Second Reading Speech on the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (18:12): This is a debate that concerns millions of Australian students in higher education today. It is about the 1.2 million Australians with outstanding HECS debts. It is about the millions currently in school or in the workforce who are hoping to study at university. Australians know how important this debate is to their future and their nation's future. Australians understand that this bill will take away the foundation stones of a fair go. Australians believe that access to higher education should not be based on the circumstances of their birth or where they live but, rather, on the clear principle of merit.

Australians do not want to be facing the prospect of taking out a second mortgage to help pay the cost of their child's education and find the idea that they must choose which child gets to go to university an idea that rightly belongs to the Menzies era. It is to these Australians that Labor speaks when it opposes this bill. We stand against $100,000 degrees. We are against crippling debts. We are against the Americanisation and the privatisation of Australian higher education.

It may well be argued that there is nothing of greater value to our nation than our universities. It may well be argued that there is nothing more important to our economy, to our culture and to our society than knowledge and ideas. Universities are the custodians and the generators of knowledge. While there will be a lot of talk about fairness in relation to this bill—because this bill rips fairness out of our university system—it is important in this debate to consider the wider role of universities in the Commonwealth.

Too often, we talk about teaching and research only as a means to an end, but ignore the most challenging and rewarding role of academics—that of imagining things entirely new. Academic creativity is not embraced by the straighteners of our body politic, but it serves as an inspiration for the enlargers. The achievements of the academy go to the very existence of who we are—every bit as much as our sporting triumphs or our military history.

I think of eminent historians like Manning Clark, John Hirst and Iain McCalman, and the younger historians like Hannah Forsyth and James Boyce, who are reimagining the way we look at our country. I think of the writers who tell us stories, such as the Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, Hannah Kent, John Birmingham, Tim Winton, and Kate Grenville. I think of Professor Graham Clark, who put Australia on the map in medical science with his invention of the Cochlear implant, now used worldwide. I think of the Nobel laureates Brian Schmidt, Elizabeth Blackburn, Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, John Coetzee and Peter Doherty. All of these people and many more were nourished by our world-class public universities, whether it was as students, teachers or researchers, and in many cases all three. They pass on ideas and knowledge to future generations. They help us conceive who we have been, who we are and who we might be.

It is not just the towering intellects and the world-famous figures who make the achievements of our universities remarkable. Many who have made the transition to public life, including most people in this place, benefitted from a university education. More fundamentally, we thank our public universities for our teachers, our nurses, our engineers, our agricultural scientists, our doctors and our community workers—all the highly skilled professionals who keep this country's wheels in motion and contribute to its social, cultural and physical wealth. In short, our quality of life is vastly enriched by the quality and extent of the contributions made by our universities.

This is not the first time I have found it necessary to make these sorts of remarks in this place. The opposition finds it alarming that these things have to be said at all, but evidently they do have to be said. Not for the first time, we have had to ask why the conservative side of politics is hell-bent on destroying universities' capacities as custodians and as generators of ideas. In this country, since 1974, the university system has been a national enterprise. It has been largely funded by the Commonwealth. The policy directions are set by the Commonwealth. Foremost within this is the notion that access to undergraduate education should not be blocked by the cost of tuition. Equal access and equal participation have long been at the heart of Commonwealth policy. This is a bill that threatens to undermine this principle of the fair go in Australian education.

Its framers know that. Why else would they talk until they are blue in the face about the so-called equity measures and the need for scholarships, pathways and structural adjustment funds? We only need to introduce elaborate new scholarship schemes if the system itself is unfair. We need adjustment funds to try to adjust the inequalities that are inherent in these measures. These special arrangements are in themselves admissions of failure. It is an admission that incurable inequalities lie at the very heart of this package. Attacks on equity and merit, of course, are nothing new to the Liberal Party. Those opposite have form.

