Senate debates

Monday, 17 March 2014

Regulations and Determinations

Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Education) 2013, Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012; Disallowance

7:31 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

No. 1—That the Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Education) 2013, made under section 238-10 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, be disallowed, and

No. 2—That Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012, made under section 238-10 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, be disallowed.

I move these disallowance motions because Labor are opposed to the unrelenting attacks on education being displayed by this government. We are opposed to the government's ideological obsession with cuts for what appears to be nothing more than the sake of cuts. We are opposed to the breaking of an election promise—namely, the government committed to the maintenance of education funding for schools. If I recall rightly, the commitment made by various opposition spokespeople at the time was that there would be not one dollar less for schools under a coalition government than there would be under a Labor government. Of course, that is not to be the case.

I say this in the context of Labor's outstanding record when it comes to higher education, a record that put an additional 190,000 students into our universities. If you look at the forward estimates, under Labor there was an increase in funding for universities to some $17 billion by 2017. Under Labor, there was a funding boost for science, for research and for innovation of 35 per cent. We are very proud of that record. In contrast, the coalition have a lot to answer for. They show every sign of hostility towards education, which is in part because, in Liberal Party iconography, there is a view that universities in particular are institutions of the cultural Left. We know the reality is a little bit more complex than that, but how quickly the new government have changed their tune for political convenience.

The Prime Minister, if I recall rightly, when the Labor government was in office, took issue with the efficiency dividend; now, in government, he is adopting that position. But he is not putting the savings towards schools. He is not putting them towards building a much better program for schools, on which the prosperity of this nation ultimately depends. The once-in-a-lifetime reform plan for schools that Labor initiated, commonly known as the Gonski reforms, provided $11.5 billion backed by funding guarantees from the states. That national program of expansion of school education is now to be jettisoned by this government. Mr Abbott is in fact proposing a reduction in funding for school education, particularly in out years 5 and 6 under the program announced by the Labor government and which the states signed up to. What we see here is a clear breaking of the government's election promise and a clear betrayal of education—broken promises in terms of schooling but also in terms of our higher education sector. So Labor will oppose these changes.

There is clearly a presumption within this government that the principles of equity, quality and justice when it comes to education should not be honoured. The education portfolio is essentially in a condition that can be characterised as a shambles. I remember, with some disdain, that the Minister for Education, Minister Pyne, sought to execute a triple inverted backflip on funding almost in one day, which is truly a remarkable achievement, even for this fine public institution! In the past, Mr Pyne argued that Gonski was in fact a 'conski'. Before the election he pledged to match Labor's funding dollar for dollar; he then said he could not guarantee that the money promised to schools under the Better Schools plan could be delivered. Then he abandoned the needs-based funding model. He signed off on agreements with the states—with Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory—with no commitment from them at all in terms of the requirement for them to maintain their efforts. It was a desperate shambles. The Prime Minister then had to intervene to try to fix the resulting mess, following Minister Pyne's somewhat inept handling of all these issues.

None of this is a surprise, because what needs to be appreciated is that the coalition have form on these issues. When last elected to office in 1996, they undertook a program of quite extensive reductions in funding for universities—a full quarter of the cuts in the infamous Costello horror budget of 1996. Of course, none of that had been announced before the election either. So it will not be a surprise to me if the report of the Commission of Audit, when it is finally released, displays equal hostility towards universities.

Labor came to office determined to make things right. We increased funding of higher education from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013 and our funding was linked to a broad program of reform that set out our unwavering commitment to the principles of equity and quality. One in four of the students in university today are there due to the additional places delivered under the Labor government—one in four. Many of those students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, with many of them the first in their families to access higher education. There are some 36,000 more students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending universities now than there were under the previous conservative government.

This is a great enterprise and the importance of education cannot be overestimated. But we all understand how important the foundation stone of schooling is to ensuring future growth in our capacity to bridge the equity gap in higher education. It is ironic that the wreckers of Gonski are now suggesting that some of these issues in school education can just be dismissed. I think it is a remarkable irony that we are discussing these issues on the same day as the 14th annual 'Science meets Parliament' gala dinner. It is ironic because no doubt those opposite and their counterparts in the other place will find time in their diaries to shake hands with vice-chancellors and talk about their great passion for education.

