03 December 2013 

Andrew spoke of the importance of tertiary education in opposition to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Savings and Other Measures) Bill 2013

Tertiary education matters. But I do not believe that it is clear to the current government that tertiary education matters. It matters for many reasons. It matters, perhaps first and foremost, because of the inherent value of education: the inherent value of learning about things and increasing our wisdom. Education makes for a better world, a better community and a better country. There is an inherent value in the pursuit of learning, and we should fund it properly. It matters also because it is crucial that we keep up with other countries in the world and in our region—in particular with our trading partners. If we want to compete in the current and future economy, we need to be smarter than our competitors. We need to do better research than our competitors. Such things will be the underpinning of a successful Australian economy in the global marketplace in the future.

Education will not just allow us to compete with other countries but also allow us to be an attractive destination for students from other countries. The fact is that education has already become a major industry in Australia. A great many students from other countries choose to come to Australia’s very fine universities—including the very fine university, the University of Tasmania, in my own electorate—but, if we do not invest in our universities, we run the real risk of being left behind. In the global education marketplace, students from just about any country can choose to study in just about any country. So, although our universities have made a very fine start and are at the moment global leaders in supplying education to foreign, fee-paying students, we run the real risk of being left behind if we do not continue to fund our universities properly. We need not just to avoid cuts to investment in our universities but also to find the money to spend even more on our universities. As good as our universities are currently, they could be so much better—and they will have to be so much better if they are to be seen by foreign, fee-paying students as institutions of excellence to which they will choose to travel from their country to come and study at. There is also the fact of the inherent value of education to students and what it brings to them. It is not just a case of learning new skills and becoming qualified to be a doctor, an architect, an engineer, a teacher, a nurse or anything else. Education also has a very important social value. Education is the great leveller, particularly for people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and who are looking to get a leg up to better themselves and get a decent job. Perhaps they will be the first person in their family for a generation or two to have a good job.

With education, with a job and with new skills comes a better standard of living and better health outcomes. That is something that we do not focus on enough— the importance of education in this country as a leveller —and something that particularly helps disadvantaged students get ahead and have a good future for themselves and their families. Tertiary education is also a very important economic driver. Locally, I think of my home state of Tasmania, where the University of Tasmania—a very fine university—is one of the biggest employers. It is also a barometer: when our university prospers, it seems that our economy does well, when our university is under pressure, our economy also seems not to do so well. The University of Tasmania right now faces the very real prospect of cutting something like 150 staff and that is a lot of people in a state of only 500,000 people.

There are many reasons that universities matter and reasons that we must not cut funding. Rather, we must find extra money to make sure they can be everything that they can be. We live in one of the richest, most clever, most fortunate country in the world. There is no reason we cannot have the very best universities in the world—not just now, but into the future. As the member for Melbourne quite rightly said, ‘It is all about priorities’. Despite the fact that we have good universities with bright futures—everything else being equal—regrettably tertiary education is under very serious attack. In the last two years alone, over $4 billion has been cut from the tertiary sector in Australia —over four thousand million dollars. In other words— despite their importance, despite their promise, despite all the reasons we should invest in them—Australian universities are currently underfunded by some $1 billion a year. I make the point again that the knockon effect at the local level in my home town of Hobart is that the University of Tasmania is looking to shed 150 jobs at a time when the economy is soft and at a time when government should be investing in all the community’s institutions, including universities. It would be not only a way of making richer and better communities, but also a way of employing people.

This bill is another attack on the tertiary sector. If it becomes law, this bill will result in a cut of more
than $900 million from the tertiary sector over the next four years in the form of so-called efficiency
dividends. What sort of political gobbledegook is an efficiency dividend? Why do not we call it for what
it is? It is a cut to your budget—suck it up and live with it. Some of the few ways universities can save money include cutting courses, cutting staff or cutting facilities. They can also cut campuses, which is a real issue for some of the small satellite campuses, such as the Burnie and Launceston campuses of the University of Tasmania. So, let’s cut all the political gobbledegook about efficiency dividends. If this bill becomes law, $900 million will be gutted from the Australian tertiary sector over the next four years. That will mean a cut of something like $30 million over the next four years from the University of Tasmania.

