Questions about higher education policy - Terri Butler MP, Labor for Griffith

I asked the government about higher education policy

During consideration in detail of the appropriations bills, I asked the government about higher education policy. Unfortunately, the answers I got were to the questions that the government wished I had asked, not the ones I had actually asked. So I asked again.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (17:55):  As I used to say to witnesses, it would be useful if you would answer the question that is actually asked, not the question that you think is being asked. I would like to follow up with some additional questions. I appreciate that the minister said that he would not pre-empt the HEPPP review outcomes; however, the budget has pre-empted the HEPPP review outcomes by budgeting for a $152 million cut to that program, so I ask again: what does the government intend to do in relation to that program; and how will the government's cuts to the equity program affect participation and enrolment by students from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds, Indigenous students and students from regional and remote areas?

Secondly, I ask the minister to commit to ensuring that the legislation for the government's package would be tabled not later than the autumn sittings and I explained the reason for that so prospective students in universities could prepare. The minister answered that the expert panel would report by mid-2017, but of course the expert panel is not the parliament. The government has to get their package through the House of Representatives and through the Senate before university students and prospective students can rely upon it. Look at this government's woeful track record when it comes to higher education changes since they were elected in September 2013. Look at the catastrophic 2014 federal budget that introduced the idea of the $100,000 degrees through fee deregulation that introduced the 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth grants scheme—the 20 per cent cut, that is, to public funding.

If you look at the comprehensive failure of this government to be able to prosecute its case for those changes, you will know that it is not sufficient for the government to tell us when to expect a package to be published. We need to know when it is going to get into the parliament so we can know when the public are going to have an opportunity to have a real say through the representative democracy in this country. That is why it is important for us to know when we can expect the package to be tabled. I do not think there is a person in this country who would say that this government can be relied upon to bring forth a legislative package for higher education changes that could be acceptable to the Australian people through the Australian parliament.

It is almost laughable, given the ridiculous nature of their attempts at higher education changes, to wander into government and say 'What we're going to do everyone—have we got a deal for you. We're going to completely deregulate fees so that people will have a lifetime of debt so that it is possible to have a $100,000-degree.' And guess what? If you happen to go into a lower-paid occupation at the end of your degree and you happen to go and work for a community legal centre instead of a top-tier law firm, then the debts are going to last longer, because not only will it take you longer to pay it off; you will also have the indexation, which will mean you will pay more for the same degree. There was the ridiculousness of that idea that they floated and then, on top of that, they really put the pressure on the university sector to accept this terrible idea to say, 'We're going to give you a cut of 20 per cent to your Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding.' Saying that we are going to cut public funding to universities at the same time as we are insisting on this full fee deregulation is utterly ridiculous. This is an act of economic vandalism to undermine higher education in this country, which the minister well knows. He well knows of the importance to domestic students of having the opportunity to get a fantastic higher education and he also knows the importance of higher education as an export market.

Higher education and international tourism have a symbiotic relationship. Those two sectors combined have an export value almost equal to the export value of iron ore. That is how important those two sectors are to our community and to our economy. It is extremely reckless to think about cutting public funding and therefore making it harder for our universities to remain internationally competitive at a time when Asian universities are beginning to improve their quality, are beginning to really step up the sort of money that goes into higher education in their countries—at a time when our economy needs to diversify.

Everyone in this room and in this parliament knows about the importance of diversifying our economy. We all know about the fact that investment is dropping off in resources. Of course it is; the big projects have largely been built. We are transitioning in our resources to having still a lot of strength, of course, in our resources exports, but needing to diversify our economy and needing to diversify our exports. That means supporting higher education and supporting international tourism. As I said, they are symbiotic. Students come to this country. They learn. They then bring back family members and friends once they find out how fantastic we are.

Finally, I would like to know why there are cuts to the equity program. What are the consequences going to be? What is the basis on which the $2 billion worth of savings for scrapping fee deregulation has been calculated? (Time expired)

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