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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 157


Mr THISTLETHWAITE (Kingsford Smith) (20:43): I oppose this bill. If there ever was an example of the Abbott government being out of touch, look no further than this rehash of an earlier bill that the people of Australia have overwhelmingly rejected—in particular, the parents of Australia, who see the opportunity for their kids to get a university education being whittled away by this government hell-bent on instituting right-wing policies and allowing the market to take prominence in determining whether or not people go to university in this country.

This set of proposals has been well and truly kyboshed by the Senate. Many senators, particularly those on the crossbenches, have said, 'No matter what form you put these amendments in, we will not pass them because they are bad policy.' But the government is persisting. If you ever wanted a case of the government being out of touch with reality and out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary Australians, look no further than this bill. The government is persisting with a broken promise, a set of reforms that are massively unfair and that make it harder for kids from low- and middle-income families to go to university.

This bill also, in my view, downgrades the value of education within our community. It undermines the value of education as a promoter of productivity and a driver of growth within our economy. We all know that the earlier bill that the minister attempted to introduce, the original Higher Education And Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014, was about to be rejected by the Senate. So the minister rehashed many of the provisions, went away and changed some of them, most notably retaining the current measure for the HELP indexation of debt, namely the consumer price index, rather than utilising the Treasury 10-year bond rate. They also seek to introduce an indexation pause on HELP debts for primary carers of children aged under five who are earning under the minimum repayment threshold.

But what the government does not understand is that the reason Australians, in particular Australian parents, are rejecting these reforms is that they are deregulating fees for university courses in this country. They are allowing the market to determine the cost of a degree for kids in our country. And that says everything about the value that this government places on education and on the ability of kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds to get an education and the role that education can play in driving productivity and growth in our economy. These reforms simply price poor students and students from middle-income backgrounds out of the market. They are unfair but they are also really bad public policy because they speak to the value on which Australia places education.

Finally, this is something that the government said they would not do. The Prime Minister and the Minister for Education specifically said that they would not introduce this style of reform if they were elected. In case the memories of those opposite have faded slightly with the frivolities of summer, I would like to remind them of some of the comments, particularly those of the Prime Minister, in the lead-up to the last election when he said on 1 September 2013 on the Insiders program, 'I want to give people this absolute assurance: no cuts to education.' The Liberal Party's policy document for the last election, Real Solutions—what a wonderful read that would make these days—also states on page 41:

We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.

Then on 17 November 2013, the shadow minister for education, Christopher Pyne, said on Sky News:

We want university students to make their contribution but we are not going to raise fees.

Lies damned lies, that is what the government has perpetrated on the Australian people. They are commitments that the Abbott government gave to the young people of Australia prior to the election and they are being broken by the government seeking to introduce this reform into this parliament. They are commitments that the government sought to shirk last year and they are commitments that this government is continuing to shirk this year—an illustration of the fact that they just do not get it; they do not understand the aspirations of ordinary Australians.

The Australian economy is entering a very difficult period. As income from the resources boom begins to dwindle and revenue for the budget begins to dwindle as a result of that, the economy needs to look to areas with growth. Where do Australians need to look for areas with growth? One of those areas is productivity improvement. We need to become a more productive, smarter economy and one that values education, research and development. What does this bill that is before the parliament speak of in terms of values when it comes to education? What does this bill say not only to Australians but to the rest of the world when we talk about how we value education, when we are talking about letting the market determine what students should pay for a university degree in our country? When we are competing against nations, particularly those in Asia-Pacific where our kids will be competing with students of Asian nations in the global jobs market, what are we saying to our students about the way that we value education if these reforms are passed and we are competing against nations where education—and higher education in particular—is encouraged and is provided support by the government?

It is deeply ironic that we have to redebate this bill today. Through its changes to the higher education sector, the government would seek to make tertiary education near impossible for some people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The desire to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots infects this government and shows beyond doubt how just how out of touch it is.

