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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12497


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (19:10): This is part of the government's ongoing attack on universities. What we've seen over years is funding cuts to universities and the burden of the cost of education shifted further and further away from the government. This government doesn't think that education is a public good, doesn't think that having an educated society is important and doesn't think that everyone should have access to higher education or tertiary education of any form, no matter what their background, and so we are seeing Australia slowly go down the road of other countries, where you have to start saving up from the moment that your child is born if you want to be able to send them off somewhere after high school.

We know, because we've had review after review tell us, that universities themselves are under enormous financial strain, because they are being underfunded. In the same way that we underfund our public schools in this country, we also underfund our public universities. So what does the government do? The government says, 'Let's make sure the universities have even less money to spend on teaching, on research and on their students.' The Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018 will further shift the cost of providing education away from the Commonwealth. It comes in the context of the government's decision back in December of last year, by which time they had effectively slashed $2.2 billion from the higher education sector by freezing Commonwealth funding for teaching and learning.

The Senate wasn't even allowed to have hearings when they conducted the inquiry on these bills. People made submissions and wanted the chance to front up and tell the government and the senators about the impacts of all of this, and they weren't even allowed to front up and make their case. No, the government just said, 'We will impose this obligation on you.' What's it going to do? This will make universities have to pay more money back to the government for things that the government should be doing as of right. As a result there is going to be less money available to the universities themselves. The bills propose shifting to higher education providers the costs of administering HELP loans, via yet another levy on higher education providers, who are already struggling. Universities Australia, which represents all the universities, said in its submission:

higher education providers should not have to pay the bureaucracy to perform administrative functions that are integral to the HELP scheme and for which DET is already funded;

It is a very good point. We are now saying universities have to pay a levy to the government for processing the things the government requires them to do. That is what the department is there for. This will mean less money for teaching, less money for research and less money for students. The University of Melbourne put it politely:

The principle of asking universities to meet the costs of Government administration is an unfortunate precedent and one which should be, at the very least, interrogated …

Absolutely right: if we say that public institutions now, in some sort of money-go-round, have pay back to the Commonwealth, in the form of a levy, money that they have received then this is going to be something the government presumably will want to start rolling out to other areas. They can say, 'We haven't cut funding.' Well, no, but you have given with one hand and forced them to give back—you've taken away—with the other.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations stated in its submission:

Inevitably, cuts impact the delivery of teaching and research, the core functions of universities in Australia. Funding cuts will be passed onto undergraduate and postgraduate students, whether they are built into tuition costs for full fee-paying students, result in increased student to academic staff ratios, or lead higher education providers to otherwise reduce the "cost of delivery" of education.

In other words, to make ends meet, to make up for this effective cut, universities may well turn around and ask students to pay more, so the cost of education will go up, thanks to this government. And the University of Newcastle stated in its submission:

… the costs of administering HELP are already shared by the university sector and government - the University of Newcastle, like other universities, provides a range of administrative and student services in order to ensure it properly administers HELP funding.

Those services are now going to be under threat, potentially, as well.

In the Greens' view, shifting the cost of administering student loans to higher education providers not only is wrong in principle but overburdens an already underfunded sector. We should be putting more money into students and education, not taking it out, which is what this government is proposing to do. It's going to penalise students, as the Innovative Research Universities stated in their submission. They said this will 'penalise students by further reducing the resources universities and other higher education providers have to deliver students a good education'.

It's also of great concern that the charges that are potentially going to be levelled under this bill are not explicit. They will sit wholly outside legislation—including the methodology to calculate these charges—and what that does is that it prevents proper parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed changes. The amount and the calculation of the annual charge, by the time the bill had gone through the Senate inquiry, were going to be wholly determined by regulation which hadn't even been drafted. No wonder the universities are ringing the alarm bells about this. This is just a licence for the government. After we pass the budget, pass the appropriations bills, pass all the legislation that says, 'This is how much money we are going to give to universities,' this bill now gives the government the right to say, open ended, without parliamentary scrutiny, 'We are going to determine how much of it you're going to now have to give back. So forget what's in the budget figures. They're not actually going to be the real figures, because we're now going to be able to take a bit back from you.' A bit or a lot—who knows?

You've got to ask: why did the government rush this legislation here with a very short consultation period, with no public hearings on this? The university sector aren't just screaming about the impact that this is going to have on them; they're also saying loud and clear, 'If you're going to do it to us, give us a chance to respond and tell us exactly what you're going to do.' The government wouldn't even give them that courtesy. So this bill should not proceed, and I hope that there are others in this chamber, in the opposition, who join us in opposing this bill.

