Andrew Wilkie speaks on the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014.
Mr WILKIE (Denison) (12:01): It is truly regrettable, and unavoidable, that so many politicians in this country—at both the federal and state level and across a number of political parties—talk up the value of education but are, in reality, only paying lip-service to the value of education. There is a good demonstration of that, here in this place today, with these proposals by the government to deregulate the tertiary sector. I will talk more about that in a moment, but perhaps I will start by talking to my introduction and my concern that so many politicians seem to pay lip-service to the value of education.
In Tasmania right now, the Tasmanian state Liberal government has embarked on a program of cutbacks to primary schools, high schools and colleges which is having a terribly serious impact on the public education system: the students, the teachers and the other staff in those schools. That is going on right now. In fact, Tasmanian primary schools at the moment are losing, on average, two staff members. Tasmanian colleges are losing right now, on average, four staff members. This is having all sorts of serious implications for those schools. The state education minister has said that, on average, Tasmanian class sizes will stay at around 25, or no more than 25; but I have people contacting me in my office every day now talking about class sizes of 29, 30, 31 or 32—in rooms that are made for probably 20 desks. We are also seeing, apart from the increased class sizes, programs being cut; in particular language programs, music programs, interschool sporting carnivals and so on. All of those really important parts of a person’s education are being cut in schools in Tasmania. In particular, kids with special needs are now getting less and less support—kids with learning difficulties and kids with autism, and also gifted students. There is a whole range of children in the Tasmanian public education system who are not getting the support they need which, of course, has a knock-on effect for the teachers who are having to work that much harder and are not getting the support they need. The more a teacher has to focus on one particular student with a special need, the more the rest of the class is disadvantaged. That is just in Tasmania, just in the public education system. We are seeing politicians there paying lip-service to the value of education.
It is not just the Liberal Party; I will have a go at the Labor Party as well. When it comes to the tertiary sector, it was the Gillard and Rudd governments that stripped some $4,000 million out of education funding over the forward estimates, leaving our universities some $1 billion a year underfunded—before this government even came along. The point is—and it is the underlying point of the debate we are having here today—that politicians at state and federal levels, both Labor and Liberal, talk up how much they value education, but the reality is they are not demonstrating any commitment. They are not funding education as well as we could in Australia.
Let us face it: we live in a very rich and very fortunate country. The budget varies from year to year, but it hovers around $400,000 million dollars a year. Surely that is enough money to properly fund the public education system in this country at every level—from early childhood education, through primary school, high school, colleges, technical and further education and the tertiary sector. There is enough money; it is all about priorities. Yet we are not properly funding our education in this country.
Why should we value education? Why should we be putting more money in? There are many reasons. For a start, knowledge has an inherent value. It is good for a country and for a community to have more knowledge. It inherently enriches us and our community. It greatly advantages the individuals who are able to benefit from a better education. It is well documented—and self-evident—that if you can give people a better education at every level, or at any level, those people are better off. In particular, it lifts people out of poverty. If someone is better trained and better qualified, they can get a better job. They can get on better in their life; it lifts them out of poverty. It makes for a healthier community. The fact is that better educated people will tend to know how to live a healthier lifestyle; they will tend to be able to afford a healthier lifestyle and healthier food—fruit and veggies. They will be able to afford to go to the doctor. They will be a healthier community. It opens up wonderful opportunities for them. One of the surest ways to lift disadvantaged people out of that disadvantage is to give them a good education, including giving them access, on academic merit, to higher education and to a university education, because that is one of the most tangible ways to help those people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It also makes for a wealthier country, a better country and a more successful country. I think it is very telling that, against our trading partners, Australia is falling behind when it comes to our education and our education outcomes. In fact, it was easy to find just this morning a survey out of the UK that ranked Australia 13th, broadly speaking, when it comes to education outcomes compared to other countries. It was interesting that above us there was South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore—and much is made of the way China and the Chinese education system is going from strength to strength and becoming a real education powerhouse. That will give our trading partners, our competitors in the community of nations, great advantages over us that will disadvantage us down the track, not the least of which is the fact that we will become less attractive as a source of education for foreign fee-paying students compared to other countries. Why would someone come from China to Australia to a university that is falling further and further behind in the international rankings when in future they could stay in China at one of their increasing number of even better universities?
