Senate debates

Monday, 14 July 2014

Regulations and Determinations

Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013; Disallowance

5:08 pm

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

I move:

That the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013, made under sections 41-45(1A) and (1B) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, be disallowed.

Perhaps I should explain this disallowance motion so that the Senate may find it easier to follow.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We would be most appreciative if you did, Senator Carr.

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

This regulation was made under sections 41-45(1A) and (1B) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. This determination is part of a measure that would cut $2.3 billion from the higher education sector. It precedes the $5.8 billion in cuts to universities and student support which were announced in the budget. It precedes the government's damaging and alarming ideological agenda to change the very structural basis of the higher education system in this country and this government, in all its manifest hubris, likes to pretend that this is anything other than a Liberal-National policy determination. It is a determination of a Liberal minister.

This Liberal-National party cut is brought about by the Minister for Education, Mr Pyne, who, we all appreciate, is now facing considerable difficulty in this portfolio. This minister has had three separate positions on Gonski. The minister said before the election that there would be no changes to university funding and, indeed, he repeated this promise prior to the budget. We all know what happened in that regard. The minister said before the election he would not raise HECS but now wants to raise HECS to such a level that $100,000 degrees could well become the norm. This is a determination by a minister who, like his Prime Minister, has one modus operandi when it comes to the operation of government policy—that is, the big lie. In no sector of the operation of the Commonwealth has this technique been demonstrated more clearly than in education. This is not surprising because the coalition has long been an enemy of education. The audacity of the minister to introduce these cuts on one hand while pretending the government has nothing to do with them on the other is, by all standards, truly shocking. It shows a contempt for the public, a contempt for the higher education sector.

Labor does not support the cuts to university funding that this determination would enact and we do not support the further cuts to higher education planned by the coalition. Additional cuts are clearly on the way. Make no mistake: whatever the fate of this as yet unseen legislation, which we are now told may well be ready by October, there is no question about what the government intends to do—that is, to cut higher education still further. The government does not properly understand the value or the role of universities in a knowledge economy because it has a very narrow view about putting money into education.

It is not, in their minds, an investment; rather it is a cost because they say there has to be some short-term return that can be measured purely in dollars and cents. Therefore, taking money out of education, according to this line of logic, makes economic sense. Universities, it is argued, produce and disseminate knowledge, they help us solve problems, they make new products and processes, they protect our environment and they help us understand ourselves. In doing all of these things, nations grow in stature, economically, culturally and even politically. Universities should not be treated just as mere degree factories because they enrich our lives. That is what we mean by the public benefit associated with investment in education.

Many of those opposite had the very great fortune to benefit from a free education system. Many of them benefited from engaging in university politics, in sports and in clubs. Some would say they benefited so much that they never actually got out of student politics, that they have never been able to step outside their experience of university politics where they faced considerable hostility and that they want to feed that back through the political system to the end of their days. For some reason, there remains a contempt within the Liberal Party about the university system, a contempt which, in itself, beggars belief. This is reflected in every policy they have brought to bear on the sector. It is astounding that they would point to the Howard government's record on this.

Labor is very familiar with this record. We had to clean it up when were in government. When the coalition formed government in 1996, one of their very first acts was to plunder the higher education sector, without a word of warning. They delivered a massive five per cent budget cut to the higher education sector and none of that was announced before the election of the Howard government. Student fees skyrocketed, Commonwealth supported places slumped and billions of dollars were stripped out of the system in the decade of neglect which followed. They claimed that total government spending for universities increased by 13 per cent in real terms during their time in government. Even if that were true, it would still be a pretty ordinary record. To claim this kind of paltry figure shows the complete lack of understanding on the part of those opposite of the growing role of universities in our society.

