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Tuesday, 28 August 2001
Page: 30434

Mr LEE (9:11 PM) —The Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 provides for the establishment of the postgraduate education loans scheme, or PELS as it is commonly known, which was announced in the government's innovation statement last January. The innovation statement was meant to make the Australian people forget about the damage that the Howard government has done to education, and to higher education in particular, in the five short years it has been in government. I am sure that my colleague the honourable member for Fremantle understands that, while the Prime Minister claimed in the innovation statement to be providing $2.9 billion for investment in higher education and research, when we saw the table indicating that 60 per cent of the extra funds were not being provided until years four and five of this five-year plan it was clear that this was a promise that Prime Minister Howard was intending to make which would be delivered after Prime Minister Howard had departed the scene. We have no confidence whatsoever that the plans outlined in the innovation statement will ever be implemented. Fancy a Prime Minister who expects to be on the golf course in 2002 expecting us to believe that he will provide 60 per cent of the extra funds for research in higher education in the years 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Commonwealth funding for universities has fallen every year under this Prime Minister, from $4.875 billion in 1996 to $4.223 billion by 2002, according to the forward estimates. This adds up to $3 billion being slashed from public funding for Australian universities. In addition, an extra $2 billion has been taken from the federal government's incentives for private research and development, adding up to a Howard government record of $5 billion being taken from our universities and from private R&D incentives.

Having taken $5 billion away, this Prime Minister expects credit and a pat on the back for putting back $2.9 billion while there is still a net reduction of more than $2 billion. We need only look at the words of the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Dr Kemp, in his famous leaked cabinet submission when he said this about the extent of the crisis in higher education:

The scale of these problems means that higher education will remain a contentious issue for the government through this term. Higher student:staff ratios, less frequent lecture and tutorial contact, the persistence of outdated technology and gaps in key areas of professional preparation ... are fuelling a perception of declining quality.

That was the Howard government's minister for education outlining in very stark terms the serious situation facing our higher education, and outlining in detail the damage that this government has done to higher education in our country. I will comment further on that in a few minutes.

We have also seen the Prime Minister pull off a triple record. The ABS has been recording statistics on private R&D expenditure since the 1950s, and for the first time ever we have the ABS recording that in the last three years there has been a decline in private R&D expenditure. How can we expect to make Australia a knowledge nation that is not only coming up with new ideas but also turning new ideas into new products and new services that will generate royalty payments and licence fee income for Australia for generations to come if we actually have a decline in private R&D expenditure? The Liberal and National parties, although claiming to represent people who invest in business, have developed a regime that has discouraged business from investing in research and development. Just as in coming years the companies that invest in training their staff and that invest in research will be the companies that secure the jobs of the future and will be the most likely to grow and succeed in future years, the countries that invest in training and reskilling their people, that invest in research and development through their public institutions and that encourage private R&D in their countries are the ones that are most likely to have the secure jobs of the future. They are the countries that are most likely to grow at the fastest rates. They are the countries that are most likely to be the successes of the coming decade. It is a tragedy for Australia that we have a government that has been slashing back public investment in education, training and research and has cut $2 billion from the incentives to encourage private businesses to invest in the future, to invest in research and development.

In 2000, the number of Australian students at our universities fell by more than 3,200. While some extra university places were announced in the innovation statement—an extra 2,000 a year—it will take years even to repair the decline that we saw last year. Last Friday, we had a statement from the minister for education outlining where those 2,000 extra places will be allocated and where some extra places announced in the budget will be allocated. There was the minister for education, milking that announcement, for all it was worth, but all the propaganda in the world could not disguise the fact that the new places announced in the government's innovation statement and announced in the budget added up to less than three per cent of the university places that it has cut in the last five years. The government has presided over massive cuts in public funding and in direct Commonwealth investment in universities. If it were not for those massive cuts, in 2002 there would be 25,525 more places at universities in New South Wales, 21,832 more places at universities in Victoria, 14,643 more places at universities in Queensland, 8,108 more places at universities in Western Australia, 5,825 more places at universities in South Australia, 1,578 more places at the University of Tasmania, 494 more places at the Northern Territory University and 2,395 more places at the ANU and the University of Canberra.

