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Speech: Higher Education

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 14 Jul 2014

It is fascinating to listen to how Senator Ryan and Senator Carr see higher education. Senator Carr gave Senator Ryan something pretty easy to come in on. Senator Ryan documented Labor's position in April and May 2013. Unfortunately Labor ditched that position when they went into opposition, which was certainly very shameful. Let's look at what Senator Ryan had to say. Senator Ryan did what so many Liberals do these days; he used Prime Minister Menzies as cover when he said, 'Yes, we care about universities, we care about people.'

Let's look at what Prime Minister Menzies did, which was far different from what the coalition is doing now. It is true that, in the 1950s, Prime Minister Menzies did start to take an interest in universities. He recommended that universities needed assistance and that it needed to be a federal issue and something that the then Liberal government should give attention to. That is certainly very much out of step with what we are seeing from this coalition government. The Liberal government back in the 1950s did commit to recurrent grant funding to our universities. And then there were the Commonwealth funds which were made available for capital expenditure. But the coalition policy now is to slash funding to our universities and push the burden onto students. The coalition is handing out free public money to private sector companies which can now make profits out of higher education. This is quite different from the standards that former Prime Minister Menzies brought to this sector.

It is also a reminder of the whole issue of Commonwealth scholarships and how dishonest this government is. One piece of spin that we regularly hear from the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, when he is trying to justify this very cruel approach, is that these new Commonwealth scholarships will benefit disadvantaged students. The Commonwealth scholarships we have now are nothing like those we had under the Menzies government. 'Commonwealth scholarships' is just a name. There is no federal government money going into them. The whole arrangement is worked out within universities, which is adding to the pressure that they are under and the difficulties that they face. It is very dishonest to use the term 'Commonwealth scholarships'. For older generations the term has a good ring to it. It comes from the Liberal era of the 1960s and the Whitlam era before they went to free higher education. The term 'Commonwealth scholarship' has a good ring to it. It comes from an era when public money was used to assist students who might have difficulty in being able to go to university to study.

Again, we have total dishonesty from Senator Ryan—not surprising, because that is what he is getting from his minister—in terms of how the system works. It was interesting to listen to the banter that was going on. Senator Carr was correct in saying that what we saw from the coalition in opposition was quite different from what we are seeing from the coalition in government. Sadly, that is also something we see from Labor; they are a very different beast when in opposition. The challenge for community groups, unions and the Greens is to keep that pressure on so that they honour the decent policies that we hear more often from them when they are in opposition.

It is worth reminding ourselves just how differently the coalition have conducted themselves within the last year. This time last year we were all out campaigning. And what were we hearing from the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and Christopher Pyne? They were out spruiking that there would be no changes at all to higher education funding arrangements. That is what we heard from them, time and time again, prior to the election. But look what has happened now. We have seen the very ugly budget that they have brought down. We have seen the extreme measures in so many aspects of higher education funding—one of which we are dealing with right now in terms of the disallowance motion. In June this year, on the ABC's Insiders program, we heard Minister Pyne defending the cuts as 'fair and sustainable'. He pulls words out of the air which have no realism in terms of what is actually happening.

Minister Pyne actually said:

I think that the contribution that students make can be rebalanced …

At the moment the taxpayers are funding 60 per cent of the tuition fees of university students, and universities' students are making up 40 per cent. Under our changes, it will be 50-50.

What we know, though, is if you look at the trajectory of where the coalition's higher education policies are going, you will see that there will be an even greater burden on students.

With regard to the regulation that brings us to this debate, the Higher Education (Maximum Amounts for Other Grants) Determination 2013, we do support the disallowance motion. We are very pleased that Senator Carr has brought it on. It seeks to cut over $435 million from the higher education and other grants program over four years. It is another example of where the coalition really are waging war on the funding of the higher education sector, pushing the costs more and more onto students, slashing money out of the universities themselves.