Some figures are even more telling. From 1995 through to 2005, direct public payments to tertiary institutions showed no real growth—none whatsoever. It gets worse. Over the same period, total funding per capita of our universities fell by nine per cent. Funding fell due to two things: there were cuts and there was neglect. If we take indexation, the party of self-proclaimed market economists—with the exception of the agrarian socialists that act as their allies—left universities with a system of indexation which was totally and completely inadequate to meet the needs of contemporary Australia. It was a system of indexation so out of touch with the realities of running a modern university that, when Labor adjusted the formula to reflect real cost, it added billions of dollars over the forward estimates—money the coalition had been withholding from universities. With so many economic geniuses in their ranks, one can only assume that it was done deliberately because of hostility! Well, it surely couldn't be just a question of ineptitude! But others would suggest I am wrong on that.

They did not stop there. Not content with draining the budget, they also went after the culture of universities. Sporting clubs, legal services, child care, social events—they all had to go. Of course, that was all tied up with their approach to voluntary student unionism.

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

Hear, hear!

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

This decimated student services. I hear 'Hear, hear' from over there. You see—the policy has not lost its flavour for those on that side of the chamber. Only when Labor undid that wrong and brought in the student support and amenities fee did we begin to see essential services return to strength on campuses.

The coalition's meddling on campuses did not just affect student-run services. The long arm of this sort of neo-right ideology reached back into the staffrooms and the administration blocks, forcing universities to implement aspects of the coalition's industrial relations agenda or risk losing funding. Those were the higher education workplace relations requirements under the legislation at the time, and of course they very much became part of Work Choices. The party that claimed to hate regulation created a special branch of it just to tell universities what conditions they could and could not offer their staff.

Those opposite talk about their legacy in higher education—well, let me say to this chamber: it is a legacy that has not been forgotten. The legacy of the Howard era in higher education left the university system in crisis. It was a decade of neglect and much, much worse.

These actions of over a decade ago sound a warning, because it is the same coalition, with many of the same faces, using the same cabinet submissions to operate on the current policy position—as we see, for instance, with the cabinet submission which was leaked in 1999 which outlines chapter and verse what this government is doing today.

It was two months into their term when the government identified $1.43 billion in cuts to the education portfolio. This was on top of more than $3.7 billion in cuts in their first 100 days of government. Mr Abbott once claimed that universities would experience a period of 'masterly inactivity' under his government. Of course, that was wrong—there has been a great deal of activity. Either the Prime Minister was unaware of secret plans to gut higher education or that was, knowingly, totally untrue. So they started with the $3.7 billion worth of cuts and they continued this with an announced $5.8 billion. We saw it in the past under the Howard government and now it is flowing through to this current government.

Labor set about reducing the damage to the universities and, almost as soon as we formed government, we initiated the most significant review of higher education to date—the Bradley review. We also had the Cutler review, and initiated changes to the research program to ensure that we were able to meet the real costs of research. Under the Labor government, Commonwealth funding for universities rose from $8 billion to $14 billion between 2007 and 2013. And, if we were still in office, that amount, under Labor's forward estimates, would grow to $17 billion by 2017. We increased real funding per student by nearly $2,000 in real terms to $18,000 per year. Labor improved indexation and replaced the hopeless, out-of-date system. We increased funding for the science, research and innovation budget by well over 30 per cent, compared to the previous government. We delivered more capital and infrastructure in four years than the coalition managed to do in the whole decade that they were in office. Labor delivered more than $5 billion in higher education and research infrastructure while we were in office. We began one of the largest reforms ever undertaken in the university system, moving towards the demand-driven system which led to the additional 190,000 extra students in universities compared to 2007. The government talks today about 80,000. Well, that record is well and truly surpassed by actual places in universities—and not at a reduced rate; not the sort of proposition that the government is talking about at the sub-degree level. Because of our initiatives today there are an additional 36,000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds actually at university, and we set the goal of increasing the proportion of the population with a degree to 40 per cent of 25- to 35-year-olds by 2020. For women, that goal has already been achieved. And for the whole community, we were within cooee of reaching that goal already—well before the 2020 date. We provided significant funding for those universities with substantial numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this is a government that actually gets rid of equity targets. This is a government that cuts equity programming. We argue that that approach is wrong. We believe that our university system should be for everyone with ability, regardless of how much money their parents have. That is why we also sought to ensure that the university experience itself was a rewarding one and supported the student services and amenities fee.