It is interesting to look at the universities that have been particularly hard hit by the government's cuts in Commonwealth direct investment in higher education. Universities such as Charles Sturt University in my electorate, which may have gained an extra 80 places—I am sure that the minister's announcement was welcomed by Charles Sturt University last Friday—have lost 2,692 extra places that they would have had if the government had maintained its investment in higher education. Southern Cross University, which looks after our communities in Tweed Heads, Lismore and Coffs Harbour, will receive an extra 55 places after the minister's announcement last Friday, but it will lose 901 places because of the Howard government's cuts. In my electorate, we had the welcome announcement of 30 extra places for the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle, but the university has lost 2,148 places because of the cuts that the government has made to higher education. I am sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Hollis, would like me to touch on the figures for the University of Wollongong. While Wollongong received an extra 160 places, which I am sure it welcomes, in the minister's announcement last Friday, it has lost 1,555 places because of the cuts the government has made in funding for higher education. Even a university such as James Cook, which covers communities in Far North Queensland, received an extra 125 places, which were welcome, but it lost 1,253 extra places that it otherwise would have received if the government had maintained its investment in higher education. I will make a few other remarks about the minister's false claims about Commonwealth investment in higher education. While the government last week announced some extra places for universities, it is putting back less than three per cent of places that Australian universities would have had if the Commonwealth government had not cut its investment in universities by $3 billion.

The other point is that the extra funding for research announced in the innovation statement does not change the reduction in research training places at most Australian universities. As a result of the changes that the minister has made in the implementation of his research white paper, this year there are almost 3,500 fewer research training places at Australia's universities, thanks to this minister's handiwork. You may well ask, Mr Deputy Speaker, which universities are hardest hit by that 3,500 research training place gap. It is universities such as RMIT, which lost 46 per cent of its research places; VUT, which lost 37 per cent of its research training places; Swinburne, which lost 35 per cent; or a university which provides excellent opportunities for people who live in the Ballarat community. Ballarat lost almost 41 per cent of its research training places because of the cuts outlined in the minister for education's white paper. Universities such as the University of Western Sydney and Edith Cowan University, which do a lot of good work in giving people the opportunity to study at university—perhaps the first members of their family to do so—have been hit hardest by the government's cuts in research training places.

This highlights in many ways the extent to which the government has singled out postgraduates for especially harsh treatment. In 1996, when the government cut 21,000 university places, institutions were forced to make the cuts as far as possible in the postgraduate course work area as a direct result of this minister's policy. This means that HECS places for postgraduate students have been significantly replaced by full fee paying places. This has resulted in a fall in Commonwealth funded postgraduate course work places of around 60 per cent since 1996. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations has prepared a table based on material from the minister's own department, DETYA, that shows that by 2002 there will 15,292 funded postgraduate course work places, down from 41,315 in 1996. Fee paying postgraduate course work places will have risen 160 per cent over the same period to 32,112.

Enrolments in many key disciplines have fallen alarmingly. Analysis of DETYA material, again by CAPA, shows that between 1996 and 1999 postgraduate course work enrolments in engineering fell by 19 per cent. It fell in the sciences by 25 per cent and in education it went down by 16 per cent. How can we expect to encourage our teachers to undertake postgraduate study if we have deliberate government policy resulting in a fall of 16 per cent in the number of postgraduate education students? It is certainly not the way to make Australia a knowledge nation. We believe that lifelong learning, lifelong pursuit of the upgrading of skills and lifelong professional development all play a key part in ensuring that Australia has a 21st century work force that can meet the needs of our nation.

This is the scenario in which PELS was announced by the government in January this year. It is estimated that around 50,000 students a year will be taking a PELS loan by 2006. We do have some concerns about the scheme, and one of those concerns is the incentive it will give to some universities to lift their fees. Universities certainly need extra funding. Last month we heard the head of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, Professor Ian Chubb, passing comment and judgment on the government's efforts to avoid its responsibilities in providing `patient capital', as Professor Chubb calls it, for our higher education institutions. He spoke about the government's announcements to date as being `small scale' and `a drop in the bucket', to quote his evidence to the recent Senate committee inquiry.

We do know that Australian students are already paying quite a fair share of their higher education costs. Certainly, by international standards, Australian students are meeting a significant proportion of the cost of their study. According to OECD figures, Australian students' private contribution to tertiary study, and that includes TAFE as well as higher education, in 1998 was 0.51 per cent of GDP, which meant that Australian students were paying the fourth highest proportion of GDP in the OECD after Korea, the United States and Japan, in that order. While the current minister for education, Dr Kemp, has advanced proposals to deregulate undergraduate student fees and outlined proposals to introduce real interest rate loans to replace HECS—which would have forced the typical undergraduate student to pay $100,000 to study at university—and has at every opportunity sought to phase out the publicly subsidised postgraduate places, we already have in Australia, certainly in 1998, Australian students being the fourth highest contributors in terms of private contribution towards tertiary study. There is not a strong case from people like Dr Kemp, the minister for education, who seek to argue that Australian students should be placed under more pressure to pay higher fees for undergraduate or postgraduate study.

