Senate debates

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Education and Employment References Committee; Report

6:30 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education and Employment References Committee report Principles of the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, and related matters. The report was tabled earlier this week by Senator Lines. It had such lofty ideals: the principles of higher education reform. This was a Labor-held inquiry that was somehow going to shed light on the policy vacuum from the Labor Party in this space in lieu of their scare campaign that they have been running in earnest since Minister Pyne brought forward his reforms of the higher education sector. I wanted to talk about the principle but, having flicked through the 37-odd pages, found that there is not an ounce of policy. There is a lot of rhetoric, a lot of critique, a lot of scaremongering and a lot of false commentary using dodgy figures from discredited modellers but no policy announcements from Senator Kim Carr. It is just a vacuous Labor Party attempt to masquerade as having some integrity in this space when even their own know that bipartisanship in higher education, indeed all education, policy is the only way to ensure that we have outcomes that positively enhance our nation's students, universities and schools.

The coalition obviously brought down a sterling dissenting report to that reference committee, which I would like to briefly touch on, where we highlighted that the coalition has always been committed to a higher education system that is accessible and that is based on principles of equity and excellence. It has been a core principle of coalition policy-setting in this area since the time of Sir Robert Menzies. The reform aspects of this bill went right to the very heart of ensuring that those students that have previously been locked out of higher education, those students that have found it difficult through a mixture of family background, maybe university scores or, indeed, geography to access higher education were able to maintain that access. Those students that currently are being disadvantaged, those students that are studying at private providers and are being subject to significant financial impost in some cases, were actually freed of that burden so that all students in this country, not just those that are members of the National Union of Students, can actually participate in higher education of their choice, that is going to be valuable to them in their space, to their chosen career and their aspirations. That is what we were hoping to achieve. Over 30 reviews were conducted in this space. This was a policy based on very, very strong theoretical underpinnings and a high level of consultation.

I think what we also pointed out in our dissenting report was the absolute absence of policy principles by the Labor Party in this space. Indeed, Senator Carr hinted at the fact that his response was going to recap university places. Do you know who that locks out? That actually locks out those students from first-generation families, those students that have previously been unable to access higher education. I found it really incongruous, particularly from the Left of the Labor Party, that are supposed to be the champions of the underprivileged, that Senator Carr could be championing such a policy agenda.

The vice-chancellors were firm in their agreement, and that is a hard thing to do in this country. They held together to the end. But after the reforms failed this week to pass the Senate, to get the support of the crossbenchers, the Regional Universities Network Chair, Professor Lee, put out a statement criticising the partisan way in which we have approached the higher education reform debate. I lay that blame squarely on the Labor Party and their scare campaign over the past month, treating higher education 'as a political football' as it was put by Professor Lee, who is the chair of the body that represents those universities that are probably representing the poorest electorates in the country and indeed en masse the poorest students. The impasse will not assist country and regional students, country and regional universities and country and regional communities as a result.

So we go back to the drawing board and we hope that the ALP will actually continue the previous tradition of bipartisan support in areas of higher education reform, because there has been significant transformation and evolution over a long period of time. The previous government under Julia Gillard opened up universities. She said if you want to go to university you can. If you have the ability you should be able to go. So we opened it up and new cohorts of students rushed into higher education—a fantastic result. But the result was that we could not afford to fund these numbers, so the reality was that we put a little bit of extra student contribution, had some mechanisms for scholarship programs for those underprivileged students and had mechanisms to assist those students studying at private institution, who are also, again, typically those students that are more interested in a more vocationally focused degree, much more attached and responsive to industry needs, typically from those communities that are not higher socioeconomic status. They are exactly the traditional heartland of the Labor Party, and you turned your back on them. But not all of your cohort did, not everybody did; Peter Beattie did not turn his back on what he knew was actually the right thing to do. I will quote from his opinion piece:

THERE are some decisions about our future which should be above politics. The future of our education system is one.

He also wrote:

Reforms are essential to ensure there are places in higher education and the hugely important pathways into sub-bachelor skills qualifications. It is crucial for Australia’s future to have the best-educated workforce.

No kidding, former Premier! No kidding—and I will back you 100 per cent on that. Pity your own party did not.

This week, I was able to table in this place a petition from exactly that cohort of students. Over 1,000 students signed a petition saying, 'Please include us in this reform package. Please pass this package, because it will mean that we get real savings in our back pockets, real savings to the costs of our higher education degrees.' There are more than 100,000 students in Australia who choose to study at a non-university higher education provider, and these students chose those learning institutions because they suited their educational goals, career aspirations and personal circumstances.

The degree that these over 1,200 students, young people and mature-age students from right across the country, receive through this process is of equal value as—Senator Carr, I am glad you are here—and it is equivalent to, a degree from a public university. What the Labor Party and the Greens are trying to say is that, if you attend a non-university higher education provider in this country and you are awarded a bachelor degree, there is some difference between that and the degree you would have received if you had studied at a public university.

In prosecuting these reforms over the last 10 months, the committee heard provider after provider put evidence on the record that, despite the scare campaign, $100,000 degrees were a misnomer—because the non-university sector was committed, already delivering $45,000 nursing degrees and teaching degrees—and that they were actually going to see the cost of their degrees drop in the new environment.

'But we do not want to hear about that! We do not care about the 1,200 students who signed that petition tabled today!' The National Union of Students could not give a damn. Unless you went to grammar school, unless you go to one of the Go8, where all the votes are, to get your NUS presidency, you are not coming to the higher education reform package legislation committee hearing and you are not standing up for the students! But we did have some students from non-university higher education providers attend our inquiry and they put their stories on the record. It is a great pity that those opposite choose to ignore those students, because education is about increasing opportunity for all, not just for a few.

Peter Beattie got it right. John Dawkins has called on you all to get behind it. You know that, for our higher education system to be sustainable, for it to deliver what we know it can and what our nation needs for the next century, we have to have a bipartisan approach. I thank the crossbenchers, those who did engage, and I call on the Labor Party— (Time expired)

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

We will go to Senator Carr in a moment, who also wants to speak on this document, but I am going to Senator Cameron first. It is my fault; I should have been more strict. Senators have been arriving late and we are revisiting documents that we are already past. But I will go to Senator Cameron, because he wanted to speak on the same document as Senator Polley, which I omitted. You probably should have sought the call, Senator Cameron. In any event, I apologise for not being strict enough and enforcing the rules a bit better. So, Senator Cameron, we will go to you and back to document No. 9 on the Notice Paper.