House debates

Wednesday, 13 September 2017


Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017; Second Reading

4:49 pm

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

4:50 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to be able to continue my remarks in opposition to this Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 and in support of the amendments moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I'm struck when I think about education by the continued insistence by the minister and government members generally that money doesn't matter. Of course we know it does, and the overwhelming body of evidence is to that effect. Of course, it is not simply the money in itself but how it's used as well. Overnight, we began the debate: what is significant legislation? It is significant in as much as it would send our university sector backwards and radically constrain the life opportunities of many thousands of Australians.

I'm struck by reports from the OECD, which are extraordinarily worrying and concerning and should give government members pause for thought before persisting with this legislation. What the OECD is telling us is that Australia is ranked 30th of the 34 OECD nations in our public investment in higher education—right at the very bottom. Of course, those statistics were collated before the very significant cuts which are contained in this legislation. The context of this is really important because, while my remarks and those of my colleagues are largely focused on talking about the retrograde impact of this legislation on my constituents and young Australians in the Australian economy, our economy does not exist in isolation. That's particularly true of higher education, which makes such an enormous impact on our economy, and that is certainly so in my home town of Melbourne.

When the Deputy Leader of the Opposition spoke on this, she expressed her concern about the decline of some Australian institutions in significant international rankings and talked through the significance of this. The OECD report is further cause for alarm in that Universities Australia said—quite rightly in my view—that it is increasing investment that is driving the rise of other universities within our region, particularly in places like mainland China. This has caused Belinda Robinson, the CEO of Universities Australia, to warn us—and she's right to warn us—that we simply can't afford to cut our investment at a time when other countries, including those in Asia, are 'turbocharging their investments'. They are turbocharging their investments and are deriving a serious return from them in boosting their human capital, ensuring that their young people have their potential fully realised and are equipped for the changing future world of work. Again, this will have a significant impact on our ability not just to boost the individual capacity of young Australians but to earn significant export income.

Now is the time to take, effectively, the opposite tack of that which the government proposes. Now is the time to back-in our universities; those fantastic hardworking people who work in them; those who are presently studying in them; and those who should continue to be studying in them into the future, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who would be, should be, first-in-family-participants in higher education. These are the people who are already being adversely affected by this government's walking away from needs based schools funding.

I say to government members: far from blithely assuming that current funding levels for universities are excessive, as an efficiency dividend would imply, we should be querying this assumption. We should be querying it because it flies in the face of the evidence and it flies in the face of the wider importance of higher education to the Australian economy, as well as to individual Australians. I was really struck by it when I was reflecting on, in this context, the contributions of government members to this debate, some of which have been quite extraordinary, not simply in their preoccupation with an imagined past. The member for Barton, who is in the chamber, will no doubt share my interest that government members seem much more interested in talking about Menzies—imagining his record in government—than setting out their vision for the future of Australia. It's telling as to the crisis of confidence that goes to the heart of this government. It's not just in energy policy; it's right across the board.

We have a Prime Minister who sought office but, having attained it, has no power and hasn't got the courage of his convictions to set forward any course for Australia. In education, the consequences of this are huge. And there is this preoccupation with the past, this reification of Menzies in defiance of the evidence and their attempt to claim Labor's record in higher education. Many of my colleagues have gone through this and rebutted it effectively.

But I think it is worth saying that it is Labor governments which have made Australian universities what they are today and have ensured that the opportunity of university education has been opened up, whether it be by the Whitlam government, the extraordinary public-policy-making efforts of John Dawkins in the Hawke and Keating governments or, of course, the massive expansion of participation in higher education that took place under the former Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Those governments really opened up higher education to so many Australians. And it's amazing, I think, as a member of this place, to reflect on what would have been lost had these people not been given the opportunity by Labor's reforms—the demand-driven system, opening up higher education.

I note that there are some positive elements contained within this messy bill dressed up as reform. I will make particular mention, as many of my colleagues have done, of the HEPP Program. It is a good thing—unequivocally a good thing—that we will continue to have the opportunity to address some of the cultural barriers to higher education participation in many disadvantaged cohorts and that people will continue to be able to reach out into the community and make sure that universities are not cloistered, shut-away places for the elite. That is vital. But it is cruel that this legislative recognition, firstly, comes on the back of very significant cuts to this important program and, secondly, is held hostage to reforms that completely undo the worthy work of HEPPP.

But I think that, as well as the attitude to Labor and higher education, we see something quite revealing from the contribution of many government members with their utter preoccupation with private benefit in their attitude to the benefits of education. We see their complete failure to acknowledge the wider benefits, economic and beyond, provided to our community at large from higher education. That we have world-class doctors in Australia surely matters just as much as those doctors' individual earnings and, I'd hope, their satisfaction in carrying out their work following graduation. This was a point very effectively made in the contribution of the shadow assistant minister for universities, the member for Griffith. The narrow, rigid individualism that characterises the engagement of government members with this challenge is extraordinarily disappointing. Surely, when we look at the sorts of professions on the one hand and the skill sets and disciplines on the other that result from university graduation, there needs to be a wider reflection on the purpose of higher education beyond simply supporting an individual's capacity to earn their income.

I also want to touch on the second reading contribution of the assistant minister. She pays homage to the minister, Senator Birmingham, in talking around rather than engaging with the key issues in the legislation. She speaks of the goal of a more student-focused system and asserts—amazingly, for me—that we are all in this together. Of course, we should all be in it together when it comes to university education, but what this government is doing through this bill and its wider neglect of our education system is quite the reverse. In fact, what it's saying to young Australians thinking about pursuing a university education and to Australians working in our higher education institutions is: 'You are on your own. You are not part of our vision of Australia's future.'

In Labor, we believe, all of us, in the power of education. We believe in the importance of early learning and of schools which are funded and equipped to enable every child to fulfil his or her potential. We believe in TAFE as the cornerstone of skills development, not just post school but throughout life. And we believe in our universities, which are so important to building individuals up to their potential and in supporting our economy, particularly in Melbourne. We are optimistic on this side. We believe in young Australians. And that's what's so disappointing about this government's attitude: its failure to see that our future lies in our capacity to develop our human capital more than anything else.

And it is telling also, beyond these contributions of government members, that this legislation arrives after, I believe, 29 reviews but no consultation. When you look at this bill, it is easy to see that there hasn't been meaningful consultation. This package of so-called reforms has done something quite remarkable: it has united the higher education sector against the government and this flawed legislation. Not even the member for Sturt was able to do that. It's quite a tribute to Senator Birmingham that he has managed to do that!

