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Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Page: 10115


Mr CONROY (Shortland) (19:01): It's an exciting time for the University of Newcastle.

Mr Butler: There has never been a more exciting time.

Mr CONROY: Absolutely. The new inner-city campus, NeW Space, has recently opened. The previous Labor government provided $30 million for the new campus, along with contributions from the state government and the university. The building is not only visually stunning; it's a tremendous enhancement to Newcastle's CBD and a proud legacy of the last Labor government and our commitment to the Hunter region. This significant funding commitment from the Labor Party is in stark contrast to the Liberal's approach to tertiary education. Indeed, the University of Newcastle will have its funding cut by a staggering $100 million if the government is able to pass its proposals contained in this legislation we are debating right now.

For the past four years, the government has been trying to shift our universities to a user-pays system that excludes poor and middle-class kids. Labor believes in tertiary education as a great enabler. The economic and social benefits of tertiary education speak for themselves. Access to tertiary education should not depend on the wealth of your parents or young people taking out very significant amounts of debt, and so at a time when the University of Newcastle is celebrating an important milestone, it is very disappointing to see the coalition renewing its attacks on this vital sector.

Before outlining what this bill proposes, I briefly want to draw to the attention of the House some shocking statistics about tertiary education in Australia. Of the world's richest countries, Australia has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities. This is a damning statistic. A nation whose economy has grown every year for over a quarter of a century should be leading with investment in universities and research. The government's proposals will only make our record worse. In relation to fees, Australian students already pay the sixth-highest fees amongst developed countries and, again, the government's proposal will make fees even higher.

The government is proposing the following in this bill: a 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend on university grants; increasing student fees by 7.5 per cent; making radical changes to HELP repayments; reducing the threshold when repayments start from $54,800 to $42,000—this is very serious at a time when wages growth is actually shrinking; making significant changes to enabling programs, which are so important for my Hunter region; and attacking New Zealand permanent residents and citizens, some of whom have lived nearly all their lives in Australia. In speaking on this legislation, I also want to bring to the attention of the House the powerful impact enabling programs have had in the Hunter and the fact that the government is cutting these programs.

The statement released from Universities Australia is a damning indictment on the government's proposal. It states:

There was unanimous opposition to the proposals to cut university funding and lift student fees.

It went on:

An overwhelming majority of Vice-Chancellors agreed they could not recommend that the Senate crossbench pass the legislative package.

This is clearly identifying what the government is doing: cutting funding and increasing fees. They are trying to make our education system further restricted to only the very well-off, just as they are trying to restrict our healthcare system to the wealthy in this country. In Australia, access to university should be based on ability, not on a student's ability or their parents' ability to pay for a degree.

I want to talk about the significant impact this bill will have on the University of Newcastle, my local university. The university, as I said, will be worse off to the tune of $100 million because of these cuts. These aren't Labor's figures. The vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle has confirmed this on the front page of the Newcastle Herald and has recently told a Senate inquiry:

This is really, really tough on universities … We've already contributed to the fiscal efficiencies of the government. You can't continue on that basis.

The University of Newcastle is an icon and a much-respected institution in the Hunter, Central Coast and northern New South Wales. It is a great promoter of economic and social justice. One quarter of students at the University of Newcastle are from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, and almost half are mature-aged students and students who are the first member of their family to attend university. It also has a very significant Indigenous student population—indeed, it ranks first out of Australia's 39 universities for Indigenous enrolments, and we are rightly proud of this. We trained the first Indigenous doctor in this country and we trained the first Indigenous surgeon in this country. Half of all Indigenous medical graduates in this country are produced by the University of Newcastle each year. We've got a great record in that particular area and we are rightly proud of it.

The university is also the largest and oldest provider of enabling programs in Australia, and so it will be particularly impacted by the brutal changes the government is proposing to enabling programs. The government is directly and intentionally limiting the ability of potential mature-aged students and young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds to access tertiary education. Again, this isn't just Labor rhetoric. It has been confirmed by the vice-chancellor, who recently told a Senate inquiry that changes to enabling programs could make it harder for Indigenous students and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds to access higher education. Twenty per cent of enrolments at the university had previously completed enabling courses. Intelligent and keen people who want to go to university and to make a contribution to our society should not be denied the opportunity to access a tertiary education.

My Labor colleagues and I will not tolerate this assault on enabling courses. Labor believes that people from modest backgrounds and people who have lost their jobs and are determined to get further education and training in order to re-enter workforce should be encouraged to seek a university qualification, not discouraged. Our belief is in stark contrast to that of the Liberals. The outcome of these proposed changes will make it harder to get into university, particularly for the many thousands of older Australians who are desperate to get a job, so Labor strongly opposes the changes to enabling courses. The proposal contained in this bill would introduce a fee on some of the most disadvantaged people in the higher education system.

A little more than 40 years ago, the University of Newcastle introduced a groundbreaking program. In 1974, Open Foundation was one of the first university enabling programs implemented specifically to allow people who missed out on matriculation for a variety of reasons a second chance to qualify academically for a place at university to study for a degree. The stories of Open Foundation's alumni are compelling. There are classics scholars like Leanne Glass, who was once a retail worker and who hadn't completed Year 12, and is now in the final stages of writing her PhD thesis. Daniel Frost suffered from a rare, debilitating bone disease that prevented him from completing his HSC, and he has recently graduated with a Bachelor of Business thanks to Open Foundation. Rhea Barnett entered the Open Foundation program as a 24-year-old with no more than a year 10 school certificate, and has recently spent time in Antarctica researching her science and physics honours thesis.

