Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:19 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

In closing the second reading debate on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, I thank all senators for their contributions to this debate, much as I may not agree with all that has been said. In closing this debate, I also seek to argue the case for greater autonomy and greater freedom for Australian universities to give Australian universities to lift themselves, to lift the outcomes for students and to lift the economic contribution they make to Australia to the types of heights and levels that we know they are capable of doing, have done for years and can do again in the future—if we give them the capacity and the freedom and the autonomy to do so.

… it is … clear that government alone cannot provide all the additional funding necessary for our universities to become top notch.

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… we propose that Australian universities be free to set student fees according to the market value of their degrees. A deregulated or market-based HECS will make the student contribution system fairer, because the fees students pay will more closely approximate the value they receive through future earnings. Market-based HECS will also help to improve our higher education system by making universities even more responsive to student needs and educational outcomes.

They are not my words; they are the words of Andrew Leigh, the shadow Assistant Treasurer, a member of the Labor Party's shadow executive today.

It is time to change our one-size-fits-all funding system and let diversity develop.

Again, they are not my words. They are the words of Gareth Evans, former Labor Party foreign minister of long standing.

I want Labor to be a positive player, not just a blocker.

They are not my words but the words of former federal Labor MP Maxine McKew, speaking about higher education reform.

… the ALP ought to engage with the government to negotiate the further reform of higher education …

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It's a great pity that Labor is sitting on its hands this time.

Again, they are not my words but the words of John Dawkins, former Labor Party Treasurer in the Keating government, education minister in the Hawke government and architect of the modern HECS. Peter Beattie commented:

Make no mistake, without funding reform, Australia’s universities will inevitably slip towards mediocrity and the quality of Australian graduates will decline in relation to our international competitors, both in business and education.

Once again, these are not my words. They are the words of Peter Beattie, a former long-serving Queensland Labor Party premier.

Through much of the debate, we have heard from those opposite that this is some type of great partisan divide. But, with Peter Beattie, Gareth Evans, John Dawkins, Maxine McKew and Andrew Leigh all having argued the case for reform, it is crystal clear that it is not a partisan divide in terms of good, sound policy; it is simply the case that those opposite want to play politics and run a scare campaign, when what they should be doing is embracing reform that is good and worthwhile for Australia's future.

They need not, though, listen to Labor members past and present—those who have led their party through great reform. They could instead heed the advice of, and listen to, the education sector, who have equally argued passionately and strongly for the adoption—if not of this exact model that is before the chamber—at least for reform of the type and nature of reform that is before the chamber. And they have argued for that reform to be made as quickly as possible.

Universities Australia have embraced the need for reform and called for reform, and 40 of the nation's 41 vice-chancellors have stood behind Universities Australia in their call. The Innovative Research Universities have embraced the call for action. The Regional Universities Network have done so. In their most recent statement, they say:

It is essential for regional universities and their students to retain the demand driven student system for bachelor places and to expand this to sub-bachelor degrees to provide more pathways for less well prepared students. The higher education system must be adequately funded to ensure quality and sustainability, and the deregulation of fees provides the most realistic way to do this.

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RUN urges the Senate to end the uncertainty for students and universities and to pass the package.

The Group of Eight universities have been equally—if not even more—emphatic in their support. The Australian Council for Private Education and Training have supported the reforms. TAFE Directors Australia have supported these reforms. This reform package has brought together a level of support across Australia's education sector in ways, frankly, never seen before for a major reform package. To have all elements, essentially, of the education sector backing this reform is a demonstration that the government has listened and acted and developed a policy that should be supported by those opposite. The sector supports this, because they recognise that current funding arrangements based on the uncapped demand driven system for university places is unsustainable. They recognise that the current arrangement is hurting quality. The current arrangement reduces the incentive for innovation by Australia's universities. It reduces the incentive for excellence in Australia's universities. It reduces the incentive for specialisation among Australia's universities.

