The Higher Education Reform Bill 2014

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on higher education reform and the bill before the House, the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014.

It appears in very, very different form, in some respects, to that which was presented to the House before Christmas. I have had a close look through it. There are no offers of submarines to members who voted in favour of the Prime Minister in yesterday's party room, but there are some changes. One of the changes, I regret to say, has not been a change to the title of the bill. I take exception to the word 'reform' being used in the title of the bill, because when most Australians hear the word 'reform' they think that it is going to be attached to a program that is going to improve a subject matter. There is no improvement in the bill before the House. The bill is not an improvement; it is an act of plain vandalism. It is cutting $1.9 billion from Australian universities. It will introduce $100,000 university degrees for undergraduate courses. It represents $171 million in cuts to undergraduate programs and $20 in million cuts to research funding and it will, for the first time in this country, introduce fees for PhD students. It will also cut $80 million from the Australian Research Council. Nowhere, in no reasonable debate, could any of these initiatives be described as reforms. In fact, if the government, with its bill before the House, were bound by the ACCC, it would be slapped with a charge of deceptive and misleading conduct.

The advertising for the bill is just as misleading and deceptive. We have seen an outrageous $8.5 million advertising campaign for a set of changes that have not even passed this House and do not look likely to pass this parliament any time soon. That $8.5 million could have been much better spent on enhancing university education, certainly at the University of Wollongong near my electorate in Throsby.

The bill will lead to the complete deregulation of university fees. The member for Mallee and a number of other speakers complained about some of the facts that the Labor members have attempted to inject into the debate about the consequences of these changes. They do not trust our words. They like to lean upon some of the statements made by Universities Australia. Perhaps they would like to take note of the figures that have been cited by Universities Australia when they talk about the impact of the cuts to funding that are enclosed within this bill. We are told by Universities Australia that to compensate for the near 50 per cent cut to university funding in some courses, an environmental science degree, for example, will need to increase its charges by 110 per cent, a lot more than the 10 per cent that we heard about just previously from the member for Mallee. The cost of engineering and science degrees will increase by about 58 per cent and the cost of nursing degrees by 24 per cent. I know that this is a profession close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker Griggs. If you were enrolling in your nursing degree now at a university in Solomon, you would be slapped with a 24 per cent increase in the cost of that degree. An education degree will have a 20 per cent cost increase. I see Parliamentary Secretary Chester there, a member of the National Party. I would have expected him to go a lot harder in his party room over the foreshadowed 43 per cent increase in the cost of an agricultural degree. So, far from spreading fear; these are the facts, the figures, that have been produced by Universities Australia.

Let us not forget that this is on top of the increases that universities will have to put in place to compensate for the money that the government has ripped out. There are two levels of fee increases that are going to occur here. There are the fees that universities will have to put in place to compensate for the money that the government has ripped out, and then there are the fee increases that will flow from an uncapping of university fees. We have talked about $100,000 degrees, and we stand by that. This figure has not been derived by sticking a wet finger in the air. We have looked around at the cost of deregulated degrees in this country and elsewhere. You need look no further than Bond University, a university whose fees are not capped. It is a private university; therefore its fees are not capped. The cost of a law degree at Bond University last year was $127,000. That is right. It is not the current $30,000 that a student would pay if they were enrolled at my university or any other public university throughout Australia but over $120,000 that is being currently paid in an uncapped institution for a law degree today. So, far from being fanciful; this is fact. You will not hear members opposite talk about that, because they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. They are living in a complete state of denial, the same state of denial that leads you to think that it is the bloke who is riding the horse, not the horse itself, that is the problem that you are encountering as a government. But that is the state we see those members opposite in.

