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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9487


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (20:39): This Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 and its reforms in it speak volumes about the kind of political party that you are. And this bill and its reforms can be no greater example of the difference between Labor and the Liberals, of the difference between Labor and the Nationals and, quite frankly, of the difference between Labor and the Greens.

Labor has always stood in this place and argued that more people—people from working-class backgrounds; ordinary people—should have access to and an opportunity for tertiary education. As of the people on this side of the House have said, it did start with Whitlam when he gave working people and their children the opportunity to go to university to become teachers and nurses. It continued with Hawke and the Dawkins reforms, which gave more working people, including me and many in this House, the opportunity to go to university by creating more universities, more courses and more opportunities.

It is wrong for the government to say that this is just an extension of that original idea because the fees that they are proposing to charge will price out people like me and the next generation of ordinary people from attending university. The cost of the course becomes a barrier if it is too much. This is not the original version of the Hawke-Dawkins reforms for higher education. This is a Liberal agenda that seeks to exclude people from university, and which will have the reverse effect of encouraging people to go to university.

I note that there are a couple of other regional MPs in the House. I do not think that they understand that this bill puts regional campuses under threat. I will just explain about a few areas where I believe that my own campus in Bendigo, which is a campus of La Trobe University, as well is a number of other campuses, could be at risk, not of immediate closure but from a slow death as numbers dwindle because the cost of going to higher education will become a debt—a debt for life. It is wrong and divisive politics to say to a person that it is either a house and a mortgage or it is a university degree. That is the big difference between this side of the House and that side. We have always stood up and said that everybody should have the opportunity to go to university if there is a place at that university made possible by the former government—by the Gillard government—and if you have the pass mark and the entry score. But what the coalition is doing is saying that it now comes down to price.

The previous speaker talked about how a strong economy needs fine intellectual power. It needs to have an intellectual powerhouse. I agree, but the difference is that they are now saying you need to have a decent income, you need to have a trust fund, you need to be part of the right boys' club or you need to sign yourself up for a debt for life to have that opportunity. They have now put a price on whether you take up that opportunity.

When we talk about regional universities, they are the ones that I feel will be most at risk. At my own campus at La Trobe we recently met with a number of students and just asked them why they chose Bendigo. For a lot of them it was because it was the local campus. There are a higher proportion of first-in-family students who go to regional university campuses. There are a higher proportion of mature-age students at regional campuses, and that is because they choose to go to their local campus because that is where the kids are and because that is where they have established their lives. But these campuses are also quite small, because they have smaller townships that they support and so have fewer students who go to them.

Last week at Bendigo the students said to us that they fear with these reforms that they are not willing or not able to sign up to a debt for life. They fear that if too many students do not choose to go to this campus that this course could close and that is something that the other side will not talk about when they talk about deregulation. We have seen it happen in the TAFE system in Victoria, where it has been opened up. They have deregulated fees and they have cut funding—exactly what this government is trying to do at the university level.

What has happened to the Bendigo TAFE? They have lost a third of their courses, fees have tripled and student numbers have dropped. When you triple fees, student numbers drop because people cannot afford them. Therefore, courses face closure because the university cannot turn a profit if they cannot get enough students studying. It will be a slow death for our universities in regional areas if these reforms go through. But the other side have suggested, 'Don't worry, you can get into the space that has been vacated by TAFE.' The previous speaker suggested that we should go back even further, past Hawke and Dawkins reforms, where regional communities could deliver not university degrees but go back to diplomas, go back to training paralegals. Important, but regional universities and regional centres should not just be the provider of sub university degrees; they should have the funding and the support to provide real degrees—degrees that they are providing now.

My mother's example is probably one of the strongest examples of Labor's plan for higher education compared to the Liberal's. Mum grew up in Western Sydney in Mount Druitt. She had to leave school at 16 to get a job to help the family pay the bills. She finished her high school through night school. She had the marks to get to university but could not because her family needed her wage, so she deferred the opportunity to go to university. When I was young, my parents owned a small business. When they sold that small business and she tried to get a job, she was told she did not have the qualifications, so she took a job as a cleaner.

