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Monday, 7 September 2009
Page: 5708

Senator MASON (1:52 PM) —Let me commence by saying that the coalition supports this Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, though not without some reservations. This bill essentially contains the government’s response to the Bradley review of higher education, released in December of 2008. The bill does not address all the recommendations of the review but it accords with the broad thrust of Professor Bradley’s vision for Australian universities over the next two decades. The coalition shares much of that vision. We applaud the moves to have the higher education system driven by student demand rather than by government dictate or by universities’ preferences.

We also, in principle, support the aspirations to make university education open to more Australians, including those from backgrounds that are currently under-represented at our universities. As a matter of principle, I think this is a very good thing. Universities will no doubt welcome the appropriation contained in this bill. It is not nearly as much as they would want; it is not nearly as much as the Bradley review recommended, but it will have to do.

The sad thing also is that it provides not nearly as much in realty as the government claims. Minister Gillard claims that the government is providing $5.7 billion of new money for universities. However, out of that $5.7 billion, $3 billion is taken from a massive raid on the Education Investment Fund—a fund that was designed, set up and paid for by the previous government as the Higher Education Endowment Fund. Therefore the real budget spending increases on higher education have been $1.2 billion for research and $1.5 for teaching. Of that $1.5 billion for teaching, only an extra $246 million in new funding for teaching measures is in the current financial year. The funding is significantly biased towards expenditure in 2013.

So there we have the Labor Party, in the implementation of its policy, once again raiding the piggy bank. There has been lots of spin and not nearly so much substance. But the coalition will not oppose the bill and the extra funding for universities however much it fails, yet again, to live up to the hype of the education revolution.

However the coalition is very concerned about the reforms to the scholarship system, which this bill commences but leaves unfinished to the detriment of many students around Australia. This bill abolishes Commonwealth scholarships, Commonwealth education cost scholarships and Commonwealth accommodation scholarships that help tens of thousands of students, including many from rural and remote areas, realise their dreams of attending university. While there are measures proposed in the budget to replace those scholarships, they are contained in a bill, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009, which has not yet been introduced. The opposition believes that the Senate consideration of the current bill should be delayed until the government has introduced both bills so they may be considered concurrently—this would have made sense—instead of abolishing scholarships before the replacements are in place.

The opposition notes Ms Gillard’s half-hearted and incomplete back-down in the Youth Allowance fiasco. Ms Gillard has come to her senses, and I should congratulate rural Liberals and my friends in the National Party for their insistent lobbying on this matter. Students who had planned their gap year for 2010 will now remain entitled to seek youth allowance next year. At least they do have some certainty. Sadly, despite all her undoubted charm, Ms Gillard seems to suffer from Labor’s addiction to debt. Her embarrassing and artless description of the blow-out in spending in the Building the Education Revolution by $1.5 billion as merely ‘a bump in the road’—a mere bagatelle!—illustrates just how quickly the expenditure of $1,500 million has become loose change for this government.

I will not detain the Senate on the equally embarrassing fiasco of taxpayer funded signs being erected in schoolyards-cum-polling booths, which the Australian Electoral Commission now confirms are election material and need to be authorised appropriately. There will be further discussion on that, I understand, later today.

So putting aside, firstly, the Youth Allowance fiasco; secondly, the fiscal incompetence of the budget blow-out of $1.5 billion in the Building the Education Revolution; and thirdly, the Australian Electoral Commission’s ruling on blatant electioneering at taxpayer expense in the nation’s schoolyards, the coalition supports this bill for it portrays little of the government’s incompetence so evident elsewhere.