I'm very pleased to be able to continue my remarks in opposition to this Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 and in support of the amendments moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I'm struck when I think about education by the continued insistence by the minister and government members generally that money doesn't matter. Of course we know it does, and the overwhelming body of evidence is to that effect. Of course, it is not simply the money in itself but how it's used as well. Overnight, we began the debate: what is significant legislation? It is significant in as much as it would send our university sector backwards and radically constrain the life opportunities of many thousands of Australians.
I'm struck by reports from the OECD, which are extraordinarily worrying and concerning and should give government members pause for thought before persisting with this legislation. What the OECD is telling us is that Australia is ranked 30th of the 34 OECD nations in our public investment in higher education—right at the very bottom. Of course, those statistics were collated before the very significant cuts which are contained in this legislation. The context of this is really important because, while my remarks and those of my colleagues are largely focused on talking about the retrograde impact of this legislation on my constituents and young Australians in the Australian economy, our economy does not exist in isolation. That's particularly true of higher education, which makes such an enormous impact on our economy, and that is certainly so in my home town of Melbourne.
When the Deputy Leader of the Opposition spoke on this, she expressed her concern about the decline of some Australian institutions in significant international rankings and talked through the significance of this. The OECD report is further cause for alarm in that Universities Australia said—quite rightly in my view—that it is increasing investment that is driving the rise of other universities within our region, particularly in places like mainland China. This has caused Belinda Robinson, the CEO of Universities Australia, to warn us—and she's right to warn us—that we simply can't afford to cut our investment at a time when other countries, including those in Asia, are 'turbocharging their investments'. They are turbocharging their investments and are deriving a serious return from them in boosting their human capital, ensuring that their young people have their potential fully realised and are equipped for the changing future world of work. Again, this will have a significant impact on our ability not just to boost the individual capacity of young Australians but to earn significant export income.
Now is the time to take, effectively, the opposite tack of that which the government proposes. Now is the time to back-in our universities; those fantastic hardworking people who work in them; those who are presently studying in them; and those who should continue to be studying in them into the future, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who would be, should be, first-in-family-participants in higher education. These are the people who are already being adversely affected by this government's walking away from needs based schools funding.
I say to government members: far from blithely assuming that current funding levels for universities are excessive, as an efficiency dividend would imply, we should be querying this assumption. We should be querying it because it flies in the face of the evidence and it flies in the face of the wider importance of higher education to the Australian economy, as well as to individual Australians. I was really struck by it when I was reflecting on, in this context, the contributions of government members to this debate, some of which have been quite extraordinary, not simply in their preoccupation with an imagined past. The member for Barton, who is in the chamber, will no doubt share my interest that government members seem much more interested in talking about Menzies—imagining his record in government—than setting out their vision for the future of Australia. It's telling as to the crisis of confidence that goes to the heart of this government. It's not just in energy policy; it's right across the board.
We have a Prime Minister who sought office but, having attained it, has no power and hasn't got the courage of his convictions to set forward any course for Australia. In education, the consequences of this are huge. And there is this preoccupation with the past, this reification of Menzies in defiance of the evidence and their attempt to claim Labor's record in higher education. Many of my colleagues have gone through this and rebutted it effectively.
But I think it is worth saying that it is Labor governments which have made Australian universities what they are today and have ensured that the opportunity of university education has been opened up, whether it be by the Whitlam government, the extraordinary public-policy-making efforts of John Dawkins in the Hawke and Keating governments or, of course, the massive expansion of participation in higher education that took place under the former Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Those governments really opened up higher education to so many Australians. And it's amazing, I think, as a member of this place, to reflect on what would have been lost had these people not been given the opportunity by Labor's reforms—the demand-driven system, opening up higher education.
I note that there are some positive elements contained within this messy bill dressed up as reform. I will make particular mention, as many of my colleagues have done, of the HEPP Program. It is a good thing—unequivocally a good thing—that we will continue to have the opportunity to address some of the cultural barriers to higher education participation in many disadvantaged cohorts and that people will continue to be able to reach out into the community and make sure that universities are not cloistered, shut-away places for the elite. That is vital. But it is cruel that this legislative recognition, firstly, comes on the back of very significant cuts to this important program and, secondly, is held hostage to reforms that completely undo the worthy work of HEPPP.
