Thursday, 4 September 2014
Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014; Consideration in Detail
It is an absolute shame that the government will not debate this legislation before the House. Members on both sides of the House have been gagged from expressing their opinion. The member for Chisholm, who has so many university students, lecturers and workers in her electorate, is not able to properly debate this bill. This government is scared of scrutiny, it is scared of transparency and it is shameful that this government will not properly debate this bill.
I was not able to fit some very concerning elements into my 15-minute speech and so I would like to draw the House's attention to Commonwealth scholarships. Many on that side of the House have bragged about how revolutionary Commonwealth scholarships are, but it takes me back to the era of Menzies, which had similar scholarships. The big difference between the Menzies government and this government is that the Commonwealth paid for the scholarships in Menzies' era, but this government is not putting one cent into the Commonwealth scholarships. They have taken the naming rights but are not putting their money where their mouth is. These Commonwealth scholarships are about hiving profits off other students. They are about students paying higher fees. The bill makes the assumption that students will not only pay for the costs of their course but also pay significantly more, and that money is then provided for these Commonwealth scholarships.
This is an unfair system. It does not allow us to have an equitable system which ensures opportunity for all. Of course, there are a number of other nasty elements in the bill and one of them is the real interest rates that will not only apply to new students. The Commonwealth is breaking its commitment, its agreement, with many, many other students that already have a HECS debt. The parliamentary secretary, at the desk today, highlighted how many Western Australians will actually have to face real interest rates. When they did their degree they had no concept that the terms of their agreement with the Commonwealth would be changed. They had no concept when they did their degree, no concept at the election, and no mention of this whatsoever.
It is absolutely appalling that this government is abandoning so many of those students who have completed their degree and incurred a HECS debt in good faith. Now the Commonwealth is reneging on that deal. Of course, it could not happen in any other place in our society where someone could provide you with a loan and then say, 'Oh, you thought it was a fixed interest rate, but, of course, it is not and, indeed, we are going to up that interest rate quite significantly.' This is such flawed legislation before the House and it is, of course, very, very disappointing that the minister and the government could not tolerate hearing any more of the debate. They could not tolerate it and did not like to hear all the concerns of the Australian people which the Labor Party was bringing to this chamber.
We will continue to fight against these changes. We believe these changes are incredibly bad for the country. We believe these changes are very bad for middle- and low-income earners, for mature aged students, for a whole range of people that had a dream to go to university. Of course, that dream has now been dashed by this government. We will continue to fight in the community against these changes and to raise awareness. But we do not have to fight very hard because everyone that I speak to knows how bad these changes are. It does not matter if they are parents, if they are teachers, if they principals, or if they are grandparents. These changes, people know deep in their heart, are unfair and are un-Australian.
I would urge the government to throw this package out; dump the package. Start again and look at something that is constructive for the Australian people, for our universities, to ensure that equity and access to higher education is something that every young person with the smarts can aspire to.
I rise to support the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill presented to the House by the Minister for Education. Let me take you to something that I have been reading, which I find interesting. It is the report, Australia's competitiveness: reversing the slide, by Professor Tony Makin of Griffith University. It states:
The 2013-14 Global Competitiveness Report has Australia ranked 21st, outside the top 20 most competitive countries in the world for the first time.
It further states:
The WEF measure scores and ranks countries across a range of economic indicators for a set of so-called 'pillars' that are thought to drive economic growth. These pillars are individual economies' institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and education, product market efficiency, labour market efficiency, financial market development, technological readiness, market size, business sophistication and innovation.
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Australia's economic ranking has seriously deteriorated since the turn of the century.
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In the early 2000s, Australia was ranked in the top 10 most competitive countries in the world.
The report also says that we have now been overtaken by New Zealand, who has come in at 18th on that ranking in the 2013-14 report, up five places from the previous year.
