Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 - Second Reading Speech in Parliament

This Monday we heard the Prime Minister say, 'Good government starts today.' Yet here we are debating the government's broken promises from last year. This is the same broken government with the same broken promises: cuts to education, cuts to health, cuts to the pension and cuts to the SBS and the ABC. Nothing has changed: not the leader—not yet, anyway—not the broken promises, not the unfair budget. Today we are debating the Abbott government's broken promises on higher education. And there is a sense of deja vu about this. The Prime Minister promises to listen and be more consultative. Yet he behaves in exactly the same way again and again. I am sure he cannot believe that his party room keeps falling for this same trick. But the people of Australia are not fooled. They see through this government's rhetoric and its spin. They know that the proposed changes to higher education will hurt them and their children and also our society and our future prospects. And they know that Labor members stand with them and stand against these unfair changes to higher education.

So I am very pleased to take this opportunity to again speak on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. I note that the Minister for Education gagged debate on this bill when it was last in this place. But, given the Prime Minister's repeated claims to be leading a more consultative government now, presumably this will not be the case on this occasion. Going to the Prime Minister's latest reboot—the one before Christmas having been so spectacularly unsuccessful—I think of his speech to the National Press Club. He began with a very interesting and a very telling phrase. He spoke of how he had spent the summer talking to many Australians—talking to, not with, much less listening or hearing what they have been saying. He continues to prefer ideology to engagement, much less evidence. And this bill really is the government in a nutshell. At its core, there is a broken promise. And of course on this side of the House we remember the Real Solutions policy document that members opposite have been hiding away since the election. At the heart of this bill there are swingeing cuts to higher education, despite promises the day before the election, and also, through radical fee deregulation, the prospect of $100,000 degrees, denying accessibility to education, undermining the participation that has been a signature of Labor's investment in higher education over the past 40 years.I note that while this fee deregulation issue is clearly the most controversial part of this radical reform package it is not unequivocally the most egregious. I think we should also be thinking about the 20 per cent across-the-board cuts and their impact. But the Bills Digestsays of the fee deregulation proposals contained in this bill:

This element of the reforms was not considered in the Kemp-Norton Review and there was little public discussion of this option prior to the Budget announcements.

Well, that is putting it very mildly, isn't it? But it is also telling: the government did not have the courage of its ideological convictions to put its case to the Australian people. The member for Indi touched on this point very effectively in her contribution when she went through the failings of process—from her point of view, process affecting regional communities and regional students. But these process failings—the failure to engage with the community, the failure to listen to stakeholders, the failure to look to the evidence—go to the heart of why this package of legislation must be defeated. And what is very interesting is the constant recourse to reform, which is a weasel word that animates this government like no other. I remind members opposite that reform is a process, not an end. But it seems to have become a very convenient shortcut, a polite way for the conservatives to outline their extreme version of neo-liberalism—their agenda to boost inequality in Australia.

Having made these remarks, I would say that if the Prime Minister were being truly consultative then he would have listened to people such as the constituents of the member for Indi and would not bee seeking to reintroduce these measures at all. The feedback from the public, like the feedback from the Senate, is overwhelmingly against the proposals in this bill. This feedback was reinforced yesterday by Peter Dawkins, Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University in Melbourne. I think this is particularly worthy of mention, because the member for Grey in his contribution asserted falsely that all universities support this reform package. Now, just leaving to one side the blackmail at the core of the proposition that has been put to universities through this bill—the cuts needing to be made up by fee deregulation being the government's effective proposition to those universities—I remind the member for Grey and members opposite generally that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra has consistently been a brave voice for reason and for equity in this debate and has spoken against the reform package, and he has been joined powerfully by the Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University. In an article titled 'Abandon full fee deregulation, says Victoria University VC', published in the Age on Monday, he says:

The federal government's initial package represents a radical move toward deregulation, with minimal safeguards against associated risks.

He calls on the government to look to a range of compromise options, and he goes on to say:

A range of economists and higher education experts, myself included, have pointed out significant risks with the current proposals …

So we see another vice-chancellor speaking for his constituency and against these egregious proposals from the government.

I think it is worth spending a bit of time outlining what is contained in the legislation that is before us. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, the Australian Research Council Act and some related legislation to—leaving to one side some uncontroversial matters—provide for a range of budget announcements. Again, these announcements were unknown to anyone until the handing down of the budget that continues to dominate Australian politics nearly a year after its introduction. Fee deregulation is at the heart of this proposal. It is effectively a proposal to boost the Americanisation of our higher education system and perhaps, for members opposite, to boost the Americanisation of our society as well. I think it is worth briefly touching on the US experience, where we have seen, in recent years, massive increases in fees and a significant decrease in participation as well as some evidence suggesting that the quality of these extraordinarily expensive degrees is going down, not up. Again, in considering the package, fee deregulation cannot sit alone; it is inextricably tied to the 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme for undergraduate places, taking $1 in $5 out of the support in the system. It does not end there, because it is accompanied by further cuts: cuts to Australian Research Council grants and cuts to the Research Training Scheme. These are very, very radical changes that will do nothing to boost participation in our education system and will do nothing to improve its quality.

