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Thursday, 16 May 2013
Page: 2801

Senator MASON (Queensland) (15:14): What has characterised this government from the word go, going right back to 2007, is the great chasm between its rhetoric—its sparkling rhetoric at times—and its policy implementation. That has been the problem of this government since the beginning. It is always overpromising and it is always underdelivering. Someone else—and it will be a coalition government—will, in the end, have to pick up the pieces. When you go back, it does not matter whether you look at computers in schools, pink batts, overpriced school halls or any of the rest of it—today it is about the NBN—it is the same thing. There is always sparkling rhetoric and there is always underdelivery, tomorrow's headlines being more important than tomorrow's outcomes and tomorrow's achievements. It is spin over substance.

I have always accepted that the Prime Minister, Senator Kim Carr and Senator Chris Evans are genuinely concerned about education, higher education in particular. I accept that they all believe that it is transformative and that they take it very seriously. I have always believed that. But, if you make promises, you must properly fund them; otherwise, it is just empty rhetoric. If you come forward with a profound policy change—and uncapping the number of undergraduate places at Australian universities is a significant policy change—you must adequately fund those places. If you do not, it is merely empty rhetoric and you are leading undergraduate students along a rocky path. They are not being properly resourced. I accept that it is important we encourage kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, kids from rural and regional areas and Aboriginal kids to go to university—but only if the project is properly resourced and quality and standards are maintained.

In my question today to Senator Farrell, I argued implicitly that funding per student had fallen. I draw the chamber's attention to a publication put out by Universities Australia, A smarter Australia: policy advice for an incoming government. On the final page it says:

Despite recent, significant, and much-welcomed increases, base funding per student has fallen in real terms from 2008 to 2013 by 1.6 per cent, and has fallen 22 per cent since 1995. Without arresting this decline, Australia will continue to fall behind.

That 1.6 per cent fall in real terms was before this budget. This budget cuts funding to higher education across the board by five per cent.

This is the problem. If you want to uncap the system and let many more students come in, you must adequately fund it. It is the worst possible outcome to have kids who are less academically prepared and then to fund the system inadequately. In fact, you really need to do the opposite. What is happening today is that more young Australians who are less academically prepared are going to university, putting far greater stress on the system. You must adequately resource that system; otherwise, what happens? The quality and the standards in our Australian universities fall. I know that every senator in this chamber shares the view that our universities are essential not only as a source of productivity and innovation—key contributors to our economy—but as Australia's largest services export industry. Brand Australia cannot suffer a decline in standards and quality.

What worries me about the current government's approach is this: if you continue to allow more and more students in and funding declines per student, you will have a decline in quality and standards. That might cause the export industry to decline. That is bad enough, that exports are compromised, but worse is that those students—students the government, Australia, has encouraged to go to university—will not be properly serviced. In the end, it is not only bad economically—although that is bad enough—but very bad socially. Our students deserve much better.