Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

I rise to outline my strong opposition to the government's Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014. I declare straight out that I had a free university education. I would correct the member for Herbert: I have not heard one Labor member suggest in a speech given today that university education should be completely free—not one—and those assertions do not do this place justice. This government continues to be full of surprises, despite their assertions before the election. The higher education bill confirms that this government has introduced cuts to every level of education, from child care all the way through to postgraduate study. Combined, these decisions act to entrench inequity at all levels of education. This is done while those opposite scream at our young people: 'You must earn or learn.' Today's legislation closes the loop on access and equity in education and makes the ability of young people in this country to meet that demand so much harder.

These changes will again hit low- and middle-income families and will risk locking people from my community out of university. In Lalor, people of all ages want to talk about this unfair change. Families are seriously looking at their options to assess if university is possible for their children, and, meanwhile, the minister cruelly quips that he is not asking for their left kidney. No, just their future. Here we see the final nail in the coffin. With this bill they have basically told people in Lalor to just give up. They have closed the door on opportunity. Andrea Toohey, a resident of Lalor, wrote to me this morning and said:

Joanne my son has been working long hrs at Coles during his gap year to help support himself at Uni in Ballarat next yr. He may need to keep working for a long while yet? It's a shame to think his career choice may be totally out of reach.

This bill threatens to lock people out of future prosperity.

The member for Herbert has left, but I would point out a discriminatory difference regarding some of the assertions that he made. Governments may have to bring in legislation beyond an election. That is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a government that made promises—plural—before an election and is now breaking them. Despite the promises, it acted to the contrary. On education, the Prime Minister said:

… I want to give people this absolute assurance, no cuts to education …

I cannot count the number of times I have heard it repeated. That was on 1 September 2013—that is, before the election. On universities, he said:

If we have to change it, we will consult beforehand rather than impose it unilaterally and argue about it afterwards.

It is clear to me that that spoke to an intent. That was in February 2013. It could not be clearer, really. Minister Pyne said:

We want university students to make their contribution, but we're not going to raise fees …

That was in November 2013—emphatic, after the election. When the interviewer asked, 'Why not raise university fees?' Minister Pyne said:

Because we promised we wouldn't before the election …

Doubly emphatic, even after the election. My favourite quote of all would have to be from their own Liberal Party policy document. Even when he puts things in writing, you cannot rely on what the Prime Minister says. In their 'Real Solutions' policy document, in chapter 17, page 40 and 41, they say:

We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.

That is in writing: 'current arrangements will continue'. That is right: the document is called 'Real Solutions'. It seems to have gone from the memories of those opposite. It was the contract they put to the Australian people, but it was not real; it reflects the fantasy they took to the election.

Actions speak louder than words, and this bill proves once again that they were an opposition prepared to promise anything to get into power and now they are a government that cannot be trusted to keep their word. What they fail to understand is the real impact the decisions they are making are having on the Australian people. What they fail to understand is that these measures are unfair.

Let me go through this bill. It strips money away from universities and gives them no choice but to hit students with higher fees. This bill will see $100,000-plus university degrees. It rips $5.8 billion out of Australian universities. This bill adds to the Abbott and Hockey rap sheet of cruel, unfair cuts. There are $3.2 billion in cuts by taking the scalpel to HELP; $1.9 billion in cuts to universities by reducing government course subsidies; $202 million in cuts by indexing university grants to the CPI; $172.4 million in cuts to fund, promote and reward universities for enrolling low-SES students; $173.7 million in cuts to the training of Australia's research students—the scientists and academics of tomorrow; a $75 million cut to the Australian Research Council; a $31 million cut to the national regulator; and it abolishes the $3.5 billion Education Investment Fund. That is quite a resume. But that is only the beginning. What we have now seen in addition is the full deregulation of student fees from 1 January 2016, which will lead to higher fees and spiralling student debt, and there is the increase in the interest rate burden on that student debt. Most alarming, though, is that the fantasy continues opposite. Members opposite deny people will be deterred under this so-called reform. This could not be further from the truth.

