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Lee speaks against cuts to student support

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 2 Oct 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:10): The higher education package that the government has put before us is very troubling because what it would do to Australia in the long term is extremely serious. It would rip billions of dollars of funding from our public universities, it would put enormous hardship on our students and their families and it would really change the make-up of the types of people who would have the opportunity to gain an education. That is because of the way the government wants to restructure the debt, ripping huge amounts of money, $5 billion, out of the sector.

It is interesting in this debate to follow on from the previous speaker, Senator McKenzie. She misrepresented what this legislation would do if it were passed. She has failed to represent her own constituency, the regional people of Victoria. The Nationals are failing to speak up for what will happen to regional universities. Maybe that is an area I could start with. Regional universities would be put at huge disadvantage under what is proposed by this government. Let us remember that even large regional centres—for example, Newcastle, one of the biggest regional cities in this country—only have one university. So how does competition work when you only have one university?

So many of the arguments behind Minister Pyne's justification for bringing in such an extreme range of changes through this legislation just fall over when you start looking at it closely, particularly with regard to how regional universities would work. They would lose out. We are not hearing that from Senator McKenzie. We are not hearing Nationals senators get up and question what will happen to regional students, how their universities will fare. At the moment we can see that they will not benefit and in fact will lose out from the way in which this is structured.

As I said, this legislation will rip billions of dollars out of our public universities. Also significant to this debate is that some of the money that once went to public universities will now go to private providers, private companies, making a profit out of higher education. Effectively these changes would shut the door on educational opportunities for so many young people, particularly disadvantaged people from regional areas. That is something that we should be giving great consideration to. While there were problems under the previous government in terms of how funding was allocated, there was certainly a greater opportunity for a range of people from diverse backgrounds to access our education system. But now funding will be slashed and a higher debt burden will be pushed onto students, with compound interest being imposed. So the debt burden will last for many more years, more so if you are low-income earner and more so if you are a woman who takes time off to have children. The way it targets certain groupings really does reflect poorly on this government and is a reminder that the sort of higher education system we would end up with with this government is a system that really returns us to the old days where higher education was more the domain of wealthy white men. That is certainly not healthy for our society.

Something I have certainly been picking up since the budget was announced, bringing forward this horror package, is the anxiety it is bringing to many students and their families who are unsure of their future, unsure of how much their sons and daughters will have to pay and uncertain about what cost burden they might have to pick up, because, understandably, many parents want the very best for their children and will step in. You start to feel that that is what the government is relying on. I was very disappointed with Senator McKenzie. How she has betrayed the urgent need to have strong voices for regional universities needs to be emphasised because that is one sector that will lose out badly here.

Senator Carr, when he spoke, detailed the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-2015 that came out today. That has been very timely on a day when there has been so much about our education system in the news. It has been very useful to be able to have it in the public domain today because, effectively, what that has shown is that so many of our universities have increased their ranking. It is something that we can all be very proud of. Congratulations to the students and staff who put in the hard yards and worked so hard. That is essentially why it has been achieved. It is further proof that what Minister Pyne is bringing forward is not the way we are going to achieve the top ranking—it has already been achieved. Our universities are going up in the rankings already, and his idea that it has to be pushed into the marketplace, that you have to rip the billions of dollars out of it, that we need to bring in all this competition, that we need to deregulate the system and that students should pay record fees is a step backwards. You would see the rankings going down. It is important that we bring those two aspects of the debate together.

The other issue that is very important here and that we need to give attention to is the issue of private providers. Of all the troubling aspects of this legislation, this is one of the most serious. Here we have a minister and a government set to rip billions of dollars from the higher education system. How could you do that? We hear the fine speeches from conservative politicians about how they support an innovative, educated nation. You cannot achieve that when you have cutbacks at this level. But, when you look at the cutbacks, not all of it goes out of the education system. Yes, it goes from public universities, but about $500 million goes to private providers. This is very serious when you look at what has happened to the TAFE system in Victoria and how much that has been damaged by the penetration of private, for-profit companies that undermine the standards, the level of teaching, the range of courses that are available and the pathways of education that bring back into the workforce and into society so many people who have felt marginalised. This is not something to be taken lightly. This really goes to the heart of the future quality of our education. I would argue that the evidence is in that the minister has got it wrong and that he should now be ripping up his elitist reforms because it will strip away opportunity from so many students.

Just on this issue of private providers, I was interested to note Senator Carr's contribution—and I think there was an interjection from Senator McKenzie—about the former minister for education in this parliament, John Dawkins. Some people call him a reforming minister. His name is associated with many aspects of the changes to higher education. It is worth looking at what is happening there. It is a story I am starting to hear about and there will be more about it in coming weeks and months. Let's remind ourselves that it was only as recently as December last year that the former minister withdrew from the policy development that he was involved in. He had been chair of the National Skills Standards Council. He resigned from that. He also said he was not going to continue as chair of the Australian Qualifications Framework Council when his term there expired. What was announced was that he would then move over to the company Vocation.

This is a training, recruitment and student management company that was formed out of the amalgamation of three companies that work in this area. When it was floated on the stock market, this company's shares and value went up very quickly. I want to remind the Senate of the three companies that came together to form this company. This is very significant because it is part of this trend where both Labor, to some extent, and the coalition, to a much greater extent, are pushing our higher education down a track that is largely unproven. Drawing on the TAFE experience, there are now many examples of where it can be damaging. But in terms of a large scale delivery of higher education, there is certainly a big question over it.