They have to put their money where their mouth is. Their undermining of the schools reform program will have profound consequences for the future prosperity of this nation. We know they are walking away from the equity targets, we know they are washing their hands of universities and we know they are undermining the principle of equality of opportunity for everyone in this country. Changing the funding arrangements of universities in such a way as to achieve growth in consolidated revenue in order to meet the obsessions of the new government is a measure that we simply cannot support. I call on this chamber to fund the education system at all levels, to ensure that we maintain the principle of equity, to ensure that we maintain the principle of quality and, in order to do so, to disallow these instruments.

7:39 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I have learned something tonight. I did not realise that Senator Carr was the shadow minister for sport or perhaps a former Minister for Sport from one of the many reshuffles that occurred under the previous regime—because what we just saw was a backflip worthy of the Winter Olympic Games. He just got the gold medal for doing backflips.

The truth is that he is moving a motion to disallow measures that the government he was a member of proposed. Nothing of what Senator Carr just said matters—nothing—because, when he had the chance to put his money where his mouth was, his government's record was to do exactly what these measures entail. When Labor had the chance, they did exactly this. The guidelines which the opposition are seeking to have disallowed are in fact Labor's own measures. The guidelines are to give effect to part of the efficiency dividend which the previous Labor government announced in April last year. They announced it in April, included it in the May budget and took it to the election as part of their Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook as a government measure.

The reason this efficiency dividend had to be introduced by the previous Labor government was their own profound financial irresponsibility—the massive deficits and ballooning public debt for which they were responsible. They knew the public did not buy their empty promises anymore. It is the need to overcome the legacy of financial recklessness left to the coalition by the Labor government that gives us no alternative but to proceed with Labor's savings measures, including these guidelines.

We are just trying to keep our promises, but on this occasion we are trying to keep Labor's promises too. These were measures the previous government took to the election. These were measures in the previous government's budget. All the coalition are seeking to do is implement what we said we would do and what they said they would do. I cannot help wondering whether the Green noise that hits our ears from down the far end of the chamber has yet again taken hold of the Labor Party's agenda.

They—and Senator Carr stood—in this chamber and defended these measures, yet he now has the gall to stand up and assert that somehow the coalition are reneging on our statements or valuing education differently from how the Labor government valued it. These were your measures. We are seeking to introduce them as we promised to—and as you promised to. For the Labor Party to come into this chamber and move these motions shows that they are absolutely bereft of any foundation in philosophy, policy or trust.

This government has actually been a friend of universities and students. We are working to reduce overregulation and excessive reporting requirements, we are funding every recommendation of the Australian Research Council, we are making it clear that Australia welcomes international students and we are taking sensible stock of the demand driven system. We have scrapped Labor's $2,000 cap on the tax deductibility of self-education expenses, one of the greatest assaults on individuals investing in their own education and productivity that any government has ever considered. We have rejected that. Labor took it to the election not caring about the impact it was going to have on workers, not caring about the impact on those who were seeking to improve their skills. Labor were simply seeking a budget saving.

What is Labor's record? Labor's record included the $2.8 billion of cuts announced without notice last April as part of an accounting trick to try to fictionalise the budget situation to make it look better—something the Australian people now know the truth about. They cut the Sustainable Research Excellence in Universities scheme by nearly $500 million in the 2012 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook update. They put research funding on an unsustainable stop-start basis and failed to make any provision in the forward estimates for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy or the Future Fellowships program of the Australian Research Council. They converted the Higher Education Endowment Fund—set up out of surpluses put aside by the previous coalition government to allow investment in the betterment of people over the long term—into a 'spendathon' fund which halved in value. The Labor government presided over an incredible drop in the number of international students coming to Australia. The list goes on. That is not the record of a friend of universities or a friend of students. It is a record of appalling financial and general mismanagement which Labor persist in pursuing in opposition, even while they reject the measures they took to the people only six months ago. We know that it is only by getting the nation's finances back in order that we will be able to give universities and students strong, sustainable, predictable and stable support.

