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Thursday, 22 August 1996
Page: 2956

Senator FORSHAW(4.26 p.m.) —Unfortunately, my allotted time has been cut, but I have to say it is a small price to pay when we consider the massive cuts that this government has implemented in the area of education, and particularly higher education. This is a government that really does not understand the importance of higher education to Australians and to Australia.

This is a government that has a minister in charge of the higher education portfolio who believes she can determine higher education policy and higher education funding by having a fireside chat. This is a minister whose approach to this most important of portfolios is to sit down, invite the vice-chancellors of the universities in and then proceed to try to have an auction sale by saying to them, `Look, we have to have some cuts; what would you want—five per cent, 10 per cent or 15 per cent?'

There has been a total abrogation of responsibility by Senator Vanstone, the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, from virtually the first day she took over the portfolio when she tried to transfer the decision making processes from herself and from her own department on to those persons charged with the running of universities. Of course, they did not buy that because they knew what was going to come; they were not going to sign their own suicide note.

Since then we have seen this minister implement one of the most disastrous education policies that one could ever witness. I say to all those government members and senators in this parliament, who in many cases have been the beneficiaries of the great reforms implemented by Labor governments—commencing with Whitlam and going through to Hawke and Keating—in the area of higher education, that they should think seriously about what they are doing to the future of young Australians.

With these massive expenditure cuts, you will be reducing by around 30,000 the number of university places that will be available. The government is turning back the clock. In our period of government we almost doubled the number of places, from 350,000 to 630,000. In one year you will reduce that substantially. You are ripping around five per cent out of the higher education budget. You are placing at risk the future of regional universities—universities in northern New South Wales, in western Sydney and in other states such as Victoria and South Australia particularly. Just as those universities have got off the ground, have got the capital investment and expenditure in them and are attracting more students into higher education, you are threatening their very existence. For instance, of 16,000 student places in regional universities throughout Australia that will go by the board, approximately 2,400 of them are in New South Wales. That will mean a massive reduction of $24 million out of regional universities in New South Wales.

The same story is told throughout all the other states. What is this minister's response? She says, `Oh well, they can get in by paying full fees.' You know that students in those areas, families in those areas, are not going to have the capacity to pay full fees to take up places in universities. This government's ultimate disgraceful approach to regional higher education can be seen when you look at the statement delivered by the Hon. John Sharp on budget day entitled Rebuilding Regional Australia. You will not find one mention anywhere in that document of the word `education'. Education in regional Australia is not important to this government.