I have spent most of my adult life working in secondary schools in my electorate where the majority of people are what we would call traditional working-class families. For most of those years, I taught senior English to year 11 and 12 students, and I was a senior years coordinator for many years. I know from personal experience what it takes to build aspiration in students, to build confidence and to get them to open their eyes to the possibilities their talents and potential can lead to. I have worked with students and their parents to look seriously at tertiary education as an option. Many of the students who left my care were the first in their families to attend university. One of the biggest hurdles in this was income—families had to forgo a working young person's contribution to the family income. They had to overcome the idea of a reasonable debt, with a payback safety net, as a means to an end to a brighter future. I call on all students from low socioeconomic circumstances in my electorate and across the country who made it to university to stand up and defend the next generation's ability to do so.

Just this year I heard the compelling story of a student who was being supported by Western Chances, a not-for-profit organisation that supports senior secondary students to get to university in the western suburbs of Melbourne. This student is now completing medicine at Monash University. She detailed how hard it was to ask for money in her family when her father had been laid off at work—money for books and excursions. She thought uni was out of reach despite her teachers having identified her talent. Here was a student, clearly identified as being among the brightest and the best, who without help from a not-for-profit did not think she would get to university. With support, she got the books she needed and some tutoring in targeted subjects to ensure she met the tertiary requirements—that subject, in her case, was English. She got to university and she is now a second-year medical student.

But where would she have been now with the government's changes? Indeed, how is she responding to the idea that the interest rate on her HELP debt will increase and compound? How will these changes impact on her future life choices? Most importantly, would she make the same decisions today and will next year's brightest students in the same position make the same decisions? The fact is that those who will be the most deterred by this reform package are from working class families in electorates like mine. What we have seen with this bill is yet another significant barrier being put in place for those seeking long-term prosperity through education.

Some residents of my electorate wrote to me this morning when I said I was going to be making a speech on higher education today. Heather Taylor said:

Many opportunities for students who are bright and intelligent will be lost if higher fees are brought in. University should be an option for all who are capable of passing the enter scores, not just for those who can afford it.

Yajaira, a former student of mine, said:

These changes are just going to put more pressure on young high school students to decide what they want to do their entire future. These things have the potential to affect someone's entire life!

She wanted that read in the chamber today. She wanted those opposite to hear her voice. And Janine Luttick made a really important point:

Increases in undergraduate and postgrad fees will preclude mature-age students from ever paying off their debt during their working life. That makes tertiary education only for the young and the rich. Threats to funding for research students will mean the contributions of some of the nation's best minds to the development of our quality of life will be lost.

These fine people deserve a government that will provide them with real opportunities. And they had a government that provided them with real opportunities—they had a Labor federal government. The fundamental principles of the Labor Party could not be further removed from the measures put forward in this draconian bill. Labor does not support cuts to university funding and student support. Labor does not support a system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality. And Labor does not believe that you should only have an opportunity to go to university if you are rich. When Labor was in government we removed the caps on public university places. From 2009 to 2013 the number of Commonwealth supported places went from 440,000 to 541,000. In my electorate, that saw an increase of more than 50 per cent in the number of students attending university and a 48 per cent increase in the number of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Under Labor they had opportunity. But under this government they are having the door shut in their face.

The people of Lalor are rightly confused by a government that is ripping away our social compacts, that disregards the community benefit of the best and brightest attending university to ensure that their contribution to our society and to our economy is maximised—not just for their benefit but for all. We are hearing a lot about international competition. We are hearing people say that Australia's universities need to be able to compete. It is as though tertiary education fishes at Australia's border. But one of the unforeseen things that could happen with this reform is that we might find more of our best and brightest studying overseas without any intention of returning to make a contribution here.

I will finish with a question that I have asked in this House a few times, a question that young people have asked me to ask the Prime Minister: why is it that some debt is so bad but student debt is so good? I reject this bill and will firmly stand against it in this House.

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