Standing up for Canberra

Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

I want to start today by telling a story about two young Australians. One was a bright young man who wanted to become a doctor. Unfortunately, his parents were not wealthy and they could not afford for him to go to university. He left school at the age of 15 and became an apprentice electrician. 

It took him many years to go back to study at night school to become an accountant. The other was a bright young woman who wanted to become a teacher. She grew up in a housing commission house in Victoria. She had a single mum who worked three jobs to keep food on the table. She was dragged kicking and screaming from school at the age of 15 because she had to go out and pay her way; her mother could not afford to support her.

That bright young man was my father and that bright young woman was my mother. My mum went back to get her HSC after many, many years of bringing up my sisters and I. She went back to get HSC in her 30s. Then she started to study at university. It was her great ambition to study at university and become a teacher. But, unfortunately, she could not finish her university degree because my father left us when I was 11. He left my mum with three daughters and not very much money in the bank account—$30, in fact. So Mum had to go back to work.

When my father left, my mother was absolutely petrified that my sisters and I were going to face the same destiny of intergenerational disadvantage that beset what I call my working class matriarchy. My great-grandmother left school at 12. She cleaned houses. She was a domestic for the wealthy in the Western district of Victoria. My grandmother left school at 13. She worked three jobs, largely as a cleaner around Melbourne in hospitals and theatres. As you heard, my mother had to leave school at the age of 15 because she was a housing commission kid. Her mother was a single mum and she could not afford to put her through not just university—that was a pipedream—but high school. My mother was petrified that this intergenerational disadvantage that resulted from lack of access to education would beset my sisters and I when my father left us when I was 11, so she was absolutely determined that my sisters and I would go to university. We were very fortunate because we had that opportunity, and that was thanks to Labor.

That was thanks to the free education reforms that Whitlam introduced in the 1970s and the affordable HECS system that Dawkins introduced in the 1980s. I fear that these reforms that we are debating today will take us back to the Australia of the 1950s where only the wealthy were educated, where bright students from the so-called wrong side of the tracks were denied the opportunity of higher education, denied the opportunity to pursue their dreams and denied the opportunity to become doctors, as was my father's dream, and teachers, as was my mother's dream. Given my background, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this bill and to join with my Labor colleagues in standing against this dreadful legislation and policy. I stand together with my Labor colleagues to protect access for all to higher education.

Christopher Pyne, prior to the election, said, 'We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.' The government said that there were to be no cuts to education. Those were the words of the Prime Minister prior to the election. This legislation is further evidence that the promises of those opposite are meaningless. In total, the Abbott government's budget measures cut $5.8 billion from higher education teaching and learning and university research. That is an awfully big cut from a government that promised again and again there were not going to be any cuts to education.

This legislation we are debating today enables the delivery of $3.9 billion of these cuts, including through slashing funding for Commonwealth supported places in undergraduate degrees by an average of 20 per cent and, for some courses, up to 37 per cent. This which means that universities will have to increase fees to make up the difference. The reforms also involve reducing the indexation arrangements for university funding to CPI in 2016 down from the appropriate rate the previous Labor government introduced, which means $202 million in cuts over the forward estimates period. This will be a major contributor to a $2.5 billion per annum shortfall in 10 years time, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office. These reforms also involve cutting almost $174 million from the Research Training Scheme, which supports training of Australia's research students—the scientists and academics of tomorrow.

They also involve introducing fees for PhDs. I will come to that later. They also involve introducing a real rate of interest on HECS, moving from CPI to the 10-year bond rate capped at six per cent. This highly regressive measure applies not only to existing and future students but to anyone who still has a HECS debt. 

I have been astounded when listening to the speeches of those opposite that many have said these policies will not necessarily result in fee increases. According to Universities Australia, the cost of important courses like engineering and science will have to increase by 58 per cent to make up for the government's funding cuts, while nursing will need to increase by 24 per cent, education by 20 per cent and agriculture by 43 per cent. Environmental studies—which in many ways is the field of the future, looking to ensure that Australia can compete in a low-carbon future—will have to increase by 110 per cent.

Canberra is lucky enough to be home to several excellent universities, including the Australian National University, the University of Canberra and the Australian Catholic University. There are over 30,000 Canberrans currently enrolled in one of these three universities. So it is not surprising that Canberrans are passionate about this issue—and passionate they are! I have spent a lot of time talking to Canberrans about what they think of the budget. I have been doorknocking, held community forums and mobile offices, and I have spoken to Canberrans about how the budget will affect them. I have been inundated by emails, letters and phone calls from constituents who are unhappy with many aspects of the budget, but there is one aspect that they find particularly horrendous. Almost every single person I have spoken to has felt that the government's higher education policies are unfair and an attack on our very social fabric. There is a lot of anger in the Canberra community about a whole range of issues in the budget. There is a lot of anger about changes to Newstart, there is a lot of anger about changes to research funding and there is a lot of anger about the fuel tax hike. However, the issue that resonates with everyone is the cuts to higher education. More people that I have spoken to oppose the cuts to higher education than any other single policy.

