SPEECH: Higher education research and reform

11 February 2015

11 FEBRUARY 2015

I rise for the second time in this place to join with my Labor colleagues in opposing this so-called reform that the Abbott Liberal government seeks to force upon Australia. At the outset let me be very clear about Labor's position so as to avoid any misunderstanding or confusion. Labor will oppose the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill. 

We will do so because it is wrong. It is wrong for the nation, it is wrong for students and it is wrong for Australian families. It is inequitable and rotten to its core. Labor cannot support a higher education system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality.

The first version of this so-called reform was rejected by the Australian public and the Senate, and version 2 should get the same treatment. Despite being dressed up as a new and improved bill, version 2, the bill that is before the House today, still contains: $1.9 billion in cuts to Australian universities; $100,000 degrees for undergraduate students; $171 million in cuts to equity programs; $200 million in cuts to indexation of grants programs; $170 million in cuts to research training; fees for PhD students in Australia for the first time ever; and $80 million in cuts to the Australian Research Council.

Nothing of substance has changed in version 2. The massive cuts to universities remain, new fee imposts for students remain, and Labor's resolve to fight this bill also remains. I remind the House again that this is not a higher education policy that the Australian people have endorsed at any stage. This is not a policy position that the government took to the Australian people prior to the election. Put simply, this government has no mandate as is claimed. The first we heard of this government's plan to smash the very foundations of our higher education system was on budget night last year. Despite ongoing denials from the Education Minister that the government did not have a higher education policy before they were elected, it was in fact there for everyone to see in black and white in that now infamous Real Solutions catalogue. It was alleged in Real Solutions that a Liberal government would in fact strengthen higher education and encourage Australians of all ages to further their education so they could gain the comparative advantage to get ahead in the new global economy. Significantly, it was also alleged in the same Real Solutions document that current arrangements for university funding would continue. There was no ambiguity. This was a commitment to higher education that the government took to the last election. That is right—the Abbott Liberal government's documented commitment on higher education for the 44th Parliament was that current arrangements for university funding would continue.

Make no mistake, condemnation of the government's plans has been broad, it has been loud and it has been clear. But rather than scrap the reform after it was thrown out by the Senate, for the second time, here we are still debating a higher education bill that will increase the cost of university for students, increase debts for students and cut Commonwealth funding for universities. All the while, the government is spending millions of taxpayers' dollars to spruik their higher education changes to the Australian public.

It is unconscionable that this government and this Education Minister signed off on a massive advertising campaign, spending more than $14 million of precious public funds in a desperate bid to sell their propaganda about higher education reforms to the Australian people. That the Australian people had stopped listening to this government long before their advertising campaign began makes this expenditure even more wasteful.

The Leader of the Opposition made clear Labor's strong commitment to education during the debate on the government's first version of this bill when he argued:

Opportunity in education is a pact between generations. It is a solemn promise to pass on an education system that is better than the one you inherited.

He went on to warn this government:

You do not meddle carelessly with one of the great markers of life—and education is indeed one of the great markers in the line of life.

This government is breaking its pact with the Australian people and is recklessly tearing up the social contract that underpins our education system.

Labor believes in equality of opportunity. Labor believes in affordable, accessible higher education for all Australians. We will vote against the doubling and tripling of university fees. We will vote time and time again against this government's cuts to university research. We will never consign the next generation of Australians to a debt sentence. We will not support a system where the cost of university degrees rises faster than the capacity of society to pay for them. We will never tell Australians that the quality of their education depends upon their capacity to pay. Education is a birth rite in Australia, not a privilege for the few.

I have previously told the House about a woman in my electorate and her plans to return to study as a mature age student. Today I can add the next chapter to her story, with some good news, but not without some trepidation too. Last year she completed the Open Foundation program so she could attend university as a student for the first time. She has raised a family and worked in retail for more than a decade but wants to undertake university study to retrain and improve her future employment prospects. She knew it would be tough to balance work, study and family life but she was willing to work hard and thought getting a degree would be worth it in the long run. But she was concerned that this so-called higher education reform was a step too far. After this government announced their proposed changes, she became anxious about the level of debt she might incur. From her perspective, she already had a mortgage and could not afford another one. I am sure she is not the only woman asking herself, 'Is it really worth it?' She did, however, take the gamble, applied to university and was accepted to study this year at the University of Newcastle.

When I congratulated her on being accepted to university, she replied, 'I'm a little excited about going to uni but not excited about the debt.' While ever this government's bill hovers over the higher education sector and the broader community, I know that many potential university students will be questioning their capacity to afford a higher education. For those enrolling this year, they have no idea of what their study will actually cost them. This is not a situation any student, prospective or otherwise, should be in.

