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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30477

Mr SNOWDON (10:32 AM) —In speaking to the Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001, while I do not endorse all of the remarks of my friend the member for Werriwa, I do concur with his concluding remarks in relation to the government's poor performance in relation to higher education funding. I will refer to that in more detail shortly.

It is perhaps worth while to remind ourselves what this bill is about. It will amend the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 to provide additional funding for operating grants and superannuation expenses, introduce a loans scheme for postgraduate students, enable the imposition of a cap on student debt to the Commonwealth and facilitate and regulate electronic communication between students and institutions. I want to draw attention to the contribution made by the shadow minister for education, Mr Lee, the member for Dobell, on this legislation last night. I want to do that because he amplifies, in a way which was endorsed by the member for Werriwa in his concluding remarks, the way in which the federal government has caused a deterioration in the higher education sector as a result of a cutback in funding. I want to highlight a number of the facts that emerge from the contribution of the member for Dobell and then describe how they impact on the university I am closest to in a geographical sense, the Northern Territory University based in Darwin, and Batchelor College, which is, of course, based in Batchelor.

As a result of work that has been done, we know that Commonwealth funding for universities has, as was indicated by the member for Dobell, fallen every year under this Prime Minister and the Howard government with Dr Kemp as the minister at the helm, from $4.875 billion in 1996 to $4.223 billion by the year 2002, according to forward estimates. This adds up to a $3 billion cut from public funding for Australian universities over the period. In addition, as was pointed out again by the member for Dobell, 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 away from our universities and private R&D incentives.

I will not go into the debate about the nature of those incentives, which was entered into by the member for Werriwa, but I want to make this observation and again refer to the speech made by the member for Dobell in which he refers to the work of Professor Simon Marginson in relation to the OECD in which he points out that public expenditure in Australia on tertiary education fell by five per cent between 1995 and 1998. As was pointed out, this is the second worst performance in the OECD.

The cutback in funding over the period means a loss of student places, and that has a dramatic impact on the ability of universities, and particularly smaller universities, to function properly. I was referring to the submission from the National Union of Students to the Senate inquiry into the capacity of public universities to meet Australia's higher eduction needs and I was drawn to a couple of facts as they relate particularly to the Northern Territory University. Since 1996, the coalition under Prime Minister John Howard, and under Dr Kemp as the minister for education, have cut the operating grant to the Northern Territory University by some $6 million or, as Professor Ron McKay, who is the vice-chancellor of the university, indicated in his evidence to the Senate references committee on Monday, 30 April, almost 20 per cent. You only have to imagine what this means to a university the size of the Northern Territory University. On recent figures, for the year 2000, the university had around 2,900 students. Had the university been funded appropriately over the period, it would have had an additional 424 places. Instead of having 2,900 full-time equivalent students, it would have a figure closer to 3,300 had the minister continued to fund in the way the university had been funded prior to the coalition forming government in 1996.

The Northern Territory University is a small university. Its student body and the population of the Northern Territory expect it to provide a full range of courses. I have said here on a number of occasions what the impact of cuts has been on the university's ability to provide appropriate courses for its students and indeed for the population of the Northern Territory. That university, you might recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, is a young institution, which was formally opened in 1989. It was seen to be a place of great promise for the people of the Northern Territory. It was seen to be a place that would attract students both nationally and internationally because of its geographical location and because of the possibilities it could offer in specialist research and specialist teaching. However, over that period, as I have been informed by the NUS submission, several courses have been cut altogether or been severely wound back as a result of funding difficulties at the Northern Territory University. Those courses are English literature, philosophy, politics, economics, anthropology, maths, physics, psychology and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the Northern Territory Postgraduate Students Association makes the very strong point that the NTU no longer has the capacity to meet the Northern Territory's higher education needs. It points to the view that its higher education base is diminishing significantly as a result of a greater focus on technical and further education. It makes the point that currently the higher education provided at the NTU is mostly vocationally based, with the majority of people engaged in career path oriented study. The submission from the Northern Territory Postgraduate Students Association emphasises the collapse of courses as a result of the funding cuts to the university, and states:

The NTU no longer teaches English literature and philosophy, barely provides engineering, mathematics and has virtually abandoned anthropology, political theory and physics.

You have to wonder—I have been a student at the Australian National University, the University of Western Australia and, later, Murdoch University—what the heart of a university ought to be in terms of its teaching and its capacity to provide core subjects to provide a basis for a good general education, whether it is in mathematics-science or humanities and the arts. But what has been cut out of the Northern Territory University is its capacity to provide a foundation in the arts in a fundamental area like English literature. It has been gutted. In general science, its capacity to provide courses in physics and mathematics has been severely retarded. That raises significant issues about the nature of the product which is being provided for the Northern Territory community. It raises significant questions about the Northern Territory University's capacity to meet the needs of the growing Northern Territory population.

