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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1158


Mr SNOWDON (Lingiari) (18:42): I am pleased to participate in this debate on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. I will make some comments about the contributions of the member for Bradfield and the member for Hume in the course of my contribution. I am not sure if the member for Bradfield recognises the internal contradictions of his contribution; nevertheless, I think it should be obvious to those who listen to this debate. I was a bit amazed that somehow or other we are in this position because of Gough Whitlam, that he had the temerity to reform the university system and open it up to Australians who would hitherto have not had access. How dare he. Now we are in a position where, as a result of Gough Whitlam, we need to charge students up to $100,000 for degrees! That makes sense! That's all Gough's fault! It ain't Gough's fault.

These decisions are being made by the Abbott government and Australians who are thinking about these issues know what the impact will be on them. What surprises me somewhat is the apparent lack of awareness of how poisoned this proposal is within the broader community. I hope this is not the truth, but I am assuming that when government members get up to speak about this bill and when they talk to people in their home communities, they say they 100 per cent support it because, clearly, the intend to vote for it. Yet they know that when they talk to people in their electorates, whether or not they are aspirants to a degree themselves or for their families, they are most concerned about these proposals. It is just another feature of a budget—yet to be finally passed through this parliament—which demonstrates to the community how out of touch the government is. The member for Hume said, 'Only communists would say that equality should be an objective.' I am not quite sure what he meant; but what we are talking about is something we would all agree upon—equality of opportunity and equality of access; the ability to be able to attend a higher education institution without being penalised because of who you are, where you come from or your family background. But that is precisely what these proposals before us will do.

Again, the member for Hume, when he gave his contribution, talked about market distortions and the fact that Australians who do not go to universities do not benefit from the university system—although indirectly, of course, they do; and he said that . What he does not understand and clearly has not bothered to think about is that working people in this country have aspirations for their children. Whether or not they themselves have been to university, most Australians see the pinnacle of higher education as an aspiration they want for their families and their children. Most of them see that; yet what this government is doing is saying, 'Don't look too closely, because if you do you will need to be prepared to pay potentially huge amounts of money and leave university with a mortgage.'

The member for Hotham, I thought, made a very good contribution. In her contribution she said, among other things, that there are many people in her own electorate—and this is true of mine; I am not sure about the member for Bradfield's—who are working Australians and working families with incomes which are equal to half of a $100,000 university degree. The prospect of their children going to university and potentially paying up to $100,000 for a degree is beyond their contemplation, as it is for those students. The member for Hotham made some very interesting points. She observed that Deloitte Access Economics provided information about how, when university fees were increased in the past, demand for those university places decreased by eight per cent, and that all the decline in demand for those places was among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Doesn't that tell you something?

If members opposite had anything but tin ears they would know that, in their own electorates, working families do not want this bill. They do not want this bill because they see it as frustrating their aspirations for their families and their children's families. It is worse if you live in a regional or remote part of this country, as I do. I do not know who the member for Hume talks to in his electorate, but he said that the show stopper for families in his electorate was not fees, it was the cost of relocation and setting up a new place of accommodation in a major city when moving to go to university. It is true that one of the inhibiting factors that confronts families from regional and remote parts of this country is the cost of relocation to go to university; but it is also true that, for many, the contemplation of higher university fees is a massive disincentive and will ultimately lead them to make decisions which will mean their children do not go to university.

We have heard that somehow or another all undergraduates in this country should be happy about this government. I heard, again, the member for Hume talk about postgraduate degrees only costing $10,000 to $30,000 dollars. Let us just ask this simple question. In Australia we have emerging, in some universities, what is called the Melbourne model. The Melbourne model is one where, to do a professional degree, you need to do a generalist degree in the first instance. So if you go to Melbourne university and you aspire to be a lawyer, you need to do a pass degree—a science or an arts based degree; one which is of broader scope and designed to teach you to think, be creative and learn new disciplines. Once you have done that degree, having paid the HECS for that degree, you are then entitled—lucky you!—to do a professional degree, say, a JD or a medical degree or an engineering degree; a postgraduate degree for which you will also pay. So by the time you get to earning any sort of income you have the HECS bill for your pass degree and the bill for your postgraduate degree. Combine the two together: if it is $10,000, $30,000 or $40,000 for the postgraduate degree, and it is $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 for the pass degree, depending on what the degree is, then you are saddled with an enormous whack of money to be returned via the HECS system at a later point. Is that fair? Is it reasonable? I say that it is not, and we on this side of the parliament do not believe it is something we should be saddling the Australian community with.

