Higher Education

13 September 2017

DR CHALMERS (Rankin) (13:12): My friend the member for Richmond absolutely nailed the key problems with this bill, and it's my pleasure to follow her and talk about the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017.

We on this side of the House have a really fundamental belief that your life chances shouldn't be dictated by the circumstances of your birth. We on this side of the House believe that, with the right combination of effort, enterprise and education, every single Australian from every single community should have the ability, the possibility and the opportunity to succeed in this country. We agree with what Jay-Z said:

Every human being has genius level talent, there are no chosen ones …

That's our approach too. Success in this country should be based on your ability to work, to educate yourself and to apply effort and enterprise to getting ahead and providing for your loved ones.

We on this side of the House also believe that the absolutely key ingredient for economic growth in this country is social mobility. We believe that growth and inclusion are complementary and not at odds. We believe government has a role in turbocharging social mobility and not stomping on it. We believe that every single Australian has the right to be ambitious for themselves and for their families. Early childhood education, schools, TAFEs, vocational education, including apprenticeships, and universities all have a role in feeding, fuelling and structuring that ambition.

Unfortunately, this higher education bill runs counter to all of those beliefs and all of those objectives. What it proves is that, when those opposite talk on and on about aspiration, they only believe in aspiration as a slogan, because, at the same time as they try and pretend they are the party of aspiration, they do their best to extinguish it in communities like mine and in communities like many of those represented by colleagues on this side of the House. That is because they believe that ambition and aspiration should be the preserve of the fortunate few, and that it should be an exclusive thing only within the reach of those with the financial means or the family background to be able to afford to go to university.

I am pleased to be able to report that my community does not share the view about aspiration and ambition of those opposite. And it's not just my community. I believe that communities right around this nation believe that ambition and aspiration should be within reach of everybody in this community. I am very fortunate to represent the Logan campus of Griffith University, a truly outstanding university doing such good in this country. I know it's a great university and I know it's an outstanding place, because I spend a lot of time there. I do what I can to work with friends and colleagues from Griffith University, and with students, their families, the staff, prospective students and former students—the alumni—from Griffith University. I do what I can to work with them, but I also know it's an outstanding place because I went there and my mum went there. My mum did a mid-career degree in midwifery at Griffith University. I went to Griffith University and did my undergraduate degree there. I know, firsthand, of the positive, life-changing impacts that Griffith University has on our community.

We gathered, just last month, to farewell a truly wonderful person in Lesley Chenoweth. Lesley Chenoweth was the head of the Logan campus until the end of August this year. As we gathered to farewell her and mark her retirement, we reflected on the big objective of her career. The big objective of her career, in her words, was 'to build aspiration and widen participation'. She did that over a lifetime of higher education, but particularly at the Logan campus of Griffith University. I pay tribute to her here for all of the work she put into that really noble and really important objective to build aspiration and widen participation.

Although Lesley has retired from that campus, her mission continues. It continues in the work of Griffith University and it continues in my work in the community. We stand with the students, with the potential students, with the staff and with the families and we oppose these cuts in this bill which would see $3.8 billion ripped out of universities over five years, including more than $85 million from Griffith University alone. We oppose the fee hikes of up to 7½ per cent for students who will be forced to pay back their debt even sooner. We oppose the unfair measures that would see New Zealand students, including many in my community, pay $80,000 more for a university education as a consequence of these bills. All of these things are deterrents. They are all obstacles to university participation with consequences for our community, for our country and for its economy.

The bill, as you know and as others have pointed out, enacts more than 12 measures in the government's so-called Higher Education Reform Package. I won't go through them in detail. People are aware that there's: an efficiency dividend; the fee increase; the Commonwealth Grant Scheme changes; the changes to HELP loan repayments; the increases in student loaning for vets and dentists; ceasing access to Commonwealth-supported places for New Zealand students; cuts to post-graduate places; a voucher system; and an extension of demand-driven funding for conditional sub-bachelor places. Other changes include: the performance funding pool; legislating the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program, which I will come back to; some Commonwealth support for work experience in industry units of study; and some other minor and technical changes.

As others have pointed out, there are some aspects of the bill that we don't necessarily oppose. We certainly understand—and I certainly understand—the fiscal challenges that this country has, but we don't think that those positive aspects of the bill should be held hostage to some of the truly awful parts of this bill, which are the reasons why we oppose the bill and why I will not be voting for it today. That is because, if we care about ambition, if we truly care about aspiration and not just talk about it, if we care about participation, we need to make sure we are investing in people and not pricing them out of the market, not making the price of education a key deterrent or a key obstacle to people participating in higher education. In that context, I think those new figures out from the OECD in Paris overnight make some pretty unhappy reading.

What the OECD showed was that Australia is lagging behind other nations when it comes to public investment in education. Australia is well below the average when it comes to all education and below the average when it comes to investment in universities. In fact, our investment in universities is among the very worst in the OECD, which is a pretty shameful thing when you consider the importance of education to the future of our economy. The report also showed that tuition fees for Australian students are amongst the highest in the OECD, and the fee hikes and cuts in the bill we are discussing today will only make our international standing worse.

