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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9432

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (16:59): I like the member for Lingiari and it is an honour to follow a man who has been around as long as he has. I will take issue with one thing he said in his speech though. He said that people raised the issue of lawyers making a lot of money and paying a lot of tax, so why should they be paying for this? This was a question that Andrew Tillett from The West Australian asked Minister Christopher Pyne at a Press Club address. If I could quote the minister's answer because he may very well have been answering the question posed by the member for Lingiari. Christopher Pyne said:

Well, I think it's a bit of a specious argument, actually, since you asked me what I think about that. I think it's a specious argument because it's really an argument for not charging anyone anything because we all pay taxes and it's the same argument you could say that when I turn up to get my motor registration I shouldn't have to pay for it because I pay taxes anyway.

We believe that competition between higher education providers will force universities to be reasonable in setting fees. If they charge too much, they will have empty lecture theatres. Higher education providers will have to compete for students and when they compete for students, the students win. The government believe in the transformational power of higher education and that is why we will provide around $37 billion in funding for teaching at higher education institutions over the next four financial years.

It is with much pleasure that I speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 because this is something which I believe the country needs. I back my minister, Christopher Pyne, and my university, James Cook University, or JCU, in making sure that our higher education sector performs to its utmost ability and remains a supplier of quality, world-class education and is a sought after destination for education throughout the world.

I was asked to attend a forum at James Cook University called by the National Tertiary Education Union. At that forum, the NTEU executive asked all those there the following questions. Who voted for the 20 per cent rise in the cost of university education? Where in the Liberal Party pre-election campaign did they clearly state that the cost of university education was to rise? Labor Senator Jan McLucas gleefully added, 'It's ridiculous to think that a government would go to an election and not be up-front about it.' Then I rose but did not make the obvious retort 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead' but asked the people there: 'Who voted to float the dollar in 1993 and was that taken to an election as a commitment? Did the Labor Party take the decision to push thousands of single mums off their pensions to the election? Did the Labor Party take the scrapping of the chronic disease dental scheme to an election to get a mandate?' The answer to all those is 'no'. I could go on and name 1,000 things which were not taken to an election yet have become law and are part of our lives. On each occasion, the elected government made decisions based on the data before it and acted on what it believed were in the best interests of the country.

The new member for Rankin says it was a brilliant decision to float the dollar. They had an election in February 1983 and there was not a word about floating the dollar. Yet, 10 months later they made a decision to alter our currency policy and we have been the better country for it. Did Dr Chalmers in his extensive interview on the subject castigate Hawke and Keating on their decision to act and not put it to an election? No, he did not. His confected outrage and that of his party and his mates in the Greens only extend as far as they need for a cheap political headline, and that is what really bugs me about this.

Bob Hawke went to the 1983 election with a huge range of popular promises, only to be confronted with a larger than expected deficit and simply junked most of his agenda. To a large extent, this is what our government has had to face. We have come into office knowing there was a real issue of debt and deficit and we promised we would address the debt and deficit issue, but not to the extent needed when we discovered the mess Labor left.

I have used the floating dollar analogy for a specific purpose. It was a decision which had many benefits for the majority of Australians. It has transformed our economy. Not everyone was happy with the decision and not everyone was a winner, but we as a nation have prospered because of it. Some people still want to wind-back the clock and change it back. That is what we see Labor standing for today. Their rhetoric today is more about free education than student participation in the cost of their education. Labor seem to have forgotten conveniently that they brought about the co-contribution to university education. Their political opportunism and relentless negativity on this knows no bounds.

This bill will spread opportunity to many students, including disadvantaged students and rural and regional students. These reforms will equip our universities to face the challenges of the 21st century in a global education market. We need to unleash the capacity of our universities to be as good as they can be, to specialise if necessary, or possible, to ensure that they have the best possible outcome for their students.

Universities Australia came out last week and called for the parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities. Universities Australia Chief Executive, Belinda Robinson, said that the parliament had a once in a generation opportunity to shape an Australian higher education system that is sustainable, affordable and equitable in serving the best interests of students and the nation. She said:

With budgets under pressure, governments faced with a myriad of competing priorities for public funding, and successive governments being disinclined to invest at the level that repeated independent reports have shown to be needed, full deregulation of higher education is needed.

Either the status quo of ongoing inadequate investment, or further cuts without deregulation will condemn Australia's great university system to inevitable decline, threaten our international reputation and make it increasingly difficult for universities to meet the quality expectations of our students …

In transforming lives, Australian universities transform the nation. They make for a civil society, are the lifeblood of our regions and provide the means for securing Australia's place in the highly competitive knowledge-based global market of the future. Education is Australia's third largest export.

The introduction into Parliament of the Federal Government's higher education legislation is a chance for all parliamentarians to seize the opportunity for making real, lasting changes that are needed in positioning our universities for the challenges of the future.

Are they happy with absolutely everything we have proposed? The answer is obviously 'no'. But do they see the greater good here and a critically important sector of our society and economy that is under great pressure? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. I will come to the objections later.

Australian National University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, in his address to the National Press Club gave an impassioned and wide-ranging speech across a number of issues. His first words were:

Higher education and research in Australia is at a cross-road. It is time for us to make choices about what we want for our country and what we want for future generations. Time to make choices about the future of our universities.

