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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1134

Dr STONE (Murray) (16:59): I too wish to speak in this debate on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. This is a 'most significant' reform. They are the two words that are being used over and over again not just by members of the coalition but also by the university sector itself. We have needed significant reform for a number of years, because we have had universities dependent on overseas students' fees for income—the majority of their income, in some cases—and we have had an extraordinary situation where rural and regional students have not been able to afford to go to university. Even though our Higher Education Contribution Scheme enabled them to pay back their fees at a reasonable rate, they could not afford the living-away costs—and I will come back to statistics about the rural and regional disadvantage later on.

This is a most significant reform. We have had reforms in the education fee-charging sector for a very long time. For example, in the sixties there were fees charged. At that time, if you were a rural or regional or low-income student, the way to go to university and have your fees paid, if your parents could not afford it, was to take up a teacher studentship, which was what the education department in the state of Victoria offered. So we had a couple of generations of people who went through university doing arts degrees and some science degrees who had no interest really in teaching but at least they got their courses paid for. They were bonded after those courses for a year or two to pay back the funds that had been spent on their university fees. But there was a whole industry for a long time working out how to get out of having to work as a teacher, because of your mental capacities or your anxiety and depression when you thought about teaching after you had completed your degree.

The other alternative in those very difficult times in the sixties if you did not have a teacher studentship was that if you were in the top academic achievers of your year 12—then called matriculation in Victoria—you could gain a Commonwealth scholarship. That paid your fees and also a very, very modest living allowance which you had to give up if you married. I know this from personal experience. So there was in fact a time in the sixties where options were very limited in how you could access a university education if your parents could not pay. Then we had the so-called glorious years of no fees, with the Gough Whitlam catastrophe when he was elected to govern. That no-fee period meant that the children of those who could go to university were subsidised by the vast majority of families who paid income tax towards those students, with few of their own children having the benefit of a university education.

Today I think we are going to be able to move towards the better of many worlds. One of the ways to ensure that even the lowest socioeconomic status families can achieve a university education for their children is to make sure that there is not only an adequate scholarship system but also a fee subsidy system where you can pay back the cost of your fees over a reasonable period of time, with interest rates you will never again experience in your lifetime of borrowing and with special dispensations. For example, there will be an interest rate pause on debts for the fees of people who are the primary carer of children aged less than five years and who are earning less than the minimum repayment threshold.

The government has proposed five key amendments. One is the retention of the consumer price index for HECS debts. This means that your fees can be paid upfront. No poor, low-socioeconomic status family should have its son or daughter denied a university education, if they have the academic results to enter that education stream, on the basis of not being able to afford the fees. They will be able to take out what I will call HECS debt support and that will be indexed for the period of their university days and beyond at the consumer price index only. As I have already mentioned, there will be an interest rate pause if you are a primary carer of children aged less than five years and you are earning less than the minimum repayment threshold.

Then we are going to establish a structural adjustment fund to assist universities to transition to this new environment. That is particularly important for the newer and smaller universities. In Australia we have what are commonly referred to as 'sandstone institutions', which have been around for more than a century. They do very nicely from endowments and trusts and have received a lot of full fees from overseas students and from families who can afford quite a high standard of living and pay big fees for courses like medicine or law. Those sandstone institutions will be okay. It is the smaller institutions that will need to have this structural adjustment fund—and I commend that key amendment that has come through.

We are also introducing a dedicated scholarship fund for universities with high proportions of low-socioeconomic status students. This will be funded directly by the Commonwealth on top of the university based scholarships. This is an excellent key piece of this legislation. In an area like mine in northern Victoria—where one in four people aged between 18 and 25 are unemployed; where we are in the lowest 10 electorates of Australia in terms of average incomes; where we have struggled through drought and flood and now we struggle through bad state government policy; and where our irrigation water system, a monopoly owned by the state, is stripping irrigators of the opportunity to make an income, with the fees and charges and the very poor service—our families need every little bit of help they can get to enable their children to upwardly mobilise through a university education into a high-income earning job or position.

