People deserve to have the opportunity to go to University or TAFE if that is their path

 

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Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:48):  Last night, my grandfather passed away. He was born in 1932 and he was incredibly intelligent—the smartest person I ever met. But there was never any risk that he'd be able to go to university; there was never any prospect of that. He left school as a child and became a fireman on a steam train. Later, when he started his own business, he was incredibly successful. The business he founded is still running today. I think it is fantastic that people of his generation were able to do well without the same opportunities that people of my generation have. But I also think it would have been incredible had he had those same opportunities.

I'm a first-in-family to have gone to university, like a lot of people on the Labor Party's side of this parliament and like a lot of people who are at universities today. I got opportunities two generations after my grandfather, but they're also opportunities that my mother never had and that my father never had. They left school at grade 10, as was normal at the time. Again, there was never any suggestion they would go to university. Again, they were very intelligent people, who started small businesses, who have worked very hard their whole lives but who just have not had the same opportunities. Yet there I was finishing school in the nineties and going off to James Cook University to start a degree. Why? Why was I was able to do that? It was because of Labor reforms to higher education. It was because of Gough Whitlam's reforms, and it was because of Bob Hawke's reforms.

I just heard the coalition member who spoke before me in this debate try to appropriate Bob Hawke and John Dawkins and the reforms that they made in the 1980s and try to compare this bill, the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017, to those reforms as though that is a rational thing to do, but it is not. Those were reforms under which students were asked to pay a small contribution into the public purse to help defray the cost of university and to increase the availability of funding for universities. This bill seeks to implement Liberal Party ideology, where they think students should pay more. They just think students should pay more. You heard why, because of what the member before me said. He said it is because students are the principal beneficiaries of higher education.

This bill seeks to increase the overall proportion of the costs of university study paid by students to the highest proportion it has ever been since Gough Whitlam freed up higher education in this country. At the same time, this bill, unlike Bob Hawke's reforms, unlike John Dawkins's reforms, seeks to cut funding to universities. This is a bill that is aimed at putting up fees for no other reason than that the Liberal Party think people should pay more, because that's what they reckon, and at the same time they want to deliver funding cuts to universities. It's a disgrace to be doing it, and it's definitely a disgrace to be appropriating Labor heroes like Bob Hawke in doing so.

To argue that students are the principal beneficiaries of university education is, I think, really revealing on the part of the coalition member who spoke before me. Not even the minister's own documents argue that students are the principal beneficiaries. Even the leadership of the Liberal Party acknowledges that the public benefit of university education is greater than the private benefit that accrues to individuals. But the member argued that students are the principal beneficiaries, and let's talk about that. Is a student who becomes a community legal centre employee, working in an Aboriginal legal service for family and domestic violence victims and survivors, the primary beneficiary of their legal education? They're not earning much. They're taking longer to pay off their HECS debt. They're doing the right thing by their community. Are they the principal beneficiary? What about the engineer who ensures the safety of the bridges we drive over every day? Is she the principal beneficiary of university education? Emergency department doctors who save lives get paid well—absolutely, of course they do—but are they the principal, the primary, beneficiaries of university education?

University education is a good. It is not the only good, and it's not better than vocational education. It's not better than a life in business, but it is nonetheless important. People deserve to have the opportunity that comes with being able to go to TAFE or go to university, or do neither and go into business—whatever they see as their path. They deserve that opportunity.

It is an utter nonsense to suggest that increasing the amount of private debt that people have to take on in order to get a university education will not affect that choice. It is an utter nonsense to suggest that a 33-year-old woman with two kids who is thinking about how she can improve her qualifications so she can make more of a contribution will not be affected in deciding whether to go to university by the prospect of an even greater amount of private debt that she would be taking on than under current settings.

It is an absolute nonsense to suggest that the parents of working-class kids in Western Sydney would not think twice about encouraging their kids to go to university if the consequence was decades of debt for those kids. It's also a nonsense to think that the couple in their mid-30s with a massive higher education debt won't find it harder to save for a house deposit, particularly given the housing market in Australia at the moment. Do you really think—does anyone really think—that this greater burden of higher education debt that they carry through their lives won't make them think twice about going to their local small business and buying a coffee or buying locally to support small businesses? Of course, people aren't just one thing. They aren't just HECS debt owers. They're also small-business consumers; they're also customers; they're also parents; they're also, hopefully, homebuyers.

