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Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Page: 1140

Mr WHITELEY (Braddon) (17:27): I am more than happy this evening to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 and to respond to some of the more recent claims by those opposite. Who would have thought that this quote I am going to read came from a very senior member of a former Labor government? The honourable Gareth Evans said:

It is time to change our one size fits all funding system and let diversity develop. Changes to the system will be controversial but real change is required if Australia is to offer its young people a real choice in education and produce graduates to match the best in the world.

That was the honourable Gareth Evans.

The member for Moreton, who just left the chamber, spoke in glowing terms of John Dawkins, a former education minister of a Labor government. He spoke about him as a ground breaker who introduced policy changes that were just magnificent and really set us up in this sector. What does John Dawkins have to say about the current reforms we are debating tonight? He is saying to his former colleagues: 'For goodness sake, grow up and get to the table. Have a discussion. We cannot go on this way. We need change and you need to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.'

Anyone listening tonight on the radio or reading the Hansardandprobably the first thing I should say is they should get a life—would have heard the last speaker. He would have them believe that the university sector of Australia, represented by Universities Australia, did not really believe in their heart of hearts that these changes were needed. He went around a little bit and said: 'Behind close doors they are not happy. They are browbeaten and they have come out because they really have to'—and I think the inference was that was because they might be punished. What an interesting take. Who would have ever thought that a conservative government could browbeat the universities of this great country? That would be a first since Federation, I would have thought. They are not normally rowing the boat with us, which is the best way I can put it.

We have quotes from the University of Sydney, for example. This is not just some misreported article in TheAustralian, TheAge or TheFinancial Review, it is in the University of Sydney's submission to the Senate inquiry. They said:

In our view, there have been wildly exaggerated claims by the opponents of deregulation—

aka the Labor Party—

about degrees costing more than $100,000. In our view, the market will not sustain such exaggerated degree prices. It is vital that we keep tuition rates down.

The previous speaker said deregulation will mean fees will be out of control. He basically said: 'Who can say what they'll charge? They'll be able to charge anything they want.' Well, Bunnings can charge anything they want, too—for the barbecue that I bought last Friday. But there is a point that comes into play here. I will determine, based on price, where I do business. If Bunnings wants to charge a ludicrous, ridiculous inflated price for a barbecue, I will go down the road and buy one from someone else. It is ridiculous to claim that these reforms will lead to a professional, mature sector that has been here for 100 years just going crazy and waking up one day and saying, 'Let's triple the price of university!' How ludicrous! I mean, do those opposite actually believe what they read when they get to the dispatch box? If they do, I just wonder where the country is going if it gives even an ounce of thought to giving the treasury bench back to the Australian Labor Party. It is ridiculous.

I want to refer people to what I thought was a magnificent contribution in this place last sitting week by my second amigo from Tasmania, Eric Hutchinson, the member for Lyons. Everybody should go to his website and have a look at the contribution he made in this chamber. It was a superb contribution which went to the heart of the issues facing Tasmania. I do not want to re-do that because I could not do it any better than what has already been done—and I do refer people to that.

I hear a lot from those opposite—and we heard it just a few moments ago—about the great Whitlam years, when free education was available to Australian students. I mean, what planet do this lot come from? We hear often, in the context of us trying to build a sustainable health system, that they want free health, and they want free education. Well, any clown would know that there is no such thing as something for free—someone, somewhere, is paying for it. Let me give you a real life example in relation to these reforms. Let us say that a young man in my electorate chose, for whatever reason, not to go on to tertiary education. In my electorate 43 per cent of students do not even finish grade 12. The Tasmanian government is doing a lot of good, positive work in that area, and there is improvement on the go, but a lot of people do not even have anyone in their family who has been to university. A cultural change is needed—but that is a story for another day. So let us say that this young man decides that he wants to go and do a trade—or maybe his sister might want to do a diploma. There is no taxpayer help for them—none whatsoever. So he goes off and does his trade, he gets an apprenticeship, and he starts paying tax from the first pay that he gets. His taxes are in fact paying for the education of someone who has chosen to do a university degree. And good luck to them—I am not suggesting that that is a bad thing. But let's get this into some sort of perspective. There is no such thing as 'free'. For a young tradesman of 17 or 18 years of age earning his first pay packet, some of his tax is going to his next-door neighbour who will have the privilege of doing a university education—with 60 per cent of the fee, by the way, funded by the taxpayer—when that person, over a lifetime, will be able to earn $1 million more than the young tradesman.

