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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1127

Ms HENDERSON (Corangamite) (16:31): I rise to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. This bill preserves the essential elements of the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill which was defeated in the Senate late last year. Let me make it clear that there will be some great benefits for students and families if this bill is passed.

I have to reflect on the contribution of the member for Wakefield. It was a disappointing contribution. It would not really matter what was in this bill, he would still be running with the old Labor rhetoric of, 'It hurts working families'.

I come from a region where there are pockets of great disadvantage, in the region of Geelong and Corangamite. We are very mindful of that disadvantage, and of need to support rural and regional students, to ensure that those who most need our help get it. The Labor rhetoric does not cut it. You have to support it with the facts. What I am going to do today in my contribution is return to the facts, not the rubbish we have heard from Labor about $100,000 degrees, which is not supported by the facts.

Members opposite—including, the member for Wakefield, who disrupts every question time day in, day out, with his carry-on—can carry on about $100,000 degrees, but let's look at the facts. This bill will expand the demand driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, at a cost of $371.5 million over three years. I can tell you that Menzies, the founder of our party, would be enormously proud.

The member for Wakefield is now leaving the chamber. I think he might be crawling out of the chamber because he is a bit ashamed that he is being held to account for some of the dishonesty we have just heard in his contribution.

We are very proudly extending Commonwealth funding to all Australian higher education students in non-university higher education institutions. These are students studying bachelor courses, but these are also the students that are not currently supported. Students studying diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees will be supported. An extra 80,000 students each year will be provided with additional support by 2018.

There will be more opportunities for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds through new Commonwealth scholarships, the greatest scholarship scheme in Australia's history. This would effectively mean free education for the brightest students from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds. And I just want to stress that: we are absolutely focused on ensuring that those students from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported and lifted so they can achieve the very highest levels in their tertiary studies. In addition to Commonwealth scholarships, there will be a dedicated scholarship fund for universities, with a high proportion of low SES students that will be funded directly by the Commonwealth on top of university based scholarships.

The Higher Education Loan Program will see the taxpayer support student tuition fees up-front. What we are ensuring is that there will be no payment of any fees up-front. The loans will only be repayable once a decent income is hit by that particular student who goes on to work—a minimum of some $50,000 per annum. Let me stress: not one cent needs to be paid up-front.

In this particular bill there are five key amendments. And this reflects that we are working with the Senate, that we are listening, and that we are responsive to some of the concerns that were raised in the earlier bill that was defeated. Let me stress what we have before us with these amendments. We are retaining the consumer price index indexation for HECS debts. The government has accepted Senator Day's amendments to keep the indexation rate for student debts at CPI rather than moving to the 10-year bond rates. So we did listen to those concerns and we are receptive. We are working with the concerns of the Senate because we believe wholeheartedly in these reforms.

We have also introduced in this bill an interest rate pause on debts for primary carers of children aged less than five years who are earning less than the minimum repayment threshold. So the government has accepted Senator Madigan's amendment for a HECS indexation pause for the primary caregiver of newborns up to the age of five years. This is a very important initiative for new parents, making the HECS system better than ever.

We have agreed to establish a structural adjustment fund to assist universities to transition to the new environment, and that is very important as well.

In this bill we will introduce a dedicated scholarship fund for universities with a high proportion of low-socioeconomic-status students that will be funded directly by the Commonwealth, on top of university based scholarships. We are also amending legislative guidelines so domestic fees are lower than international fees—there is that particular certainty—and the government will also direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor these university fees.

There are some significant implications if this reform bill is not passed. An estimated 80,000 students will miss out on Commonwealth support each year by 2018: 35,000 at bachelor level and 48,000 starting diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees—they will all lose. Many of these students will need to pay full fees to complete their preferred course and others will just miss out altogether. Around 50,000 higher education students and 80,000 vocational education and training students will still face a 25 per cent loan fee for FEE-HELP and 20 per cent for VET FEE-HELP loans. Again, there are some very significant implications if this particular bill is not passed. Thousands of disadvantaged higher education students will not receive the assistance that we are offering under this bill, and the primary carers of a child aged five years and under will also not receive the support.