We made it easier for young people to study through reforms to youth allowance, so that more than 220,000 young people received the maximum rate—a much higher rate of payment—for the first time. So much of what we did was to repair the damage of the coalition's previous government. The reckless damage and wilful neglect wreaked by the government that is now back in office shows us a measure of how the coalition actually operates in government. We are very proud of our record. We take the view that the Commonwealth of Australia should respect the role of universities and, to this end, we want universities to play a leading role in our nation's future. We believe the economic argument for investment in universities is very, very clear; universities directly contribute about $22 billion to our GDP every year; they employ over 100,000 people; university graduates contribute more than $170 billion per year in wages to our economy; and university graduates comprise about one-quarter of the population that generates almost one-third of Australia' wages. There are about nine Australian companies listed on the Fortune Global 500, but there are 19 universities in the world's top 500—that is Australia making its mark internationally.

Universities play a fundamental role in building Australia's future. They are essential to innovation. They produce the knowledge and the ideas. They help build the new technologies. They help build the new industries and they create the new jobs. They play an essential role in local economies. We just need to look at what is happening at Wollongong or in Newcastle—I might add Deakin University in Geelong and the central role that it plays in rural and regional Australia.

Universities help us to interpret our world and to adapt to change. They help us grow in stature as a nation, and we do not want to see them decimated by a government that has no respect for the work that they do and therefore their importance in our future and the future of a knowledge based economy.

Those opposite have a long history of attacking not just the university budgets and university culture; they, unfortunately, have a well-ingrained process of denigrating their work. They have an indifference to the importance of intellectual work in this society. Their failure to even, for instance, appoint a minister for science highlights the negligence of the government. Of course, we see this replicated in their cruel cuts to jobs at the CSIRO. They have sustained attacks on the independence of the Australian Research Council where again the level of their indifference to the importance of the research highlights the sinister nature of the attacks that this government has launched on the intellectual work of this nation.

MPs in the current government have more than once picked out or named a project run by an eminent researcher and mocked them without any understanding or insight into the project, which of course is clearly unfortunate. I say their attacks on climate change science are a disgrace. These projects and the way research funding is allocated are chosen by panels of peers on the basis of expert merit. They have been successful in an environment in which less than 22 per cent of projects are able to be successful and we see, for instance, that that is a measure of the deep competition that exists within the university system. Yet certain members of this government behave as ignoramuses when it comes to the issue of research projects in this country.

As recently as December, the member for Hughes ridiculed no fewer than 23 recent grant recipients in the humanities, arts and sciences—projects that are amongst the best of the best. If you think I am being too harsh, just think of the member in another place in 2011 who provided us with the revelation that champagne contained carbon dioxide so we should stop global warming by 'drinking chardonnay instead of champagne'. Perhaps this is a measure of the intellectual depth of this government, but I am afraid it is all too serious to be funny.

We have a government that has set upon a course of action of profound hostility to universities. They have used whatever imaginary budget emergency they can find to demonstrate their capacity for cruel and quite vicious cuts to the university system. Their walking away from the Gonski program highlights that they do not have any long-term commitment to education in this country, and the failure of this government to acknowledge their responsibilities to our society and our future speaks volumes.

The original money was set aside under these changes when we were in government for the better skills program, the Gonski reforms, but the coalition has gutted Gonski. It is no longer a six-year commitment; it is four years. The fundamental point about the Gonski reforms is the bulk of the money was in years 5 and 6, the very years that this government has walked away from, despite what was said during the election campaign that there would be no cuts to education and that we could have exactly the same approach to schools funding between Liberal and Labor—it did not make any difference. In government we see this government repudiating what it actually said in opposition, and now of course we see that this is a government that clearly is in the business of saying one thing in opposition and another thing in government. Therefore I submit to the Senate that these measures should be disallowed and the government should not be able to proceed with these cuts to the university system.

5:28 pm

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

Amongst all the bluster and all the noise we have just heard from Senator Carr, there is one fact that we did not hear: that these are Labor's own measures. On three occasions in three documents last year, the Labor Party proposed these very changes. All the fiction, the confected reasons and outrage by Senator Carr cannot hide this fact.

