House of Representatives speech 11 February 2015

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (16:47):  Earlier in the week in this place, I made a contribution on a biosecurity bill. On that occasion, I equated biosecurity with defence, making the point that it was every bit as important. Why? Because both deal with existential threats, one relating to potential attack on our homeland and the other relating to food security and therefore the ability to sustain ourselves. You could probably mount an argument that education also goes to our very existence, but I will not try to make that argument today. I will simply say that education policy, if not an existential issue, certainly goes very much to what we are as a nation—how wealthy and prosperous we are as a nation, where we sit as a nation in the global community, how much influence we exert as a nation—the list goes on and on—and, indeed, how happy we are as a nation. Only this morning we read of a report by UK based economists who are suggesting that, in the absence of change, Australia is very much at risk of sliding down the rankings of countries in the global community and sliding out of the G20, which would be a very, very unfortunate outcome indeed for this country. They equate that largely to where we are heading in terms of our education system.

This is the higher education deregulation bill mark 2. Labor opposed the first bill. I certainly supported that decision. I spoke against the bill and voted for that position, and I will be doing as the Labor Party is doing on university deregulation bill mark 2, and that is speaking against and voting against the proposition. It is fair to say not much has changed in this bill, save for, arguably, the $100 million transition fund. But I will return to that. For those listening to the debate who do not watch these things as closely as those of us here and find the debate somewhat complex, it is all pretty simple: the government are now going to allow the universities to charge whatever they like for university courses. There will be no government control over that. Therefore, they will be allowing universities to charge students more money, and of course there will be no compensation as such for students. We welcome the fact that the government have backed down on the increase in the rate of interest on HECS loans and debt, but there will be no compensation as such for students.

The government is taking $2 billion out of the system over the forward estimates and trying to argue that somehow that is not just a cut but it represents reform of the system. I do not buy that argument. It is a cut. It is a budget saving measure wrapped around a concocted budget emergency, as the government calls it. I heard people in the MPI earlier talking about cost-benefit analyses for things like the NBN and other pieces of infrastructure. Well, when measuring the return on the investment in education, many, many things have to be taken into account. Some of those I mentioned earlier—our prosperity, our wealth, our place in the world et cetera.

I am going to focus today—in this opportunity to make a brief contribution—on how the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014 affects rural and regional Australia. I was somewhat interested that, with bill mark 1, there were not too many coalition members representing rural and regional Australia making a contribution. I think the reason is self-evident: while they had no choice but to toe the party line on that first bill, they were not really supportive of the bill and they were not prepared to come into this place and defend the bill. I see some of them have added themselves to the list this time around, which I find a little bit bemusing, because I have made the point that not much has changed, and I suggest there might have been a bit of influence from the Chief Government Whip and whoever instructs them.

But it is nice to see National Party MPs and Liberals representing regional and rural Australia in here at least attempting to defend what is a very difficult proposition to defend. I saw the members for Lyons and Braddon, in particular, in here—which is very interesting, given the potential impact of this bill on Tasmania. I was trying to check whether the member for Page has made a contribution, but I was not able to because the list has been updated. I do not think he made a contribute last time around—I could be wrong; I will check—and I do not know whether he made a contribution this time, but I suspect he did not. I guess he might be running into the chamber in a moment if I have misrepresented him. But certainly his part of the world is one which will be substantially adversely impacted by this bill.

To those listening, remember this: universities cannot always just ramp up fees to match the cuts being imposed by the government, because their students usually simply cannot afford it. In universities like the alma mater of the Minister for Communications sitting at the table, Sydney University, Melbourne University, the ANU and the sandstone universities generally you will find as a percentage of their student population about six, seven or eight per cent who come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. If you come to my own region, to Newcastle, to Charles Sturt and like regional universities, you will find that proportion of poor students is around 24 per cent. At Southern Cross, which would be of interest to the member for Page, I think it is more like 26 per cent.

So you have to think about the capacity of universities to recoup these budget cuts by raising fees for their students. Rural and regional students more typically simply cannot afford it. And I am tiring of hearing this rhetoric about new scholarships being created to help these students. The fact is that the scholarships are only coming out of the fee increases. So if the university does not increase the fees, the scholarships do not come. Again, rural and regional universities have a limited capacity to increase the fees, because their students simply cannot afford it.

So we end up having a two-tier system basically, with the big city campuses raking in the money as they ramp their fees up considerably, while the rural and regional campuses struggle through the decrease in funding, unable to recoup it through increased fees—and, as I said, the scholarships are a misrepresentation of the situation. On that basis I fear a two-tier system more generally. I can see the day when our sandstone universities and those close to them—close to their status—will be doing all the research, while the rural and regional universities will be teaching only. That will be a great loss to the economic capacity of this country's great regions.

