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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 12466

Mr IRONS (Swan) (12:35): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011. It is always a pleasure to follow the member for Bradfield, and I thank him for his contribution. I will pick up on the point in his speech where he spoke about people who are lucky enough to attend tertiary or higher education institutions. As I have previously stated in this place, I did not have the good fortune to attend a tertiary institute, but, like many in this place who did go and who like to comment on all subjects that come into this place, I feel I cannot pass up the opportunity to speak on behalf of the many people in my electorate who do attend tertiary institutes.

As I said, I did not go to university and I am not a product of student politics as many of my colleagues in this place are. Some may say I come from the real world, which could be seen as an advantage in these debates. In previous debates in this place I have seen the passion and the fire within my colleagues from both sides of the House born of their time in student politics many years ago. My primary goal in this debate is to speak to the interests of young people in my electorate. I did not support the student taxes being implemented by this government and will have more to say on that later. This bill has particular importance to my electorate of Swan because it is home to the largest university in Western Australia—Curtin University. Curtin University works closely with many organisations in the local community, including schools and other educational institutions. In fact, only last Thursday I was pleased to see Jeanette Hacket, the Vice Chancellor of Curtin University, at the Clontarf Aboriginal College in Waterford. It was particularly pleasing to see Vice Chancellor Hacket there as it was a very special event—the opening of Clontarf's new boarding facility by none other than Her Majesty the Queen. Many people attended that day to see the opening and participate in the walk around with the Queen. The Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, and the MLA for South Perth, John McGrath, also attended. It was good that the event was not rained out. There were many other dignitaries, including my old friend Robert Isaacs, who is not only a graduate of Clontarf but also a long-time friend and supporter of this institute, and he enjoyed his role on the day. Gerard Neesham, who is well known in this place, also dropped in and we all know of his role in the Clontarf education program. I also happened to be at the college the day before for the presentation by the National Australia Bank of $100,000 for the civil-construction education program run by the college. With the Queen at the college to open the boarding house, it was a wonderful day for Clontarf, a college which contributes so much to the community. For the crowds who gathered and witnessed the dignity and grace of the Queen during her visit to Clontarf, it will be a day they will never forget.

I will be meeting again soon with the vice chancellor and I look forward to continuing our discussions on higher education changes and the proposals they have for improvements to the Bentley campus. One of the topics I will also be raising is my ongoing campaign for an aquatic centre in Karawara, a suburb next door to Curtin. Members would be aware of my aquatic centre campaign, as I have raised it in this place before. An aquatic centre in Karawara would be well utilised by Curtin students, who currently have no facility. Currently, 34,000 students use the Curtin University Bentley campus, many of them living in the surrounding suburbs of South Perth, Como, Bentley, St James and Manning. There may well be an opportunity to involve the university in potential discussions about this project. The community response to this proposal has been overwhelming and I will soon be collating the results and formally presenting them to the new Mayor of South Perth, Sue Doherty. I will continue to work with the university to ensure students get the best out of their education and our higher education system stays strong.

As the shadow minster outlined in his speech, the bill updates the maximum public funds allocated to fund Commonwealth supported places as a result of projected increases in enrolments of Commonwealth supported students in Australian universities. In addition, it provides for an increase in funding in line with indexation, adds an additional year of funding for the 2015 calendar year and implements changes announced in the 2011-12 budget to the discounts applicable when students either pay their HECS up-front or repay their fees early. As previous speakers have mentioned, the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education, released in December 2008, outlined a broad vision for the restructuring of the Australian higher education sector. This review included a recommendation for an aspirational goal of 40 per cent of Australians between the ages of 25 and 34 holding at least a bachelor's degree by 2020. The coalition supports this aspiration in principle. The government needs to remember to focus also on trades. As an apprentice and trades trained person, I am particularly aware of how important trades are to our whole economy. The review also proposed a move away from restricted supply to a student demand driven system.

The coalition will not be opposing this bill before the House. However, I take this opportunity to raise a few areas of concern that I hope the government will address. One such area is a potential lack of long-term planning connected to the implementation. It appears that no studies or projections of any kind have been done by the minister's department. Without an estimated cost over future years or estimates of infrastructure projections to accommodate the extra students, the government is implementing this plan blindly. And we know this is a government with a track record of not properly planning its education schemes and getting disastrous results. After the disastrous blowouts in the school halls and computers-in-schools programs, it is concerning that this government is implementing another education policy without sufficient planning. This government displays a continued disregard for the Australian taxpayer. The national curriculum continues to be a problem area for the government. I recently raised the fact that the curriculum totally ignores the Forgotten Australians, who were important enough to have an apology in this place but who do not rate a mention in the curriculum.

The government has also failed to provide any indication of the potential impact on Australia's tax base, productivity and economic growth, as well as the impact on research or any indication of the demographic or economic impact of implementing these reforms. Again, this indicates poor planning from a government known for policy disasters. The bill we are debating today will see changes to the HECS-HELP up-front discount and the HELP voluntary repayment bonus, which were announced as part of the 2011-12 budget. From 1 January 2012, the up-front discount on students paying their fees reduces from 20 per cent to 10 per cent and the reduction for voluntary payments in excess of the minimum falls from 10 per cent to five per cent.

