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Monday, 24 November 2003
Page: 17581

Senator MOORE (8:07 PM) —In speaking to the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 I want to commence by sharing with the Senate what Minister Nelson said when he was promoting the legislation to a group of university students. He actually said that what this proposed legislation does is offer the community, students and the wider group of Australians real choice. I think what we should do is look quite clearly at what those choices are.

What indeed is being offered to students who are looking at taking up study—maybe for the first time—and to people who are looking at funding study for members of their family? What we have seen, through this legislation, is a choice for those who can afford to pay for education. We already know that Australian students are now paying a higher contribution towards current courses than are most other students across OECD countries. The percentage is already too high. In fact, when the system of HECS was introduced it was a contributory system; it was never intended to pay for over 50 per cent of the cost of education. But, increasingly, over the last seven or eight years HECS has been rising, and people who are looking at education now are being asked to pay, through their own contributions, way too high a price—and we know the cost of that.

What the legislation before us this evening does is, in effect, make that choice harder because the proposal accepts that the HECS payments will increase and it deregulates the payment of the student contribution—the expectation is that these increases will be great. Already through this proposal there can be an increase of up to 30 per cent on the current rates of HECS in universities across our country. We have already seen one major university accept this challenge—and a challenge and a choice it is—to raise HECS contributions. According to the government, what we could also see is the option for universities to lower these charges. So far, that choice has not been offered to any student in Australia. So, through this legislation, the choice for families who want to access higher education is that they must pay. There is no option.

Not only will HECS fees be increased but, through this legislation, there will be a greater offering of full fee paying places in universities. So those people who are fortunate enough or who have the choice to access funds will be able to buy education as a marketable commodity. People will be able to make a choice, according to the Nelson plan, to take up education, but it will be at a cost. Already, through the process of the Senate committee hearings where people across the country were interviewed about the proposed legislation, we have heard that studies by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training have found that, under the current system, annual student expenditure exceeds their income by about 21 per cent and that seven out of 10 students are now in some form of paid employment. They are working to help fund their education, and the number of hours that the students are working is greater. So, as well as the load of obtaining an education and fulfilling the dreams that they and their families have, they need to work to maintain an income so that they can survive through the period of study.

This is even before any element of HECS debt comes in; this is just to live during the period they are studying to obtain a degree, a diploma or some form of education. The number of hours that students are working on average is increasing so, as well as a full study load, students are balancing full workloads. There is extensive research that shows the impact on students of trying to make this balance, of trying to fulfil the increasingly onerous requirements of the education plans they are undertaking and the expectations of work. Anyone who visits a university in our country would see the flow of students in and out of the campuses—particularly the people who are doing study outside normal hours.

There is no such thing as a `standard student'. The persons who are looking for an education are all ages, they have families, they have children. One of the more confronting experiences I had over the last couple of months was talking with a group of students at one of our Queensland campuses who were raising children as well as balancing their study. They were having to work out the demands of child care as well as working, attending classes and tutorials, and trying to fulfil the demands of their normal lives. This particular situation has been studied quite comprehensively in some areas because of the absolute lack of paid child-care places, particularly out of hours. We heard of students who are already struggling with decisions about whether they can fulfil their study requirements while wondering about whether they can do it at the same time as looking for child care for their kids.

There is something quite exciting about seeing families where a mum or a dad is making the choice to attend university studying in the library with their kids beside them playing quietly, as they must in a library, because there is no available child care on the campus in the evenings or because they just cannot pay the extra up to $190 a month to cover their child-care requirements. That particular issue is one that must be considered in the overall issue of looking at the choices that people have when they are looking at taking up university study.

When the process of this particular legislation was being discussed through the Senate committee, we met with students and educationalists across the country. At the hearing in Brisbane, I was particularly taken by a young man who looked at the issue of balancing the threat of the new legislation with his requirements for study. He said:

Throughout my degree, I have had to take on additional work to supplement my income just to survive. This has, without a doubt, affected my capacity to concentrate on my studies. I'm making a submission to this committee for the first time. I've made the choice to come and talk to a Senate committee because I feel that I've been one of the many students that have genuinely struggled under the current system of deferred HECS and youth allowance.

Further I feel that if HECS payments are increased and scholarships are to affect the capacity to receive other government assistance then there will be many genuinely worthy students turned away from university. What particularly bothers me is the capacity of someone with money to enter into a course on lower academic levels.

I can genuinely say that if HECS payments were increased at this institution that I am studying at I probably would not have chosen to study. I would probably have ended up working at the meatworks at home because that was a job I could get. I don't pretend to be really hardly done by nor do I argue that I am a special case. I know that there are many others within the university who have had to struggle in the same way.

The threat of the legislation changes before us now were so real to that student that he felt he had to share his story with the committee and also with the community. We have seen people who have experienced their own choices and found that they have been limited. They believe that their stories can have an impact on people in this Senate who can vote to accept the changes or not.

When Minister Nelson was consulting over the last 18 months leading up to this legislation, there was genuine hope in the community that there would be a chance for real change in the higher education area. There was agreement that there needed to be changes. The experiences of people in the system now are difficult. The experiences of university vice-chancellors and boards trying to make the budgets meet to ensure that we can have a dynamic university sector are difficult. But there was hope that there would be a chance to make cooperative changes.