These cuts were announced by Labor in April 2013. They were confirmed by Labor in the last budget they presented in May 2013 and they remained in Labor's documents in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook that was taken to the election campaign. Despite all of Senator Carr's mock outrage, these are the proposals that Labor took.

All we are trying to do is to bring the budget back to a sustainable position and, in this case, the Labor Party is stopping us from implementing their own measures. The problem we have is that, as Senator Carr has said in this place on a number of occasions, it wasn't when he was minister. To be fair, that is because we all lost track of the concertina business cards and the constant replacement of departmental letterheads, because the previous government was so chaotic. In my old portfolio they went through half-a-dozen small business ministers in four years, and I lost track of how many in higher education, science, research and school education.

The other words we do not hear from the Labor Party when they talk about alleged savings being directed in certain ways to future years—not in the budget estimates for school funding, even though these cuts were in the budget estimates—is a commitment that they will put the money back. This is all empty rhetoric from the Labor Party. It is all empty rhetoric now they are in opposition. It is all empty rhetoric from Senator Carr who is disregarded by his own colleagues whenever they sit on this side of the chamber. Whether it is about the car industry, the Green Car Innovation Fund being stripped, the uncertainty that even the then Managing Director of Holden Mike Devereux referred to under the previous Labor government or whether it is these changes, all we hear from Senator Carr is mock outrage when he is not in a position to actually change the circumstances.

In the confected outrage of his 20-minute address, I heard Senator Carr refer to the great expansion of university access. The truth is the greatest expansion of university access this country came when Robert Menzies expanded the university system. the single greatest expansion of universities from an elite group in our society was through Commonwealth scholarships and a dramatic increase in the number of universities. This side stands proudly by its record in higher education. The problem with Senator Carr is that he mistakes the NTEU position for something in favour of universities. He talks about how important universities are. He talks about how they can be important to creative thought and innovative thought. He talks about their importance as public institutions, being places to nurture our best and our brightest, giving an opportunity for all. Yet the one thing Senator Carr and the Labor Party will not do is set the universities free, because they still must be run, in that famous phrase, by 'Moscow on the Molonglo'. They still must be regulated in a way that no other sector of this economy is. They must all have bureaucrats overseeing each and everything they do, because they cannot be trusted. Senator Carr's position is entirely and utterly incoherent and inconsistent. I turn to a number of other points he raised.

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

He is inconsistent.

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

Senator Birmingham, thank you very much. I have lost my train of thought. Senator Carr also referred to the allegation that somehow saving money over the four years of the forward estimates of the budget was going to magically fund Labor's mythical Gonski reforms that were never accounted for. If that was the case, Labor would not have stripped out $1.2 billion from the first four years of those reforms in the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook. According to the previous Labor government, the students of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory did not deserve to be funded on the same basis as other students. That was gutted by the Labor Party before the election. This government then had to find $1.2 billion to put back into schools education. That move alone demonstrates the hypocrisy and emptiness of what Senator Carr refers to and the fiction that Labor has tried to create that somehow these measures were going to be directed towards schools funding—they were not.

Senator Carr says that we have a myopic view—I do not know that was the word he used—that this is about spending, not about investment. That betrays Senator Carr's factional home in the socialist left, because it is all spending. It must all be accounted for. There is no magical investment budget paper that says somehow we do not have to borrow that money or raise it through taxation. There are three ways to spend money. You get it from somewhere else within government, you increase taxes or you increase borrowings. Increasing borrowings is just deferring an increase in taxation. But Senator Carr tries to create this mythical separation between spending and investment, as if by somehow rebadging it with an NTEU bumper sticker it does not actually have to come out of the taxpayers' coffers—it all does.

