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Speech: Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 17 Mar 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:55): The Greens oppose the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. What a saga Minister Pyne has inflicted on the people of Australia! For months, students, prospective students and their families have been living with uncertainty about their university prospects. Will they be able to afford to go? What is going to happen with the way our universities are managed?

Minister Pyne has done nothing but create uncertainty for these people. He has done this not only through the destructive aspects of the bill itself but also through the way he has conducted the debate. Let us remember: a bill very similar to the one we are now debating was decisively defeated in December last year. Immediately the minister-not learning the lessons, not recognising it was time to have real consultation-put a similar bill back into the House of Representatives. The minister, by calling himself 'Mr Fixer' and telling us that he is out there creating solutions, is deceiving nobody but himself and maybe a few others in the Abbott bunker. So many of the tactics we have seen in recent weeks-particularly what he came up with yesterday-have been about trying to quarantine the Abbott government from another embarrassing defeat.

There will be a number of speakers in this debate who will clearly set out how damaging this bill is. I congratulate the many concerned people-education unions, students, staff members-who are committed to building a higher education system of the highest standard. Yesterday, while Minister Pyne was doing his backflips, many students were out there taking action and being very vocal about it. I particularly wanted to congratulate Kyol Blakeney, the SRC president at the University of Sydney. With his colleagues, he was protesting, through civil disobedience, at the university. Those sorts of actions are needed because Minister Pyne and the Abbott government have gone too far with what they are trying to do in higher education.

The defeat of the previous bill last year was a significant win for the education unions and for tens of thousands of staff and students, as well as for all those looking forward to a university education-which is their right. It was an important step because, for the moment anyway, we had safeguarded our universities from the neoliberal policies of this government. These are policies which, at the end of the day, are about heaping the cost burden of higher education onto students and their families. That is the real intent of this bill. We need to remember where the original bill came from: it was a budget measure. Purely and simply, it was about saving the government $5 billion. That is what it was about; it was about ripping $5 billion out of our public universities and shifting the cost burden to students.

The bill before us now is nothing new. It is just back to the old ways of the Liberal and National parties-another free market plan. I think it relevant to compare the old bill and the new bill. The old bill, as I said, projected savings of about $5 billion. The new bill before us has estimated savings of about $640 million. Some of the key provisions of the original bill remain. It is important to note that because it underlines the very poor tactics of the minister. He is not fooling anybody when he just brings back basically the same measures in a new bill, this time hoping he can get his way by trying to embarrass crossbenchers, by using a bit of intimidation or through a bit of blackmail. We have seen all those tactics rolled out.

Some of the key provisions that remain in this bill-

Senator O'Sullivan: On a point of order, Mr President: this is a repeat of yesterday-references to blackmail and intimidation. Those references are directed at the minister. The senator had to withdraw those references yesterday and I recommend that you ask her to withdraw them today.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Rhiannon, I ask you to exercise some caution in your contribution to the debate.

Senator RHIANNON: I was identifying those provisions in this bill that the Senate has already debated in great detail-and rejected. This is very relevant. Those provisions include 20 per cent cuts to Commonwealth supported places. That is still in this legislation. I will come to the comments the minister has made on this issue. Other provisions which are still in this bill include the deregulation of course fees so that universities can charge students whatever fees they want; the lowering of the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP, repayment threshold; the increase in the proportion of the loan burden carried by students; and the extension of Commonwealth supported places to sub-bachelor and bachelor courses offered by private universities and non-university higher education providers, as well as to sub-bachelor courses offered by public providers. In addition, there are real cuts to this country's research funding in this bill. As we know, the minister was highly deceptive about the $150 million that was allocated for those 1,700 scientific workers. We know that is not in the bill, but there were research cuts in the former bill and there are again in this bill. Those cuts represent a 10 per cent reduction in the Research Training Scheme.

Also included in both bills are the misnamed Commonwealth scholarships, which are funded from increased fee income-the requirement that $1 in every $5 be put aside by universities for these scholarships. I call them 'misnamed' because they are another example of the deception that has become the trademark of this minister. Many members here would have benefited from the old Commonwealth scholarships. These were scholarships where the government provided money to assist people to go to university. With the current form of Commonwealth scholarships being proposed by Minister Pyne, no government money will go into them. The scheme is purely based on getting money from the students who are paying fees and putting it into these so-called Commonwealth scholarships. Those are the similarities between the old bill and the new bill.

In the couple of months since the first bill was introduced, we have seen support for the government's position fall away. This is where we need to consider one of those main blocs that the minister has relied on to make out that he has sector support. How many times have we heard the minister talk about how all of the vice-chancellors support him bar one? Many of us in here have heard privately from vice-chancellors who hold great disquiet about how the minister is conducting the debate and about what is in this legislation. Some of them are on the record. Peter Dawkins, the vice-chancellor of Victoria University, has said that the government should acknowledge that its deregulation plan will not pass the Senate. He has actually talked about a third way. We may not agree with that, but he is certainly not solidly there with the minister as he makes out. The University of Technology, Sydney, Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs and Swinburne University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson have also questioned how these tactics are playing out. So it is not the solid bloc that the minister makes out.

Those vice-chancellors are representative of the senior management within their universities. They are not representative of the majority of staff and the majority of students. I do need to put on the record at this point that it has been disappointing the way many of those vice-chancellors have not represented the whole university sector that they surely lead and should be a representative voice for. I think that has done their own universities a disservice, as well as the wider sector.

