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Monday, 27 February 2017
Page: 13


Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (10:23): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) in the coming weeks, more than one million Australians will resume their university studies for the 2017 academic year;

(b) the Government's failure to release its plans for university funding and fees is creating uncertainty for students planning to commence their studies in 2018 and beyond;

(c) Australian students already pay some of the highest university fees in the OECD;

(d) increasing fees will leave young Australians with significant debt burdens; and

(e) paying off significant debt puts extra pressure on young Australians at critical times in their lives, like when they are saving for a house or considering starting a family; and

(2) calls on the Government to:

(a) end the uncertainty facing students and their parents and finally make it clear, after nine months of inaction, what its plans are for higher education funding and fees from 2018;

(b) rule out significant fee increases;

(c) abandon its 20 per cent cut to university grants;

(d) reverse its short-sighted cuts to the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program; and

(e) confirm that it will prevent the Americanisation of our university system through higher fees and higher student debt.

Ms PLIBERSEK: Over the past few weeks more than one million university students are going to university for the first time or going back for a second or third academic year, and it is a very exciting time but also quite a nerve-wracking time for students and their families, particularly for those students attending university for the first time. This year in particular there is a greater sense of anxiety because of the uncertainty created by the Liberals' absolute failure to declare what they intend to do with university funding in the future. Students, parents and universities just do not know what this government's plan is for fees in 2018 and beyond.

This Minister for Education and Training was sent in to quieten things down after the previous minister made such a comprehensive hash of university and school funding. But all we have had since the change in personnel is inaction, inertia and obfuscation. This minister has managed to deliver nothing more than cuts and force another review into the university sector. This is now the 26th review, talkfest, inquiry we have had into higher education since the Liberals came to office.

We have had the Review of the Demand Driven Funding System, the evaluation of the HEPP Program, the Higher Education Infrastructure Working Group, the assessment of Australia's publicly funded research system—all of these reviews and yet no conclusions from any of them about how universities are to be funded and what students are to pay in the future. In fact, it has been nine months since the delivery of this, the Driving innovation, fairness and excellence in Australian higher education review, with not a word from the government about what it intends to do with this options paper.

We have seen 1,200 submissions from across the university higher education sector and a panel appointed to help the government develop its response and still not a word—complete silence—on what the government's intentions are. In fact, that has forced universities into one-year funding arrangements with the government. Of course, that is difficult for universities and for their staff, who do not know whether they will have jobs next year, but it is particularly concerning for students and their parents, who do not know what the government's intention is when it comes to university fees to make up for these funding shortfalls.

What we know is that this is not about driving innovation, fairness and excellence in higher education, as the review title claims; it is about finding $3 billion worth of cuts in the university sector. That is the job that the new education minister has been given: 'Find $3 billion of cuts in universities.' We still have the 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth grants in the budget papers—that zombie measure is still in the budget papers—and a university sector that knows that the cuts are coming but does not know where they will fall. There is no plan for reforming the university sector; there is only a plan for more cuts, including the 40 per cent cut to the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, the program that has been so successful at getting young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds and from regional areas who are the first in their family to attend university to go to university and in fact supporting them to complete their studies when they get there.

All we know is that Australian students are already paying some of the highest contributions in the OECD towards their university education and that there is still a plan from this government for $100,000 university degrees. You only need to look at the history of the Liberals in this respect. From 1997 to 1999, the Howard government slashed operating grants for universities and ripped away almost five per cent of their funding. In 1997, they introduced differential HECS, raised fees and introduced—remember this?—full-fee-paying places for Australian students. The first $100,000 degree is not coming; it is not in prospect; it was in 2003 at the University of Sydney for veterinary science. It took Labor's election to reverse these $100,000 degrees for Australian undergraduate students from 2007 onwards.

Every time this government has deregulated fees, universities have almost immediately gone to the highest possible deregulated fee, just as they did in the United Kingdom. $100,000 degrees? That is what is in prospect for Australian students.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?

Ms Butler: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.