In the case of Mr Dawkins, Vocation, the company that he has now moved over to, is made up of three companies: AVANA, a specialist in ecotourism training; CSIA which was one of the founding companies and had a paper value of $378 million when it was floated; and BAWM, which started out as Taylored Gardens and at one stage was the biggest recipient of state government training funds. The huge amount of money that this company has pulled together and the fact that its share price, within just one day when it was first floated, climbed from $1.89 to $2.03 in just a matter of hours does illustrate that there are many people looking at this as a quick and lucrative way to raise money because you are secure in terms of your money source because it is coming from the government. This is an area that is worthy of being watched. Mr Dawkins, when he went over, became the non-executive chair.

Some information that came out today shows that Vocation, which is a very large training provider, has been frozen in its entirety by Victoria's Department of Education. I draw the attention of senators to that fact. This issue is very relevant. We need to understand what is happening with private providers, because that area is a significant part of this legislation. If the legislation is passed, it is widely understood this will be a growth area. Now one of the biggest companies—with somebody very prestigious at the head of the organisation, Mr Dawkins—is being frozen. Why that has occurred and what the failures were within the company are things that we need to watch very closely.

I want to return to how this proposed legislation is playing out in the community. As I said in an earlier speech today, who can remember when a budget has caused so much anger for so long? What I am finding when I am out and about is that this budget is putting pressure on a lot of people. It is causing a lot of uncertainty; people are wondering about what the future holds for them. Many families are troubled about their children's futures. I would like to share with the Senate a personal story. While the bulk of the harsh measures in this budget are mainly loaded onto disadvantaged people and working-class people, I have realised that when it comes to higher education this budget is reaching into the heart of middle-class Australia. I was at a friend's place having a barbecue on a sunny winter's day. The father is a lawyer, the mother runs a small business and they have four small children. The children were running around. We were chatting about different things, and then all of a sudden the dad said: 'I really wonder how I am going to pay for their education. I don't know how I am going to do it.' These people are not hard up, but they are already looking at what the future holds for their children. They feel very responsible for their children, as so many parents do, with the desire to have higher education. What do they do about it?

This government would be wise to consider that this issue is resonating widely in the community. The anger is there. What Minister Pyne has brought forward is deeply wrong. He is incredibly out of touch. We know he has an amazing style: he chatters on, he has a laugh, he likes to talk to everybody and he makes out that he is willing to negotiate any time. But in fact this minister is somebody who has gone too far down the neoliberal path of shoving everything into the marketplace. Personally, I do not think that any education should be in the marketplace, but to open the higher education system up to market forces to such a degree cannot work. It cannot work for the system, it cannot work for the business community and it cannot work for industry. We need an educated workforce, but this is not just about skills for a job; it is about the wonder of being informed and the wonder of knowledge. That is something that is being killed off in the way that this minister has structured this bill. This is legislation that should in no form be allowed to pass.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, prior to this government coming into office, Australia was already lagging behind OECD nations in terms of funding. The level of per student government funding in Australia is well below the OECD average. When you look at the OECD analysis, Australia is lagging in a number of areas to do with higher education. That is nothing to be proud of. This is a reminder of how fantastic the news on university rankings was today—that is something to be proud of. It is because of the hard work of those in the sector, even though nearly 50 per cent of the workforce are casual and working under shocking conditions. These people are so deeply committed to their work. A good job is being done, but it is being done on a shoestring budget at the moment. So those figures are very much worth analysis.

In this debate, some comment needs to be made about Labor. I acknowledge the very strong speech made by Senator Carr on Labor's commitment to higher education. We had a debate earlier in the day where we saw Labor go wobbly despite the fact that their opposition leader Bill Shorten signed a pledge about not allowing changes in higher education to go through the Senate. Labor has now flipped over and is ready to work with the government on issues around relocation and other issues to do with student arrangements. We also need to remember that when Labor was in government they planned on cutting the education budget. It was a Saturday in April when the former minister, Mr Emerson, came out with an announcement to cut $2.3 billion from the higher education budget. It is one of the failed policies that they took to the election.

After the election, a strong campaign kicked in. The Greens, the unions, students and community members put the pressure on Labor, because we thought that Labor in opposition sometimes are a different beast and that under pressure they might come to their senses. They did. They dropped that wrong policy of funding cuts, and now they are resisting the bulk of these changes to higher education. But we need to put on the record that Labor need to be consistent in their policy, not just in opposition but in government, because sooner or later this government will be voted out. We have to ensure that when they are voted out, we have not in the meantime passed this very bad legislation.

I am certainly looking forward to the hearings of the committee that we have set up to inquire into this legislation. A range of people from our universities—including staff and people who analyse trends within the academic world and higher education in terms of government policy—will come to give evidence. That will help inform us to come back to this chamber to have an even more informed debate. There are already many warning signals here around private providers in terms of the level of deregulation and in terms of the way the debt would be structured. The warning bells have already sounded. A wise minister, if Mr Pyne were such a person, would withdraw this legislation, stop this elitist approach and sit down with the sector and with the Greens and Labor to come up with a plan to make higher education work for students and for the country.

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