Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:20): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Senator Payne. Senator, is it fair that many members of the current cabinet, including the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education, received their undergraduate university education for free, while your government is planning on increasing student fees for nursing students by an estimated 18 per cent, fees for arts students by 60 per cent and fees for engineering and science students by 55 per cent? Why should registered nurses earning average salaries of $55,000 a year pay an extra $8,500 in interest bills for their degrees?
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:21): I thank Senator Rhiannon for the question. As I said to the Senate yesterday over a number of minutes in answer to a question from Senator McKenzie, what the Australian government is addressing in terms of our higher education system is a very, very important issue of competitiveness—making sure that we can be a world-class tertiary education nation that takes its rightful place, with its universities in their rightful place, internationally. What we have done in this budget is to look at key reform issues which have been ignored by those opposite—and ignored with aplomb, I might say—
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator PAYNE: or 'insouciance', perhaps, Senator Brandis; you might be right—for their entire period in government. And we have decided that, in terms of competitiveness, and in terms of the engagement of what will be 80,000 more students by 2018 in our tertiary system, these are very important steps to take.
What Senator Rhiannon's question also does not address is the aspect of scholarships, which I did mention in brief yesterday—those scholarships which will be funded through the contribution of higher education institutions. The opening up of institutions which can participate in the tertiary spectrum, including those who offer diplomas and pre-bachelor degree courses, is going to make pathways so much easier for those who perhaps want an opportunity to see if they can do a Bachelor of Business or something like that.
Senator PAYNE: And the UWS College, Senator Cameron, as you would know, or should know—perhaps you do not; perhaps that is not something you have come across in your peregrinations through Western Sydney—is a very good example of exactly that sort of thing. It actually establishes an opportunity for students— (Time expired)
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:23): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Senator, doesn't your government's plan to charge interest at the higher rate of up to six per cent on all existing HECS debts constitute a broken contract with the 1.8 million Australians who are still repaying their student debt, many of whom have graduated and are in the workforce? This does not create the tertiary-educated nation you speak of.
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:24): I thank Senator Rhiannon for her supplementary question. It is actually interesting that HECS is raised in the chamber this afternoon. I do not know whether all the members here have read one of Dr Andrew Leigh's co-authored books, Imagining Australia, but there is this very, very interesting piece in Dr Leigh's book—and I believe that those opposite are very familiar with Dr Leigh:
… we propose that Australian universities be free to set … fees according to the market value of their degrees. A deregulated or market-based—
Senator Rhiannon: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the issue of relevance. The senator is speaking on issues not linked with the question and reading out quotes about that issue. Could you draw her attention back to the question asked, please.
The PRESIDENT: Order! I am listening to the minister's answer closely. There is no point of order at this stage. The minister still has 25 seconds remaining.
… we propose that Australian universities be free to set … fees according to the market value of their degrees. A deregulated or market-based HECS will make the student contribution system fairer, because the fees students pay will more closely approximate the value they receive through future earnings.
Let me also say that it is very important to note that current students will effectively be grandfathered. These new arrangements— (Time expired)
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:26): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Yesterday on Sky News, Minister Pyne stated that the coalition's university deregulation agenda would:
… drive the price down because competition always drives the price down.
But less than a minute later the minister stated that prices might go up or might go down, depending on competition. Senator, which of Minister Pyne's statements is true? And can you explain how prices go up if competition always drives prices down?
Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:26): I think that what is very important to note is that, in a competitive market, some prices go up and some prices go down. And we can be confident that some prices will go down because, for the first time ever, the Commonwealth will be supporting all students in all undergraduate courses, from higher education diplomas to bachelor degrees. With 80,000 more students funded for the first time, fees must go down. Competition between universities and colleges is also going to help to prevent fees from rising excessively. We will also, of course, as I mentioned earlier, have our universities and colleges being required to spend one dollar in every five dollars of additional revenue on Commonwealth scholarships which will provide support to disadvantaged students. This is a major equity program. The opportunities that will be available to disadvantaged students— (Time expired)