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Tuesday, 28 October 2014
Page: 12274

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (15:52): Today we have heard people from the government benches try to justify this incredibly terrible attack on higher education in this country. They should be ashamed. What they are doing is making it harder for working- and middle-class kids to get a higher education—and they know it. They should think twice about this terrible, regressive policy. They should think twice, because they know as well as anyone else in this chamber just how terrible this policy is. They have had the backlash from the working people of this country, from people on low and fixed incomes.

People are not standing for these attacks on higher education. People are not going to stand for funding cuts of up to 37 per cent for undergraduate courses. They are not going to stand for it. They are not going to stand for the wholesale deregulation of university fees that is going to lead to $100,000 degrees—a lifelong debt. They are not going to stand for higher fees, nor are they going to stand for real interest rates on higher education fees. They are not going to cop fees for higher research degrees either. Most of all, they are not going to somehow start thinking those fees are a good idea just because the Minister for Education threatens to cut research—as he has so shamefully done.

These changes are atrocious. We are talking about changes that are going to see cuts to higher education funding. Where will those cuts be recouped from? They will have to be recouped from the deregulated fees. We have already seen some of the research and some of the modelling showing what the costs of these courses are going to be in the event that fees are wholly deregulated. Universities Australia tells us that, to make up for the cut to funding, the cost of engineering and science degrees will have to increase by 58 per cent, nursing degrees by 24 per cent, education degrees by 20 per cent, agriculture degrees by 43 per cent and environmental studies by 110 per cent. These are terrible figures because they speak to the gross inequity that this government is perpetrating on the Australian people. They are saying that people should not go on to higher education unless they are prepared to take on a lifetime of debt. It is the Americanisation of our university system—the sort of system where you see people paying off debt their entire life just for the privilege of getting a higher education.

On our side of this chamber we believe that higher education is a right not a privilege. We believe that education is a fundamental right. We know that the government understands that Australians think that too. Why else would Tony Abbott, when he was making every promise under the sun in a desperate attempt to get elected last year, have said that there would be no cuts to education? Because he knew that the Australian people wanted there to be no cuts to education. He understood the backlash that would come if people knew his real plans for the higher education sector. Now people do know and they are not going to stand for it.

These sorts of funding cuts of up to 37 per cent for undergraduate degrees are going to mean that universities will have to recoup those moneys from students and their families. Why would anyone think that a lifetime of debt might not be a consideration when a young person is deciding whether or not to go to university—the choice of whether to go in the first place? That is not to mention mature age students. What are mature age students expected to do with hundred-thousand-dollar degrees? How are they meant to reskill?

I have spoken in this House before about a mature age student who has written to me worried about the effect of a real interest rate on the HECS fees that she has already been incurring—and she is not the only one. A lot of students have spoken to me about their concern about what such an interest rate would mean—and not just students. From a workforce planning perspective those industries where jobs are lower paid than those at the top end of town—for example, corporate lawyers—are worried about whether people are going to be prepared to come and work in those lower paid jobs when they have such a big debt with such a high interest rate.

People who work in a not-for-profit organisation, for example, or a smaller firm or a lower paid occupation already pay a penalty in the form of lower wages. But they are going to have to pay an additional penalty. Not only are they going to be slugged with a massive debt, but because it will take longer to pay off that debt, they will pay more because of the effect of the real interest rate. That is why people who are running those small not-for-profits are very worried about the effect that these changes are going to have on their ability to attract good quality staff.

It is not just a question of what might happen to those people who are worried about workforce planning. This is a policy area that has led to a massive backlash across this nation from people concerned about the way that this government intends to change the shape of this nation.