Labor opposed this bill last year, and we still oppose it. The fundamental reason for this is pretty simple: it is about fairness. It is also about our sense of the Australia that we would like to build and we would like to shape. It is about equipping Australians to face the future and ensuring that all of our talents are maximised. This is at risk through this package of so-called reform. Labor believes that a person's intellect and their hard work should determine whether or not they can go to university, not their bank balance or their ability to service a six-figure loan—leaving aside, once more, the question of the deterrent impact on a range of communities of the prospect of these kinds of debts. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, and it is worth repeating:

Labor will vote against these cuts to university funding and student support. Labor will not support a system of higher fees, bigger student debt, reduced access and greater inequality. We will never tell Australians that the quality of their education depends on their capacity to pay.

Access to education is not just about your ability to take out a loan; it is also about your ability to service this loan. It is true—as members opposite have reminded us in this debate and, no doubt, will continue to do so—that Labor introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, but we did so with fairness in mind. The evidence supports this. The evidence speaks very differently to this radical fee deregulation. Labor struck the balance between affording access to higher education to the greatest number of people—through the Dawkins reforms and those reforms which were continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments—while keeping this access affordable. In the last government, Labor removed the cap on student numbers, to complete the Dawkins project—and the Whitlam project, indeed—of affordable access. Again, it worked. The jury is in: a record number of students are enrolled in universities—especially first-in-family students—not weighed down by six-figure debts and not deterred in the first place by six-figure debts.

I have previously spoken about Nick, a constituent of mine who is a graduate of the University of Melbourne working as a research scientist. Nick wants to pursue a PhD in immunology, where he could further contribute his skills, expertise and knowledge to the Australian society. As Nick put it:

Cuts to education would mean that instead of educating the best and brightest here in Australia, they may either go overseas and never return or, they are discouraged from higher education, meaning they may never reach their full potential, or are prevented from contributing significantly to Australian society.

These cuts, in effect, would stop me from being the best that I could be, not for myself, but for Australia.

Let us all think a little bit about Nick and all of those like him. Let us think about the life course that is being reshaped and think about the advances that we may be forgoing in immunology by denying him that pathway. This is particularly ironic, because the one bit of good news, allegedly, in the government's broken budget is this Medical Research Future Fund. But, while the government cannot even articulate how that fund would work or what it would do, the one thing that we do know is that the government is cutting off its nose to spite its face. It is talking about high-end medical research while denying students the capacity to go into those graduate degrees that will equip them to be the researchers of the future.

Nick's concerns are echoed by the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations; by the Australian Academy of Science, who touched particularly on the impact of the efficiency dividend on ARC grants as well as the implications of the increase of fees and introduction of fees for PhDs by research; and also—importantly, I think—by the Australian Medical Association, which turns to the devastating and lasting effect that these changes will have on the size, shape and distribution of the future medical workforce, saying:

There is a real danger that significantly higher fees and student debt will force graduates to pursue their careers in the highest-paid specialties in the capital cities.

Perhaps that is a matter that some of the members of the National Party might want to have regard to in their contributions in this debate.

I turn back to Nick, because he contacted me very recently to tell me that one of his colleagues in medical research has decided to move out of Australia to continue his research career because of the toxicity and contempt that the Liberal Party is demonstrating towards medical research and science through these so-called reforms. This is a loss to Australia that is entirely at the feet of this government. It is just one story but one that I have no doubt is being replicated across Australia. And to what end? What exactly is gained by putting in place impediments and burdens for people seeking to pursue higher education?

Since the budget I have visited a number of university campuses across Victoria, and the response from staff and students has been the same: they do not support these measures. On this side of the House we stand with them. We recognise we live in a society where not everyone gets the same start in life, and this is where government can, should and must play a vital role in helping people make the most of their abilities, not loading them up with debt sentences. When we do this, we all benefit. I fear this is something members opposite cannot comprehend. Their Liberal ideology's basic assumption is that everyone just comes from money and, if you do not, that is too bad.

This debate is, as I said earlier, this government and its rotten budget in a nutshell for all those reasons of the failure of process that lie at the heart of this government's chaos and dysfunction but also in substance. I am very proud to stand here with my colleagues and give voice to the concerns of students and staff today and to share with the House the concerns that students today have for their brothers and sisters and students who may not have the chance to follow them, who may not have the opportunities that I have had, that the member for Rankin had and the member for Perth had to maximise our talents through accessible higher education.

What a contrast we have here with Labor's strong record in making tough decisions and doing real reform to open up higher education. We will continue to always stand up for affordable, accessible, quality education for all and we will continue to oppose this regressive, egregious legislation.

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