Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014

I do recall that, when I was a new teacher in the western suburbs of Melbourne, the culture of university attendance for local students was low in my beginning years. The area had poor year 12 retention rates; indeed, year 10 was the norm for most. This was because retention to year 12 was not a priority for anyone in those days—certainly not in the education sector. Many saw secondary school as a sorting system to determine whether students left at year 10 or went on to try their luck for entry to university. Attendance at university was not something that was aspired to by most children in the west of Melbourne. This culture, however, was slowly changing. The Whitlam years had opened up access to university for many from my era. This impact took longer to reach the west of Melbourne, but slowly it did. I would argue that teachers raised in the west, who had been the first in their families to attend university, made it their business to ensure that the talented and capable students in their classrooms in the west were encouraged, supported and urged to pursue tertiary education.Over time, much was done to increase access for the students that I taught. A new emphasis on year 12 retention by state governments meant that many students who completed school could apply for and be accepted into university places in the later years of my teaching. In more recent times, I saw the impact of the changes by the former Labor government—indeed, by my predecessor in Lalor, Julia Gillard—continue to grow that expectation and continue to grow the numbers of students from Lalor attending university.

The previous Labor government had a proud record of investment in Australia's universities. We boosted real revenue per student, including government and student contributions, by 10 per cent. That was an extra $1,700 for universities to spend on quality teaching for every student. Overall, Labor lifted government investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. That is $8 billion to $14 billion in six years. Labor committed to proper indexation for university funds. If the Howard government funding model had been kept, universities today would be worse off to the tune of $3 billion.

There are 750,000 students at Australian universities today, and one in every four is there because of Labor. We put 190,000 more students on campus, we boosted Indigenous student numbers by 26 per cent and we boosted regional student numbers by 30 per cent. We have more than 36,000 extra students from low-income families in universities now compared to 2007. Labor also invested $4.35 billion in world-class research and teaching facilities through the Education Investment Fund, something that was highly valued by the university sector, and those facilities, of course, are being well used now. This included $500 million earmarked for regional Australia so that country kids would have the same access to quality courses, and universities would be able to attract and retain world-class researchers. We did this because we on this side understand, in a way that the coalition never has and never will, what universities mean. These changes meant that suddenly students from my community could clearly see a pathway to university and beyond. And, yes, they did make a financial contribution through the HECS program. But the electorate knows the difference between an affordable contribution—paid most often after the fact through an affordable contributions scheme—and this scheme, which will create long-term unaffordable debt with interest and impede access for many—and, worse, possibly the most able.

These Labor reforms are now at risk. Students in Lalor come from families that do not like debt. The thought of taking on a $100,000 debt in order to obtain a qualification is very scary, and the government know that—they know it very well. It is why they run election campaigns on debt and deficit. It is why they cynically use our personal aversion to debt. They cynically use it to claim that Medicare is unaffordable and throw numbers like confetti to blur the arguments. Then they stand here, salesman after salesman across the last two days, to convince those same families that government debt is bad but that student debt is good. They put forward this unfair higher education reform that will lead to unheard-of and unaffordable debt levels for students. They know—and, if they do not, they would if they gave it a moment's contemplation. These changes will slow or stall the number of young people from my electorate and from the electorates of Bendigo, Rankin, Gellibrand, Newcastle and Chifley—from working-class areas.

The effect is already there. This summer when I ran into former students, they had received good ATAR scores and were expecting to receive university offers, but there was a hesitation to go forward. Would the rules change part-way through their degree? Would the debt be too great? Was finding a job now and entering the workforce a better option given the rising youth unemployment figures? That is why these $5 billion cuts to higher education are so destructive. These cuts mark the end of Australia's fair and equitable higher education system. These cuts will bring the curtain down on the Whitlam university legacy of university based on merit, not pay cheques, and of aspiration regardless of postcode.

