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Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Page: 8731

Senator DASTYARI (New South Wales) (13:00): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2015. Labor supports this bill which implements six unrelated measures. Several of them do, however, have this in common: they are overdue. They are mostly minor reforms that the government could and should have acted on earlier. When the Minister for Vocational Education and Skills introduced this bill in the other place he sought to blame Labor for the delay. These reforms could have come sooner, he said, if Labor had not insisted on opposing the government's higher education reforms. Not everyone who heard that speech would have understood what the minister was saying, because his tongue must have been wedged firmly in his cheek.

It is the government not Labor that is responsible for the delay in introducing these reforms. There was never any justification for making the extension of HECS-HELP access to long-term New Zealand residents of Australia dependant on fee deregulation and cuts to Commonwealth supported places. The government wanted to make the rectification of a small injustice conditional on the perpetration of a much greater one. It wanted to make 2,600 New Zealand students hostages to its plan for $100,000 degrees and the Americanisation of Australia's university system. The opening up of HECS-HELP to long-term New Zealand residents never should have been bundled with the government's agenda for deregulation of university fees. Labor could never support such a fundamentally unfair agenda. As the previous minister for education twice found to his cost, that agenda was never going to be accepted by a Senate responsive to the wishes of the Australian people. So I am pleased that his successor has seen sense in reintroducing this reform with other measures that will also receive bipartisan support.

But let us be clear about how we got to where we are now. This is a mess of the government's making. Labor was never going to acquiesce in the previous minister's stubborn refusal to act in a bipartisan matter on what surely should have been a noncontroversial matter. As senators will be aware, senators including Senator Carr sought to resolve the problem earlier by introducing a private senator's bill to extend HELP access to long-term New Zealand residents in Australia. There is nothing in this bill now before the Senate that was not in the private member's bill introduced by Senator Carr. If the government had supported Senator Carr's bill, the issue would have already been resolved. But it did not. Labor is supporting this bill so that the eligible New Zealand students will not have to wait any longer. They have waited far too long already.

It is a long accepted principle that the recipients of the various HELP schemes should be people who will be able to repay the loan because they will be paying Australian taxes. The operation of that principle has been slightly modified by the recent bill—which Labor also supported—to recover HELP debts from Australians working overseas. It has become possible to do that because other jurisdictions in which a significant number of Australians work, such as the UK and New Zealand, also have income-contingent loans for higher education. The principle remains intact. In any case, it was never going to be undermined by the opening up of HELP to long-term New Zealand residents in this country. 'Long term', in this context, means people who reside here for at least 10 years. As Dr Andrew Norton of the Grattan Institute, a former adviser to the present government, has said, most of these people:

… have been in Australia for much of their lives, went to Australian schools, talk with Australian accents, and consider themselves Australian for most purposes …

It was always normless and unfair that people who could be so described should be excluded from HELP because they happened to have New Zealand passports. Australians in the equivalent position in New Zealand have access to the Student Loan Scheme. This bill fulfils a longstanding commitment on both sides of politics to balance the Australian side of the ledger.

Another noncontroversial matter that the government has bizarrely bundled with its two failed deregulation bills was formal recognition of the name change of the University of Ballarat to Federation University. The new name was the choice of the university's council and has been implemented by the recent state legislation in Victoria. It is a necessary formality that the Commonwealth also adopt the change by amending the Higher Education Support Act, HESA. And we are, at last, doing so through this bill. This bill also clarifies the constitutional head of powers that HESA relies upon to assure universities and their students that the Commonwealth will continue to be able to provide financial support. The bill further amends the Higher Education Support Act to include Torrens University on the list of table B providers. Torrens University, which was registered by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, TEQSA, in 2012 and began operations last year, is at present not eligible for the same research funding support as other private universities. Its inclusion on table B means that it will now be able to obtain research block funding, including fee support for postgraduate students and research scholarships, including postgraduate awards.

Labor takes the position that on the issue of inclusion of private universities among table B institutions, the horse has already bolted, as other private universities have already achieved inclusion. Further extensions of this kind of support should remain the preserve of the parliament on a case-by-case basis. This should not be taken as an indication that we are open to further privatisation though. Labor, most certainly, will not support the inclusion of private higher education providers, be they domestic or international, as table A institutions and eligible for base funding support to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.

This bill also implements a change affecting TEQSA itself. The TEQSA Act is amended to clarify the agency's reporting responsibilities after passage of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. The bill removes the requirement for the TEQSA commissioner to prepare annual operational plans, as the PGPA Act now requires publishing of a corporate plan. Since the annual and corporate plans cover the same matters, this change removes what has become an unnecessary duplication.

Finally, the government has at last moved to give the higher education sector greater certainty by increasing the funding caps in the Australian Research Council Act 2001 in line with inflation. This means that thousands of research projects can continue to receive government funding through to the 2018-19 financial year. As senators will be aware, the ARC is the most significant distributor of competitive funding in Australia for research in all disciplines. The bill also removes specific provisions in the act requiring the development of an annual corporate plan. As with the TEQSA change, this also removes the duplication while ensuring that the ARC continues to remain accountable under the provisions of the PGPA Act.

These six measures will together—as the government acknowledged when introducing the bill—help to maintain Australia's world-class university system. It remains a matter of deep concern and regret, however, that the government continues to be intent on degrading that system through its proposals for deregulated fees, cuts to the Commonwealth-supported places and extension of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to private providers. If that agenda is never implemented, the cost burden on universities, their students and taxpayers will spiral upwards while the quality of the system declines. And the government is now hinting that it wishes to impose a further cost hike through increasing the GST and extending it to educational services. Australia's students do not need a system that will burden them with a lifetime of debt. Even less do they need a 15 per cent GST on top of that, which will mean paying even more. Once again, I urge the government to abandon its unfair and unnecessary higher agenda, to consult the sector and to start again.