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Speech: free higher education worth the investment

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 14 May 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:35):  In January this year, the Chilean congress passed a landmark law introducing free higher education at Chilean universities. The law marks an end to the country's 30-year market based higher education system. Free higher education in Chile will be phased in over six years. It will be funded through an increase in corporate taxes, tighter regulations on tax evasion and by closing tax loopholes for the rich. For the last decade, the education revolution in Chile has been building. Hundreds of thousands of high school and university students across Chile held strikes, protests and occupations of universities and schools. The students and teachers unions joined together to call for radical reform of the university sector. Public support for free higher education in that country reached 81 per cent.

Free higher education has been adopted also in a number of European countries. In October last year, the last state in Germany to charge student fees, Lower Saxony, officially abolished them. Germany is now entirely tuition-free. Over the past few decades, Germany has offered tuition-free higher education in various states. Because of this, the country has reaped the benefits of a highly educated and highly skilled population. Of this change, Gabriele Heinen-Kljajic of the Greens party and minister for science and culture in Lower Saxony said:

We got rid of tuition fees because we do not want higher education which depends on the wealth of the parents.

Germany and Chile have joined a whole host of other countries, including Denmark, Scotland, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Mexico, Poland, Slovenia, Malta and Turkey currently offering tuition-free higher education. Each of these countries has effectively rejected the concept of education as a commodity. The introduction of free higher education has been based on the notion that education is a social good. Meanwhile, back in Australia, Treasurer Joe Hockey has handed down the coalition's second neoliberal budget. Deregulation of public universities and the associated deep funding cuts and record fees have been brought over from the now notorious 2014 coalition budget. This is not the pathway to secure the future of higher education. Free higher education can bring benefits to all, and it is time we brought this into the public debate.

The Greens acknowledge the contribution Labor made in 1974 when free higher education was introduced. But, in one of the starkest examples of Labor being captured by right-wing ideology, this fine reform was dismantled in 1988 by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The first Higher Education Contribution Scheme imposed a flat fee rate on all students. Since HECS was introduced, successive coalition and Labor governments have chipped away at the amount of public funding provided to the tertiary sector in total and as a proportion of GDP. Meanwhile, the cost of higher education borne by students has risen. Differential fees have been introduced and the income threshold on debt repayments has been lowered. Levels of public government funding for higher education continue to drop well below the OECD average. Australia is the only OECD country to go backwards in terms of public expenditure on tertiary education institutions in real terms since 1995. Out of 26 countries, Australia ranked 24th in terms of growth in public higher education investment between 1989 and 2011.

Since Minister Pyne flagged in the 2014 budget government plans to cut billions from higher education and load the cost burden onto students, these students and their parents, as well as researchers and university staff, have agonised over the possibility of fee hikes, funding cuts and deregulated degrees. When Mr Hockey brought down the coalition's second neoliberal budget, we learnt that a coalition priority remains deregulation of public universities. Throwing his full weight behind this deregulation plan, Minister Pyne has been attempting to shepherd it through the Senate from various angles. All of Minister Pyne's propositions, though, are simple variations on the same misguided theme. During the two failed attempts to get their higher education changes through, the minister stubbornly ignored the main beneficiaries of higher education—students—and its main practitioners, academics. In doing so, he turned a blind eye to the needs of two of the biggest stakeholders in this discussion, preferring instead to listen to a group of vice-chancellors from his favoured universities.

In his unwarranted mission to uncap university fees, the minister pleaded with crossbenchers and goaded those who refused to support him. The minister has played up the attitudes of his supporters and played down those of his detractors without showing any willingness to enter into an objective discussion on this. Obsessed with his retrograde model for deregulated education, Minister Pyne has attempted to force these changes through the Senate and has spent millions—I understand it is about $15 million—of public money in trying to convince the public that Australian universities stand to benefit. Those advertisements were unwarranted. To their credit, most have not been fooled by these attempts to sell a bad package. Despite the clear disapproval of the Senate, despite the public's rejection of deregulation and despite the best advice of staff and student unions, Minister Pyne continued to foreshadow surprise cuts in the lead-up to the 2015 budget. At times, he appeared to be quite enjoying himself in being mischievous about this.

