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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8246

Mr PYNE (7:58 PM) —I indicate that the opposition will be supporting the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. However, we have substantial reservations about the timing of this debate. One of the consequences of this bill is the abolition of the Commonwealth scholarship programs. The government wishes to replace those scholarships as a part of its changes to the youth allowance arrangements. We all know that those changes are contentious, and the opposition have indicated that we will be moving amendments to them when the government introduces that bill. The Greens have announced their opposition to sections of that bill, which I expect we will see in the very short term future.

However, those changes, to be detailed in the forthcoming Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill, are inextricably related to the abolition of Commonwealth Scholarships in this bill. It is quite unreasonable for the government to expect the parliament to abolish the existing Commonwealth Scholarships when they have yet even to introduce legislation providing for their replacements.

We know, by the way, that there are problems with the government’s changes to youth allowance too. The abolition of the workforce participation route for youth allowance eligibility as an independent will make it harder for thousands of young people from rural and regional families to go to university—a debate that we have been traversing in this House over the last week and a half of the sitting. Young people in rural and regional Australia have to move to the city if they are to pursue further study and are not necessarily able to rely on financial support from their parents, even if their parents’ income or assets mean that they are ineligible for youth allowance under the parental means test. There would be many such young people in the electorate of Mallee—

Mr Forrest —Hear, hear!

Mr PYNE —and the electorate of Deputy Speaker Scott. The government’s own figures show that 30,000 students will be denied youth allowance under these changes, beginning next year. The Deputy Prime Minister is clearly out of touch with the issues confronting rural and regional Australia, and unfortunately she has demonstrated that in the chamber in answers to questions today, yesterday and indeed over the last sitting week. In fact, before the parliament rose after the budget session the Deputy Prime Minister indicated a complete lack of understanding of the issues that young rural and regional Australians face. On the Q&A program on the ABC about 10 days ago, the Deputy Prime Minister affected a Marie Antoinette approach to this problem by virtually saying that young people should eat cake and she could not understand what they were complaining about.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s changes fly in the face of her rhetoric about increasing higher education participation from all sections of the community. They will actively discourage rural and regional students from attending university. Many of those rural and regional students currently access the scholarships that are being abolished in this bill. We are not satisfied that the replacement arrangements are adequate. While we are allowing this bill to pass through to the Senate, it is clearly unsatisfactory that it is being debated in isolation of the youth allowance changes. If the government had any integrity then the minister would finally introduce her long-awaited Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill so that these bills might be considered together.

Putting aside the scholarships issue for the moment, the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill is the legislative instrument that delivers the measures included in the government’s response to the Bradley review. By no means does this bill represent an implementation of the recommendations in the Bradley review, as the minister has often characterised the changes. For one thing there is significantly less funding for the higher education sector than was recommended by Professor Denise Bradley. The Bradley review contained 42 recommendations covering a wide range of issues—from funding arrangements to allocation of places, quality frameworks, student support mechanisms, support for increased participation from disadvantaged and lower SES groups, increased encouragement of philanthropy, the extension of certain forms of government support to private institutions and other matters.

The Bradley review also set out ambitious targets for increased participation in the higher education sector—for 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a qualification of at least bachelor level by 2020. Australia’s current rate is 29 per cent. Targets were also set for participation amongst low SES Australians and other disadvantaged groups. By 2020, it is proposed that 20 per cent of all undergraduate enrolments in higher education be students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. To achieve this it was proposed that:

All qualified individuals will have an entitlement to undertake an undergraduate qualification unlimited in duration or value …

Such a system allows institutions flexibility to decide the courses they will offer and the number of students they will admit.

It is effectively a deregulation on places, which is to be applauded. It is difficult to imagine that the Labor Party would ever have supported such a market approach when in opposition, so this new flexibility is to be commended. However, the government will still dictate how much a degree will cost, meaning that those universities that are able to attract higher numbers of high-value international students will always have a significant resource advantage.

No review is perfect, and a number of Professor Bradley’s recommendations were criticised as being inadequate, contradictory or missing the point in certain areas by commentators and some stakeholders. However, even most critics of the review expressed a preference that a number of its measures be supported. The total cost of implementing all measures contained in the Bradley review would have amounted to approximately $6 billion to $7 billion in new funding over four years.

