Monday, 1 September 2014
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Human Services, Senator Payne, representing the Minister for Education. Can the minister inform the Senate how students will benefit from the government's higher education reform package?
I particularly thank Senator McKenzie for her question. She, of course, has an ongoing interest in the area of education and I am very glad for that.
This government's higher education package is going to bring about enormous benefits for Australian students. Above all, it is going to mean that they can get a world-class education in the courses they want and with support that they what. Universities and other higher education providers who are going to compete for students will mean that students are the winners out of that process. Of course, for the first time the Commonwealth will be supporting all Australian undergraduate students in all registered higher education institutions in higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, as well is bachelor degrees. The strong assessment of that support will mean over 80,000 new students a year by 2018. As well as that, in the vocational education and training sector another 80,000 students will benefit through the abolition of the 20 per cent loan fee for VET FEE-HELP.
Interestingly, the Commonwealth scholarships scheme is going to provide what will likely be the largest scholarship support system in Australia's history for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, which will include many students from rural and regional Australia. Above all, it will particularly help students with living costs. We are also acting to ensure that the HELP program remains sustainable.
Of course, no higher education student needs to pay a cent up-front for their course and no-one needs to repay a cent until they are earning over $50,000 a year.
This is a very important question from Senator McKenzie, given the irresponsible nature of some of the scaremongering that has been going on in the public debate.
We have already seen the behaviour of universities. We have seen them set fees already. They set them for postgraduate coursework degrees and they set them for international students. And in that, in so many cases, they act responsibly and reasonably in that process. Competition is what will force universities to set fees reasonably. If they charge too much they are going to have empty lecture theatres because students will not enrol with them. In fact, Vicki Thomson, the executive director of the Australian Technology Network, has said recently in the Australian, and I quote:
… there is nothing to fear from deregulated fees for undergraduate degrees.
Ms Thomson wrote:
… the university sector is not looking to introduce standard $100,000 degrees and deregulation won’t deliver them.
Those who have brainwashed some journalists and independent senators to accept that we plan to do just that deserve to be shot down.
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Can the minister inform the Senate what university leaders have said about the importance for the future of higher education in Australia of freeing up or deregulating our higher education system?
Let me start, perhaps, with Dr Caroline Perkins, the executive director of the Regional Universities Network; or, perhaps, Mr Conor King, the executive director of the Innovative Research Universities; or, perhaps, Professor Ian Young, the vice-chancellor of the Australian National University; or the vice chancellor of the University of Adelaide; or—
Opposition senators interjecting—
The peak body representing Australia’s universities calls on the Parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities with changes to the Government's proposals that will assure affordability for students and taxpayers.
… … …
… the Parliament had a once in a generation opportunity to shape an Australian higher education system that is sustainable, affordable and equitable in serving the best interests of students and the nation.
That is Universities Australia, that is on the record and that is what we are going to do. (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Senator Johnston. Is the minister aware that regional universities are often amongst the largest employers in their regions? Is the minister also aware that the vice-chancellor of Victoria's Federation University, David Battersby, said, 'There is every indication that regional Australia will suffer a disproportionate impact from the budget measures relating to higher education'? Minister, has the government done any analysis of the economic impact of its short-sighted higher education policy on regional economies? If not, why not?
I thank the senator for her question. It might be a surprise to her to know that many, many people on this side spend many hours of every day dealing with regional Australians as to their futures and educational prospects. What happened in the last four years of the previous Labor government in investment and understanding of what was going on in regional Australia was a complete fiasco. There is no better example of their complete disdain for regional Australians than the termination without notice of live exports from the Northern Territory—
Mr President, I rise on a point of order on direct relevance. Unless the minister is going through a long preamble to his answer, the question that is before the chamber is on any analysis of the economic impact of the short-sighted higher education policy on regional economies. If we could get to that area, it would be very useful.
I can directly assist the senator. Higher education funding, including the total Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for student places and regional loading, is going up under this government. Support for an uncapped number of diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees creates great opportunities for regional students and for universities. There is only one party, one side of this political debate, that supports regional Australia—and we are all sitting over here. That side have done nothing for regional Australia.
Deregulation allows regional universities to position themselves much more effectively and, may I say, attractively to do high-quality degrees with high student satisfaction, good employment outcomes and a great quality of life, at a fee that is—
Mr President, I rise on a point of order on relevance. There are seven seconds to go and there has still been no indication from the minister of any analysis of the economic impact and no admission that the regional universities are not at one with the government. None of the question that was asked has been answered.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In light of the evidence from vice-chancellors and independent commentators that some rural campuses will be forced to close if the government's reckless higher education package is implemented, has the government considered adjustments or support measures for regions that lose the jobs and economic activity that these campuses provide?
This is just outrageous scaremongering from a group of people who have absolutely nothing to offer regional Australia. Those opposite have no understanding and no knowledge of regional Australia. The higher education reform package is a fair and balanced package which spreads opportunities for students and ensures Australia is not left behind in global competition. Regional students and their communities are among the big winners of the Australian government's higher education reforms introduced into this year's budget. The key measures include: expanding the demand-driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advance diplomas and associate degrees, costing $371.5 million over three years; extending Commonwealth funding to all Australian higher education students in non-university higher education institutions— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Is the minister aware that one of his colleagues in the other place, the member for Macmillan, Mr Broadbent, has challenged the government on its cut to university funding because of its impact on regional economies and rural families? Isn't it time to admit that it will take more than a few extra scholarships to avoid the massive damage that you are set to do to regional economies?
One thing I can say is that, within the government, there is healthy and useful debate about how best to serve the interests of regional Australia, particularly in education. The reason we have that debate is that there is a complete vacuum from over on the other side. We are the ones who will see regional Australia right in every respect through public policy. They have consistently done nothing for regional Australia.