Standing up for Canberra

Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 and join with my Labor colleagues in standing against this terrible legislation —this terrible policy. We do so to protect higher education. 'We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding.' Those were the words of Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Education, prior to the election. '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.

What does this legislation do? In total, the Abbott government's budget measures cut $5 billion from higher education teaching and learning, and university research. That is an awfully big cut from a government that promised again and again 'no cuts to education'.

Despite the government giving up on $3.5 billion of its $3.9 billion of savings, it has not fixed the inequity that lies at the heart of this bill. The bill still contains $1.9 billion in cuts to Australian universities. It still contains $100,000 degrees for undergraduate students. It still contains $171 million in cuts to equity programs. It still contains $200 million in cuts to indexation of grant programs. It still contains $170 million in cuts to research training. It still contains fees for PhD students for the first time ever. And it still contains $80 million in cuts to the Australian Research Council.

This legislation still slashes 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 legislation still cuts indexation for university funding, costing universities $202 million over the forward estimates period. On top of these cuts, the government has stripped almost $174 million from the Research Training Scheme, which supports Australia's PhD students. This legislation also introduces fees for PhDs. The Liberals want the scientists and academics of tomorrow who are already giving up three years' income to pursue a PhD to pay for the privilege.

It is astounding to hear those opposite claim that this unfair education policy will not necessarily result in fee increases. Despite all the bluff and all the bluster on government benches, there is absolutely no doubt that fee deregulation will lead to substantial fee hikes. The University of Western Australia has already said it will charge all students $16,000 a year—more than doubling the cost of an arts degree overnight. We just have to take a look at other countries around the world to see that deregulation has not led to price competition and has not led to lower fees for students. In the UK, fees were deregulated in 2012 with a cap of £9,000. For the 2015-16 academic year, there will be only two universities out of 123 that will not be charging £9,000 fees. And now, just three years after deregulation, experts in the UK are saying their new system is unsustainable, finding that it, 'Represents the worst of both worlds where all parties feel that they are getting a bad deal' and 'Government is effectively funding universities by writing off student debt rather than investing directly in teaching grants'.

Let us look at the United States, where university fee rises are out of control and student debt now exceeds credit card debt. By how much would university fees increase under this unfair policy? 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. Nursing will need to increase by 24 per cent, education by 20 per cent, agriculture by 43 per cent and environment studies—in this time of climate change and the challenges that we have with climate change—will have to increase by 110 per cent. Labor will never support a system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality.

Canberra is lucky enough to be home to several excellent universities, including the Australian National University, where I did my undergraduate degree, the University of Canberra, where I had the great honour of tutoring and mentoring students, and also 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 very passionate about this issue. Since the budget, I have spent a lot of time talking to Canberrans about what they think of it. I have been doorknocking. I have held community forums. I have held mobile offices. I have spoken to Canberrans about how the budget will affect them, and I have been inundated with emails, letters and phone calls from constituents who are unhappy with one aspect—or, in many cases, multiple aspects—of this government's horrendous budget.

Almost every single person I have spoken to has felt that the government's higher education policies are unfair and are an attack on our social fabric. In fact, I can be confident in saying that of the many people I have spoken to since the budget, more opposed the cuts to higher education than opposed any other single policy. That is saying something, because there are some real stinkers of policies in that budget—most importantly, the GP tax, which has had multiple iterations over the last six months, or last six weeks really, and we still do not know where we are at with that. I know that the cuts to Newstart were also of great concern to the Canberra community.

Of these people who are very concerned about these cuts to higher education, some of them—a lot of them—did not necessarily go to university themselves. But they do have aspirations for their children or their grandchildren to one day go. And they do have aspirations that one day they may become a mature age student. Sometimes they just simply believe that every Australian should be able to choose whether or not they go to university based on their interests, intellect, skills, talent, hard work and career goals, and not on their bank account.

I have heard these 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 disadvantaged backgrounds. They know that they will create a two-tiered system, where only the very rich can access our best universities—it is going right back to the fifties. 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 will be bad for our country.

