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Questions Without Notice: Higher education cuts

Lee Rhiannon 28 Aug 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:39): My question is to the minister representing the Minister for Higher Education, Senator Payne. Considering that today your government released its higher education bill, which if passed would mean that the size of a parent's bank balance will determine a young person's opportunity to study and learn at our public universities, can you confirm if there is a single new student who otherwise would not have enrolled in a bachelor degree at a private higher education provider who will take up their studies as a result of the government's proposed funding changes that were introduced into the House this morning? Can you guarantee that there will be one new student?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:40): I thank Senator Rhiannon for her question. I did not quite get the end of the question that Senator Rhiannon asked, but what I can absolutely guarantee to the Senate and Senator Rhiannon is that if the Senate is minded to support the legislation—as the House of Representatives has done and as groups like Universities Australia have encouraged the Senate to do just today, albeit with some amendments—then there will be chances for significantly larger numbers of young Australians to take part in higher education in this country.

For the first time, there will be Commonwealth funding for sub-bachelor places in private institutions and for diplomas, associate diplomas and so on. For first time ever we will open up those pathways to increase and encourage greater participation for Australian students. We will provide more choice. We will follow on from the opening up of the demand-driven approach that the previous government adopted to make it demand driven across the entire sector. That is a glaring gap that has been commented on in several reports.

Those changes will enable significantly larger numbers of students to participate in higher education in this country. It will give them more choice, it will give them more opportunity and it will give universities a chance to really showcase the sorts of things that they can do through the Commonwealth scholarship scheme, which will also enable larger numbers of students—particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—to attend our higher education institutions. All of that, as part of this reform package, will bring to Australia's young people, those wishing to study and those who may not otherwise have been able to go to university before the opportunity to follow that path, to follow it across Australia and to follow it with far greater opportunity and choice.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:42): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. To repeat my question: can you guarantee that there will be one new student who would not have enrolled in a bachelor degree at a private higher education provider? Is it not the case that your policy will deliver half a billion dollars' worth of public subsidies to private, for-profit providers without being able to guarantee any extra student enrolments?

Senator Cormann: I think that is Greens mathematics!

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:43): I think I agree with my colleague, Senator Cormann. I think that may be a version of Greens mathematics with which I am not familiar! What I can actually indicate to the Senate is that for the first time students who wish to take up opportunities in organisations, including private institutions, will have Commonwealth-funded opportunities and support to do that. We actually think an expansion to perhaps an extra 80,000 students by 2018 is an extraordinary opportunity for those wishing to take up study.It may be through a diploma, an associate diploma or another sub-bachelor qualification; but that diversity, that choice, that opportunity and that support from the Commonwealth has not previously been available to those students. We intend to change that. We intend to make sure that students who might not otherwise have had the chance to study in higher education can now do that, no matter where they come from—whether it is lower socioeconomic areas or elsewhere. (Time expired)

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (14:44): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. How do you justify the government's assertion that student debt is a dominant influence on an individual's decision about university enrolment, when the research you quote on this was undertaken in 1999? Does the fact that this data is more than 15 years old and all the data you can find highlight that under your skyrocketing fee regime young people could well be deterred from going to university?

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales—Minister for Human Services) (14:44): I am not sure that the premise of Senator Rhiannon's question is something with which I agree. What will happen under deregulation is that universities and other higher education institutions will compete for students. That sort of competition is going to prevent exorbitant fees. We believe that higher education institutions are best placed to determine how to maintain and promote a world-class higher education system. So, from 2016, institutions will be responsible for setting their own levels of student contributions. Frankly, when universities compete for students, students win. They win in terms of the range of courses that offered, they win in terms of the quality of teaching, they win in terms of the quality and diversity of student support they receive and they win in terms of value for money. We can be confident that some fees will go down because we are providing Commonwealth supported places for many courses which were not previously supported. (Time expired)


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:30): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Payne) to a question without notice asked by Senator Rhiannon today relating to proposed higher education funding changes.

Less than six hours after the Minister for Education, Minister Pyne, introduced the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill, you would have to say that his arguments as to why that is needed are really on the rocks. It is worth looking into some of the details of what he said, because in question time just now, in this chamber, Minister Payne failed to confirm that a single new student who otherwise would not have enrolled in a bachelor degree at a private higher-education provider will take up studies as a result of the government's proposed funding changes.

The minister is out there trying to whip up excitement for his bill. Maybe we would say that that is his job, but we would hope that he would be accurate in what he puts out there for public consideration. One of his key statements is that 80,000 extra students will be enrolled in Commonwealth supported places by 2018. That sounds impressive, and that is what the minister wants us to think. But let us look behind his bald statements. It is true that students in the private sector and those studying sub-bachelor degrees in the university system will now receive Commonwealth support. However, the government is unable to confirm that new students will enrol in these courses as a result of the changes, and that is key to what we are considering here. In fact, the bill's explanatory memorandum confirms that the rate of growth in student enrolments in this area will be slower than in previous years. So, you have that acknowledgement in the explanatory memorandum, and we have a minister who cannot confirm that there will be new students.

The end result of these changes will be a windfall of half a million dollars in subsidies for private higher education providers without any guarantee of increasing access. We are told many things about this legislation, but at the end of the day it is about saving the government money—and it is a lot of money: $5 billion ripped out of our public university system. And it is about giving public money—subsidies—to private providers. The government's proposed changes to higher education funding will see these public subsidies come into play. We have seen with TAFE, particularly in Victoria, how damaging this can be, not just to education but indeed to the very fabric of our society when you consider how education underpins so much.

But the misleading statements from the minister do not stop there. It is worth considering his claim about Commonwealth scholarships. Minister Pyne argues that the Commonwealth scholarship will provide more opportunity for students with low socioeconomic backgrounds and from regional areas. No public government money will go to Commonwealth scholarships. The minister has actually stolen the good name that Commonwealth scholarships had. Many of us long ago did benefit from such scholarships, and they were scholarships with government money. But he has taken that name, misused that name, because there is no public money. Universities will be forced to increase their fees by at least 20 per cent before a single dollar from the university can be diverted to the creation of Commonwealth scholarships. And it will be the group of eight universities that will be able to maximise the increase in student fees under deregulation that will have the largest pool of funds for Commonwealth scholarships. This is another area where the legislation, if passed, would become unfair and so damaging to the way higher education plays out in this country.

These universities, the group of eight, have the lowest proportion of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Small and regional universities who teach the higher proportion of low-SES-background students will have the smallest amount of funding for Commonwealth scholarships. Mr Pyne has said that he did not expect fees to increase significantly under a deregulated system. But Mr Pyne cannot have it both ways. Either fees will increase significantly or Commonwealth scholarships do not exist.

There are many other areas where the minister is being misleading. He claims that when universities and colleges compete, students win. He is already undermining that assertion. And he says that there are no threats to cut research funding—grossly inaccurate there, because those cuts are already in place. The coalition has already cut— (Time expired)




Question agreed to.

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