House debates

Monday, 27 May 2013

Private Members' Business

University Funding

6:31 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In the lead-up to the budget there were a lot of people around the country who were taking quite some heart from the rhetoric about Australia becoming a smarter country and spreading the benefits of the mining boom, and there were people who were looking forward to an investment in our higher education sector and perhaps some relief for the tens of hundreds of thousands of students around the country who were suffering under significant debt burdens and who do not have an income that is enough to make ends meet.

Instead, on 13 April, the newly appointed Minister for Tertiary Education, Dr Craig Emerson, announced $2.3 billion in cuts to universities and their students. The cuts mean a $900 million efficiency dividend of two per cent in 2014 and 1.25 per cent in 2015, which will mean less funding per student—an amount of about five per cent less public funding per student, according to the National Tertiary Education Union. There will be a $1.2 billion saving from scrapping Student Start-Up scholarships and replacing them with loans, putting even more debt onto students, and further savings from removing the HECs discount for up-front payments.

These cuts come to a sector that was already under significant pressure. They come on the back of last year's cuts to the university sector that totalled around $1 billion, including the abolition of university facilitation funding of $270 million, reductions to the Sustainable Research Excellence, the SRE program, of just on half-a-billion dollars as well as savings in relation to student income support and scholarships of $250 million.

The University of Melbourne, in my electorate, faces cuts of $52 million, with Victorian universities generally facing cuts of almost $200 million over two years. These cuts contradict the advice that has been given to the government. As the NTEU points out, in 2008 the then education minister, Julia Gillard, asked Professor Denise Bradley to undertake a comprehensive review of Australian higher education. It was for universities what the Gonski review was for schools. One of the key recommendations of the Bradley review was the need for an immediate 10 per cent increase in funding per government supported student to ensure universities had the necessary resources to provide high quality and internationally competitive education. These findings were reaffirmed by the Base Funding Review, chaired by Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, and released in October 2011, which found that universities were significantly under-resourced to provide the teaching and basic research capability expected of them.

Bill Scales, who is not only Chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology but also served on both the Bradley review of higher education and the Gonski review of school education, has described Labor's funding cuts as 'not only incoherent but schizophrenic'.

In 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said:

We know that Australia's universities have a critical part to play in making this country smarter, fairer and more prosperous. In order to meet our economic and social ambitions we need to make sure that our universities are properly resourced and able to tackle the problems, and teach the workforce, of the future.

But now the Prime Minister is presiding over cuts which will harm our universities. Labor's cuts to universities, research and student support will harm students, our education system and the economy. We are going to need an economy when the rest of the world tells us to stop digging. That point may come sooner rather than later and that economy is going to be based on our minds, not our mines. We cannot have a smarter country if we cut funds to universities, we cannot have a fairer society if we do not support students from low-income families to go to university and we cannot have a strong economy if we cut back universities and research. Taking money from universities to fund schools is robbing Peter to pay Paul—and it just does not add up.

Instead of a cash grab to fund an election commitment on schools, Labor should have the guts to stand up to the big miners and put in place a proper mining tax and then we could fund the education we need from child care, to kindergarten, to schools through to universities. What this shows is that the old parties cannot be trusted to look after education. If we were serious about preparing Australia for the challenges of the 21st century, if we were serious about having a government that cares for its people and its students, we would be investing in higher education. We would not be threatening 1,500 jobs in my electorate of Melbourne, which will go because of the cumulative effects of these cuts. We would be putting more money into universities.

6:36 pm

Photo of Karen AndrewsKaren Andrews (McPherson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this private member's motion condemning the government's cuts to the university sector. I do so not only because of the importance of the education sector as a whole to my electorate of McPherson on the Gold Coast but also because of the significance of education as an export industry and to the future of our nation.

The university sector produces so much economic and social good for Australia, and ripping funding away from such a significant sector has the potential to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. I say this in a very sincere way because education is a growth industry for the future and provides us with an enormous and much needed opportunity to grow our exports and to expand our trading base. This is essential for us as a nation and critical for the Gold Coast, where our major industries of tourism and construction have suffered year after year from economic downturn. I will come back to speak more about specific Gold Coast and education issues shortly.