I want to read out a letter from one of my constituents that I received some time back, because this issue has been debated extensively over the last six to eight months. This constituent said:

What a nightmare the budget is! I understand that we, as a country, need to make changes to reduce our deficit and plan for the increase in cost in some areas of the future, but we are so disappointed that this budget is just so unimaginative. The policy that distresses us most at the moment is the deregulation of the university fee structure and the resultant higher fees. Please Gai we need you and your colleagues to do something about this terrible policy. What amendments can you propose, what parts can you block?

How will our young people ever be able to afford to buy houses when they will be saddled with an $80,000 debt? How will they afford higher degrees and what will it do to their general spending power. None of this can be good for the economy. We want to commend and encourage you in your fight for the best for this country.

As I said, that was received from one of my constituents some time back, but it echoes the views that I have picked up from doorknocking, from mobile offices, from community forums and from across the Canberra community.

A few months back I recently visited my alma mater, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, where I was union president. I had the opportunity to meet with a number of engineering students, mainly, who had come from all over Victoria, and particularly from your electorate, Deputy Speaker Broadbent. I was shocked to hear from a number of students that they knew people who were planning to move to Europe to attend university, because even with the cost of moving to Europe and the cost of living in Europe, it would still be cheaper than studying in Australia. What also concerned me was the fact that these young engineers, these young men and women from your part of the world, Deputy Speaker, were looking at doing post-graduate degrees in engineering, but they were thinking about doing it overseas. They also made the very relevant point that Germany, particularly, has a manufacturing industry, whereas the future for manufacturing here in Australia is looking pretty dire because of a lack of support from this government. As a result of this, Australia will lose the precious intellect and potential of these bright young Australians. There will be a brain drain. I also believe these changes will result in fewer people doing post-graduate research, particularly when it comes to medical research.

My little sister is a neurologist. She does research in dementia and stroke. She is a very accomplished and internationally recognised neurologist. Her great concern is the fact that, with these outrageously expensive degrees, particularly at the postgraduate level, young Australians are not going to want to go into research because they are going to be burdened with such a debt as a result of doing their tertiary education and their study and laying the groundwork for a strong and successful research career. She is concerned at the fact that they will not be prepared to go into research, which is traditionally not a high-paying area. They will not be prepared to go into research for altruistic reasons, because they just will not be able to afford it, because of the high cost of their fees. Again, she is concerned about the brain drain, or the lack of creation of talent, in the research field, particularly the medical research field. So not only does this legislation potentially create a brain drain in Australia of engineers and others; it also creates a complete dearth of potential research talent.

Most of those opposite have defended these policies by talking up the scholarships that are part of this legislation. 'Lower income students won't be disadvantaged, because they'll have access to scholarships,' they have argued. In fact, the Minister for Education often claims that his higher education reforms will actually benefit students from low socioeconomic backgrounds because they include the so-called Commonwealth scholarships.

But, like so much of this package, the scheme is fundamentally flawed. 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 scholarships. Universities are being forced to slug students to pay for these scholarships.

The design of the fund is flawed in other respects too. The current proposal is that each university simply keep its additional revenue and direct this towards its own scholarships. Because the elite Group of Eight, the sandstone universities, will presumably be able to charge higher fees than their regional and outer suburban counterparts, they will have more money in their scholarship funds. This means that the universities with the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students will have the most money to support such students. Essentially, it means that these already privileged universities will be able to use the money that other students—including students from low-income backgrounds—pay to attract the best and brightest kids from regional areas. Meanwhile, the local university has to choose between raising fees for all to offer scholarships for some or watching talented students being lured away to the city.

Young people should not have to move overseas to pursue higher education. They should not have to choose between higher education and homeownership. They should not have to choose between higher education and starting a family. Under the Abbott government's plan, they will have to make those choices. Labor believes that no Australian, young or old, should be deterred from going to university because of cost. A decision to study should be based on intellect and ambition, not on your bank balance. This policy is bad for low- and middle-income earners. It is bad for rural and regional Australia. It is socially regressive and is, in fact, bad for all Australians and Australia.

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