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Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Page: 9358

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (12:07): There is one political test that no politician can ever afford to fail—the test of education. No parliamentarian, no political party, no government should ever look back and say that they have made our education system worse. Opportunity in education is a pact between generations; it is a solemn promise to pass on an education system that is better than the one you inherited. By its very nature, education is a generational decision. You do not meddle carelessly with one of the great markers of life—and education is indeed one of the great markers in the line of life. In the line of life, education starts very early—what you think you can and cannot do.

Governments can make very big changes to our education system, but they must be undertaken carefully. Remember, education affects people's lives; it affects whole generations. The great Gough Whitlam argued for the best part of a decade about the role of education, before he changed our system. Prime Minister Gillard's great contribution was initiated by a special inquiry first. The best leaders, the real leaders, the genuine article, get involved in the education sector. They argue that position—a position that relies on care, forethought, listening and respect.

But none of the legislation that we are debating today is careful or thoughtful. This government do not know, do not understand, the impact they seek to have on the lives of Australians. The truants opposite do not understand that education is an irreplaceable, essential ingredient of a tolerant, caring, adaptive, growing economy. For Labor, universities are not just research centres—though their research is crucial. For Labor, universities are not just places of teaching—though we revere our educators. For Labor, universities are the foundation upon which we will build a better Australia. For Labor, education goes beyond mere utility. Education is a catalyst for change; it is the provider of confidence, tolerance and hope; and the opportunity of education is an Australian birthright that belongs to us all.

As Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said 40 years ago, people should be free to choose the kind of education they want, but this choice must be one between systems and courses, not between standards, not between a good education and a bad one, not a choice between an expensive education or a poor one. Forty years after Whitlam Labor brought the great, good dream of a university education within reach of generations of Australians, that dream is now in peril. I and many Labor members have been visiting the universities of Australia. In every state, at every campus, our message has been clear—and I repeat it here today in the house of the Australian people: Labor believes in equality of education. Labor believes in affordable, accessible higher education for all Australians. That is why we will vote against $100,000 degrees. We will vote against the doubling and tripling of university fees. We will vote against a real and compounding interest rate on student debt. We will vote time and time again against this government's cuts to university research. We will never consign the next generation of Australians to a 'debt sentence'. We will not support a system where the cost of university degrees rises faster than the capacity of society to pay for them. We will never tell Australians that the quality of their education depends upon their capacity to pay.

Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Dawkins carefully built a sustainable financial future for our university system without imposing up-front fees. This government is trying to tear this remarkable architecture down. The Rudd and Gillard governments extended new opportunities to low-income households and to regional Australia. This government is selling out ordinary Australia and betraying the bush. There are 750,000 students on Australian university campuses today, and one in every four is there because of the previous Labor government. We removed the cap on student places, creating new opportunities for 190,000 Australians. We increased the number of Indigenous students attending university by 26 per cent. We boosted funding for regional universities by 56 per cent. We boosted regional student numbers by 30 per cent. And over 30,000 extra students from low-income families got the chance to go to university because of Labor reforms. We did indeed make record investments in Australia's greatest resource—the creativity and genius of our people.

The University of Western Sydney, which I visited with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the member for Greenway, is living proof of the Labor legacy. At UWS, 65 in every 100 of their current domestic students are the first member of their family to go to university. One in four of their domestic students comes from a poor family. One in three of the domestic students there speaks a language other than English at home, representing the best of 140 different nations. Nearly one in every three of their Australian students is mature age—remarkable, gutsy Australians retraining and acquiring skills to adapt to our modern world. They are who we fight for today.

I have been to see La Trobe University's Bendigo campus with Senator Carr and the member for Bendigo, a university giving young people from the bush and regional Victoria the chance to get a degree close to home and attracting new people to Bendigo. Between 60 to 80 of every 100 graduates from regional university campuses start work in that region. They make a social contribution to the community that has supported them. They give back what they have received. That is what we are fighting for today, to stop the drain of country people to the city. Regional universities and university towns in the bush add to the fabric of our nation.

This Prime Minister, this shameful Prime Minister who knowingly promised no cuts to education, and this so-called Minister for Education—the great pretender who promised not to increase university fees—have used this budget to ambush the people of Australia with one of the most profound economic and social policy shifts in a generation. There was no green paper to discuss the issue. There was no white paper. No public consultation has occurred under the Dawkins changes. These changes that we oppose today are purely the product of private lobbying, personal ideology and the careers of frustrated student politicians.

Labor is always prepared for a constructive discussion about higher education reform. But you would never start a negotiation with our universities by cutting nearly $6 billion—$6,000 million—from their teaching and research funding. This shameful minister boasts of apparent university support for his proposals. It is support drawn from extortion. He airily and breezily says that because universities are full of smart people they will work out how to deal with these cuts. Why should they? It is as if he thinks the reason they got a PhD was in case they ever had to deal with a neo-Luddite like this impostor. His patrician attack on high-quality public universities threatens the essence of our public higher education system. His two-pronged assault is forcing universities to support rampant deregulation instead of better funding and equity of access. This government is seeking to blackmail our universities and, in doing so, they are robbing a future from a generation of Australians.