That will hurt the university, and the university will have to consider cutting courses and cutting staff. It will hurt students because, ultimately, as the university has fewer resources there will be fewer resources for students. It will hurt the Tasmanian economy, and the unemployment rate at the moment in my state is way over eight per cent—the highest of any state in the land. We cannot afford this sort of cut to federal investment, particularly when the economy is under so much pressure.

Crucially, the bill would also reduce the discount for the early payment of HECS and HELP, which will
save the government something like $300 million over four years. Again, it is political gobbledegook to say that it will save the government $300 million. We should instead be saying that it is going to cost the
tertiary sector $300 million over four years in one way or another. Any talk about savings measures for the government is merely a consequence. Sure, there are all sorts of people who can afford to pay their HECS or HELP debt off early. There are students from very advantaged backgrounds where perhaps mum and dad can afford to pay their HECS, but there are also many students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are busting their boilers after hours to scrape together the money to try and pay off their debt, just as there are some very disadvantaged families who are busting their boilers—mum and dad both working two jobs to pay off that debt so that their son or daughter does not carry that debt into their working life. Let’s not kid ourselves: getting rid of the discount on the early payment of HECS or HELP will be of little consequence for some students and their families, but it will be a very big consequence for other students and to their families.

We should not look at this bill in isolation, because we have another bill coming down the driveway— the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill. When we are discussing the bill before us today, we should also be cross-referencing it with that other bill, which we may be deciding this week in this place. The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill will impose another savage cut on the tertiary sector and, most worryingly, on those students who can least afford. That bill will abolish start-up scholarships and impose HECS or HELP-type fees or loans on students.

Let us put this into perspective. The only students who were getting those start-up scholarships were the most disadvantaged students in the land, the people who could barely afford to get to university, for many of whom the scholarship was the very difference between getting to uni or not. Yet this government sees fit to get rid of those scholarships. This government sees fit to slap onto some of the most disadvantaged students in Australia a debt that they will have to carry into their working life—a debt that, at the end of the day, could be some $10,000.

Can I come back to one of the first points I made about education as the great leveller. Education is what helps so many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get ahead, to catch up, to get a decent job, to get a decent income, to buy a house, to bring up a family and to provide for their children the sorts of things that those children deserve. It is the great leveller. Yet, completely at odds with the idea of education being a great leveller, this government sees fit to get rid of start-up scholarships and to slap a dirty big debt onto some of the most disadvantaged students in the land.

Let me talk a bit more broadly for a moment. It is pretty tough out there. You cannot live on youth allowance. The average Australian university undergraduate works something like 20 hours a week. How on earth can you study and achieve to your very best when you are working half a job? You cannot. The student gets a less than perfect outcome, which means that our community gets a less than perfect outcome. Now we are going to axe the start-up scholarships. And all of this in one of the richest, most clever and most fortunate countries in the world.

I again echo the member for Melbourne and the very good point he made. It is all about priorities.
The income for the government this financial year is forecast to be about $380,000 million. Surely that is enough, with the right priorities, to have the world’s best universities, the world’s best resourced university teachers, the world’s best resourced university researchers, and a fair deal, a fair go, for the students who attend those universities. While we are at it, surely $380,000 million a year is enough to have not only the best universities in the world but the best colleges in the world, the best high schools in the world, the best primary schools in the world and the best early childhood education centres in the world, including a fair wage for a fair day’s work for the early childhood educators who populate those centres. It is all about priorities.

I do lament the fact that, when it comes to tertiary education, this government has its priorities all out of whack. The previous government did too, but I will acknowledge and applaud the Labor Party for deciding to oppose this bill. That is the right thing to do. I am pleased to stand next to—but not be part of—the Labor Party and the Greens in opposing this bill, just as I will also oppose the associated Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill, if only because of the way it attacks our universities.

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