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Tuesday, 7 March 2000
Page: 14078


Mr LEE (9:11 PM) —As the honourable member for Makin finished on the GST, perhaps I can begin with the GST and ask the honourable member, figuratively, whether she has spoken to any of her small business constituents. If they have views in any way similar to the views of small business representatives in the electorate of Dobell, they would be telling her that small business is very concerned about the massive compliance costs being imposed on them by the Howard government's GST. The honourable member for Makin claimed that state governments will be much better off under the government's GST package. She claimed that schools, hospitals and the police will have more funding from their state governments because of the miracles that will be worked by this GST. I hate to break it to the member for Makin, but her own state government—the Liberal Olsen government in South Australia—has already said that it expects to be worse off for at least the first six years of the GST package. The Howard government has given a short-term guarantee which will leave state governments such as the one of the honourable member's own state in a worse position. It is for that reason that the honourable member for Makin should understand that her state Liberal colleagues are expressing concern about the fact that the GST will deliver nowhere near as much money as people such as the Prime Minister and the Treasurer claim.

Tonight I want to spend most of my time discussing a number of issues in education. Mr Deputy Speaker Hollis, I am sure you will remember that before the last budget the Prime Minister claimed that his 1999 budget would be `an education budget'. That was his description in the week leading up to the budget. When that budget was finally revealed we saw a continuation in the cuts to higher education. We saw no growth funding for TAFE, vocational training. We saw the abolition of the equity based scholarships for kids from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to afford to go to university. We saw a significant increase in the funding for non-government schools and a 20th of that increase in funding for government schools. There was a 20 to one difference in the extra funding provided for private schools as compared to government schools. My worry is that the Prime Minister thinks that is an education budget. In the four years that John Howard has been the Prime Minister of Australia we have seen a billion dollars cut from federal funding for higher education. We have seen the abolition of the growth funding that the former Labor government was providing to ANTA for vocational education and training. We have seen the introduction of the enrolment benchmark adjustment—that evil EBA that does not just take money from government schools and deliver it to private schools. It is worse than that. It takes money from government schools and puts it into Peter Costello's pocket. It puts it into the consolidated revenue account.

The EBA seeks to take money away from the government school system if there is a shift in the percentage of students attending government schools. If the percentage balance between government and non-government schools changes in a state, the state loses funding. This can happen even if there is actually an increase in the number of students attending government schools. It is an outrage that none of the government's own backbenchers have been speaking out about the unfair deal in the federal government's inadequate funding for government schools. Tonight I also want to refer to a few announcements that I made last night in a speech to the Sydney Institute. The Labor Party is very keen to make sure that people are aware of a number of positive initiatives that we intend to launch in education. Many of these will be announced between now and the next election but a little later I will say a few things about the two announcements that were made last night.

I draw to the House's attention that a couple of weeks ago the honourable member for Dickson and the Leader of the Opposition launched the Labor Party's Workforce 2010 discussion paper, which outlined four initiatives. First of all, there is a proposal to develop skills profiles to identify areas where workers were at risk of losing their jobs. Secondly, we have a proposal for retraining workers who are at risk, involving targeting some retraining money for them. Thirdly, we intend in government to establish a national work force forecasting council. Fourthly, we have provided a commitment to maintain a role for the federal government in the job market. We know that this government has deliberately set out on a course to destroy the CES and to put Employment National in its place. We know that Employment National is on a clear path to being undermined and shut down under this government.

The reason why the opposition is putting so much emphasis on education and training is that we believe that is a crucial part of transforming Australia into a knowledge nation. We know that many of our traditional industries are going to face greater competition due to globalisation and the information technology revolution. We know that the way that people live, work and learn is going to keep changing because of globalisation and the IT revolution. We have to work to secure for Australia the high value, high wage jobs of the future. These are the businesses that can create, use and transform knowledge. In many ways Australia's future is in the hands of people like the medical researcher who is working on a new diagnostic test to identify or help cure disease, the industrial chemist developing better ways to manufacture Australian products, perhaps in a factory in the Illawarra, or the computer engineer who is designing the software that improves communications for people who live in remote communities. Australia must be investing in this research if we are to make sure that we develop intellectual property that generates royalty payments and licence fees for our country.

