House of Representatives speech

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Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (10:18):  I have enormous respect for the member for Grey and I cannot work out quite whether he really believes what he is telling the House or whether he is just picking up the government's spin on this subject. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt and come to the conclusion that he really believes the things he just said. I only recommend to him that he has a closer at the subject and to give it more thought because I really do believe what he just said about the impact of these reforms on the university sector is just wrong—in particular, his failure to grasp the impact on regional universities, including the campuses he was just referring to.

Indeed, on few occasions have I watched a debate in this place so closely—this debate on the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014—and I have watched with some bewilderment as rural and regional members from the other side have got to their feet in defence of what I think is an indefensible policy. The member for Riverina was amongst them not that long ago.

Mr McCormack:  I haven't spoken yet, Joel—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  I thought you did. I apologise to the member for Riverina.

Mr McCormack:  but I will.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  The member for Riverina has indicated that he certainly will be speaking on this bill and I assume, in doing so, he is indicating that he will be speaking with enthusiastic support of the bill—

Mr McCormack:  You will have to wait and see.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  Although he is now indicating that we should wait and see. So I look forward to member for Riverina getting to his feet in this place and giving a genuine and honest critique of the bill before this place. It is amazing how the member for Eden-Monaro, and I am not sure whether the member for Page has got to his feet on this issue yet, but certainly the members for Braddon, Lyons, Bass and others have got to their feet, and consistently made very similar contributions in defence, again, of what I think is the indefensible. I look forward to the member for Indi making a contribution. As a member who represents both rural and regional areas, she will make a different contribution. People in this place would appreciate that she does understand the impact of these changes on regional Australia, and I think people watching and following both the people in the coalition and in the Labor Party making their contributions can look to her contribution as a truly independent and objective one. I recommended people take note of what she has to say.

Firstly, I want to make a disclosure. All of my children have had the benefit of attending regional universities and I want their children to have the same opportunity, and a chance to attend a high-quality and affordable university in the region which they have been able to do.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion about the minister's higher education reforms but within all that there is one fact, whether or not those opposite like it, and that is that fees will go up. Christopher Pyne has acknowledged that himself by saying that he thinks it is fairer that students make a 50 per cent contribution to their higher education learning rather than a 40 per cent contribution. By any definition, that is a fee increase for students. It can mean nothing else. So fees will go up and students will be carrying greater debt for a longer period. These things are just a given. Again, the minister himself has not contested that point by explaining his main objective and that is to make students make a greater contribution.

While I disagree with both the Prime Minister and his minister, I understand that there will be some people in our electorates that won't. There will be some who do believe, particularly those who have not themselves had an opportunity to secure a university degree, that the taxpayer should pay less. I respect that and I understand that, but to them I make four points.

The first point is that education demand is of course price sensitive. That is, many students either cannot afford to pay more or will not see the value in paying more. For example, the Australian Veterinarian Association modelling suggests that a young person contemplating life as a vet will face a final debt fee of around $250,000. Given the average annual wage for a vet in Australia is some $76,984, a young person—and I am thinking particularly about a young person living in rural and regional Australia—might not see that as a good financial investment and might, therefore, make another choice.

The second point is that we need rural and regional Australia to be doing well to come to the conclusion that Australia is also doing well. Therefore, we want regional universities to thrive. This is where the minister's free-market approach really starts to run into trouble. Make no mistake: the government's plan for our universities will hit regional universities the hardest. Therefore, it will hurt the aspirations of rural and regional communities and all those around them the most.

The minister expects universities to replace the billions of dollars that he is cutting from their budgets by increasing student fees. But, unlike the sandstone universities in our capital cities, the capacity to put up fees is limited by the capacity of students to pay. This is a basic fact. Let me expand. The Australian National University—the alma mater of the shadow minister sitting next to me—has 7,832 undergraduate students, of which 273, or 3.5 per cent, are in the lowest socioeconomic status band. In other words, to use the Australian vernacular, they are the poorer students. There are just 3.5 per cent of them.