On the other hand, with my colleagues, led by the member for Sydney, I have been listening to what universities say and, vitally, to students too. I'm particularly concerned about the impact on the universities that principally service the communities that make up the Scullin electorate. I'm concerned that Victoria over the forward estimates will receive $533 million less. La Trobe University, just outside the electorate, will be impacted by cuts of over $68 million, and RMIT university's Bundoora campus faces cuts of over $80 million. This will have a huge impact on the communities I'm so proud to represent.

I note the contribution of the La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor, John Dewar—someone who was a supporter of previous government reform initiatives in this agenda, so no friend of the Labor Party when it comes to this. Professor Dewar says,

We all recognise the powerful economic, intellectual and innovation benefits a university education delivers to everyone in the community.

It seems counterintuitive for the Federal Government to talk of boosting innovation and productivity, while also introducing financial hurdles to creating the very workforce that will deliver on that ambition.

For 50 years, La Trobe University has been undertaking world-class research and educating leaders and innovators from all walks of life. I am concerned that the measures could mean more students from regional Australia or low SES groups – already underrepresented in University lecture halls – being unable to attend university in the future.

This is a contribution that government members should have very serious regard to.

Look at the substantive measures in the bill: the massive cuts, the absurd fee increases, the extraordinary proposals to change the repayment threshold by reducing it to a level barely beyond minimum wage, the shabby treatment of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, the trashing of enabling courses. There is nothing in this bill which evidences a vision for our university sector or a vision for young Australians being equipped for all the challenges of life in the 21st century, the Asian century.

I'm proud to be standing here with all of my Labor colleagues in clear, firm opposition to this legislation and in solidarity with all of our students and our future university students.

5:03 pm

Photo of Cathy McGowanCathy McGowan (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak to the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. I believe that this bill does not adequately support regional universities and their students. I will not support the bill in its current format and will be proposing amendments in the consideration in detail stage.

In my speech I will address three points. Firstly, I will outline my amendments as practical solutions to ensure that regional universities and their students are not disadvantaged. Secondly, I will recognise the central role regional universities play in driving the economic, social and cultural value of our communities. And finally, I will acknowledge the role of my community and the role of regional universities. It's not only working actively to raise these issues but coming to the table to genuinely work with me and identify solutions.

My amendments will legislate for a national regional higher education strategy and provide some financial relief to students studying in regional Australia through a HELP debt repayment. The national regional higher education strategy will ensure regional higher education is prioritised and remains a focus of future governments. It will require the minister to table the strategy in parliament in early 2018 and review and update the strategy every four years. The introduction of a regional student HELP-debt-repayment-free period will create a HELP-debt-repayment-free period for students studying at regional universities. This will provide a financial incentive to students to study in regional communities. It will encourage regional students to remain in the regions, and potentially attract students from the major cities. The Parliamentary Budget Office has costed this proposal as having only a $21.6 million cost to the headline cash payment over the forward periods to 2020-21—let me stress: only $21.6 million. It is a very small investment with an enormous return on investment for regional communities and those who live there.

As you know, our regional universities do more than educate. They are one of the largest and most visible physical, intellectual, cultural and sporting assets in our regions and cities. They are a critical player in workforce planning. They are a driver of economic growth and development. They are key employers. They innovate and they inspire. They act as major attracters to young people, and they can make the difference between economic survival and going backwards.

All regional MPs in this House know the many advantages related to living in regional Australia's towns and cities, including affordability and livability. Small cities can have the benefits of big cities without the disadvantages. They can be both highly productive and great places to live. The government knows this, too. They tell us in Regions 2030: Unlocking Opportunity:

Regional Australia is not just important to those of us who live here. The Australian economy is largely driven by its regions. Australia’s agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining industries, predominantly located in regional Australia, made up 57 per cent of the value of Australia’s merchandise exports in 2016.

Fifty seven per cent! It says:

Forty five cents in every dollar spent in Australia by international or local visitors is spent in regional areas. Most of the gas and electricity which powers city households is produced in regional Australia.

It is only logical that we should invest in Australia’s regions because Australia’s regions power Australia’s economy.

So says the government report. It continues:

Investing in our regions pays massive dividends for our nation—strong regions are the foundation of a strong Australia.

That's from the government's own propaganda. Let me say that again: it's only logical that we should invest in Australia's regions because Australia's regions power Australia's economy.

My community knows the value of regional universities. They know that regional universities enable the best use of human capital and resources and contribute to educational opportunities, economic prospects, innovation and community capacity. The universities' teaching and learning activities, research and innovation, and services functions contribute to human capital development, regional governance and planning, community development, health and ageing care, arts, culture, sport, environmental sustainability and industry and business development. Our unis provide leadership in stimulating positive change and staff and students play active and visible roles in the community. For many regional centres, a strong university presence is intrinsic to a strong regional presence.

Large regional centres, such as Albury-Wodonga, have surely benefited from the presence of Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities. In the border's case, there is the added advantage of two university colleges. I would particularly like to acknowledge the role of Wodonga TAFE. Charles Sturt University, Australia's largest regional university, is the result of the formation of the Bathurst experimental farm and the Wagga Wagga experimental farm in the 1890s. In one form or another, research, innovation and education have been integral to the university's character and mission for more than a century.

My communities recognise the values of access to education, specifically tertiary education. They have consistently raised this as a priority. In the postbudget survey that my staff and I carried out in May of more than 1,000 people across the electorate, 92 per cent of respondents identified education as their top priority. They made the following points: forcing graduates to repay loans at a lower income threshold will just create a new category of poor—it's better to leave them enough money to spend, to live, to invest, to pay for housing and to have their families. So, clearly, regional universities and the ability to have money and live in your community are really important.

Marilyn Bakker told me: 'Something needs to be done to support kids for their tertiary education when they can't live at home.' Ian Jarvie said, 'Education and equitable access to all ensures diversity, access to information, better decisions and innovation.' Support for regional kids to attend universities includes regional subsidies, better and more relevant transport and more connectivity within the regional centres. Adrian Twitt tells me: 'Country students are handicapped in accessing tertiary education. There needs to be more support for such students.' So today I'm standing up for those in my electorate who have asked me to do so, to stand up for accessibility and for positive discrimination for rural and regional people, and universities.

