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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1151


Mr RIPOLL (Oxley) (18:12): I rise to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. While the Prime Minister struggles with his own chaos and disunity created by himself, while the Minister for Education struggles for support for his higher education changes and to convince anybody that they are of any value and while the government struggles with any coherent argument about how you could support and grow our innovative opportunities and our capacity to grow our economy—while the government clearly struggles with all these things—what we find is that universities and students also continue to struggle.

They continue to struggle with uncertainty from this Liberal government, the threat of less funding for the universities and the threat of a deregulated education market that, in the end, will shift the focus away from education as it should be in a system that does work. It is a system that does deliver; a system that, even though it is not free, does deliver in a reasonable cost space for a reasonable method of payment good-quality Australian education degrees. It shifts all that focus away towards a new base, based on pricing, on prestige and on profits.

It is not outrageous to say, as some members would contend, that this new proposal for a highly deregulated market in higher education would cause university degrees to cost up to $100,000 and beyond; that it would shift the focus away from an equitable base to the bigger universities working much more on profit and looking at how they can maximise what they deliver through the popular courses—the courses that people are prepared to pay more for; and also shift the focus away from merit-based selection criteria to ability-to-pay criteria and a whole range of other issues, especially for the regional universities in being able to deal with this massive change which would disadvantage them. I think if you spoke to anybody in regional areas and regional universities that you could see this proposed deregulatory change from the government is problematic for them. The prestigious universities, the universities in big cities are always going to have some sort of natural geographical advantage but under these so-called reforms from the government they would have a further advantage as well.

Labor made it clear when Labor leader Bill Shorten said that only through education will Australia fully develop its economic potential, its scientific potential, its artistic potential and in fact its people's potential. The Prime Minister's $5 billion in cuts to higher education are so destructive. It marks the end of Australia's fair and equitable higher education system. The cuts will bring down the curtain on the legacy put in place by the Whitlam reforms to higher education. Labor has made it very clear in this place and has made it very clear outside publicly that we will vote against these cuts to university funding and student support. Labor will not support a system of higher fees, of bigger student debt, of reduced access and of greater inequality. We will never tell Australians that the quality of their education depends on their capacity to pay.

I am certain that Labor's position is very clear. I am not so certain that the government's position is clear though. I am not so certain and I do not think the community is so certain that Liberal members of parliament are so certain as to what their position is on these particular bills because they do seem to shift and move over periods of time. But I can guarantee this House that Labor is certain that it will oppose these measures. Labor is opposing cutting public funding to undergraduate courses by up to a 30 per cent because it is a bad idea, as simple as that.

Labor opposes any move that puts pressure upwards on the cost of degrees to $100,000, which is a likely outcome and one which we would see because we have international experience. We can look to other markets, other jurisdictions. We can look to what has happened in similar markets. Whether it is the United States of America, the United Kingdom or other places, we do not support those types of systems of higher education. We do not support what we have been calling the Americanisation of our world-class university system.

This is something that ordinary people actually do get. They do understand this. Australians also oppose this because they understand the value of universities. They understand the value of university education. In fact they understand the value of education more broadly. Whether it is at a primary level, a secondary level, a tertiary level, a TAFE level or whether it is at all those levels, there is a really clear distinction in my mind and in the minds of Australians that it is Labor that stands up for all of those sectors of our education system.

Labor's record is clear. Labor supports those sectors not only through good laws, support and regulation but also through good funding. It is really clear to the Australian people and clear to the people of Queensland just recently that when you slash and burn your TAFE system, which provides a very important segment of our education system, or when you put pressure on universities, on the education system and on schools, the community does not support it. I think the community is pretty smart. If I were to decide on which way I would fall on who is smarter between the current Liberal government in Canberra with Tony Abbott and his ministers or Campbell Newman as premier in Queensland and his ministers or the Australian people and the Queensland people, I would go with the Australian people and the Queensland people every time because I reckon they got it right.

If we were to look at this more philosophically, what is the Australian dream? It could be a lot of things such as owning your own home or having a block of land—that may have changed slightly in recent times as demographics change and the world changes. But something that has not changed is that my parents and their generation did not get a university education. They either could not get access, they were never really in a position where that was a viable option or they just simply could not afford it in their generation. I think that is a common story for many Australians be they migrants or people who were born in Australia.