I will vote against these cuts to university funding and student support. Labor will vote against these cuts. Labor will not support a system of unfair, unaffordable fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality. I will not stand by and see a system that for students in Lalor will mean that the quality of their education will depend on their capacity to pay. I wall vote against that not just because it will create inequity in our system but because it is the wrong thing for the country. We need our best and our brightest in our universities. We need our young people to be more educated than ever before, not less educated. As a country we cannot afford to go backwards in student retention and university numbers. To maintain our living standards and to build our economy, we need more students—students with the most capacity and the most commitment—in our lectures theatres, laboratories and tute rooms. This is at risk under this reform.

The Minister for Education and Training, Christopher Pyne, often claims his higher education changes will actually benefit students from low socioeconomic backgrounds because they include the so-called 'Commonwealth scholarships'. Indeed, again over summer we have been subjected to a huge advertising blitz, costing almost $15million, making those claims. This is possibly the biggest con in the whole package. The scholarship scheme will receive no Commonwealth funding. It is to be funded entirely by students. Under the scheme universities will be required to direct 20 per cent of the additional revenue raised by higher fees to providing equity scholarships. Christopher Pyne has not released any information about just how big he expects the fund to be. That is because, if he does, we will be able to work out exactly how much he expects most low- and middle-income kids to pay to fund other kids who are just a little smarter or a little poorer. Remember, $1 in every $5 of the additional revenue universities raise above their current per-student incomes will go towards this fund. This means that the extra amount students are paying—that is, the extra above the 30 per cent hike needed to make up for the funding cuts—will be five times the size of the 'biggest Commonwealth scholarships fund in Australia's history'.

Tweaking the so-called Commonwealth scholarships will not make them fair or sensible policy. Like so much of this package, the scheme is fundamentally flawed. The tweak in this bill is, of course, the regional transitions fund—a fund that, by its inclusion, is further evidence of the unfairness of the bill itself. If the bill were fair there would be no need for this fund. It is somewhat sad that the Nationals MPs sitting opposite could only wrangle $100 million for this fund as a token to their regional communities to counter the unfairness of the bill and its impact on the students from the regional communities they represent.

These are not the only issues I take with this bill. The bill contains $1.9 billion in cuts to Australian universities and the potential for $100,000 degrees for undergraduate students—and yes, I have heard speaker after speaker from the government side of the chamber claim that Labor are running a scare campaign on this. They have stood here, one after the other—salesmen of something they cannot actually sell because they cannot predict the cost. There is no price tag being set on the other side of the chamber.

The bill includes $171 million in cuts to equity programs, $200 million in cuts to indexation of grant programs, $170 million in cuts to research training, fees for PhD students for the first time ever and $80 million in cuts to the Australian Research Council. And these cuts are masquerading as reform. This bill may have been tweaked from the one we saw last year, but the massive cuts to universities remain. The new fee imposts for students remain. Students in Lalor, having made inroads to university attendance, will find their numbers dropping.

The worst of this, for me, is that the universities asked for a national conversation about higher education reform and deregulation, and in its place they got these cuts. In its place they got a rushed piece of policy—no national conversation. In fact, the first time the bill was brought into this chamber, very few members opposite stood to speak about it or debate it at all. Instead of planning in response to that conversation, this government has given us cuts hidden in a chaotic plan for deregulation.

The Australian people have got a broken promise and a breach of the social contract on higher education. The community got an expensive advertising campaign because they signed petitions clearly stating what they thought of the plan. They got a Prime Minister deaf to Australians' public concern for equity and a fair go. They got a government determined to turn back the clock to a time when your future, regardless of your ability or commitment, was determined by your postcode and your family income and when privilege was perpetuated by access to quality education determined by birth. What they got today is a government that says it has listened but is taking action that the electorate has resoundingly rejected.

I have a message for the government. Because we have had quotes thrown at us so many times in the last six months—usually Labor Party leaders in the Australian government—this time I will quote Abraham Lincoln: 'With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.' This is not a debate that a serious government would have on higher education. This is a spending cut dressed up as a reform. Like my Labor colleagues, I will oppose this bill and continue to oppose any reforms to higher education that have not been the result of a serious conversation as a nation. I look forward to a time in the future when that serious debate might occur; although I note that it might take a change of government for us to have a conversation about higher education.

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