La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities and the Regional University Network told the Senate inquiry into education and employment that the net effect of this complex package can be summarised as government reducing the level of public investment in higher education while increasing the amount of student contributions. Students are asked to pay more for a university education that is funded less, and country students have to pay even more. The evidence provided that the bill runs counter to the importance of the sector to Australia and our regional economies. It sidesteps the critical issues of support for regionally delivered higher education, and creates disincentives for improving the participation and retention of under-represented student cohorts.

They went on to say that the proposed bill in its current form would destabilise the foundation of Australia's world-class university system, and Australia cannot afford to risk our economic future and jeopardise the potential of our students by undermining the capacity of our higher education sector. I believe this legislation will do that. We know that regional students remain underrepresented in higher education institutions, and data shows that regional and remote students make up just 18.8 per cent of domestic undergraduate students at universities, compared to 26.4 per cent for the population as a whole.

We know the real threat to rural communities is the declining population, particularly of our young people. The trend is to lose young people to the cities, as they leave their country homes for opportunities related to employment, education and training, and leisure in urban centres and overseas. Statistics show that they are unlikely to return in a hurry. The Regional Universities Network reports that people who study in regions largely stay in the regions. A study undertaken by the Regional Universities Network demonstrates that between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of the employed recent graduates of those universities were employed in regional Australia. If they study locally, they stay locally. And herein lies the problem.

The government's proposed package will disproportionately affect low-income households. For students who are studying and working part-time, financial pressure has been shown to be a major contributor to a student's decision to drop out of or not take up higher education. Far away from family and community support, this captures regional students who go to metro areas at a disproportionate rate. And, while the independent review considers students who will look to travel to metropolitan universities, it does not support the students who elect to continue their education at a regional university. These very issues are, at best, barely adequately addressed and, at worst, ignored completely.

In closing today, I want to reflect on the words from this week's editorial in TheBorder Mail, my local paper. It supports my call for a national regional higher education strategy:

For several decades now though some of the larger regional centres, such as Albury-Wodonga, have benefited from a university presence. In the Border’s case, it has had the added plus of go-ahead TAFE colleges – especially in Wodonga.

Charles Sturt University has certainly long championed the enormous value for regional economies that comes from developing and providing courses that turn out graduates with a commitment to rural Australia, as well as having a significant commitment to research.

La Trobe University, which of course also has long had a Border presence, has a similar commitment.

And that is why all must be done to ensure there is no attempt to water-down these universities at a time when their commitment is to expand in order to even better serve regional areas.

In closing, I'm speaking against this legislation. I ask my colleagues opposite to stand up for rural and regional Australia—to actually do what needs to be done and support my amendments when I bring them on, to show their dedicated commitment for what we know to be true: without support, our rural universities, which underpin our whole economic development in our regions, will be at stake. It is too important to let go on a whim—as to which, let me say: the National Party opposite and the Liberal Party vote because they're told to vote. So, in closing, colleagues, can I say: will you please stand up for rural and regional Australia. Will you please do the right thing. Will you please—please—convince the government that we've got to do better by our regions.

5:15 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to join with my Labor colleagues on this side of the House in condemning this bill before the House tonight, the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. This bill purports to be about 'higher education support', but that, in fact, is one of the great misnomers.

Large parts of this legislation are simply wrong. If passed, this legislation would see massive cuts to universities and increased fees and debts for students, whilst also shifting the burden back onto students—who would have, as I said, bigger debts to repay much sooner. More critically, this bill will close the door of opportunity to many, many potential students. And it will disproportionately hurt regional universities like the University of Newcastle in my electorate.

Australia already has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD, and our students are already paying the sixth-highest fees. This package will only make that bad record even worse. That's why we see near-universal opposition to this legislation from the higher education sector. The peak body for the universities, Universities Australia, has said:

An overwhelming majority of Vice-Chancellors … could not recommend that the Senate crossbench pass the legislative package.

And the NTEU, the sector's union, has also opposed the bill, because of the impact of the cuts and fee hikes to students. This opposition is because these people in the sector know that this legislation is not reform. Indeed, this legislation fails to make any inroads into the really serious challenges that we face in higher education in Australia.

Instead of carving out a vision for the nation and a pathway to get there, all the government have got on offer are cuts: cuts to funding, cuts to services, cuts to infrastructure and cuts to programs. Make no mistake: if the Prime Minister persists with this plan, our universities will suffer. The quality of university education in Australia will be compromised, and students will be expected to pay more and more and more. At a time when Australia should be investing in our tertiary education sector, this bill enshrines $3.8 billion of cuts, while also increasing the debt for students, and locking tens of thousands of potential students out of higher education altogether.

In New South Wales alone, this would result in $617.8 million of cuts into vital university services. In my electorate of Newcastle, the Turnbull Liberal government's plan for higher education, if it proceeds, means that our local university, the University of Newcastle, will have its funding slashed by a staggering $63.2 million over the next four years alone, and that blows out to more than $100 million over the decade.

There can be no doubt that student learning and outcomes, university programs and university infrastructure will all suffer as a result of these savage cuts. This legislation means that Australian students will end up paying more and getting less.

Whilst cutting university funding, the Prime Minister is hitting students with higher fees and asking them to pay off those larger debts at a much quicker rate. Under this legislation, students will have to start paying back their HECS loans when they start earning just $42,000, a threshold which is only around $6,000 more than the minimum wage, instead of the current $54,869. Graduates caught between these policies will experience considerable financial stress, making opportunities for home ownership and financial security less likely. This locks in financial insecurity for young Australians at a time when they should, in fact, be setting themselves up.

There can be no doubt that this legislation hits universities based in regional and rural settings the hardest. Regional Universities Network summed it up in their submission to the Senate inquiry on this legislation when they warned that:

… serious perverse consequences for RUN universities are likely to be associated with such measures. These include: further lowering the participation rate of regional students in higher education; and detrimental economic and social impact in regional Australia.

At a time when regional students are already under-represented in our universities, these outcomes are utterly unacceptable.

While there are many measures in this legislation that are wrongheaded, I particularly want to focus on just one of those measures in the time that I have left in this debate, and that is the damage being done by these proposals to the delivery of enabling education programs in Australia. The Liberal government's ill-thought-out proposal to introduce fees for enabling programs, to cap student numbers and, indeed, to look at outsourcing or privatising enabling education in Australia is a dangerous slippery slope for enabling education.

