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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1066


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (12:31): It is very, very clear from the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 and from speeches of members opposite—and we have just heard a typical example of that from the member for Barker—that the Abbott government is arrogant, out of touch and totally disconnected from the Australian people. That could not have been more clear, having listened to the member for Barker. This is a government that treats the Australian people with contempt, a government in complete denial about the harm of its ill-conceived policies, and a government that has lost the confidence and the trust of the Australian people.

This legislation typifies why this government is so unpopular and why the Prime Minister is fighting for his political life. Australian people understand exactly what this legislation does, and they will not be fooled by government spin or by expensive advertising campaigns. This legislation makes university education more expensive. It is as simple as that, and no amount of denial or weasel words will change that. The legislation effectively transfers a greater portion of university costs from the government to students and their families. It is blatant cost shifting and perhaps could even be described as backdoor taxation, because it forces universities to increase their fees rather than have the government either raise taxes or cut costs.

As the Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook shows—and this is the government's own statement—the HELP debt is expected to rise from $25 billion in 2014 to $52 billion in 2016-17. That is more than doubled. In other words, that is debt that is being transferred onto families and students. That is because, contrary to the denials of government members opposite, university fees, once deregulated, will rise. Once the universities are deregulated, fees of $100,000 or more for different courses are realistic, and it is no exaggeration to say that university costs will in some cases double and even more. Of course, the higher the debt, the greater will be the effects of compounding interest on that debt once the university student completes his or her course.

It is also wrong and naive to believe that the costs of a degree are simply limited to the university fees alone. In addition to the university fees, there are, of course, living costs, travel costs and so on. But there is also, very significantly, the loss of income for four, five or six years from not going to work full time and instead going to university. Those are real costs that have to be factored in, and they are costs that already weigh heavily on young people and their families when making a career choice. So, for families already struggling financially, increasing university fees will simply shut them out. Make no mistake about that: there will be families that, as a result of these changes, will make a choice, out of necessity, that they cannot support their children going to university. Members opposite should get their heads out of the sand and stop trying to pretend that these changes will open the door to more university students. It simply will not happen, and I have no doubt that, if these changes get through this parliament, time will prove this side of parliament, the opposition, right in making that point.

When speaking about closing the gap for Indigenous Australians, the Prime Minister said that closing the gap starts by getting kids to school. It is a rightful acknowledgement of the importance of education to a young person's future. It is a statement I agree with. Getting kids to school, however, is only the start. Completing the process with a career qualification is just as important. Furthermore, the gap that the Prime Minister refers to is not confined solely to Indigenous Australians; it also exists amongst many non-Indigenous communities throughout the country. For them, a university education also closes the gap, and it enables them to fulfil their potential and pursue their own goals.

We have in Australia a growing inequality between the rich and the poor of this country. According to a St Vincent de Paul Society report, between 1995 and 2011 the high-income group proportion of total income increased from 37.8 per cent of the total income to 39.5 per cent, whilst the low- and middle-income groups' proportion fell by 0.4 per cent, to 10.4 per cent and 17.3 per cent respectively. Those figures show a trend, a very clear trend, that wealth is moving from one part of the society to another and that the inequality gap is in fact widening rather than closing.

If this bill is passed, it will close the uni door to many Australians from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and further widen the gap between the rich and poor of this country. It is a matter that deeply concerns me because the region from which I come, the northern and north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide, contains some of the lower income families in the Adelaide region. Indeed, when you look at university entrance rates for the northern region of Adelaide, they currently sit at around 10 per cent. For the rest of the state, they sit at almost 25 per cent, and for the eastern suburbs they sit at 25 per cent, more than double where they sit in the northern suburbs.

If we are to close the gap and give opportunity to those people from those lower socioeconomic backgrounds to get into university, this is the last thing we should be doing. We should not be making university more expensive. I commend the University of SA and the high schools in the northern region, which have embarked upon their own programs to try and bridge that gap. But here we are with a government that is now trying to make it even more difficult by deregulating universities and in turn making university costs much higher for people who already cannot afford them.

In making that point, I am also conscious that people from those same families and the students of the schools in the northern suburbs of Adelaide have the capability and the potential to go on to university and come out with a degree. They are bright students. The barrier for them is not their academic ability but rather their financial ability. Anyone who claims that increasing university fees, deregulating university fees and the like will open the door to more students or lower fees is disingenuous or delusional. It did not happen in the UK. It did not happen in Australia when Brendan Nelson partially deregulated fees a decade ago. And it has not happened anywhere else in the world.