Just as the GP tax represents the thin edge of the wedge for this government's destruction of universal Medicare, the introduction of a real and compounding interest rate on student debt threatens our fair and equitable income-contingent student loan system with extinction. When John Dawkins and Bruce Chapman designed the HECS system, they created a piece of public policy genius and art, just like Medicare. Like Medicare, the Australian university system imposes no prohibitive up-front costs, no deterrent. Like Medicare, our efficient higher education system gives us a home-grown source of international competitive advantage. Ours is a classically Australian smart system of manageable student debt and sustainable universities. It lifts the productive capacity of our nation without submitting to the erratic, unfettered forces of a market system.

Like Medicare, this great public policy initiative faces destruction from this government. Tying student debt to the government bond rate will put the burden of student debt back onto families. It is not just future university students who will lose out. Every Australian with a student debt, that is nearly a million people, will have their interest rate retrospectively changed from CPI to the long-term government bond rate. This is a government that rejects the principle of retrospectivity. It is a great Liberal notion, 'We do not believe in retrospectivity'—except when it comes to nearly a million students.

As Associate Professor Jeannie Paterson has said, this is like a bank forcing a mortgagee onto a variable loan after they have signed up to fixed interest rates. Australians who have made responsible decisions about how they will manage their lives will have the goalposts unfairly and dramatically shifted. The people hurt most by these changes will be women who take time out of the workforce to start and raise a family. NATSEM modelling estimates that an increase of just 20 per cent in the cost of degrees, combined with the changes to the interest rate, will mean a woman with a nursing degree is looking at the doubling of her student debt from $23,000 to $46,000. A woman graduate teacher is looking at a debt of $63,000 and 16 years of repayment compared to $32,000 repaid over nine years. A female science graduate will be looking at a near tripling of student debt from $44,000 to $123,000.

The HECS-HELP system also contained a built-in insurance mechanism. Approximately 25 per cent of students start university but do not graduate. They have a student debt but no degree. Tying student debt to CPI protects these people. It means that their debt can never increase in real terms, even if they earn below the repayment threshold for long periods of time. Switching to the government bond rate will mean that people on low incomes, whose debts last longer and accrue more interest, will pay more in absolute terms than the richest graduates.

This is the unfairness of Tony Abbott's Australia, writ large. The less you earn, the more you pay. We know this government cannot begin to imagine what life is like for the people they seek to lecture. They have no idea how 90 per cent of Australians structure their lives. Going to university was easy for the minister, it was easy for his colleagues on the front bench, it was easy for the Prime Minister, so they assume it was easy and is easy for everyone. They know nothing, those who sit opposite, of the sacrifices that families and young Australians make to pursue a university education. They know nothing of the panic, the uncertainty, that they have unleashed on parents and children at open days that have just been conducted across this country.

I say to the government: do not turn your back on young people. Instead, for once—just once—put yourself in the shoes of the people your decisions will affect. Respected commentators have warned that the cost of degrees will hit the same level that international students currently pay. That means that a law degree at the University of Adelaide, like Christopher Pyne's, would cost $126,000. Imagine how much that would balloon if you indexed it at six per cent per year. A student doing a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of laws at Sydney university, like the Prime Minister, would be looking at a cost of $175,000. And if that student chose to spend time abroad after graduating, like our Prime Minister did, and then took some time out of the workforce, maybe pursuing a vocation in the priesthood, like the Prime Minister did, then the interest on their debt would continue to compound. It would go up and up and up. If the government gets its way, ballooning debt and decades of repayment would be the inescapable crushing reality for millions of our fellow Australians.

The Liberal plan for higher costs, higher debt and higher interest rates is a trifecta. It is an attack on our past students, on our present students and on our future students; $100,000 degrees will wipe out the expectations and aspirations of a significant proportion of the population right from the outset. The minister says his proposals are about giving Australians a choice. In once sense he is right: the government's plan to double and triple the cost of university education will certainly force the next generation of Australians to choose—choose between university and a mortgage, choose between higher education and owning a home. The government's plan to ratchet up the interest rate on student debt will force women to choose between starting a family and paying for their degree. The minister, in his well-know trademark undergraduate fashion, says, 'I'm not asking students to give up their left kidney.' No, but he is asking young Australians to lower their sights, and in doing so this reckless, cavalier government is jeopardising our nation's future.

They love to talk about productivity, this mob opposite. They are undermining productivity. They love to talk about competitiveness, yet they undermine our nation's competitiveness. It is our productivity and our competitiveness that will determine how Australia fares in the 21st century. Australia can get smarter, or we can get poorer. We will not compete with our region as a supplier of cheap labour. We will not grow and thrive as a crude, low-wage, low-skill economy. There are no winners in this kind of race to the bottom. Labor knows, in its DNA, that the future of Australia, on the doorstep of the fastest-growing region in human history, will be defined by our knowledge economy. In a century of global supply change, it will be the quality of our ideas, the quality of our genius and the quality of our people that will determine our success. It is only upon the expression of education that Australia will fully develop our economic potential, our scientific potential, our artistic potential, our people's potential. But this government's threats of deeper cuts to research will erode the rankings of our universities, and it will grievously injure our third-largest export industry: international education.

