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Speech: Tony Abbott's Higher Education Cuts and Fees

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Lee Rhiannon 29 Oct 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:31): By far the majority of Australians—those born here and those who come here to find a new life and opportunity—want a good education for their children, for the nation's children. The bill before us, the Higher Education and Research Amendment Bill 2014, will rob people of opportunity and hope to achieve that. It should be voted down in its entirety. There are no deals, no negotiations that can turn this bill into a winner.

The Liberals and the Nationals did not even have the courage to take this bill in any form—details of this bill—to the last election. They should now have the decency to withdraw it. There are nearly one million students in Australia who will be impacted by these changes if they go through. For people without a silver spoon, education is the key to survival. It gives you a leg up and makes freedom and choice possible. Education empowers people. Prime Minister Tony Abbott's education, however, is a very different story. It is about the entitlement of a rich boy from Sydney's North Shore who takes his power for granted. He is not bothered by $100,000 fees for a university degree or by public money earmarked for higher education going to for-profit companies.

 

By raising university fees the Liberals and the Nationals are slamming the door on opportunity for millions of Australians. Coalition policy is about keeping the world as a place with haves and have-nots. That approach is the basis of the bill we are considering tonight, and that is why the Greens say so emphatically that it should be scrapped completely. The bill is neoliberalism in its most crude form; 101 of neoliberalism is to strip the costs off government and put them on to ordinary people. The essence of this bill is to take $5 billion out of the public allocation for our universities and put the costs on to students through higher fees.

Minister Christopher Pyne, in pushing ahead with this bill, is ignoring the growing opposition to this destructive legislation. One of the lines we have heard trotted out time and again from the minister is the fact that apparently the entire university sector is behind the proposed shake-up of higher education that he is now engineering. It is clear that the minister and his coalition colleagues—Nationals as well as Liberals—have a strong preference for meeting and discussing higher education issues with university executives and managers over staff and students. What they need to remember is that the vice-chancellors and senior management are not the entirety of the sector; they are actually only a small part.

Just last week we saw the creation of the National Alliance for Public Universities, an organisation seeking 'to give voice to the researchers, teachers, administrators and other staff who oppose the deregulation of fees and whose perspective has been overlooked in the national debate'. The organisation has grown rapidly, with 500 academic staff signing up in a few days. The charter of the National Alliance argues:

Universities provide both public and private benefits. To fulfil these, they must function independently of market forces and political interference.

They go on to say:

… universities have a social mission, enabling social mobility while striving to dissolve entrenched social inequalities altogether.

I congratulate them on their launch and welcome their voice in this crucial debate. These are the people who are truly representative of the university sector, along with the students, not the Group of Eight vice-chancellors, many of whom have been camped out in the minister's office attempting to lobby crossbenchers week after week. Sadly, the Group of Eight vice-chancellors have been prioritising their ideological commitment to unrestrained markets over the needs of their staff and students.

I would also like to congratulate the many students who have highlighted the damage this bill will cause. And I think at this time it is worth remembering the courageous students who took their protest to the ABC's Q&A program. They warrant a brief mention in this debate. Some people, including a few media commentators, grumbled that these young people had a bad attitude and apparently lacked respect. But most of those who criticised have a prominent voice within the public discourse on this and a range of issues. Most Australians, particularly young Australians—the ones who will be hardest hit by these measures—do not have a public voice, and the action at Q&A made a significant contribution to the debate on the Pyne bill. Just today—

Senator McKenzie interjecting—

Senator RHIANNON: I do acknowledge the interjection from Senator McKenzie. Just today two students at Melbourne University took direct action on this issue, blocking the entrance of a university building. Why do people do that? Because they are so deeply troubled and concerned. These students were campaigning against the proposals contained in this bill, and for free education—a realistic and affordable alternative for students. I said earlier that there are nearly one million students in Australia who will be impacted by these changes—250,000 of them are on youth allowance and will have their debt significantly increased as a result of the proposal to slash start-up scholarships and replace them with loans. There are also 140,000 university staff. They are the people whom we should have to the forefront of our mind when we debate this bill.

The issue of fees is where we see the deeply damaging aspects of this legislation. We have heard vice-chancellors and senior management—prominent backers of the bill—using the lack of guaranteed high levels of funding as their main line of argument in backing fee deregulation. Many of the vice-chancellors have said that they have to support fee deregulation, as successive federal governments had inadequately funded higher education and that now they would be hit by this latest 'slash' approach to higher education, with a $5 billion cut. This is where we actually need to look closely at what is going on here. But it is also disappointing how the vice-chancellors respond to these cuts rather than being a strong voice out there advocating for a well-funded higher education sector.

Fee deregulation might be called a competitive agenda. But it is, pure and simple, an extreme budget measure in the first instance, to shift the $5 billion—the cost burden—that the government wants to save for itself onto students. By cutting students' subsidies by an average of 20 per cent by place, the government is essentially forcing all universities to raise their fees in order to retain their current level of funding. That is what the vice-chancellors should be spelling out and is the point they should have been arguing. Fears of prohibitively expensive fees were clearly set out by the independent National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, based at the University of Canberra. The NTEU, the ACTU and the National Union of Students also set out these issues in the submissions before the inquiry into this legislation.

It is worth commenting at this point on some of the comments from coalition members. Today, again, Senator McKenzie has been out there publicly accusing people who address this issue of fees—and the very real issue that we, and students in particular, have ahead of us, of $100,000 fees—of scaremongering.

What is going on here is that I and others are out there informing the many unions, community groups and students—we are being responsible. It is informing students of the reality that they will face. Even the University of Western Australia released its figures saying it will cost $16,000 a year for a degree, but if you look at that $16,000, you will see that over a five-year degree, which is increasingly common for many students, it will move into the range of $100,000 once interest on student debt is included. When you look into what so many of the coalition's own backers of this aspect of the legislation are saying and when you inform people of the high fee levels that they will face, that is where you will get proof that it is not scaremongering but reality.