If we are serious about the economic wellbeing of this country and the skills that are required, then the education reform proposed by the minister in this bill gives us the opportunity to allow universities to have some unfettered freedom to look at the market forces that prevail in terms of courses. I find it fascinating that, when you read some of the higher education material, to have 29 schools of nursing, across this nation, there are niches that need to be considered in the way in which we skill and develop the young people for the future.
In my first speech in the House I spoke about a couple of things that go to the heart of these reforms and I want to take a moment to quote that speech:
I used education as the way to change my life to get to where I am now and I believe that a quality education is the key to success for any young Australian.
I went through higher education at a time when it was not funded. I used a Commonwealth scholarship. As a country kid I enrolled, after receiving a Commonwealth scholarship, and then, through that process, developed a career pathway that gave me opportunities.
Higher education is important, but it is important in the sense that, if Australia is going to shift its rankings in the economic climate in which we sit, then it is important that we develop the courses that will enable the skilling of young people to push this country to another level in a way that positions us far better economically in the world. All of us have become so used to the lifestyle that we have, and our universities, themselves, support it. When I read about the universities in Australia, the peak body representing Australia's universities calls on the parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities with changes to the government proposals that will ensure affordability for students and taxpayers.
I would hope that all of us would transcend the politics, the scaremongering, and the exampling that I have heard from speakers because, whilst higher education is important, it is equally important that the reforms enable us as a country to provide the diversity of career pathways that will be needed to take us into a future in which there is a need for adaptability, and a need for us to develop the talent and skill of young Australians who are still coming through. If we reflect back for a moment to 30 years ago, the jobs that existed 30 years ago no longer. We cannot continue to teach today for tomorrow with yesterday's practices. We have to consider the opportunities that reforms will give universities to position us in the competitive market.
When I was overseas I had the privilege of looking at the university world in the United Arab Emirates. The key message I got from each of those universities, in talking with those who were heading the universities, was the freedom for diversity and opportunity to do some unique things outside the constraints of their home countries and to provide courses that enabled young people to go into the next century.
This is a bill that I commend the minister for, because it is time that we had reform. The Crossroads report of the previous government some two parliaments ago did not achieve the full reforms required. As a pro-chancellor at Edith Cowan University at the time I had hoped that we would have gone much further.
Like almost everything the Abbott government has done in its first year, the changes proposed to our higher education system in this bill, the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, are more about achieving the government's ideological agenda than simply finding savings. This legislation proposes a radical shift in the way our universities and higher education institutions are funded and the ability of all people to access affordable tertiary education. This is no more apparent than in my electorate of Chisholm, where more than 50,000 students currently study at Monash University's Clayton campus—the largest university campus in the country—at Deakin's Burwood campus and at Box Hill Institute of TAFE. All of these institutions will be grossly affected by this legislation, as will the numerous academics who call my electorate home. I have more PhDs per square metre than anybody should have!
This legislation delivers a $5.8 billion cut to Commonwealth funding for universities—a cut of up to 37 per cent for many degrees—and cuts $174 million from research and training programs. Everyone on this side of the parliament understands that university education is not free. I got my first degree without any HECS and I got my second, my Master of Commerce—though if you listened to those opposite it would seem that we do not have anybody on this side of the fence with training in economics—from Melbourne University, which I paid for. I understand HECS and the nuances of it. Nobody on this side thinks that university education is free. But this legislation takes away the aspirational opportunities from many in our community to even aspire to look at going to university.
As someone with a learning disability, I would have had no hope of getting a scholarship to go to university. My older brother and sister went through school on full scholarships, but my parents said to me, 'Don't even bother sitting; you won't pass'—and I would not have passed. Indeed, when I went to sit my HSC, my school told me I was going to fail and I sat my HSC orally. I would never have got entrance into a university on a scholarship. So should I have been denied? This is what people do not look at. They do not drill down to what this will mean.