Some of the other things he raised in that address were:

Australia is a nation that has yet to realise its full potential.

We all like to believe that the Australian education system is envied around the world.

And further:

Hard analysis shows that our rhetoric is better than our performance. Australian higher education is not bad but it is not yet brilliant.

To build an education system that is brilliant, we have to stop funding universities the same way regardless of how they teach. We have to stop the endless per-student funding cuts to higher education.

We have created a perverse incentive that rewards universities for enrolling as many students as possible and teaching them as cheaply as possible. That’s what our current system does.

Those are not my words; those are the words of Professor Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor of the ANU. That is the damning indictment in this whole matter.

When the budget came down we were able to speak about these reforms. I started by asking my daughter the following questions: 'What is the cost of your degree? What will be your HECS debt level at the end of that degree? And what is your current debt to the HECS system?' She was unable to answer any of these questions. My daughter is no dill and she clearly understands the nature of the system. Her response was that to get the job she wants she needs the degree and to get the degree she has to go to university and complete the course.

The day after the budget was handed down my staff conducted a basic poll. I acknowledge all the way through that my survey is hardly scientific, but it did produce a result which mirrored my own family experience. While we all knew there was a HECS style co-contribution, of the 140 people we asked those questions of at James Cook University that morning, 70 per cent had no idea, 20 per cent had some idea and 10 per cent knew the answers.

Labor seem to be preaching free education. All their rhetoric, all their speeches seem to preach free education. That is what they are saying. The speeches I have heard seem to be saying that they want it free again. Incidentally, Labor did not take the original HECS scheme to an election, either. So, please, can we just drop this thing about what bad governments do in between. You have to get on and govern with the decisions you have been able to face. Talk of degrees and debts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars is just that—it is talk. For every person who says that they will owe $200,000 for a degree, there is a university which says that is just not the case.

I note that Labor does not like this kind of talk, but it is called a market. If someone is charging too much or not providing value for money, the market will move elsewhere. While some courses will cost more, it will be the market which sets the price for them. A degree in science at James Cook University will be a brilliant degree. And, again, this is where I disagree with the member for Lingiari because, with its access to facilities on Orpheus Island, the Great Barrier Reef, the beautiful campuses in Townsville and Cairns, and out to a working cattle station, the demand for this course and JCU's work in the tropical world will mean that this will be a valuable commodity. But will JCU be able to saddle students with debts of $200,000 just because they want to? No, because Griffith, UQ, QUT or Sydney uni will all be in that market as well.

Our reforms mean that the biggest winner will be the students, especially low-SES students. As Minister Pyne said yesterday, in answer to a question:

… the biggest winners from the government's higher education reforms will be the university students, especially first-generation university goers … to the tune of 80,000 more students a year by 2018. They will also benefit by the introduction of the largest Commonwealth scholarship fund in Australia's history and they will benefit by more revenue for universities, leading to more research and better quality teaching. In return, the government is asking, on behalf of the taxpayers, that students contribute 50 per cent of the cost of their education—when they are currently contributing 40 per cent. So we are asking for a 50-50 split—that is, 50 per cent from the taxpayer and 50 per cent from students, when currently it is 60-40 in favour of the student.

They do not have to pay one single cent up-front and they do not have to pay anything until they earn over $53,000. This talk about a US-style education system is just not true. Why change? Why not do what Australian governments did for decades in industries such as the motor vehicle industry—just keep putting funds in, with no plan, where you will end up with no industry? That is what happens.

I would just like to also quote from Minister Pyne's second reading speech. He said:

Currently our universities are at risk of being left behind and overtaken by the growing university systems in our region and across the globe as these systems increase their capacity and new forms of online and blended delivery take hold.

We must aspire to not only keep up with our competitors, but keep ahead of them.

The government's changes will give Australian universities the freedom and autonomy to work to their strengths, be internationally competitive and manage economic and social changes to the best of their abilities.

This bill provides a level playing field for students, no matter what their study choices are. It removes the punitive loan fee of 20 per cent for VET FEE-HELP—helping tens of thousands of Australians undertaking VET courses—and gets rid of the 25 per cent loan fee for FEE-HELP for those who study with private institutions. It removes the lifetime limits on all Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) schemes and discontinues the ineffective HECS-HELP benefit.

He went on:

Regional students and regional higher education institutions will benefit significantly as we expand the demand driven system to enable study in more places in more ways.

Universities, TAFEs and private providers will have new incentives and opportunities to develop innovative partnerships, particularly in outer-metropolitan and regional areas, where they can work together to offer the skills and knowledge that local employers want in their employees.

In conclusion, I raise the example of Central Queensland University. They see nothing but opportunity here to the point where they have bought a TAFE. They want that. Sandra Harding is vice-chancellor of James Cook University. She is not happy with absolutely everything in the package. But from a regional university perspective, she says, 'Bring on the competition.' She is hungry for the opportunity to compete, because James Cook University will stand on its own. CQU will stand on its own; it knows where it is. These people want to get up and make more from their opportunity and deliver more for their students. That is what this legislation is about. It is not about what used to be; it is about what can be. It is not about what you used to do; it is about what you will do. It is not about the education system we have; it is about where we are in the world. We have to value our education system. All this talk of free education must stop. These reckless promises must stop.

I commend the bill to the House and I stand right beside the value of my university.