Higher Education Speech

11 February 2015

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:29):  Before I get into the substance of the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill, can I acknowledge the fine young Australians who have joined us in the galleries today from schools elsewhere in the country. Their presence in this place does really focus our minds on issues of the future. We welcome you. Thank you so much for joining us here in the parliament in Canberra.

We are, of course, talking about the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 and the various associated amendments moved by crossbench senators and the government. As the previous members have said, this is the second crack the government has had at this legislation. We are in this position and talking about these matters today because the Labor Party and the Senate did absolutely the right thing when we rejected this bill last year. We represented the views of students, parents and experts who know this is all about narrowing the life choices available to so many young people, who now baulk at paying $100,000 or more for a university degree. We will reject it again.

This is an issue very close to my heart. My upbringing and the community I grew up in—and represent now—has taught me the power of higher education as a major contributor to social mobility in this country. These are not issues of politics, for me, these are fundamental issues of principle and policy. I will talk about these principles and that policy today as I move through aspects of the bill.

The first thing to understand is that the difference between the first bill and the second bill is minor. The bill we are debating today is really a tinkered version of the first bill. It is still chock-full as it is amended, full of cuts to the sector and full of increased fees for our young people. For example, there are still $1.9 billion in cuts to Australian universities. There are still $171 million worth of cuts to equity programs. There are still government fees for PhD students. There are still those $100,000 degrees for undergraduates. Those are not opinions in this debate, those are facts. That is the magnitude of the cuts and the magnitude of the increased fees. The massive cuts to our most important institutions of higher education remain. Nothing of substance has changed, so Labor's position on this bill remains unchanged.

From time to time, those opposite like to quote vice chancellors from around the country who have come out to support one aspect or another of their proposed changes. It is worth pointing out that some of them have been forced to do so by the magnitude of the cuts. If you take a lot of money out of the university system, a lot of the comments—that those opposite quote back at us—from vice chancellors are because their hands have been forced by the size of the proposed cuts. They are therefore looking for other ways to pay for the courses that they offer.

I was fortunate to listen to the characteristically great contribution by the member for Scullin, and a lot of other people on my side have made valuable contributions to this debate. I will focus on the three major reasons that I will not be voting for the government's bill this second time round. The first one is the bill's fundamental problem in limiting options for our young people.

The government's bill is built on a very different idea of Australia's conception, and that very different idea is probably why they are so on the nose in the community right now. They are attempting to create an Australia that is unrecognisable from the Australia that most people in our country cherish. One of the reasons it will be unrecognisable is that so many people from the regions or low SES areas, like the one I proudly represent, or even women—when it comes to repaying these big proposed HECS debts—will be marginalised. It says to the Australian community that we want higher education for a few of you, those fortunate enough to be from wealthy families and wealthy suburbs. The rest you need not apply. That is not the type of Australia we want to see here in the 21st century.

I mentioned before those equity programs that have been cut and how extraordinarily proud I am to represent a community that has a Logan campus off Griffith University, and I have spoken about Griffith in this place many times. I salute their work. I am very proud not just to be a graduate of Griffith but to have that Logan campus in my electorate of Rankin. One of the things I like most about Griffith University is the effort they put in to ensure that people who might otherwise be marginalised have the opportunity to participate in higher education and to graduate with a degree. They have so many programs, and I will not run through all of them. They have tremendous staff associated with those programs, particularly at Logan. They try to identify the barriers to higher education so that they can address them systematically and draw from the broadest possible pool of potential graduates to get that dynamism and creativity in our economy that comes from admitting more people into higher education.

One example is a tremendous program at Griffith called Uni-Reach, and I was really proud to present some of the Uni-Reach awards. These are given to outstanding students, usually adult learners, taking irregular pathways to university. They are really hardworking people. They have come across all kinds of barriers—financial hardship, family problems and other barriers—that have got in their way. There were some really inspiring stories at the Uni-Reach awards. I remember Kathleen McGrath, in particular. She completed grade 11 studies while caring for her family, including her two sons. She is working very hard. She hopes to study pathology at university.

Unfortunately, it is people like Kathleen who face barriers to higher education who will be hit hardest by the proposed changes to the bill. A lot of people have barriers to higher education. We should not be adding another one, which is making people baulk at those $100,000 degrees, and making them choose between having a house or an education, or having a family and an education. Those are the wrong choices for our community.

The second fundamental problem I will deal with in a bit of detail is this issue around access to the HECS-HELP scheme for New Zealand-born people in Australia. I have raised the issue before in this place.

