Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise today to speak in relation to the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, which the Abbott government is desperately trying to ram through the Senate. Palmer United is opposed to the higher education reforms and will be voting against the bill in every possible way. We will be voting to stop the bill from moving from the second reading stage to the committee stage, as we feel it is a waste of taxpayers' time to allow the Senate to give any further oxygen to this bill by considering amendments which only seek to window dress what is, in reality, a revolting proposal. We will be voting down any amendments which are put forward and we will be voting down the final bill. We are opposed to higher education reforms for a number of reasons, and no amount of texting, chocolates and red roses from Christopher Pyne is going to change my mind or the mind of my fellow colleague Senator Dio Wang. It is our view that the Abbott government's higher education reforms are bad to the core.
I take my role as a senator for Queensland very seriously. I ensure that, when forming a position on matters, I take the time to meet with stakeholders across my great state to seek their feedback and get their advice, to ensure that my final position reflects the wishes and will of the people. I have taken the time to meet with universities across my home state of Queensland and I have also met with student union groups. In Queensland, our universities are located in cities and in rural and regional areas across the state.
In meeting and speaking with universities in Queensland, the feedback that I have received is clear: universities do not want their funding cut and they certainly would not cope with the cuts the Abbott government is seeking to implement through these nasty reforms. Universities have advised me that the easiest way that they could make up for a cut in funding would be to increase the cost of course fees. Increasing the cost of degrees, along with other cost-cutting measures, would enable universities to make up for the shortfall in their budgets. Universities do not have money trees growing on their campuses. An increase in course fees means that Australians will pay substantially more for higher education in this country. This would only push university degrees out of reach for most Australians.
The other concerning issue which universities raised with me is that rural and regional universities will be impacted the most by these higher education reforms. Many rural and regional universities do not have the market power of CBD based and traditional bricks and mortar universities, and any forced increase to course fees would mean that their student numbers would fall. A fall in student numbers would mean that rural and regional universities would have to start cutting courses, which would reduce the range of academic offerings available to rural and regional based students. Students from rural and regional areas will suffer and be further disadvantaged compared to the students located in CBD areas. If student numbers fall in rural and regional areas, the universities will be forced to make cuts across campuses, cutting jobs and services, which will hurt local communities and businesses that supply services and products to these universities.
Regional and rural universities provide not only an important education facility for students but also an important social and economic hub for regional towns and centres. Rural and regional universities employ local people and contribute to local economies. In fact, many of these universities also undertake research in specialist areas. These areas include agribusiness, crop health, tropical health and medicine, fisheries and aquaculture, just to name a few. This research involves local businesses and industries. Funding cuts to universities will affect the capacity of universities to undertake research. Universities have advised me that they may have to scale back research.
Universities have also told me that, if their funding is cut, not only will they have to put up the cost of course fees but they will need to look at cutting the quality of the courses. Good courses cost money to deliver. Good courses include practical elements, field trips, quality staff and best practices, tools and equipment. The quality of higher education will fall in Australia if funding is reduced.
While Australia offers brilliant weather and excellent opportunities, it is still considered an expensive country to do business with. Australia cannot keep trying to compete with countries like China, Taiwan and Korea in the spheres of manufacturing; we cannot compete on wages and operating costs. As a nation, we need to be drawing on our capability to innovate, invent, create and lead. To nurture and develop our reputation and international standing as a nation of creativity and innovation, we need to invest in education; we need to invest in becoming a smart country.
The world is prepared to pay for breakthroughs and advancements in science, technology, medicine and health. These things deliver real and tangible benefits which benefit the human race and the global economy. Australia could be driving these advancements, but we need educated people to do this. Cutting funding to education will only hurt our country and hurt our future as a nation. I will not allow Australia to become the dumb country.
In talking with universities and student union groups, I cannot find any reason to support this bill. Two of my children have just finished degrees in business at the University of Queensland. They, like many students, have entered their working life with a HECS debt, which they will carry with them until it is paid off. It is a debt that they will need to constantly bear in mind as they consider their work options and life decisions. My youngest son has just finished year 12 and is waiting to hear which university course he has been accepted into.
As a proud parent, I personally am concerned about the impact of the higher education reforms. Too often politicians make decisions without understanding their real impact on the people they represent. As a father, I do not want to see my children lumbered with an excessive higher education debt. I want to see my children flourish and to enjoy the gifts and benefits that higher education provides. I want my children to experience the opportunities that education offers. I do not want to see them so stressed by a HECS debt that they are weighed down by the worry and start to make bad decisions about their careers and future because they are driven by debt rather than by great opportunities. I want to see all Australian children flourish and enjoy access to quality education. I would like to mention a quote by Confucius which captures how Australia should be harnessing education:
If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.
I refuse to vote for anything that will discourage the young men and women of our country from aspiring to undertake higher education. The other issue which concerns me is that some universities have also said that, should the reforms get through and funding is cut, they will have to look at increasing the intake of international students who are able to pay more for higher education and, as a consequence, reduce the number of placements offered in courses to local Australian kids. So not only will the cost of courses go up but also the opportunities for Australians to attend university will be reduced because there will be fewer places available.
As I have already outlined, the higher education reforms are just bad policy and the bill is bad to the core. What I cannot understand is why the Abbott government did not take the time to properly consult with the higher education sector before developing the higher education reforms. If the Abbott government had undertaken proper consultation we would not be here talking about this terrible bill. In my opinion, I do not think this is about the higher education sector or the long-term vision of this country; this bill is about nothing more than budget cuts.
If the Abbott government wants to cut funding to the higher education sector, to increase the cost of education for everyday Australians and to create education debt problems for our children, they should take these reforms to the Australian people at the next election and see what the people of Australia think of their dumb ideas. Palmer United does not support the higher education reforms. We will be voting against this bill.