What we certainly know from the recent study of the OECD figures by Simon Marginson is that public expenditure in Australia on tertiary education fell by five per cent between 1995 and 1998, which is the second worst performance in the OECD. For those people who argue that the minister for education is right when he advocates deregulation of undergraduate university fees, the scrapping of HECS and the introduction of real interest rate loans, I would ask them to try to justify why Australian students should be paying higher university fees. Comparing Australia with the United States, 80 per cent of total enrolments in universities in the United States are students enrolled at state universities, where the tuition fees for local students from that state are already below the fees that are commonly paid by HECS students under HECS in Australia. Eighty per cent of American students studying at their state universities are paying less than the HECS fees in Australia today, because this government doubled HECS when it was elected in 1996. There is certainly no evidence whatsoever to support this minister's attempts to increase the burden on students by forcing them to pay more.

We have also expressed some concerns about how universities will react to the introduction of PELS. I have already stated that one of our concerns is whether some universities will seek to lift their fees for postgraduate students. One way we believe we can address that is to thoroughly review the operation of the PELS scheme at an early opportunity. We did propose in amendments in the Senate to have that review established after 12 months operation of the PELS scheme. We welcome the fact that the minister, in his second reading speech, has agreed to undertake a review at some time in the future. On behalf of the Labor Party, I give this House the commitment that a Beazley Labor government will certainly be carrying out a review of the operation of the PELS scheme. It will cover a number of issues. As foreshadowed in our amendment moved in the Senate some weeks ago, we would expect that this review would cover not only movements in the level of fees for postgraduate courses but also the level of participation in postgraduate course work, with particular reference to participation by women, indigenous Australians, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students from rural and regional backgrounds and students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

We believe a comprehensive review on those grounds is the best way to ensure that no university thinks they now have a blank cheque to raise postgraduate fees for students because of the introduction of the PELS scheme. I know there are many postgraduate students who find it quite onerous to have to meet the fees up front, as is the case with many courses. In that sense, PELS is a step in the right direction. We need to make sure that the introduction of PELS does not result in universities believing that they have the encouragement of this parliament to dramatically lift fees and increase the burden on students. This is meant to ease the burden on students by allowing them to repay their PELS debt over time.

One of our other concerns was the power given to the minister under this legislation to allow him or her to set a limit on student debt, covering both the total of their HECS and PELS debts. We do not think this is the fairest approach. It is not fair because it is quite common for students undertaking undergraduate study, if they come from wealthy backgrounds, to have their parents pay their HECS each year as they go, so the family can benefit from the discount offered to those students who can pay their HECS fees up front. If a student from a very wealthy background has their HECS paid up front each year by their parents, they finish their university study with no HECS debt. Students from very poor backgrounds can finish their undergraduate studies with quite a substantial HECS debt. There is also a great deal of variation among the HECS debts students have at the end of a course of study, depending on what particular course they have undertaken. So we think it is much fairer to have a separate limit on the PELS debt. We indicated in the other house that we intended to move an amendment along those lines.

At the same time, as we are getting closer—some people are saying it is perhaps 11 sitting days—to the calling of an election, we do not intend to allow the introduction of PELS to be jeopardised by this minister's gross inability to persuade his colleagues that he should have priority in having education legislation dealt with in both houses of parliament. For that reason, tonight I am announcing that the Labor Party in government will be amending this legislation so that a power will be given to the minister to set a limit on a student's PELS debt totally separate from their HECS debt. It is quite possible, given the timetable for legislation, that we will not have an opportunity to amend the bill in the Senate, have it sent back to the House of Representatives and then have it dealt with in the Senate a second time. So, to ensure that the introduction of the PELS scheme is not delayed, we intend to deal with this in government, if the Labor Party have the honour of forming a government after the next election.

The bill also seeks to appropriate $27.6 million for universities that have met the government's requirements under what is called the workplace reform program. We have always made it clear that we do not accept that it is good public policy to have the minister for education make funding available to universities on the condition that universities jump through his extreme right-wing workplace relations reform hoops. We believe universities have certainly got a case for additional funding and that no university should be disqualified from receiving their fair share of that funding simply because they do not satisfy the minister for education's ideological obsessions on workplace relations.

