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Speech: Higher Education Funding

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 10 Jul 2014

The anger at the coalition's brutal higher education changes is growing. We can see very clearly why this is the case from the speech that we have just heard from Senator McKenzie.

The policies that came down in the budget with regard to higher education—the savage cuts, the increase in debt and public money going to private higher education institutions—you would expect from the Liberals. But the Nationals try to walk both sides of the road on this one. They are out there in their communities, saying that they are fighting for strong, well-represented and well-funded regional universities. But when you look at the policies that they have signed off on it is going to be very much the opposite.

We have just heard from Senator McKenzie about how she is out there for the mums and dads so that they can send their children to university. In fact, what she is signing off on—and again, we have the Nationals tailing behind the Liberals when it comes to higher education policies—is effectively working to end public higher education in this country. Entry into our universities will no longer be on one's academic ability but on one's ability to pay.

The budget uses the euphemism 'expanding opportunities'. In fact, what will happen under what Senator McKenzie and her colleagues in the National Party are backing when they just sign off with the Liberal Party on this policy is a range of budget measures that will suck money and resources out of our regional universities and make it harder for people in our regional areas to go to university because of these extreme changes.

Together, these changes are higher fees, sweeping cuts and more money for private for-profit education providers. We know that this is going to lead to much higher university fees—some as high as $100,000 to get a degree—and the burden for those costs is being shifted by the government onto students. This is a very savage way to run education policy and it will have an enormous impact on people deciding to go to university.

In many cases, universities—particularly regional universities—will have no choice but to increase fees, in many cases by at least 50 per cent. It is expected that most will increase fees by between 100 and 200 per cent or even more. Then there are these contingent HELP loans. They will accrue real interest from the moment students are granted the loan, and that will continue. This form of compound interest just becomes an enormous burden and that is why the Greens have identified this as a very sexist policy. I will detail the impact that it will have on women, particularly women who choose to take time out to have children.

Already, I find that people are telling me they are thinking about what they should do for their future. Do they take on higher education? Is that the path that they should take? Their thoughts are about whether they should take out a mortgage—should they get a mortgage on a house or get an education? These are issues that people are weighing up.

The University of Western Sydney is one of many campuses where students and staff, with community support, are coming together to raise their voices in opposition to what the government is doing. One open letter has come out of the University of Western Sydney, signed by 204 staff, with 113 community supporters. It is a very informative letter and very worrying. It has been circulated to many of us. For example, the University of Western Sydney has identified:

Many of our students already have families to support, and such levels of debt will represent an unmanageable burden.

Again, that is a message that I get from many of the regional university vice-chancellors and managers who I have met with: that so many of their students are mature-age students, usually with families and often with jobs, and that they are seriously considering whether they can continue with their education or whether they should even start it.

The University of Western Sydney letter goes on to say:

Many of our students come from families with no previous tertiary background and are usually unfamiliar with the nature of university education.

The concern that they then go on to raise is:

Many will opt for alternative sub-university providers who promise cheap qualifications but without the intellectual rigour and cultural capital that comes with the university environment.

Why is that? Because—and again, this is something that the Nationals have signed off on—under the coalition plan, if it is successful, public money will go for private higher education providers in the university sector for the first time.

It is also worth remembering that another very concerning aspect of this is that the standards regulator, TEQSA, will have reduced funding. So at a time when we actually need more oversight because there will be public money going to these private institutions—many of them with little or no experience in the education sector—we have a regulator that will have fewer resources and less ability to follow through on this.

The issue of private institutions being given access to federal funding has had limited coverage in the current debate. Understandably, much of the public debate about the government's cruel policy has concentrated on the issues of fees and debt, but we also need to examine the plan to put public money into private, for-profit institutions. This was one of the concerns raised by the people who signed the UWS letter. It said:

We at UWS will continue to strive to provide an excellent education; but we enter the market as a relatively new institution. With the system no longer geared to promoting high-performing research across all institutions, some of our best researchers may be drawn to the expanding elite. The great gains from public investment in UWS by successive governments risks being squandered as we are forced to compete on price with bottom-end private institutions that have no pretence to provide a true university education.

Education standards will be driven down and people will be conned—many people.

I can very much relate to this. I was the first in my family to have had the opportunity to go to university. I went to university not having very much knowledge about how such institutions worked, but I did have confidence that the university I went to, the University of New South Wales, had standards. This was in the 1970s. I can understand that many people would make the assumption—like the assumption I made then—that the institution they intended to go to was good. If I had been going to university or into higher education now, I could have ended up in one of these bottom-end private institutions who are out to make profits—and who put that pursuit of profit before teaching standards.

As I said in my opening remarks, anger is growing about what the government is trying to do. Awareness is building that this is wrong. Polling commissioned by the Greens into the coalition government's elitist changes to higher education has shown that those changes are opposed by the majority of the community. Two-thirds of the people polled oppose plans to remove the fee cap, to allow universities to set their own fees and to increase interest rates on HECS-HELP debts. Further, almost two-thirds of those polled opposed plans to give private, for-profit education providers access to federal government funding.

What we are seeing here is the Americanisation of our universities. There are many excellent aspects of US universities, but the changes that have been put forward by the coalition would mimic the worst aspects of the US system. As we know—we hear this statement so often—US students are collectively more than $1 trillion in debt. The average US graduate comes out of university with a debt of $31,000. It is interesting to compare that with the situation in Australia. The Grattan Institute has produced an interesting study. It was undertaken by the higher education policy adviser to the coalition government. It establishes that student fees will be significantly higher under the coalition, with a teaching degree coming in at $49,000; a nursing degree, $38,000; and an engineering degree, $61,000.