Not a single witness at our inquiry agreed with the minister's proposition that university fees will go down as a result of deregulation. Given that university vice-chancellors are viewing fee deregulation as a tool to boost revenue, it is obvious that fees will increase across the board if this bill is passed by parliament. So there is great interest in this issue. When the budget first came out and we started hearing the details about the government's planned cutbacks and then the legislation came out, there just was not enough information out there about what the fees could blow out to.

One of the contributions the Greens made to this issue is the development of a website: whatwillmydegreecost.com.au. This site was obviously of value, which was just about providing information—that was all that it was doing—because it received so much traffic in the first few hours of its operation that it actually crashed. We quickly had it going again. In the space of a few weeks, it was viewed 1.3 million times. Over half a million students and future students used it to calculate the cost of their degrees under a deregulated environment. That highlights that it is not scaremongering; the government are being irresponsible. They have been trying to sugar-coat their poisoned piece of legislation by making out that it is something that it is not. The horror story of these high levels of fees is something very serious.

While the very damaging budget that the government brought down has disadvantaged people in the main—and, certainly, this legislation does—this bill also reaches into middle-class Australia. This is something I am coming across more and more with middle-class families. Socially, I am often with people who are lawyers, small business people and workers in the professions. I have had the experience of where they have actually been looking at their children and saying, 'How am I going to afford to send them to university?' This is increasingly troubling people in our communities.

I want to move on to the issue of Commonwealth-supported places. If this bill becomes law, public subsidies will be given to private for-profit higher education providers for the first time, to the tune of $450 million. Again, please focus on that—$450 million. It is not money just sitting there; it is money that once would have gone to our public universities. If the bill goes through, it would be there to help a number of companies increase their profit margins. The minister has been unable to confirm that new students will enrol in the courses with these private higher education providers.

This is very relevant to how this money plays out, and the bill's explanatory memorandum confirms that the rate of growth in student enrolments in this area will be slower than in previous years. The end result of these changes will be a windfall of half a billion dollars in subsidies to private education providers without any guarantee of increasing access. So the money is set aside and the government is telling us that all these students will flood to these providers. But when you question the minister he cannot confirm that more students will actually enrol and that more students will come into the system.

During our inquiry, the committee heard strong evidence from the Australian Education Union regarding the problems associated with allowing private providers to access public funding for higher education. We need to ask the question, and it needs to be answered: who is going to hold these operators to account? The experience with the vocational education and training sector shows the depth of this problem when these dodgy operators come in, and there are just too many of them there already. They can see that there is money and that it is easy pickings. They move in—and move in quickly. This is another serious worry regarding how this plays out.

The result of opening up the vocational education and training system to the marketplace brings growing doubts regarding the quality of the education provision that comes from the private sector and the cost of qualifications for the students who may enrol. Far from the opening up of the market in the VET leading to a downward pressure on prices, we now see the spectre of $30,000 being charged for diplomas and advanced diplomas in VET. Right now, under the current system, a degree at a public university will cost less than your technical and further education training costs under the system that has already been opened up to the marketplace. This is because the cost is being shifted onto students. The bill will not require private providers to reduce their fees as a result of receiving government support, and that is where we have this very serious problem with how this will play out with the private providers.

The issue of Commonwealth scholarships is one that the government has been trying to use in the past week as a key argument to make out that this system that they are bringing forward is such a fair one. They are even trying to start to equate it with free higher education, which is a stretch. But nothing is beyond this minister. No Commonwealth government funding will go into the so-called Commonwealth scholarships. Universities will be forced to increase their fees by at least 20 per cent before a single dollar will be diverted to these scholarships. Universities like the Group of Eight will be able to maximise the increase in student fees under deregulation, and they will have the largest pool of funds for these scholarships. This will distort the university activities. Group of Eight universities have the lowest proportion of students from low SES backgrounds.

Senator McKenzie: It is changing.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, it will change under your system, Senator McKenzie. I am pleased the senator interjected at this point, because the sell-out by the Nationals of our regional universities is something that has to be documented and needs to be recognised. It is absolutely monumental. Minister Pyne has shown deception because he has said he did not expect fees to increase significantly under a deregulation system. But the minister cannot have it both ways. Either fees will increase significantly or Commonwealth scholarships will not exist. The whole issue of Commonwealth scholarships is something that is being brought forward as a scam to try and justify assistance being there for disadvantaged students. But there will only be a small number. We do not even know the form that those scholarships will take at the moment. Each university can work it out for itself, and there is no guarantee that those students who may receive scholarships will not end up with a heavy cost burden at the end of their education.

The issue of research is something where the government has also been deceptive. It has said that there will be no cuts to research. But in this bill the government is proposing a 10 per cent across-the-board cut to the research training scheme. This is an enormously backward step, placing greater financial burden on our universities, and remember that this comes on top of all the cuts that we have seen to the CSIRO, the cooperative research centres and so many other key research bodies.

Turning to the regional universities, I repeat that the sell-out by the Nationals of our regional universities is huge. Our regional universities could possibly be the most vulnerable aspect of this bill when we come to consider the various institutions. Regional universities like the University of Wollongong and the University of Newcastle are clearly from big areas. There are no universities there for them to compete with. It really shows that the whole competitive argument that so much of this bill is based on falls over when you look closely at how this works. I particularly pay tribute to the many organisations that have worked so hard to defeat this bill, including the National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students, those who work with postgraduate associations, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the ACTU, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Medical Students' Association.

If the bill were to be passed it would create a higher education system that would be inequitable and elitist with limited accessibility to the highest quality public education institutions. 

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