These programs are university preparation courses. These enabling programs give people who have sometimes not had opportunities to finish high school, who have had their education and life interrupted by all sorts of issues and complications along the way, an important pathway to participate in tertiary education. Indeed, they ensure that regions like the Newcastle and Hunter region have a local skill base that can capitalise on opportunities in the 21st century economy.

These courses are particularly successful in helping students from overwhelmingly disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds to get a university education. As I said, they provide the very skills that you would want every young person in our community to have, but this legislation before us tonight puts all of that under threat. This has particular significance for the University of Newcastle, because the University of Newcastle is the oldest and largest provider of enabling education in this country.

We do enabling education very well; we're very experienced at it. It is no coincidence, for example, that there are more than 1,000 Indigenous students enrolled at the University of Newcastle. It is no coincidence that we train more than half of this nation's Indigenous doctors. And that's because the University of Newcastle, for more than 30 years now, has invested heavily in enabling programs that specifically target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We have the Yapug program, which has opened up so many opportunities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women of Australia.

I was really very fortunate to be at a scholarship presentation ceremony at the university recently. I met this amazing woman, Michaela, who was in her second year of medicine at The University of Newcastle. She had completed the enabling program. She was a young woman whose experience of secondary education had given her very little hope or confidence that she could attend university. She was introduced to the enabling program, and is now a scholarship recipient in her second year of university. She introduced me to the other 19 Aboriginal men and women undertaking second-year medicine at the University of Newcastle. All but one of these students came through an enabling program—the very programs this legislation seeks to destroy. 'Destroy' might seem a very loaded word to some people opposite, but I warn them that putting a price barrier in front of kids who already face multiple obstacles getting their foot in the door of higher education is all it takes to stop them from making that step.

I was very fortunate last July to have the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow minister for higher education, Tanya Plibersek, visit the University of Newcastle. She spent time with students and the providers of these enabling programs. We met so many terrific students that day. One who particularly comes to mind is a young man who is now doing his master's degree, who was so ill during his high school education that he barely got beyond year 9. Nobody had any hopes for him, yet he managed to find his way to the University of Newcastle. His mother encouraged him to take part in an Open Foundation course—the very course that the government is seeking to price these kids out of, to outsource to the private sector and then cap the number of students allowed to enter. He is now enrolled in a master's program and is flying high. He is now excelling, but he is just one of—you are lucky you are seated, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons—42,000 students that the University of Newcastle have put through enabling programs in order for them to access and complete their higher education.

Any given day you step on the campus at the University of Newcastle, one in five students in the current cohort will be from an enabling program—one in five. My colleague the member for Dobell, who spoke earlier, has campuses of the University of Newcastle at Ourimbah. One in four of the students there come through enabling programs. That is because these are programs that provide access for a lot of kids who are the first in their family to ever go to university; women who have faced multiple obstacles; a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids who otherwise would be locked out; and kids who come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. These are the very people that you would want to support in every way you could to get a quality higher education, and yet these are the people that this government seeks to block out. It is shameful.

I ask: where are all the members of the National Party right now to speak up for their constituencies? Where is the member for Cowper, who has two campuses—in Port Macquarie and in Coffs Harbour—of the University of Newcastle? Where is the member for Calare, who has a campus and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health in Orange, run by the University of Newcastle? Where is the member for New England, the Leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister? Where is he? He has two campuses: in Tamworth and Armidale. Where is the member for Lyne, who has a campus in Taree? Where is the member for Parkes, who has a campus in Moree? Why are they not here in this chamber, standing up to defend the universities that are going to educate their young men and women to help build and strengthen their regions? I am just astonished that they could not even put their name on a speaking list to justify why it is that they will come in here to vote in support of legislation that does nothing but damage to regional communities across Australia. I want to thank my colleague the member for Dobell, who, in stark contrast, stood up here defending the university and her constituents who attend the University of Newcastle's Ourimbah campus. It's a shame that the member for Robertson is not here doing likewise. She has a lot of her constituents attending the Ourimbah campus. It would be timely for these men and women, the so-called champions of regional Australia, to show their faces right now and actually be here for this debate instead of shunning it. They will be turning up when the bells ring for a division, any time soon, and they'll sit over on those benches supporting these cuts, supporting cuts to these universities that provide important catalysts in each of their regional communities.

There is no way that we can develop a quality 21st century higher education sector if all you have on the table is cuts to funding, cuts to services, cuts to infrastructure and cuts to vital programs like the enabling programs that I've spoken about tonight; programs that prepare young men and women who would otherwise have been locked out of university for the future economy and instead give them every opportunity that they rightly deserve to have quality education in Australia. (Time expired)

5:30 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | | Hansard source

When considering the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017, we should reflect on a statement made by Prime Minister Turnbull when he assumed office as Prime Minister in September 2015. The Prime Minister said:

The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can't be defensive, we can't future-proof ourselves.

This is a national goal that I share with the Prime Minister. As technology evolves faster than it ever has before, we rely on an educated society to drive the innovation that will keep Australia placed as one of the best countries in the world to work and live in.

Universities are the cornerstone of innovation. Over the last century, Australian universities have been the catalyst for some truly remarkable inventions, creations and research that have dramatically shaped the world we live in. This includes the bionic ear, invented at the University of Melbourne, which has benefited close to 200,000 people worldwide and has led to the employment of over 2,200 people; solar conversion technology developed by the University of New South Wales; CPAP technology to treat sleep apnoea, developed by the University of Sydney, which built the company ResMed, which has over 4,000 employees and annual revenues of $1.6 billion; a cervical cancer vaccine invented by the University of Queensland which saves over 250,000 lives each year; and so many more. Indeed, I don't think we give enough recognition to the university sector for research and innovation that is changing lives and creating jobs and investment in Australia.

I realise that funding has increased considerably since the uncapping of places. The sector has experienced unprecedented growth, and this has created unintended consequences and affected other sectors such as apprenticeships. While there has been unprecedented growth in student numbers, over the last five years universities have experienced significant budget cuts. Let's examine some of those cuts. In 2010, the then Labor government cut $298 million by abolishing the Capital Development Pool. In 2013, the MYEFO cut $113 million in ARC funding. In 2015, changes to start-up scholarships, cuts to the Sustainable Research Excellence initiative, closure of the OLT and closure of the Structural Adjustment Fund saw further cuts of over $2 billion. In total, over $3.4 billion of funding has been removed from the university sector in recent years. It is worth remembering that, while many of the funding cuts have occurred since the Abbott government, the Labor budget in March 2013 made cuts of $2.37 billion in higher education through the introduction of a so-called efficiency dividend.