Given Senator Carr brought it up, I cannot resist mentioning the issue of student unionism. Senator Carr referred to how proud he was that the Labor Party and their Green allies had brought back in compulsory student unionism through the student services and amenities fee. I imagine that now in this ski season, and it is a good one I understand, Senator Carr is proud of those students working part-time jobs so that those select few can get into Melbourne University's and Monash University's subsidised ski lodge at Mt Buller. Of course, the great majority of students cannot get anywhere near it. You will not see those students who are actually working their way through university, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in the Range Rovers up at Mt Buller this time of year. I am sure Senator Carr is proud of the fact that those students working part-time jobs, pushing trolleys around supermarkets or waiting tables in Carlton's Lygon Street or some other cafe near a university are subsidising the clubs' and societies' activities, the entertainment or indeed the legal services he referred to of the protestors who usually get themselves in trouble on the steps of the Victorian parliament.

Mr Deputy President, I think I was involved in an inquiry with you on this matter once quite a long time ago. That issue itself portrays Senator Carr's lack of concern about equity. Consider the idea that there is this poll tax, explicitly unrelated to anything to do with your university education, that you pay regardless of your means that is used to subsidise the activities of those who do have leisure time at the expense of those who might have to work. It is used to build Taj Mahals like ski lodges and subsidise those on the basis that the great majority of students can never access them. I find this a profound challenge to any vision of equity in the university education system.

This measure is made necessary by the fiscal mess the previous government left us in. Senator Carr referred to a concocted or invented fiscal budget emergency. That betrays Senator Carr's true perspective that there is no problem with government debt. The Greens and other groups run around supporting the Labor Party, saying there is no problem with public debt. They compare Australia to other OECD nations, but they do not compare actual government debt in Australia. They take a very narrow measure of government bonds on issue. They do not take into account unfunded superannuation liabilities that are not yet accounted for by the entirety of the Future Fund. They do not take into account debt that is held at state government and local government levels. The taxpayer is on the hook for all of that. Over the period of the previous coalition government, the strong fiscal position of the Commonwealth is what made sure Australia's economy was resilient from the external shocks of the Asian financial crisis. It actually provided the capital that Senator Carr claimed credit for spending. The previous coalition government had money in the bank through the Future Fund, the Higher Education Endowment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. Indeed, having a positive balance sheet allowed the Labor government to undertake the most wasteful stimulus program in Australian history.

Senator Carr cannot have it both ways. He cannot claim credit for spending the money that the previous government saved and then say it is not necessary to save money again. The fiscal situation inherited by this government is on a trajectory that is utterly unsustainable. As a country, we have a choice: we can make decisions now, when we are in a position to make them manageable; or we can push them off, as other countries have done, and then they will get much more difficult and much more intergenerationally unfair. The hypocrisy of the Labor Party in proposing this motion is betrayed by that and also by the fact that this was their measure. I will conclude on this point: this measure was announced by the Labor Party in April 2013, it was in the Labor Party's last budget in May 2013 and it was in the Labor Party's paperwork—the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook—before the last election. All this government is trying to do is put in place a saving that the Labor Party themselves took to the Australian people, to actually save the money that the Labor Party announced they were going to save. They refused to do that, and the hypocrisy is on display for all to see.

5:38 pm

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

It is fascinating to listen to how Senator Ryan and Senator Carr see higher education. Senator Carr gave Senator Ryan something pretty easy to come in on. Senator Ryan documented Labor's position in April and May 2013. Unfortunately Labor ditched that position when they went into opposition, which was certainly very shameful. Let's look at what Senator Ryan had to say. Senator Ryan did what so many Liberals do these days; he used Prime Minister Menzies as cover when he said, 'Yes, we care about universities, we care about people.'

Let's look at what Prime Minister Menzies did, which was far different from what the coalition is doing now. It is true that, in the 1950s, Prime Minister Menzies did start to take an interest in universities. He recommended that universities needed assistance and that it needed to be a federal issue and something that the then Liberal government should give attention to. That is certainly very much out of step with what we are seeing from this coalition government. The Liberal government back in the 1950s did commit to recurrent grant funding to our universities. And then there were the Commonwealth funds which were made available for capital expenditure. But the coalition policy now is to slash funding to our universities and push the burden onto students. The coalition is handing out free public money to private sector companies which can now make profits out of higher education. This is quite different from the standards that former Prime Minister Menzies brought to this sector.

