Oct 15, 2003

Higher Education Support Bill 2003


15 October 2003

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (10.21 a.m.) —This legislation, the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 and the Higher Education Support (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2003 could not have come at a more important time. As I rise to speak today, you can be sure that there are hundreds of young Australians everywhere, sitting down in their homes trying to focus their minds away from the TV and onto their study books, with the heavy knowledge that their final school exams are just around the corner. Alongside these young Australians are their parents, who bear not only the role of study enforcers but also concern about what the end of the year will bring for their child, no matter what their final results are.

This time will be blissful for some lucky parents of year 12 students—not only are they sure their child will obtain the marks to get into the course of their choice but they know they can afford to support their child’s talents and ambitions. Young people preparing for their exams know that there are limited places for students at universities across Australia. They know that, even if they achieve higher than last year’s entry mark for their chosen course, there is no guarantee they will get a place, because there are fewer places. They know that when they finish they are guaranteed to have a debt that will take them years to pay off. They know that other young people who may not be as intelligent as them or who may not have worked as hard will get their place because their parents have more money. How fair is this? How Australian is this?

Until recently Australians were regarded as one of the most highly educated societies on earth, but the rest of the world has caught up. Australia today invests only 6.15 per cent of its GDP in our most valuable asset—knowledge. The United States invests 8.73 per cent; Finland, 9.62 per cent; and Sweden, 10.8 per cent. For our nation to be all that it can be, we must invest not just in some of them occasionally but in all of them continually and according to opportunity. We must not let any group or any disadvantage area be left behind. Only a generation ago it was common for people to rise from the shop floor to the boardroom in the span of their working life.

Education has always been one of the biggest political issues for women. But one of the reasons education is now a big issue for men as well is that many fathers realise their children will not have the same opportunity they had to get ahead in life unless they get a trade or a university education. They know that university or TAFE qualifications have become their sons’ and daughters’ passports to a secure future, as well as guaranteeing a secure future for our nation. If we want high incomes and growth we have to be skilled. We have to be educated. These things will not fall into our laps. Australia’s education spending is certainly at odds with international trends.

As well as opening up education opportunities in the fields that industry need, Labor is committed to supporting disadvantaged students’ aspirations. Our Bright Futures program will encourage students from disadvantaged areas to consider future learning and training. This is a fundamental element of our education package. We want to open their eyes to opportunities, to plant the potential seed of ambition, in the early years of high school. Bright Futures will cost $35 million over four years. The money will go to schools, universities and TAFEs to encourage young people to keep learning. It will involve visits by TAFE and university students to tell school students first-hand about their training options. Labor will not increase the HECS burden on students or their families. Overly large prospective debt discourages participation, particularly of those from poorer backgrounds.

The government knows all about this—and not only chooses to ignore it but also hides the facts. The `more honest than thou’ Minister Nelson tried to bury a report, which the government had been sitting on for months, by releasing it one Friday afternoon at 5.30 p.m. The data showed the government’s 1996 HECS increases turned an annual 9,000 school leavers and 17,000 mature age prospective students away from furthering their education at university. The government hid this report because it killed its defence of the planned 30 per cent fee increase. The government’s plan is not just an exercise in pushing responsibility off its books but also a lazy policy. By contrast Labor will invest more in TAFEs and universities to increase the number of places.

We must also improve the quality of higher education. Labor’s 21st century fund will create a world-class university system. Our indexation fund will stabilise funding in real terms to relieve the pressure that now gives students standing room only at lectures and sees tutorials disappearing. We will raise the annual salary threshold at which graduates repay HECS to $35,000, providing relief to low- and middle-income graduates. Our 300 three-year postdoctoral fellowships are designed to slow the brain drain. At a time when we are hosting Science Meets Parliament in this House, it is appropriate to reflect on the drain from this nation of some of our best minds in research and science who have chosen to go overseas because of the financial cutbacks that have occurred in higher education and research in this country.

The total cost of our package is $2.34 billion over four years. It is fully funded. Parents believe that they have to start saving from the time their child is born if they want them to have the opportunity to go to university. According to one report, the Australian Scholarships Group has put the cost of a four-year science HECS degree, including living costs, at $143,506 by 2015. The same degree is projected to cost $255,000 in full fees, including living costs. These developments are frightening. Parents are right to be worried. These developments mean that a university education will be limited to those who can pay. What is more, the considerable social and economic spin-offs of a strong university sector—tax receipts, skilled professionals, increased productivity and international competitiveness—will all diminish.

The Howard government wants to let universities increase HECS fees by 30 per cent. An increase on that scale will mean that students’ contributions will have more than doubled since 1996. Already the University of Sydney has decided to increase fees by 30 per cent in all possible courses. Labor are committed to making university a prospect for all Australians. We will not increase HECS for students and we will lower HECS fees for maths and science. Labor believe we need to encourage more students to pursue maths and science, and we will cut the cost of a three-year degree in these fields by nearly $5,000. Labor will abolish full fees for domestic undergraduates, whereby people buy a university place ahead of someone with higher marks and pay as much as $150,000 for a degree.

The Howard government wants to double the number of full fee places at Australian universities. This government is about education for the elite. That is why it has provided such substantial increases in funding for category 1 schools. Australians should not have to pay exorbitant fees to buy a university place when they are already contributing to our tertiary system through their tax and HECS. All Australians should have an equal opportunity to get into university, based entirely on ability. Under Labor, merit will be the only criterion for getting a university place. The size of your wallet should not be a factor.

Forty per cent of our teaching work force is due to retire in the next 10 years, yet the Howard government turned away nearly 30,000 prospective teachers from university between 1996 and 2001. There is not one extra teaching place in the Howard government’s higher education package for our public universities. Labor will create 500 new HECS funded postgraduate teaching places in areas of specialisation and professional development and provide additional funding to increase the quality of teacher education, including meeting the costs of classroom teacher training. By contrast, the Howard government’s higher education package has one main policy objective: making students pay more.

Labor is committed to funding not just more university places but 20,000 more TAFE places as well. The government is offering nothing—not one extra dollar or TAFE place, despite the enormous need. Currently, up to 15,000 school leavers who are qualified and who want to do a TAFE course are turned away each year. There is nothing smart about this for anyone. There are also those who look to go to TAFE later in life—those who need to retrain—who cannot get in. That is why we are adding 20,000 new TAFE places. We want them aimed at addressing skills shortages. Labor will deliver more places at more affordable prices at higher quality universities.

The differences come down to this: Labor believes in a society that creates more wealth by offering opportunities to everyone with talent; the coalition only want to make life easier for the well off. In the global knowledge economy, sustained long-term economic prosperity is unimaginable without an ever improving education system. The government proposals all point towards a future where educational opportunity is based on the size of your bank balance rather than the marks you get and the ability you have. Labor stands for a different future: one where a great university education is a prospect for all Australians from any background.