to student support, to student loans, to student unionism, to quality frameworks, to private provider status, to overseas student arrangements, to overseas provider status, to industrial relations conditions and to Indigenous participation. There is a whole range of these areas that we have seen the government make changes to. Ten years is a long time. Of course, it is the job of the government to manage the education system to the benefit of the nation, and it is its right to move legislation in order to do that. But you have to wonder whether the level and the rate of change produced by this stream of legislation have been of benefit to the Australian people. Perhaps all this change would not have been such a bad thing in the context of a government which, like governments overseas—most notably Scandinavian governments—put higher education at the top of its priority list and devoted generous funding to the sector.

Driving a change agenda fuelled by generous government backing might not have been such a bumpy process after all, but unfortunately it has been in Australia. The fact is that, despite Australia becoming significantly richer as a nation over the past 10 years and despite the government receiving record tax revenues, as we saw again last night, Australia has not kept pace with public investment in higher education. We are the only country in the OECD whose public investment in higher education as a proportion of GDP has gone backwards—in the most recent figures we recorded a minus seven per cent investment. Meanwhile, countries like Ireland, which has also experienced good economic times, are translating their wealth into investment in universities. They have boosted their investment in universities by over 50 per cent as a proportion of GDP over the same period—and we have gone backwards by seven per cent.

The Minister for Education, Science and Training says that, in real terms, spending on higher education has gone up under the Howard government, but what she does not say is that her figures include the money loaned to students to pay fees and that over this period student numbers have increased. If we take these two factors into account, we see that, in fact, per student spending on higher education is over $1 billion less each year than it would have been had the federal government not modified the funding models it uses to fund universities. Each year $1 billion less is being spent on higher education because of the new funding model that this government brought in for universities. All of this means that the sector has been starved of funding whilst being forced through change after change because of this government’s obsession with casting the higher education sector into the seas of a private marketplace. We saw more of that last night with the announcement of further deregulation of student fees. Last night’s announcement says to students: ‘You can pay more to go to university.’

With all the changes to higher education that we have seen under the Howard government, the Greens have been concerned that the higher education sector has not had the opportunity to consolidate itself throughout this period of quite violent, consistent and all-encompassing change. We are concerned that there has not been sufficient focus on assessing the impact of these changes or on the time taken to reconsider changes that have not worked. Indeed, we are sceptical about the impact of most of the changes that we have seen in the past 10 years, but no sooner has one been enacted than another is introduced.

The first aspect of this bill does nothing to allay these concerns. The changes to the national protocols that this bill seeks to enact go to the heart of what the university system will look like in this country and fundamentally threaten the integrity of a system that has been in operation for over a century. The national Protocols for Higher Education Approval Processes have been in place since 2000 as a means of protecting the provision of quality higher education by regulating which institutions can claim the name ‘university’ and how an institution may go about becoming a university.

The changes proposed in this bill have been agreed by the Ministerial Council on Education ‘Employment’ Training and Youth Affairs and as such do not come as a great surprise, but the Greens are still concerned about their impact. The key change will allow the establishment of two new kinds of institution—the university college and the specialist university, neither of which will be required to meet the same criteria as existing universities. Essentially, the proposed change to the protocols will allow an institution that does research in fewer than three areas of discipline to use the word ‘university’ in its name.

I am unsure as to why the ministerial council agreed to this change or what they perceived to be its benefit. One can imagine a future where the establishment of university colleges and specialist universities improves access to quality higher education opportunities for Australians, but it is perhaps easier to imagine a future where this does not happen. The Greens are worried that, without carefully worded guidelines to manage this change, the quality of university education in Australia will be undermined.

The problem here is one of perception over reality. This change may create a system where bargain basement operations can claim to be universities and attract students away from and undermine the enrolments of genuine universities whilst not delivering the quality education that students would otherwise receive. Over time, such a process could place established universities under considerable pressure to discount their own services at a cost to quality.