This Labor government has been unable to demonstrate its support for such a crucial sector and has embarked on one cut after another. The 2012-13 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook included the following cuts: a freeze to the Sustainable Research Excellence program—$498.8 million; the ending of the facilitation performance funding from 2014—$270.1 million; the deferral of student support for masters by research degrees—$167 million; and a freeze on student start-up scholarships—$82.3 million. Those cuts alone will have a significant negative impact on the sector, but those cuts have been followed with more cuts. The 2013-14 budget handed down only a fortnight ago confirmed previously announced cuts to higher education of the efficiency dividend on universities of two per cent for 2014 and 1.25 per cent for 2015—$902.7 million; the conversion of student start-up scholarships to HELP loans—$1.186 billion; the removal of the 10 per cent discount for the upfront payment of university fees and the five per cent bonus for the voluntary repayment of HECS-HELP debts—$267.7 million; and an annual cap to tax deductions for self-education to $2,000 per person—$514.3 million.

It is just beyond belief that, at a time of economic pressure, this government cuts one of the sectors that is well placed to provide economic growth. And we should not forget that university places were uncapped in 2012 to increase participation rates, but with the government's cuts it will be more expensive and more difficult for students to study. It is such a contradiction that funding cuts are being imposed at a time when universities are being encouraged to take on more students. This is also happening at a time when universities are under pressure to provide an approximate four per cent annual wage increase to staff. Australia ranks 25th out of 29 advanced economies that invest in universities. These cuts will only serve to lower our ranking and reputation overseas even more.

On the Gold Coast, only about 18 per cent of the population aged 25 to 34 are degree qualified. We are working hard on the Gold Coast to ensure more students take on university education. Each of our universities—Southern Cross, Bond and Griffith—are working with our local schools to promote tertiary education and opportunities on the Gold Coast. The funding cuts of this government are making it so much more difficult for universities and students. The Gold Coast, in particular, is likely to be hit hard by these cuts, as higher education is a significant contributor to the local economy and employs thousands of people. It injects more than $1 billion into our economy and employs more than 7,000 people. Higher education is one of our city's major industries, with the three universities and over 400 education and training providers located there—and with more expressing interest in investigating, relocating or expanding their operations to the Gold Coast.

Southern Cross University has invested $100 million in its Bilinga campus and Bond University has recently announced a collaboration with the engineering faculty of the US Ivy League university Dartmouth to introduce a master of energy management qualification, which will be the first of its kind in Australia in the field of energy sustainability. These measures will not only help create jobs in the area but will add to our growing international higher education reputation. This government must stop damaging such a crucial sector.

6:41 pm

Photo of Geoff LyonsGeoff Lyons (Bass, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the motion proposed by Mr Bandt, the member for Melbourne. This government is investing in education. Labor believes that every Australian, no matter where they live or what their background, should be able to go to university if they have the ability. University funding has grown by 50 per cent since Labor came to office and will continue to grow over the next three years. Let us be clear: the decision we made was not to cut funding but to introduce an efficiency dividend of two per cent in 2014 and of 1.2 per cent in 2015. Real funding per student will continue to rise even with the efficiency dividend. In 2007, real funding per student was $16,147. In 2012, it was $17,659. After the efficiency dividend is taken into account, real funding per student is projected to exceed $18,000 in 2017. The government is retaining the Higher Education Grants Index on an ongoing basis, so there will be no return to the Howard government's practice of growing funding for universities at a far lower rate than costs were increasing.

The government would have preferred not to have had to make these savings. However, we have an obligation to ensure the sustainability of the budget and to fund our schools properly, as well as the national disability insurance scheme. The government remains committed to a strong university system in Australia as well as to a world-class school system. The Labor government has significantly increased investment in education since coming to office. The savings in this budget will allow the government to better target its spending on education, including funding for the National Plan for School Improvement.

