That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Payne) to a question without notice asked by Senator Rhiannon today relating to funding for public education.
The coalition government's ideological attack on public education has been laid bare by comments from Senator Payne and Minister Christopher Pyne. Despite promising in the 2013 election campaign that there would be no funding cuts to education, the government has in fact cut billions. Funding for public schools has been slashed and 3.6 million students as well as their parents and teachers will feel the impact. The sum of $5.8 billion has been ripped out of the public higher education system. This is clearly a massive assault on public education.
The coalition vision for higher education will cause student fees to skyrocket. Under a system of deregulation, students will pay higher interest rates on the HECS debt and pay it back at income levels lower than those that currently apply. Postgraduate students will pay thousands of dollars a year in extra fees and public universities will now be forced to compete with private education companies for government funding.
The government's plans will force students to pay an additional $3.2 billion for university education through a lower HECS repayment threshold and the charging of real interest rates of up to six per cent on their debt. The latter change is perhaps the most insidious. Charging real interest rates means an individual's debt will continue to grow over the course of their working life at a rate higher than wage increases. Yes, the debt will increase over the working life of many graduates. The most perverse element of the change is that graduates on lower incomes who take longer to pay back their debt will end up paying more than those on higher incomes. Clearly, this is a regressive user-pays model for funding public education and the antithesis of what a fair, just and accessible system should look like.
Minister Pyne's entire justification for these changes is the argument that, because graduates earn more money when they enter the workforce, they should pay back more money for their degrees. Under his system, it is the lower paid graduates that pay more for their education, compared to those on higher incomes. Mr Pyne is forgetting that these people pay taxes—taxes that fund our education. Under Minister Pyne's new system, graduates on lower starting salaries will take twice as long to pay back their HECS debt and pay more than twice as much in interest bills as compared to those on higher starting salaries. The government's budget papers show that almost one-quarter of new HECS debt will not be repaid. It is clear that it will be lower income earners who will be saddled with increased debt for the rest of their working lives.
Minister Pyne's vision for Australian higher education is one that mimics that the United States, where the wealthiest can access a high-quality education and the disadvantaged are locked out. Studies in the US have shown that the dual effect of large amounts of debt combined with real interest is a barrier to participation for disadvantaged students.
It is just extraordinary that this government, made up of many members who went to university when it was free—including the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education—are planning to increase fees. Fees for nursing students will increase by an estimated 18 per cent, for arts students by 60 per cent and for engineering and science students by 55 per cent. The coalition's only response when asked about these enormous fee increases is to run the line, as we heard today, that competition fixes everything. During question time, Senator Payne acknowledged that competition would push prices up. This directly contradicts an earlier statement from the minister who yesterday said that the coalition's university deregulation agenda would 'drive the price down, because competition always drives the price down'.
The coalition's free market fundamentalism is not what Australia's higher education sector needs. Australia should be aspiring to a public higher education system that is equitable, well resourced and accessible—not a system that hits low-income graduates the hardest. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.