It is not surprising that a government addicted to taxing, spending and debt is now taking steps that will encourage university students to take on more personal debt and delay paying for the costs of attending university. Under questioning at Senate estimates, the government admitted these changes would encourage more student debt, confirming its expectation that only half of the 17 per cent of students who currently pay their fees up-front will continue do so after this change. Madam Deputy Speaker, you might ask yourself why this government would want to do this. Surely, a government that claims to have the interests of young people at heart would not want them to acquire more debt while they pursue their education? The almost half a billion dollars raised from this change provides us with the government's motive. The coalition strongly supports a fiscally disciplined budget in stark contrast to what this government has delivered.

Whilst we welcome new savings measures, it is important to note where we have come from and why the government has been reduced to skimming money out of this program by reducing the discount that encouraged students to stay out of debt. This is a government that took little time to squander the strong financial position it inherited from the Howard government. After almost four years in power, the government is shown by bills such as the one we are debating today to be struggling to keep its promise to the Australian people to balance their budget. Perhaps if the minister had bothered to conduct the long-term planning necessary for the implementation of such programs in the past, the government would not have found themselves in such a poor fiscal position.

Unfortunately, this cut in support for university students comes on top of the recent changes to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2010. Many young people find it hard to pay their bills, whether they are at university or out in the workforce. As members would know from my previous speeches, supporting young people is a focus of mine in Swan. I recognise groups such as Youth Focus, involved in the prevention of youth suicide; the Esther Foundation and many of the junior sporting clubs within my electorate.

The Greens-Labor dominated government have further, and unnecessarily, added to the burden of young people at Curtin University and around the country by introducing a new student tax. I know from speaking to students in my electorate that most students find it difficult to pay for the expenses of being a student. More than 75 per cent of students work a part-time job to support themselves while they complete their studies. Members will be aware that in my role as the deputy chair of the House of Representatives Health and Ageing Committee, I recently tabled a report I initiated into youth suicide. The report, Before it's too late, contains 10 recommendations aimed at reducing the rate of youth suicide in young men and women through early intervention programs.

One of the areas identified as a pressure on young people is financial pressure. Just last week, I had a student in my electorate—one of my constituents—contact me to request assistance to pay an outstanding fine he had incurred from his local library. He made it clear that any measures that increase the financial burden on young people are unwelcome. Unfortunately for this constituent and his classmates, university students now face unwelcome extra burdens forced on them by a government that is desperate to plug their budget black hole—a government that is pushing a 1970s ideology.

This new student tax is particularly unfair given the high number of students who do not use the services that the tax funds and who feel misrepresented and ripped off by the political campaigns run by student activists who take advantage of the poor transparency of a student union's expenditure budget.

The decision reflects a Labor-Greens government which puts ideology ahead of standing up for young people. Once again the Labor Party is imposing a new tax on an unsuspecting Australian people. And it is clear that the Australian people do not want the student tax. I was recently advised of election results at the University of Western Australia, where an incumbent guild which had strongly campaigned for the student tax lost power in a landslide election defeat. The incoming president has indicated strong opposition to the Labor-Greens student tax. I wish him and his team all the best for what will be a tough year ahead. I am sure that at the moment the paper shredders are working overtime!

Whilst there is a ray of light at the University of Western Australia, it is a rare result. Most student unions are dominated by activists from extreme ideological backgrounds. These are activists who do not represent the average student. This is reflected in the make-up of the delegates to the National Union of Students conference each year—a body which the government has refused to guarantee will not receive money from the student tax. The National Union of Students organisation continues to suck money away from students to fund the activities of activists who have little connection or regard for your average student. And let us not forget that this tax comes on top of the flood tax, the carbon tax and, of course, the mining tax introduced in the House today. All these new taxes are a result of the massive deficits run up by this government. Now we—all Australians—are paying the price.

In conclusion, while the coalition will not be preventing this legislation moving to the third reading stage, we do raise these points in the hope that the minister is listening carefully and will take due action to address them as the legislation moves into the other place. Australia needs a higher education system that is equipped to cope with our changing demographics and a modern economy. The future of this country depends greatly on getting this right.

The legislation updates the maximum public funds allocated to fund Commonwealth supported places to match the projected increases in enrolments of Commonwealth supported students in Australian universities. The legislation also provides for an increase in funding in line with indexation, and adds an additional year of funding for the 2015 calendar year.

More important than this, though, is the fact that we need to look after our young people and younger generation. So, I welcome the Bradley review's recommendation to increase the number of university educated Australians. However, the government should not get into the habit of conducting policy through a crystal ball and should put together the appropriate plans to ensure the adopted recommendations of the Bradley review can be implemented correctly. Thank you.