Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
() (): The incorporated speech read as follows—
Labor is a party that has always stood up for education and realised the value of quality tuition. It is a party that believes that education should be accessible to all Australians, irrespective of background. No student should ever have to think twice about seeking a good education. Tony Abbott's plan for $100,000 degrees will do just that. This Bill will cripple Australia's future if some of our best and brightest cannot attend university due to higher fees and higher interest rates on their loans.
In another broken promise, the Government wants to cut $3.9 billion from a sector that simply cannot afford it. Before the election, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne promised no cuts to education, no increase to university fees, and no changes to the higher education system. The Australian people did not vote for a Government that would create a society of 'haves' and 'have nots'. Despite what Tony Abbott touts, there is no evidence that deregulated university education reduces costs to students and their families. We cannot allow this Government to place such a burden on our students, with a plan that fails both the fairness test and the national interest test.
Labor will stand up for those that will be hardest hit by the changes sought to be introduced by this Bill, including women, students from low-income backgrounds, and students from regional Australia.
No student deserves to be hit with Tony Abbott's debt sentence.
Bill in detail
The Coalition is seeking to introduce the most radical changes to the higher education system in 30 years. This Bill will cut subsidies for undergraduate study, deregulate tuition fees charged to undergraduate students, change the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) system, and introduce fees for postgraduate research students.
Among the cuts to higher education and research is a 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for course delivery; a one-off efficiency dividend of 3.25 per cent on Australian Research Council grants; and a reduction in funding of the Research Training Scheme, which supports higher degree research students. In order to cover these funding cuts, universities will be forced to increase their fees by as much as 60 per cent for some degrees. The cuts to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding are arbitrary with increases in subsidy for some courses while others have been savagely cut. Changes to indexation arrangements for Commonwealth grant funding are also designed to reduce government funding of higher education over the long term.
Unrestrained student fees will result in the highest increase to university education costs this country has seen in a long time. In an unregulated market, universities will raise their fees far higher than what is required to offset reduced government funding. Students will foot the bill for universities increasing their research quotas just so that they can remain ahead of the race on world rankings. We only need to compare the current cost of private university degrees to public university degrees to see the difference this Bill will make. Higher fees will certainly deter entry to higher education by those from disadvantaged backgrounds. One look at the United States tells us that university competition leads to increased costs with no improvement in student outcomes. Not to mention what increased competition is going to do to our universities serving rural areas and students from low socio-economic backgrounds. $100,000 degrees are a very real prospect under this Bill.
To add to the Government's agenda of increased costs and cuts, they are seeking to change the HELP indexation rate from CPI to the Treasury 10 year bond rate. This change alone will cost students thousands of dollars extra in interest on their loans after 2016. This measure will have a regressive impact on lower income earners who would pay considerably higher interest payments than high income earners. Massive amounts of compounding interest will be shunted onto students, taking years to pay off. The Government clearly doesn't care about the impact that this will have on students who have completed their degrees. They will be forced to make life choices based on the enormous debt they have accumulated, just from attending university. Those seeking a university education will be faced with a tough choice, potentially the difference between a $25,000 debt and a $100,000 debt. To make matters worse, the Government is seeking to establish a new minimum repayment threshold for HELP debts of two per cent when a person's income reaches $50,638. 65,000 Australians will be affected by this measure.
It is not only undergraduate students hit with the harsh cuts proposed by this Bill. The Government plans to cut $173 million from the research training scheme which pays for the teaching of our PhD and Masters' research students. Universities may charge students up to $3,900 a year under HELP to cover these cuts. New PhD fees will force the next generation of innovators in our country to think about whether a PhD is really worth the cost.
Queensland education cuts
Don't be mistaken, cuts of the nature proposed by the Government are not confined to universities and federal funding. Under the LNP government in Queensland, we have seen widespread cuts to vital education providers including TAFE and public schools. The TAFE system has possibly suffered the most, with the closure of the Ithaca TAFE campus and further proposed closures of Mt Gravatt, Grovely, Alexandra Hills and Bracken Ridge campuses; this is just in the Brisbane metropolitan area alone. These closures have come as a result of Queensland Government funding cuts to many TAFE courses. Due to drastically increased financial outlays required of students, there has been a significant decrease in the numbers of students attending courses. The cost of some courses has been increased by many thousands of dollars. This is a cost that our students just cannot afford. Courses which provide vital education, skills and training to students to place them in a better position to find jobs and enter the workforce are no longer accessible and affordable to all. The erosion of TAFE funding removes the high quality, low cost, accessible education and training that Queenslanders deserve. For many students, TAFE provides a pathway into university education for students.
Now-Premier Campbell Newman made a pre-election promise that there would be no asset sales in Queensland. A contributor to the TAFE cost hike is the establishment of the Queensland Training
Assets Management Authority by the Newman Government on 1 July this year. The QTAMA now owns all of TAFE Queensland's buildings, facilities, infrastructure and assets. TAFE now has to lease back buildings and assets previously owned by Queensland taxpayers. This measure has placed TAFE in direct competition with other registered training organisations.
In 2013 the LNP Government announced six school closures including Charlton State School, Fortitude Valley State School, Nyanda State High School, Old Yarranlea State School, Stuart State School, and Toowoomba South State School, all of which have now closed. The most concerning of these closures is Nyanda State High School. In an attack of the public education system, the site of this school was sold to the privately funded Brisbane Christian College. This is a resounding example of the Queensland LNP Government privileging a select few who can afford private education. The sale of Nyanda State High School has meant that facilities funded by the public purse will now only be enjoyed by students of parents that can afford to send their children to a private school. All of the school closures involved very little public consultation. The Queensland Government failed to engage all of the relevant stakeholders and brought forward submission deadlines in order to push through their damaging plans.
In early 2014, the Newman Government closed the Barrett Adolescent Centre in Queensland; a facility that provided both education and health care services to adolescents with severe and complex mental health problems. The closure of this facility has attracted much attention following the death of three patients following the closure. A report by Queensland Health's Expert Clinical Reference Group stated that the government knew the risks when it decided to close BAC. The report also expressed concern at the loss of skilled clinical and education staff. Education is a core part of the intervention required for young people who require the level of care that was provided by BAC.
In turning back to the Bill before this chamber, it is clear that Tony Abbott is taking a leaf from the book of Campbell Newman in trying to fool the public into thinking that his Government's reforms will result in opportunity. Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are trying to force education providers with 500 or more equivalent full time Commonwealth Supported Students to establish a new Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme to support disadvantaged students. Providers will be required to direct 20 per cent of additional revenue that they receive from the deregulation of student contributions to the scheme. Labor and the Australian public will not be fooled. To call this arrangement a 'scholarship' is a fraud. These funds will be provided on the back of a tax on students and will work to disadvantage regional universities that cannot compete with major universities who have the capacity to charge higher fees. This Government is spruiking shallow rhetoric that does not recognise the differences between metropolitan and regional higher education.
It is abundantly clear that both the Abbott Government and the Newman Government in Queensland do not care about the long term sustainability of our vital public education system. Under their policies, only the well-off will have the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education. The Government is asking students to pay for their scholarship programs and for research, things that the Government currently pays for. International experience of deregulation has shown us that it is the most disadvantaged get left behind. No student should be left with a crippling debt sentence. No student should be forced to make the choice between a mortgage and a university degree. This Bill represents far too great a risk for students, the community and public education institutions.
Labor will fight this plan and the plight of the LNP government in Queensland.