Then we come to what we heard yesterday from the minister, with his latest plan to split the bill so that we deal with deregulation on the one hand and the 20 per cent cut on the other hand. What we need to note right at the beginning is that the 20 per cent cut-the $5 billion that the government was trying to save in the first place, and then a reduced amount in the bill before us now-is only a deferral. It is only a tactic for the minister to try to make out that he has listened and has changed the legislation. There is no significant change in this at all. It is another deception. It is really a tactic to save the skin of the minister and those in the Abbott bunker. I say that most definitely because the government looks set to lose one of the major pieces of the 2014 budget that still has not been passed. Five billion dollars is not a small amount. They have already watered it down but they are trying to deal with the whole issue of university funding within their neoliberal philosophy, which is based on putting the costs onto ordinary people and not ensuring that the revenue streams are there to pay for this most important part of how our society is organised.

To repeat again, Minister Pyne is not abandoning his 20 per cent cut to university funding. His proposal is nothing more than to split it off from the deregulation bill for just a six-month deferral. Fee deregulation, let's remember, will result in significant fee increases. That is what is deeply alarming. There is a wider understanding within the community now that that could mean even higher than the $100,000 price tag that has been linked with a number of degrees in some courses. That is really troubling many people. That is what is bringing the uncertainty to so many students and families. It has been such a very ugly part of the way the minister has conducted this debate.

Often, when we talk about the quantity in these fees, because the Greens have done a lot of work in this area, I acknowledge that sometimes criticism comes about our modelling. But our modelling is out there. No flaws have been identified and put on the table. But when you look at the government, they have not released their modelling. To this day, they refuse to release their modelling. If Minister Pyne's comments could be believed, the modelling would help give greater insight into how his promises and his commitments would really play out.

I repeat, this is a very important part with what we are dealing with here, because the landscape appeared to changed yesterday when the minister spoke. This 20 per cent cut for Commonwealth-supported places would have an extraordinary impact on the budget if the government was sincere. This is where their credibility, again, comes into question. If the 20 per cent cut to CSP funding did not go ahead, the minister's higher education policies, which were meant to contribute to budget repair, would now cost the budget about $1.4 billion. So we have gone from the first bill saving $5 billion to the second bill saving about $680 million. Then, if the minister was successful in carrying forward his plan, it would appear that, if you follow through the logic the minister was putting out there-not that I am saying the minister was very logical about it-you come to the conclusion that there would be a $1.4 billion cost burden on the budget. I think it would be wise for the minister to come in on this aspect of the debate in his reply to the debate on this bill and comment on that very fact. Surely, the government need to come clean with what their plans are. Otherwise, if they do not-like they would not release their modelling-you are left with the clear understanding that all those manoeuvres yesterday were nothing more than a tactic to try to muddy the waters and to present that something had changed to try to get through the bill at the eleventh hour when, clearly, the degree to which they are being discredited is just increasing.

We have also heard from the minister a great deal about how our universities rank on the international stage. Often he is quite critical in saying how he wants more universities in the top rankings. Yes, the university system at the moment could be improved; yes, it needs more funding. But it is not this massive failure that this minister makes out. And, similarly, our standing internationally is not the disaster or so poor as the minister makes out. The data shows that Australia does not have just a few world-class universities; in fact, we have a world-class system. In addition to the eight universities which make the world's top 200, there are a further 12 universities which make the 200 to 400 group.

So, again, our universities have not failed. We can be proud of them. Yes, we need to get this debate about the future of higher education onto a proper consultative basis with the wider university sector and the community. We need to debate how higher education can be funded in a secure way-not the haphazard and destructive way the minister has conducted himself.

Just staying with these international comparisons, I also want to deal with the issue of the OECD figures, that provide very useful information on the level of tertiary funding. Public funding of tertiary education in 2011 in Australia is 0.7 per cent of GDP. This is below the OECD average, which is at 1.1 per cent. So, again, this is where we are in a very poor position. We have been below the OECD average for a long time. And that goes to failures under both the previous, Labor government and this coalition government, where public investment in higher education has not been given the priority that is needed. It is already too low in Australia and we need to remember that it is the responsibility of the government and not the students to fix this.

Throughout this debate in the wider community, as the government has attempted to bring in legislation-the first round and this second round-there have been many groups that have come to this place to lobby us and to raise their concerns. The National Union of Students and the National Tertiary Education Union are two of those who have provided very useful information.

The National Union of Students have submitted that the inclusion of $100 million over three years for the structural adjustment fund is simply an offset of the government's decision not to extend eligibility for Youth Allowance and Austudy. I want to touch on this issue of a structural adjustment fund, because that was something else that the government decided to introduce. And I would argue that it really is an admission of failure, and highlights a fundamental inequity that is at the heart of this bill. The government came up with this. It is another one of Mr Pyne's attempts to win support for this legislation. He talks about pausing indexation for primary carers of children under the age of five. Clearly, that group of people often suffer considerable discrimination but, again, all we have ended up with here-it is up there in lights-is that this whole way of managing our higher education system is highly discriminatory.

The National Tertiary Education Union have also taken up this issue. They have identified that the SAF was introduced in recognition that deregulation is likely to have a severely adverse impact on regional and rural universities and those serving students that are highly sensitive to the cost of attending university. The change is intended to provide funding to assist providers in a transition to a post-deregulation environment. That, again, sets out very clearly the problems in so many aspects of this legislation that we have before us.

This is legislation that should not be before this House. By far the bulk of it has already been considered and has already been voted down. It is, again, a very poor attempt by the minister to get his way. This legislation is destructive, both in terms of the impact that it would have on individual students, who would be carrying the huge debt burden for much of their lives-many would never be able to pay it off-and also destructive of the very fabric of our society. It is no way to run a higher education system, to build an educated, innovative nation by penalising students and their families and pushing the cost burden onto those people rather than the government accepting its responsibility. If you are in government a key part of your job is to pay for the higher education system. This bill should be defeated.


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