The government will provide $29.7 billion in total education funding from 2013-14, compared with $18.4 billion in 2007-08—a real increase of 35 per cent. In total, over five years from 2007-08 to 2012-13, the government has provided $165.5 billion for education spending. This included $6.5 billion for the Education Investment Fund, $16 billion for the Building the Education Revolution and $2 billion for the Digital Education Revolution. The BER created employment opportunities, kept the economy strong and was a boost to business confidence, yet those opposite continue to espouse the view that it was not needed.

Despite the savings in this budget, the government is still providing record investment in education, significantly increasing funding in real terms since coming to office. The government is making historic investments in Australian schools, with up to $9.8 billion in extra Commonwealth funding over the next six years from 2014-15 available if the states agree to provide 35 per cent of the required investment and to sign up to the National Plan for School Improvement. To do this, we have $2.37 billion in savings from spending on higher education. The savings measures in this budget do not impact on the key reform of uncapping funding for undergraduate places, which means that more people continue to have the opportunity to participate in higher education. We know that education provides opportunities and, unlike those opposite, we believe that people from all backgrounds with the ability to study at university should get the opportunity, not just those who can afford it.

Furthermore the government is expanding investment in student places by providing an additional $97 million from 2014 to 2017 for additional Commonwealth supported places for bachelor and postgraduate courses. To be clear, what you get under Labor is increased funding for universities and increased funding for better schools. This government has a really strong record on higher education, skills and education more generally. Australians have a choice between Labor protecting jobs, investing in skills and making smart investments we need for the future, or the coalition whose savage slashes will cut to the bone.

The coalition passionately argue for cuts. It is in their DNA to always cut too hard and always cut in the wrong places like education. When will they commit to writing that, if they are elected in September, they will resign if they do not increase funding to universities and do not stop the boats. The savage cuts that Premier Campbell Newman has made in Queensland and the Liberals in Victoria are an entree to would happen if the federal Liberals win government at the next election. Before the election they want us to believe that you can have lower taxes, less savings and smaller deficits all at once. After the election we all know that they will slash and burn like their mates in Queensland and Victoria. That is a mindless recipe for higher unemployment and lower growth. The Gillard government will always act responsibly to prioritise jobs so that the economy works for more people.

6:46 pm

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this motion from the member for Melbourne which condemns the Labor government's $2.3 billion in funding cuts to Australian universities and student support services. On 14 May this year the Treasurer confirmed that this Labor government continues to lay ruin to the nation's finances. As a result of their incompetence, despite government revenue increasing more than six per cent, the Labor government has delivered yet another deficit of $19 billion this year. Over the forward estimates gross debt will breach the $300 billion debt ceiling. Labor's incompetence means more debt, more deficits and more uncertainty and, worse, more bad news for the research and university sector in Australia.

The 2013-14 budget confirmed previously announced cuts to higher education including $900 million in cuts in the form of efficiency dividends and more than $1 billion in cuts by converting student start-up scholarships to HELP lines. The Labor government also removed the 10 per cent discount for the upfront payment of university fees and the five per cent bonus for the voluntary repayment of HECS-HELP debts, and it announced an annual cap to tax deductions for self-education to $2,000 per person. It was supposed to save the government $514.3 million. These cuts are in addition to the cuts announced to the 2012-13 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook when they froze almost $500 million for the Sustainable Research Excellence program among other cuts and deferrals.

Ultimately world-class research at Australian universities has practical outcomes for Australians. Research is one of the key drivers of future economic activity in this country. It leads to innovations and a more productive economy as well as significant advancements in health solutions for all Australians. I have previously spoken in the House on the ground-breaking research being undertaken at the University of Queensland in my electorate. It is a university which demonstrates amazing depth and diversity across many faculties from architecture to engineering, quantum physics to biomedical, and molecular research.

