Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


Higher Education

8:49 pm

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

I rise to put on the record the threat posed to regional communities by the legislation that was put before the House of Representatives this day. This morning in that other place, the green chamber, legislation was passed that will see a generation of young people turn away from university—many of them not by choice but by the force of the hand of this unruly, miserly government of limited vision for this great nation, Australia. If these laws pass the Senate, we will witness a generation of social mobility gone, a generation of economic growth lost and a generation of cultural mindfulness decimated.

By its very nature, education is a generational decision. Labor believes this now, and Labor believed it when we were in government. Labor will continue to fight for equality of access to education and the equality of opportunity that it brings. Labor will stand against the doubling and the tripling of university fees. Labor will stand against crippling debt. No young person or their family, no mature age student, should ever turn away from education because they think that they will not be able to afford it. Yet that is the Australia that this Liberal government—in coalition with the National Party and, from time to time, those on the crossbenches—is determined to create in this country that prides itself, and is lauded by other nations, as one of the most egalitarian in the world

A young Australian or a mature aged Australian returning to study deserves access to education based on their competency, not on their capacity to pay.

Labor can be proud of what we accomplished during our time in government, not just increasing funding for higher education but opening the doors to 190,000 new students by removing the cap on student places. There could not be a greater contrast between what the Liberal Party believe in and what they enact in their policy when they come to govern, and what Labor believes. Those 190,000 new places are 190,000 capacity-building opportunities for Australians of all ages to remake their future, to strive for their dreams, to access education.

I was proud to be part of a government that boosted regional student numbers by 30 per cent and increased funding to regional universities by no less than 56 per cent. While the National Party might seek to claim that they are the party of the country regions, they are silent in this place, in the House of Representatives and in the meeting rooms with their Liberal partners, where they should be speaking up for the people of the bush. And they are silent on the atrocity that is about to be committed on higher education in this country. Labor is the sole dedicated voice to access to equal opportunity in education in this country.

Regional universities and their campuses create opportunities locally, where previously young people and mature aged students would leave, with their families if they needed to. Students were forced away from family, from places where they were connected to the land and from places where they were connected to their community; they were forced to look for employment in our cities. Regional universities transformed that life choice, but this government is intent on destroying that.

Sixty to 80 of every 100 graduates from regional university campuses start work in the region in which they studied. Talk about building on the back of great endeavour in the bush, enabling people to enhance their skills and contribute to the bush—that is a vision for a fair Australia, but it is one that this government is selling down the river every day. Today we saw the passage of a piece of disgraceful legislation in the House of Representatives which is on its way to this red chamber for consideration. And Labor, with 25 votes in this place, will stand firmly against it.

Our regional campuses play an invaluable role in maintaining our rural communities. I am so proud of a university with which I am particularly familiar, the University of Newcastle, and what they have accomplished as a young regional university. I have had the pleasure of both studying and working at the University of Newcastle. It is an institution that has made its name in research, as one of the top 10 research universities in Australia. It is meeting the needs of the regional communities it serves while taking its place on the international stage, with the highest quality research endeavour. It is a university of which we can be truly proud. It is able to do this unconstrained by centuries of history and expectation like the sandstone universities so often are. It can write its own playbook and will write its own future. It can generate places for people who others may consider do not have a place at university, who others do not believe can participate in university and succeed at university.

The Newcastle university, with a mission and a dedication to all those in the community who sought further education, have created learning contexts and provided the support structures to enable those who are first in family to attend university to be successful. They have a brilliant reputation as the university in Australia that has created the most Indigenous doctors. A transformative learning experience is created in this wonderful regional university committed to egalitarian access to education. Newcastle university provides an academic home to 39,000 students from the Hunter, from the Central Coast and the mid-North Coast regions of New South Wales. It has campuses at Callaghan in Newcastle, in Newcastle City, at Ourimbah on the Central Coast, imminently in the centre of Gosford City and at Port Macquarie. These are areas that, without the University of Newcastle, would be completely unserved by education.

But today and in the near future it is the Prime Minister's cuts to higher education that threaten this offering. There is no mistaking the reality that regional campuses will be the hardest hit under the legislation that is proposed by this government. Newcastle university alone will lose tens of millions of dollars each year. The university clearly will not be able to make up this shortfall without burdening the students with higher fees—fees that students will not be able to recover. Regional universities often cater to and serve already relatively economically disadvantaged students. The census data indicates that 11.9 per cent of people on the Central Coast have achieved a bachelor's degree or higher, which is much, much lower than the figures in other parts of the country. Indeed, it is in stark contrast to the 20.7 per cent of people in New South Wales generally and the 40.5 per cent in the greater Sydney region who have a bachelor's degree or higher.

Regional universities and associated campuses are different and they are under existential threat from this shameful, miserly government. The University of Newcastle Central Coast campus has increased local participation in higher education, with more than 11,600 people graduating from the university campus of Ourimbah since 1995. It has transformed education in the region. It deserves a far better go than this disgraceful government is set to give it.


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