The Nick Xenophon Team is not convinced that this bill as it currently stands will assist the sector to reform. We agree that reform is needed but cannot accept that this is the reform that is indeed needed. With the greatest of respect, this bill is tinkering around the edges with some small good measures and a blunt and deep cut that will mean job losses to the sector and higher education costs for students.

What we need is a comprehensive review of higher education that involves federal and state governments, universities and the vocational education apprenticeships sector around the table. We need a comprehensive review, akin to the Gonski-led review of education. We must look at how we prepare the next generation for the world of work to ensure young people successfully transition to sustainable employment. Right now we have university educated young people stacking shelves at supermarkets because there are few graduate jobs. These young people are in debt for thousands of dollars and their degrees are essentially redundant if they are not able to find employment in their chosen field of study in the years immediately following graduation. Unfortunately, I see too many of those young people in my electorate. At the same time, apprenticeships and traineeship numbers have significantly declined. According to the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research, in 2012 there were 470,000 apprentices and trainees. By March this year that number had declined to just 275,000 apprentices and trainees, a loss of nearly 200,000 places, yet we're not adequately addressing this crisis.

As recently highlighted by my colleague Senator Nick Xenophon, the government is yet to act on Senate inquiry recommendations that addressed skills shortages that were raised two years ago. The report Directions in Australia’s automotive industry: an industry report 2017 detailed 27,000 jobs waiting to be filled. The automotive industry is just one industry where there are skills shortages; residential construction trades is another area. This will be exacerbated as older tradesmen, highly skilled craftsmen—carpenters, stone masons and electricians—retire. If you think it's difficult to get a plumber now, wait five years!

One of the reasons for the skills shortage is that, in our culture, trades are considered an inferior career and universities the only pathway to success. In the article 'What now for the demand driven system?' Mark Burford, the former education advisor during the Rudd-Gillard government, held concerns that were raised in the 2008 Bradley review of higher education. It stated:

… moving to a demand-based approach to funding higher education cannot be done in isolation from VET. Changing higher education funding but leaving VET funding untouched would compound existing distortions.

A decade on, we can see that these concerns were well founded. We have a more educated population but job outcomes for graduates are getting worse. High-school students receive little pathway planning to determine their strengths. Trades are not seen as a valuable career. I believe they should be. By the same token, the university sector has encouraged an increase in enrolments that has led to a drop in entry standards and teaching quality. In 2016, figures released by the Department of Education and Training show that over 1,000 students were admitted to the Bachelor of Teaching with an ATAR score of less than 50. How are these students expected to teach the Australian curriculum to others when they are unable to pass it themselves? I want to make it clear that I'm not advocating for the removal of the demand driven system and a return to capped places, but we urgently need to examine the impacts of the demand driven system and examine admissions standards for students looking to enter university.

There are a number of measures that have merit in this bill. I'll detail some of those measures. I support enshrining the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program in legislation. This program helps to ensure that Australians from low-SES backgrounds have the opportunity to attend university. I support the $24 million allocated to work-integrated learning opportunities. A graduate leaving university with experience in their chosen field and with contacts in the industry is invaluable for their future job prospects. I support the $15 million investment in regional higher education through the establishment of eight community hubs across Australia, although I do feel that $15 million is woefully inadequate for regional Australia. I support the transparency measures and the principle of performance-contingent funding. However, I believe that what is proposed has the potential to lead to perverse outcomes. In reality, the proposed contingent funding will mean that universities will need to reduce their expenditure by 7.5 per cent each year and hold on to those funds on the likelihood that such funds may be clawed back by government in the following year should they not meet expected performance targets. This measure does not have savings in the budget, but it will pit university against university for the share of the losers' funds. It will, if you like, be a Hunger Gamesstyle policy, where smaller universities and, in particular, regional universities will be at a disadvantage when entering the game. This approach will create winners and losers rather than lifting the performance benchmarks overall.

I'm also concerned about exactly what those measures will be. If it is determined that performance-funding measures will be based on such things as retention rates or collective GPAs, will universities cherrypick students that they know will need the least support?

Does this mean a single parent or a student with a disability or a first-in-family student will be less likely to receive a place?

I accept that the new measures need to be paid for but I can't justify new measures worth $158 million coming at a cost of $3.8 billion. I cannot support increasing the student contribution. Australia currently has the fifth-highest tuition fees in the OECD countries, behind the United States, Japan, Korea and Canada. The government is asking Australian students to shoulder even more of the burden. Nearly 80 per cent of students enrolled in a bachelor degree are young people. We are asking them to pay more to get less. It is not lost on young people that many of the decision-makers in this place had the great benefit of a free university education and are now legislating for them to pay more.

Young people have borne the brunt of budget cuts for years. In the 2014 budget, we had a proposal for 'six months on, six months off' youth allowance for young jobseekers—as if young people could magically live on fresh air for six months at a time. In the same budget, National Youth Week was stripped of funding, and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, also known as AYAC, was defunded, ensuring young people are denied a national advocate.

Last year the government sought a five-week waiting period for young people applying for Centrelink assistance. From the 1970s through to 2013, successive governments in this place have recognised that young people deserve representation through a minister for youth. One Australian in five is aged 12 to 25, yet both major parties rejected a motion asking the Prime Minister to appoint a minister for young people, also known as a minister for youth. How can we expect young people to ever reach prosperity, or start a family if they desire, if at every turn we want to charge them more and take more from them.

The lowering of the HELP repayment threshold is an issue that has caused angst amongst young people. The HELP system is one of the most generous higher education loan systems in the world, and the current threshold for repayment is $54,869. That is significantly more than comparable countries. New Zealand has a threshold of $18,000 and the UK has a threshold of $36,000. The HELP system means no Australian student faces the barriers of up-front costs for their university education. This, I believe, above all else is the biggest contributor to encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter university. It is, in my opinion, one of the best facets of our higher education system and we must do all we can to protect it.

The HELP loan is designed to be repaid gradually once a student has derived a benefit from it and is contributing to society. Under the proposed legislation, the repayment threshold would be lowered to $42,000 at a rate of one per cent. The question must be asked: has a person who is earning $42,000 per year derived a benefit from their university studies? The average income for a working Australian is $61,000, and that is $19,000 more than the proposed threshold. I don't believe students who are earning just $6,000 above the minimum wage are yet deriving a significant benefit from their studies. I do concede the repayment is low at that level, but I do think we need to look at this very carefully. I'm not yet convinced the $42,000 threshold is the right approach. I will be open to discussing that further with the government, as will my Senate colleagues.

