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Speech to the 8th National Higher Education Summit

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 29 Apr 2010

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land - the Kaurna people. The land on which we meet is still of cultural and indeed educational significance to them today.

I would also like to acknowledge the previous speaker, the Opposition's Spokesperson on Education, the Hon. Christopher Pyne.

Education is at a crossroads in this country. After a decade of inaction and inadequate funding, the new Rudd government promised an education revolution.

While there have been some positive measures implemented, the major funding recommendations of the Bradley review have still been largely ignored.

With the Federal Budget to be announced within the fortnight, I am hoping that education is front and centre of the Rudd Government's third budget. As the Greens' Spokesperson on education, I'll continue to work with you all to ensure that the sector is given the attention and support it deserves.

After all, education is fundamental pillar of our society - crucial to our social and economic progress as a nation.

On that point, it often strikes me as strange that Governments of both persuasions talk a lot about the need to secure economic growth, yet they fail to effectively invest in education as the ultimate engine room of our economy.

While we acknowledge the Deputy Prime Minister's commitment to education -given the neglect of the past and the diversity of issues that need to be addressed, - we wonder whether bundling all of the issues together into a mega portfolio is the best approach.

This is why the Greens are today calling for the establishment of a Higher Education parliamentary secretary who can hear the concerns of the sector directly and action their feedback.

This no reflection on the Deputy Prime Minister, but rather recognition of the importance of education to government decision-making. I think the absence of a Government representative here today, to identify their objectives beyond the next election, is disappointing.

We Greens see education as being a life-long journey. Whether it is investing in early childhood education, primary, secondary, university, TAFE, or vocational training - these are the building blocks of a good public citizen.

So what is the Greens' vision for universities?

Firstly, we believe, as a core principle that all people are entitled to free, well-funded and high quality, life-long public education and training.

Unfortunately, there is much to be done to realise that ideal. While it's not a radical concept, it's one that both major parties continue to claim is beyond our reach, despite other countries in the OECD being able to achieve this.

It's interesting to note that many of those sitting up on the hill, had the benefit of a free education. But that's a debate for another place...

The Greens have been dismayed over the last decade or so with the battering our public universities have taken from governments. As you all know, in the last decade public expenditure on higher education in Australia fell to be one of the lowest in the OECD - falling by 30% in the Howard years. It is time this trend was reversed.

We are not yet convinced the government's agenda is delivering the funding that is needed to properly address the shortfall of public expenditure in universities. We remain behind the vast majority of OECD nations on funding to higher education as a percentage of GDP - currently at only 0.7%.

The government's funding commitments to its reform agenda are significantly below what was recommended in the Bradley review. We need a much bigger investment in our higher education sector.

Universities are places of teaching and learning and of research. These functions are vital to our nation's wellbeing and prosperity. But universities and higher education are not just about ensuring our productivity keeps increasing and our economic growth.

That's important - as I flagged earlier - but we must remember the broader role that universities play in our communities and the intellectual and cultural values they represent........

These include:
• The intrinsic valuing of knowledge;

• Research that contributes to the well-being of our society and the world - whether it be scientific/medical/music/art/ or a better understanding of ourselves; and

• The generating of public intellectual debate

In order to enable the kind of intellectual debate I'm talking about, the independence of the university sector is paramount. This means a revenue source that is guaranteed long term from government to government, and not tied to industrial relations reform or other ideologically motivated governance measures.

An independent long-term revenue source would reduce the sector's reliance on corporate funding and better enable its independence.

With this comes academic freedom. Freedom for both students and academics alike to share ideas, express opinions and build the intellectual capacity of this nation is a fundamental element of a functional university sector.

Just as the Prime Minister spoke of creating a culture of frank and fearless advice in the public sector, government must also foster this culture within our universities. Stripping universities of resources and, placing a reliance on corporate funding for research creates an environment where academics are potentially discouraged from speaking out - for fear of biting the hand that feeds them.

Academic freedom and the freedom to express ideas are crucial for academics, but let me also say, the Greens see this as being crucial for students as well. This means the right to independently organise and provide autonomous student run services.

I know that the AVCC was outspoken in condemning the Howard Government's VSU agenda and that four years later, many of you are still seeing the devestating impact of this legislation.

Whether it is having to find extra money in your own budgets to prop up student services and activities, or the decay of campus culture. Expecting universities to pick up the slack, without additional resources, is not an effective public policy.

