Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014; Second Reading

5:24 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to oppose the government's legislation to deregulate higher education.

A great public purpose requires adequate public funding. That is the matter at hand here today. I reject the remarks from Senator Madigan that people 'do not have the courage of their convictions' in here and that people are 'not doing the right thing' by the university sector. Let me tell you: the Greens have consistently opposed cuts to university funding and cuts to research funding. We have done so always. We have also put forward propositions to raise the revenue in order to fund public education, public universities and research and development.

As recently as a week ago, I put forward a proposal that we stop the flat rate of 15 per cent tax on contributions to superannuation and that we do it in a progressive way, similar to income tax. That would raise $10 billion over the forward estimates. The vice-chancellors a few years ago ran a very strong campaign trying to argue to the Australian community that we needed to raise more revenue to spend on universities. I agree. The Greens were out there supporting the campaign to raise revenue to put more public money into universities.

But I have to say to you that Senator Madigan was correct in saying that over recent years—over decades actually—the level of funding to universities has been cut back. When the former Labor government in their MYEFO statement in 2012-13 announced cuts to research, we objected to that. When Labor announced, in April 2013 going into the election, cuts to university funding, we opposed it. And we went into the election opposing it. We said that after the election Labor in opposition would change its mind. It did, and I am very pleased about that, because the fundamental principle here is: if you want to change from a 'dig it up, cut it down, ship it away' economy to a 21st century economy where imagination is the key resource—not coal, not iron ore, not cutting down native forests, but actually investing in the brains base of this nation—then you have to fund public education and universities.

Where the last government went wrong was the announcement that they would cut the funding to universities in order to spend it on the Gonski reforms. I totally support the Gonski reforms—they should have gone ahead and we should be funding that—but you do not take money out of universities to fund public schools; you need to fund education at every level, from early childhood right through the school system through to universities and TAFEs. That is the way of the future in Australia.

I am one of those people who was at university before Gough Whitlam brought in free education in Australia. I come from a relatively poor farming family in the north-west of Tasmania. My parents were dairy farmers. My mother was a teacher. In order for me to get through school I got scholarships, and I had to get scholarships to get to university. I had the choice between a Commonwealth scholarship and a teacher studentship, and I took the teacher studentship because it paid more than a Commonwealth scholarship at that time.

So I can tell you that I know what it is like to be fronting the fact that you may not be able to go to university because you cannot afford it. That is precisely the case for so many people and that is why deregulation is so wrong. It is wrong to say to young people: 'The parliament of Australia refuses to raise the revenue to put into schools and public education'. The result is that we are going to cut public funding to universities and we are going to tell the universities they have to raise fees in order to cover the gap. And raising those fees of course means hurting a lot of people and making people think twice about the course they go into. They will not have the same choices that they otherwise would.

In a speech he made on this very issue, Professor Glyn Davies said:

Australia spends proportionally less public money on universities than most OECD countries, yet few outside the sector argue for international standards of investment.

He said that he was one of the people who supported more public funding to universities so that we would not be in this bind of raising fees to make up the difference.

The real issue here is: how are we going to fund our universities? Do we agree, first and foremost, that education is the most important investment we can make in the country in order not only to survive in the face of global warming but to reduce to gap between the rich and the poor—that inequality in wealth that we have in this country? I would argue that it is the most important thing we can do. That is why we should be raising the money from those who can afford to pay it and investing it in 21st century national infrastructure—and by infrastructure I mean brains, in the human capacity base of this country. Of course, we also need to invest in other infrastructure, but that is where we need to be fundamentally going.

I am concerned that, with this deregulation proposal, a teacher would graduate with a HECS debt of around $90,000, and it would take them decades—up to 40 years and more—to pay it off. Women are going to be disadvantaged in this context, because they are the ones who often end up taking time out in part-time work or no work, ultimately resuming full-time work once the children go to school. They would then spend years paying this debt back.

The University of Tasmania is in a unique position because we have only one university for the whole state. That does not apply anywhere else. The University of Tasmania is the key to improving educational opportunities for all Tasmanians. The university has a campus in Launceston and opened a campus on the north-west coast. The north-west coast is an area of Tasmania with one of the poorest retention rates to senior secondary education, let alone university. The provision of the north-west campus has enabled people who left school at an early age to go back and finish their education. It has been a great contribution to Tasmania, but with the cuts that were being proposed we could have seen the University of Tasmania lose out by $113 million. Not only that, but we could have seen many students not being given the opportunity to go on to further education. Since we have only one university, fee competition would not work in Tasmania. You would be saying to students: 'You can go to the mainland to try to get cheaper fees,' but the reality is that you have to pay to get there, you have to pay the rents when you get there, and you have to pay the costs of accommodation and living expenses. It just would not work out to be any cheaper. So the reality is that you are condemning Tasmanians to no competition in the scheme of things, and to having to pay whatever the fees actually result in.

We need to have a situation where we have full-time, permanent teaching staff and research staff in universities. I do not want to go down the path of seeing some universities declared universities but having no research capacity. A public university has to have teaching and research, it has to have permanent staff, it has to have opportunities for young people to achieve to their highest potential. And it has to assist this country to get where it needs to be in a world that is moving rapidly to a low carbon economy and in having to be part of developing a service sector and a global economy that is not based on the consumption of the natural resources of the planet. This week we had the International Energy Agency saying that for the first time we have global emissions flatlining from the energy sector, we have economic growth globally at three per cent and no economic downturn. That demonstrates that decoupling global greenhouse gas emissions from growth is possible, but it means that in Australia we have to have a rapid shift in the way we live, in the way that we earn, and in the way society operates. That means massive opportunity, but only if you invest in that opportunity.

I wanted to make a remark about the cutback that was proposed—the blackmail, effectively. In order for the government to try to get deregulation over the line, there was the proposal to cut research funding. That would have had a mega-negative impact on the Integrated Marine Observing System, in Tasmania, which was going to run out of funding by June. It is essential to a whole range of research not only in Tasmania but right around the world. It would have been a disaster if the government had pursued that, and for Minister Pyne to try to blackmail the parliament by saying: 'Either you pass my deregulation—


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