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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30490

Dr KEMP (Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (11:50 AM) —As the member for Chifley was the last speaker on the speakers list, I will take this opportunity to sum up the debate and to make some concluding comments on the second reading part of the consideration of the bill. I want first of all to make some comments about the legislation itself, and then I will make some broader comments about the nature of the debate that we have just had.

The Innovation and Education Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 is an important piece of legislation which will contribute both to Australia's international competitiveness as a knowledge based economy and to opportunities for Australians to pursue lifelong learning. The centrepiece of the bill is an initiative that will ensure that the qualifications and skills of many thousands of Australians are up to date and relevant in today's economy and today's society—that is, the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme. This is a very significant innovation in higher education policy in Australia generally. The government has provided in its estimates for some $995 million to be provided to support loans under this scheme over the next five years, and that provision is on top of the $3 billion provided in the Prime Minister's innovation package, Backing Australia's Ability.

This scheme is in fact necessary because of actions the previous government took to deregulate postgraduate course work in the universities and to permit full fee paying students in postgraduate courses. The Labor Party said that with some minor exceptions it would allow the universities to charge fees for postgraduate course work study that reflected the cost of these courses and the demand for them. The Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme is made necessary by the fact that there are students who would like to pursue postgraduate course work but, because of the Labor Party's full fee paying scheme, find that there is a prohibitive cost to them doing so.

This government takes the concept of lifelong learning seriously. Skills and knowledge do need to be continually updated; people want to improve their employment prospects, increase their incomes and achieve more satisfaction in their lives. The opportunity to undertake postgraduate course work is an important part of that opportunity in Australia and the Postgraduate Education Loans Scheme will establish for postgraduate students a loans arrangement rather similar to that available through HECS for undergraduate students, and that is an income contingent loan, with no real interest payable on the loan, which can be used to meet the full fee that is charged by the university for postgraduate courses.

This measure is a very substantial additional contribution to achieving access for all qualified people to Australian universities. I welcome statements by the opposition that they recognise—at last, I may say—the importance of getting this legislation through, because we would not now be considering this bill had the opposition not delayed the passage of the legislation on its first introduction to the parliament when they split the bill in the Senate. There is no doubt that the Labor Party has caused a great deal of uncertainty amongst many potential students who would like to continue their education at the postgraduate level and great uncertainty amongst the universities as to whether or not this loans scheme will be available to students in 2002. The government has hence reintroduced this piece of legislation as a separate bill to enable the scheme to pass through the parliament. It is a very important part of Backing Australia's Ability and it reflects the government's determination to expand and continue to expand opportunities for participation in higher education.

The opposition has always been ambivalent about this. As we know, the Leader of the Opposition, when he was minister for education, very clearly stated his view that Australian universities were large enough, that there was no need for additional places in Australian universities and that people simply could not expect to continue through to university on a universal basis. He sought to impose a political cap on the growth of Australia's universities. That is not a view which has ever been taken by this government. Our policies have been designed to continue the expansion of the Australian university system to meet the requirements of qualified Australians as they move through to the higher education level.

The hypocrisy of the opposition on this point is breathtaking, and that is clearly indicated in the second reading amendment which has been moved by the shadow minister for education, which contains within it four propositions, each one of which is simply misleading or untrue. The first proposition is that the Commonwealth government has cut funding for universities by $3 billion since 1996, thereby reducing student places by 81,500 in number. This is a totally untrue statement. The Commonwealth funding for universities has not been cut over the five years of the Howard government. Operating grants for the universities, at some $5.2 billion, have been maintained in real terms across that period. They have the same real value now as they had when the government came to office and there is no disputing that.

In addition to that, the government has in fact enabled the universities to increase their total revenues very substantially. Total university revenues this year are $9.5 billion, $1.2 billion a year more than they were in 1995. So, the universities now have substantially greater resources and Australia's national investment in higher education is substantially greater now than it was when the government came to office. It is worth noting that Australia's investment in tertiary education is significantly higher than the OECD average. Australia's total spending, public and private, on tertiary institutions in 1998—the latest OECD figures—was 1.59 per cent of GDP, above the OECD mean of 1.33 per cent and higher than national investment in countries like Germany and the United Kingdom.

The suggestion that this government has reduced university places is equally untrue. There are in fact some 28,000 more places available in Australian universities this year than there were when the government came to office, and some 30,000 additional undergraduate places. So, far from there being a reduction, there has been an expansion in university places.

What could the opposition possibly mean by these clearly untrue and misleading statements? Let me interpret them for anyone who may be listening to this debate. The interpretation is simply this: Labor is not talking about reductions; it is talking about changes to forward estimates that it projected when it had a deficit of over $10.3 billion. Let me make this point: when the Labor Party went to the Australian people in 1998, it had a full opportunity to promise to spend according to its previous forward estimates on universities. It did not do so. It has never promised to restore those forward estimates at an election campaign.

This shows the total hypocrisy of the Labor Party. It is asking the Australian higher education sector to believe that it would never have addressed the $10.3 billion black hole or, if it did, addressing it would never have had an impact on the higher education sector. Nobody in the higher education sector believes that. So the shadow minister, like his leader, is living in a fantasy land. He is trying to put forward misleading propositions in the hope that someone will believe that funding for universities has been cut and that universities have fewer resources and fewer places now than when the government came to office. None of those propositions is true.