I heard the member for Macarthur quoting either the vice-chancellor or a senior academic at a Western Australian university. It is a shame that he had to go to Western Australia from Western Sydney to get the quote he was looking for. I did not hear him quote anyone from the University of Western Sydney. I do not know what their position is, but I can be fairly certain I think that they would have grave concerns about this bill, including concerns that the big sandstone universities exercising the scholarships system—and they will have plenty of scholarships because they will be able to substantially raise their fees with no problem at all—will be making decisions about where the scholarships go. They will be looking around for the best and the brightest, whether they be in Hobart, Launceston, Western Sydney or wherever, and plucking, choosing—stealing, if you like—and poaching the best and the brightest around the country into their sandstone universities, with obvious implications and consequences for rural and regional universities.

I have heard a couple of interesting contributions. I heard the member for Lyons say that this was going to be a great thing for Tasmanian universities. He said that it was going to create what he called 'reverse migration'. He declared that, rather than lose young people, Tasmania was now going to have an influx of young people looking for a cheaper university course in Tasmania—cheaper than they can find in Sydney or Melbourne. I find that a rather extraordinary way of looking at things. Even if it were true, I go back to addressing the issue I raised about the sandstone universities being able to poach the best and the brightest, with obvious consequences and implications for others. In any case, who really believes that anyone migrating to Tasmania to do a university degree is likely to stay in Tasmania? If they are from Melbourne or Sydney, obviously the opposite will be the effect. So let us not have any of this folly. The member for Forrest said that her regional students were going to rush to Perth to do their studies and become the best and the brightest and then they would come back to Forrest. That is not my experience. So often once you lose them they never return. But, in any case, how does the member for Forrest think that her students are going to be able to afford to pay the big fees in this deregulated system they might expect to pay in a capital city? It is not likely.

This is bad legislation. The Labor Party opposes it. I oppose it. We do not want $100,000 degrees in this country. We want a country where equity applies. We want to live in a country where, no matter what your background, you have the opportunity to play out your aspirations with have an equal opportunity to get the very best education in this country. We do not want sandstone and city universities plucking the best and the brightest out of Western Sydney and out of our regions because they can afford to do so—with the obvious impact on our average scores in rural and regional universities. We do not want our rural and regional universities to lose their research capacity, with all the implications that has for local economies and local communities. These are not good things.

I said that I would go back to the transition fund. The $100 million is simply an acknowledgement that there is a problem but does not provide the fix. While $100 million sounds a lot of money when quickly said to the ordinary Australian, it will go nowhere near what is necessary to compensate regional universities for the loss of that funding.

I seem to recall that that the Minister for Education, on the day the government folded the tent on the original bill, suggested that he might create a $300 million fund, and the experts saying, 'Well, that would be at least a couple of hundred million dollars short of what would be required to help these regional universities transition to this new deregulated environment. And now, having concluded that half a billion dollars was necessary, the minister is offering a mere $100 million. It will not be enough.

And here is the real problem now—and it is of concern to the Labor Party—the clock is ticking for the universities. They have budgets to implement. They have planning to do for the next academic year in 2016, and they simply do not know what their funding environment is going to look like at this stage. We are well into February and I understand that late March is drop-dead time for most of their planning. Here we are in the House dealing with bill mark 2; and when it gets through this place, of course, it is off to the Senate. And, no doubt, and absolutely justifiably, it will be off to a Senate committee and all the time that takes. So I do not see any prospect of this bill getting anywhere far well before that drop-dead date for the universities.

There is only one group of people in this place responsible for that, and that is the government and the minister, who has completely botched this process, wrapping up cuts as reform first without consulting with the sector. Then he had to go and consult, came back and changed a few things—not much, unfortunately, but changed a few things—and here we are in mid-February and he is still trying to progress this ill-thought-out bill through this place and has yet to run the gauntlet of the Senate.

That is a real problem—it is a real problem for our universities, for our students and for Australia's future. So maybe it is time the minister folded his tent once again, came back to the drawing board and talked to all the interested parties in this place and outside this place, to see whether we cannot get a resolution to this very serious problem we have before us.

So, again, I oppose the bill on that basis and I appeal to the minister and to his Prime Minister—and all those in their cabinet—to reconsider a bill which I think is going to be of great disadvantage to our country, particularly to our regional communities. It is not the bill that we want to put us on track to maintain our position, our ranking and our status in the global community.

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