Very famously, Murray Lee, who is now a professor of criminology at the University of Sydney, when he left Belmont High School at age 15 was told he could be a boilermaker or a sign writer. Those were the options he was restricted to under that system, but after working as an electrical tradesman, he completed the Open Foundation course and was able to complete a degree. Professor Lee is of the view that these reforms will fundamentally harm the enabling program and has stated:

Giving people the chance at a career by keeping enabling courses free has got to be a win/win for the individual, and the community.

Labor could not agree more.

Taylah Gray is in the second year of her law degree. She's angry at the government's proposals, which will affect the University of Newcastle's Yapug program, along with Open Foundation and Newstep. Taylah has said:

These programs are free to give people who might have struggled in school or in their lives a chance to try. What is proposed will put up obstacles for people whose lives have been about obstacles.

This is a very sharp and eloquent analysis of the government's plans. Taylah believes people should be given a chance. Labor believes this as well. This proud tradition, and similar programs such as Newstep for younger students at the University of Newcastle, is under very real threat because of the proposals of the Turnbull government.

I want to be very clear on this proposal. The government is targeting enabling courses, which some of the most disadvantaged students in the sector access. This will have an enormously negative impact in the region that I represent and will result in fewer people in the Hunter region having a tertiary education. The change is socially unjust and economically irresponsible, and Labor condemns the government for deliberately targeting people who are trying to get a tertiary education to allow them a better chance of getting a job and making an important contribution to our community and the country.

I now want to discuss the government's changes to HELP repayments. The philosophy behind HELP is that those who finish a degree should only be required to start paying back the loan once they are earning a decent wage. Australians are proud that we are the land of the fair go, and the HELP system is a fundamentally fair system. However, the Liberals want to reduce the HELP repayment threshold from $54,869 to $42,000. This is a very significant reduction, particularly in an economic environment where wages growth is actually negative. The latest HILDA report showed that wages have stopped growing and that since 2012 they have actually declined. Another key fact is that university graduates are getting paid less than in previous years. It is not appropriate, given the current wage environment, to be making these unfair changes and further deterring young and old alike from university. In fact, lowering the threshold to $42,000 means that a university graduate who is unable to find employment in their chosen profession and is instead continuing a full-time job, say, as a baker at Coles or Woolies would actually have to start paying back the cost of their degree. In fact, when you combine it with the changes to the Medicare levy surcharge, which, disgracefully, this government is applying to everyone who earns more than $19,000, it means that people who earn more than $42,000, up to $54,000 in certain scenarios, actually have an effective marginal tax rate of over 100 per cent. Let me repeat that: because of these regressive changes, workers below the average income—some of them below the median income—will have an effective marginal tax rate of over 100 per cent. They will pay more in tax for each dollar spent than they receive. That is a disgrace, it is deeply regressive and it needs to be opposed.

The British Poet Laureate John Masefield once said: 'There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.' While this sentiment is lovely, universities are far more than this. They are fundamentally important for our economy and our society. The role of the federal government in supporting and investing in tertiary education is essential. There are two clear distinctions between the major parties on this issue. The Liberals want to cut funding to universities and make tertiary education the domain of the privileged. Labor, the party of education, will always support our tertiary sector and ensure widespread and equitable access to universities. The statistics prove this. International studies have shown that mature aged students and those who are entering through a non-conventional pathway are most easily deterred by higher debt levels and greater repayments. They often have fewer years in the workplace to repay that debt. So anything that increases the debt on them or makes them pay that debt back faster is a deterrent to mature aged students retraining and to those who haven't been able to finish year 12. This is a deeply regressive move. When you combine it with the attacks on the enabling courses, I can only conclude that this government is intent on closing the door to tertiary education for working-class and middle-class families—and that's a disgrace. Not only is it an attack on those people, on those Australians, and limiting their potential, but it is actually a deeply illogical move economically because we need every Australian to fulfil their potential. We need every Australian to fulfil their productive potential, to get the best training possible, so that they can make an active contribution to this economy. The policy contained in this bill counteracts that and closes the door on those people.

When you think about the fabric of this society, with income inequality at a 75-year high, why are we preventing working-class people from getting a good education? Why would we be saying to them, 'You can't fulfil both your potential to contribute to a great society and to earn a wage'? Why are we doing this in a period of high inequality when wages are going backwards? This is a sign, yet again, of a government that is out of touch, a government that has no concern for the vast majority of Australians and a government that says: 'Well, I made it. I might have had wealthy parents, but I made it, so everyone else can.' This is a deeply regressive move. It is a move symbolic of a party stuck not in the 20th century but in the 19th century, where, unless you are part of the squattocracy or you happen to be born into a wealthy family, we don't care about you and we don't care about your future. The vast majority of Australians disagree with that. The vast majority of Australians support a well-resourced and fair tertiary sector. History will condemn this as yet another regressive move from a regressive and reactionary government that, quite frankly, does not care about the vast majority of Australians.