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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1137

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (17:14): I rise to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. I want to declare up-front, in case there is any perceived conflict of interest, that I have been to university. I did not pay any HECS on my Diploma of Teaching, which I completed when I was 19 at what you would probably call a red brick university. I did my arts degree—my honours degree in literature—at a sandstone university, and my law degree at another red brick university. I should also mention that I have what you might call a 'gum leaf university' in my electorate—Griffith University.

This bill before the House today is the biggest proposed transformation to higher education that Australia has seen since the Whitlam Labor government gave us access to a free university education when it abolished university fees in 1974.

Mr Whiteley: Free! Someone paid for it!

Mr PERRETT: The major difference, Mr Huff-and-puff up there, is that Whitlam made historical changes that shifted Australia towards a significantly more equal society and made us more economically flexible. The current government aims to divide our nation with this legislation and make us a more elitist society where students will be given a debt sentence as a barrier to opportunity. This will also, importantly, undermine productivity opportunities. With a growing number of students finishing year 12 and looking for further education, the system was due for an overhaul, I understand. Funding the entire cost of their education would place a significant burden on the budget, the LNP made that clear; but let us contrast it and see it through the prism of the Whitlam government's changes, especially after his death.

In 1974 the Whitlam government abolished university fees, opening campuses to groups that had previously largely been excluded from this elite education. In 1989 it was the Hawke government which massively expanded university education through the Dawkins revolution, in the form of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. Since these innovative changes, HECS-style income-contingent loan systems have been adopted around the world. Dawkins chose—quite controversially at the time—to fund this massive expansion in the number of university places available to Australian students through the introduction of this groundbreaking deferred-repayment, income-contingent student loan scheme. This values-driven choice of the Labor government meant that funding for the sector could be dramatically increased without students from disadvantaged backgrounds being locked out of the system.

A modern Australia requires our brightest to strive. The policy being promulgated by those opposite is the 'dumb-but-rich' model. This simply will not create the jobs and opportunities of the 21st and 22nd centuries and it demonstrates a stark difference between Liberal-National party policies and all those higher education reforms introduced under Labor. This government, the Abbott government, wants to allow universities to charge students as much as they want for a degree. This is an assault on the middle class and an assault on Australia's social mobility, to quote the member for Wakefield. A degree should not be a debt sentence.

Mr Briggs: You can quote someone better than that, surely!

Mr PERRETT: I am sure the member for Mayo is always happy to quote the member for Wakefield. Sorry; I withdraw that.

Labor knows the economic and social returns that flow from investing in education are both worthwhile and crucial. With the students attend TAFES, universities or skills colleges, increasing their skills through education is what drives Australia forward. It is what helps us compete on the world stage. The ball-and-chain bill before the House has not changed from when we were debating this back in September last year. Pyne's folly still means cuts to higher education, higher student fees, more debt and a lot of uncertainty for everyone else. The ball-and-chain degrees legislation was defeated in the Senate; yet the pig-headed education minister wants the public to believe that these reforms are acceptable and inevitable. That is not the case, not while Labor is still standing.

Faced with a cut of 20 per cent in government funding most universities have submitted meekly to the decision to deregulate undergraduate student fees, certainly in public; but they are seething in private. The Minister for Education has defended his argument for a US-style college system in Australia by suggesting that higher education is somehow elitist in nature. He asks: 'Why should the rank and file taxpayer pay for 60 per cent of the costs of students attending university?' The point the hapless minister is missing is that the entire nature of taxation is that we are all taxed for benefits in which only some of us participate. Secondly, this ignores the intergenerational nature of support for education and the benefits that flow from it. One generation, through taxes, pays for the education of the next generation, which in turn pays for the education of the following generation. That is what good societies do. The minister's statement ignores the fact that university graduates not only subsequently extinguish their tertiary fee debt but also become members of wealthier professions and pay substantial taxes over the course of their professional careers.

The minister has ignored the social benefits of higher education. When I say the social benefits, I do not mean just the things the Minister for Education did when he was at university; I note from his CV that he was the President of the Days of Our Lives Club when he was at university in South Australia. It is good to see he had lofty pursuits early.

Our society thrives because of our teachers, our doctors, our engineers, our lawyers, our educators more generally and our architects. We must give every smart Australian the opportunity to contribute. The Prime Minister and his team are attempting to divert attention away from the fact that this reform before the chamber leaves students with $100,000 degrees hanging over them after they graduate—ball-and-chain degrees that will not boost productivity. These reforms to higher education are unnecessary and unfair, and I suggest that Minister Pyne head back to the drawing board.

