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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1144


Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (17:42): It is a pleasure to make some comments tonight on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. Labor will be opposing this bill, and that is because this is the same toxic piece of public policy that it always has been. It is the same $100,000 degrees and will lead to the same settings that will prevent young people in my electorate of Hotham pursuing that dream of going to university.

Of course we are opposed to this bill because it flies in the face of everything we on this side of the House believe about education. As Labor people, it strikes right to the core of who we are and the country we represent. What those on the other side of the House will never understand is that education means everything to us as Labor people. This is how we make an equal Australia. This is how we ensure that our economy continues to grow. It is at the very heart of the Labor dream that a child that is growing up in my electorate, perhaps in a migrant home, can go to a good-quality public school and will have that great chance to go on to university and, hopefully, one day have the chance to do something like serve in a chamber like this. When we restrict access to university in the way this bill is proposing, we say that is not what we want in Australia anymore, that that is not the Australia we want to live in. Labor will not stand for that. We will not stand for extinguishing the opportunities for young people in that position.

That is why I am very confident that in standing up here and making these comments tonight I am reflecting the views in my community. When I talk to people in Hotham, this is really what they are worried about. They do not want to be in a situation where families right across the country have to think about starting savings accounts for their children when they are born to pay for their college education as we see so commonly in other parts of the world.

I will talk a little about some of the specifics of what is in the bill. I said that, essentially, it is the same package that we have been debating in this House. Unfortunately for those on the other side, it is a debate they have been losing for the last eight months. The same basic principle—that universities will be able to charge whatever they want for the studies they offer—will lead to $100,000 degrees.

We also know that this is going to have a particular impact on the sustainability of regional universities. It has been generally accepted in this debate that there are regional campuses that are going to have to close—again, not something that Labor is willing to put up with. We want young people from right around the country to be able to study, whether they live in regional areas or not.

What we will see as a consequence of this bill is a two-tiered education system—an education system where there are some universities that cater to wealthy Australians and that get themselves on the great world-class metrics, and other universities which are affordable universities. I think we know which ones the first class, best quality education is going to be delivered in.

There are one or two important changes that have been made in the legislation from the last draft that we considered as a House. One of the critical ones that I want to discuss in a little bit of detail is about the change to the way that the interest rate on student loans would be set. We know that the initial proposal from the Minister for Education was that student debts would gain interest according to the bond rate, so this was a situation that would see a woman who went through university and perhaps studied engineering or even something like nursing, and who might take a few years out to look after children, then be in the position where she would never be able to pay the cost of her degree in her working lifetime. We saw particularly the impact that this would have on women because they were taking those years out of work.

In the legislation before us, we have seen the Minister for Education make a pretty significant change in policy, which is that, instead of setting the interest rate at the bond rate, it will go back to CPI. In some ways this is a significant shift, and in other ways it is not. We see that some of the gross unfairness of the rate that we were going to see people's debt rise by has been, in part, dealt with. I would say that all the things that I have talked about—the $100,000 degree and the threats to regional universities—will remain. But one of the things this does is blow a massive hole in the savings that were meant to be the result of the proposals before us. Instead of saving $3.9 billion each year, we save $0.4 billion each year. Let's just let that sink in: the minister went around and talked to everyone about the excitement of saving the budget and all the things that he was doing to try to get the budget under control, but nine out of 10 of those dollars are gone now because of this change. So this bill now makes all of those changes to our system, making our system so much more unfair and making access so much more limited, and yet we do not really make much in savings from it. So, if anything, this is actually an even worse piece of public policy than the one that the minister introduced in conjunction with the budget last year. I actually cannot believe it: the same terrible policy, and yet we make hardly any savings. This is absolutely ridiculous.

This is not all that the bill does. I want to speak in a little bit more detail about some of the specific additional things that I am concerned about here. As part of the policy framework here, we are seeing a $1.9 billion cut to Australian universities, we are seeing $171 million cut for equity programs, we are seeing a $200 million cut in indexation of grants programs and we are seeing $170 million in cuts to research training. Can you think of anything more economically backward than going around and cutting funding for our scientists and researchers, as this government seems to want to do? Another element I find particularly disturbing is that, for the first time in Australia, under this bill PhD students will be charged to study. These are the brightest minds in the country, and what we are doing is telling them that something they can do all over the world with subsidies from the university, because their research is so important, they are now going to be charged to do in Australia. In addition, we see $80 million in cuts for the Australian Research Council.

When you add all these things up, what I see here is pretty much the worst thing you could do to an economy that is in the position of Australia's economy now, especially when we think about the long term, because a lot of these proposals that I am finding so concerning—and it is on behalf of my constituents that I am making those views known tonight—are about the long term. This is a government that, we have seen, is taking away funding to scientists, funding to the CSIRO and funding for researchers and trying to put this additional cost on individuals who are going out and trying to get themselves educated.