Let's get some reality into this debate, for goodness sake! I can cope with a little bit of political rhetoric and pointscoring, but we are talking about the future of our young people and the education future of our country. This lot opposite do not want to come to the table with any sensible plan to try and build the tertiary education that we need. They are holier than thou. Butter does not melt in the mouth when they talk about these reforms. Let us not forget that, in the six years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, this lot opposite, when on the treasury bench, took $6 billion away from the higher education sector. In the last year alone, $3.1 billion was taken out. And even now they will not support the very changes that they wanted in the Senate and which we now have before the Senate. Give us a break! For those who are reading or listening to this, let's just get our feet on the ground and get some reality into this debate and make sure we actually build a system that is sustainable.

The other matter I want to talk about goes to the whole issue of the scare campaign that this will build an elite system, that only the rich will avail themselves of the system. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the exact opposite. I go back to my example of the tradie. We are opening up 80,000 more places in tertiary education across this country. We are opening up the door of opportunity for young people in my electorate who have not had the example of a generation before them leading them to a tertiary education. As a step towards a degree, they may in fact choose to do a diploma. And, for the first time, the taxpayers of Australia are saying: 'Good on you as a tradie. We're going to put the same amount of support, effort and taxpayer subsidy behind you as we do for someone who has had the cultural and generational example to go off to university'—and why shouldn't that be the case. Talk about elitism! It is not this reform that is elitism; it is the refusal to accept this reform that is elitism because they want to keep it in the hands of those whom I would presume they now seek to demonise on our behalf.

The other thing I want to say is in response to the claims by those opposite that our young people will be debt ridden. They will not be able to get into university; they will not be able to afford it. I say to the Australian people, particularly in my electorate: right now, today, if you sign up for a tertiary education with a degree at a government university around Australia, there is no cash to be put on the table in the first place—not one cent. So can we get some truth into this debate? Any young person in this country, from the poorest to the wealthiest family, has exactly the same door to walk through, and that is the door of government supported places in the education system. I said this in a previous speech, and let me say it again because most people do not know this fact.

I dare say—and I know this because I have had them in my office—even educators do not understand that right now the Australian taxpayers like the tradie I talked about and the sister who went on to be a hairdresser, who pay their taxes, subsidise every university degree taken out in this country by 60 per cent. We do not hear that. What is left for the student to pay—only when they earn over $50,000, by the way—is 40 per cent. The bottom line here is everybody has access. Everybody has the same loan scheme—the HECS system—to be able to pay their debt back. They do not have to pay one cent back until they earn over $50,000. What is wrong with that? Most countries in the world would die for this system. We heard the previous speaker talk about other countries and how they have similar HECS fees. There are not too many similar. He talked about the US style. I have direct family in the United States, and they would die for this system because grandparents have to come onto the scene to help pay for their grandchildren's education in the US because it is just unaffordable for the parents.

The Labor Party can continue on with this hype about how it is going to be an elite system and cost students more money to get into the system when it does not cost them anything at all, and the degrees will be $100,000. Vicki Thomson, the Director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, wrote an article with a headline that said 'Don't be fooled by "$100,000 degrees"'. She went on to say:

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

The Australian Catholic University in their submission to the Senate say they do not anticipate a general or massive rise in university impositions on students. So let's get real.

Let me wrap up with this. I believe that this is all upside for the University of Tasmania. I am going to put on the record tonight that they have been dancing around a little bit with Senator Lambie over there in the Senate, thinking that they might be able to extract a little bit extra from the government, and good on them, but I want to say to the University of Tasmania: do not get left behind. There are opportunities. The glass is half full. It is not half empty. I again refer people to the speech of the member for Lyons some weeks ago. We have to take on this issue; otherwise, we are going backwards.

Do you know that, before Labor got its hands on the Treasury benches, education export or import—whichever way you want to think about education in this country, or overseas students coming to our country to take out their tertiary education—was the third biggest export item in this country's GDP? Under the watch of those opposite, it went backwards.

I want to finish with this: be very careful what the Labor Party wish for. Do you understand that, as we lessen our standards, we lose our attractiveness, lose our competitiveness and will lose those university students from overseas. Right now we do not subsidise them. They pay full fees, and those fees actually cross-subsidise the education of our young people. It is all very well to take the political pot shots, but this is the party that ripped $6.6 billion out of it when they last served in government. It is absolutely unbelievable. They have no shame to think that they hold the higher ground on this debate when in fact they do not. I say to the people of Australia; reform is necessary, and we need to see it passed in the Senate as quickly as possible.