It is also a reminder of the whole issue of Commonwealth scholarships and how dishonest this government is. One piece of spin that we regularly hear from the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, when he is trying to justify this very cruel approach, is that these new Commonwealth scholarships will benefit disadvantaged students. The Commonwealth scholarships we have now are nothing like those we had under the Menzies government. 'Commonwealth scholarships' is just a name. There is no federal government money going into them. The whole arrangement is worked out within universities, which is adding to the pressure that they are under and the difficulties that they face. It is very dishonest to use the term 'Commonwealth scholarships'. For older generations the term has a good ring to it. It comes from the Liberal era of the 1960s and the Whitlam era before they went to free higher education. The term 'Commonwealth scholarship' has a good ring to it. It comes from an era when public money was used to assist students who might have difficulty in being able to go to university to study.

Again, we have total dishonesty from Senator Ryan—not surprising, because that is what he is getting from his minister—in terms of how the system works. It was interesting to listen to the banter that was going on. Senator Carr was correct in saying that what we saw from the coalition in opposition was quite different from what we are seeing from the coalition in government. Sadly, that is also something we see from Labor; they are a very different beast when in opposition. The challenge for community groups, unions and the Greens is to keep that pressure on so that they honour the decent policies that we hear more often from them when they are in opposition.

It is worth reminding ourselves just how differently the coalition have conducted themselves within the last year. This time last year we were all out campaigning. And what were we hearing from the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and Christopher Pyne? They were out spruiking that there would be no changes at all to higher education funding arrangements. That is what we heard from them, time and time again, prior to the election. But look what has happened now. We have seen the very ugly budget that they have brought down. We have seen the extreme measures in so many aspects of higher education funding—one of which we are dealing with right now in terms of the disallowance motion. In June this year, on the ABC's Insiders program, we heard Minister Pyne defending the cuts as 'fair and sustainable'. He pulls words out of the air which have no realism in terms of what is actually happening.

Minister Pyne actually said:

I think that the contribution that students make can be rebalanced …

At the moment the taxpayers are funding 60 per cent of the tuition fees of university students, and universities' students are making up 40 per cent. Under our changes, it will be 50-50.

What we know, though, is if you look at the trajectory of where the coalition's higher education policies are going, you will see that there will be an even greater burden on students.

With regard to the regulation that brings us to this debate, the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013, we do support the disallowance motion. We are very pleased that Senator Carr has brought it on. It seeks to cut over $435 million from the higher education and other grants program over four years. It is another example of where the coalition really are waging war on the funding of the higher education sector, pushing the costs more and more onto students, slashing money out of the universities themselves.

An issue that has had little attention but which is certainly part of the package is the coalition government opening up, for the first time, the ability of private companies, for-profit companies, to access public funding that once went to our universities. Now they can make money out of it. This is deeply troubling. Many institutions that run them often have little experience of the higher education sector. Again, what do we hear from Senator Ryan about a deregulated system? He was bashing the opposition about the fact that they want some regulations. Surely, we need to have some regulations and some standards in how our system is run. Again, going back to the cover that he tried to pick up for himself and his party, in talking about the Menzies' era, there were regulations then. There were standards. When former Prime Minister Menzies started paying attention to universities, one of the things he did was to look for some consistency across the nation. As well as the funding issues, consistency in standards was a big part of it. But what do we get from this government? Deregulation, throwing money at private companies. With regard to the standards within our higher education sector what we will see and where it will lead to is deeply troubling.

Government regulation is cutting support to universities, particularly for the promotion of equality of opportunity and the support of diversity and open access to higher education. This is another aspect of the debate that concerns the Greens considerably. Under the coalition, we are seeing a push to create a higher education system where you would have to be pretty well off to shoulder the burden of the HELP debts imposed by this government. The government's regulation that we are debating here would cut funding for the support of research and training of research students for grants to foster collaboration. This comes at a time when research and innovation has never been more important. I believe it is very important for the development of individuals in terms of what they can offer Australia and, indeed, what Australia's economy can offer the world. More and more, we are becoming a global village and within that we need to share our innovation and knowledge that we develop through our research. But when you end up with a deregulated system, that is barely possible to achieve.

