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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9439

Mr WHITELEY (Braddon) (17:29): I am thrilled this afternoon to be able to speak as a member of the government in support of the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014. Mr Deputy Speaker, no-one needs to tell you or anyone else in this chamber that higher education is essential to this government's commitment to protecting and improving Australia's economic prosperity. We know that, in order to remain globally competitive, Australia needs a strong and successful knowledge based community. We also know that, while Australian universities have served us well in the past, they are now dropping in world rankings as they face intensifying global competition from institutions that are focused on delivering new and emerging technologies and creating first-class graduates to meet the world's changing demand for skills.

An interesting point about tertiary education in this country—I suspect it is a little-known fact to many of our constituents—is that higher education is our third-largest export. People from around the world, particularly the Asia Pacific region, see this as a happy studying ground for their future. Sadly, over the years of the Labor government in recent times our rankings in this area, our credibility and our integrity of education has dropped to a standard that we have not seen before.

These reforms that we promote today are exactly that. They are reforms. They are changing the structure of higher education in this country, and it needs to be the case. Professor Ian Young is Vice-Chancellor of ANU. He said that it would be a 'great tragedy' for Australia if parliament blocks the federal government's plan to deregulate university fees. He went on to say it is 'a game-changer and a building block to making our universities brilliant.' In my view, any political party that rails against this fact for political expediency is a disgrace. This was highlighted most recently by the former ALP foreign minister and now Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans, one of the very staunch, long-term Labor members of this parliament. (Quorum formed) He said:

It is time to change our one size fits all funding system and let diversity develop. Changes to the system will be controversial, but real change is required if Australia is to offer its young people a real choice in education and produce graduates to match the best in the world.

There is no question within the higher education system about the need to reform the sector. Despite the Labor Party's rallying of radicalised left-wing student groups to oppose these reforms, in fact they are welcomed by a majority of providers and prospective students. They are welcomed because it is only through these reforms that we can continue to maintain and grow prosperity and ensure that our students remain educationally best equipped to meet market needs into the future.

The Leader of the Opposition's willingness to go around the country aligning himself with radicalised, hard left-wing unionists and professional student politicians—who have shown themselves to be the rabble they are as they try to argue the case for reform by burning effigies and bullying ministers and former members of parliament—is simply due to the fact that the red-flag wavers are the only ones opposing these reforms. Those opposite attend these rallies with great enthusiasm, not because they want to but because they cannot find anyone else willing to stand next to them. David Gonski, Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, and former Labor minister Gareth Evans have both given their broad support for these reforms.

It was only a few months ago in my office that I hosted a number of university students who wanted to put their case to me in relation to the budget measures that had been announced. What I found very interesting about that meeting was, firstly, they did not come in too many a number. That surprised me. I thought they might have needed a coach. Secondly, when I asked those who did turn up what the cost of their degree was they did not exactly know. They had a rough figure. I asked them, 'How much of that does the government pay?' And their quick response—both of them—was: 'Nothing. We have to pay it back through this damned HECS.' I asked: 'Is that right? You pay it all? So, if your university degree is $40,000, your HECS debt is $40,000.' He said, 'Well, no, my debt's nowhere near that.' And I said, 'Exactly.'

What the university students themselves do not realise, as mentioned by the member for Herbert a moment or two ago, is that the Australian taxpayer, up until this point in time today, meets 60 per cent of the cost of every university degree in this country. The 40 per cent that remains is in fact the HECS debt to be paid by that student when they get to an income of over $53,000. These university students did not know that fact. I cannot believe that in this country people believe that they pick up the total tab. It is not true.

Importantly, for the people in the north-west and west coast of Tasmania, there are a number of measures that are provided for in this bill that are of particular importance but that are conveniently overlooked by Labor senators in my state. It is these measures that I will speak about now. First is the fact that the bill provides important and improved opportunities and support to more students, especially disadvantaged and rural and regional students. Second, the reforms will support students wishing to undertake sub-bachelor degrees through the FEE-HELP scheme. We all know that diploma courses have long provided an important pathway into higher education for less-prepared students, giving them the opportunity to develop the skills needed to further their education. This is particularly important in regional and low-socioeconomic areas such as my electorate of Braddon, where students are far less likely to enter directly into higher education than students living in metropolitan areas. With less than 43 per cent of the Braddon school leavers having completed year 12 studies, alternative pathways to higher education are of fundamental importance to many young people in my electorate. By expanding the current system of Commonwealth subsidies and providing support to students completing accredited diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, the government is allowing students greater opportunity to either enter university or undertake education through a private provider.

Has anyone in this chamber today heard Tasmanian Labor senators—or any senator, or any Labor member of parliament, for that matter—talk about these exciting opportunities? The answer is clearly no. The member for Lalor, who spoke just before me, using very alarmist language, said that young people in her electorate have given up. I will tell you why they have given up. It is not because of anything we have done. This bill was introduced only this week, and we are only today debating it. People are giving up because leaders in that electorate, such as the member for Lalor, have told them to give up, using scaremongering and alarmist language, painting a dim picture that would certainly turn most people off pursuing their dream of further education. The member for Lalor is responsible for the young people in her electorate giving up and looking to the ground instead of to the sky. It was her party that in the last four years of its term cut $6.6 billion out of the budget for higher education—

Ms O'Dwyer: How much?

Mr WHITELEY: $6.6 billion—nearly $3 billion of that in the last 12 months alone—not to mention the cutting of research funds across the country.

We have two important outcomes in this bill for students. Firstly, the bill ensures that they are able to study at little or no up-front cost to themselves, even if it is not through a university or TAFE. This alarmist language that says that these reforms will price people out of commencing a higher education journey is absolutely false. There are no up-front costs. Nothing has changed. So, a person from the lowest-income, most-disadvantaged family in my electorate can step to the plate tomorrow and enter into a university degree that will change their life forever. They can enter into a diploma or associate degree that will change their life forever—at no up-front cost. And people opposite, including the Greens, should stop the scaremongering. If they want to have a debate, that is fine. Talk about the facts that are on the table, the measures in the bill that are fact, not alarmist language that scares the daylights out of people with untruths.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the bill provides the student with the due recognition that undertaking a sub-bachelor degree is of equal value to our community as undertaking a university degree. In the north-west of Tasmania that may mean that a student undertaking a course through a private education provider will not face the difficulty of needing to save for up-front course fees but, rather, can defer those fees through the FEE-HELP scheme. That will be a massive help to prospective students in regional Tasmania.

Despite the feigned outrage of members opposite, particularly the Leader of the Opposition, who claim that students will be worse off under these reforms and that the sky will fall in, the truth is that under their government many students not only paid interest tied to the CPI for their loans but were slugged with a 20-plus per cent loan fee. That means that if a university charged $30,000 for a degree then students who were unable to pay up-front were actually charged $36,000 for the degree, plus interest. This bill proposes to remove that fee and instead use the 10-year bond rate to determine the interest rate and then cap it at six per cent. By removing all FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loan fees that are currently imposed on some students who are undertaking higher education and vocational education and training, the government is making a real contribution to improving educational and employment outcomes for regional Tasmanian students.

I welcome these reforms, because the delivery of the government's commitment to introduce these reforms will change the face of higher education in this country forever. It will give us a fighting chance to place our universities back in the top of the rankings, not see them falling down the league ladder as we are seeing at the moment.