We are certainly going to have to pay to use the intellectual property developed in other countries. We will have to pay money to use diagnostic tests, industrial manufacturing processes or computer software that is developed in other countries. But we will need to make sure that Australia is investing enough today so that we do not face a massive deficit in intellectual property that will swamp our balance of payments. New opportunities for our nation because of investment in reskilling our workers and investment in research will generate new opportunities for the whole country. New opportunities for the nation mean that new businesses can help renew rural and suburban communities and new jobs can help expand career prospects for people wherever they may live. Applying new knowledge to traditional industries can also strengthen their competitive position.

The Prime Minister is fond of telling us that, as far as he is concerned, the Australian economy is in a stronger position than at any time since the Second World War. That is according to John Winston Howard. The problem for the Prime Minister is that, at the time when he claims the economy is strong, Australia's investment in research and development has actually been declining. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has been keeping these statistics for 20 years and the last two years are the only ones on record when Australia's private research and development has actually declined. Public investment in research has also declined because of the massive cuts that this government has made to our universities. When public and private investment is declining, it is no wonder that people realise that there is a crisis looming.

If our country were positioning itself for the Information Age, you would expect that the percentage of national income invested by the Commonwealth government in education, training and research would be increasing. In fact the reverse is occurring. We have the three per cent of GDP being invested by the Commonwealth government in education, training and research declining to 2½ per cent of GDP. I do not know of any other advanced country that has deliberately reduced its national investment in this area at the same time as private research has been declining. While Australia's investment in research, education and training is falling off as a percentage of GDP, our competitors are doing the reverse. In the United States, President Clinton has recently announced an extra $US2.8 billion for research. Britain, under Tony Blair, has just announced an extra $1 billion in a white paper. But in Australia Dr Kemp's research white paper released two days before Christmas did not have one extra dollar for the nation's research effort.

The point is that we have to work towards addressing problems in the education, training and higher education sector. Last week I had the privilege of visiting Oatlands School in Tasmania. I was very impressed by the great work that is taking place at the school, under principal Keith Wenn, in seeking to lift retention rates. The students there are learning all sorts of skills in aquaculture and are also learning how to restore some of the historic crafts that used to be used in town. I had the privilege of meeting a couple of the students who have restored a horse-drawn cart, which I am sure will be put to good use in the town in years to come. Certainly Dick Adams, the federal member for Lyons, is very proud of the good work that takes place at Oatlands School, and I think there are many things that other schools could learn from that school.

One of the most important things we can do in education is to improve the quality of teaching that is taking place in our schools, and I will say something more about that a bit later. In the last few months, we have had quite a few people seeking to once again breathe life into the plans of the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs to deregulate higher education in Australia. People would remember that last September I released Dr Kemp's cabinet submission which outlined his plan to deregulate student fees, introduce voucher funding and replace HECS with real interest rate student loans. In the last two months, we have had the national convention of the Young Liberals endorsing the deregulation of fees at universities and calling for the introduction of vouchers. We have also had a few vice-chancellors calling for student fees to be deregulated at all universities and others, such as Gavin Brown from the University of Sydney, have called for a smaller group of Ivy League universities to have their fees deregulated.

The one thing that I do agree with Dr Kemp, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, on is that higher education in Australia is in a crisis. In his own cabinet submission he said that the quality of university teaching and research has been undermined by the higher student-staff ratios, the less frequent lecture and tutorial contact, and the run-down in research infrastructure. As far as we know he was right—we hope he was not lying to his colleagues in cabinet—when he said:

... eight institutions appear to be operating at a deficit and some regional campuses are at risk.

This crisis should be no surprise, given that the Howard government has taken $1 billion out of higher education. To those few who still believe that Dr Kemp's deregulatory plan is the solution, I make these simple points. First, Labor will not support deregulation of student fees. Increasing the burden on students will make it impossible for students from low and middle income families to be able to afford to study at the best universities. Students have already been hit with HECS increases of up to 125 per cent, making average students fees in Australia now comparable to those in the United States. The reason the majority of vice-chancellors oppose deregulation is that they understand that the newer, smaller and regional universities will be the ones that are hardest hit. Regional universities know they will not be able to charge the high fees which the sandstone universities will be able to command. They know they will lose the best researchers and lecturers to the sandstone universities.