The Greens remind the Senate that these kinds of market driven problems are largely avoidable if the provision of higher education—like the provision of primary school education, for example—is put firmly back into the public sector. The key problem here is that the government has been so keen to turn students and their parents into the decision makers and distributors of higher education funding. Through increases in HECS-HELP fees and up-front full fees, students distribute funds that used to go directly from government to universities. Students also distribute funds through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, which delivers government funding to universities depending on the courses that students choose. All of this means that funding is delivered according to student choice.

This would not be such a bad thing if students could access all relevant information about competing courses and institutions—if students could accurately assess whether a university college is the same as a university of technology or a university of agricultural science. If students had the time and expertise to make these assessments, then maybe—just maybe—they would be the best placed body to distribute government funding to higher education providers. But they do not.

Instead, it should be the government’s role to ensure that limited public funding is distributed in such a way as to allow a high-quality, accessible and diverse higher education sector to be maintained. The Greens are deeply concerned that the government’s transfer of responsibility for this from public to private hands will continue to have a negative impact on the quality of higher education in this country.

We are already seeing the impact of 10 years of the Howard government meddling and mismanaging the higher education sector. In the newspapers we can read stories of universities’ overreliance on overseas students for funding and the mistreatment of some as cash cows by cash-strapped campuses.

We can see the reduction in enrolments from disadvantaged groups, not least Indigenous Australians, who have been put off pursuing a university education by the new high-fee, high-debt culture of universities under this government, made worse by the announcement last night that students can pay more to go to university. We have also seen a reduction in the vibrant student culture on campuses, with student organisations collapsing under the pressure of the government’s voluntary student unionism legislation.

The changes to the protocols are not likely to turn this sad situation around, and they could make it a whole lot worse if they are not managed correctly. But as legislators we are not in a very good position to assess this because we cannot see the guidelines that are due to put meat on the bones of these changes to the university protocols, because MCEETYA will not have them ready until June. But we are being asked to pass this legislation in May.

The second major aspect of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 is the delivery of over $40 million for the implementation of the research quality framework. Again, this money, whilst clearly necessary to enable the implementation of the research quality framework system, is being appropriated when the key details of how the system will work are still under a serious cloud. The Greens note the concerns of the National Tertiary Education Union, who said in their submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill:

It is understood that the results of the quality and impact assessments will be used to distribute in the order of $600 million of public research funding to universities. However, to date there is no detail as to exactly how the assessment results will translate into funding outcomes. The Government is yet to announce details such as:

  • the proportion of funding to be allocated on the basis of quality ratings or impact ratings,
  • the funding weights attached to different quality and impact ratings,
  • the funding weights to be used for quality/impact ratings and the volume of research submitted, and
  • the relative cost weightings that will be attached to different disciplines.

The Greens also note that the Productivity Commission’s recent report into the research quality framework sounded a note of caution. Its view was:

... there is no clear objective evidence pointing to deficiencies in the quality of research currently funded through block grants.

This reflects the theme I have been developing in this speech, which is that the government seems determined to push through this change in the higher education sector for change’s sake alone rather than doing an assessment of the change and determining whether or not it provides the benefits to the Australian education system. It remains to be seen whether the research quality framework can be made to work, but at the very least it seems somewhat premature to introduce the scheme whilst critical questions about its operation go unanswered. It is perhaps worth noting that the scheme, which will cost over $80 million to implement and administer, looks rather expensive when it is only designed to distribute $600 million in total.

The Greens do not support the passage of this bill at this time. The government has failed to explain the implications of the significant measures which it contains and has failed to provide in a timely manner the guidelines which would accompany the definitional changes to what may be called a university in Australia. There are no clear guidelines to explain why overseas universities will be allowed to operate in Australia without the same quality control measures that apply to domestic universities. The government has failed to convince the Greens and, more importantly, key stakeholders in the sector that the research quality framework approach is ready to go. Under these circumstances the bill should be withdrawn.

Given the track record of this government in the higher education area it would be best if this were the last bill that we saw on this issue for a little bit of time—perhaps until after the election, when it would be great if we could have a new minister and a new government that understands, as the Greens do, the importance of supporting our public universities rather than deregulating them in the way the government has.