It is no wonder that Australia's banks and financial markets are apprehensive about a so-called reform agenda that places at risk an inbound capital market worth billions of dollars every year. With so much of this budget, the government's attacks on university students and their families is not just unfair; it is economically irresponsible. Labor does not believe that Australia has to choose between equity in education and quality of education. They are twins of education—equity of education and quality of education—and neither can exist without the other. But this is the Liberal Party we have come to know so well in the last 12 months. They always seek to profit from the politics of division. Dog whistling is their stock in trade. For months, this cynical minister has been asking the divisive question: why should 60 per cent of taxpayers who do not attend university contribute to the fees of the 40 per cent who do? Let me provide this cynical man with the answer he simply craves: education is not just a private privilege; it is also a public benefit.

University graduates already pay for their education with an economic contribution and a social contribution. It is our doctors who keep us healthy. They went to university. It is our teachers who educate our children. They went to university. Our architects, engineers and town planners, who shape the infrastructure and indeed the face of our nation, went to university. Our scientists, making the discoveries that will determine our future health and prosperity, went to university. This nation that we are privileged to be representing in the parliament is smart enough, generous enough and rich enough to know that the whole nation benefits from a strong, accessible, affordable university system.

And let me tell this minister something else he clearly does not know: there is another reason Australians who did not go to university believe in supporting universities. They do so because they want their kids to go to university. I have never met a parent or a grandparent who did not get the opportunity to go to university and who begrudges their child or grandchild the opportunity to go to university. This divisive man, this divisive minister and his divisive Prime Minister fundamentally underestimate the spirit of Australians when they say that the 60 per cent who did not go to university do not want the 40 per cent to go to university. You are wrong. You are grievously wrong. You are terribly wrong.

The parents and grandparents who did not go to university want the best for their children. They want their children to grow up in a nation and a society where education and hard work are the rewards—not your postcode but how hard you work. They want to see good marks, not the old-boy tie of the school they went to, to determine opportunity. And parents and grandparents who did not go to university want their kids to get the good jobs. They do not want this mendicant government to stand in the path of their children having a better life than they had. The parents and grandparents of Australia work hard every day. They pay their taxes. They build good communities and they do so so that their children can get a better start in life than they had. And this government has set its face against a natural tendency of all Australians to see this country progress.

Our nation has to choose. The Liberals opposite can vote for $100,000 degrees, a doubling and tripling of university fees, but Labor will always be on the side of students. We will always be on the side of families. We will always be on the side of people who want the great, good dream: that their kids will do better than them. That is the great Australian story. This mob opposite can vote for an unfair two-class education system. We will always vote for the fair go. Liberals can vote for a nation where a university education is the privilege of a few but we will vote for an Australia where the opportunity of education belongs to everyone—town and country, man and woman, mature age and young—regardless of postcode or the wealth of your parent.

On this side of the House we are going to vote for an Australia where it does not matter whether you were born in a commission flat or you live 100 kilometres from the nearest town. You will go to university if you so desire under a Labor government. It does not matter if your children are the children of first-generation migrants or descendants of people who arrived with Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet. We vote for our vision of Australia, an Australia where a child's future is determined by their aspirations and dreams and the hopes and hard work of their parents. We will vote for an Australia where education is a right for all of us and, because of this, we will vote against this legislation. We will vote against it every time it is presented until the defeat of the Abbott government. We will do so with a clear conscience.

We will vote in the knowledge that our Labor generation has kept the faith and when this legislation is defeated, which it surely will be, when these proposals fail, as they surely will, Labor will do what this government is incapable of doing. We will sit down with the universities of Australia. We will reach out to the sector. We will consult with the experts and the teachers, the parents and the students before we release our proposals. Labor believe that the Commonwealth has a role, that it has a responsibility to support our universities. We believe it is a responsibility which must be shared by all. That is why we designed the HECS system. The Labor Party I lead believe in reform. We believe in efficiencies. We believe in productivity. We acknowledge a role for markets but always, ever always, with generous, Australian-style safety nets.

As demand for university places grows, Labor know the challenge is to guarantee the right of access without sacrificing quality. Today on behalf of Labor, I give the Australian people this promise. At the next election, when you look for the how-to-vote cards of the competing parties, you will have competing visions of higher education. Labor will make the next election a competition for the best university policy. We are ambitious for this nation. We declare that the game is on for who has the best policy on higher education and we will do so on the basis that when people who care about higher education attend the thousands of polling booths all over Australia, if they care about the dream, aspirations and hope for a smarter, greater nation, they will reach for the Labor how-to-vote card.

We will make the next election a higher education election. We will stand up for young Australians, to give them a voice in the national political debate. We will stand up for mature age Australians, dislocated by economic change, and we will give them a voice in Australian politics. We will keep the pact that we owe the next generation. We will most certainly pass the one political test that no parliament should ever fail. We will pass the test of education.