What is so disturbing about this is that what we want to build Australia's economy in the long term is for every Australian to go as far in the education system as they can—as their wits will allow them—yet here we see an additional cost being imposed on every Australian who wants to do that. What we want is for science to be supported so that we have something that we can rely on in the future when we are outside the context of a mining boom, as we will be very shortly. So I see this as being basically a disaster for the economy, especially when you take into account the context that the key savings measure is gone from this bill. I cannot believe it. I actually cannot believe that the minister is even putting this before the parliament.

We have talked about issues around the impact on the economy, and I mentioned particularly the long term, but of course the other critical thing for us Labor people is that this policy is just plain unfair. We need to remember that the cabinet that is putting this policy forward contains 12 people who went to university completely for free, yet what they are trying to do is put in place a policy that will ensure that other Australians not only do not get the opportunity for free education but do not get the opportunity for affordable education. This is just outrageous.

We are starting to hear a little bit of rhetoric from this government about intergenerational equality. I honestly do not know who these people think that they are fooling, because what they are doing is trying to charge younger generations of Australians for education, astronomically, putting prices on these degrees that many Australians will not be able to afford; not taking serious action on climate, allowing our environment to degrade; and taking away important things that will drive long-term economic growth in our country.

Under the policies, when you put them all together, we see that the vision that this government has for Australia is one that is less equal, is growing less quickly and has a degraded environment and a lower quality of life. I reject all of these things. What we need is to look after our next generation by investing in them—by giving them the skills and the capabilities that they need to build a great life for themselves. We are not going to do that by putting this extreme additional cost on getting themselves educated.

We have had the refuted argument from the other side—and I am sure we will hear more speakers talk about it—that this will not really make a difference and low-income families will not be deterred by $100,000 degrees—that this is untrue. That is absolutely not the case, because the argument that $100,000 degrees are not going to deter young people from studying defies expert opinion, and it defies common sense, I think, if you ask any Australian. Even in Australia, where we have seen fees changed over time, a recent study by Deloitte Access Economics found that past experiences of raising fees in Australia have seen an eight per cent decline in demand for education. What is quite interesting is that all of that decline in demand has come from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I hear this reiterated by local principals that I talk to in my electorate, because their frustration at this policy is absolutely palpable. What they say to me is: 'The amounts that are being talked about'—this is a quote from one of my local principals—'will absolutely scare my students away. For these kids a sum like $100,000 is a TattsLotto win. It's an unimaginable amount of money.' What perhaps some on the other side of the House do not appreciate is that we have people who live in my community of Hotham, people who I come into this chamber every day to represent, who are on incomes that are less than half of what the degree will cost, supporting relatively large families. These families are not going to consider $100,000 to be a simply absorbable cost, as we might see from people in other electorates in other parts of Australia.

I know that, in the world that some other members may live in, everyone's parents are at home encouraging them about the importance of education and talking to them about their need to stay at school for as long as they want, but there are lots of kids who live in my electorate who actually do not have their families saying that to them. They have families at home saying, 'Please, you need to be earning so you're helping our family now.' These are not families that are going to think that $100,000 is an amount of money that they can afford for their kids to go to university. That is just ridiculous.

Something else that I have talked about to local principals is that, for sure, there will be this shorter term impact on kids who are going into the end of their secondary years now, and of course they are not going to be as excited about going to university when they are going to be saddled with this enormous debt, but the principals are actually most concerned about a change to the culture over time. What these rules say to them is that education is for families who can deal with these amounts of money. Those families are not the ones that go to some of the schools in my electorate.

This policy says to us that this kind of scholarship scheme—which is the throwaway to the people who cannot afford through their families to pay fees—is going to resolve the equity question, but not all the kids in these schools are going to get these scholarships. It is saying to them that it is fine for families that can afford it. There is much broader access to education for those families. But, in these really struggling households, it is only a few of the best and brightest that will get to go to our best universities.

In Australia, this is just not how we do things, and I do not think that most Australians want to see that changed. We want our country to be a meritocracy. That is what Labor stands for. We want to live in a community and a society where young people all around the country believe that their skills and their capacities will be equally valued and that the government will be just as enthusiastic about getting the best out of those young people as they are about getting the best out of young people who are trying to get degrees but have families who are able to pay those exorbitant fees that we are going to see as a result of these policies.

This is absolutely anathema to the Australia that, as Labor people, we want to live in. I just say to those on the other side of the House that I can understand that, in different types of communities, you might not experience this. You might not have schools like those in the really disadvantaged parts of my electorate. But it is just the honest truth that, when I talk to those principals, they are extremely worried. They are extremely concerned. When I talk to young people who live in regional Australia, I hear the same types of messages. We know that there are lots of young people in regional communities who study at regional universities and who would not study were the university not there. We cannot just assume that all young people are equally mobile and able to move into the city when they want to take up that opportunity to go off to university.

I am really proud to stand today and say that, on behalf of the people of Hotham, I absolutely oppose the measures in this bill. It is bad policy. It was bad policy to begin with, made perhaps only worse by the fact that the savings measures in this bill, by and large, are now gone. So now we have a dramatic change to the way education is funded in Australia that puts costs onto families and costs onto students, and we do not get much back by way of savings. It was bad policy to begin with; it is bad policy now, and I am proud to say that I do not support it.