This may be the last time in this, the 39th, parliament that we have a chance to debate higher education. Last week, the education minister, Dr Kemp, released a so-called facts sheet. I want to deal with six false claims that were made in the minister's facts sheet on higher education, and I will deal with them one by one. First of all, the facts sheet claims that Australian universities are enjoying record revenues. What the facts sheet does not say is that funding from the Howard government has declined every year since John Howard was elected in 1996 and it will be $652 million lower in 2002 than in Labor's last year. The facts sheet also claims that Australian universities are enjoying high enrolments. What the facts sheet does not say is that, for the first time ever, the Howard government has reduced the number of Australian students at university. In 2000, there were 3,278 fewer Australian students at university than there were in 1999. No other government has ever achieved that—to actually reduce the number of Australian students studying at university; that is a first for this government.

The facts sheet also claims that the government will provide a new Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme, or PELS, to ensure that postgraduate students are not deterred by having to pay fees up front. What the facts sheet does not say is that the main reason this scheme is needed is that the Howard government's massive funding cuts have forced universities to require postgraduate students to pay full fees because the government has reduced the number of HECS places for postgraduate students by 60 per cent.

The facts sheet claims that the government will provide an extra $1.3 billion of research funding over the next five years. What the facts sheet does not say is that the government has already cut funding to encourage business investment in R&D by more than $2 billion in the last five years. The facts sheet claims that the government is funding an extra 2,670 university places in 2002. What the facts sheet does not say is that the $652 million which the Howard government has cut from university funding in 2002 would have funded an extra 81,500 places— 30 times more than the measly offering we got last Friday. The 2,670 places do not even make up for the decline in Australian students in the year 2000.

We face a university sector that is in great difficulty. The reason it is in great difficulty is in this chart, one that I know is familiar to you, Mr Deputy Speaker Hollis, and familiar to the member for Fremantle. I hope that the member for Adelaide studies it closely, because we intend to make sure that her constituents know about it. The black columns in this chart demonstrate a $650 million or more decline in the Commonwealth's direct investment in universities. As HECS was doubled in the 1996 budget and as the HECS revenue received by the government has expanded and almost doubled, the Commonwealth government has used those higher payments made by students to reduce the Commonwealth's direct investment in universities.

That is in great contrast to what happened when HECS was introduced, when the Hawke and Keating governments gave a commitment that all of the funds received in HECS would go towards funding extra places at university, giving more Australians access to university and ensuring that universities received additional revenue, additional resources, to improve the quality of campus teaching and research. With this government, every extra dollar that students have paid as the HECS has doubled has gone into Peter Costello's consolidated revenue account for all sorts of purposes, including the government's outrageous television advertising campaigns.

In the few minutes left to me, I want to place on record my disappointment at some of the recent changes that have taken place at the Ourimbah campus of Newcastle university. A reorganisation of the management at the University of Newcastle has resulted in the Ourimbah campus of Newcastle university losing its separate deputy vice-chancellor and losing the separate faculty of the Central Coast. The Vice Chancellor of Newcastle university, Roger Holmes, at least gave me a hearing at which I expressed my deep concerns about these changes; but I remain very disappointed that the final appointments that have been made by the university do not allow the Central Coast to have an advocate appointed in a senior position at the university at the Ourimbah campus of the Newcastle university to speak up for the needs of higher education on the Central Coast. I have told Professor Holmes on many occasions that the Central Coast university will eventuate. One day, Ourimbah will have its independence from the University of Newcastle. Any attempts by the University of Newcastle to cut back the independence of the Central Coast campus simply hasten that day—and I will make more comments on that on another occasion. I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

'whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House condemns the Government for damaging Australian universities through massive funding cuts, and for reducing opportunities for Australian undergraduate and postgraduate students, in particular by:

(1) cutting Commonwealth funding for universities by $3 billion since 1996, thereby reducing student places by 81,500.

(2) overseeing a reduction of 3,278 in enrolments of Australian university students in 2000.

(3) cutting the number of research training places by 3,336; and.

(4) cutting HECS postgraduate coursework places by 60% since 1996'.

The Howard government will be held responsible at the coming election for the massive damage it has done to higher education, and I am sure that many students and academics are looking forward to the change of government that is not far away. (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hollis)— Is the amendment seconded?

Dr Lawrence —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.