Is there a country around the world that you could look to where the deregulation of university degrees has seen a decrease in the cost of those degrees? The answer, quite obviously, is no. If you look at the UK experience, it is probably the worst of both worlds. You have seen a dramatic increase as a result of the deregulation of university degrees and the charges for those degrees in the United Kingdom. In the United States—and let us not forget this is the country that the Minister for Education, the member for Sturt, is trying to mimic with these changes—we see that student debt has overtaken credit card debt. That is not a situation that we want to see foisted upon students and their families here in this country. This is why—quite sensibly, quite rationally—we stand with families in Australia and say, 'You should aspire to have your kids going to university'. They should not be saddled with $100,000 debts and 30 years or 40 years' worth of repaying those debts. They should be able to enjoy the same sorts of benefits as members of the House—not the same sorts of benefits that the member for Sturt enjoyed because he got a free education, but that other members in this House have enjoyed—and that is fair and reasonable. They should be able to aspire to send their kids to university without being saddled with a $100,000 debt.

Because of the way the government has approached these changes, the entire university sector and all of those students within the university sector are enrolling in courses or deciding whether to enrol in courses this year with uncertainty about the cost of those courses and uncertainty about the money they will have available to them to run those institutions. This is not the way to go about reform; this is the way to wreck a sector, and that is indeed what this government is attempting to do.

There are two groups of members over on that side of the House, and we have heard from many of them in this debate. Apparently there are about 61 one of them who say all is good, this is a great reform, the budget is absolutely fantastic; they stand behind each and every one of the initiatives within the budget and all is good. And then there are about 39 of them who say the problem is with the boss. He is just not cutting through and they have to sack the boss. We on this side of the House say you are both wrong. The problem is not with the jockey, it is with the horse; the problem is not with the message, it is with the product you are attempting to sell.

I saw this in the contribution that was made by the member for one of my neighbouring electorates, Gilmore, in this debate. The member for Gilmore said this is a good bill; it has her 100 per cent support. 'I am 100 per cent supporting this legislation.' After observing that she represents a relatively poor electorate compared to many of those members who sit in this place, that she represents an electorate with people from a low SES background, she went on to make some extraordinary claims in her contribution. This included that it is going to be easier for those people from a low SES background—in fact, it is going to encourage them—to attend university if you jack the fees up. I know they do not like price signals on that side of the House, but if it is true for Medicare, then it must also be true for higher education. If you jack up the price of a good or service, then people are going to sit back and say: 'Should I use that? Should I purchase that? Can I afford that?' That is exactly what is going to happen with these outrageous increases to university fees and it is why the member for Gilmore should reconsider her position.

If the member for Gilmore is to truly represent the needs and aspirations of the people in her electorate, in which the University of Wollongong has a campus, then she should be opposing this legislation. She should not be cheerleading for this legislation. She should be standing here and she should be standing in her party room and saying: 'This is not the way to go. It's going to hurt people in my electorate—in fact, it's going to hurt our government—and instead of talking about tossing out the Prime Minister, we should be talking about the policy problems at the heart of this government.' But instead of this, we see the member for Gilmore not only in lockstep with the Prime Minister but also in lockstep with his policies, and that is very unfortunate indeed.

I see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, the member for Gippsland, is in the chamber, and that is very good. I know he is a decent fellow. He is a member representing regional Australia and a member of the National Party. There are some coalition members who do not share the member for Sturt's vision of sandstone universities, crammed full of strapping lads in blazers and boater hats, on their way to the dormitory or rowing lessons and sipping their Pimms and lemonade. I know there are some members who do not share that vision, who see that there are universities that do not fit that mould and there are students at universities who do not fit that stereotype. I suspect the member for Gippsland may be such a member. In fact, the National Party, in its policy, said:

… regional universities and regional campuses of city universities play a valuable part—


The Nationals advocate policy solutions to assist students from regional areas in achieving their full potential …

I ask the member for Gippsland, and I ask all the Nationals MPs: how is it going to assist regional universities, how is it going to assist the students that you claim to represent, get to those universities and get on with their lives and get a higher education if you are jacking up the fees, thus making it less likely they return to those rural areas, where wages are generally lower, when they are going to be saddled with these astronomical debts? I call on them, and the member for Gilmore, to do the right thing and reject this legislation.