At the age of 43, she decided: 'My girls have left home. They are off at university. I am going to go to university.' Living in a regional area, she went to her local regional university. If these reforms go through, I doubt whether that university, the University of the Sunshine Coast, will be there in a decade. It is one of our newest universities and it will struggle to have the student numbers. So mum went to university at the age of 43. She did her undergraduate. She got top marks and then enrolled in the University of Queensland to do her honours then her PhD. Today she is in Barcelona speaking at a conference on wealth inequality and it is linked to education. She is an academic at the University of Canberra.

She has a career because she enrolled at university as a mature age student after the market said that she did not have enough skills. I asked mum, 'Would you still have gone to university if this package had gone through?' She laughed and said, 'Lisa, would the debt pass to you?' What would her debt be under this reform for, first, an undergraduate then an honours then a PhD? What would the debt be under these reforms and would she earn enough in her career to pay it off? Who does it go to? She has a HECS debt currently that she is paying back, but what would it be under these reforms? If this package had gone through under the Howard government, like the previous speaker said he tried to do in his former role, she would still be cleaning the Buderim private hospital and not contributing—and not overseas right now speaking on her research as a proud Australian.

Perhaps that is exactly the person that the government does not want to go to university—a working-class kid who gave up her chance at university who grew up in Mount Druitt who had to drop out of school to support her family. This is just one story of hundreds of thousands of stories of people who, when they had the opportunity and when the circumstances in their lives enabled them, chose to go to university. On this side of the House, we do not think that that should be defined by any age; it should be when you choose to go. On this side of the House, the Labor side, we do not believe that the size of your pay packet or your post code should decide where or when you go to university.

It is not just me speaking out about this in my electorate; it is also a number of people. Rachel from the La Trobe University says that she writes to me not only on behalf of herself and her friends but also on behalf of her brothers. She says: 'We are all aged between 18 and 22 and completely outraged by the government's proposed cuts to higher education and also the real rate of interest that they plan to attach to our debts. Most of us were really concerned about the debts of our courses as they currently are, but are now seriously thinking about dropping out because of these reforms if this appalling budget and the measures go through. We simply do not believe we can afford to pay it back and when will we pay it back?'

The government are purely in denial about the fear that people have around these debts—a nursing degree tripling in fees, a teaching degree tripling in fees. These are people who are worried about the future. They are worried because they are talking to their universities and they are already being told that this will be the cost of education if these reforms go through. The goal of any government should be to ensure that every student no matter their post code or the size of their bank balance, or their parent's, has the opportunity to go to university. Background and circumstance of their birth should not be a barrier to an excellent education and every Australian should have the opportunity to contribute to our national success.

The other side talk about being able to pull yourself up by your boot straps, yet they put barriers in place and want to restrict people by imposing this system. They are trying to engineer a new generation of university students by excluding so many who simply cannot afford to go to university under these reforms. We know that deregulation of university fees will not lead to lower fees. We know that because of what we have seen occur in the UK. Deregulation in 2012 actually had a cap of £9,000. Yet despite the cap we have still seen a drop in university students. Even in the UK, they were willing to put a cap on fees. This government has not even gone there with a cap.

One of the things that people fear the most in regional campuses is what they call the Americanisation of our education system and that is exactly what this government has done. That is another thing it does not understand; this is not what regional people want. They do not want to become a little America. What they want is a fair go and the opportunity to go to university.

In conclusion, I believe that Gamal Babiker's words expose who, as a result of these reforms, will be excluded from higher education. Sixteen years ago, he arrived in this country as a refugee from Sudan. He says that he is a happy man. But happiness does not stem from his work as a shopping centre cleaner, on the midnight shift, being paid a minimum wage. His happiness is the fact that his three children, who all arrived with him when his family fled from Sudan, then Egypt, where they were in a camp, have completed a tertiary education.

He is 59 and holds a law degree. But it is worthless here. He says, 'I had my chance at life and now I have to give the chance to my children. We sacrifice a lot to support our family.' He fears the deregulation of university fees will lock out many young people like his children from education and believes we should fight these changes. Labor will stand with him. (Time expired)