FAIRFAX “BREAKING POLITICS”
TUESDAY, 26 AUGUST 2014
SUBJECT/S: University deregulation; threats to cut research funding; attempted blackmail of the Senate; legislative requirements; Abbott Government’s deceit.
CHRIS HAMMER: One of the Government’s budget measures that is being held up in the Senate is its plans to deregulate higher education, the university sector. Joining us now is Labor’s Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Senator Kim Carr. Good morning.
SENATOR KIM CARR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HIGHER EDUCATION: Good morning.
HAMMER: Christopher Pyne is saying if the Senate continues to block these changes, he will simply get the money back by cutting research funding. What do you make of this threat?
CARR: Well, blackmail and extortion don’t work with the Senate. My experience in this building suggests to me that that type of behaviour is counterproductive. I remind you that these bills have not even been introduced. They’re not due, he says, to arrive in the House of Representatives until Thursday night, we’ll see what happens on that front. But we’ve been told that these bills will arrive, on various dates.
Now, I think the Minister is getting way ahead of himself to make these types of threats, particularly given that the Minister said that his reason for these changes was to encourage Australian universities to become more internationally recognised. And that, of course, depends on their research effort. So it’s counterproductive at a policy level as well as a political level. There is an immorality at the heart of this Government’s package and that’s why we will be saying no to it. A fundamental immorality about denying Australians the opportunity to get a decent education, if they work hard and have got the brains to do it, and of course now we have a government trying to deny people that basic right.
HAMMER: Now this threat of the Minister, it seems to be based on the assumption that he can simply cut funding to research because he could do it through an appropriation bill. And Labor and the Greens will not block appropriation bills. Is his assumption correct?
CARR: No. First of all –
HAMMER: So you would block the appropriation bill?
CARR: There’s a number of points, let me finish, a number of points he makes that are incorrect. Firstly, a great deal of the research program is actually covered by legislation. He would require amendments to legislation. Secondly, if he wishes to move an appropriation bill and try to subvert another legislative instrument, it can still be amended. We have not said that we won’t amend it. It could be reduced, for instance, if he wants to say, well, the amount of money spent for the Australian Research council will be reduced to $1, sorry, be reduced by a set amount, we could simply say put a $1 figure in, amended, and change the arrangement in such a way as to render the Minister’s effort to subvert legislation totally inoperable.
HAMMER: So this is an empty threat?
CARR: A completely empty threat, counterproductive. It demonstrates the Government’s failure to be able to deal with the program, the legislative program, you’ve got a Senate leadership here that is a laughing stock of the nation. You’ve got an incapacity of this government to think through the implications of what they are saying. A government that lied to the Australian people prior to the election, said there’d be no cuts to education, and is now quite explicitly acknowledging – having denied that there were cuts – that there are cuts to the education program and undermining the capacity of our universities to perform at internationally competitive levels.
HAMMER: Now, you’re opposing these changes but the universities themselves, they say they don’t like the cuts to block funding, they don’t support the changes to the HECS system and student loans, but they do support deregulation of universities. If that could be split off, what would Labor’s position be simply on deregulation – in other words, allowing universities to charge fees?
CARR: We’ll be opposing this whole package. No matter how they cut and dice it, no matter what attempts are made to tinker at the edges of this program, we do not think it’s appropriate, we don’t think it’s morally right, for universities to charge whatever fees they like, because it will deny access, for most Australian families, to the opportunity to get a decent education.
Not all universities do support even that measure of deregulation. It’s simply not true to say that the universities as a bloc will support that – there are some areas that are more supportive of it – but frankly the proposal to deregulate fees is one that’s been around for quite a while. The Group of Eight have pursued it; they pursued it while the Labor government was in existence, and we at the time said, no, it’s just not fair. And now they’re attempting to regurgitate that proposition.
Regional universities would be profoundly disadvantaged by such a proposal, and mature-age students, women and a whole range of people from poorer backgrounds would simply not be able to afford the increased costs of getting a university degree.
HAMMER: Now, Christopher Pyne is saying at the moment that the Government picks up something like 60 per cent of a student’s costs, the student pays about 40 per cent; they want to move the figure to something more like 50/50. Has he got his numbers right there?
CARR: Well, it’s basically correct. When the HECS scheme was introduced, the student contribution was about 20 per cent; under Howard they lifted it to 40 per cent. This is part of the problem – once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot put the genie back in the bottle. So the Government’s attempts now to shift the cost of education to families and to individuals would undermine the integrity of the scheme as we’ve come to know it.
HAMMER: But what’s the big difference between 60/40 and 50/50?
CARR: For a lot of people about a $100,000 degree. It’s a very substantial amount. It’s a debt sentence for many hundreds of thousands of Australians. It would mean a much higher cost to go to university, much higher costs in repayments and much longer periods for repayments. This is at a time when young people are trying to form a family, when they are having to make big choices, when banks are being asked to provide support to build a house, to buy a house, to provide the wherewithal to build a family. These are the conflicts that come into play, and if students are faced with massive debts, then they will limit their lifetime opportunities. On top of that, for mature-age students the opportunities will be limited – it will mean, for instance, that for some people it might be 25 years before you repay the debt. So there are profound implications in terms of the economic opportunities for people.
Now, we all understand the value of higher education, surely that’s acknowledged across the country. People who don’t have a higher education don’t begrudge people who do; in fact, every parent I have spoken to has said, I want my children to do better than I did. Every parent I’ve spoken to has said, I want to be able to help my kids. This is a government that’s trying to deny people that opportunity.
HAMMER: In the federal budget, the Treasurer Joe Hockey said Australia should have a university ranked in the top 20 in the world.
HAMMER: Do you share that aspiration? How could Australia get there if you’re blocking both the GP co-payment and these higher education reforms?
CARR: Well, hang on, let me be clear about this, how do you think that rating is measured? It’s by research. This is a government that now threatens the research program, this is a government –
HAMMER: He is promising to massively increase research.
CARR: No, he’s not, I’m sorry, no, he’s not. He’s saying you’ve got to buy a tax on your doctors, that’s what he’s saying and then in turn, we will provide you, down the sweet by and by, maybe with a research fund, but of course it’s dependent upon the Senate agreeing – this Faustian pact to undermine bulk-billing and undermine our support for primary healthcare. You see this is a government that is not just mean and tricky, it’s outright deceitful.
HAMMER: Do you support that goal, though, the overarching goal of having a university in the top 20 and how would Labor get there?
CARR: That’s a slogan – I support excellence in higher education. I support having a university system that is world renowned, having a university degree that actually means something wherever you go in the world. But it’s an opportunity that’s got to be available right though the education system, not just for one or two institutions. We’ve got to look at lifting the performance of our universities across the board.
The Government’s proposals depend upon there being a serious contribution to the research program, that the real cost of research is actually funded. This is a government that is asking students to subsidise the research program. By cutting 20 per cent per course on average, the Government’s then asking students to increase the fees to fund the research program, and now it threatens to cut the research program. This is the level of deceit, this is the level of dishonesty, that this government continues to perpetrate.
Now the Minister for Higher Education was asked five times on Sunday, on one of their favourite TV shows, Mr Bolt’s show, and they refused to rule out cutting the research program. Today the Prime Minister was asked the same question, refused to rule out cutting the research program. This was while he was at a medical research centre claiming, or spruiking, the Government’s claim that it wants to increase research. The dishonesty, the deception, the deviousness of this government seems to know no limit.
HAMMER: OK, Senator Kim Carr, thanks for your time this morning.
CARR: Thank you.