We also oppose the introduction of voucher funding, because that would simply divert scarce public funds from our public universities to private universities such as Bond University and Melbourne University Private. We also reject the proposal to scrap HECS and replace it with a real interest rate system of student loans because that is unfair. Real interest rate loans mean that the longer you pay the more you pay. If you have a low income after graduation, it will take you longer to repay your debt so you will pay more. If you cannot find work immediately after graduation, or if you volunteer to work for an overseas charity for a year or if you take time off work to raise a family, you will also take longer to pay so you will pay more. In New Zealand, the introduction of deregulated fees for universities and real interest rate student loans have driven graduates overseas. Many of them are now never likely to return because their debt has grown exponentially. Australia's universities are in a crisis; we agree with the government on that. But the challenge is not to make it worse by falling for the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs's argument that the only solution to the funding crisis is the Howard government's deregulatory model.

I turn to some issues in schools. First of all, I place on record the simple fact that a lot of good teachers are out there working in schools. Many of those teachers are changing people's lives every day in every school. The best teachers know that no matter how well they teach today they are going to have to do even better in the future. It is important that teachers, parents and governments understand that the most important thing we can do to improve the quality of student outcomes is to invest more in teacher quality. There has been some interesting research in the United States by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the professor of education at Standford University and the Executive Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. She has made very strong findings that the best way to improve student performance is to invest in teaching quality. For that reason, last night the Labor Party made two commitments to lift the standard of teaching quality. We intend to introduce teacher development contracts and teacher excellence scholarships.

The teacher development contracts will be a partnership between a federal Labor government and teachers who share a commitment to improving student results by lifting teacher quality. Teachers will be offered by their employer, whether it is the state or a private school, the opportunity to undertake a course of study to improve their teaching skills. If a teacher decides to take up one of the teacher development contracts, the course will be funded by the Commonwealth government. The Labor government would also agree to provide an incentive payment of around $2,000 upon completion of the course. The part of the contract that the teacher has to contribute is their time, because they would be expected to complete the course after normal school hours or at weekends or in the school holidays. Our priority with the teacher development contracts is to target teachers who are forced to teach outside their area of expertise. The contracts may also be offered to try to encourage more teachers to have a better understanding of using IT in the classroom. They could be used to recognise excellent teachers and to help them share their knowledge with other teachers and other schools. We are very keen to work with the states and the territories, the deans of education, the government and non-government sectors, and teachers to develop appropriate courses to improve classroom teaching practice.

The second part of our undertakings announced last night was the Teacher Excellence Scholarships. A Beazley Labor government will offer scholarships to high achieving school students to encourage them to study education. We will be focusing this on the areas of undersupply which, at the moment, are in maths, science and IT. There is strong evidence that Australia has a growing shortage of these qualified teachers and, when some people are claiming that up to 25 per cent of the teachers in Victoria who teach maths and science are not properly qualified to teach in those areas, we have to take urgent action. Labor's Teacher Excellence Scholarships will provide a subsidy for the HECS debt that otherwise would be payable. That is worth about $1,500 per year for the years that a teacher stays in the profession.

Finally, I want to repeat a few remarks I made last night about my disappointment in the New South Wales Teachers Federation's decision last week to place bans on the English language literacy assessment test in New South Wales. I understand the ban was imposed because the federation opposed literacy teachers being moved to the schools which were identified as having the greatest literacy problems. It is hard to believe that a progressive union would oppose targeting literacy teachers to the school students with the most serious literacy problems.

Labor's position on testing is clear. First, we support basic skills tests; second, we support targeted intervention to address the problems identified; and, third, we support the right of parents to know how their child is progressing at school. The difference between Labor and Liberals is that Labor supports the testing and the Liberals oppose providing the additional funding to provide the remedial teachers to address the problems. For these reasons, I believe that there are a number of issues that need to be addressed and discussed. Labor's positive new initiatives will give us a chance to debate these issues in more detail at a later time.