I have highlighted the outstanding work by Professor Maree Smith, who is internationally renowned for her excellence in pain research and who pioneered Australia's first integrated preclinical drug development facility, TetraQ. Professor Smith has now successfully seen two of her drugs commercialised by UniQuest, which will address significant unmet clinical need in markets that will grow to be worth approximately $35 billion by 2017. This will be one of the most significant advancements by any Australian researcher in the field of drug development and, following the success of the Gardasil vaccine, has positioned UQ as an international leader in commercialisation and transfer of research outcomes. Furthermore, UniQuest has also facilitated the commercialisation of several other University of Queensland biomedical inventions, such as the Nanopatch and Dendright technologies, with subsequent multimillion dollar investments from international venture funds and companies.

These are just some examples of significant developments occurring at the University of Queensland, and some of this work has been made possible only because UQ has been able to attract the best international researchers to Australia while at the same time ensuring that our own home-grown talent stays here. In order for universities such as UQ to attract this talent and to keep these people in the country, the sector requires stability and certainty from the government of the day. The Australian Research Committee has identified long-term funding as a key to retaining specialist expertise in Australia. I hear similar feedback from the University of Queensland. Furthermore, because research projects require funding commitments over many years, if not decades in some instances, universities simply cannot plan for the long term when they are faced with the short-term political whims of this Labor government. Yet that is exactly the situation in which they now find themselves—with a Labor government that has failed to provide the long-term research funding that our researchers desperately need.

In April this year Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, who went to Indooroopilly State High School in Ryan, labelled the Labor government's changes as 'politically inept' because 'universities are the last thing you should raid if you want to send a consistent message on education.' These comments reflect the real ongoing concerns about this Labor government's approach to universities. The coalition remains committed to the university and research sector by delivering its Real Solutions plan to build a stronger, more productive economy through lower taxes, more efficient government and more productive businesses. The coalition will restore the bonds of trust that once existed between government and Australian universities. We will restore hope, reward and opportunity for all Australians.

6:51 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (Robertson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find myself in a rather peculiar situation as I consider the comments of the member for McPherson and the member for Ryan. My understanding of the budget reply speech, and the press I have seen since then, indicates that those on the other side reserve the right to adopt all of these changes that are mooted and yet they decry them. It is a very different position perhaps for the member for Melbourne, who has proposed this debate on university funding—I am sure he is very sincere, but let us get a few of the facts on the table.

I will draw to a degree on my own personal experience at one of the local universities at which I taught before I entered parliament. I did work during the Howard era, which according to those opposite was an era of great enlightenment and incredible spending in the sector. Can I say how incorrect that is. The manifestation of the Howard years of investment in the Ourimbah Central Coast campus of the University of Newcastle is represented in the shape of one large demountable building that cooks in the summer and is freezing in the winter. That was the investment in capital that went into my local university.

In contrast, since a Labor government has been in power over $12 million has been invested in new infrastructure in that university. There is a new library with 24-hour access to deal with the needs of people trying to return to study while working, and balance that with their family responsibilities. They need to access the university safely at any time. There is a new teaching and nursing building, there is a new psychology building, there is a new sports science building—there is a new feel of passion for what higher education genuinely offers that has been inspired and has had life breathed into it by the dollars invested by this Labor government in tertiary education. So let us not for a second believe the mythology that has been perpetrated by those opposite.

The facts are that this government has absolutely committed to a strong university system. We have announced, in the budget just a couple of weeks ago, a two per cent efficiency dividend in 2014 and a 1.25 per cent efficiency dividend in 2015 on university funding. Would it not be wonderful if in this world there was always every resource that you needed, but the reality is that we have made a call—and I deeply understand this from my years as a teacher—that to ask for this from a sector that has received a 75 per cent increase in funding since 2007, from $3.5 billion to over $6.1 billion under this government, is to ask for a small thing, from a sector that has seen its assets and opportunities grow, in order that money might go to schools which we can no longer deny are sites of terrible inequity in this country.

Ten years ago, children in this country started school in kindergarten. Now those children who are from low-SES backgrounds, are Aboriginal or are in remote areas or who had language from another country in their background as they were approaching school are far too often hitting grade 9 but performing at year 6 or 7 level, behind their friends, behind kids who have had advantages that they were just unfortunate enough not to be born into. The reality is that we need to address that need right at the very early part of school education. The fact is that there are children in classrooms where teachers can absolutely diagnose, where parents can diagnose, where kids can diagnose, that they need assistance but who are currently unable to get it.