 The effect on students is just one side of the higher education debate. There is also the effect on universities and regional communities more broadly. My electorate of Newcastle is proudly home to a university ranked in the top three per cent of universities in the world and the University of Newcastle is one of the top 10 universities in Australia for research funding and teacher quality. The economic and social capacity of regions and regional cities like Newcastle is vastly improved by the research and innovation being delivered by world-class research intensive universities like Newcastle.

At the University of Newcastle, excellence is always coupled with equity; it is not in spite of it. The student body is representative of our broader region—lower than average socioeconomic status and often the first university students from their families. Nearly a third of enrolled students are from low-SES backgrounds, which is nearly double the sector average. When compared to the two Group of Eight universities in New South Wales, the University of Newcastle does considerably more to ensure equity of opportunity in our state. Some 24 per cent of students admitted to the University of Newcastle come from low-SES backgrounds, while the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney, at 8.5 per cent and seven per cent respectively, are way behind. It is not the old sandstones that are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to access and equity. The University of Newcastle also has the highest number of Indigenous students in Australia and the highest rate of students beginning study through enabling programs rather than through the traditional pathways.

In the university's submission to the Senate inquiry into the first version of this bill, they stated clearly that they did not support the Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding cuts or deregulation of student fees and that research intensive universities based in regional areas, like Newcastle, James Cook University in Queensland or the University of Tasmania, were uniquely vulnerable to the changes proposed. These universities conduct research in high-cost disciplinary areas including engineering, science, medicine and health and offer associated premium degree programs which are recognised internationally and in high demand locally. Research in these areas carries high fixed costs and any funding cuts would limit the capacity of these universities to sustain the investment in infrastructure and talent required to deliver world-class research innovation.

The University of Newcastle emphasised that, if the government did continue to pursue student fee deregulation and cuts to Commonwealth funding of universities, a transition package would be needed that directly recognised the unique role of highly research intensive universities located in regional areas affected by disadvantage and that supported their continued delivery of critical world-class research and innovation in a newly deregulated environment.

I do note that in version 2 of this bill—the bill before the House today—the government has included a transition fund, but this fund is woefully inadequate and very poorly targeted. The industry calculated that some $500 million would be required to transition to a deregulated environment. The day that the first version of this bill was defeated in the Senate, the education minister told Universities Australia the transition fund would be $300 million. So you can imagine the dismay of universities when the second version of this bill proposed just $100 million for the so-called transition fund. The Regional Universities Network has said that regional universities alone will need $100 million each and every year, not so much as an adjustment package but rather a straight out acknowledgement that regional universities and regional communities will be the biggest losers if deregulation goes ahead.

Without adequate Commonwealth funding, funds will have to be sourced from the student body. While this bill would allow that to happen through deregulation, very few students would be able to meet the costs without enduring a massive lifelong debt. For regional universities like Newcastle, which draw a significant portion of their student body from lower SES regions, recouping lost Commonwealth funding from students will be near impossible, even with deregulation of fees. Regional students simply will not be able to afford to study high-cost disciplines and it will be difficult for research standards to be maintained with the loss of overall funding. Like my community, I fear these students will be lost to higher education altogether.

Under this legislation, non-university higher-education providers, or NUHEPS, along with approved overseas universities, will now have access to student subsidies at 70 per cent of the rate for public universities. What the Education Minister whispers, but is loath to say loudly, of course, is that he is relying on these NUHEPs and outposts of overseas universities to deliver the cut price courses that he believes will cater for those students from low-SES backgrounds. Regretfully, I do not share his sense of optimism here at all.

What he fails to understand is that the for-profit institutions he is so very keen on will skim the cream from the public system, delivering the cheap courses and leaving the less popular or more expensive yet vital degrees to the public universities, which have a good public mission—disciplines like foreign languages, engineering and pharmaceutical sciences. These are all skills and expertise we need, but in fact they may well be lost in this new environment.

I also want to touch briefly on the government's proposed Commonwealth Scholarship scheme. Ignoring all of the evidence of higher fees and crippling debt, the education minister often claims his higher education changes will actually benefit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds because they include the so-called Commonwealth Scholarships. This is possibly the cruellest con job in the whole package. Make no mistake: the government's proposed scholarship scheme will receive no Commonwealth funding—not a cent. It is to be funded entirely by students. Like so much of this higher education package, the scholarship scheme is fundamentally flawed.

Labor will vote against these cuts to university funding and student support. We will not support a system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality.