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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12269

Mr PYNE (SturtLeader of the House and Minister for Education) (15:32): I am very pleased to respond on this matter of public importance. I thought that the fact that it was moved by the Leader of the Opposition meant that it would be a serious debate about a very serious issue: the future of Australian universities. But instead, unfortunately, I feel I have been drowning in a sea of cliches. In such circumstances, often the response is to match cliche for cliche, but on this side of the House we take government policy very seriously.

When the public elected us a year ago, they wanted to elect adults to run a serious country in a calm and methodical way—and that is exactly what we are proposing to do. In higher education, we have put on the table and passed through this House the most substantial reform to higher education since the Dawkins period, a reform that will free and deregulate universities in a way that will allow them to focus and concentrate on their areas of excellence so they can have more of them and have them be even better, so they can keep up with their Asian competitors and stay in front of them and so they can defend and grow our $15 billion international education market. Our third largest export industry, after iron ore and coal, is education, followed by gold. We take this seriously.

At the same time, we want to give Australian young people the opportunity to get a higher education qualification because, if they do, they will be able to earn 75 per cent, on average, more over their lifetimes than people without a higher education qualification. They will actually have a longer life expectancy, better health outcomes and the lowest unemployment rate of anybody in the community. We want to spread that opportunity to more Australians. We want to follow in the footsteps of Sir Robert Menzies, the real father of education in Australia.

Do not take my word for that. It was not me who first said that Sir Robert Menzies was the father of higher education in Australia. It was, in fact, Gough Whitlam, who we have been hearing a lot about in the last week since his death, in a speech to the Harvard Club of Australia in June 1973, the first year of his prime ministership. Mr Whitlam said: 'No Australian has done more to serve the cause of university education in this country than Sir Robert Menzies. Under the responsibilities accepted by his government, more young Australians were given access to universities and more money was spent to equip universities.' This was followed by Lindsay Tanner in his book of much more recent times. He wrote: 'Sir Robert Menzies began the transformation of higher education in Australia, and he helped to change attitudes to education. Thousands of Australians of my generation benefited from Gough Whitlam's university reforms, but the changes in public attitudes that helped to make them possible came from the Menzies era.' So what we on this side of the House are doing is continuing the relationship that the coalition has had with valuing and expanding higher education for decades.

In the Whitlam period of three years, so-called free education was introduced, where all taxpayers paid for the privileged few to go to university. By 1988 the Hawke and Keating government reintroduced fees, through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, because they recognised the inequitable nature of what the Whitlam government had done. Maybe it was with good intentions, but the demographic breakdown of universities in 1988 was no different to what it had been in 1974 when so-called free education was introduced. All that had happened was that the poorest Australians had transferred wealth to the richest Australians. The same people went to university in 1988 who had gone to university in 1974. That has only changed—not because of the Whitlam period, not because of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme—because of programs implemented by the Howard government and then by the Rudd and Gillard governments to expand, in a very direct way, the access to universities of low-socio-economic students. In this reform we want to expand that; we want to continue that work. One thing that Julia Gillard did not do too badly was education reform. She was a very bad prime minister, but she did actually put in place a number of measures to expand education to low SES Australians, which we supported then and we want to expand now.

In this reform that will go before the Senate tomorrow we want to expand the demand driven system to sub-bachelor courses. These are the pathways that low-SES and mature age students typically use to get back into undergraduate degrees to improve their education. Let's put some facts on the table rather than the hyperbole of the Leader of the Opposition. The facts are that the Kemp Norton report that I initiated after our election said that students from a low-SES background who have done pathways programs had two per cent dropout rate; when they did not do a pathways program and went straight to an undergraduate degree they had a 24 per cent dropout rate. What this government wants to do is expand opportunity to those low-SES students. I would have thought that the Labor Party would have supported that. I would have thought that Labor would have supported expanding opportunity to more low-SES students, but they are not going to do that because they just want to play politics. With Labor it is all about politics—it is never about policy.

Through our plan to expand the Commonwealth Grant Scheme to the non-university higher education providers, through our plan to have the largest Commonwealth scholarships fund in Australia's history and through our plan to expand the demand driven system that I have already described, we believe that by 2018 80,000 more young Australians from low-SES backgrounds will get the opportunity to go to university and get that higher education qualification I had. Labor is running a scaremongering campaign—it is as simple as that—and they are prepared even to talk about the so-called Americanisation of Australian universities. Never mind the fact that America does not have the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which is the envy of the world and the most generous loan scheme in the world. Before you have to pay any money back to the taxpayer that you have borrowed up-front, you have to be earning over $50,000 a year and even then you can only be charged two per cent of your income at the best interest rates you will ever receive on any loan in your life.

Labor is scaring students in most disgraceful way and I would have expected better from the member for Kingston. In a speech on 1 October this year, Mike Gallagher from the Group of Eight said:

Students … deserve to be rid of the scaremongering. One example of just how cruel and dangerous are the misrepresentations—at recent University Open Days, many students were under the impression, on the basis of statements made by some senior politicians—

including the member the Kingston—

…that tuition fees would have to be paid up-front because HECS HELP was being dismantled.

… … …

Interestingly, once the prospective students were advised that HELP was staying and there would be no reintroduction of up-front fees many of their concerns were allayed …

In other words, Mr Deputy Speaker, when students knew that the Higher Education Contribution Scheme was remaining unchanged and when it was stated that they could borrow every single dollar up-front from the Australian taxpayer, their concerns were immediately allayed. That does not suit the Labor Party because they do not want students to be comfortable about our reforms.

I can tell you that it was reported to me that, when students were convinced that the HECS scheme was staying, their concerns were much less than they were before. I have been all over Australia visiting university campuses and I find I am very much welcome at them. In fact, the students at the La Trobe campus at Mildura had to bus in protesters from Melbourne because they could not find anybody in Mildura against my reforms—they could not find any and so they had to get a busload from Melbourne of NUS activists to come to Mildura. I refused to speak to them. I said, 'Go back; stop spreading your misinformation among students.'

Labor created this mess and the adults in the room are going to fix it. We are going to work with this Senate to bring reform to higher education that delivers more opportunity for students and higher quality for universities. At the next election in two years' time, this will be one of the great achievements of the coalition government—that we made the decisions that Labor refuse to make for six years.