I know as a former Student President at Adelaide University (incidentally, Mr Pyne's old stomping ground as well) the importance of the independent student body - not only acting as a conduit between students and their institution, but also acting as a important conduit between the sector and government.

Without this - as we've seen in the context of international students (as one example) Government finds it difficult to formulate effective policy responses, when there is no structured student body, with which it can liaise.

The Greens are disappointed that there has been no movement on this issue and we will continue to lobby the Government to put its legislation back on the Senate program.

At this point I should acknowledge that like many of the stakeholders in the university sector, the Greens welcomed the Government's commitment of additional resources to universities though its reform agenda.

We also welcome the Government's participation targets, particularly in respect of making university education more accessible to students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Although this of course has to start right back at the beginning with a total commitment to and the valuing of, investing in early childhood education and care. Let me say, that while the Greens strongly support universities being more accessible.

The failure to extend the youth allowance provisions to those students who are geographically disadvantaged seems at odds with this important policy objective.

The challenge for government, as always, is to match rhetoric, with action. And consultation with key stakeholders, such as yourselves and your colleagues, is paramount in ensuring that we get the balance right.

If we really want universities to be accessible, then we need to do a better job in terms of engaging all young people - irrespective of their background, or socioeconomic status. We all recognise the increased cost of living - so many students are now juggling full time study with full time work. And to that end, financially supporting students in reaching their educational goals is a must.

And let's not forget, supporting regional campuses in recruiting and retaining staff and students is an equally important part of any government reform agenda.

On the issue of retaining staff, it is concerning that up to 50% of teaching is being conducted by casual workers. With the intended significant increases in participation and an aging workforce it is absolutely vital plans are in place to revitalise the university workforces.

The Bradley Review identified the ageing of the university workforce and the increasing reliance on the use of casual employees as being two of the major challenges facing the sector over the next decade.

While the Government has acknowledged this concern through increasing indexation, the Greens agree with the NTEU that the failure to guarantee any funding for universities to develop workforce initiatives is a major concern.

I note that in their budget submission NTEU has proposed that 20 percent of each universities additional indexation funding be made conditional on its capacity to demonstrate that it has put in place practical workforce development strategies.

This would certainly be something the Greens would look to support, particularly when neither of the major parties has implemented core strategies to address the ageing and casualisation of the university sector.

Developing workforce development strategies are just as critical as student access and general funding issues, which is why the Greens are announcing today that we want a review into academic employment - career development, job security and the issue of casualisation.

Evidence provided by the Australian Council for Academic Research, has highlighted the challenges facing the sustainability and development of the academic workforce in Australia, which is why we need to a review into how we can inform workforce planning and development in the years to come.

We are keen to listen to innovative ways of attracting people into academic carers and keeping them here - ensuring job security and appropriate wages and conditions.

The Greens will be announcing a suite of initiatives on these issues, and other broader higher education matters through the course of the year.

I want to turn now to a concept that I've obviously got a passion for as a Greens Senator, that's "Greening Universities". I understand this morning you heard from the Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University in the UK on this very topic.

As leading research institutions and places of teaching and learning, having universities engage in a practical way with environmental concerns and reducing greenhouse gas emission, is something we fully support and endorse.

Universities have been and will continue to be key elements in transforming our society to a low-carbon economy. The research that scientists have undertaken into climate change, the innovation in technologies and the research into the social and economic impacts of changes are so vital.

Particularly, when we have seen our own Prime Minister currently shelving any real action or leadership on the issue for the sake of politics.

It is also encouraging for universities to implement green practices - in their infrastructure, through their curriculum and through their teaching practice.

I hope to see more of this Greening-up of our universities, here in Australia.

In summary, the Greens agenda is clear - we'll keep advocating for affordable and accessible higher education, for universities to be places of learning and research and not just the neglected cogs in our economy. We will be pushing for a sustainable and properly valued workforce.

We want the focus not on websites like My Universities but on what our universities need, what our academics need and what our students need to ensure a vibrant, full, world-class future for higher education in this country.

In an election year, education is always a big ticket item and we in the Greens will be watching both sides of the house with interest, to see who really values education. And who will match rhetoric, with action.

In closing, I want to make it clear today that my door is always open. The Greens are committed to working with academics and the university community to promote the best interests of the sector as a whole.

Thank you once again for providing me with the opportunity to speak today and I look forward to working with you all in this important election year.

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