The government initially said it would respond to the Bradley review in February or March. In early February, Minister Gillard announced she would be having a review of the Bradley review, involving roundtable discussions with stakeholders. It is worth noting that during this period the government announced its second stimulus package in which it spent all of the money that might otherwise have been directed to higher education. This is typical of the government’s low prioritisation of higher education, as pink batts and cash handouts took priority over many of the Bradley review’s recommendations.

During March, Minister Gillard gave two speeches supposedly announcing the government’s response to the Bradley review. In reality, apart from indicating that they would be following the student based entitlement recommendation and that they would commit to meeting the Bradley review’s student participation targets—although their commitment to lifting the graduation rate of all 25- to 34-year-olds to 40 per cent was pushed back from 2020 to 2025—the government made no funding commitments, promising instead to do so in the budget.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s claim that the Labor government’s budget package is providing $5.7 billion in new money for universities is clearly a sham. Out of the supposed $5.7 billion in budget initiatives for universities, $2.99 billion is to be taken from a massive raid on the Education Investment Fund—a smash and grab on a fund that was designed and paid for by the previous government as the Higher Education Endowment Fund. Much of this funding was specifically targeted towards research projects. Of this package, $750 million is for ‘future rounds’ of funding for EIF projects, and $400 million of the EIF funding was directed towards environmental initiatives.

None of that EIF money is new money. It is all money that was able to be put away by the previous coalition government as a result of our sensible economic management and our retirement of debt—a concept quite unknown to this government. Therefore budget increases have been $1.2 billion for research and only $1.5 billion for teaching at universities, significantly less than the $6.7 billion recommended by Professor Bradley.

New funding is significantly biased towards expenditure in 2013. In the current financial year there is only an extra $246 million in new funding for teaching measures. This is unfortunately symptomatic of the government’s low prioritisation of higher education. They have been spending money like Paris Hilton on a shopping spree in New York, as the Leader of the Opposition would say, but they still have not returned to universities the money that was ripped out of the system by the abolition of full-fee-paying domestic places last year.

Moving along to the other aspects of this legislation, the coalition is pleased to note that the Labor Party has cast aside some of the ideological shackles so apparent in our Prime Minister’s regular essays to move towards a slightly more demand driven higher education system. The coalition supports the moves towards a more deregulated higher education sector, with more flexibility for institutions and more responsiveness to student demand. It is not a perfect system, and it is certainly not a perfect model, but it is an improvement. We would have appreciated Labor’s support for such reform when they were in opposition, but we welcome their late conversion to a more demand driven system.

Measures in this bill include: removing the government imposed cap on numbers of students in courses offered by universities from 2012, after a transition period that lifts the cap slightly in 2011—this is expected to lead to an extra 50,000 students undertaking undergraduate study over the four years, at a cost of $490.6 million; the creation of the new Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency—$60.8 million over four years; making more generous the indexation measures on basic funding to universities, at a cost of $577.6 million over four years; providing performance based grants of $206.4 million over two years from 2011-13 and grants to universities delivering on equity outcomes of $436.9 million—some of these grants programs replace similarly targeted programs of the previous government, in line with recommendations of the Bradley review; increased funding provisions for research programs—$512 million over four years; increase in postgraduate awards from $20,427 in 2009 to $22,500 in 2010; and, of course, the removal of a number of Commonwealth Scholarships programs—a budget saving of $709.8 million over four years. This saving offsets a number of new student support measures which, as I said before, are not included in this bill. These amendments go some way towards delivering on the recommendations of Professor Bradley’s review, although many Bradley recommendations have been ignored and this amounts to a very slight deregulation of the tertiary sector.

The coalition supports these changes, although we are very concerned that the Commonwealth Scholarships are being abolished when the bill introducing their replacements is yet to be introduced into the parliament. The coalition believes that the government should move immediately to introduce their Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill, which provides for the replacement programs for the Commonwealth Scholarships, so that the measures may be considered concurrently in the Senate. The coalition will support the second reading of this bill, but I put on the record our grave reservations about abolishing Commonwealth Scholarships without at the same time putting in place their replacement. I hope the government will consider what I have said and move to introduce that bill so it can be debated concurrently in the Senate. The government will have the opportunity to correct that situation when the abolition of the scholarships are being debated without the introduction of their replacement by ensuring that, before this bill goes to the Senate, that bill is introduced into this place. We would encourage them to do so.