What has happened with the legislation is worse than having no consultation at all, because hopes have been built up, expectations have been created and there does not seem to be much change. As I have said, we have the choice to have a pay-as-you-go education system: if you can afford to pay, you will be able to access the brave new world of the higher education scheme. The legislation we have combines changes within the university system with some very strong philosophical issues that we have faced under the current government in other fields. In particular, in this legislation there is the linkage of changes to the university system with funding threats linked absolutely to a change in the industrial relations system within the university sector. Numerous commentators have questioned how the proposed changes to the industrial relations system genuinely impact on university reform.

If Minister Nelson is putting before university communities a genuine choice, why then is there only the government's industrial relations plan to access the additional funding? Why then is there no choice for universities in that process? Why must there be the standard industrial relations process, which we have seen before from the current government linking the process of AWAs and forced bargaining that does not include communal activity through unionism or through community activity in any way? Anything that is not through the standard industrial relations process that has been favoured by the government has been taken away. It is one thing if there is an option but the choice put before the governing bodies of the universities is that if you do not accept the offer given to you by the government—which follows the standard industrial relations mantra—you will not be able to access this particular pot of money. That is not freedom of choice; that is clear direction and moulding in a set image which will be laid down, and there will be no choice.

I think what disappoints me most about this legislation is that it has been packaged in such a way that desperation has been created amongst the people in the university sector. There is a genuine fear that, if this legislation is not passed by a certain date in exactly the way that it has been imposed on the Senate, people will miss out. Fear has been created. What I cannot balance is the acceptance that there was going to be positive consultation and that there would be understanding and cooperation, when genuine negotiation is where people of true trust and common purpose can sit together and find common ground, but what has happened instead is that that has been removed.

Instead, we have almost desperation being expressed by university communities which say on record, `We don't like the package. We don't like the threat of the industrial relations proposals. We don't like the attempted bullying of changing the size of our governing bodies. We don't like the linkages of different aspects and we certainly don't like the intrusion of the government in the day-to-day activities of the university. We don't like any of that. But if we are to receive the necessary funding—the funding that we have all agreed across the community is necessary to enthuse and grow and make the Australian education system positive and dynamic—if we are going to obtain that part of the deal, we must accept all the other parts.' That is not negotiation and that is not free choice; that comes damned close to blackmail and bullying. I would have thought that the best way to keep people together and on side is to have the openness and the choice that was so promoted by Minister Nelson in his consultations with the community. That would be the way that that would be achieved.

When we spoke with students at the University of New South Wales, they were talking about their hopes for the future. When we talk about the issue of the third level of education in our community, we should look at not only the students of today but also the students of the future who are coming through the system. In this place tomorrow we will be having a meeting of Youth Parliament. Young people have chosen to be part of the wonderful experience of learning about how our political system works and to take part in the activities of Youth Parliament. Those young people are the students of today and tomorrow. What choice is this legislation providing for them and their families? Must they continue to make choices that will limit their ability to go into the particular fields of study that they think will best suit them? Must their families take out extra loans—and this is happening now—to help fund university studies? Must we have the situation where, through their study, students take on pre-acquired debt that will hang over them for the rest of their lives? We have found cases where, on current earnings levels, people will be looking at a debt that will grow and stay with them for 15 or 20 years into the future. That process is added to when people take on other levels of debt through normal living expenses.

Taking on long-term debt to fund their education cannot be seen as a choice that people must make. This was not the intent of the original HECS; it was not the intent of the changes to HECS in the past. But it is clearly the reality of this legislation. The expectation is that some courses will cost up to $100,000. We have not found too many students who can afford that. Kids across the country have before them critical choices that they face now as they are finishing school. Last week young people were finishing off their grade 12 or equivalent studies and they were looking towards their tertiary education. It is tough enough in 2003, but, should the changes proposed in this legislation come in, their choices will be narrowed. As I said earlier, the focus will be on the idea that those who can pay will succeed.

Through the Senate process, we have found that knowledge creation and knowledge transmission must become essential for collective social and economic wellbeing and progress. If our community truly believes that—if we truly believe that the concepts of growth, knowledge and the sharing of knowledge are the way towards social and economic wellbeing in our community—we must be able to offer access to education to people who need that chance. We must be able to offer that not just to school leavers but to people who want to come into the education sphere at any level of their life. The current legislation will make that more difficult. That choice will be more difficult.

What we must have—and what the proposed consultation around this legislation was claimed to be about—is sustainability, quality, equity and diversity. They were the catchcries of the consultation. Our education system will not be able to be sustained if it relies on inbuilt wealth. The quality of education is something that we all agree must be maintained and enhanced. That requires from governments at all levels—particularly the federal government—a genuine commitment to invest effectively in our future. The equity aspect of education has been discussed by a number of previous speakers. The small number of scholarships that have been put before us in this legislation and that have been touted as adding the aspects of equity and diversity are not good enough. The choices around those scholarships do not provide the options that our students require.

The government may have had some plaudits for the conduct of the Crossroads inquiry. Indeed, many people felt stimulated by the chance to look at the future of education. What has happened, though, is that the reality and the fear of the changes involved in this legislation can lead to only one thing: removal from education and a lack of choice for our students rather than the enhanced choice which was the intent when the report was put out in 2002.