The package that we have brought to this parliament will provide the capacity for universities to be set free to be able to choose how they will differentiate themselves from each other; how they can specialise; in what fields to develop excellence; and, yes, to differentiate that, in part, by cost. This is also a proposal that dramatically increases access for Australians. I singled out the Regional Universities Network to quote before, because, of course they are representing the universities who most frequently are providing opportunities for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for students who may not historically or traditionally have made it into university. The Regional Universities Network is passionately supporting the passage of this legislation, just as is the rest of the sector.

Before I get to some of the specifics in the bill, I will address some of the contributions that have been made. I listened to Senator Lamble's contribution and I acknowledge the passion in her contribution and the passionate defence that she made for the University of Tasmania. But I note that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania is one of the 40 of the 41 vice-chancellors from Universities Australia who are supporting this reform.

Senator Lambie made an equally passionate call for more diplomas and more associate degree places to be available in Tasmania through the University of Tasmania. That is exactly what this package, if passed, would do. It would remove the cap and enable the University of Tasmania—indeed, all of the Regional Universities Network and all of the universities of Australia—to offer Commonwealth subsidised places for diplomas and associate degrees without that cap in place. It would uncap those sub-bachelor levels and allow them to provide greater pathways to students who may not have the skills, capacity or ATAR score to get into a degree level course.

I also noted that Senator Lambie, and I think Senator Xenophon did similarly, argued the case for—and highlighted international examples of—so-called free education. Again, I will quote Andrew Leigh, the shadow Assistant Treasurer: 'If university fees were abolished, as dewy-eyed Whitlamites often demand, this would effectively redistribute scarce government funds from those who do not go to university to those who do. Given that those who attend university tend to be richer than those who do not and are likely to be richer as a result of their education, this would simply widen the already large income gap between the tertiary educated and the non-tertiary educated. Australia should be in the business of reducing not increasing inequality. For these reasons, it is appropriate for students themselves to meet some of the costs of their education.' The argument against that notion of free education is a real one because, if you say that education will be funded by all taxpayers, of course you are putting a greater and more disproportionate load on the taxpayers who never go to university. What our reforms are doing and what governments since the introduction of HECS have done is seek to create a system whereby those who benefit from the university education make a fair contribution to it.

But equally appreciate that under our model every bachelor degree course, every sub-bachelor degree course and every diploma course offered through this model would still be attracting Commonwealth subsidies. Students would not be paying the full fees. There is a Commonwealth subsidy attached, and beyond that there is, of course, the opportunity to access HECS, meaning nobody need pay a single cent up-front.

Senator Xenophon, in his contribution, spoke about consultation. Well, Senator Xenophon, there has been a world of consultation. There has, of course, been the Kemp-Norton review, which was the latest of 33 reviews into Australia's higher education system since 1950—not counting, of course, the countless Senate inquiries or parliamentary inquiries that could be added on top of that. The issue of deregulation has been discussed and looked at by many. Of course, the consultation has been such that we have built the body of support across the nation's educational institutions that I outlined before. He argued—and we have heard it from Senator Carr as well at times—that this would create a US-style system. Again I emphasise, though, that we have HECS. It means nobody need pay a single cent up-front. That is not a US-style system; it is far, far from it. He did acknowledge—and I know a number on the crossbenches have acknowledged—that there is a level of unsustainability and a pressure in the Australian university system at present that cannot be sustained. Senator Xenophon said he may be willing to support some fee increase at present—a lifting of the cap. But I equally note that he acknowledged that, when that was last done, all we saw was that everybody moved up to the new cap and that you did not effectively get any sense of competition in the sector or any sense of specialisation or innovation.

Senator Carr argues that this is a contrived funding crisis. That does not seem to be the view held by the universities, and of course we know that the reality is that the Labor Party announced cuts to higher education and research of $6.6 billion from 2011 to 2013. Every six months, in every budget and every MYEFO, there were cuts from the Labor party. He too argues that we wish to create an Americanised system. I made the point before that HECS makes this a vastly different system, and HECS remains fundamental to it, so that nobody need pay one cent up-front.