The Greens today are calling for a restructuring of university funding. This is antithetical to Minister Pyne's market-based model. The Greens support the phasing in of free universal education from preschool through to higher education. Australia needs world-class higher education. TAFEs and universities should be the nation's engine rooms of cultural and economic innovation. Yet, our system is struggling. Working conditions for university and TAFE staff continue to deteriorate as they face increasing casualisations and job cuts. Employment is precarious, and the quality of teaching is being compromised. Vocational education and training has been undermined and compromised by the introduction of private for-profit companies to higher education. When the former Labor government included contestability in a new COAG agreement, they opened up the higher education sector to the destructive force on education standards of companies chasing profits. The 2014 budget had a line item of nearly a quarter of a million dollars for the private sector. That has now been brought over into the 2015 budget.

The coalition makes constant reference to Australia's world-class education system. These high-sounding proclamations cannot be achieved, however, while higher education is marooned in the marketplace. The current direction of the sector closes in on the possibility of creating equal access and opportunity for students. The coalition's approach to tertiary education is one that closes the door on the less fortunate, separating our society into the haves and the have-nots. In the world of the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Minister Christopher Pyne, it appears that opportunities in life are taken for granted. When they talk it sounds like they believe that access to a high-quality education is a given and the promise of a high-paying secure job is a given. But, for most people, life is not so straightforward. Understandably, the issue of costs and payments figures strongly for most. The Greens have identified several sources of revenue to fund the higher education sector and much more.

A wise government would provide the same opportunities for all Australians and work to redistribute wealth. The coalition continues to leave massive sources of revenue with corporate interests while arguing that their hands are tied on university reform. There is an enormous disjunct here. The Greens are calling their bluff on this unrepresentative approach. We are a wealthy country and we can afford to spend money on the things that matter. Public funded higher education is not a social debt but an investment for society and the economy. We want to move towards a system which reflects that and which improves access opportunities for all. This is possible if we restructure our economy.

Abolishing tax breaks for big mining companies would shore up $10.5 billion, the original super profits tax on big mining companies would have brought in $18.6 billion, and a $2 per tonne levy on thermal coal exports would raise $1.7 billion. Imposing a millionaire's tax on the super-rich would generate over $630 million, and a public insurance levy on the big four banks would raise over $16 billion. If we close the superannuation tax loopholes that are commonly rorted by the wealthy and introduce a progressive super tax system we could save up to $10.16 billion.

These measures would generate economic returns to fund so many of the projects the leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, outlined tonight, including the phasing in of free higher education. Improving accessibility and equity involves much more than eliminating tuition costs. The exorbitant living expenses that young people face as students are also a huge barrier to social equality. As well as being saddled with crippling debt, so many students also struggle to find affordable housing and struggle to pay for their basic needs while studying. In order to provide all young people with the same opportunities, we also need to look towards improving support for students. The Greens want to see increases to student entitlements like the youth allowance, more generous travel concessions for students, more affordable housing and better support for elected student bodies. All of these measures, combined with tuition-free universities, will improve opportunities for students, particularly Indigenous, low-SES and rural students.

The Greens believe we need a visionary approach to education. We believe that our education system, from preschool right through to university and TAFEs, needs to be open to people from all backgrounds. We believe that it is the government's responsibility to create education opportunities for all. We need to pursue these goals in ways that also accommodate teachers, academics, researchers and general staff. We must not pursue options which foreclose on the quality of teaching. We need to rebuild job security for staff. For every $1 invested in higher education the Australian economy grows by $26. The economic benefits are massive if the investment is made. But boosting the tertiary education budget can bring even greater returns. Proper investment in higher education will expand education beyond vocational imperatives to meeting the public good. Today's students are tomorrow's leaders, researchers, innovators and problem solvers. Their creativity, energy and innovativeness will help meet the enormous challenges of this century. It is time Australia considered the benefits of free higher education.

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