In the last seven years, we have looked over a new golden age, a Labor government inspired golden age, for the tertiary sector. We have invested money and grown the sector, grown the opportunities, massively increased participation, with 190,000 more places open, 190,000 young Australians who are studying. The reality is, though, that behind them is a group of students whose literacy, numeracy and capacity to end up getting into university is so compromised by underfunding that is only going to get worse and worse as the old Howard broken model continues. We have made a decision for two years to ask for the big brother, the big sister, the university sector, to forgo a two per cent and then a 1.25 per cent dividend while its fees are still increasing to allow us to make sure that young Australians starting school will be guaranteed a decent education no matter what school they go to. It is the Labor way. It is fairness. It is stronger. And it is smarter.

6:56 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And what a Labor way it is! What a golden age we have, where we are ripping money out of universities, the future of this nation! The only way this is a golden age is if it is once again the government playing the role of King Midas in reverse, because everything they touch seems to go the opposite way to gold. What absolute hypocrisy from the government in these efficiency dividends, as they call them, in the typical parlance of bureaucratic speak, at the same time criticising state governments for making cuts—cuts that at least they are up-front to the public about. With this one, they are still trying to claim that there is going to be no problem here.

But I have to tell you that there is a problem, particularly for rural and regional universities. I can go to universities in my electorate such as the CQUniversity—my alma mater, in fact. This was the headline in the Daily Mercury this week: '200 CQU jobs in the firing line'. The university's vice-chancellor and president, Professor Scott Bowman, is quoted in the article as saying:

… the university would suffer a significant financial hit over the next two years, with the Federal Government's "efficiency dividend" reducing funding—

as has been said—

by 2% in 2014 and 1.25% in 2015.

Far from it being an insignificant amount, the university estimates that that is $5 million out of its coffers—a university, like many in rural and regional Australia, which runs on a very, very tight bottom line. As a result of these cuts, along with other added pressures, it has had to sack 200 teaching staff from the university. That is the impact of this decision from this government somehow cutting funds out of tertiary education to give it to this grand plan for schools. As has been said before, that is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. I have as well a letter from Scott Bowman, the Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity, sent to me on 22 May, where he again says that this financial repositioning that the university is going to have to do—basically, major cutbacks—has been done because of a number of impacts that he lists, but one of them is the upcoming efficiency dividends that the federal government is claiming.

It is not the only university in my area to be impacted by this. James Cook University also provides services into the Mackay region and into the northern part of my electorate. The vice-chancellor there, Sandra Harding, has been very critical. She has said that the university is going to have to take a long hard look at its budget for the next financial year because of this. I will quote her at length here. She says:

Most of the money that comes to us from the Federal Government goes in to teaching programs and research so we will have to look at those.

We will, of course, look at minimising the impacts on students but we will have to look at the whole budget and yes, courses may be affected.

You can't take two per cent out of any business model and not expect it to hurt. It will be felt right across the university.

It is just a great shame that that is going to impact on courses. One of those courses is probably going to be education, the thing that the government wants to improve. Because of an efficiency dividend, or a savage cut that this government is making, this university is going to have to cut back on its courses and the quality of those courses. That caused James Cook University Student Association President, Jesse Cook—a student union which is not normally critical of Labor governments I suppose—to say:

How can the Prime Minister claim we are providing young Australians with 'a flying start in life' when we are sending them into under-funded Universities? A flying start to where?

I agree with his sentiments.

This is just a savage cut at a time when it really is not needed. I notice the National Tertiary Education Union has come out as well against this saying that this will mean a write-down of $154 million in research support funding. It will be $7 million a year less in Indigenous support, disability support and participation and partnership funding. It is cutting funding to the most needy people in the community who we want to actually get into university education to better their lives. This is an insidious cut from this government and it really does need to be repealed. I am very glad to speak on this motion condemning the government. I hope that they see sense, restore the funding and stop being such hypocrites about this.

Debate adjourned.