The regulation that we are dealing with will cut funding for grants to support the development of systemic infrastructure and capital development projects at universities. I particularly know from my work in this sector how important that is, particularly in regional universities. It shocks me when I visit a number of universities to see how run down they are. Under what this government is bringing forward, regional universities are going to do it really tough. They are already finding it difficult and, if the budget measures go through—and there are certainly mounting efforts to ensure that does not happen—it will be an enormous setback.

At a time of debilitating funding cuts to our universities, it would further slash support to promote the productivity of higher education providers and grants for activities that would assure and enhance the quality of our higher education sector. These are some of the issues that we see as very important and that explain why we support this disallowance motion.

I think it is also relevant that we are having this debate on a day when there has been another round of polling that shows how unpopular the government's higher education policies are that it wants to adopt. Extensive automative phone polling, undertaken by the National Tertiary Education Union—this was across 23 federal electorates and all states—found cuts in federal funding and changes to allow increased fees, higher loan charges and access to limited federal funding by non-university course providers are very unpopular.

The government would be wise to take that message on board. They would be wise in terms of the wellbeing of the nation and students who are looking to develop their career at our universities. And now we know that they would be wise in terms of the wellbeing of their own party, their own government and some of their own MPs, including the minister, because 69 per cent of those polled said that they oppose significant increases in fees and 65 per cent said that they oppose 20 per cent funding cuts to our universities. Just 28 per cent of voters said that they approved of deregulating the higher education sector to allow privately-owned institutions to have access to Commonwealth subsidies.

This is a strong negative backlash from voters. The public are deeply troubled by the higher education moves of the government. The government, with this very cruel, brutal budget that they brought down in May, are certainly loading the burden in terms of how they are going to raise money and save money onto the backs of the disadvantaged—students, the unemployed, the elderly, the sick and Indigenous peopl

They are all the people who are really copping it, who really will be hard hit by the budget measures.

What we are seeing with higher education is pushing the reach of the damaging, destructive aspects of the budget out to the middle class of Australia. So often, when I am out doing my meetings on the weekend and meeting people socially, I meet people who are really worried about how their own children are going to gain an education. Just today I was told an example of a university lecturer who said, 'I suddenly thought: how are my children going to get the education that I have received?' I was at a barbecue recently—the dad is a lawyer and the mum runs a small business. Their kids were running around; they are quite young. These parents were saying the same thing: 'We look at our children and we wonder: how are they going to get the education that we were fortunate to achieve?' This is starting to trouble people—people from regional areas and working-class people who have not had the opportunity to go to university but, like so many working-class families, hope that their children will be able to. And now we are seeing middle-class families really troubled about what this government is doing to this country. And we know how important education is.

These are very, very important reasons that we need to ensure this disallowance goes through and look to the next stage to ensure that the other very damaging aspects of the coalition's policy do not become law, do not become regulations, in this country. We know there is a sneaky way this government is working—choosing regulations more and more to try and get through its agenda. So I suspect that we will be having more debates along these lines—very important debates—because this goes far beyond education; it goes to the very nature of the type of Australia that we are setting out laws for and setting out a healthy future for.

5:54 pm

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

I would like to sum up this debate on the motion to disallow the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013. I thank Senator Rhiannon for her indication of support by the Greens. Far be it from me to criticise those that are voting for the proposition we have before us. I do enjoy listening to the Greens provide us with advice on being pure and more proper and more principled than any other political organisation in the country. I suppose that comes from having a party position that allows you to have the very best social conscience that money could buy, as we see within the Greens, who are only too happy to criticise Labor for our actions but do not ever acknowledge the simple facts of life here—that, under a Labor government, support for higher education doubled. When I was minister, the amount of support for science and research increased by 43 per cent, the biggest level of increase for science and research in this country's history. I say to you: 190,000 extra students is a record that any government could be proud of.

