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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9479

Ms COLLINS (Franklin) (20:09): I rise to speak on the government's Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014—I think as probably one of the very few people in this place who has never had an education at a university. As I think back on that decision that I made not to go to university, I recall my first speech in this place, where I said:

Looking back at my experiences I came to realise that access to education and information was just as big a barrier to equality as being poor was.

In fact, I went on to say that I would:

… work to ensure that all people have access to a quality education—that the barriers are removed and that quality education remains a right and not a privilege.

I went on to say that:

These barriers are more than just economic. Access to different experiences is also vital, as is providing support services enabling families and children to have choices—real choices—about their own future.

That is what really concerns me about the changes that are in this bill, because I believe that these changes will profoundly affect people in regional and rural Australia, that they will profoundly affect people from my home state of Tasmania, that they will affect people from low-income households, and that they will also profoundly affect women.

I am proud to stand in this place and talk about Labor's higher education reforms since I have been in this place and the reforms of Labor governments past. Labor has always had two things at the heart of our reforms: equal access for all, and quality of education and research at our universities. Unfortunately, I think this bill will fail these two tests.

Under Labor's reforms there was an increase nationally of children from low-SES backgrounds attending university—an increase, indeed, of 21 per cent. They also saw Indigenous students increase by 26 per cent and regional students by 30 per cent. Labor increased funding for universities in our last term in office from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. It is a record that I am and should be proud of. But the changes in this bill will undo many of these achievements.

So what is the government actually doing with this bill? Well, to start with, this bill represents broken promises, because we all remember, of course, the promise of 'no cuts to education' and then of the 'continuation of current arrangement of university funding'—clearly, two promises broken with the introduction of this bill.

This legislation represents a massive funding cut to higher education in this country—in total, $5.8 billion in cuts from higher education, teaching, learning and university research. This legislation is making these cuts by slashing funding for Commonwealth supported places in undergraduate degrees by an average of 20 per cent and, for some courses, by up to 37 per cent. It is also reducing the indexation arrangements for university funding to CPI in 2016, down from the appropriate rate the previous Labor government had introduced. This means $200 million in cuts over the forward estimates period, but is a major contributor to the $2.5 billion per annum shortfall in 10 years' time, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office. There is the cutting of the Research Training Scheme, by $174 million—the scheme which supports training of Australia's research students, our scientists of tomorrow. There is also the introduction of fees for PhDs.

And of course there is the change to the interest rate on HECS, from the current CPI rate to the 10-year bond rate, up to six per cent. This highly regressive measure applies not only to existing and future students, but to anyone who will still have a HECS debt when this measure passes. So why is this so bad? Well, existing HECS- and HELP-debt students—currently about 1.2 million people in Australia—will be hit with thousands of dollars extra in interest on their loans after 2016.

Both existing and new HECS-HELP debts will feel the impact of the Abbott government's changes to interest rate indexation from CPI of two per cent to the government bond rate, capped at six per cent. This will be applied retrospectively and will not be grandfathered, so all current and former students with a HECS debt will be hit by these changes.

Then we heard a lot of kerfuffle from the other side about how deregulation will be great and will not lead to substantial fee increases. But the estimates range from 30 to 60 per cent, depending on the course and depending on who is doing the research. But whether it is the Group of Eight or the NTEU, everybody agrees that fees are on the increase.

We know from looking overseas the impact this has on students. In Britain, fees were deregulated in 2012 with a cap of 9,000 pounds. For the 2015-16 academic year, there will be only two universities, out of 123, that will not be charging 9,000 pound fees. In the United States, the system Christopher Pyne seems so keen to emulate, university fee rises are out of control and student debt now exceeds credit card debt. We do not want that here in our country. So we know that the cost of a degree will go up substantially and that this will deter students from low socioeconomic backgrounds from actually attending university.

The imposition of a real interest rate, when the implications of this set in, will also deter those who are likely to earn lower graduate salaries: teachers, nurses et cetera—and this will disproportionately affect women who undertake these courses. Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief economist Saul Eslake has warned of the consequences of higher interest rates on student loans, particularly for women:

It would be irrational for people not to consider the cost in relation to their working life, in the same way as when you borrow to buy a house.

We are talking about the decisions that people make about whether or not they should get a university degree, so it will certainly be deterring people from my home state of Tasmania, where people are on low incomes.

We know that these changes will impact regional Australia. Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne and eminent higher education specialist, Professor Kwong Lee Dow, has said that the government's package means that 'students will be paying significantly more, and rural and regional students will be disproportionately affected'. Deregulation of the student contribution is unlikely to place many regional universities in an advantageous position given that price will be seen by prospective students as a proxy for quality—that is, that higher fees are associated with higher status—even though that may not be the case.