I notice that the shadow minister then tries another sleight of hand in the second proposition in his second reading amendment, and that is that there was a reduction of 3,278 in enrolments of Australian university students in the year 2000. What he does not tell you is that there are 28,000 more students in Australian universities now than when the Labor Party had charge of the higher education system. He is hoping to use figures for year-to-year fluctuations and to obscure the general and very substantial increase that has taken place in enrolments in the university sector. As people in the sector will know, the government announced further places within the last week which will amount to some 21,000 additional places in the sector over the next five years as a result of the 2,000 innovation places and further places as a result of the 670 regional places. In the next four years, those two measures together will add some 20,800 places to the university sector.

Since the Howard government has been in office, we have had an increase in places which is essentially equivalent to another large new university in the system. We have just announced decisions which will add further places equivalent to another university within the system. Only the opposition believes that it can get away with this constant misleading of public opinion by its statements that there have been reductions in the number of places. This is laughable. Why should anyone believe that the Leader of the Opposition, who said the universities were big enough at the size they were in 1993, has any credibility when he says that the opposition is committed to significant growth in the sector? No-one in the sector believes that the Labor Party is so committed to significant growth. All we have are these misleading statements from the Labor Party.

Unfortunately, a number of other statements in the course of this debate were also misleading. We heard the opposition suggest that participation in universities by women is declining. This is completely untrue. In fact, women now account for 56.3 per cent of the higher education population, up from 55 per cent in 1996. We also heard claims that enrolment growth in universities is slow, but the opposition fails to acknowledge that unmet demand is now significantly lower than it was when the opposition was in office. The Labor Party shut tens of thousands of qualified Australian students out of universities because, while it was quite happy to have full fee paying courses at postgraduate level, it was not prepared to give Australians the opportunity to obtain fee paying places at undergraduate level while it was quite happy to have overseas students obtain such places. The government has introduced the opportunity for universities to establish fee paying places at undergraduate level, and as a consequence there are now several thousand students in the sector who have had access to these places. That has been a significant improvement in opportunity. In addition, the government has pursued policies which have significantly opened opportunity in the vocational education and training sector. We have seen 386,000 additional places added to vocational education over the last five years.

The skilling up of Australia is continuing at a most significant rate under this government. There has been some rebalancing in tertiary education under this government between the vocational education and training sector and the higher education sector, but the significant fact is that unmet demand for higher education has reduced significantly under this government. This year, for example, the level of unsuccessful university applications dropped by 14.4 per cent nationally. The universities themselves are projecting that, by the year 2003, total enrolments in Australian universities will be 599,000 students, up 30 per cent since the government came to office. Yet we have the opposition moving a second reading amendment in the House which attempts to persuade people in the community, and presumably in the sector, that somehow or other student numbers have reduced. I do not know how long it believes it can maintain this laughable charade, but it has no credibility within the university sector for the nonsense it goes on with in these debates.

Another point raised in the debate related to research training places. The opposition has claimed, quite incorrectly, that the number of research training places has been cut by 3,336. This is simply not the case. You always have to look closely at the text of what the opposition puts forward because there is always a sleight of hand involved in these sorts of propositions when they come from the Labor Party. What it does not tell you is that the number of HECS exempt postgraduate research students has actually increased. The number of postgraduate research students occupying the HECS exempt research student places has actually gone up. What the Labor Party is referring to is the fact that the government has taken action in cases where universities have sought to increase the postgraduate research student load by using HECS places, places which would normally be available for undergraduate students.

The result of that, as shown by very careful studies by my department, has been that the completion rates of those students have gone down, because we have seen students move into the research area without adequate supervision. To give an indication of the dimension of the problem, which the Labor Party has never even mentioned—it seems to show no awareness of it whatever—across the whole sector, for research students who began in 1992 the completion rate after eight years is 53 per cent. There are universities where 20 per cent of students who commenced postgraduate research in 1992 have completed it. There are very significant issues which the government have sought to address. We have addressed them with one objective in view, and that objective is to lift the number of postgraduate research students completing their postgraduate research, because that is vital for Australia's future.

The Labor Party never talks about completions. The Labor Party is satisfied if someone commences. It seems to have no interest in whether the commencing student ever completes their degree, or whether Australia ever gets the benefit of the resources which are put into supporting the postgraduate research of those students. It offers no comment on whether the government should be commended for seeking to increase the level of postgraduate research completions, and that will certainly be the impact of our policy. Far from reducing the number of research completions in Australia, the government's policies are increasing those completions. Finally, the Labor Party refers to postgraduate course work places without making any reference to the fact that this very piece of legislation is designed to offer HECS type loans—that is, no-interest, income-contingent loans—to postgraduate students.

The Labor Party, unfortunately, has demonstrated once again that it has no interest in higher education policy and no interest in improving the capacity of Australia's universities to raise resources and meet the needs of this country and its students in future. I am only grateful that the Labor Party has said that it will support this piece of legislation, and I urge it to do so. (Time expired)

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.