Well may you criticise the decisions that were taken in the budget of last May, Senator Rhiannon—you are entitled to put that view—but I think you misrepresented me. I indicated at the very beginning of my contribution that Labor had changed its position. We put aside money, hypothecated money, last year to support the Gonski changes, to provide support for a six-year funding program for the schools system. We kept the budget savings within the education system. We said that, if you want to sustain a higher education system longer term, you have a look at the fundamental problems within the school system. I might also add that we provided additional support in the vocational system—more students in vocational education facilities across this country than ever we have seen in this nation's history. We never get any acknowledgement for that. I also say this—and I made this point in my remarks—that, when the government came in, they abandoned the position that they took to the election about supporting Gonski. They abandoned it and, as a consequence, the original funding that was earmarked for the Better Schools Plan was taken and put into consolidated revenue by this government.

So, Senator Ryan, I return to you, by drawing your attention to the fact that I also said that these are now decisions of this government, initiatives of this government, determinations by a Liberal Party minister. They have become your initiatives. I made that very, very clear. You have made the decision to cut university funding because of your bent ideological presumptions about what universities are about. We heard it from you again today. It was all about subsidising ski clubs. It may well be that your friends spend a lot of time in their Range Rovers at Mount Buller, but I say to you: I do not have that many friends that spend time there. Maybe they are just supporters of Melbourne Football Club; I do not know. But I just make this observation: you have a very distorted view about what actually goes on in universities. Liberal ministers, Liberal members of parliament, have demonstrated an extraordinary ignorance of the importance of universities, and they have a particularly perverse view about the role of education. They say money does not matter, yet they also say it is only reasonable that parents pay up to $30,000 a year to send their children to the most elite private schools in this country. So clearly money does matter to somebody. At Geelong Grammar, tell them money does not matter! Tell the parents that have to pay those fees that money does not matter! To suggest now that money does not really matter to the quality of education, I think, is to misunderstand how it really works.

The proposition we have before the chamber draws attention to the government's failure to fund the school system and the university system and the government's failed policy position when it comes to the question of the importance of education. The government do this under the pretext of a budget emergency, when in fact what they are doing is living out their ideological fantasies. We have had the Nobel prize-winning economist Mr Stiglitz tell us that, by international standards, this is a country to be proud of, that our budget performance is something to be envied, that there is no excuse for the cuts to higher education in this country and that they are wrong—and I think the word 'criminal' was used. That suggests to me just what a difference in mindset exists.

We have a government here that seems to want to mortgage the future. We have a government here that is not interested in ensuring the future. It wants to mortgage the future by suggesting that those with resources—those who are wealthy; those who are privileged—can enjoy and reinforce their privilege by ensuring that these educational institutions, which we all know unlock the door of inequality in Australia, are shut to the working people of this country. That is what this government's policy will mean. You withdraw the public resources and it is the private resources that take their place, so the people with money enjoy the benefits and the privileges of higher education.

We understand that there is a balance. We acknowledge the private benefit, but we also say that the overriding question is the public benefit of investment in education. That is why we say that the balance is about right at 60:40. Under the previous Liberal government, the balance shifted. The Howard government, despite the promises they made when in opposition, increased the level of private contribution by 100 per cent. That is where we get the 40 per cent from. When the HECs arrangements were first introduced they were about 20 per cent.

What we have seen over every successive Liberal government is a continuation of a policy theme of hostility to higher education, the culture of university and the importance of innovation, and a view that those with money should enjoy the benefits of having money and reinstate the privilege that they get from having that money. As a consequence, we are now seeing the Liberal policy under Howard being continued under Abbott. This policy will impose on the poorer people in this country, working people, particularly people in rural and regional areas a profound disadvantage—not freedom; an imposition of government to make the economic inequalities in this country greater. We know what a struggle it is to even up the score in our society. The Liberal's policy is to make that score even more uneven—to reinforce privilege and to reinforce inequality.

These measures that we are seeing today are not about spending money on education. I want to make senators very clear about this. This is about taking money out of education and putting it into consolidated revenue. That is the point of these changes the government has introduced. These are Liberal changes initiated by a Liberal government by a Liberal minister and—as we heard today in the defence from Senator Ryan—are all about Liberal philosophy. For those reasons, I call upon the Senate to reject these proposals and to support the disallowance motion.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013 be disallowed.