This legislation will allow student fees for every single course at university to rise. We will see $100,000 degrees. Do not quibble at that—that is what we are going to see. It will allow non-university higher education providers to pop up and get access to per-student subsidies at 70 per cent of the rate in public universities. We already know the impact of this sort of change. We have seen it in Victoria in the TAFE sector. The TAFE sector has suffered because of the same sorts of changes, where funding is provided to full-profit institutions. In addition, these institutions will not be assessed by TEQSA by the time this is up and running. So where is the quality assurance in all this? It has gone as well.
This legislation also applies a real interest rate of up to six per cent for not only new but also existing HECS people. So people who are already struggling to get housing loans—because you have to declare your HECS debt when you apply for a housing loan—are going to find it harder and harder. Everyone with children at home who are currently 22, just imagine—they are going to be there until they are 30. That is because the ability to progress in life will be put off due to them being saddled with this debt—this debt that will be higher than any credit card debt they will ever experience in their lives. It will be higher than the cost of their first home.
These changes are the epitome of unfairness. They rob our universities of much-needed funds and force dramatically higher costs onto anybody who may seek a higher education. That puts us on a path to an Americanised system—a system that does not provide choice; a system that provides a lesser evil. This will not provide competition—and it certainly will not provide competition in regional areas. It will put the big universities against the small universities. Someone from a lower socio-demographic will choose no university—not a cheaper university.
This is not about ensuring and protecting the quality of higher education in this country; it is simply about privatising it. Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Jane den Hollander said:
Our current and future students will be concerned about fee deregulation, what that means for their futures and how they will manage; our staff will be equally concerned about what competition from the private providers actually means, how research funding will fare and what the implications are for the future of the academy if PhD students are required to pay fees. And we need to think of these matters in the context of the other implications for all of us as citizens of Australia. These matters are connected.
She went on to say that being a vice-chancellor at the moment was like being 'a canary going down the mine shaft to test the unintended consequences of this policy.' We are all victims of the unintended consequences of this policy, because education is not only an individual achievement—it is for the benefit of all society. (Time expired)
We are a clever country and we are a rich country. Surely we are a clever enough country to understand the value of having the world's best education system. Surely we are a rich enough country to have the world's best funded education system. But instead we now have had a succession of governments that have not and are not addressing education, particularly tertiary education, funding as well as we possibly can. The problem actually starts with the previous government, where they ripped $4 billion out of the tertiary sector—so much money in fact that our universities are now underfunded by some $1 billion a year. And now we have these reforms being pushed by the current government which are just going to compound problems for students, particularly disadvantaged students and female students, and compound the problems for smaller universities, particularly regional universities.
These reforms will be unfair to students and will result in dearer courses across the board. They will result in university students having to pay more for their course when they do their course and a hell of a lot more by the time they finish paying off their course—if only because of the changes to the interest rate that will apply to the debt. Adding to that, they will have to start paying off their debt much, much sooner. So students will have to pay more for their course, they will have to start paying off their course sooner and they will ultimately have to pay a lot more for their course. That will fundamentally hurt disadvantaged students.
It will also hurt women, in particular. When you look at their professional profile, you see that some will go to uni, start work, drop out of the workforce to perhaps start a family and then re-enter the workforce later on in their life. But while they are out of the workforce the interest is still accumulating. So they will end up having this debt the whole of their working life—and, conceivably, even beyond it. It is not like a scholarship is going to help any of these people out. Under these reforms, there will be fewer scholarships available.
These reforms will also hurt smaller universities. It is fine for the big eight to say that these reforms are fine and they support them. But what about the vast majority of our universities that are in regional areas and have campuses in regional areas? Take my own university as a case in point. We have three campuses. We have a campus in Hobart, a smaller campus in Launceston and an even smaller campus in Burnie. The University of Tasmania will be hit very hard by these reforms. If these reforms become the law of the land, the University of Tasmania will have to axe a number of courses—certainly the courses that do not pay for themselves and are not profitable. The University of Tasmania is at very real risk of having to shut down the Burnie campus and even the Launceston campus because both of them run at a loss and are subsidised by cross-payments from the Hobart campus. In a small community like Tasmania, not only are the students being hammered by dear courses that will be more difficult to pay off over their term, but we are likely to have access to fewer courses and fewer campuses.