This is a bill that seeks to do several objectionable things. It seeks to increase the fees that students are asked to pay, on an entirely spurious, ideologically driven basis. It seeks to decrease, by corresponding amount, the public funding provided to universities and then seeks to further decrease the public funding provided to universities. I understand that the previous speaker claimed that there were no cuts to higher education, which is, frankly amazing.

Mr Giles:  Incomprehensible?

Ms BUTLER:  Incomprehensible—thank you, Member for Scullin. It is an incomprehensible proposition given that the government's own budget papers acknowledge that this is a $2.8 billion cut, or $3.8 billion in fiscal terms. The government's budget papers acknowledge that this is a cut—and, in fact, it is a cut.

The other highly objectionable problem with this bill is the proposition that we should reduce the threshold at which HECS repayments kick in to a much lower threshold. So, when people are earning not much more than the minimum wage, and a long way from average weekly earnings, they will start to pay an additional tax to the government. They will start to pay to the Commonwealth a contribution for higher education. I've seen the press this morning reporting on government media that suggests that this is great. It's going to mean we recover more debt, as the Commonwealth. It seems to ignore one little aspect of income contingent loans, doesn't it? The income contingent aspect of them. Of course, the point of these income contingent loans is that if you never earn a high enough income—and by high income I'm talking about $54,000; I'm not talking about $180,000—then you never pay it. People might like to describe that as bad debt; I see that as the liability not arising in the first place because you don't get this lauded private benefit that the government carries on about. Are you really trying to tell me that someone earning $42,000 is somehow enjoying an amazing massive windfall because they've had a higher education? It's a ridiculous proposition. If people want to claim that it is somehow good that we're recovering higher taxes from people on low incomes, they can go ahead, but I will not support that. I will not support the argument that graduates who earn $42,000 should pay higher taxes than nongraduates on the basis of some perceived private benefit that they have obtained.

It's not just a question of the regressive nature of that arrangement, though that is obvious; it's also a workforce issue. Not-for-profit organisations may say to people, 'We'll pay you much less but you'll have the satisfaction of making a contribution,' whether it's social work, whether it's community legal or whether it's medical or pharmacy—whatever you might do for a community organisation. Those people might take a significant reduction in the amount of income they get and, yes, that might mean that it takes them longer to pay off their HECS ultimately as they move up. How are these organisations now going to say to people, 'You should still come and work in a lower-paid job even though it's going to be much more expensive and difficult for you to do so'?

I notice that there's not much focus and attention being given to the gender ramifications of this bill, but the fact is that this reduction of the threshold is more likely to affect women. Women are more likely to be in part-time work or in low-paid work. This is absolutely a gender-impact bill and we should be considering it in those terms. This will have an effect on women's ability to get a higher education. It will have an impact on their ability to manage the cost of living after they've got that higher education.

Labor opposes the fee increase. We say it is unreasonable, it forgets the impact on individual students and it is oblivious to the impact on the broader economy because of the impact it will have on household consumption by graduates who have high debts. We oppose the cuts to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. We do not support cutting public funding to higher education. Last year, higher education was part of the international exports sector, which had a record trade of $23 billion. One of the reasons that we do so well in our international education exports is the high quality of Australia's universities. Countries in our region know this. China knows it. Japan knows it. Our competitor universities are getting the benefit of additional public funding and additional investment. And what's Australia doing to this really important export service? We're going to cut funding to it. We're going to make it harder for it to be a quality service. That's what Australia's going to do under this bill, and that's yet another reason why it's so ridiculous.

We're concerned about the performance-contingent funding for universities. We support performance based funding in principle, but reducing the funding by 7.5 per cent and then using that as a pool to pay for the performance pay for performance indicators which are as yet unknown is the wrong way to have gone about doing this. On top of the cuts to higher education public funding, there's a further reduction of 7.5 per cent of the funding which will be put into a pool which will be contingent on, as I said, as yet unknown performance indicators. That is very problematic.

The bill also goes to a reorganisation of scholarships for postgraduate coursework places. I think most people would agree that the current distribution of Commonwealth supported places for postgraduate study needs review and needs to be rearranged. But without consultation about how that should be done, and without apparently really formulating the actual policy mechanisms by which that will be done, there are significant difficulties in just announcing and legislating and hoping the rest will fall into place later. So we're concerned about that as well.

In relation to sub-bachelor courses, obviously this requires a lot of discussion and negotiation with the vocational education sector to ensure there's not inadvertent cannibalisation there. In respect of enabling courses, we are gravely concerned that taking away the loading and turning it into student fees will limit the opportunity for people to take enabling courses and will therefore limit the number of people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who get to go to higher education. We oppose the bill.

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