Higher education cuts are short-sighted, spiteful and stupid

04 June 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (15:14):  The cuts to higher education in this budget are breathtaking in their scope, in their spitefulness, in their short-sightedness and in their stupidity. What rubs salt into the wound for students right around the country is that the Minister for Education, who does not like students very much, went on the Insiders program on Sunday and said:

… students will always be the winners …

But what he forgot to mention was that, when he said students will be the winners, he did not mean students from low-SES backgrounds; he did not mean women; he did not mean students from regional areas; he did not mean students who do not have the limitless funds that are required now to pay for his university degrees; he did not mean the types of kids that we want in our university system, who now might balk at the extraordinary cost that it takes—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BC Scott):  Order! The member for Rankin will just resume his seat for a moment. Those members who are leaving the chamber will leave or return to their places in this chamber and give the member for Rankin the courtesy that he deserves in an MPI.

Dr CHALMERS:  Thank you, Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  The member for Blair might not have heard that, but he might either leave or return to his place. The member for Rankin has the call.

Dr CHALMERS:  Thank you, Deputy Speaker. On this side of the House, we reject their narrow and elitist view of higher education, just as we reject their narrow and elitist view of the country more generally. It says it all about the government that they want university study to be the preserve of the wealthiest people in our community, the preserve of the few, and not something that the broad range of Australians, whether they are from lower SES backgrounds or otherwise, can access. They want to take us back to the bad old days, where university was just for the kids from the fanciest suburbs, with the most well-to-do parents and from the most expensive schools, and we reject their approach.

The problem with this government is that, while the whole world is concentrating on how they combat inequality, how they invest in human capital, how they do the right thing by the broad mass of their people to get the right kind of economic growth—while the rest of the world is seeing that as a challenge—this government sees rising inequality as an objective. We know this because the cuts that it has made to the higher education system in this budget will hurt the poorest kids the most.

On this side of the House, we believe that access to higher education should be about the contents of your mind and the contents of your imagination and not the contents of your wallet. If we are serious about building the right kind of economy into the future, we should be investing in all of our young people and giving them the access to higher education that they deserve.

The reality about this budget is that the government have Australia hurtling in the wrong direction. It is worth reminding the House of the list of cuts that they have put into higher education in this budget. There is $5 billion in cuts to higher education in the budget. There is $3.2 billion in cuts to HECS. There is $1.9 billion in cuts to universities by reductions in government course subsidies. There is $202 million in cuts by indexing university grants to the CPI. There is $172 million in cuts to funding to promote and reward universities for enrolling low-SES students. There is $173 million in cuts to the training of Australia's research students, the scientists and academics of tomorrow. There is a $75 million cut to the Australian Research Council. There is a $31 million cut to the national regulator. They have abolished the $3.5 billion Education Investment Fund, and they have deregulated student fees from 1 January 2016, leading to higher fees and spiralling student debt.

Earlier on, in question time, the member for Hotham asked a very good question about how many of the current cabinet had had access to a free university education or affordable HECS. In his answer, the Minister for Education said that he has not done a study of that front bench. Well, we have. We have done a study of their front bench. What we discovered is that—depending on which biography you have a look at—something like 12 or 13 of the 19 people in the Abbott cabinet benefited from either a free education or affordable HECS. Twelve or 13 of the 19 had some aspect of their university education provided for free by the taxpayer. I will not take the House's time by running through them all, but, when the education minister got up here before and talked about the opportunities provided to kids, the reality is that, as the member for Hotham said, he is slamming the door on people who want the same sorts of opportunities that he had when it comes to affordable HECS.

I agree with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Stephen Parker, who said:

I … think it is unethical for a generation of leaders who by and large benefited from free higher education to burden the generations behind them in this way …

I think he makes a very good point. The education minister went on the Alan Jones show yesterday, and he said:

… they should be buying a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates and visiting a home near them where they know someone hasn't been to university, knocking on the front door and saying thank you very much for paying for my education.

My advice to the Minister for Education is: he should go into some of the lower SES areas and knock on their door and explain to them why he wants to extinguish the dreams that they have for a higher education in this country. The reality is that those opposite are in denial and disarray when it comes to higher education in this country.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  Order! The member for Rankin will resume his seat. I call the member for Higgins on a point of order.

Ms O'Dwyer:  No, this is on a question, an intervention—whether the speaker will accept a question.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER:  No. The member for Higgins will resume her seat. That is not a point of order. An intervention is not allowed in the chamber.

Dr CHALMERS:  They are in disarray when it comes to the higher education policy. I thought that, given the higher education theme of this speech, I would ask a multiple-choice question: which of the following statements have turned out to be true? Which of the following have turned out to be true: (a) the coalition's Real Solutions election document, which stated, 'We will ensure the continuation of the current arrangements of university funding'?

Opposition members interjecting—

Dr CHALMERS:  What about this one: (b) the education minister's claim on Insiders on Sunday, 'Anybody who was enrolled before May 14, nothing will change in terms of their arrangements'?

Opposition members:  No!

Dr CHALMERS:  No. Or (c) the Treasurer's statement that HECS loans 'shouldn't be different to any other loan'? Is it (a), (b), (c) or (d) none of the above? The answer, of course, is that none of the above turned out to be true.

The education minister has been running around today trying to pretend that these changes will cost an extra $3 a week for students, or $5 a week, something like the middy that the Treasurer talks about so regularly. I refer him to the Universities Australia modelling which was released today, which shows that an engineering graduate's HECS debt will go from $49,000 to $119,000 and take 26 years to pay off instead of 18 years. That is the magnitude of the changes we are talking about.

That is why the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide said:

… it is starting to look as if the student debt burden for many under the proposed reforms might well be worse than in the US.

The House should be aware that the United States' student debt has tripled in the last eight years. That vice-chancellor is talking about Australia dwarfing that outcome.

We did some of our own calculations. Instead of $3 to $5 a week, based on the Universities Australia report a nurse might pay an extra $15 a week—that is a very conservative estimate—and an engineering graduate who takes some time off for work might pay an extra $82 a week, so I think we can dismiss the $3 to $5 figures pretty easily. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney said:

It's the ordinary Australians that I think aren't getting enough of a guernsey in this conversation …

He is right. So many different vice-chancellors and people who know more about the education system than the Minister for Education have expressed their alarm about this.

The reality is that this goes to the core of what kind of country we want to be in the future. How we invest in higher education is one of the most important determinants of how we will go as a nation into the future. Instead of tackling those sorts of big issues we have an education minister who goes on Insiders on Sunday and talks about student politics, still fighting the Cold War on the uni campus. He says, 'My job is to fight the Left,' and he puffs his chest up about student politics. There are all kinds of quotes that reveal that this is about settling scores from when he was at university. This should be a far more important conversation than the Minister for Education implies in those sorts of comments. It goes to the type of country we want to be. It goes to whether we have a big vision for Australia or whether we have a narrow, elitist vision for Australia. In that sense it goes to the very core of our national identity.

If we are serious about building economic growth into the future, we want more people to have the types of tools of success that you get at university, not less. We do not want to narrow or diminish the pool of success stories that we can have into the future in our economy. We want to have a more expansive higher education system, not less. We want a more inclusive economy in this country. What the government shows with the cuts to higher education in this budget and what it shows about the difference between that side and this side is that on this side of the House we want fairness and access in higher education to be part of the country's future and on that side of the House they just want it to be part of their past. (Time expired)