Part of the reason I do so is that I have a huge New Zealand and Pacific Islander community in my electorate. But that is not the only reason I raise it. I do not just raise it because nine of the 10 electorates with the biggest New Zealand and PI communities are in South East Queensland. Those are important representational factors, but there is a fundamental issue of justice here at play, and that fundamental issue is about creating a permanent underclass in our community. Under the current regime, not having New Zealand and PI kids able to access the HECS-HELP scheme means that they get to a certain point in high school where they realise that when they cannot access those schemes they would have to pay up-front, and that is not an option available to most people in my community—indeed, in most communities around the country.

The great Craig Emerson, my predecessor in Rankin, announced in April 2013 that we would fix this problem. Desley Scott, the former member for Woodridge, played a big part in that campaign to get that change made. A lot of people were excited in my community. A lot of people around my community raised it with me at graduation ceremonies. Unfortunately, even though it made it into the bill, the government refused to split that part out of the original bill that was rejected. That meant that the original time frame was not met. A whole year of kids with New Zealand and Pacific Islander backgrounds missed out on the HECS-HELP scheme in 2015—the year we are in now—because the government, for reasons that defy explanation as far as I am concerned, decided that they would not pull that part of the bill and pass it with our support. We are in a position where we need to see that part of the bill fixed, because we do need to offer pathways to higher education to people in our communities.

I urge the government again. I salute the work of Senator Carr in the other place and I salute the work of the member for Kingston, both of whom are trying to get this change made so that we can give certainty to a huge number of people in my community and around the country who want their kids to have the same opportunities afforded their classmates in the same schools.

The third broad area that I want to spend a little bit of time on is a fundamental question of the type of economy and the type of country that we want to create. We have huge challenges about the future economy: how do we diversify, how do we make sure we are in the innovation game and how do we make sure that we are teaching and training our young people to be really successful and to move up the value chain to do higher wage and higher skilled work? How do we give them those skills? I was at Calamvale Community College in my electorate not so long ago. Calamvale Community College is a tremendous school in my community with some great teachers—and parents and students, of course. They had a festival called the Dare to Ignite Festival, which was really about the jobs of the future, technology and how they get a slice of the action. So schools are thinking about these sorts of things. One of the problems with this bill and these changes that Minister Pyne and the government want to impose on the community is that they are limiting the choices of people who want to go to university and who want to have dynamic, creative and innovative careers, particularly as it relates to science, technology, engineering and maths. Those skills are really the skills that people will need if they are to occupy and to succeed in the jobs of the future.

In that context I was interested to hear a story today—I heard it on the radio on the way in and checked it out when I got here—about a PricewaterhouseCoopers report which warns us that Australia is at great risk of dropping out of the top 20 countries by 2050 because we risk failing to diversify and get a slice of that innovation action around the world. I want to read into the record what PwC's consulting economics and policy leader, Jeremy Thorpe, said:

We are on a slippery slope to global irrelevance, if you consider the size of the economy as the ticket to play.

It just puts pressure on us to have a long-term plan to be productive and to be innovative and to compete on a world scale even though we are smaller … We really need to have a long-term plan for innovation and that probably means investing in STEM: science, technology, engineering and maths.

Unfortunately, I read that with some interest because earlier on in the week I recalled a story in The Australian on Tuesday. The story said that science and engineering enrolments could fall and Australia's science research effort be hit hard if the federal government's plans to deregulate university tuition fees go ahead—that is what leading academics and science policy experts say. This story was all about how the government's proposal to cut its contribution to tuition costs by an average of 20 per cent from next year would affect science and engineering students disproportionately.

Bruce Milthorpe, the Dean of Science at the University of Technology, Sydney, said:

Science and engineering are among the ones that would get the really big cuts.

That is really dumb policy in a country like ours. With the challenges that lie ahead, you could hardly think of a more damaging economic policy than to limit access to kids from a broad and diverse range of areas, such as low-SES regions, and as many people as we can so that we are getting the best and brightest kids into our university system studying science, technology, engineering and maths and fuelling the economic growth of the future.

There are other issues that, if I had more time, I would touch on. I think that the scholarship scheme is largely a con. They are pretending that they are doing some sort of good for people from low-SES areas when in reality they are charging kids from low-SES areas more to subsidise those scholarships. Also, the structural adjustment fund I would touch on in more detail if I had time; it is fundamentally an admission of guilt about the sorts of cuts that they are making to the system.

For all of these reasons, this is why we stand with students, parents, so many people around the country and the people who work in our university system, particularly in those student equity services, to oppose this bill. We are the party of higher education. Even the member for Fisher, who is one of the more partisan people in this place, acknowledged that Labor has a proud record on education. He could not be more right. Just look at the last Labor government. It boosted universities' real revenue per student by 10 per cent, lifted investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013 and supported students with the Student Start-Up Scholarship. There are all kinds of success stories out of our Indigenous, regional and other programs. So we come to this debate with a very strong record. We want to assure people that we will continue to stand up for parents and students. I will continue to stand up for the kids in my community, who deserve an opportunity to go on to higher education.