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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1073


Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (13:01): I rise to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. I condemn the government's efforts to destroy this country's highly acclaimed tertiary education system and, quite frankly, cause great harm to the long-term economic and social development of this country. Another member, the member for Herbert, who spoke before me, thought that we on this side would raise Gough Whitlam. I think most members and the member for Herbert should recognise that if it were not for the then member for Werriwa, those sitting on his front bench over there would not have had the opportunity to go to university in the first place. I would not take kindly to the rubbishing of the contributions of the former member for Werriwa, who only recently was given great accolades in this place for the contributions he made in social development and particularly for what he did in furthering the educational attainments of many people in this country including myself. Had it not been for the Whitlam government, I would not have been able to gain a university education either.

The bill before us strips $3.9 billion worth of cuts out of the government's $5.8 billion cuts to education. This is stripping money out of our education system. Our education system is one that has been based on fairness and opportunity for all—very much a concept from the Whitlam period. It is a great source of pride, and always has been, on the international stage. It is an acclaimed system but it is now clearly under threat. This government, despite repeated promises before the election that 'there will be no cuts to education', has come up with a range of measures that will make it even more difficult for young people, particularly for those in electorates like mine where young people come from struggling families, to reach their full potential. Deregulation will allow universities a free hand when it comes to setting student fees, and poses the very real prospect of $100,000 degrees.

In addition, the bill poses the threat of slashing Commonwealth supported places in undergraduate degrees by 20 per cent, changing the HECS payment threshold as well as changing the indexation of university funding. This is going to result in less money being invested in our tertiary education sector. It is hardly the hallmark of a smart nation to slash education and then pretend to believe in a future.

The government also proposes expanding the subsidies for non-university higher education providers and those providing sub-degree programs. This in itself will threaten the quality and the reputation of our existing world class tertiary education system. If there is nothing stopping our universities from taking full advantage of deregulation and making up any shortfall in Commonwealth funding, which is already proposed, by shifting costs onto students then it will come as no surprise that it has been predicted that fees will rise by 30 per cent for most university students but for various courses they could rise by as much as 60 per cent. For instance, a law degree currently at Bond University, which is a private institution, already costs $120,000 whereas the same degree in a public institution costs around about $30,000.

The Howard government—bless its cotton socks—made a huge inroad into education. It made efforts to increase private involvement in the university sector thereby causing significant damage to Australia's reputation as a provider of quality university education. It certainly allowed international students to come to this country and buy university places, which is what we saw occur as a consequence of those policies.

It is clear that this government is set to continue the trend of privatising tertiary education, even including our VET sector. Private education facilities are keen to get involved and cherry-pick the most popular and profitable courses causing the closure of TAFE campuses and courses, thousands of teachers and administrators being thrown on the scrap heap as well as an increase in student fees. In New South Wales alone, we are seeing this played out right now. TAFE fees in New South Wales have already risen by an average of 9.5 per cent and 1200 teaching jobs have been slashed. I think everyone in this House knows that TAFE is universally recognised and respected; TAFE has been at the frontline in responding to industry needs and providing employees with the skills needed by industry to remain competitive into the future.

As a result of decisions by state and federal Liberal governments, it is becoming more and more difficult for young people in this country to gain the skills and knowledge they need to compete in an ever competitive world. University education and VET education will soon be out of reach for many. Fee deregulation and cuts to funding will also make it far more difficult for people returning to study—particularly mature age students—to upskill. They are coming into a system that is loaded with costs—bear in mind that many mature age students also maintain a house, a family and a household. They also face the challenge of paying off their first degrees, which will now have a real interest rate of six per cent for all HECS and HELP debt. It will raise the total cost of their education but also extend the period of their repayments. How can that come from a government that believes in a smart country—a government that should believe in a future for Australia?

When it comes to uncapping university fees and the increased privatisation of tertiary education, domestic and international experience confirms our worst fears. Student fees have risen sharply across the world. I am not aware of any country which has deregulated university fees having lower student fees. I was reading recently about the UK experience. Deregulation was introduced there in 2012 and fees were capped at £9000, but out of 123 universities there are only two this year that are not charging the highest allowable fee. If it is capped at £9000, every institution bar two is charging up to the maximum possible. That shows up the idea of opening the market to competitive forces to drive fees down as the furphy it is; and those opposite know it.

The US has seen a rapid expansion of for-profit colleges; 75 per cent of all enrolments are now to private institutions. These colleges are owned by corporations or equity firms—companies that can be bought and sold on the stock exchange or as part of equity developments. These colleges charge significantly higher than average tuition fees, but, interestingly, they actually target students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They take advantage of the assistance packages offered by government. While these colleges spend a lot of time in marketing and recruiting, I doubt that they are out there giving away iPad, as happens in this country. Over half the students do not graduate, but they leave with astronomical debts. It is clear that the main goal of these profit-driven organisations is just that—making a profit It is not about the support and welfare of students. We need to ask ourselves: do we really want to copy a system that places tertiary education out of the reach of many? Why go down the path of attempting to Americanise our tertiary education system?

As I have said many times in this place, I represent the most multicultural electorate in the whole of the country. That is a source of great pride, but the area I represent has significant pockets of disadvantage. Parents in my electorate work pretty hard to provide for their families and to give their kids opportunities—opportunities in many cases that they themselves did not have. They encourage their kids to study, often spending long hours in after-hours tuition, and they aspire to have their kids succeed—to obtain a tertiary qualification and to make the most of themselves. I think it is a natural inclination for any parent to want their children to do better than they did; and these people work very hard to do that. It would be very disheartening to see hard-working, academically gifted students miss out on university places because of this government's inconsiderate decisions in cutting the amount of money allocated to tertiary education and in shifting the cost onto students.

In my electorate 6.7 per cent of the population is on the way to completing a degree. That is close to 10,000 people, but the truth is that many of these people would not be able to handle the huge financial pressures that they are set to face with the changes proposed by this bill. Many of them attend the University of Western Sydney—a great institution—which is now set to receive $64 million less in income from this government in the transition period, 2015-2020.

We are clearly moving in a direction where fairness and equality of opportunity are second to the financial circumstances of parents. If parents can pay they will certainly be accommodated in a full-fee paying deregulated system. Those opposite are set to destroy the Whitlam legacy of equal opportunity for all. The member for Herbert wanted to ridicule those on this side of the House for supporting Gough Whitlam and what he sought to do in education in this country. If anything, Gough Whitlam will go down as a visionary, because one thing he very much believed in was that education was the future of this country and he invested heavily in it.

Higher education is a key factor in the economic, cultural and social development of our nation. It plays a vital role in our international competitiveness and the future prosperity of Australia. If Australia is to compete for the jobs of the future, students need to have access to high-quality, well-funded education, regardless of their postcode or background. That is why we on this side of the House will be opposing this bill. It is nothing but a retrograde step and a failure to invest in the future of this country.