Putting up Uni fees is bad for students and for the economy

I spoke in the Parliament about university fees, funding, students and the economy.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (18:35): I was at the Stones Corner park run on Saturday morning—a fantastic park run with hundreds of people—and I did it with a friend of mine. We were at university together in 1996. She is a bit older than me; she is in her mid-40s. She said to me, 'I'm finally paying off my HECS. I'm finally finishing paying off my HECS.' I said, 'Really?'—because we were at university together and undergraduates together. She said, 'All I did was that undergraduate degree and a postgraduate certificate,' which is the very shortest form of postgraduate course. She is someone who has worked in the community sector and in lower paid sectors all of her life. She has worked in a lot of part-time work. She has a daughter with special needs and she has stayed home a lot to look after her. The consequence for my friend is that it has taken her until her mid-40s to pay off her university degree. That means, with indexation, she has paid more for that same degree than someone who left university, went straight to the workforce and got a high-paying job and worked full time. A lot of that has not been of her doing.

In fact, if you think about the workforce ramifications of higher university fees, if you have a great big lump of private debt, you are less likely to go and work in the small community legal centre or the small health not-for-profit where you are going to get a lower salary. You already take a lower salary than someone who might work in a more highly paid private sector job, so you have that decrease in your earnings. Then you pay more for the same degree, of course, because it takes you longer to pay it off. That is really the consequence of what we are talking about when the Liberals want to put up fees for university degrees.

We already have record levels of private debt in this country, which is a massive drag not just on those individuals and the lifelong burden that they are carrying in relation to private debt but also on the economy. You would know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in the recent GDP figures the last quarter of growth was driven by government purchases because investment and consumption were so weak. That is a real problem. To try to continue to put a handbrake on consumption by increasing private debt would be a bad idea not just for the individuals who would suffer from that consequence but for the economy as a whole—for all of us. The idea of increasing levels of private debt burdens on households seems to me to be not just an unfair one but quite a silly one economically. But that is exactly what the Liberals tried to do. What they tried to do was to deregulate university fees, which would have seen the $100,000 degrees that the electorate so comprehensively rejected. The consequence for the Liberals was that they were unable to get that regulation through. In fact, if you look at their record on higher education since 2014, all you have seen are cuts and uncertainty. They have sent out a bunch of different thought bubbles into the community and into the sector. The poor old university sector is coping with one uncertainty after another as this mob continues to come up with ideas that are patently going to be unacceptable to the community and, therefore, will not be passed.

Let's think about some of their other ideas. You have had the $100,000 university degrees. How about the 20 per cent cut to public funding of universities? Another source of GDP growth is net exports. One of the key sectors for us, as a nation, as we seek to diversify our economy, is to build our services exports. Tourism and international education, which go hand in hand—are symbiotic—are very important exports for us. What do they want to do? They want to cut public funding to universities and make it harder for universities to maintain quality. I think that is an obviously terrible idea because it is difficult enough for us to compete on our current footing when universities in China, when universities in Japan, when universities in South-East Asia are putting more and more public funding into universities. It is becoming more difficult for us to compete, not less difficult. So we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face as a nation to cut public funding to universities when we are becoming more and more used to the idea that higher education will be a key export for us for the future. So let's not do that because it is a terrible idea.

The 40 per cent cut to HEPPP is another problem that I think is really significant and needs more attention. I recently visited the University of Western Australia and met with a group of students who were first-in-family to go to university, just like I was. These were students from a long way away from the capital city who had not even necessarily thought about the idea of going to university until programs aimed at building aspiration came to their towns. It is important that we continue to build aspiration and make university education accessible to all of those who have got the capability to perform.

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