Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:37): I direct my question to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Senator Payne. Considering Mr Pyne regularly states that the university sector is behind the Liberal-National plan to take $5 billion out of the higher education budget and allow massive fee increases, please detail the consultation processes your government conducted on this plan. How many of the one million students and 140,000 university staff who will be impacted by your higher education changes were consulted? Please detail who, apart from vice-chancellors and senior management, you have consulted with. Did you engage in any genuine consultation with students and staff?
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:38): I thank Senator Rhiannon for her question. I do not have numbers and the finer detail here with me this afternoon, but she will of course be aware that over an extended period of time, whether it was the planning for the Commission of Audit under the chairmanship of Tony Shepherd, whether it was the Kemp-Norton review, which the minister undertook earlier in the year, or whether it was the extensive discussions held by the minister, his staff and the department before the budget, there has been very significant consultation. What is even more interesting than that are some of the comments made more recently by representative organisations and by individual universities themselves. It is hard to know where to start, because there are so many supportive comments available. Perhaps I will start with the Regional Universities Network, which considers:
... the only way that the sector can maintain quality and remain internationally competitive is through the deregulation of student fees.
Or Universities Australia, led by Belinda Robinson, of whom we spoke yesterday, which said:
The peak body representing Australia's universities calls on the Parliament to support the deregulation of Australian universities with changes to the Government's proposals that will assure affordability for students and taxpayers.
Ms Robinson also:
...called on the Parliament to remove the ongoing uncertainty for students, universities and the broader community, by moving swiftly to approve the reforms with changes proposed by Universities Australia.
The Innovative Research Universities, the IRU, in its submission to the Senate inquiry on the bill urged:
... the Senate to pass the Bill with the necessary amendments by the end of 2014.
The Australian Technology Network of Universities welcomed the introduction of the bill into parliament, saying:
In a move away from the centralised command and control approach, deregulation will drive diversity and innovation across the sector-
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:40): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Prior to the last election, Mr Abbott stated that there would be no cuts to education under a coalition government. Before or after the last election did any senior coalition representatives consult with the National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the Australian Education Union, the Australian Medical Students' Association or the National Alliance for Public Universities? If you did not consult, why didn't you? Your answer shows that you have only consulted with vice-chancellors. Was there anybody else apart from senior management? (Time expired)
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:41): I could reiterate the observations I made in my earlier response in relation to the Kemp-Norton review, the Commission of Audit, pre-budget consultations. To that I can add the exceptionally good work done in the run-up to the introduction of the legislation by the group under the leadership of Professor Dewar, which worked very hard for the minister on the issues around the legislation, and also by the group led by the exceptional Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, Professor Peter Shergold, who in the run-up to the introduction of the legislation similarly facilitated extensive consultation and discussion.
More importantly, I think it is a shame that Senator Rhiannon does not acknowledge the work of our own Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, chaired by Senator McKenzie, which recently reviewed the legislation. Having had a chance to look at that report since it was tabled, I can see the extensive consultation that took place in that process. (Time expired)
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:42): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Is the minister aware that 79 per cent of students surveyed by Sydney university management disagree with universities being given full flexibility to set fees? Considering the diverse views on this issue and the enormous importance higher education has for our economy and the nation's future, why didn't the government take the usual path of issuing a green paper to engage widely with the community?
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales-Minister for Human Services) (14:42): The Greens are calling for a green paper. There's a surprise! What we will have in this process is increasing higher education spending in this country. It will go up. Let me say that that is in stark contrast to Labor's $6.6 billion worth of cuts over almost 18 months, I think, at one stage. If Senator Rhiannon is so interested in polls, let me refer to a poll-a survey of more than 1,200 people across the country-commissioned by Universities Australia, which said that 56 per cent of Australians would support the deregulation of universities if the bill proceeded with amendments. We have indicated that that is the view of Universities Australia.
Senator Rhiannon: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to standing order 194:
A senator shall not digress from the subject matter of any question under discussion ...
There was a clear question there about the green paper. Surely it should be answered.
The PRESIDENT: There were two elements to your question. You asked, 'Are you aware ...' in the first part of your question and then you asked about consultation and why the government didn't issue a green paper. The minister has been relevant. She has 10 seconds to go.
Senator PAYNE: In that 10 seconds let me say that the government looks forward to constructive and positive debate on the legislation when it next comes before the chamber, because the support the government is receiving from the sector is the most relevant- (Time expired)