For the Australian Labor Party, education goes beyond mere utility. As personified by so many of the MPs on this side of the chamber, education has been the catalyst for change and opportunity. It is the provider of confidence, tolerance and hope. The opportunity of an education is an Australian right that belongs to all of us. Much of our Australian egalitarianism is due to the availability of education, particularly over the last 50 or so years. Though we are proudly and profoundly, I believe, an egalitarian society, Australia is also challenged with this emerging inequality between household incomes. In 2013, Australia recorded the ninth-highest level of inequality among 34 rich countries—a phenomenon detailed in Andrew Leigh's book, Battlers and Billionaires; it is well worth a read. In 2014 a Senate committee tabled a report that showed income inequality had increased in Australia since the mid-1980s. The availability of affordable education for all Australians is increasingly vital when we are faced with this widening pay gap.

The fundamental point the honourable Minister Pyne seems to miss with this legislation before the chamber is that there are societal benefits and opportunities that come with the availability of education. During the 1920s, inequality was at a very low point in our history. During the postwar decades, Australia's inequality improved significantly, and this was partly due to the educational opportunities that Australia offered.

If the higher education reform bill is in force, students will face lifelong debt and some, regrettably, will avoid studying at university. The bill is disadvantaging students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and creating a two-tier university sector—or some might say a three-tier university sector. This divisive structure exists in the US where quality education is available only to the rich. This is because the higher profile institutions are more able to attract the lucrative students from overseas as well as domestic students who seek out the higher status campuses. There is no argument being put up that that will not be replicated in Australia. In fact, you could even argue it is being replicated already.

Despite the HECS deferred loan scheme that currently operates, poorer students are much less likely to take on debt than students from wealthier backgrounds, who have the family support needed to cover these and other living costs. Higher fees could also shut out rural and mature age students. This leads to a tertiary system where equality of access is further compromised and not everyone who is eligible and smart enough for a university place goes on to tertiary study—something I am sure the National Party will be particularly aware of. Hopefully, they will not forget the bush yet again. This is not in the best interests of Australia, which ought to uphold its egalitarian ideal of ensuring good education is available to all.

Under the former Howard government, Commonwealth funding per student was lower in 2007 than it was when the LNP took office in 1996. The current Prime Minister and the Minister for Education, Minister Pyne, were both members of the Howard government in 1999 when Prime Minister Howard promised:

We have no intention of deregulating university fees. The government will not be introducing an American style higher education system. There will be no $100,000 university fees under this government.

Today the Abbott government is bereft of those Howard government values. It demonstrates that the Australian public never know what they are going to get when they vote for the Liberal and National parties. Prime Minister Abbott has taken the Australian public for mugs when it comes to higher ed.

Labor is proud of its ongoing commitment to higher education. Under Labor, an extra 190,000 students were able to undertake an undergraduate degree and university funding almost doubled. Revenue increased from $8.1 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013 and by 2017, despite the tough budgets, it would have reached $17.7 billion. Obviously there is a slight change in the taper due to budget constraints but, despite the misrepresentation of those opposite, it is true to say that our budgets delivered real increases to the university sector over our six years in government. Over the same time period the real level of funding per student place increased by more than 10 per cent. I stress that again—the real level of funding per student place under Labor increased by more than 10 per cent over the same time period.

Labor's strong belief in education is in stark contrast to the Abbott government's agenda that only wants to impose radical and regressive policy that promotes elitism and exclusivity. These ball-and-chain degrees will restrict opportunities and curtail productivity opportunities. Women who want to return to studies after having a family, students from low-income backgrounds and students from regional Australia—country towns like St George where I come from—will be hardest hit by these higher fees and higher interest rates on student loans.

Australia wants to be known as the clever country—not just for the bragging rights but because of the jobs it will create for our grandchildren, their children and beyond. However, we cannot remain competitive, especially with Asia, unless we have a sophisticated, well educated workforce. Dumb but rich just does not cut it. This ball-and-chain degree bill before the House will mean talented students will think twice about pursuing a university education. Labor will fight these unfair fee changes to our universities. Accessible, affordable and quality higher education need not be a pipedream. It is simply a matter of government priorities. Students should not have to pay the price for the Prime Minister's betrayal, as exemplified by Minister Christopher Pyne. I do not support this bill before the House.