But I think that, as well as the attitude to Labor and higher education, we see something quite revealing from the contribution of many government members with their utter preoccupation with private benefit in their attitude to the benefits of education. We see their complete failure to acknowledge the wider benefits, economic and beyond, provided to our community at large from higher education. That we have world-class doctors in Australia surely matters just as much as those doctors' individual earnings and, I'd hope, their satisfaction in carrying out their work following graduation. This was a point very effectively made in the contribution of the shadow assistant minister for universities, the member for Griffith. The narrow, rigid individualism that characterises the engagement of government members with this challenge is extraordinarily disappointing. Surely, when we look at the sorts of professions on the one hand and the skill sets and disciplines on the other that result from university graduation, there needs to be a wider reflection on the purpose of higher education beyond simply supporting an individual's capacity to earn their income.
I also want to touch on the second reading contribution of the assistant minister. She pays homage to the minister, Senator Birmingham, in talking around rather than engaging with the key issues in the legislation. She speaks of the goal of a more student-focused system and asserts—amazingly, for me—that we are all in this together. Of course, we should all be in it together when it comes to university education, but what this government is doing through this bill and its wider neglect of our education system is quite the reverse. In fact, what it's saying to young Australians thinking about pursuing a university education and to Australians working in our higher education institutions is: 'You are on your own. You are not part of our vision of Australia's future.'
In Labor, we believe, all of us, in the power of education. We believe in the importance of early learning and of schools which are funded and equipped to enable every child to fulfil his or her potential. We believe in TAFE as the cornerstone of skills development, not just post school but throughout life. And we believe in our universities, which are so important to building individuals up to their potential and in supporting our economy, particularly in Melbourne. We are optimistic on this side. We believe in young Australians. And that's what's so disappointing about this government's attitude: its failure to see that our future lies in our capacity to develop our human capital more than anything else.
And it is telling also, beyond these contributions of government members, that this legislation arrives after, I believe, 29 reviews but no consultation. When you look at this bill, it is easy to see that there hasn't been meaningful consultation. This package of so-called reforms has done something quite remarkable: it has united the higher education sector against the government and this flawed legislation. Not even the member for Sturt was able to do that. It's quite a tribute to Senator Birmingham that he has managed to do that!
On the other hand, with my colleagues, led by the member for Sydney, I have been listening to what universities say and, vitally, to students too. I'm particularly concerned about the impact on the universities that principally service the communities that make up the Scullin electorate. I'm concerned that Victoria over the forward estimates will receive $533 million less. La Trobe University, just outside the electorate, will be impacted by cuts of over $68 million, and RMIT university's Bundoora campus faces cuts of over $80 million. This will have a huge impact on the communities I'm so proud to represent.
I note the contribution of the La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor, John Dewar—someone who was a supporter of previous government reform initiatives in this agenda, so no friend of the Labor Party when it comes to this. Professor Dewar says,
We all recognise the powerful economic, intellectual and innovation benefits a university education delivers to everyone in the community.
It seems counterintuitive for the Federal Government to talk of boosting innovation and productivity, while also introducing financial hurdles to creating the very workforce that will deliver on that ambition.
For 50 years, La Trobe University has been undertaking world-class research and educating leaders and innovators from all walks of life. I am concerned that the measures could mean more students from regional Australia or low SES groups – already underrepresented in University lecture halls – being unable to attend university in the future.
This is a contribution that government members should have very serious regard to.
Look at the substantive measures in the bill: the massive cuts, the absurd fee increases, the extraordinary proposals to change the repayment threshold by reducing it to a level barely beyond minimum wage, the shabby treatment of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, the trashing of enabling courses. There is nothing in this bill which evidences a vision for our university sector or a vision for young Australians being equipped for all the challenges of life in the 21st century, the Asian century.
I'm proud to be standing here with all of my Labor colleagues in clear, firm opposition to this legislation and in solidarity with all of our students and our future university students.