They argue that university will only be for the wealthy. All of this has been part of a terrible, vicious scare campaign to suggest somehow that people will be shut out of universities. Thankfully, the students are smarter than that. Of course, that has been the trend ever since HECS was introduced. University enrolments have continued to increase since the Hawke government introduced HECS. They went up and have gone up at every increase in fees that has occurred under HECS. The access to university has continued to grow, because students and their families see the opportunity of university education and realise the equity in the fact that nobody in Australia need pay up-front, because of HECS, but know that there is sufficient private gain and personal benefit for them to take on that student debt and that it will be worthwhile to pay it off through their career, through the generous arrangements that successive Australian governments have supported, because they will gain a higher income and greater opportunity as a result of it. This year, we have continued to see increased enrolments despite the Labor Party's fear campaign and their attempts to drive people out.

Of course, that fear campaign has not just been about arguing that there would be up-front fees somehow; it has also involved the Labor Party throwing around this notion of the $100,000 degree. I am indebted to the Group of Eight universities for highlighting that the $100,000 degree is simply impossible under the reforms being proposed, because the reforms being proposed require that fees be no higher than what is currently charged for international students, minus the level of Commonwealth subsidy being paid. In no circumstance does that get you to over $100,000. It is, as has been the case time and time again through this debate, another instance of Senator Carr, Mr Shorten and the Labor Party misleading.

This legislation creates great new opportunities—new opportunities to expand access to education for Australians, and new opportunities for Australia's universities to position themselves to excel on the world stage and deliver greater benefits to our economy into the future. It will allow our universities to specialise and provide the best possible education for their students. We are guaranteeing that domestic undergraduate fees will always be lower than international fees. It will create a major new Commonwealth scholarship program to help students with living and other expenses. It will spread opportunity for students who need pathways to qualify for university or sub-degree qualifications to prepare them for their jobs. It will create an incentive for universities to invest more in those pathway and sub-bachelor degree courses, rather than the model at present, which creates maximum incentive for universities to stuff as many bachelor degree students into the lecture room as they possibly can. It will create a fairer spread of HECS to students who choose to study with non-university higher education providers, such as private colleges or TAFEs. And it will eliminate the differential in loan fees that those students outside the university system face. It, of course, maintains the CPI as the determinant for increase in HECS over time but adds a new interest rate pause for new parents, as proposed by Senator Madigan and others on the crossbench. It is estimated to create opportunities for an extra 80,000 people to access higher education as a result of the package proposed here.

The alternative is, of course, to look at what the Labor Party is proposing, which would tear up the reforms of the Gillard government in uncapping university places and would put at risk 120,000 places at university in the future. It is a stark contrast between those opposite, who would seek to asphyxiate innovation in the university sector, and those on this side, who seek to provide a chance for universities to chart their own destiny and provide real opportunities for the future.

We have listened through this debate—through the successive debates—around higher education. When this matter was considered last year we adopted a number of amendments to the package from those on the crossbench. We have listened this time around and sought to unclutter the debate and ensure we can simply have a positive debate about the merits of providing freedom and autonomy to Australia's universities rather than regulating them ultimately to a poorer future. I urge those in the chamber—those on the crossbenches—to engage in this debate sufficiently that we can proceed beyond the second reading, to give consideration to the amendments the government has circulated in our attempt to facilitate a focused debate around the future of universities and how they fund themselves.

I particularly urge those opposite as we move beyond this debate, noting that it is likely to be unsuccessful today, to take a long, hard look at themselves and their position in relation to the history of higher education and where they stand today, because they are turning their back on their legacy of creating HECS. They are turning their back on Julia Gillard's legacy of uncapping places. We want to create that autonomy and that freedom and unshackle Australia's universities, and that is exactly what this bill does.


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