There will be a generous Commonwealth scholarship scheme, which was first identified by our minister, that will come as a consequence of any extra fees charged—where substantial parts of those extra fees charged can be put into scholarships—but this will be an additional package of scholarships, funded by the Commonwealth. Thousands of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from rural and regional communities, in particular, will have even more help to get to university. It costs a minimum of $20,000 to $25,000 a year in living costs for students in my area to go to university. This is in addition to their fees and charges. Nearly 50 per cent of our families in Murray are on welfare support of one sort or another and they need that scholarship to help their young people get a university education—typically, away from home.

We are going to be amending legislative guidelines so domestic fees are lower than international fees. I think that is only right and fair. The government will also direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor university fees. I think that is an important initiative as well. We do not want to see gouging and we do not want to see unconscionable behaviour by universities, taking advantage of their elite status or their geographic position in a capital city to charge extraordinarily higher fees than they did before.

I strongly support this Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 and I want to give an example of why. My electorate of Murray has a number of local government areas. The City of Greater Shepparton includes the Goulburn Valley. In Victoria, 40 per cent of all year 12 students go on to a university. Unfortunately, in Shepparton only 22 per cent—or less than half of our students—go on to a university to obtain a degree. In the Strathbogie shire only 20 per cent go on to a university compared to the state average of 40 per cent; in the Campaspe shire, 19 per cent; the Moira shire, 15 per cent; and it is even lower in the Loddon shire. So we are just below half the state average in respect of the numbers of year 12 graduates who go on to a university.

At the same time, a number of my businesses and my manufacturers are so short of trained, skilled staff that they come to my office and ask me how they can be supported to get more 457 visas granted so they can bring in technicians and engineers, and people to work in animal husbandry and in skilled positions managing some of Australia's biggest piggeries and dairy manufacturing centres. So on the one hand, we have less than half the average number of students in my electorate going to university compared to the state average and, on the other hand, we have jobs going begging when it comes to skilled occupations. This is an absolute tragedy.

We had a terrible time during the mining boom when a lot of our skilled workers were attracted across to the mining areas on much higher wages than our local economy could generate for skills at that level. We still have the legacy of that problem. Our government has tried to address this through relocation support and allowances for the unemployed or for those shifting from an area where there are few employment prospects to areas where jobs are going begging. I commend our government for doing that.

We also need to address problems in our area like the lack of good, appropriate and informed career counselling. We need our students from years 7, 8, 9 and 10 to be able to get local work experience so they come to know the sorts of career opportunities that are available in a region like ours, a food- and fibre-growing and manufacturing area.

In Australia, there is an increasing divide between those born in metropolitan areas and those born in rural and regional areas. That is not fair, it is un-Australian and it is not what we have ever espoused as the Australian way. The La Trobe campus in Shepparton is now well established, through a lot of federal funding that has helped it build up its campus. It is not right that that campus has an expectation that many of their courses will be taught virtually. Their students will sit in front of television screens rather go to lectures, have face-to-face tutorials and engage directly with lecturers. They will be expected simply to tune in down the line to the campus at Bundoora. This is a particular problem in my area because a lot of my students are the first in their families to receive a higher education or a university education. There is no culture or tradition in their family of knowing what it means to prepare for a tutorial or an assignment, or have a discussion in a university setting with like-minded students or their academic teacher. We need that experience face to face.

In the Goulburn Valley, we have a significant number of overseas born families, particularly refugees from the Middle East and migrants from southern Mediterranean areas. These families do not want their sons and daughters, particularly their daughters, to leave home until they are married. The girls are disadvantaged because very few university courses are offered locally or, if they are, the courses offered are taught via virtual technology rather than face to face. This personal interaction is so important for these students, especially in their first year.

There are a lot of important changes that need to take place in our university sector. I was an academic teaching in universities for a great many years. Before coming to this place, I was Manager for International Development at the University of Melbourne. I worked at the coalface in international student recruitment, particularly with north Asia countries, encouraging them to look at Australia as a place for their students to come to be better educated. I know that Australia has some of the world's best courses and academics who can substantially retain or increase the reputation of our country as a provider of excellent university education.

These reforms are going to make good university education all the more possible not just for international students but also for our domestic students, particularly those from areas like mine where there are very low incomes, difficulties with English language and families with little experience of a university education. I commend the scholarships in particular and I strongly support these reforms. I hope that they will progress without any further ado through both houses.