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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1069


Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (12:46): This is the second time this bill has been before the House. The coalition has made it abundantly clear that we believe the higher education sector requires major reforms to keep it vibrant and competitive. Education funding is increasing by nine per cent, nine per cent, nine per cent and six per cent, over the four years of the estimates.

To secure that reform, we have consulted further with senators to provide a new bill. This bill keeps the intent of the first bill but with some changes negotiated with the senators. We have worked with Senator Day to keep the indexation rate for student debt at the CPI as opposed to the previously suggested 10-year bond rate. Senator Madigan wanted a pause on HECS indexation for new parents with children under five years of age. We will introduce a structural adjustment fund to assist our universities, particularly those in regional areas, such as my University, Townsville's James Cook University, to assist with the transition to a more competitive market.

But—and this is a big 'but'—the sector needs reform if it is to be a player in the future of education in this country and around the world. The university sector gets that. The VET sector gets that. They understand it and they want the reform. It would seem to me that the only ones not interested in this debate are Labor and the Greens. For instance, the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University said, when this reform was first put to the House and the university sector: 'It is no small achievement when an often divided and fractious sector unites around a major change'. So it is with this bill. The university sector, with the exception of the University of Canberra, recognises the need to reform and the value of these reforms to their sector.

Labor keep trotting out their tired, hackneyed talking points, saying this is a budget bill and not an education bill. My answer to that assertion is that every bill in this place is a budget bill. Nothing is for free. We must pay for it all. That is the difference between the two sides. We understand that something has to be paid for. When the Hawke and Keating governments introduced HECS—which seems to have been glossed over by those opposite—it was also a budget bill. Paul Keating understood that things had to be paid for out of the budget.

Liberal Senator Bill Teague led our response to the package of bills, which included HECS, in a major change to higher education, which, incidentally, in 1989 was not taken to an election. This is what then Senator Teague said:

We in the Opposition are opposed to the graduate tax, but we will be supporting the higher education contribution scheme in this legislation, for several reasons. First, it is a Budget Bill and we respect the ability of an elected government in the House of Representatives to determine a Budget and its financial provision for higher education.

That is what a responsible opposition does. It respects the government's right to set a budget. We would not be having this argument today if it was not for the complete and utter negativity of those opposite and in the Senate.

Most of Labor's speeches throughout this debate seem to hark back to the days of Whitlam and free education. We have just heard the member for Makin say that it is unfair that people should have to pay for their education. Where they should be focused, though, is on the Hawke and Keating governments who brought HECS into being in 1989—again, without taking it to an election. The coalition did not make it easy for them to pass the legislation in this chamber. But Labor had the numbers on this floor and it was their budget, so it passed through the Senate.

Today, we see the obstructionist approach of the arch populist Labor Party—who would rather spin than govern, who would rather obfuscate than participate, who would rather sit on the sidelines and carp than get into the game and have a go. What have they become? They are a vacuum of policy and a repository of negativity never before seen in this place. Their sanctimony knows no bounds. We hear every member opposite praise their performance in government. They keep trotting out lines about universities under Labor and increasing funds to the sector. What their talking points do not roll out is what they took from higher education.

Just let me run through a couple here: the 2013-14 budget had an efficiency dividend of two per cent in 2014 and 1.25 per cent in 2015 applying to most grants to universities—a $902 million cut; removal of the 10 per cent HECS-HELP discount and the five per cent HELP payments bonus from 1 January 2014—a $276.7 million cut; and conversion from the Student Start-up Scholarships to student loans—$1,182.5 billion cut from higher education; a cap on tax deductibility for self-education expenses which did not proceed because we stopped it—they cut $514.3 million. It is all the way through here: in 2012-2013 MYEFO—and the bloke sitting at the dispatch box knows all about those things—the general interest charge to student loan debt was $7.5 million; there were changes to the rate of funding to the Sustainable Research Excellence program—$563.7 million was cut from the sector; concessional facilitation funding—conditional funding to encourage universities to agree to the inclusion of performance targets in their mission based compacts—$384.6 million was cut; in the 2011-2012 MYEFO they reinstated band 2 student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units for new students—$1,030.9 million was cut from higher education; and a reduction of the HECS-HELP discount and voluntary payment bonus in 2011-2012 was $607.7 million cut from higher education.

This means a total of $6.6552 billion cut from higher education. None of these were ever taken to an election—not one! So all this furphy about things having to be taken to an election! Governments are elected to govern; was the response to the GFC taken to an election? No, it was not. They needed to act because the circumstances changed, and so they got in and they acted. We respect that. When we came into government and the budget came in, the circumstances had changed and so we acted. None of these things were taken to the election and none of these cuts to higher education were education bills. They were all budget bills. Yet, Labor sees our attempt at genuine reform in this vital sector as an opportunity for populist nirvana to hark back to the Whitlam era of free education. Their comments seem to miss completely the fact that they introduced HECS without taking it to an election.

