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Monday, 26 February 2018
Page: 1986

Mr HART (Bass) (18:01): I rise in support of the motion moved by the member for Griffith. I thank her for bringing this very important matter to the attention of the House. I've spoken often in this place about the importance of education generally, and higher education in particular, to my electorate and to Tasmania generally. This government's short-sighted $2.2 billion worth of cuts to universities is equivalent to more than 9,500 Australians missing out on a university place in 2018 and again in 2019. These cuts will hurt regional and outer metropolitan universities, such as the University of Tasmania, and their students the most.

The Tasmanian economy has historically underperformed. Credible economic commentators like Saul Eslake suggest that part of the problem lies in the generally poor levels of educational attainment and underrepresentation of university graduates within the local economy. It is reasonable to suggest that investment in education—in particular, in higher education—will improve economic performance within the state and will provide enormous opportunities for individuals, particularly having regard to the challenges associated with the future of work facing all of us. It was for this reason that during the 2016 federal election campaign the Australian Labor Party committed to provide, on behalf of a federal Labor government if elected, a federal contribution towards the University of Tasmania's university transformation project, centred on Inveresk and Burnie in the north and the north-west of Tasmania respectively.

There is no doubt that universities provide significant opportunity for economic growth. Investment in our universities and the higher education sector are a much better investment than tax cuts, particularly this government's unfunded $65 billion corporate tax cut. Recent studies suggest that the mere presence of a greater number of university graduates in an economy drives employment, not just within the graduate cohort but also within the wider workforce. Labor understands that the transformative power of education and higher education is an opportunity, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, for better employment, a higher income, greater prospects for employment, better working conditions and, above all, social mobility. It is simply not acceptable that Australia has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD. Our students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD. Our record with respect to public investment and higher fees will only get worse with these Liberal government cuts.

I acknowledge that reform can be difficult and expensive. When Labor was last in government, it increased investments in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. This meant that an additional 190,000 Australians, including many who were the first in their family to attend university, were able to participate in higher education. As I indicated earlier, Labor's investment in the UTAS university transformation project ultimately gained bipartisan support, not just as an infrastructure project but, more importantly, as a very important part of improving the economic performance of Tasmania. It's therefore very disappointing that this Turnbull Liberal government not only cuts money available to the universities and to the higher education sector but also makes the opportunity to study at university more expensive.

This has a disproportionate effect upon my local community, but it is also relevant to other communities across regional Australia. Those communities could reasonably expect that the Turnbull Liberal government should recognise the worth of investing in a university education and the opportunity of improving the economic performance of our regions. It is critical that it recognises investment in higher education as an economic priority, as well as an obvious opportunity for people to gain the skills necessary to engage fully with increasingly complex and increasingly skill based and knowledge based employment. It is surprising that this government, in the name of sustainability, chooses to cut higher education funding, to increase fees and to saddle students with higher debt whilst making it more difficult to deliver teaching, learning and skilled graduates—compromising, if not undermining, Australia's research capability.

I call on the government to recognise the transformative power of education and to reverse its short-sighted, unfair cuts to universities, which are closing the door of opportunity for thousands of Australians. In my electorate there is a perfectly appropriate investment of nearly $350 million on the university's transformation project. As I said earlier, this is not just an infrastructure investment. This is an investment in the future of many young Tasmanians within my electorate. It's absolutely vital that we support, not detract, from that investment.