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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9462

Mr BROAD (Mallee) (18:54): I normally associate myself with the words of the member for Gellibrand but on this occasion I will not. I have thought long and hard about higher education reform. I take my role as an elected member very seriously and I understand the importance of education within my electorate. Education has an incubator role, a role of potentially diversifying our rural economy—and we do need to invest in capacity. When I started as a member of parliament one of the first things we did was develop a strategic plan for our development. Our strategic plan was this: 'To build wealth by building capacity and to build community by building interaction.' There is no doubt that, when you invest in people, it translates to building their capacity—and that creates innovation, opportunity and wealth.

I have a vision for rural Australia, and that is that it will not just be a service industry to agriculture. Our towns will not just be retirement villages and tourism. We need a diversified economy. And there are challenges for our regional students. No student in my electorate can live at their home and catch a tram to university. There is a reason for that. It is because in my whole electorate, which is a third of the state, we do not have a tram. In fact, we only have one passenger train station. So you can start to understand that, when we think about these university reforms, it is important that they work.

We recently had a visit to Mildura from Minister Pyne. It was a very worthwhile time. I am a strong believer that 'to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war'—a great quote from Winston Churchill. Rather than fight, you should talk; and, rather than talk, you should listen. One of the people at a forum where the minister spoke and listened was the father of a first generation university graduate. It was a great pride to him that his son had a business card. That is something that everyone in this chamber takes for granted. We all have business cards. We have exchanged so many business cards that we are sick of them. Also raised with the minister was the story of a woman who for cultural reasons would never be able to travel to Melbourne to study and thus needed to study at a regional campus.

So why change? Why make these changes—and can we make it better? The challenge is that we have lifted the cap on placements without giving an incentive to our universities to innovate. The system currently is not working. In my electorate, 28 per cent of people who finish year 12 go on to university. This is too low. It is for a combination of reasons—aspirations, affordability and distance. In what we are trying to do with these changes, you cannot just look at it as university funding in isolation. We are actually broadening opportunities—opportunities for loans for those who are going to do apprenticeships, which will certainly help mature-age apprentices; opportunities through VET courses; and opportunities through diplomas. Not everyone is going to do university.

It is inappropriate that, in my electorate, at least 50 per cent of people are inadvertently subsidising those who are going to university and creating opportunities for themselves. And it is important that, if they choose not to go to university, there are also opportunities in other forms of education. This is one of the key parts of the reform that is getting lost in the debate. We subsidise our university students to the tune of 60 per cent of their course cost. It is anticipated that, through these changes, we will be subsidising them to the tune of 50 per cent of their course cost. In real terms, that does add more than an additional 10 per cent to the cost of their university degree; it is more likely to add 25 to 30 per cent to their university fees. We need to have a look at the figures because I think there is a lot of scaremongering going on. The average fee for an undergraduate university course in Victoria is about $16,800. Taking that to $22,000 is a long way short of the $100,000 that Bill Shorten was talking about this morning.

So are these changes evil? Is this an insidious attack on our society? I think the answer to that is no. There is great danger in creating fear among the parents of young students who at this time of year are considering whether they will go to university. There is always hyperbole in politics, there is always overemphasis to make a point. But as we talk about getting these reforms right we need to be very careful that we are not scaring our students, particularly those from poorer families who are considering whether going to university is worthwhile.

I want to state very clearly that it is not going to cost you $100,000 to do a course—unless you are going to be there for eight years, have a whale of a time and keep on going back and back. To do an undergraduate course is not going to blow out to a disproportionate amount. It is still a good investment. I can say to the parents in my electorate and to the students who are considering going on to higher education, 'Look at the long-term investment that this will offer you. Please, do not be scared off by the hyperbole of politics, because it is very important that at this time you make the right choice for you and are not scared by the Leader of the Opposition.'

I commend the minister because he is listening. I think there are things that we can do to enhance these reforms to allow regional students to have greater opportunities. The higher education participation program is a very important part of how we fund our universities now. I think there is a significant justification for increased funding for the higher education participation reform and weighting that across some of our regional campuses which have low socioeconomic status students. That is in line with creating opportunity right across Australia and that is something I hope the minister will enhance.

I want to commend John Dewar on his guidance as he looked at the Higher Education Loan Program. He has put out options to give consideration to changes to interest on the loans, particularly for someone who is not earning as much. I also want to say that it is not entirely bad policy to say to a student, 'We will loan you the money by using the total equity of the Australian Commonwealth so you can get a low-interest loan.' The reason that I say this is not necessarily bad policy is that I think of my own experience of not going to university and trying to get a loan to get started in business. I had to borrow at seven per cent to get my earning capacity. What we are saying to you as a student is, 'We will essentially be the guarantor for your loan.' But there are arguments, as John Dewar has put forward, for allowing for that threshold in interest to be a little lower, perhaps for people who are earning under $40,000 or $50,000.

I think the Commonwealth scholarships are fantastic idea. There needs to be some definition around 'disadvantage' and 'regionality'. Scholarships that target, invest and partner with regional schools may be something we need to look at. If we think of the AFL, when they look at their drafting—we do need to look at the AFL because often what happens in sport is a great diagram for how it should happen in life—if they are drafting players, they also invest in the club. If we have strong universities, it is not unreasonable for them to invest in the school. That is something that the scholarship fund has some freedom around, and in doing that we have the potential to start to lift aspiration.

Even with the current system, I still do not concede that 28 per cent completion of university in my electorate is necessarily completely built on economic disadvantage. It is also partly built on aspiration. We need to lift people's eyes. A partnership between universities and our year 12 level schools in our regional areas could go a long way to allowing people to see that they can aspire to greater things than where they are.

The other part, that is not part of this package but sits under a different portfolio, is that we need to look at assistance for country kids who have to move to go to college. I do not quite know how we put the framework around the definition of that, but there is no doubt that there is a disadvantage that comes with distance. There is no doubt that it costs more for a student to move away, where they have to live under another roof—whether it is in a unit, on campus or with a group of friends—than to live at home. As I have outlined before, there is no tram in the electorate of Mallee. There is only one train station in the electorate of Mallee. The opportunity for country kids to be able to stay at home and go to university is limited. There is a strong argument for diversifying our economy and for spreading wealth and opportunity across Australia when we look at how we can provide additional assistance for students who have to shift from a regional area to a city to study. It could be in the form of additional money or supported accommodation so that the student can have similar opportunities to what a lot of our city based kids have.

My concern at the end of these reforms, and I believe we will get it right, is that we are scaring people who have aspirations and dreams, and we should not do that. The Leader of the Opposition has made comments saying that a university course is going to cost $100,000 and students are going to be saddled with debt. To a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old who is considering their future, that seems like a lot of money—when in fact it is not going to be anywhere near that. We need to be responsible. Once these reforms are through this parliament there will be a need to ensure that there is a well-funded package to promote, educate and inform parents and students of just what these changes mean to them. Then they can make informed decisions and not base them on what is essentially hyperbole that comes from the opposition seeking political points.

We cannot stay as we are. We must change. I commend the minister for having the guts to make great reforms. All reforms at the time look difficult. I am sure every major reform that has ever gone through this place has been controversial. But with good discussion and less debate I think we can get this right and the students of Australia will be the beneficiaries of good policy.