Higher fees will weigh heavily on families that are already struggling to fund university costs, and it does not stop there. Having completed a university degree does not guarantee a job, let alone a high-paying job. In recent months, several young people or their families have come to my office seeking assistance with trying to get themselves or their son or daughter into paid employment after they have completed their university degree. It seems to me that either we have a mismatch with the courses that are being offered in the universities and the graduates coming out of them or there is a shortage of Australian jobs in Australia, perhaps in some cases because they are being taken by 457 visa entrants and the like. But there is a real problem out there, because, from my observations, there are far too many university students who, having completed their course and achieved their qualification, cannot get a job in the profession for which they have been trained. And, regrettably, I hear too many stories of them having to move either interstate or, in some cases, overseas.

There is one young person who I am familiar with who came out of his university degree in medical science with flying colours. He cannot get a job here in Australia. He has been offered a job in the US and will take it, but he cannot get a job in Australia. He was possibly one of the brightest kids to come out of university the year he finished, which is, I believe, about 12 months ago. I think it is a shame that that is happening right before our very eyes.

Cutting education funding at any level is a retrograde step for any nation. It is a short-term money saver for governments. Conversely, investing in national education provides a national return many times over. That is why smart countries around the world are investing more in education, not less. Just as it is a wise choice for an individual to invest in an education, so too is it a wise choice for a nation to invest in education, as the benefits of a better educated society flow through to every sector of society.

We live today in a competitive global economy. We cannot dumb down the nation and expect to prosper, nor can Australia continue to rely on mineral exports to prop up our economy. Even our primary industries must continue to innovate if they are to survive. More than ever before, Australia should be doing all it can to encourage more young Australians into a profession, because Australia's future will be reliant on innovation. That is a message that has been given to us time and time again, and I hear it from members opposite as well: if Australia is to have a future, if we are to remain competitive with the rest of the world, we need to be a smart nation, a nation that invests in education, a nation that invests in innovation, a nation that invests in the education of future generations.

And yet, whilst on one hand we hear those sentiments from members on all sides of parliament, the Abbott government right now is doing everything that would suggest we are going in the opposite direction. We have seen the Abbott government cut some $878 million from our science and research agencies across Australia. We have now seen cuts made to research and development tax concessions in this country, cuts that were criticised widely by industry sectors and cuts that will have a devastating effect on the amount of research and development that is carried out in this country. We saw a major loss of research and development when the Abbott government turned its back on the automotive industry, one of the highest investors in research and development in this country for years and years, and we are about to lose most of that with the winding down of the car industry.

And now we see the Abbott government wanting to put university education out of reach of more Australians. None of these measures—cutting science and research funding, cutting research and development tax concessions, cutting university funding—will lead to a smarter nation, so perhaps members opposite need to think about matching their rhetoric with real action when it comes to the policies they bring to this parliament. Government members opposite should stop swallowing their ministers' lines. They seem oblivious to the collective damage that their short-sighted policies appear to be doing. This legislation will particularly hit hard people from low socioeconomic communities and from regional and country areas.

Mr Ewen Jones interjecting

Mr Williams interjecting

Mr ZAPPIA: I hear the interjections from the two members opposite. I have listened to the speeches of most government members in respect of this legislation. They are clearly all singing from the same hymn sheet when they come in here. They have no thought processes of their own; there is no individual logic applied to any of the statements that they make. They simply come in here with their spin lines and repeat the same facts over and over.

Talking about facts, can I finish on this line, because this is one of the facts they keep bringing into this chamber: the claim that Labor was about to cut education funding before the last election by $6.6 billion. I hear members come in and repeat that lie time and time again. Can I suggest to them that they could just look up ABC Fact Check, which totally denies and disputes that line and gives the truth to the matter, which is that under Labor higher education funding in this country continued to rise each year. It was under Labor that higher education funding was lifted and the system was given a boost.

So, if members opposite want to support their policies, they should do so through their own thought processes; they should not just come in here and repeat the lines that are given to them by their minister, who is clearly struggling to get this policy sold. He is clearly struggling to get support from across the nation. That is why this legislation has been dragged out for days and days and days, to enable the minister to try and get whatever kind of support he can in order to get it through. This side of the House knows this legislation is bad for the country and we will oppose it.