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Thursday, 19 March 2015
Page: 2028


Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (18:51): I wish to speak to the Education and Employment References Committee report, Principles of the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014, and related matters. I would like to respond to some of the remarks that have made here this evening by Senator McKenzie and address some of the substantive questions that have arisen in the wake of the tabling of this report and the statements that have been made in certain newspapers about the response. I note, for instance, in TheAustralian this morning it is stated that:

Vice-chancellors are united in their condemnation of Senate crossbenchers for rejecting the government's higher education reform package.

That is a statement that is just not true. The report in TheAustralian this morning is just not true. A letter has been received by The Australian from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Attila Brungs, highlighting the fact that his remarks were in a context that was entirely different from what the report would suggest. I understand that a reference to that letter has been published online today in The Australian.

This report follows a government campaign to suggest that the view across the university system is in agreement with the government's position, as distinct from the overwhelming weight of public opinion on the $100,000 degree policy that this government has been pursuing. It is stated that 40 of the 41 vice-chancellors have supported the government's package. Of course, this is not true, because all of them have opposed the funding cuts, in one form or another. These cuts remain central to the government's package, no matter what chicanery the minister pursues in his sham claims about the splitting of the bill. He knew all along that the bill would never be split in this chamber, because it would not get past the second reading. It was a sham to make that claim. It was not the case. The proposition that we voted on earlier this week was a bill which contained the government's package as a whole.

We know that very substantial criticism of the government's deregulation package has been expressed by the vice-chancellors of Deakin University, Swinburne University of Technology, University of Technology Sydney, University of Canberra, University of Newcastle, University of South Australia, Victoria University, and Federation University just to name a few, and I do not think that I have got anywhere near an exhaustive list. The claims that are being made by this government about its approach to higher education carry the presumption that it will say and do anything irrespective of the facts and any real knowledge of what is actually happening.

Those opposite claim, for instance, that the universities are faced with a crisis of funding. We know a few simple propositions which should be to drawn to the attention of anyone following this issue. One is that under the Labor government university funding was budgeted to increase by 100 per cent between the periods of 2007 through to 2017—the end of the forward estimates when we left office. That was acknowledged by Universities Australia, of all people, in their confidential briefing notes to the witnesses that appeared before the Senate inquiry—a copy of which I was fortunate enough to secure. The notes acknowledged that the per student funding went up by 12 per cent in real terms under the Labor government. There are 190,000 extra students in the system today than otherwise would be the case. Of those, some 36,000 came from the poorer community, from the lower socioeconomic groups, as mentioned in the normal statistics on this. For each one of those students, along with for all the other students enrolled, universities were receiving on balance a 12.5 per cent real increase in the funding per student. We can also point to the fact that in Australia today, under the existing arrangements—without this government's attempt to take 20 per cent of the universities' money away—all universities in Australia are currently running at a profit. The only funding crisis that occurs is the one created by a government that is seeking to take 20 per cent of the universities' money.

We know that that is 20 per cent from teaching and learning; it does not include the money that the government is trying to take from research programs. We saw the minister's callous and totally inappropriate attempt to hold hostage the science and infrastructure program, NCRIS, last Sunday. He said that, if the Senate did not agree with this government's crooked policies, then there would be 1,700 jobs at risk. So I say that the only funding uncertainty is caused by the government continuing to pursue this policy. We all know the facts. As a result of the votes of the Senate, within one month $900 million will have to be paid by the Commonwealth to universities, in funding that is currently withheld from them. Further, on 1 January next year, when the new calendar year cuts in, under the existing funding formulas in the bill, $1.9 billion more across the forward estimates has to be paid to the universities than otherwise would be the case. I think that, rather than condemning senators here, people should be congratulating them for providing more money to the universities as a direct result of the votes taken this week.

Vice-chancellors will say that the real problem is that universities are becoming increasingly dependent on international students for income. What we do know is that recruitment of international students is facing, from time to time, difficulties. At the moment, it is increasing because of the lower dollar. But the reality is that the difficulties that have arisen from time to time have been because of increased course costs and the cost of living in Australia—none of which are regulated, I might add—which are amongst the highest in the world. In order for our universities to continue to grow, they need to convince prospective students that theirs is a world-leading university.

The fact is that Australia has a world-leading university system. We know that as a system, by international standards, we are amongst best in the world. We also know that vice-chancellors use the money that they take from undergraduate students to fund research programs. Of course, it is domestic students, under the government's proposals, that would see skyrocketing debt, skyrocketing prices—two or three times the cost of a degree at the moment, up to $100,000—and that extra money would be then directed towards the research programs. Nothing would be said about the student experience. Nothing would be said about the quality of education. Of course, the attempt would be made to lift the university's ranking in the international scales to attract more international students.

We do know that there has been no discussion whatsoever about the morality of students paying, through debt, for the research program. What we can say is that the proposition that the government is advancing is that there should be increased fees for domestic students and that that money be used to fund research programs. The fees could be two or three times the amount of money that students are paying at the moment. What is the morality of that? How do you justify that action when we know that the gap between teaching and research funding has been growing in recent years? According to the LH Martin Institute, between 2002 and 2012 the gap has grown from $1.2 billion to $4.5 billion. So the full cost of research is a real issue. The way we address that is not by gouging prices from students. The answer to price gouging will never be the proposition that has been advanced by this government that we should impose a great, big, new tax, which is what the Chapman proposal is. How do we know that? It has two effects. When the British government looked at this problem, it said that a proposition such as this increases prices. It does not force prices down; it increases prices. The increases in student prices through their degrees flow throughout the entire CPI network. It increases the inflation rate for the whole country. So there is a real consequence here.

It is about the quality of Australian education and the opportunities that we provide, and the sort of country we want to be. Senator McKenzie ought to be speaking a little more about what it is like to be a doormat in this government, the failure to defend rural and regional students and the failure to defend mature age students—for instance, mature age students at the Warrnambool campus who would be directly affected by this. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.