The proposed changes for residents, and particularly for New Zealand students, will mean many students will no longer be able to afford to study in Australia. Remember, New Zealand is facing an election at the moment. Should the New Zealand Labour Party win—and it will be on a platform of free university study—we will find that very few students from New Zealand will be interested in migrating to Australia.

In South Australia, we have three excellent universities: the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University, of which I have very fond memories. Collectively they employ 10,000 people and contribute significantly to South Australia's economy. The measures put forward in this legislation could result in up to 770 job losses across those three universities. South Australia cannot afford to lose those jobs. We cannot afford to implement legislation that will not reform the sector but will be a blunt instrument that results in job losses and higher student debt.

The Nick Xenophon Team believes we need a comprehensive review of the whole post-secondary education space in both metropolitan and regional areas. We need to consider our future workforce and how best to shape the university and vocational and education sectors together to build our nation's capacity. We need sensible university reform that does not punish students. In order to do this we must do our homework first, bringing together government and all the relevant stakeholders to design reform and then to legislate and implement same.

5:44 pm

Photo of Justine KeayJustine Keay (Braddon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are a number of measures in the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 that there's no possible way the Labor Party can support. And there are certainly a number of measures in this bill that the university sector itself does not support.

This bill will cut university funding by $4 billion and hit students with higher fees. I personally know what it's like to be paying back a non-government-supported HELP debt. It is not nice. Particularly when you're older, it's a lot harder to stomach. It will saddle students with bigger debts that they'll have to pay back at the same time as they are trying to buy a house or start a family. If you're a young Australian and you aspire to go to university, aspire to earn a decent wage and aspire to have a house, under this government you cannot actually aspire to have all of those things. This government is making people choose. These were things that many, many years ago we took for granted. This bill compromises the teaching and learning and undermines research at our universities, which is absolutely gut wrenching considering how well our universities do on the global stage. And it slashes investment in universities at a time when the government should be investing in both universities and TAFEs in order to guarantee a strong, productive economy.

This government talks about the economy all the time, yet what this bill is actually doing is going to be extremely detrimental to our economy, because higher education is an investment in our people; it's an investment in our economy. This legislation will seek to make it harder for regional students, those who are from a disadvantaged background and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds to access a higher education. It also goes against the grain of what the other OECD countries are calling for. The legislation is not supported by Australia's Group of Eight universities, and the legislation is obviously of great concern to Universities Australia.

There was one person I heard yesterday in the MPI debate, and that was the member for Hughes, who seems to be the chief cheerleader for this government. He's somewhat in denial. He claimed yesterday that Labor needed to get some maths education and we needed to do our research. He claimed that this government is not making a cut to higher education. Well, I say this to the member for Hughes and everyone else on the other side who says this is not a cut. I don't know; I think most people on this side would agree that at universities they have professors of economics and professors of mathematics. You've got Universities Australia saying, 'Science would be hardest hit by proposed university cuts,' 'Rankings highlight risk of uni funding cuts,' and, 'Government out of step with community opposition to uni cuts: only one in 10 SA voters support,' about the government's cuts. You've got them saying that all the leaders of Australian universities are 'unanimous' in their 'opposition to the proposals to cut university funding and lift student fees'. You've got the Innovative Research Universities saying:

The package cuts university funding and increases the student charge.

A cut's a cut. If the universities are saying it, they're the experts. They're probably more expert in economics than many in this place. It is a cut.

This is exactly what we're facing under this legislation, and it's certainly not something that we can support. Universities Australia—and this is the chief executive, Belinda Robinson—had this to say about the Prime Minister's cuts:

As our economy changes and old industries face new threats, Australia needs to keep—not cut—our investment in universities to create new jobs, new industries and new sources of income for Australia.

Ms Robinson's message is particularly relevant to the regions where local economies are in transition. I would have thought the government would recognise that that's the fact, but, if they're not in touch with regional Australia, then surely they mustn't know.

The Group of Eight universities are calling on the Senate to block the changes. What they're saying is that this legislation puts at risk the capacity building in universities. I quote from the Group of Eight in the submission that they've made to the Senate:

… cuts to university funding will force universities to make difficult choices about the allocation of resources across teaching, student support, and research with serious impacts on access, choice, quality, and, most importantly, equity.

And I don't think those on the other side really understand what equity means, particularly in regional Australia. They also state:

Regional Australia makes an enormous contribution to Australia's progress across multiple sectors and industries. Its success depends in part on university graduates being able to apply their knowledge and capabilities to drive economic progress and create healthy communities.

I would have thought everyone in this place would agree with that statement. But this legislation goes against that. How on earth those sitting opposite who are from regional communities and claim they represent regional communities can support this legislation is beyond me, because this will make it harder for regional students.

The OECD last night released some documentation around where we're at in Australia, and it was quite telling indeed. They were basically saying that Australia's higher education has amongst the lowest levels of public investment within the OECD. Australian public investment in tertiary education institutions is 0.7 per cent of GDP, 40 per cent below the OECD average of 1.1 per cent. In contrast, however, Australia's level of private investment in tertiary education is at 1.1 per cent of GDP, more than twice the OECD average of 0.5 per cent. I think we have to have some recognition—certainly on this side of the House—that the primary benefit of a university student's education is a public benefit. These figures don't really reflect that at all. The government is investing less in higher education as we move forward.

The OECD report also says the high private contribution Australian students make to the cost of their tertiary education is reflected in the high level of tuition fees our students are required to pay. Again, the report shows these to be amongst the highest in the OECD. And this government is expecting students to pay more. Let's say you're from a regional community in the north-west of Tasmania, where we have a regional campus of the University of Tasmania. You know that the job prospects in your region are not going to give you high wages. That's the reality of living in regional Australia. The average wage is a lot less, particularly in Tasmania. You then have to have this massive HELP debt at the end of your university career to get into a job that is paying you less than the national average for that occupation. You have to question why you'd want to do that in the first place. This government is setting up regional students and regional Australia to fail.