These are some of the reasons why these reforms are fundamentally unfair and cruel. They will disproportionately impact upon disadvantaged students and universities in regional and rural areas such as Hobart and Tasmania. This is another sign of a government that is cruel. We saw it in the budget—a miserable piece of work which disproportionately impact on low-income and disadvantaged people. And we will now see it in these tertiary reforms, if they become the law of the land. We can only hope that the Senate and, in particular, the crossbenchers in the Senate have the good sense to understand that our universities are already chronically underfunded to the tune of $1 billion a year and that, if these reforms go through the Senate, it will compound the funding shortfall and compound the problem is terribly. It will have a disproportionate effect on students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds and a disproportionate effect on universities in regional and country areas. They should not listen to the big eight. The big eight will do very, very nicely out of this, thank you very much. But the vast majority of universities and university students will be hammered. I will vote against these reforms and I call on senators also to vote against these reforms. (Time expired)
This debate around higher education reform is a critical one for our nation. I have been listening very carefully to the points raised by those opposite. I think it is critically important at this time that we separate fact from fiction. There are three issues that I would like to address in my speech to the House today. The first relates to the claim about fairness, the second relates to the claim about the Americanisation of our higher education system, and the third relates to increased access to higher education. It surprises me that seemingly quite rational people have fallen for the claim that the universality of our higher education system is dead as a result of the deregulation of our higher education sector. Their well-meaning concerns stems from the fact that they think the poor will somehow miss out. But they are wrong.
We are right to be concerned about the poor, but it is wrong to think that the changes made in the budget make it harder for the poor to receive access to high-quality education and the chance at a better life. The reverse is true. For starters, Australian taxpayers—and, by the way, this is not the poor—contribute 60 per cent of the cost of the tuition fees for students. Students currently only cover around 40 per cent of the cost of their education through the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. Despite paying only 40 per cent of the cost of their education, students who graduate with a bachelor degree boost their earnings by more than $1 million when compared with someone who finished year 12 but has no post-school qualifications. These are not my figures. These are the figures quoted by the shadow assistant treasurer, Andrew Leigh. He suggested in his book Battlers and Billionaires that this was an area ripe for reform. Deregulation of fees is something that we need to do—to make it more fair for the Australian taxpayer. That is why we have focused on rebalancing this equation, through the deregulation of fees, from around 60:40 to 40:60—the other way around—on average.
There have been a number of claims also made that these reforms will somehow lead to the Americanisation of our higher education sector. But is the comparison with the US remotely analogous? The answer to that is: absolutely not. We have to understand that, unlike Australian students, American students are not subsidised by the taxpayer. American students who do not have finance and do not have the ability to finance their degree actually take out a student loan. These are commercial loans with commercial interest rates, not government loans with capped interest as they are in Australia. American students start paying back their loan when they start to earn an income—unlike students in Australia, who only start paying back their government loan when they are earning more than $50,000 per year.
There are a number of people across the chamber who have a rather elitist view of our higher education sector. They believe it is all about university education. If you truly believe in the transformative impact of education, it is clear that diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degree courses at registered non-university higher education institutions can also improve knowledge and improve skills that lead to better job prospects. Under the new budget arrangements the government's HELP loan scheme will apply to students wanting to undertake this sort of study. This will assist around 80,000 additional students to gain access to higher education. The people who will be most advantaged by this change are some of the most disadvantaged in our community, giving them access where they had limited or no access before. It also gives more choice to students who previously may not have even thought about higher education as an option.
We in this place have to make serious decisions for the long-term benefit of Australians, not only today but also for future generations. For the system to be truly fair and to be truly universal we need to make sure that our higher education system is constantly improving and not slipping behind as we have seen with recent world rankings. It needs to be strong, it needs to be robust, it needs to be universal and it needs to be fair. That is what our higher education reforms deliver and that is why I commend the bill to the House.