Sep 12, 2017

Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (17:49): I rise to speak against the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. I do so because if this legislation is carried by this parliament it will undermine tertiary education in Australia as we know it. This bill represents a $3.8 billion cut to higher education in this country. It is a cut that’s across the board and a cut that will damage the nature of educational opportunity in this country.

This is a cut, of course, that overwhelmingly will have an impact on young Australians. It is an increase to the average student contribution towards the cost of a degree from 42 per cent up to 46 per cent. It represents a $12,000 decrease to the amount that a graduate is allowed to earn—a decrease to $42,000—before the mandatory repayment of HECS-HELP fees begins. Furthermore, access to Commonwealth supported places for permanent residents and New Zealand citizens studying in Australia will be removed indefinitely. It is ironic, given the debate that has taken place over the citizenship of the Deputy Prime Minister in this country, that they’re undermining the ability and capacity of New Zealand citizens to fully participate in Australian society.

It is a concern that across the board this represents an attack on opportunity. Whilst student contributions are increased and repayment thresholds are lowered for all tertiary institutions, including TAFE and vocational education and training students, those worst hit in this latest round of cuts are our universities. Australian universities are about to be subjected to a 2.5 per cent funding cut that Malcolm Turnbull’s coalition, in its finest example of doublespeak yet, calls an efficiency dividend. Not to mention the 7.5 per cent hike in student fees over the next four years and the removal of Commonwealth supported places for postgraduate students.

This, of course, is about government priorities—whether a government priority is corporate tax cuts for the top end of town or whether it is providing support for the higher education needs of our country. If Australia is going to prosper in the Asian century, we need to prosper on the basis of how smart we are and how innovative we are, and on the capacity of our human capital to compete in this region. We shouldn’t try to compete by lowering wages and conditions and we shouldn’t try to compete by undermining the capacity of our population—particularly our young population—but this is what the government would do. This is what this legislation represents.

It also represents, I believe, a fundamental, philosophical divide across this chamber. Those in the Liberal Party seem to believe that education is just about benefitting the individual—that an individual benefits and gets a higher income, and that they should therefore contribute more to that educational opportunity. The problem with that is twofold. Firstly, it doesn’t understand or take into account the fact that increasing educational opportunity and increasing the capacity of our population—particularly our younger generations—to make the most of themselves and to educate themselves in ways which both contribute commercially to the economy and contribute to their capacity to make a difference in society, is a benefit for that society as a whole. It’s not just about the individual and the benefit to them.

That is a fundamental difference in what Labor has always understood about education: that education is the great enabler. That is why the Hawke government and the Keating government were very proud of the fact that in 1983 some three out of 10 Australian young people completed their Higher School Certificate and, at the end of that period in 1996, that figure was above eight out of 10. That was a great legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments. That followed the great Whitlam government reforms that opened up tertiary education to working-class people.

Many of us who sit in this chamber would be the first people in their families to complete a university degree. I was the first person in my family to complete schooling, let alone a university degree. That means that we maximise the benefit for the individual, but we also maximise the benefit to the economy and to society as a whole by maximising the collective potential of those people who make up our local communities.

Federal Labor came into office in 2007—something that we will be celebrating in coming months. We increased funding for universities from $8 billion to $14 billion over our six years in office, a $6 billion increase in contributions to universities. During that period, we saw again a massive increase in the number of people who were able to go to university. That changed the composition of the people who were going to universities. People from lower and middle incomes who had been missing out then got that opportunity.

Labor also has a plan for TAFE and the vocational education and training sector. The last Labor government contributed over $19 billion in Commonwealth funding towards the VET and TAFE sector, including investment in infrastructure and technology upgrades. There is legislation before this parliament to abolish funds that Labor established—the Building Australia Fund, to build transport infrastructure, which was approved by Infrastructure Australia; and the Education Investment Fund, which was for building education infrastructure around the country. They just want to abolish those.

The reinvigoration of TAFE and VET courses is of particular importance to me. The Design Centre Enmore, one of the most notable TAFEs in New South Wales, resides in the inner west. This centre specialises in industrial design, fashion design and visual design, and has flourished in spite of the cuts to services imposed by the coalition and reinforced by the state government, which has also undermined TAFE. Just down the road, Petersham TAFE in West Street has been forced to close its doors. It specialised in communications. How extraordinary is it that a TAFE centre in a global city like Sydney specialising in communications, giving young people that opportunity, has shut its doors because of cuts by the New South Wales coalition government, reinforced by the attitude of the federal government?

It is because of Labor’s proven track record and our belief in higher education that we will oppose the measures in this bill that increase student fees and lower the HECS, HELP, TAFE and VET repayment thresholds. We oppose these changes, just as we opposed and successfully defeated the proposal from Tony Abbott in the last term of government to have $100,000 degrees. We know that the changes proposed in this legislation come at a time when Australians are paying the sixth-highest level of university fees in the OECD. The memory of university fee deregulation is still fresh in the minds of most. Had this plan been accepted, we would have had a two-tiered higher education system—the privileged, who could afford it, and the underprivileged, who could not. One of the great distinctions and divides in Australian politics is between Labor, who believe in creating opportunity, and our conservative opponents, who believe in entrenching privilege. And that is why we see education as the great enabler.

I am concerned with this legislation and the impact that it has on universities. Universities support more than 130,000 jobs across Australia. If you cut an amount of funding from an institution, somewhere down the line a job is lost. If you cut $3.8 billion from the institutions, you could be certain that the jobs lost will be in the thousands. That’s important in local institutions like the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, which service my electorate even though they’re just outside my boundaries. But it is also critically important for universities like the University of New England, in Armidale, the University of Newcastle and the University of Wollongong. All of these campuses have had a critical role to play in those local regional economies.

One of the things Australia has been very good at over the years is developing new technology and innovation—whether it be solar technology at the Australian National University or the University of New South Wales or wi-fi and information technology down at the University of Wollongong. Across the board our universities have been world class in innovation, research, ideas and breakthroughs. What we haven’t always been good at it commercialising those opportunities and value-adding so that we create the jobs here in Australia. And the real debate should be how we do that, how we maximise the intellectual capacity that we have here into job creation down the line.

This government really isn’t interested in that, though. A university campus, a TAFE campus or a school they just see as a target for cuts. Australian electrical engineer Dr John O’Sullivan invented an integral component of wi-fi while looking for a way to measure the mass of a black hole. Dr O’Sullivan undertook his undergraduate degree in engineering at Sydney uni. Australian writer Garth Nix penned the Old Kingdom trilogy, an internationally successful series that raised the bar for science fiction and fantasy writers worldwide. He was a graduate of the University of Canberra. Across the board, there is enormous success that we should be proud of.

This legislation would provide a loss of over $600 million in my home state of New South Wales alone. This legislation is not worthy of support in this parliament. This legislation will undermine our capacity as an economy. It will hurt individuals and their capacity to make the most of themselves in life and provide support to their family. It will undermine our standing on the global stage, where we’ve been very proud of the high ranking that our universities have reached over recent years. Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world. Nelson Mandela was right. This legislation is wrong.