Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (18:46): I rise to contribute to the debate on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. Higher education is very important. I know people of my ilk and many others benefited from the reforms that Gough Whitlam introduced, and many members who have contributed from this side of the House in this debate would have been the first from their families, as I was, to go to university.
The electorate I represent is very multicultural, as everybody knows, but it is not a rich electorate. Mums and dads there work pretty damn hard to make sure their kids get a good education. Education is one of the biggest things that ring true to those people in my community aspiring to create a better life for their families and their children.
The minister, in her second reading speech, boasted of the reforms as being fair, driving equality and excellence, and ensuring students have choice and opportunity. Maybe that was the speaking point she was given, because how does the government think they are convincing anyone that that can be possibly true? This bill aims to cut university funding by nearly $4 billion, hitting students with higher fees and saddling students with bigger debts that they have to pay back at a time they are probably trying to start a family and service a mortgage. The cuts will compromise teaching and learning, undermine research, and slash investment in universities at a time when the government should be investing in both universities and TAFE to guarantee that we as a country have a strong and productive future. Therefore, we on this side oppose the bill and we oppose it on good grounds.
This is an unfair piece of legislation. It does nothing but undermine the integral value of our tertiary education system, and it will act as an impediment for students and their respective futures. To put these cuts in some perspective, New South Wales institutions alone will lose $617.8 million over the next four years according to Universities Australia. That is $617 million out of various economies. New South Wales is fortunate to have a number of regionally based universities, so this will clearly impact on them. A good colleague, Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University, summed up the ramifications of these measures when he stated that these changes the government is proposing constitute a significant risk to the sustainability, quality and competitiveness of Australian universities.
These cuts will be delivered by the same people opposite who cut $17 billion from our schools and $637 million from our TAFE colleges, and now they want to do something very similar to our universities. Bear in mind—you only have to go back to 2013—this is the same group of people that said, 'Trust us; we will not cut education.' They also went on to say they would not cut a raft of other things, all of which they have done.
The government seek to justify this because they are committed to handing out $65 billion of tax cuts to millionaires and big business in this country. Just a piece of simple advice: if you can't cut your coat according to your cloth, don't start taking it off universities and don't start taking it off TAFE colleges, because we actually do need them for our future. We need them to develop our human resources for the future prosperity of this nation. So this cut is nothing other than bad, because what it will do is to enshrine a backward-looking approach to tertiary education in this country. As Professor Colin Stirling, Innovative Research Universities Chair and Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University, said, 'How can we ask students to contribute more to get less in return?' That's a pretty good question, and it raises another.
When the minister said they consulted widely in bringing forward this piece of legislation, she didn't actually go on to say what the universities said. I would've thought that they were critical stakeholders, and these universities certainly aren't running to champion the minister's view. The government keeps proving that it can't be trusted when it comes to some of the most important investments in this country. Investing in our people must be paramount when it comes to determining the priorities of our investment strategies. As I said, the minister said that the government consulted widely, but she failed to say what anyone in the university sector said. But I don't have to advise you; I think everyone in this room knows that the overwhelming majority of vice-chancellors from Australian universities are opposed to this piece of legislation. Vicki Thomson, the chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, believes that the universities have now reached a 'tipping point', a view which she sums up in the following way:
… on top of the $3.9 billion in cuts we have suffered since 2011, our sector has surely done our fair share of the heavy lifting for Budget repair.
That's the issue with the $65 billion tax cut to big business. If you can't afford to give a tax cut to big business of that magnitude, don't. It's as simple as that. But don't think that you can pay for that tax cut by taking it off the future welfare and development of this country, by taking it off our students and those who produce our quality higher education sector.