An issue that has had little attention but which is certainly part of the package is the coalition government opening up, for the first time, the ability of private companies, for-profit companies, to access public funding that once went to our universities. Now they can make money out of it. This is deeply troubling. Many institutions that run them often have little experience of the higher education sector. Again, what do we hear from Senator Ryan about a deregulated system? He was bashing the opposition about the fact that they want some regulations. Surely, we need to have some regulations and some standards in how our system is run. Again, going back to the cover that he tried to pick up for himself and his party, in talking about the Menzies' era, there were regulations then. There were standards. When former Prime Minister Menzies started paying attention to universities, one of the things he did was to look for some consistency across the nation. As well as the funding issues, consistency in standards was a big part of it. But what do we get from this government? Deregulation, throwing money at private companies. With regard to the standards within our higher education sector what we will see and where it will lead to is deeply troubling.

Government regulation is cutting support to universities, particularly for the promotion of equality of opportunity and the support of diversity and open access to higher education. This is another aspect of the debate that concerns the Greens considerably. Under the coalition, we are seeing a push to create a higher education system where you would have to be pretty well off to shoulder the burden of the HELP debts imposed by this government. The government's regulation that we are debating here would cut funding for the support of research and training of research students for grants to foster collaboration. This comes at a time when research and innovation has never been more important. I believe it is very important for the development of individuals in terms of what they can offer Australia and, indeed, what Australia's economy can offer the world. More and more, we are becoming a global village and within that we need to share our innovation and knowledge that we develop through our research. But when you end up with a deregulated system, that is barely possible to achieve.

The regulation that we are dealing with will cut funding for grants to support the development of systemic infrastructure and capital development projects at universities. I particularly know from my work in this sector how important that is, particularly in regional universities. It shocks me when I visit a number of universities to see how run down they are. Under what this government is bringing forward, regional universities are going to do it really tough. They are already finding it difficult and, if the budget measures go through—and there are certainly mounting efforts to ensure that does not happen—it will be an enormous setback.

At a time of debilitating funding cuts to our universities, it would further slash support to promote the productivity of higher education providers and grants for activities that would assure and enhance the quality of our higher education sector. These are some of the issues that we see as very important and that explain why we support this disallowance motion.

I think it is also relevant that we are having this debate on a day when there has been another round of polling that shows how unpopular the government's higher education policies are that it wants to adopt. Extensive automative phone polling, undertaken by the National Tertiary Education Union—this was across 23 federal electorates and all states—found cuts in federal funding and changes to allow increased fees, higher loan charges and access to limited federal funding by non-university course providers are very unpopular.

The government would be wise to take that message on board. They would be wise in terms of the wellbeing of the nation and students who are looking to develop their career at our universities. And now we know that they would be wise in terms of the wellbeing of their own party, their own government and some of their own MPs, including the minister, because 69 per cent of those polled said that they oppose significant increases in fees and 65 per cent said that they oppose 20 per cent funding cuts to our universities. Just 28 per cent of voters said that they approved of deregulating the higher education sector to allow privately-owned institutions to have access to Commonwealth subsidies.

This is a strong negative backlash from voters. The public are deeply troubled by the higher education moves of the government. The government, with this very cruel, brutal budget that they brought down in May, are certainly loading the burden in terms of how they are going to raise money and save money onto the backs of the disadvantaged—students, the unemployed, the elderly, the sick and Indigenous peopl

They are all the people who are really copping it, who really will be hard hit by the budget measures.

What we are seeing with higher education is pushing the reach of the damaging, destructive aspects of the budget out to the middle class of Australia. So often, when I am out doing my meetings on the weekend and meeting people socially, I meet people who are really worried about how their own children are going to gain an education. Just today I was told an example of a university lecturer who said, 'I suddenly thought: how are my children going to get the education that I have received?' I was at a barbecue recently—the dad is a lawyer and the mum runs a small business. Their kids were running around; they are quite young. These parents were saying the same thing: 'We look at our children and we wonder: how are they going to get the education that we were fortunate to achieve?' This is starting to trouble people—people from regional areas and working-class people who have not had the opportunity to go to university but, like so many working-class families, hope that their children will be able to. And now we are seeing middle-class families really troubled about what this government is doing to this country. And we know how important education is.

These are very, very important reasons that we need to ensure this disallowance goes through and look to the next stage to ensure that the other very damaging aspects of the coalition's policy do not become law, do not become regulations, in this country. We know there is a sneaky way this government is working—choosing regulations more and more to try and get through its agenda. So I suspect that we will be having more debates along these lines—very important debates—because this goes far beyond education; it goes to the very nature of the type of Australia that we are setting out laws for and setting out a healthy future for.

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