I did not sense that Senator Carr had the same degree of passion in his voice about that speech. The truth is, whether it was on car funding or whether it was on higher education funding, Senator Carr could not carry his own colleagues, and today, when he came into this chamber, he had managed to get the Labor Party to agree to his policies when in opposition. Senator Carr referred to putting money where the mouth is. The Labor Party's money is where its mouth is. We are seeking to implement our promise. We are seeking to implement the Labor Party's promise. The only time that Senator Carr has been able to get his colleagues to agree is when they are in opposition. Whether it is car funding or higher education funding, because of the stop-start nature of it—we will pump it up in the forward estimates, then we will strip it away as a way to try and balance a budget—Labor assaulted this sector with the most worrying aspect of government policy, which is instability, unpredictability and a lack of trustworthiness. What they are asking this chamber to do tonight is to breach the commitment they made to the people and breach the commitment we made to the people. We are going to stand behind the commitments we made, and, on this occasion, we are going to stand behind the commitments that Labor made.

7:45 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today in support of Senator Carr's motion on disallowance of Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012 and to talk about why this disallowance is so important to members of my constituents in the Northern Territory. The challenge we face due to our landscape and the enormous distances to cover in the Territory is an issue we must continue to meet head on, especially when we talk about delivering quality education. As I have continued to state since coming into parliament, Labor believes that every child in Australia should have access to quality education, no matter where they come from. This is the difference between Labor and the coalition. In order to ensure we continue to increase the number of regional and remote enrolments and student completion of courses, it is integral that the government continues to offset the increased costs of running universities in regional and remote areas. The students of today, especially those from remote and regional communities, will be the leaders of tomorrow—the leaders who will inspire the next generation to go to school, to achieve and to want to contribute to society and to make a change for the better.

Under a Labor government, we increased participation in universities. We introduced measures to increase indexation to university funding, increase money for essential student services, improve career paths for academics and improve access to Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy for students. Through these incentives we were able to ensure that, for the first time, remote and regional students had access, pathways and opportunities to reach their dreams of commencing tertiary education. Before the election, the coalition said that they were on a unity ticket with Labor on the Better Schools Plan and went as far as to say that no school would be worse off under the coalition. Since then, as is the case in many other areas, the coalition has backflipped on their promise to invest this money in schools. They have abandoned the needs based funding model—the very model designed to improve education for remote and regional children in particular.

It has taken a Labor government to increase participation rates in universities, with 190,000 more students at university today—a number we are proud of, and a number Labor will continue to ensure increases through incentives such as the ones we are talking about today. The Commonwealth Scholarships Program assists Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly those from rural, regional and remote areas, with costs associated with higher education. The scholarship program also includes Indigenous Staff Scholarships, which develop Indigenous leadership in our universities and other tertiary institutions by providing opportunities for professional development. Indigenous staff represent a key element in encouraging children not only to go to school but to stay in school. If the legislative instrument goes through, these scholarships for Indigenous students and staff will be diminished, and there will be no additional funding to improve these students' school education.

I will end by mentioning a few ideas I think resonate with Labor's values on education. I believe you cannot put a price on quality education for an Australian child. I believe that quality education is just like the seed of hope—if we plant it right, nourish it, and continually care for it, it will grow and flourish. I believe that the seed of hope is the core of what you are, but it is also the promise of what you can become. I believe that a quality education is the basic fundamental right of every child of this country, irrespective of their race, their creed or the colour of their skin. That is why I cannot support the removal of such key education incentives. Simply put, Labor believes we must put education first. That is why those on this side of the house believe these instruments must be disallowed.

7:49 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the motion to disallow Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012. These legislative instruments are very much part of the brutal agenda that we are seeing coming from the coalition. They know it is not going to get through, but there is a real intent here to slash and burn in areas where people are doing it tough—and when it comes to education, it is an area that needs to be improved on, not cut further. One of the legislative instruments relates to reducing the amount of funding available as part of loadings offered to higher education providers, and the other cut, if it gets through, would be to money that should be retained for Indigenous scholarships.