Regional universities recruit up to 75 per cent of their domestic students from the regions they serve, where students and their families tend to be financially risk-averse. The key factor for students not completing their studies usually relates to their financial situation.

I want to talk a little bit about the impact of these changes on my home state of Tasmania. We are in a unique position where we only have one university. We have had come into this chamber two other members from Tasmania, the member for Braddon and the member for Bass, to talk about these higher education reforms, and I notice the member for Lyons is in the chamber at the moment. Interestingly, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Tasmania is concerned by these changes. Indeed, he said:

The ability of the University to recoup those reductions in revenue through fee premiums may be limited by the economic circumstances of the island. …

… Those subjects that we do not teach, the research that we do not conduct, or the social programs that we do not support are unlikely to be replaced easily by other providers.

That means they will not be taught in Tasmania.

The vice chancellor has also indicated that University of Tasmania's budget will be cut by approximately $30 million to $35 million per annum—each and every year. The University of Tasmania is one of Tasmania's largest employers and we know that Tasmania has the highest unemployment rate in the country. So there are grave concerns that these changes will impact right across the state and right across the economy in Tasmania.

Indeed there is so much concern that we have had the member for Bass come out publicly and talk about his concern. We heard the member for Throsby refer to it earlier. Even the new Liberal state education minister in Tasmania is pushing for a special deal for the University of Tasmania. Just a few weeks ago he requested an urgent meeting with the federal Minister for Education to talk about how these cuts will impact the University of Tasmania. The state government is so concerned, and we know that others are so concerned, that they are talking about what Tasmania needs to compensate.

For Tasmania to require compensation means that it is actually going to hurt the state. It is going to mean that Tasmanian students will be worse off if this bill goes through. We know that Tasmanian students are already from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—higher than the national average. We know that Tasmanian students already do not have a lot of choice. We know the vice chancellor has talked about closing campuses in the state. We know that there has been a discussion about splitting the university from the research and the teaching, so that the university may be viable under these changes. There is grave concern right across the Tasmanian economy and indeed right across the Liberal Party and all the parties in Tasmania about these changes. There is concern everywhere in Tasmania.

It is interesting that the member for Bass talked about going to a forum on higher education reforms in Tasmania. I went to a forum there. I spoke to the students at the campus in Hobart. Jackie Lambie was there. The member for Denison was there. I was there. The state Labor member was there. But there were no Liberals in sight.

Mr Hutchinson: None of us got invited.

Ms COLLINS: They did get invited, and they all turned it down. They were called by the organisers of the event, Member for Lyons.

Mr Hutchinson: It was only 24 hours beforehand.

Ms COLLINS: The Tasmanian senators were given much more notice than that. They were invited to the forum, but they would not front up.

Mr Hutchinson: It was a setup.

Ms COLLINS: Why wouldn't they front up? Because they did not want to hear the concerns of the students at the University of Tasmania about these changes

Everybody on that panel heard the concerns of the Tasmanian students and everybody on that panel undertook to not support these higher education changes—because we know that they are bad for Tasmania. We know that they are bad for the University of Tasmania. We know that they will be bad for unemployment in Tasmania and we know that they will be bad for the Tasmanian economy.

These changes are bad across the board. We have heard from so many people that these changes are bad. Australians are against these measures. Have any of the members opposite actually talked to people in their electorates? Do they know how unpopular these changes are? Have they actually spoken to the mums, the dads, the aunts, the uncles and the grandparents about their aspirations for their children and how frightened they are about these changes? Have they actually done that? Did they do that during the parliamentary break? Did they talk to anybody in their electorates? From the way they have come in here and spoken on this bill, I would think not.

If they have actually talked to people, clearly they have not been listening because they could not then come in here and say the things that we have heard from the members opposite. They could not possible come in here and say that there is widespread support for these reforms—when we know there is not. They could not possibly come in here and say that these reforms are not going to lead to higher fees—because they will. They could not possibly come in here and talk about these reforms and how good they are, knowing that students will have higher debts. I do not understand how so many of them are willing to stand up and defend this appalling piece of legislation. I absolutely cannot understand how they are doing it.

Australians are absolutely against the measures in this bill that I have spoken about. They are against cutting public funding to undergraduate courses. They are against $100,000 degrees for their family members. They are against these things because they understand the value of an education. They understand that education should be available to everyone and that, no matter their means, no matter where they come from and no matter whether they live in an island state, they deserve the opportunity of a university education if that is their choice. I proudly stand and say that I and Labor will be opposing the measures in this legislation.