Despite already having high fees by international standards, the Turnbull government want to jack up student fees by 7.5 per cent over four years. It wants to change repayment thresholds and indexation arrangements so that students are paying back their debt much earlier, and the government wants to change the indexation rate. There are a lot of facts and figures that I won't go into but the upshot is that students will be paying back higher debts and they will be doing so sooner. That is really the first major problem that I wanted to identify with this bill but I want to touch on three other areas as well.

The second area is the funding cuts themselves. For those who do make it into university, for those who have the means or are not deterred by making those higher repayments sooner, the quality of their education will suffer, because the government wants to pull out $3.8 billion over five years. As I said before, that would be more than $85 million just out of Griffith University and my community alone; more than $400 million would be taken out of Queensland universities over four years. When you combine that with what those opposite are doing in ripping $22 billion out of schools and what they are doing right up and down the education pathway—one obstacle after another for our young people—you can see the damage that will be done to our young people, to their life prospects and to their life chances.

The third area I wanted to touch on briefly is the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program. It is called the HEPPP. A lot of us have interacted, I'm sure, with the HEPPP in our communities. There is a special place in my heart for the people who work in the HEPPP at Griffith University. I have spent a hell of a lot of time with my friends and colleagues who deliver that program. They go to primary schools and high schools and really try to show the young people of my community, which is so crucial in my community, that universities are not just something that people from the fancy suburbs can go to. On the contrary, if you work hard, get the grades and do what is necessary you should have a place in university. What my HEPPP friends do is not only demonstrate to young people the possibilities of education but also show that universities can be inclusive places and not exclusive places. So I am pleased, and give credit where it is due, that this bill does legislate the HEPPP. Unfortunately, it comes after something like 40 per cent cuts to HEPPP plus a whole lot of uncertainty. And in their usual cynical way, those opposite want to hold the HEPPP hostage to the rest of the bill. If they did the HEPPP thing on its own we would support it, and we could get on with it and the people delivering the HEPPP could have some certainty. Instead, of course, they attach it to big cuts and attach it to jacking up fees so, in that respect, that part of the bill is held hostage. It should be put into a separate bill so we can pass that and get on with delivering those important programs in my community and around the country.

The final aspect that I want to touch on in a little bit of detail is the impact of this bill on New Zealand students. It hasn't received a lot of attention but it is a very important change, a very detrimental change, the government is proposing to the arrangements for New Zealand students. I proudly represent one of the biggest Kiwi communities in the country. There is a concentration of New Zealand friends in South-East Queensland, and where I live really is the epicentre of the Kiwi community. I am proud to represent them. I am proud to work with them. I am proud to live amongst them. I am proud to have grown up with a really important, growing New Zealand population in my part of the world.

The government wants young New Zealand citizens, often kids who have grown up here, lived here for a long time and gone through Australian schools with Australian friends, to lose access to publicly funded university places. The changes from 1 July next year mean that any New Zealand students who commence study after that will have to pay full fees. When you think about a bachelor of education degree at Griffith University, for example—a very popular degree amongst the Kiwi community in my part of the world—they would be required to pay more than $100,000, which is an increase of around $80,000. They go from about $20,000 to $100,000. You can imagine what that does to the ambitions and aspirations of young Kiwi kids who have grown up next to their Australian friends and gone to school with them. You can imagine what signal that sends to people in my community.

I want to thank and acknowledge Oz Kiwi, Glenda Stanley from Griffith University and a range of other people for campaigning against this change. I also want to acknowledge the member for Sydney on our side of the parliament, who has written to the New Zealand community in my part of the world to assure them that we stand against this unfair change. We do not see the merit of pricing young kids who have been in Australia for a long time out of higher education. I am proud that I have worked with Oz Kiwi and other campaigners to deliver an important change to the HECS-HELP system earlier on, which took a bit of a fight. I am disappointed to see that a lot of that good work has been undone with these new measures. These new measures say to a lot of kids in my local schools, 'University is something for other kids to aspire to, not for you to aspire to—even if you have the talent and the grades and the ambition to go further.'

When it comes to building aspiration and broadening participation, Labor has a really proud record. When we were in government last, we lifted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. That is a terrific effort and something that we are very, very proud of. It opened the doors of university to an additional 190,000 Australians. Many of them were the first in their families to attend university. We understand the crucial role played by universities in ensuring that life chances are not dictated by birth. That, in a nutshell, is why we are opposing this bill.

We are not naive about the budget challenges that this country faces. For the first time in Australia's history, under those opposite we have more than half a trillion dollars of gross debt. That is a new record. We know that we need to be careful about how we spend taxpayer funds. But we have a government that says, 'We couldn't possibly find $3.8 billion for higher education, participation and making aspiration a reality, but we can find $65 billion to give to multinational corporations and the four big banks'. This bill stamps out ambition. It extinguishes aspiration. It makes deep cuts. It prices kids from communities like mine out of the system, with real costs to social mobility and the economy.