I do want to reflect on the scare campaign being run by the Labor Party. In my contribution I do want to reflect very much on the facts. It is fair to say that Labor, the Greens and the National Tertiary Education Union have been running what I would say is a completely irresponsible scare campaign. The claims in relation to fees are completely false. The Queensland University of Technology has published its fees for 2016, and they are massively below what the scare campaign has been saying. The University of Western Australia has set its fees for 2016 and, again, they are less than half of what the scare campaign is claiming.

Labor, the Greens and the NTEU have resorted to a very dishonest campaign in a desperate attempt to rally against what we are doing. The Labor Party, deep in its heart, knows that deregulation of fees will have no negative impact on disadvantaged students. Let me reflect on the shadow assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, who said in relation to deregulation and deregulated fees: 'There is no reason to think that it will adversely affect poorer students.' That comes from his contribution, Imagining Australia: ideas for our future, from 2004.

Vicki Thomson, the then director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, wrote in her article, 'Don't be fooled by "$100,000 degrees"':

… the university sector is not looking to introduce standard $100,000 degrees and deregulation won't deliver them.

There is a fundamental principle here: universities which roll out fees higher than can be afforded by students will have empty lecture rooms. Universities understand that in order to attract students they need to be commercial; they need to offer degrees that students want to study. But it seems that the Labor Party does not understand this.

The Australian Catholic University in its submission to the Senate committee on the reforms said:

… ACU does not anticipate a general and massive rise in University impositions on students.

The University of Sydney in its submission to the Senate committee said:

In our view there have been wildly exaggerated claims by the opponents of deregulation about degrees costing more than $100,000.

…    …   …

In our view the market will not sustain such exaggerated degree prices, …

Because this is a market-driven system:

… it is vital that we keep tuition rates down …

If tuition rates are too high the University of Sydney will not attract students. They understand it and every single university across Australia understands this basic fundamental principle. But not the members opposite.

Member institutions of the Council of Private Higher Education have confirmed that whatever they receive in Commonwealth support for students will be passed on to students through reduced tuition fees. The indicative fee levels published by the Council of Private Higher Education show that the total cost of degrees will be far below what the alarmists and what the scaremongers have been claiming.

Open Universities Australia says:

… we are confident that for numerous courses, deregulation of fees will also lead to a significant decrease in the cost of tuition.

This highlights that competition will keep fees down. Universities which charge exorbitant fees will have empty lecture theatres. The universities understand this.

I do just want to reflect on the wonderful university headquartered in my electorate of Corangamite, Deakin University. Deakin University is an example of a university which is innovative, which is forging credible links with industry and which is going from strength to strength. The Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University has expressed some concerns about our reforms but, as I have mentioned, we are working closely with the crossbench and with the Senate to address some of these issues, to ensure there is greater equity and a particular focus on looking after disadvantaged students and students from rural and regional Australia. Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and like many members in this House, we are fundamentally concerned about ensuring that those from rural and regional areas of Australia get every possible opportunity to go to university and to reach the best that they can be.

If I look at the work of Deakin University, there is the establishment of Carbon Nexus. It is a $103 million Australian future fibre research and innovation centre, partnering with the CSIRO and the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing. It is a research facility delivering some extraordinary work—a 20-tonne carbon fibre pilot line which is demonstrating to the world Geelong's potential in advanced manufacturing. It is an incredible facility. It is an incredible investment and driven by Deakin University.

Deakin University also has a $55-million state-of-the-art centre for advanced design and training and is working very closely with industry partners and with business to deliver to its students—from its PhD students to its undergraduate students to its academics—every possible opportunity not just to study at this university but to forge links with industry and to deliver so many opportunities in a city which needs every possible opportunity it can grasp.

As I have indicated, there were some challenging aspects of the previous bill which we have addressed. There have been some 33 reviews of the university system and those reviews have been important in the history of providing university education in this country. We are now at a point where reform is required. Reform is very important. The ways in which we are addressing the issues for rural and regional Australia are incredibly important and how we are lifting the opportunities for those who are disadvantaged is incredibly important. I commend the bill to the House.