From the many meetings I have had since the May budget, I am picking up that, in regional areas, people are thinking twice about whether they will go to university. If they are thinking about universities, very often they are looking to go to city universities. That is really worrying their parents and their communities. When I speak to people on shire councils, they tell me how worried they are that the coming generation of young people will go to universities in the bigger cities, the capital cities. They tell me that their experience is that, very often, young people who go away to study do not come back to regional areas. They say that the best way for their region to have a future is for those students to study locally. That is another reason these developments are so serious.

In trying to advance their policy, the coalition's spokespeople have just created confusion. The Prime Minister and the education minister, Mr Pyne, have often contradicted each other—about when the changes would be implemented, for instance. Mr Abbott would not rule out the possibility that fees could double, and many experts in the area have been quite emphatic that it is very likely that they will. In the meantime, Mr Pyne, when interviewed, has not been able to decide whether fees would go up or down. He has contradicted not only the Prime Minister but what he himself has said at different times.

I think it is important to look at the impact on different cohorts of students. I am very concerned about the impact that the fee increases and the changes to the debt arrangements will have on women, on people from disadvantaged backgrounds and on people who remain on low incomes after they graduate. This is because, if these changes go through, people with HECS-HELP debts will be facing the effects of compound interest. That means that people with less money will be paying off their debt for much longer and will have to pay back a greater amount of money. If women take time off to have children—and many women obviously do take time off to have children; it is very common—that will impact enormously on the amount they have to pay back. Again this demonstrates very clearly how wrong these policies are.

These policy changes will also hit our postgraduate research students. I have received some very useful information from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, CAPA, about the changes to the research training scheme that will come in if these budget measures are passed. It will be possible for the new fees to be imposed on all enrolled higher-degree-by-research students, not just on those who enrol after 1 January 2016. CAPA have had that confirmed. This is again something that Mr Pyne and Mr Abbott, when talking about this issue, have tried to gloss over—when these cost increases will actually hit. CAPA, in their letter, said that they have great concern regarding Australia's over 60,000 higher-degree-by-research students, and we believe that the changes will have a significant impact on Australia's future research workforce.

Here we have changes that will go to the heart not just of our higher education system but also of the type of society we are and, indeed, of our economic viability into the future, because our investment in higher education is an investment in our future and an investment in the economic development of the country. That money needs to be put into higher education so we have the very best higher education we can have in our country, because we cannot be an educated, innovative nation under what this government proposes to bring forward. We need to put the money into research. We need to put money into our universities.

CAPA have taken this issue up very strongly. They believe that the budget proposals will impact on decision making around undertaking research studies in Australia. They have recognised that a number of future students will, again, be assessing whether they can undertake research and whether they can undertake it in Australia. They have identified how we could, in fact, have another brain drain. That is a term that we have not heard for many years, but, from the work that they have undertaken, that is something that clearly is on the books, because students are often looking at whether they will undertake their research studies in Europe or in North America or whether it is possible to do it in Australia. They said that from some of the work they have undertaken there is an unwillingness to accept existing offers to commence research studies in 2015 because of the cost burden that now hangs over them. They have gone on to say that some students are indicating an unwillingness to sign up until their prospective university has indicated whether they will charge fees to domestic research training scheme students.

About 1,500 people have signed the CAPA online petition against changes to the Research Training Scheme. I do congratulate them for the work that they, along with the National Union of Students and the National Tertiary Education Union, have undertaken in this area. They have been providing the real facts on what will happen if these changes come in. As the government attempts to muddy the waters, these people are really getting into the details of how serious this will be. CAPA makes the point, and this is a quote from their letter: 'It seems especially contradictory to be promising funding for medical research while simultaneously proposing to charge higher-degree-by-research students in the medical sciences, our future medical researchers, higher fees than their peers in other research fields.'

That is taking up another aspect of the dishonest way the government is trying to sell their budget measures, and particularly higher education, by making out that they now have this huge bucket of money for medical research and trying to sidestep the damage that their policy will, in fact, do to research. We do know, and I would really like to put this on the record, that research students make an enormous contribution to our research output and our national knowledge base, and that is what we stand to lose if these changes go through. I would just like to emphasise that, because I think it is something that should really be very troubling to senators, particularly to Liberal and National senators. They need to realise what they are signing off on. I made the point earlier that we could face another generation of brain drain to our overseas competitors. Clearly, it is deeply wrong for us to head in that direction.

What we have here is a very sexist, a very cruel and a very brutal set of changes to how higher education would operate in this country. But the good news is that more people are becoming aware of it, people are working together across universities, between students, between staff and between supporters in a whole range of organisations. They realise that this is not about some individuals who may want to go to university; this is about how Australia develops into the future and that we should not be bringing forward a system that benefits just private education providers and the rich and wealthy. If these changes go through, they will bring a great divide to Australia. Our education system should operate to reduce the divisions and to bring benefits to our society, not to further inequality. Right now students and families have every reason to be concerned and to be upset. It is our responsibility to study these changes closely to ensure that where they are damaging to the very fabric of Australian society they are not allowed to go through. The students and staff who wish to benefit Australia and themselves through attending our regional universities and our city universities should not be allowed to suffer because of a government that is unwilling to bring forward a fair higher education policy.

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