It is no wonder we are seeing the disputes happening opposite around the leadership and the other internecine discussions taking place within their party room and throughout their party across the nation. Most of it is due to their stupidity—their inability to understand what the Australian community demands of them or how stupid some of their policy initiatives have been, including this one. They know that this is poison in their electorates. How self-serving is it, I say to members opposite, that you should be supporting a prime minister, a treasurer and an education minister who say to you: 'Go out and canvass support for this proposal which will potentially disadvantage working people and their children in your electorates.' You are doing that with such gusto; it is working very well for you! We know what is going on; you are just too blind to see it.

Let me go to the issue of regional universities. These reforms are especially damaging for students from regional, rural and remote locales and the universities that service them. In the Northern Territory, Charles Darwin University faces a 20 per cent cut to its Commonwealth grants funding—and in their case that is a bit over $50 million over the period from 2016 to 2019; the abolition of student start-up scholarships; changes to the relocation scholarships and other equity programs—about $800 million nationally; a 10 per cent cut to research training funding—about $170 million nationally; and a substantial cut in indexation to the university grants—another $200 million nationally.

The minister claims that regional universities will be advantaged by record levels of new Commonwealth scholarships. I do not accept that. I do not believe any potential student or current student of regional universities believes it either. That is your problem—no-one believes you. In the Northern Territory's case, Charles Darwin University has a 75 per cent mature age student cohort. They are 25 years and older, so they are working people. These are people who have decided to go back to university after many of them have started a family. They already potentially have significant debt—a mortgage. We are saying to them: 'For the privilege of bettering yourself, improving your opportunities, creating better opportunities for the Australian economy by you getting an education and being more productive, you now have the privilege of compounding your home mortgage with a mortgage for your education.' That is a massive disincentive for mature age students to return to university. In a country like Australia students should never be dissuaded from further study because of the risk of crippling debt repayments.

Regional universities enrol well above the sector average when it comes to the proportion of domestic students who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, who come from a low-SES background and who come from rural and regional areas. For example, in Charles Darwin University's case their Aboriginal enrolment is 7.3 per cent and, in contrast, Monash University's is 0.4 per cent. At CDU the low-SES student cohort is 19.6 per cent and at Sydney University it is 7.8 per cent. Regional and remote students in the Northern Territory are 63 per cent and at Macquarie University, by contrast, are 5.9 per cent. These are different places. They are not like the University of Sydney and not like the University of Melbourne. They are not like those universities. Charles Darwin University is unique in its own way, as other regional universities are.

The member for Bradfield said something that actually did make sense. Not a lot of it made sense, but this particular point did make sense. He made the observation—and I agree with it—that Australia's public investment in tertiary education as a proportion of GDP has been lower than other developed countries, including the United States. The member for Bradfield went on to say that this was largely because there were private contributions to the university sector in the United States far in excess of what is given here in Australia. That is true, but it is a bit counterintuitive, isn't it? You cannot on the one hand say that they are better off because there is private sector funding and then say that, because there is no private sector funding in the Australian system, the people who should pay should be the students. I say we should go out and get more private sector funding. Let us get more research funding from the private sector. Let them wear a greater burden of the cost of research that they benefit from either directly or indirectly.

This bill is a bad bill. This bill should not be supported by this parliament. This bill is not supported by the people in my electorate and, Mr Deputy Speaker Kelly, I am sure by the people in yours. I commend the opposition's position of opposing this legislation.