So what does this legislation mean for my local university, the Cradle Coast campus of the University of Tasmania? Universities Australia have established that these cuts will see the University of Tasmania worse off by $51.3 million. My electorate, like many regional areas in Australia, has a disproportionate number of people not engaged in higher education. Torrens University Australia's social health atlases state that Braddon's school leaver participation in higher education, at an average of 18.58 per cent, is lower than the Tasmanian average and the national average. Respected economist and University of Tasmania Vice-Chancellor's Fellow Saul Eslake has previously said:

Higher levels of educational participation and attainment won't solve all of Tasmania’s economic and social challenges—but they will make them less difficult to solve, not least by sustainably increasing the resources which can be used to solve them.

This legislation is going against what someone like Saul Eslake is saying. Former UTas vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen has been on the public record that cuts to the University of Tasmania could threaten the future of regional campuses. You have to understand the Cradle Coast campus is subsidised by the main campus in Hobart. It operates at a huge loss, and I take my hat off to the University of Tasmania for wanting to maintain the Cradle Coast campus, because it has made a huge difference to the lives of the people in the north-west and on the west coast of Tasmania and their ability to access education.

When I first went to the University of Tasmania in Launceston, it was 100 kilometres from where I lived. I had to move home. Thankfully, my single mother could subsidise my rent, and I had to pay for my schoolbooks. When you're living off two-minute noodles you can just about do that, but I understand what it's like to be an undergraduate, leaving home and living on barely anything, just to get a university education. The Cradle Coast campus allows accessible courses for people in my region. The message is very clear that the Group of Eight and our local universities will have to make very, very hard decisions if this legislation is passed.

The Cradle Coast campus offers a number of degrees and research based postgraduate study which directly relate to the industries in my electorate, particularly in agriculture and advanced manufacturing. What's really hard to stomach is this government's decision to put an up-front cost on enabling courses. Enabling courses don't actually give anyone a qualification at the end, but they help people who may be very hesitant about entering higher education. There are a number of those people in my electorate who will have to come up with $3,200, or at least defer the cost through HELP. The Cradle Coast campus offers a number of enabling courses. University preparation programs are offered to kids who are 16 and 17. It's ludicrous that you would saddle a 16- or 17-year-old with a debt just to decide whether they're going to continue with their education. Other programs are UniStart, Students in Schools, the VET to higher education achievers program and the University Connections Program for year 11 and 12 students. These courses help potential students develop the skills required for independent learning and success: critical thinking—which, I have to say, is a bit lacking on the other side—critical reading and academic writing.

The other area that's of concern to me as someone who has studied a couple of postgraduate degrees is the changes made to placements for postgraduate positions within universities, those that are not Commonwealth supported places and those that are. This government is reducing the number of government supported places. I graduated last year from Monash University in a non-government supported place by studying 10 units, which is the first step to become a registered psychologist, and I ended up with a HELP debt of $28,000 after 10 units. The next stage is to do an advanced or honours equivalent course. Monash were offering that and it is all done online, which is very accessible to students and a great way of studying for postgraduate students, but that second course, which you had to do to just become provisionally registered as a psychologist, was going to cost another $28,000. I know that people in my course, when they were contemplating at that time what to do next, found that a huge barrier to them undertaking further education just to become provisionally qualified as a psychologist. These were older people in their 40s and 50s wanting a career change, and this government is going to stop even more of them from going into advanced education for higher degrees.

It is not only that; in some cases, you have to be offered a position to study in a higher degree. What this government is saying is that it may be introducing a system where you take a voucher to a university. So, if you're offered a place, do you then go and say: 'I've got to apply for a voucher. I'm not sure if I'll get it. It's sort of like a scholarship. Can you hold off on that placement until I can confirm with the government whether it will support me to go on and get a higher degree?' We don't know. This legislation is so scant on details. This is really unsettling for university students right now who are looking at whether they should go and get a higher degree and those, particularly from regional communities, thinking about going into university and wondering what on earth this government is doing, why it is creating all these barriers to higher education and why it is stopping people in regional Australia from improving their lives and being in a position to earn a good income, to pay more tax and to make a contribution to our society. This is a real shame of this government—an absolute shame—and I hope that those in the Senate and on the crossbench do not support this bill.

5:59 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Denison, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 is bad public policy. I am very disappointed. I am sure I speak for a great many people in the electorate of Denison and throughout Tasmania when I say this is bad policy and it should not be pursued. It is very disappointing that the government is so determined to try and ram these sort of reforms through the parliament.

Why on earth would we be asking university students to pay more and asking university graduates to start paying back their debt sooner? Why on earth would we be cutting university funding even more when they are already chronically underfunded, even though we live in one of the richest, most clever and most fortunate countries in the world? This country, more than any other country, can afford to properly resource our universities, yet here we are again in this place, debating more cuts to university funding.

This is going to hurt the University of Tasmania greatly, and I associate myself with the comments from the member for Braddon, who has covered some of this ground quite effectively. By one estimate, the University of Tasmania will see its funding cut by over $11 million annually by 2021 if these so-called reforms come to pass. Tasmania is a small state with a relatively small university that is cross-subsidising two campuses outside of Hobart and, in fact, is cross-subsidising the campus at Burnie to a very great extent. This is one university that simply cannot afford to lose $11.2 million annually. It is not just the university that will be worse off; the students will be worse off. In fact, students will be paying something like $11.3 million extra in fees in Tasmania by 2021 if these so-called reforms go through. This will hurt the University of Tasmania. This will hurt students at the University of Tasmania. This will especially hurt the campus at Burnie and the students of that smaller campus. I associate myself in full with the very wise comments from the member for Braddon about the Burnie campus.

It is also a direct attack on disadvantaged people and women throughout Tasmania and throughout this country. When the government is demanding that ex-students on incomes as low as $42,000 a year—barely above the minimum wage—start paying back their debts, that is unacceptable. It will disproportionately hurt disadvantaged people, people on low incomes and people who are, for good reason, in and out of the workforce and have a lower average income. For example, women might be in and out of the workforce as they start a family and raise a family. Also, I would hope, there are men who are in and out of the workforce to care for their young children and to allow their partner to be in the workforce full time.

This is very ill-considered policy. This is policy that is coming on top of all of the other cuts to the tertiary sector over recent years. For example, between 2010 and 2013, the Gillard Labor government cut $2.3 billion from universities. Cuts have been so severe that universities throughout the country are now effectively underfunded by about $1 billion a year. I make the point again that this is one of the richest countries in the world—a country with a federal budget which forecasts expenditure of some $456,000 million this financial year. With all of that money sloshing around, and with all that we know about the value of education and the richness it brings both to our community and to the members of our community, the government would go ahead with a reform that is going to cost the University of Tasmania alone over $11 million a year by 2021 and hurt campuses like the Burnie campus. The reform is going to cost the students at our university over $11 million a year by 2021. This is not good enough.