We need to make education free in this country. We need to start saying: it is time that everyone has a right to go to university, no matter what your background, and, when you leave university, you should not be saddled with a huge debt. That has been a Greens policy for a very long time, and at successive elections we've gone with plans that will get us, over time, towards that goal of having free university education.

The thing is: we can afford it. We do not need to be putting people further and further into debt just because they've got a university education, because the life of a university graduate at the moment is a very, very difficult one. You enter an environment where 40 per cent of the jobs that are available are non-standard or insecure. You enter an environment where, back in the 1990s, an average house cost six times an average young person's income; by the mid-2010s, it cost 12 times a young person's income. You enter an environment where wages have been flatlining. You enter an environment where personal debt is now at, I think—and I stand to be corrected, but, if it's not there, it's pretty close—its highest when compared to household income for a very, very long time. Debt in this country is huge because wages are flatlining and people are having to borrow to make ends meet.

If you're a university graduate, you've now got a debt that you've got to pay back, and pay back earlier, thanks to this government—before you even start hitting average wages. And now the government are saying, 'Well, we're going to enable universities to put up the cost of education even more.' We are creating a generational divide in this country, where people will be graduating with debts the size of small mortgages and will be forced to pay it back in a very insecure job market, where housing is unaffordable and where costs are going up but wages are flatlining. We are putting people under enormous pressure and eventually they are going to break.

We should be going the other way. One way of doing that would be by lowering the cost of education, lowering the debts that people have to pay. When you think about it, there's actually no reason that students and graduates in this country have to go into debt. The debt that they've got is not a debt the government can call in like any other commercial debt. It's a bookkeeping entry; it's an accounting entry. What matters to the government is getting a stream of money every year, at the moment in the form of repayments. So what matters for the government is having a revenue stream to fund the cost of education. Well, let's wind back some unfair tax breaks and we could make education free.

At the moment when people go to the petrol station to put petrol in their car they pay 40c a litre tax. When Gina Rinehart and her mining magnates put diesel into their trucks, they pay the tax and then they get it back, courtesy of a free kick from the taxpayer every year. People pay a couple of billion dollars so that wealthy mining companies can get a tax rebate on their diesel fuel. Why not just ask Gina Rinehart to pay the same tax on her fuel that everyone else in her country has to pay when they go to the bowser and put that money into funding education and making university education free again? Why not do that? That's what the Greens have been arguing for, for a very, very long time. Instead, we seem to be going down a different road; we are heading on the road to becoming a more unequal society, where the gap between the very rich and everyone else will grow and grow and grow.

Can I say this, too: in a concentrated media market, where in some states you wake up in the morning and your choice is between a Murdoch newspaper and a Murdoch newspaper, we are going to need an educated population to hold powerful interests to account, to hold the parliament to account, to hold big corporations to account. If we don't have an educated population, then, heading into the 21st century, Australia is stuffed. Our advantages in this 21st century are going to be our minds, not our mines. Our advantages are going to be from investing in science, research, innovation and the humanities and in being able to lead the world. Instead, through this policy, because they've got to find money to be able to give Gina Rinehart unfair tax breaks, because they want to find money to go out and start funding new coal-fired power stations—because that's going to cost money and the money has to come from somewhere—they're looking around and they're saying, 'We'll cut it from universities,' and they cut it from universities again and again and again. They put students further into debt, and they lift the cost of education for students, and they are growing the divide and making inequality worse in this country.

So we will oppose this bill, and I hope others in this place will join us in opposing this bill. It's not just about making sure there's more money for universities, which there should be; it's about making sure that students aren't being forced to pay more and more, which they will be if this bill passes, and the student organisations have expressed that concern very forcefully. Going to the next election, people will have a choice between a government that says, 'We don't care how much it costs to go to university because the people that we represent are going to be able to find the money from somewhere,' or the alternative government, which introduced HECS in the first place and has overseen an underfunded university system, or the Greens, who say, 'We need to make sure education is a right for all and we need to get back to the days of education being free and available.' We will have a plan to get there, and it does not involve cutting funding to universities. It involves saying that we're going to stand up to big, powerful interests—the big corporations—and say that it is time they paid their fair share. Enough unfair tax breaks! By winding back their unfair tax breaks, we will have enough money to make sure that Australia has a public education system that we can all be proud of and where you don't need to get a debt the size of a small mortgage to go to university.

This bill should be opposed. It should die here in this House. If it doesn't, we'll put it to the test in the Senate. And who knows? We may well have an election by the time this bill comes around, so I hope that no-one else in this place is keen on rushing this bill through. It's a bad bill and it should be opposed.