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Speech: Amendment to Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012 Disallowance

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 17 Mar 2014

Lee speaks in favour of the motion to disallow Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012, which will reduce funding as part of loadings offered to higher education providers and cut funding for Indigenous scholarships. 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:49): I rise to speak in favour of the motion to disallow Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012. These legislative instruments are very much part of the brutal agenda that we are seeing coming from the coalition. They know it is not going to get through, but there is a real intent here to slash and burn in areas where people are doing it tough-and when it comes to education, it is an area that needs to be improved on, not cut further. One of the legislative instruments relates to reducing the amount of funding available as part of loadings offered to higher education providers, and the other cut, if it gets through, would be to money that should be retained for Indigenous scholarships.

Firstly, I will address the loadings. The loadings are offered to higher education providers that offer services via regional campuses and those that deliver courses that teach medicine. It was interesting and quite informative to look at the explanatory memorandum for this instrument, which cuts higher education funding. One of the stated aims is to 'improve the quality of higher education'. A classic way that governments with bad policies try to sell them is by saying the exact opposite of what will actually happen. So there it is, stating that it will 'improve the quality of higher education'. It should be quite straightforward, but that is in fact not the case. It is certainly a very bold and arrogant statement and claim from the minister, because, while he is attempting to rip billions of dollars out of higher education funding, he is claiming that it is improving quality.

We need to look at the instruments here. And we need to look at this motion to disallow them, in the context of the broader cuts to higher education that the coalition government is trying to implement. To help achieve that, some of the answers we received at estimates become quite informative. This one was actually to a question on notice. It was provided by the department on students, university staff and the wider community and was quite informative on where the brunt of these cuts will be. We are now able to see where the proposed $900 million cuts will be felt.

In my home state of New South Wales this government is planning to rip out an estimated $253 million from universities. For regional universities, which are already doing it tough, this is very serious. It is estimated that Southern Cross, New England, Charles Sturt, Newcastle and Wollongong universities will lose $88 million. The quality of education they can provide, how they plan for the future and how they maintain the standards in their universities are all under a heavy cloud. It is estimated Victorian universities will lose $214 million in funding, Queensland universities $162 million and South Australian universities $67 million, and the University of Tasmania is facing a funding cut of almost $24 million. This is all in the face of a government that says it is out to improve higher education.

In Western Australia the government is attempting to take $81.2 million from universities. Last year was a year of strikes and actions at our universities around the country. They were pushed to the point where they had to take that industrial action because of the savage way the government was treating them. Sadly, it was not just the coalition government but also the Labor government. It is good that Labor is now taking on this issue and moving for these disallowances. While it is only a small part of what is going on, funding of higher education, how the scholarship system works and how all those instruments work need to be tackled head on.

The other instrument the minister introduced that is relevant to this motion attempts to cut funding to higher education by reducing the amount of money offered to Indigenous students via crucial scholarships. When I saw that one I really found it hard to credit. We already know that the number of Indigenous students who continue with their education through to tertiary education is small. Yes, there have been some successes, but there needs to be a lot more work done. And what have we seen from this government? It has been taking away the money. These scholarships assist Indigenous students with the costs associated with studying at university. These scholarships are vital, covering costs of resources, books, accommodation and transport. There is a whole range of student needs that these scholarships are absolutely critical for.

The figures on the numbers of Indigenous students who stay on at university are not impressive. The figures are embarrassing. They are a reminder of how far Australia has fallen behind in working with Indigenous communities. While Indigenous people make up 2.5 per cent of our population, only 1.09 per cent of university students are Indigenous. And here we have a government taking away scholarships. It is not a huge amount of money but it is a very important amount of money. I think we all know that money, like a lot of things in life, is relative, and for some people this scholarship can make a huge difference to their future.

The government clearly needs to be doing more to improve Indigenous access to higher education, not taking the steps that we are seeing them try to push through tonight. They need to provide more support for degrees and programs, not cut funding, as they are attempting. Again, these cuts need to be viewed in the context of the coalition's wider agenda in relation to student welfare. So much of the cost burden is being pushed onto all students. That is the trend of successive governments.

The coalition's plans, if implemented, would increase student debt by $1.2 billion over four years. That is across the board. The individual debt of students receiving Youth Allowance will increase, on average, by $10,000 over the course of their degree. That can really make a difference. I am conscious of that in my own family. I was the first to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university, and a scholarship made all the difference. Now, with the cost burden being pushed onto students, what I hear from so many young people is that they think twice before they consider if they will take on a university education. That is because of the debt factor. Student debt has risen by almost 30 per cent in six years. An increasing number of students are missing out on classes and are going without food, because of the financial pressure they are under.

NUS did an important survey that made this assessment. When you consider the hardship that so many Indigenous students have, losing their scholarships is simply unacceptable. How deeply wrong it is. What a reflection on this government, on what their standards are-that they would even consider bringing forward such a proposal. The Greens will be supporting both these disallowances.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the motion moved by Senator Carr be agreed to.

No. 1—That the Commonwealth Scholarships Guidelines (Education) 2013, made under section 238-10 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, be disallowed, and

No. 2—That Amendment No. 1 to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines 2012, made under section 238-10 of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, be disallowed.

The motion is passed.


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