Don't just take my word for it. If you don't believe me then believe the OECD, because they have just released a report, Education at a glance 2017. They have put Australian public investment in tertiary education institutions now at 0.7 per cent of our GDP, some 40 per cent below the OECD average of 1.1 per cent of GDP. Do you know where that puts us? Thirtieth out of 34 countries when it comes to public funding for our universities. How naive and short-sighted are we when this is all that we know about the value of education? How are we going to compete with the 29 countries ahead of us in the OECD when we're dumbing down our education and we're restricting education to the rich or the kids of the rich or the kids in the big cities? How are we going to compete with the other 29 countries? Well, we won't. It's as simple as that.

One of the problems here is this obsession over many years—and I'll probably trace it back to the Howard government, but it has continued to this day—with commercialisation, privatisation and user pays. We now have a two-class society in this country, and it's going to get a whole lot worse if this bill goes through: the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the disadvantaged, and the people who can afford user pays and the people who can't afford user pays. We have a two-class society, with the rich and the poor. The rich are doing okay. They'll go to the best private schools, they'll go to the best universities and they'll go to the best hospitals. They'll do well and they'll keep doing well. It will snowball, and they'll do better and better and better, and their families will do better and better and better. What about the rest of the community, the people who can't afford user pays, who are going to have to put up with underfunded universities, low-price courses, underfunded hospitals, underfunded high schools and underfunded primary schools? 'Safety nets' is how John Howard referred to the public education system—a safety net. It is a bizarre comment but a comment which is being echoed by the current conservative government, who have an obsession with privatisation and commercialisation: 'Don't worry about the members of the community; just make them pay more for their course and make them start paying it back sooner.' There is a reliance on foreign students and a reliance on commercial sponsorship of research. It is all about user pays and someone else paying for it other than the government.

I saw in the paper this morning a report that the accumulated student debt in this country has now reached approximately $50 billion, but the tone of the article in the paper was that this is a problem, it's too much money and the government has to claw it back. But you know what? The government's missing the point, because that's $50 billion that the government should have paid for. It shouldn't be $50 billion of student debt that we're now going after, because governments over many years have shifted $50 billion of the government's financial responsibility to students themselves. Much of that outstanding debt is being carried by lower income people, lower income families and disadvantaged people. They're carrying that debt, but the government's still going after them. That's not good enough. That's cost-shifting. So how dare the government tell the media today, seemingly as though it's an explanation for this bill, that all of these people owe all of this money, and that's bad, and they want it back. Well, the government should never have had them rack up the bill in the first place.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the last good university policy we had in this country was between 1972 and 1975, when there was fee-free undergraduate study for Australian students. That's where we should be going. That's where we should be trending, not to more and more user pays and complaining because students are racking up debt and not paying it back quickly enough.

We are rich enough to return to the days of the early seventies. We are rich enough to do what Gough Whitlam did and say we do not tolerate but celebrate education. We understand the inherent value of education. We understand that, the more learned our community is, the happier they are, the more prosperous they are, the healthier they are and the better this country can compete with the 29 countries in the OECD who fund their universities better than we do. How on earth do we compete with countries like Singapore, Thailand, China, Korea and Taiwan—countries that celebrate learning and invest so much more money into the community? No wonder they're doing so well. No wonder we're struggling against these countries when it comes to trade and other matters. We are just missing the point here. We are completely and utterly missing the point.

There is a $456,000 million forecast expenditure in Australia in this financial year, but you know what? We've still got to go after uni students. We've still got to cut funding for universities. We've still got to complain that university students owe too much. We are missing the point. I would make that point again. In fact, I'm going to labour this point because I don't think it's ventilated enough in this place. We can actually afford and, I think, should aspire—and maybe a future government will come along with the foresight and the fortitude to return us—to the early seventies, when we saw the value in free or fee-free undergraduate university places. That is exactly what we need to do. That's where we should be heading, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be doing that or at least trending towards it, because we can definitely afford it.

It's all about priorities. Everything in this place comes back to priorities. I know money can't solve all problems, but I tell you what: it can go a long way to solving many problems. With the amount of money that's sloshing around in this place, you've really got to wonder why we have so many problems—why we have underfunded universities to the tune of $1 billion a year, underfunded hospitals with ridiculous waiting lists, underfunded high schools, underfunded primary schools, homeless living on the street and people who can't afford their power bills—in a country as rich as ours. It's because too few people in this place have the vision or priorities in the right order to fix them.

The government thinks it is okay—in fact, the government is boasting—to trend towards two per cent spending on defence. They're going to double the submarine fleet even though we can't find the crews for the existing six, but don't worry about that. Don't worry that we can't find the crews for our six subs. Let's buy 12! How ridiculous all of this chest-beating is. Why don't we get our priorities in order? Yes, we need a Defence Force. Yes, we need to replace the submarines. But let's get our priorities in order.

We are spending an outrageous amount of money on the Joint Strike Fighter when there were always other cheaper alternatives. Why aren't we raising more revenue? Why don't we have a superprofits tax on any sector of the economy that achieves a disproportionate return on its investment? Why don't we get a bit more tax back from the banks that made $30 billion of profit last year? They can afford to pay a bit more. High wage earners like us—parliamentarians—can afford to pay a bit more. There are so many ways that we can save money in the budget sensibly, so many ways that we can raise extra revenue in this country sensibly, so many things we could be doing and talking about in this place, but what are we talking about tonight? We're talking about attacking the tertiary sector, which is already underfunded by $1 billion a year, and we're debating whether or not we should go after it for more.

I bring my little talk back to Tasmania. Tasmania: a small state, a small uni, a lot of disadvantaged people. This government thinks it is okay to cut the University of Tasmania's funding by more than $11 million a year. This government thinks it is okay to charge Tasmanian students at the University of Tasmania more than $11 million extra in fees each year, and, in doing so, to jeopardise some of the most disadvantaged people in the state and in this country, and very important campuses like Burnie.

I don't support this bill. I am pleased the opposition won't support this bill. It's bad public policy. (Time expired)

6:15 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question be now put.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion be put.

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. So, the immediate question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

: The question is that this bill now be read a second time.