I am sure constituents in Maranoa, Mallee and all across regional and rural Australia are hoping the government will address in that bill their very real concerns about the changes to Youth Allowance. The coalition has highlighted at least two. There are many. For the government to move the goal posts halfway through the gap year of students who planned their futures around rules that were relevant at the time they made those decisions would be described by many as retrospectivity, which the coalition does not support. Others would describe it as simply unfair and un-Australian.

I am sure there are members of the House on the other side of this place—the member for Flynn, the member for Capricornia, the member for Bendigo, the member for Ballarat, the member for Macquarie, the member for Hunter, the member for Richmond, the member for Page, the member for Wakefield, members for places in Tasmania, like Lyons and others, the member for Forde, and the member for Dawson, who just spoke in this debate and was uncharacteristically silent on the issue of Youth Allowance—who are being inundated in their electorates by young people and by their families, who are deeply and genuinely concerned about the opportunities for their children to get higher education being ripped out from underneath them without any notice and without the opportunity to replan their future in higher education.

Young people in rural and regional areas have already been identified by the previous government and accepted by this government as officially disadvantaged and underrepresented in terms of their access to higher education. The changes to Youth Allowance will make that situation much worse. People in their gap year immediately come to mind as students who will now no longer be able to go to universities because they will not be able to access youth allowance.

Putting aside the grotesque retrospectivity of that move, another aspect of the government’s changes is to require students to have worked 30 hours a week for 18 months in a two-year period to be able to access youth allowance. People in rural and regional Australia know instinctively that that will hurt their families and their young people. Labor members on the other side of the House, from right across the spectrum but particularly from rural areas, must know that young people in country areas will find it virtually impossible to find jobs in which they can work 30 hours a week for 18 months to access the independent rate of youth allowance. It indicates how out of touch the government are—they do not realise that they are making a group of disadvantaged people even more disadvantaged in their opportunity to be represented in higher education.

The coalition have said that we would immediately accept the government pushing the date for the beginning of their changes to youth allowance out to 1 January 2011, from 1 January 2010. That would give everybody in their gap year the opportunity to begin higher education as they had planned at the beginning of 2009. It would cost money, and for that reason we have said that we believe the start-up scholarships for all young people who access youth allowance should be cut from $2,254 to $1,000. That would give the government the money to do so without punching a hole in the side of their budget. We have also said that the government—and we will come up with recommendations arising out of the Senate inquiry into this matter—should have a $120 million scheme for rural and regional scholarships for students to relocate to the places where they wish to undertake higher education. There is also a small amount of money necessary for the children of veterans. Finally, we have said that in government, in 12 months time, we will fix the 30-hour-a-week work test, which used to be 15 hours a week.

I can see members on the other side nodding and recognising that the opposition’s requests are not unreasonable. They are recognising that there is a problem which their minister refuses to acknowledge or see but which they are recognising in their rural and regional seats. I am thinking of the member for Dawson, the member for Capricornia, the member for Flynn, the member for Lingiari, the member for Wakefield, the member for Lyons, the member for Bendigo, the member for Ballarat, the member for Corangamite, the member for Hunter, the member for Macquarie, the member for Richmond, the member for Page and the member for Eden-Monaro. Right across the Labor members in rural areas, they recognise that the Deputy Prime Minister needs to actually listen.

The Deputy Prime Minister always believes that she is right about everything—it must be incredibly vexing for other members of the cabinet. The Deputy Prime Minister is always right about everything, but on this occasion she is entirely wrong. Members on this side of the House know that. There must be members from rural areas on the other side of the House who know it. And for the good of young people in rural and regional Australia the Deputy Prime Minister must swallow her pride, put her vanity aside for at least one decision and change these youth allowance reforms in order to give young people in rural and regional areas the same opportunity that their city counterparts have to access higher education.