When these cuts take place, don't forget: there are going to be many, many casualties out there, particularly in electorates like mine—people who just cannot afford to make the changes necessary to accommodate the financial impost that the government are imposing on people. This bill introduces a funding cut for universities through an efficiency dividend of 2.5 per cent on the university grants for 2018-19. Combined with that efficiency dividend, in the bill there is an increase in the student contribution amount of 7.5 per cent over four years. While 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth grants will be reserved for performance funding—and I have got to say that is a principle which our side actually supports—the approach of this government is nothing but punitive. Unlike what we were told by the minister, it doesn't seem that these could be in any way described as 'modest adjustments'. They are clearly an attempt by the government to shift the responsibility of the cost of higher education primarily to the institutions and students. This government is taking away 7.5 per cent of university funding, in addition to a 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend, which will effectively amount to a 10 per cent structural cut to higher education over the next two years. While Mr Turnbull might like to proclaim that he is all about fairness, a $3.8 billion cut to tertiary education, as proposed in this bill, certainly demonstrates that his priorities lie elsewhere. Universities Australia Chair Professor Margaret Gardner sums it up this way:
If 7.5% of each student's funding will not follow the student, but will flow depending on the minister's assessment of whether a university has met benchmarks determined on a changing set of education indicators, then this money cannot prudently be included in the budget.
In other words, there are no specific parameters which form the guidelines, so how could you actually include that as part of a budget scenario? It's clear that the government has gone about implementing the principle of performance based funding the wrong way. It's a policy that amounts to performance funding simply at ministerial discretion.
At the core of this bill is the extension of demand-driven funding to sub-bachelor places. This is a principle that the university sector and Labor in the past have also advocated, following the recommendation of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education. The bill introduces, in three parts, demand-driven sub-bachelor places: students accessing sub-bachelor places must not hold a degree, the courses must meet industry needs, and the courses must articulate into undergraduate programs. While the concept of a sub-bachelor course is great for those looking for qualifications that fit outside traditional TAFE and university offerings, there is certainly a big concern in the TAFE sector that the sub-bachelor places could give universities an unfair advantage over the normal offerings of TAFE colleges. The government's proposed restrictions are not sufficient to protect TAFE or to support the integrated tertiary education system.
The bill also introduces measures that seek to introduce fees for enabling courses, lower repayment thresholds for HELP, shift New Zealanders and permanent residents from Commonwealth supported places to full-fee-paying places, and introduce a new allocation system for postgraduate Commonwealth supported places.
These measures will no doubt have a significant impact in electorates like mine. They will affect those who are most disadvantaged in our society. Unlike what the name of this bill suggests, these measures do not support a sustainable, world-class higher education system that remains affordable and accessible to all who are eligible, regardless of background or circumstance. For instance, in my electorate of Fowler, which I have already described as not a wealthy electorate, Professor Barney Glover said this bill 'may have an unintended impost on, for example, mature aged students, Indigenous students, individuals with interrupted career paths or reduced employment due to child raising or other life events'.
A very interesting scenario was brought to my attention by a police officer in my local area command, which gives a law enforcement perspective to this. Crime Manager Detective Chief Inspector Darren Newman, from Cabramatta police area command, said he believes that this bill would have a devastating impact on my local community—that's the community that he serves. He believes this would be a massive blow to the aspirations of many young people, undermining the extensive work that police have put in communities such as mine. One of the issues that Darren Newman related to me, which is particularly relevant to those newer communities in the country—particularly those from either African or Islander nations who come here—is that the police work very hard with them. The whole idea is not to wait until a crime is committed but to work with the community, show them that there is opportunity and try to make young people more engaged not only with law enforcement but with the community generally. What Darren Newman said to me was that, where you can show a person who comes from another nation where education may not be valued to the same extent that it is in this country that they can achieve a university qualification and they can graduate with a degree, they can go on to do a range of different things. Where you can show that to their peers, there's a very strong argument that it's almost me-tooism for them: 'If they can do this, I can do this too'. And the police who serve my community say this is very significant, to be able to show all of these young people that they can justifiably have the expectation and aspiration to go to university. To simply make that more difficult, to simply take that away and make it less possible for them, creates a significant problem, as the police see it, in a community such as mine.
There's got to be a better way than doing this. On the one hand, they're simply trying to be the economic rationalists out there and trying to actually justify all this, while on the other hand they're trying to give away $65 billion to big business. If you can't afford to make such a donation to big business, don't do it. Maybe you'd do it at a time when you could afford to, but what they are doing here cuts across all those in a community such as mine. It's necessary for their aspirations, for their expectations of what they can actually do to grow in a country such as Australia. We need these young people. We need these people developing. This is the Whitlam strategy played out large.