Many of us in this place were the first of our families to get a university education. It was certainly the case in my family. I was the first to get a university education. For many people on both sides—I do not make this as a political statement as such—it really was that great Australian dream that your children would do better than you did. One of the ways—I am not saying it was the only way—you could do that was by having one of your kids go to university because you understood what that meant.

Particularly in the context of the modern world, the jobs of the future will be more difficult to attain in the sense that you will need a higher education—be that year 12, be it TAFE, be it some sort of further vocational training, be it university or a masters degree or postgraduate degree or a doctorate or whatever. Everyone understands that jobs of the future will involve people getting further education and higher education. What governments should do is underpin the systems that deliver in the public interest for public good, not for a profit motive, a budgetary motive or some other motive.

I do not subscribe to some of the views I have heard from government members about escalating costs and fees. If you subscribe to the view that 'We cannot afford this,' then we cannot afford anything. Because they are the same excuses, the same arguments and the same tired words that are used for every single debate. For every single argument they say, 'We cannot afford this.' I am afraid that is not right in this area because we can afford it. We have a system where it is not free. It is not just borne by the taxpayer as a free system. It is not the case that we cannot afford it. The case is people do make a contribution. They do not pay for all of their education. Work necessarily does need to be done in these areas.

I have a view that says we have to look at how we make education sustainable in the future. It is not that that it is not sustainable. We should always be looking at these things. Labor understands that; we get that. We should not lose sight of the facts that what our current system delivers is something unique in the world. It is something that delivers for our economy and it is something that delivers a great deal more than can be measured in simple terms like budgets. For Australia to grow our economy and to compete, we need a strong, healthy higher education system that is affordable, that focuses on merit and outcomes. If you work hard at school, regardless of your background or your capacity to pay, you will have the same opportunity to get to university as everyone else. That is the principle that should apply to all of us and it should be applied rigorously.

Australia does do well at the international level. We may not have the most prestigious universities in the world, but we probably have one of the most equitable higher education systems and some of the best outcomes in the world. There are some areas in which we will never be able to compete, but in education we can not only compete but excel. It is evident to anyone who looks at our export earnings that education is one of our great success stories. We should not be saddling students with crippling debt, as this government proposes. Some students would carry that debt for many years of their working lives. Some people would make choices and decisions about their career based on the debt they face, rather than pursuing something they might excel in or prefer as a career path. They might also make different decisions about having a family or buying a house, but these are not decisions that people should make when it comes to their education. There is no doubt that change is constant in technology and a range of other things, and this will have an impact on the way education services are provided, but such matters should not be used in this debate as an excuse for making things more expensive.

This government has struggled in explaining things to the Australian people—whether it be the Medicare co-payment or further deregulation of university fees or any other area. They need to make a coherent argument. I heard the previous speaker say, 'If we apply the same principles as we did in the deregulation of the energy market, what great success we would have in education.' Might I remind the member, and anybody else listening, that success in the energy market has only meant continually-spiralling upward costs for the householder. I am not necessarily opposed to deregulation in some forms; in some cases privatisation might be a good thing. There are areas where it has worked in the past, though energy has not been one of them. What was the outcome of energy deregulation? Costs in Queensland, for example, have increased by 70 per cent and they continue to rise. It has not been good for the consumer; it has not even been good for the national grid or the way we deliver energy.

I would say there is a big lesson to be learnt from that. Before we apply the same pressure or structural impost on education, we should take a very close look at the damage that could be done. If there were any area of our economy that I would look closely at, it would be energy markets. I would say: 'We want to learn from the mistakes that have happened there and we want to make sure that we don't repeat those mistakes and we certainly don't want them in our education system.' There is enough evidence, though that evidence is being ignored by the government, and that is because the government is taking an ideological approach, rather than an evidence based approach. They have an ideological view about what our higher education system should like—even what our schools should look like. This government talks about red-tape reduction, freedom and so on, but what it does in practice is quite the opposite. It wants to dictate to the university sector and to students how much they should pay and where they should pay it. If you research this area, you will find evidence from the earlier deregulation of the higher education sector that there were limits on what students could pay, but under that old system it was suggested that fees could be lowered. The argument from the education minister at the time, Brendan Nelson, was that fees would come down, but the evidence is 100 per cent the opposite: no fees came down and no-one got better value. In fact, everything went up and that is exactly what will happen with this scheme, and that is why Labor will oppose this very bad policy.