None of their speeches list the changes they made to the higher education sector, but that seems to be okay. It is the beauty of opposition that none of the people opposite say what they would do if we get these reforms through. What they want to say is, 'If they get these reforms through, we will reverse them if we come back to government.' We said that with the carbon tax; we also followed through and we did it. Not one person over there has said that if we get these things through that they will reverse them, and I call on them to do so.

So, why reform? I was lucky enough to be in the chamber when the member for Pearce, now Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Christian Porter, spoke on this matter. In that very fine address he added this line from the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University, where he said in relation to the importance of these reforms:

At stake is whether a viable higher education system can endure.

At this stage I would like to continue to quote from the member for Pearce's speech from 28 October last year, where he said that what the Whitlam government did was a valid social experiment:

… could Australia increase the percentage of low-income students in tertiary education by making tertiary degrees free for all tertiary students? That was the social policy argument that dominated this space for decades. But the argument was also conducted for decades in an environment where the Australian tertiary sector existed in a global market that was relatively stable—comparatively, amazingly stable.

Today's global market for higher education is not stable. It is changing very quickly and very aggressively.

He went on to suggest that when HECS was introduced in 1989, and further, when those HECS fees were increased by almost 800 per cent by the Keating and Howard governments, that participation in higher education continued to grow.

Again, as the member for Pearce opined:

Does introducing deferred fees for students decrease the percentage of low-income students? No, it does not. Once introduced, does expanding the share of their fees that students are required to fund decrease the percentage of low-income students? No, it does not. Are fees the primary, or even a substantial, determinant of the percentage of low-income students? No, they are not.

But, do not take Christian Porter's word for it. Universities Australia came out last year and called for the parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities. They still support this. They are the peak body in this sector and their opinion should have some form of effect on the ALP. They said at the time:

The introduction into Parliament of the Federal Government's higher education legislation is a chance for all parliamentarians to seize the opportunity for making real, lasting changes that are needed in positioning our universities for the challenges of the future.

There is still no movement from those opposite.

Professor Ian Young, said last year that higher education in this country is at a crossroads:

It is time for us to make choices about what we want for our country and what we want for future generations. Time to make choices about the future of our universities.

In Minister Pyne's second reading speech from last year, he said:

Currently our universities are at risk of being left behind and overtaken by the growing university systems in our region and across the globe as these systems increase their capacity and new forms of online and blended delivery take hold.

We must aspire to not only keep up with our competitors, but keep ahead of them.

I have two daughters who attend university. When we brought these reforms in at the last budget I did two things. Firstly, I asked my daughters if the cost of their course would affect their decision to continue higher education. Neither said it would. Both said the cost of the course was unknown to them because they wanted the job at the end of it. The cost of the course did not matter to them at all; HECS was just a way to get the degree and a better job—the job they wanted. Both have since changed courses, by the way.

As I said in my speech of 2 September last year, the day after the budget was handed down and this policy announced, members of my staff went to James Cook University, where we surveyed 140 people—students. I acknowledge that this was not a scientific survey and that I am not a market researcher, but the results were pretty telling. Seventy per cent of the people asked had no idea how much their chosen course would cost them in HECS, 20 per cent had some idea and 10 per cent knew exactly. So, on this side of the chamber, we are talking about the future of the higher education sector. On that side of the chamber, they are talking about Gough Whitlam. Yeah, those guys are ready to govern!

Additionally, this bill will provide access to HECS-style assistance for vocational education training students. It removes the punitive loan fee of 20 per cent for VET FEE-HELP. This will assist tens of thousands of Australian students undertaking VET courses, and it gets rid of the 25 per cent loan fee for FEE-HELP for those who study with private institutions. It also removes the lifetime limits on all Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) schemes and discontinues the ineffective HECS-HELP benefit.

So we are offering a system which will see our tertiary education sector remain at the forefront of international higher education into the future. We are offering a system where not one student will have to borrow a single cent up front. We are offering a system where not one cent will have to be repaid until they earn $53,000.00 per annum. We are offering a better than world class opportunity to every student in the country.

What are the people across the chamber offering? Nothing. They are stuck with their Greens mates either actively knocking things down and destroying jobs or just saying 'no' because they have fallen victim to partisan populist politics. They are devoid of all ideas. They are nowhere.

This bill will strengthen the university sector to weather a storm coming from aggressive and ultra-competitive overseas universities. We must address these issues and we must act now. I am proud to be part of a government which wants to do more than just throw money out the window as we drive along the road, hoping that some will be spent wisely.

Labor's assertion that this is a budget bill and not an education bill tells me all I need to know about the opposition and why they are unfit to govern. They honestly think that things can be for free, that things do not cost. I have news for them. Nothing is free. It all costs. And the bills for our expenditure must be paid.

I stand shoulder to shoulder with my minister, Christopher Pyne, in his quest to see our country prepare for a glorious future and not live on a distant past. I thank the House.