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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10215

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (12:20): I think you can see from the length of the speakers list just how importantly Labor members regard our opposition to this terrible bill. The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 will set tertiary education in this country back even further than it has been going under the Liberals and the Nationals for the last 4½ years.

As my colleague the member for Parramatta just stated, this is exactly the wrong time to be contemplating these sort of cuts. I note that yesterday the member for Hughes said: 'There are no cuts. Funding's going up. Funding's going up.' He was his typical garrulous self. What he failed to mention to the House is that these are cuts, because the coalition went to the election stating a certain level of funding and now it has cut that funding. Every commentator and every university agrees that what is before the House and what is before the parliament is a series of cuts. What we are talking about is $3.8 billion to be cut from universities over the next five years.

This represents a philosophical divide between those on the other side and those on this side. We believe in higher education. We believe in the way it can elevate people's lives. We believe in its transformative effects. We don't see higher education as merely a contract between the student and the university. There is not merely a private gain or an individual gain, but there's also a community gain, a social gain and a national gain from having more, rather than less, young people go to university.

We all want the books to balance. Those on the other side often cry: 'It costs so much money. We've got to make sure the books can balance. It's a budget emergency.' These are some of the ridiculous statements we've heard in recent years. Well, it is a question of priorities. Do you prioritise education or do you prioritise corporate tax cuts? As we know, this Treasurer and this Prime Minister are hell-bent on delivering to this country either a $50 billion tax break or a $65 billion tax break, depending on who you talk to and on what maths you agree with. Let's go with the lower figure: a $50 billion tax break over the next 10 years. Compare that—why on earth would you be cutting university funding in order to fund a corporate tax break? It doesn't make sense. It's a corporate tax break that's only going to deliver 0.1 per cent of GDP growth over 10 years? It's a rounding error. If you put that money into higher education alone, the extra economic activity that that will generate for this country over the next 10 years will be many magnitudes higher, not to mention the benefits to the lives of those involved.

I look up to the gallery and I see school children who have come to this place—hi, kids—to see their parliament in action. Over the next 13 years, they'll be looking at going to university. Why on earth would this parliament be contemplating making it harder for these kids to go to university, rather than easier? Surely, it is the job of this parliament to make it easier for these kids to get into university, not harder? Why was it easier for the members of this parliament to have gone to high school and university and to have had either a free education—thanks to Gough Whitlam—or a low-cost university education? Why was it easier for members of this parliament, myself included, and certainly members on the opposite benches, to have a low-cost university education, and yet we're going to tell these kids in these galleries, 'Sorry kids, mum and dad have to pony up $100,000 over the next 10 or 15 years to pay for you to go to university.' It's absolutely unconscionable. It's unnecessary. It's mean.

This government just gets it wrong on everything. You would think that, if there were an area of public policy that it would have put some thought into, it would be higher education. They've had 29 reviews. Twenty-nine reviews, costing $4.7 million, and they still can't get it right. That's because this minister has not been tasked with improving higher education; he's been tasked with cutting funding, because what we have is a Prime Minister and a Treasurer who are so obsessed with their $50 billion corporate tax break that they have tasked this minister, the so-called minister for education, with cutting costs rather than improving education. What an indictment of him and his capabilities as a minister that he gives no thought to improving higher education and thinks only of running a red line through costs! When your sole motivation is to feed the slavish desires of a Treasurer and a Prime Minister more interested in corporate tax breaks than education funding, you really should be hanging up your boots as a minister.

In my electorate of Lyons in regional Tasmania, we have areas of very high disadvantage. At a forum on inequality with the shadow regions minister, the member for Whitlam, earlier this year, we listened as people in my community talked about the challenges of getting through high school, let alone contemplating college in my state—we don't have senior high school; years 11 and 12 go onto college—and how thoughts of university or other further education are simply not on many people's radar. That's now, before these cuts, before the higher charges kick in, before the demands for earlier repayments and before the $3,000 fees for the enabling courses.

What sort of a government would introduce fees for enabling courses for people who have struggled through their lives and maybe have got to adulthood through high school or maybe have struggled through high school and thought, 'You know, I want to improve my life, and maybe I'll try to get to university'? At the moment, those enabling courses allow adults to sample university life at no cost to see whether they are suited for life at university in order to improve their lives, and this government wants to introduce $3,000 fees for enabling courses for people who want to improve their lives. There's no qualification with enabling courses. There's no diploma or certificate. An enabling course merely allows people to taste what university might be like to see whether they're suited for it. This government wants to say: 'Well, you can pay $3,000 for that. You can pay $3,000 to see whether you are able to go to university. Then, if you still decide to go to university, we're going to heap a whole pile more fees on top of you and you'll be paying them back earlier.' What sort of signal does that send to people who want to improve their lives and get a university education in this country? It is the wrong signal and the wrong priority from a government that is all wrong on just about everything it touches.