For the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the figures for students in the low-SES band are 7.3 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively. By contrast, Central Queensland University is at 35.5 per cent; Southern Cross University, 26.4 per cent; and the University of New England, 24.7 per cent. Of course that university is in the electorate of the Minister for Agriculture. I bet the fact that convention in this place dictates that he does not get to make a contribution in this place is welcomed by him. Also, the University of Newcastle, in my own region, 24.3 per cent;  Charles Sturt University, 24.1 per cent; and Ballarat university, 23.9 per cent. And the list goes on and on in regional Australia. So to state the obvious those city-based elite universities are in a much better position to recover money lost by the billions of dollars being ripped out of them by the government as a result of this proposition.

The third point is that those tempted to think that students should pay more should think about the greater good. Our regional universities are key drivers of local economies. They are major employers, but they are more than that. Regional universities are part of the social fabric of regional communities in which they are located.

I am most familiar with the University of Newcastle, particularly in more recent years, which of course is critical to the Hunter's economy, but you have to travel to places like Bathurst and Armidale—and many areas in Victoria, Tasmania and elsewhere—to fully appreciate what a university town looks like and feels like. You cannot go to these places without sensing the critical role that the local university plays in the vibrancy, the economic wellbeing and indeed the social wellbeing of that town. If anyone in this place has not done that, I recommend they do it, particularly those in this place who live in and represent capital cities.

My fourth point is that regional universities also play a vital role in driving national innovation, productivity and development. That is just a fact. They tend to focus their research on areas such as agriculture, which are so important to rural and regional communities. Sadly, I make this prediction: if the minister secures passage of this bill through the parliament and all the unfair changes within it, it will not be long before we have a two-tiered university system in Australia. I have made the point that, to an extent, we already have that when you separate the G8, the sandstone or elite universities, from the others. But we will have a real two-tier system. The divide will be between those elite universities and the rest, but there will be another divide. That divide will be between those universities which both teach and undertake research and those which only teach. Have a think about that. It would be a massive change in the nature of our higher education system in this country. I also make this prediction: those so-called teach-only universities are not going to be much of a magnet for those PhD students and other academics who are really looking forward to opportunities to undertake research.

My real concern is that this is not an unintended consequence of this bill. I suspect this is the minister's objective. This is ideologically driven and this is the minister's objective. We all know that, for example, those who are likely to practice medicine in rural and regional Australia are those who are from rural and regional Australia and in particular have had an opportunity to study medicine in rural and regional Australia. These are issues the Adelaide based minister simply does not understand. I am amazed at the consistency of those who sit opposite—the way in which they have been prepared to come in here, toe the party line and insist that these are good changes for rural and regional Australia, because they are not. I thought some of those sitting on the other side were more courageous than that.

I would have thought they would have been more willing to even subtly make a more honest contribution, a more objective contribution, and bell the cat on the impact these changes will have, not only on students and their capacity to secure an undergraduate degree, and hopefully go beyond that in some cases, but also on the institutions and therefore the impact on the local rural communities.

This bill is like all the others that seek to implement the measures announced in this government's first budget. Like all the other measures, on health or fuel taxes or whatever, these measures fall disproportionately on rural and regional Australia. The silence on the other side is deafening. There must be people right around rural and regional Australia today—some of them even listening to this debate—simply shaking their heads and asking themselves what their representatives in this place are thinking to allow such massive changes.

Going back just a little bit, I meant to make this point: the idea of the scholarships is just ridiculous. The member for Grey reminded us that the scholarships will come from the increased fees. The government is mandating that, with all the increased fees, you need to hive some of that money off for scholarships. This is not the government funding scholarships; this is the greatest ruse I have seen in my place. They are running around the country saying, 'Don't worry. There will be higher fees, but there will be more scholarships,' but the scholarships are being paid by the students. I will make another prediction: the city universities, the elite universities, who themselves will choose who the scholarships go to, will be cherry-picking around rural and regional Australia, taking our best students out of rural and regional communities, or indeed out of Western Sydney, for example, dragging them into the elite universities, subsidised by increased fees paid by rural and regional students. That is what will happen. So, let's dispense with this crazy idea that there is a new scholarship scheme coming into place to help students. That is just rubbish. The Prime Minister and his minister should apologise for misleading the Australian community in that way. That is another example of how this bill will fall disproportionately and adversely on people living in rural and regional Australia.

I am glad the member for Riverina pointed out that he had not made his contribution yet. I apologise for that. I thought he had. I say to him again that I look forward to it very much and I look forward to a very objective contribution from him.

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