Firstly, I will address the loadings. The loadings are offered to higher education providers that offer services via regional campuses and those that deliver courses that teach medicine. It was interesting and quite informative to look at the explanatory memorandum for this instrument, which cuts higher education funding. One of the stated aims is to 'improve the quality of higher education'. A classic way that governments with bad policies try to sell them is by saying the exact opposite of what will actually happen. So there it is, stating that it will 'improve the quality of higher education'. It should be quite straightforward, but that is in fact not the case. It is certainly a very bold and arrogant statement and claim from the minister, because, while he is attempting to rip billions of dollars out of higher education funding, he is claiming that it is improving quality.

We need to look at the instruments here. And we need to look at this motion to disallow them, in the context of the broader cuts to higher education that the coalition government is trying to implement. To help achieve that, some of the answers we received at estimates become quite informative. This one was actually to a question on notice. It was provided by the department on students, university staff and the wider community and was quite informative on where the brunt of these cuts will be. We are now able to see where the proposed $900 million cuts will be felt.

In my home state of New South Wales this government is planning to rip out an estimated $253 million from universities. For regional universities, which are already doing it tough, this is very serious. It is estimated that Southern Cross, New England, Charles Sturt, Newcastle and Wollongong universities will lose $88 million. The quality of education they can provide, how they plan for the future and how they maintain the standards in their universities are all under a heavy cloud. It is estimated Victorian universities will lose $214 million in funding, Queensland universities $162 million and South Australian universities $67 million, and the University of Tasmania is facing a funding cut of almost $24 million. This is all in the face of a government that says it is out to improve higher education.

In Western Australia the government is attempting to take $81.2 million from universities. Last year was a year of strikes and actions at our universities around the country. They were pushed to the point where they had to take that industrial action because of the savage way the government was treating them. Sadly, it was not just the coalition government but also the Labor government. It is good that Labor is now taking on this issue and moving for these disallowances. While it is only a small part of what is going on, funding of higher education, how the scholarship system works and how all those instruments work need to be tackled head on.

The other instrument the minister introduced that is relevant to this motion attempts to cut funding to higher education by reducing the amount of money offered to Indigenous students via crucial scholarships. When I saw that one I really found it hard to credit. We already know that the number of Indigenous students who continue with their education through to tertiary education is small. Yes, there have been some successes, but there needs to be a lot more work done. And what have we seen from this government? It has been taking away the money. These scholarships assist Indigenous students with the costs associated with studying at university. These scholarships are vital, covering costs of resources, books, accommodation and transport. There is a whole range of student needs that these scholarships are absolutely critical for.

The figures on the numbers of Indigenous students who stay on at university are not impressive. The figures are embarrassing. They are a reminder of how far Australia has fallen behind in working with Indigenous communities. While Indigenous people make up 2.5 per cent of our population, only 1.09 per cent of university students are Indigenous. And here we have a government taking away scholarships. It is not a huge amount of money but it is a very important amount of money. I think we all know that money, like a lot of things in life, is relative, and for some people this scholarship can make a huge difference to their future.

The government clearly needs to be doing more to improve Indigenous access to higher education, not taking the steps that we are seeing them try to push through tonight. They need to provide more support for degrees and programs, not cut funding, as they are attempting. Again, these cuts need to be viewed in the context of the coalition's wider agenda in relation to student welfare. So much of the cost burden is being pushed onto all students. That is the trend of successive governments.

The coalition's plans, if implemented, would increase student debt by $1.2 billion over four years. That is across the board. The individual debt of students receiving Youth Allowance will increase, on average, by $10,000 over the course of their degree. That can really make a difference. I am conscious of that in my own family. I was the first to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university, and a scholarship made all the difference. Now, with the cost burden being pushed onto students, what I hear from so many young people is that they think twice before they consider if they will take on a university education. That is because of the debt factor. Student debt has risen by almost 30 per cent in six years. An increasing number of students are missing out on classes and are going without food, because of the financial pressure they are under.

NUS did an important survey that made this assessment. When you consider the hardship that so many Indigenous students have, losing their scholarships is simply unacceptable. How deeply wrong it is. What a reflection on this government, on what their standards are—that they would even consider bringing forward such a proposal. The Greens will be supporting both these disallowances.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Carr be agreed to.