Whilst the leadership of the university may be open to question, in large part the university has suffered not only inappropriate, poor treatment by the Prime Minister John Howard and his government, through the way in which Dr Kemp, as Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, has administered higher education in Australia since 1996, but also through a lack of influence on the federal government by the previous CLP government in the Northern Territory. I say that because it is very important. You will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that recently there was an election in the Northern Territory, and you will have seen the important headline for the people of the Northern Territory and for the university: `CLP out, Labor in'. It was a momentous historical occasion for the people of the Northern Territory. It was very important in terms of the Labor Party's approach to higher education as opposed to the CLP's approach to higher education in the Northern Territory. The result of that election is indicative of the fact that the Northern Territory CLP government did not meet the Northern Territory community's needs in education, higher education and a lot of other public services. But more to the point in the current debate about higher education was the total inability, the incapacity, of the John Howard government to influence the higher education outcome for the Northern Territory University.

A number of questions have to be asked. The Northern Territory University is based in Darwin, with a campus in Alice Springs jointly shared with Centralian College, which hosts some of its courses. It is a long way from any other tertiary institution apart from Batchelor College in the Northern Territory, which concentrates its efforts on indigenous education. It is a long way from any other higher education institution, the closest being in Broome in the north-west of Western Australia, or in Cairns and Townsville. So, if the federal government had a concern and an interest in promoting the needs of regional Australia, in looking at the specialist requirements for research that northern Australia, in this case, demands and in looking at the demographic profile of the community and the cost to the community of not having appropriate higher education services and the full range of courses, you would expect that they would look at that university and say, `We need to provide you with some basic assistance and we will not subject you to the sorts of cuts you have been subjected to.'

It is important to comprehend that people who live in northern Australia do not have the choices of people living in Melbourne and Sydney. Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, I think you went to the Australian National University, but you were brought up in Melbourne and you had the choice of going to any number of tertiary institutions close to your home, as do other people who live in that city. Here in Canberra there are two universities. Sydney is just a few clicks up the road—in Northern Territory terms it is a very close city: 2½ to three hours drive. Of course, if you leave Alice Springs, which is where I live, and you want to go to the nearest city that provides tertiary education, you have to drive about 1,500 kilometres north to Darwin or 1,800 kilometres south to Adelaide.

What if you live in Darwin and you want to study English literature? English literature is no longer available. So what choice do you have? Get on your bike, son, and ride out of town. That adds enormous costs. I do not think this government appreciates the costs. Families become fractured because children are forced to move away from their homes. It is not a matter of choice; they are forced to move away from their homes if they want to obtain a decent higher education. I appreciate, of course, that not all courses would be available in an institution like the Northern Territory University, given its size. But you would expect, when we have a government talking about the needs of the Australian community in terms of improving industry and improving skills in maths and science, that you would at least be able to do physics and maths in an institution like the Northern Territory University. Well, you cannot, in an appropriate way. Why is that the case? Because the federal government has failed to provide sufficient resources to the Northern Territory University. As a result, it has failed the people of the Territory, who will not forget this failure when the moment to account comes upon us later in the year.

I will refer again to the NUS submission and quote an apposite part of that submission:

A dynamic, vigorous university for the Northern Territory is not only essential for the economic growth of the NT, but is also essential for the informed development of our cultural, social and political growth. Moreover, because of its particular position, geographically and organisationally, the NTU has, since its inception in 1989, been ideally placed to become a world leader in a range of fields and pursuits. In 2001, twelve years later, it is clear that this has not been achieved. In fact, the very existence of the university may be at stake.

If that is truly the case, if that is the perception of the people who attend the university, if that is the perception of the people of the Northern Territory whose children might aspire to attend that university, what does it mean for the nation? What does it mean in terms of developing the intellectual capacity of people who live in rural and remote Australia, in this case particularly in northern Australia? What does it mean in terms of the ability of this government to comprehend the needs of people who live in regional and remote Australia?

Mr Sidebottom —They don't care!

Mr SNOWDON —What it says to me is that not only do they not care, but they have adopted a `one size fits all' approach to the way in which they govern and to the way in which they have funded universities around Australia. They have adopted an approach which has gutted the Northern Territory University and severely impacted upon the ability of people in the Northern Territory to get access to higher education and higher education research facilities. There is a lesson here for all Australians. If we want to develop the intellectual capacity of this nation, we have to ensure that higher education is properly funded. I know that when the election comes later on this year we will see a government which is committed to higher education, rather than one which has been dedicated to gutting it. (Time expired)