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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 124


Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (21:45): Let me say at the outset, so that Senator Steele-John can rest easy tonight, that I sleep very well. I know my government colleagues sleep very well, and I know they'll sleep very well in voting for this particular piece of legislation, because, fundamentally, it's about fairness. This Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 is about fairness, because if you are fortunate enough to go to university—as some Australians are and as many of us have been—if you take a loan from the taxpayer to cover the cost of your university education and if throughout your working life you can afford to pay back that loan, then it is only fair that you do so.

What would be unfair would be if we privileged few who did go to university, who borrowed money from the taxpayers to do so and who can afford to pay it back in our lifetimes didn't do so, because if we don't pay it back that means someone else has to pay for it. Invariably, that burden will fall on people who didn't attend university at all. How fair is that?

I'm pleased to rise to speak on this bill. I was the acting chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee during the inquiry into the provisions of this bill, and our recommendations, which were adopted by the government, have ensured that the tests of fairness and sustainability have been met. The bill amends education and other legislation that underpin student loans. It introduces a revised set of repayment thresholds for student loans, changes indexation arrangements for repayment thresholds and introduces a replenishable loan limit for HELP. These measures are designed to ensure Australia's world-leading income-contingent student loan program can continue to be available for future generations of students. With outstanding loans now above $50 billion and with one-quarter of all new loans never expected to be repaid on current policy settings, unless we do something to shore up this generous taxpayer-funded system it may not be there for future generations of students.

In MYEFO in December the government reversed its previous higher education reforms and announced revised measures, including these legislative amendments. Despite the increasingly desperate claims by those opposite and, of course, the Greens, we are not cutting funding for higher education across the forward years and we are not capping places. Universities can continue to enrol as many students as they like, and they will still receive the indexed student contributions for these students. Far from cutting funding, Australian government funding for higher education is projected to increase by $2 billion between 2017 and 2021, with base funding for teaching and learning for Commonwealth-supported places set to increase by $1 billion as part of that. That is based on the universities' own projections from this year, after the decision on the funding freeze, and follows growth in Australian government funding for Commonwealth-supported places that has been twice the rate of the growth of the economy since 2009. Australian government funding for higher education is at record levels, at over $17 billion per annum this year, and it will continue to grow. The government is facing up to the task of ensuring our good higher education system is on a more sustainable path. The measures in this bill are proportionate, and they help achieve that goal.

Labor, too, realised that something had to be done when they were last in government, which is why they announced $6.6 billion of higher education and research savings in their last three years, including $2.9 billion in their last budget in 2013-14. That included an efficiency dividend, which of course they have since opposed in opposition, along with all of our other higher education measures. The problem with Labor is that you have to look at what they do, not what they say.

We are increasing transparency for students around admissions requirements and course cut-offs. We are working to give students better information about their choices.

Debate interrupted.