These Canberrans who are very angry about these higher education reforms did not necessarily go to university themselves, but they have aspirations for their children or grandchildren to go one day, and they may have aspirations to become a mature age student themselves. Most importantly, they believe that every Australian should be able to choose whether or not to go to university based on their skills, hard work, interests, dreams and career goals, not on their bank account or postcode.

I have also heard concerns from Canberrans still paying off their HECS debt. They are wondering how they will cope with the significantly increased interest they will have to pay from 2016. I have heard concerns from Canberrans who had always considered themselves lucky to have such great universities right here in their own city, but who now fear that their children will never have the opportunity to study at these universities.

Canberrans are united against the Abbott government's changes to higher education. They know that they will make university study inaccessible for people from a disadvantaged background like my parents and me. I was the first person in my family to be tertiary educated. My middle sister is a scientist and my little sister is a neurologist, thanks the reforms that Labor introduced in the 1970s and 1980s. If those reforms had not been introduced—if the environment that this government is proposing had existed—I wonder whether my sister would now be a neurologist, I wonder whether my middle sister would be a scientist and I wonder if I would have had the chance to go to university. Given the fact that I grew up with a single mother, like my mother and her mother before her, I really do wonder if we would be where we are today, would have the choices that we have today, and whether our lives would be transformed as they have been through higher education if these reforms were in place when we were in our late teens or early 20s.

Canberrans know that the government's proposals will create a two-tiered system where only the very rich can access our best universities. They know that these changes will saddle our kids with enormous debts, preventing them from ever entering the housing market or getting ahead in life. They know that these changes are bad for our country and that, as I said before, they cut into our very social fabric.

One of the very worst aspects of these bad reforms is the fact that they unfairly disadvantage women. We already know that women shoulder the majority of the caring burden in Australia, which means time away from their career. Whether they take time off after the birth of a child or to care for sick and ageing relatives, it financially disadvantages women, especially when it comes to superannuation. Now, the Abbott government wants to charge them increased compounding interest on their HECS debt while they are out of the workforce. Under these changes, a female accounting graduate who takes a three-year break from her career could still be paying back her student debt well into her 50s, with about $45,000 in interest and, during the period when they are not earning, they are accumulating a debt on which the interest is compounding. By contrast an accounting graduate with the same debt who does not take time out from their career would repay it in 23 years with only $24,000 interest.

We already have a gender pay gap that see women paid less than men, even at the graduate level. These changes will shoulder women with even more debt and further entrench the fact that women are less financially secure than men in this country—particularly when they retire. And we know what the Minister for Education's response to this was:

Now, women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn, and vice chancellors in framing their fees, their fee structure, will take that into account. Therefore the debts of teachers and nurses will be lower than the debts, for example, of lawyers and dentists.

This appalling statement shows how incredibly out of touch this government is.

I am also concerned about the brain drain on our country that these reforms will cause. I recently visited my alma mater, RMIT. I had a meeting with them to talk about the potential impact of these cuts. These were kids from Moe and Morwell, from the Latrobe Valley and from all over Victoria, and they were studying engineering. I was shocked to hear that they are now considering moving abroad to study—going to Germany, to the UK or to Scandinavia to study —because under these proposed reforms it will be cheaper to study in Europe than in Australia. What concerned me most was not the fact that these students are going off to study in Europe and Scandinavia; it was the fact that they then see themselves as staying there.

We know that we have got an engineering shortage in nearly every field in the country. These highly educated engineers will go off to Europe and stay there for the remainder of their careers and possibly their lives. As one of these young men from the Latrobe Valley was saying, 'Not only will it be cheaper for me to go and study in Germany; they have also got a manufacturing industry in Germany as a result of the government support.' In the past, Labor has shown strong industry support in this country, and it still exists, fortunately, in Germany. He is thinking, 'I will get a cheaper degree and I will get the opportunity to work in a thriving, growing, prospering manufacturing industry.' This is of great concern to me. We will lose the precious intellect and potential of bright young Australians. I am concerned there will be a brain drain.

I am bitterly disappointed with this legislation. I completely oppose it, as I mentioned. I am very concerned that it will mean that only the wealthy in this country will be able to be educated, which is an absolute outrage.

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