I was the first in my family to have the privilege of a university education. In my area, young school students aspire to attend the University of New South Wales. It is one of Australia's leading universities and it is in our community. I had the wonderful privilege to graduate with a degree from the University of New South Wales. I want each and every kid that is currently at school in my community to have that same opportunity. But I know if these reforms are passed that some of those kids, particularly those from public housing estates, particularly those from middle-income families in my community will simply be priced out of the market. It is ironic that the reason they will be priced out of the market is because of the success of University of New South Wales. It is because the university delivers such quality education and courses in a number of important schools most notably in medicine, in law, in engineering, in science, in commerce and in visual arts. These are courses at the University of New South Wales which are in high demand. Students would give the proverbial to get in to some of those courses. As a result, where the course is in high demand, where you have that demand and you allow the market to set the rate students pay to do one of those courses—what are you going to see happen? You are going to see the costs of those courses skyrocket. Because the demand is there, the market will set the fee, not the government working in conjunction with the university and providing support for students to ensure that they can have access, regardless of their income, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

The government says: 'The way we will deal with that is to offer Commonwealth scholarships to students from low economic backgrounds so they get the opportunity to participate in some of these courses that are in high demand in quality universities. When I first read the bill and the explanatory memorandum associated with this, I thought: there is some redeeming feature in this bill, in that they are providing Commonwealth scholarships for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. But, as with everything to do with the Liberal Party, you have to read the fine print. When you read the fine print, you find that the money raised to subsidise these courses, to provide the scholarships for people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are going to come from—where? From the increasing fees, from the market setting the rates people will pay to go to university, and from the extra money that will be raised—no doubt by people paying more to go to university. That is where the money will come from. That money is going to be used to fund these Commonwealth scholarships. What a farce. What a crime this government is perpetrating on the students of Australia. You ask students to pay more so that they can fund the so-called Commonwealth scholarships for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Labor values education. Labor believes in the empowerment of education. Labor believes education is the driver of growth in our economy; it boosts productivity. In his budget reply speech last year, the Labor leader Bill Shorten said:

Only through education will Australia fully develop our economic potential, our scientific potential, our artistic potential - our people's potential.

That is why the Prime Minister's $5 billion cuts to Higher education are so destructive.

Since the budget, we have seen that it is not only Labor that opposes the government's unfair and short-sighted higher education package; Australians oppose these measures also. They oppose cutting public funding to undergraduate courses for up to 37 per cent. They oppose the prospect of $100,000 degrees that are likely to be the result from fee deregulation. They oppose the Americanisation of our world-class university system, which would see quality universities charge what they want for courses in high demand, while some of those regional universities where courses are not in high demand will struggle to attract students. Good academics will leave and research dollars will move out, because the market sets the pace when it comes to those factors. Labor believes it is the government's responsibility to fund higher education and research properly, not students who are already paying among the highest fees in the OECD. This is not the way that Labor would approach education policy, and we will fight these unfair plans that the government is seeking to reintroduce into parliament today.

The government has given up on $3½ billion of its $3.9 billion of savings, but it has not fixed the inequity that lies at the heart of this bill. That is because this bill is rotten to the core. It still contains $1.9 billion in cuts to Australian universities. It still contains the prospect of $100,000 dollar degrees for undergraduate students; $171 million in cuts to equity programs; $200 million in cuts to indexation of grant programs; $170 million in cuts to research training; fees for PhD students for the first time ever; $80 million in cuts to the Australian Research Council. These massive cuts to universities remain. The new fee imposts for students remain. Nothing of substance has changed, and Labor's position remains unchanged.

Despite speculation in recent weeks that the government would give up its budget savings to achieve its ideological goals, this bill still includes massive funding cuts proposed in the budget. It has been roundly criticised. I was blown away when I read a report in the Australian Financial Review some months ago, in which the Australian Medical Association estimated that the cost of a medical degree at a university like the University of New South Wales in our community could skyrocket up to $250,000, a quarter of a million dollars. What hope on earth does a student have—a student coming out of high school, from a low socioeconomic background, from a public housing estate—of meeting a fee like that? That is why this bill is fundamentally unfair and that is why my Labor colleagues and I will fight this bill to the death.