I spoke in the parliament about the government's agenda on Higher Education reform.
Read my speech here.
Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (10:33): This is a very important motion because Labor believes that students who have worked hard should be able to go to university without facing crippling debts but, unfortunately, we have got a government with a deregulation agenda and an agenda of cuts to public funding for universities. A 20 per cent cut to public funding of universities is still in their budget papers from the 2014 budget, which must, I would guess, go down in history as one of the worst budgets of a Commonwealth government and which certainly has had lasting negative effects on the country's economy and confidence. It is a budget that contained a number of zombie measures, and the cuts to higher-education funding are one of them.
The government currently has a consultation process in place which still flags fee deregulation for some courses, even though the electorate so comprehensively rejected fee deregulation, so comprehensively expressed outrage and concern about the prospect of degrees costing $100,000. To expect young people to be loaded up with lifelong debt in order to get an undergraduate degree is completely unreasonable and is terrible not just for the individual students themselves but, of course, for the economy as a whole. That is why the fact that there is a consultation process in place that was kicked off by a discussion paper that still flags full deregulation for some courses should be sounding significant alarm bells for the community.
We saw that there were 1,200 submissions to that consultation process. The government has created a panel to review the submissions and to report on them, but here we are around nine months later and there is still no word from the government on what we can expect from them in relation to their higher education policy. Now, that is a problem because it is already almost March and universities need to be in a position to know what is going to happen to them in 2018. More importantly, students and their families need to know what is going to be expected of them in 2018. We have not even had a policy announcement yet, let alone seen any legislation to give effect to whatever it is that the government is planning in order to find the cuts that are reflected in the 2014 budget papers.
We do not know what this government is going to do, but we do know that they are actively considering fee deregulation for at least some courses and that they are also actively considering including a loan fee on HECS, basically increasing the amount of HECS that people are expected to pay over the course of their lives and justifying that as though it were a loan fee and as though the entire cost of the higher education contribution should be treated as though the full amount of the loan being carried is something that government has borrowed, which is a ridiculous proposition. To suggest that whatever university funding is provided is 100 per cent borrowed by this government is manifestly ridiculous, and to say that you should calculate a loan fee on the basis of what the real interest rate would have been in the event it had been applied over the period of someone paying back their HECS debt is, and should rightly be, rejected. But the government is actively considering that as well. They are looking for ways to increase fees for students and, at the same time, they are looking for ways to find opportunities to cut billions of dollars from the higher education sector.
The government should rule out policies that would leave students in crippling debt. It is debt that would affect them not just now but into the future. That is particularly a problem since the government is failing to act on the issue of housing affordability, so students will take on the $100,000 degree, have the lifelong debt and then, in the future, be in a situation where in order to get a mortgage they will take on even more amounts of crippling debt. What will that mean for our economy? I think it is pretty clear that people who have massive student loans and massive mortgages are less likely to go to the coffee shop and buy a cappuccino. They are less likely to go to the bookshop. They are less likely to go and spend money in the small businesses that rely on people being customers in order for their businesses to operate. The government should think very clearly before loading up young people in this country with further debt in order for them to get an education.
Going to university should depend on hard work and not on your parents' wealth. That is an important principle. Yet in this country it is still the situation that kids who are from lower income backgrounds and kids who are from other groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged are under-represented in higher education. The government, by the $152 million cut to the HEPPP, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, is making it harder for universities to reach out to under-represented students. That is a real shame because it is Indigenous students who will suffer, it is prospective students from Indigenous backgrounds who will suffer, as will students with a disability and students from low-income backgrounds.
Education is an essential ingredient of economic growth. The university sector deserves some certainty, and so do the people of Australia.