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Thursday, 6 May 1993
Page: 278

Senator TIERNEY (4.36 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

I bring the 1991-92 annual report of the Department of Employment, Education and Training to the notice of the Senate because of the outrageous claims it makes in relation to government education policy. The report quite correctly notes that the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 has been amended to implement the policies outlined in the report. However, the Minister for Employment, Education and Training (Mr Beazley) and his department then go on to claim that the changes to the Higher Education Funding Amendment Act 1988 increase the autonomy and flexibility of our universities. It is important for the Senate to know that this statement is complete rubbish and, in fact, the opposite has occurred.

  The changes to this Act which the report refers to actually has resulted in all universities in Australia being placed under the direct control of the Minister for Employment, Education and Training. This completely bypasses the role of the States which are constitutionally responsible for our universities. Up until 1987 there was a reasonable degree of cooperation between the Commonwealth and the States on policy formation for the universities. This State authority has been eroded severely since 1987 and now has been eliminated altogether.

  The report reveals an even more disturbing change. There is a big difference between the funding of the universities of Australia through the appropriation of Parliament and funding them through ministerial determination. Under the new arrangement, the appropriation is not subject to scrutiny. There is no debate in the Parliament and amendment is no longer possible. Under a ministerial determination, the whole decision is left up to one person's discretion—the Minister's.

  I also point out to the Senate that this ministerial determination has not as yet been presented to the Parliament and that universities are still obviously operating with funding. The question therefore arises: why has the determination, which is a disallowable instrument, not been tabled? What is the Minister hiding? Why is public comment being hindered by the Minister's delay in presenting his determination? In the Canberra Times on 12 February, Crispin Hull says that the new funding arrangements:

. . . will have a huge impact on the independence of universities and ultimately academic freedom, which is one of the important legs of our democracy.

He also says that the new legislation is:

divisive, can wreck universities' autonomy, will eliminate the states' role and put unnecessary power in the Minister's hands. It has the potential to be an insensitive, centralised and dangerous power. The universities in Australia are too important to be placed under the ministerial thumb.

This opinion was supported by the editorial in the Canberra Times on 14 February and letters to the Australian and the Canberra Times signed by seven professors of the Australian National University, including one of its founders, Sir Mark Oliphant. It is therefore clear that, contrary to the claims of this report, the higher education sector has lost autonomy and flexibility under the policies of this ALP Government.

The Government is continuing to centralise control of the higher education sector, and our universities are losing their autonomy and their independence. As higher education funding now stands in Australia, the Minister of the day has the power to determine how much funding each university will be allocated and the Minister will base his determination on a set of criteria which universities have met through his insidious profiling process.

  The only real scrutiny the Australian Parliament has over the higher education funding sector is in the global amount for the entire sector. This means that the universities may be forced to abandon their own research and teaching agendas and follow the social and economic vision of the Labor Government. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.