When you're busy trying to keep a roof over your family's head—I'll come back to that forum on inequality—and you're dealing with life issues in the outer suburbs and the regions and thinking of putting food on the table, even the thought of fitting anything else into your life is often too much. The thought of going to university doesn't even enter your head. When you make it out of reach, when you make it seem so insurmountable that you can't even contemplate the idea that you can even afford to go to university, people won't even think about it. It won't even be on their radar. It is just an assault. It is an absolute assault on people in regional communities by the ministers at the table today, including the Nationals Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. How the Nationals can be supporting this bill is just beyond me, because it's going be people in regional communities who will be deeply affected by this bill.

You don't need to look far to see other nations that are providing free and low-cost education. There are a number of European countries now, Germany amongst them, that are starting to go back to free education for university, and they are booming. Their economies aren't diving down the toilet. They're doing very well. Their citizens are happy. Their horizons are wider. Their economies are going from strength to strength.

The notion that this bill is needed to cut costs in order to balance the books is a lie. It is an absolute lie, because, at the same time that this government wants to cut costs for higher education, it wants to give $50 billion away to corporations in tax cuts and give tax breaks to people earning more than $180,000 a year. Look, I love tax breaks. Who doesn't love a tax cut?

But when you're faced with a choice between putting money into higher education and giving corporations who are recording record profits, it is no choice at all—you put your money on the kids. You put the money on the kids and the families of this country who want to improve their lives, because we all know that higher education improves not just individual lives but Australian life. Can those opposite really look me in the eye and tell me that it is a good plan for Australia to cut this much money out of higher education over the next 10 years at the same time they want to shovel $50 billion into the pockets of CEOs and corporations? Why on earth are we following the failed model of the United States, when the evidence that it hasn't worked is before us? Sure, the United States has some great universities in the Ivy League, but, gee, you've got to pay to get into them.

A lot of universities in America are rubbish. They give out rubbish certificates and rubbish degrees. Some of the community colleges are called McDonald's universities. Is that really the model that we want to employ, when we've traditionally had one of the best-performing university sectors in this country for the last 30 or 40 years? When Gough Whitlam introduced free tertiary education, it transformed lives. It transformed the lives of so many young people in regional communities and outer suburbs who previously hadn't thought they could go past high school. And I would say it has also transformed the lives of some of those opposite. It kills me that the Minister for Education and Training, Senator Birmingham, is a product of a public school education and a publicly funded university education. Here he is, turning his back on those sectors and making it harder for people like him, for the kids like him, to get the education that he got. It is a travesty.

Let's dig down for Tasmania. The ABS did a longitudinal study of the Tasmanian student cohorts of 2006 and 2010. Of the students who completed year 12 in 2010, 57 per cent were fully engaged in work or study one year after leaving school. Just under a quarter were in full-time employment and a third were in full-time study. A small proportion were in both part-time work and part-time study. Seventy-two per cent were fully engaged. So many Tasmanian schoolkids just don't even think of university.

We've already seen what this government is doing with TAFE—the TAFE cuts which have affected my state so dreadfully. One of the first things it did in 2013—in fact, I think it was the very first thing it did in 2013—was kill the Trade Training Centres in Schools Program, a program started, actually, by John Howard. That was a program that Labor did believe in. Labor thought, 'You know, that actually works well; we'll keep it.' And we did keep it through the Rudd-Gillard years. But one of the very first things this government did in 2013 was kill that program, and that ended opportunities for kids in my electorate. I'm so passionate about it, because I know that Campbell Town, in the heart of my electorate, was pretty much next off the rank to get one, and it didn't happen, so the kids in Campbell Town have missed out on that opportunity.

I'm a big believer in TAFE. I'm a big believer in apprenticeships. And I'm a big believer in higher education and university education because I know, and all the evidence shows, that a university education is the best pathway for higher pay and better life opportunities. Those opportunities should not be denied to people based on how much they can afford to pay or how much their parents can afford to pay. We do not want this country going back to a pre-Whitlam system, where the only way you got into university was either through a scholarship or because your parents were wealthy enough to send you there.

Kids should be going to university based on merit, based on their academic ability and based on their aptitude and their desire to be there. The only things that should count when it comes to university education are whether you're up to it intellectually and whether you've got the drive to do it. Nothing else should matter. But under this government, through these cuts, what will happen increasingly is that young people will be denied a university education because their parents don't earn enough or because they live in a postcode where they're surrounded by family, friends and their peers at school who don't think that a university education is for them, because they just don't contemplate that it's on their horizon. Any barrier that this government or this parliament puts in the way of higher education is a travesty and absolutely disgraceful. We can see from the speaking list how seriously Labor members take our opposition to this bill. The bill sends the wrong signal to this country, it's the wrong bill for the times and we oppose it unequivocally.