I want to talk more specifically to the reforms that are on the table right now. I did not support the first version of these reforms and I will not support this version and this bill. Frankly, I am sure I talk for a great many people when I say that the move to make universities a market-based industry through deregulation is fundamentally bad. It is a bad decision and not something we need to do in this country. We are a rich and fortunate country that can afford to properly fund universities with public money. The fact is that moving to a market-based system will make courses dearer. That is self-evident and has been well documented now. A number of commentators and professional bodies in the community are saying that, if this move to deregulate and to move to a market-based industry is allowed to go ahead, then courses will become dearer. It is as simple as that.
As courses become dearer who will be the first people to be disadvantaged? People on lower incomes. This is all fine. It is not helpful, Madam Speaker, that you are shaking your head when I am giving my speech. It is self-evident and well remarked upon that the move to deregulation will result in dearer courses and that will fundamentally disadvantage people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But they will not be the only people who will find it harder to be educated in a deregulated tertiary sector. What about older students? People who are at university retraining for a bright second career will have less time in the workforce to be able to pay that increased debt. So too will women because women tend to spend obviously less time in the workforce so they have less time to pay back their HECS debt.
As you increase the cost of courses—and that will be a tangible outcome of these reforms—it will fundamentally disadvantage people on lower incomes and from lower income families, older students who will have less time to pay off the greater cost of that education and women who will have less time in the workforce to pay back the greater cost of that education. Within the sector itself it will fundamentally disadvantage smaller and regional universities, such as the University of Tasmania in my home state of Tasmania, right around this country. It will disadvantage smaller and regional universities because it is not a level playing field. In a market-based tertiary industry these smaller universities, which perhaps are more remote, offer fewer courses and are not as prestigious, will not be as attractive in a deregulated industry and they will struggle to compete with the big fancy universities in places like Sydney, Melbourne and the other capital cities.
As universities like the University of Tasmania struggle to compete what does it mean for outposts like the Burnie and Launceston campuses, which currently run at a loss but can be cross-subsidised because of the current arrangements? It will become more and more tempting for the University of Tasmania to cut unprofitable courses and to cut unprofitable campuses. Again that will disadvantage people in those regions, which are populated with a disproportionate number of disadvantaged people and which already have a much lower level of engagement in tertiary education compared to the big cities.
It is simply not good enough and it is not necessary to deregulate tertiary education in this country. It is not necessary to move to a market-based education industry when we have a very fine tradition of doing it the way we have been doing it and we certainly have the wealth to keep doing it that way. In fact, what is needed is not deregulation and less money; what is needed is more money. What we need to do for a start is to reinstate the $4 billion that was taken out of the universities by the former Labor government. That is the sort of thing this government should be looking to do and that is the sort of thing this government can afford to do. Yes, there is an need for budget repair, but surely with a budget of around $400,000 million we could find that $4 billion to restore the funding to its historic level. Then we should be looking to the future and how we can go beyond that and get up to the OECD average because, regrettably, at the moment our universities are funded at about 0.7 per cent of GDP compared to the OECD average of one per cent.
At a time when we are looking to cut back on our funding for the universities we should instead be looking to find the money—and the money is there with the right priorities—to get our universities at least up to the level of funding of other members of the OECD, who are our competitors in the global marketplace for the education dollar and foreign fee-paying students.
Candidates and parties make a lot of promises prior to an election. The other day the member for Indi handed me a report reminding me the Nationals went to the last federal election promising a tertiary access allowance of $10,000 to try and bridge the financial divide between city and country students. So where are the Nationals on this? I would have thought that the National Party in particular would be standing up to the Liberal Party and the education minister on this. The Nationals members of this parliament represent not only a lot of regional and rural universities but also all of those students, who were promised an awful lot before the last federal election which is not being delivered. Instead, what is being delivered is the promise of deregulation and a market based system that will make courses dearer, disadvantage regional and country universities, disadvantage people from poorer backgrounds, disadvantage older students and disadvantage women. The only people it will advantage is the government—which will have to pay less money to universities in the future—and the big eight universities, who are rubbing their hands together. These universities can charge whatever they want because they are big and prestigious. ‘Don’t worry about the rest, like the University of Tasmania’—that is what they are thinking.