I can remember back in 1996 when they came in and unilaterally slashed university funding by five per cent. They hiked HECS fees and they lowered repayment thresholds, and they did this without warning. There was no mention of these matters in the previous election, and then they sought to bring about this very plan to cut spending, deregulate fees and offer faux scholarships. When the cabinet submission was leaked, even John Howard saw that under this proposal lay dragons and he backed off very quickly, but the current minister and the current Prime Minister do not have the sense to understand that fundamental fact of political life. There is a copy of the cabinet submission on my website for those who want to have a look and want to be reminded, either as students of history or scholars of the present predicament. Nothing changes when it comes to the Liberal Party's contempt for universities.

Let me speak plainly and honestly, because the other side will not. This policy is an uncontrolled experiment. We know one thing for sure: it will lead to very large fee increases. One-hundred-thousand-dollar degrees, which currently are relatively uncommon, will become much more common. That is why we have seen so many commentators call for a variety of price restraint mechanisms. The latest independent modelling, which the Labor Party released today, shows the dramatic impact of fees and debt all too clearly. It confirms, as many witnesses to the inquiry told us, that women will be particularly hard hit. Mature-age students will be particularly savagely hit. Students in rural and regional Australia will be most dramatically affected. The government has justified its radical reform by reference to inadequate government funding, but the crisis in funding is a direct result of the government's own decision to take 20 per cent of university funding away from students, hack into the research training scheme, cut funding to the Australian Research Council, cut reward funding, cut equity funding and cut indexation.

We have heard that the university vice-chancellors—if they have to deal with the various vicious cuts—want the ability to charge tuition fees at whatever level they think fit. The minister likes to claim that there is near unanimous support from university leaders. The reality we saw in inquiries and submissions in the hearing is very different. In submission after submission you read the reluctance, caution and hesitant declarations of those that are under duress. Whatever motivations or reservations there are of vice-chancellors, the fact remains: just as it is not the role of this Senate to rubberstamp the desires of the executive neither is it the role of this Senate automatically to give vice-chancellors whatever they want. Successful university-funding policy does not simply provide carte blanche for this nation's vice-chancellors to have unlimited access to funding from the pockets of Australian students and from Australian workers. It is not our role to give them 'the licence to print HELP debt', to quote Dr Sharrock of the LH Martin Institute. It has often been said that getting between a vice-chancellor and a pot of money is a dangerous business, but that is what Labor will do, because there is much more at stake here than the performance bonuses of university managers. Access, equity, workforce needs, research excellence, the capacity to innovate in the face of a rapidly changing world—these are the things that this Senate has to give consideration to in this debate.

The government says that it has the support for its package for the universities; it does not. It does not have any support for its regressive changes to HECS—none at all. There is no support for cutting the funding from research—none at all. There is no support for charging fees for PhD students—none at all. There is no support for the 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. There is a division around the issue of privatisation in higher education—particularly on this misleading, Orwellian concept of the Commonwealth scholarship scheme. Even Universities Australia, when pushed at the committee's hearings, said that it did not want to support this bill in its current form, 'far from it'. Its members, especially those outside the Group of Eight, are much more forthright in their many and varied criticisms. Is there any wonder?

This bill is rotten to the core. This is a bill that the Australian people did not vote for. This is a bill that offends the basic principles of equity. It offends the basic concept that, in this country, if you are bright and work hard, you have a right to expect a high-quality education that is not dependent on your having rich parents or on coming from a privileged background or on your postcode. None of those things are ever going to be accepted by the people of this country. This is a bill that the Australian people feel that they were lied to about. They were misled. Remember the last election: 'no cuts to education, no changes to the administrative arrangements' and the Prime Minister's visit down to Universities Australia's conference, where he talked about masterly inactivity. What a contrast! It was the most radical piece of social engineering we have seen in this country since the last time the Liberals tried it on. This is a bill that should be withdrawn.

The government should go back to the drawing board and should deal directly with the issues facing higher education. In doing so, it should actually consult with the stakeholders before announcing radical new policies. That is what John Dawkins did with the green and white paper approach. That is the proper approach. Earlier, I talked about the many luminaries who have studied, taught and done research in Australian universities. They are far from the only people who have benefited or hoped to benefit from an equitable higher education system. Ordinary Australians should benefit, such as Linley from Tasmania, who not only tells me she got a university education because of Gough Whitlam—she is now a grandmother—she says:

... my three grandchildren are preparing for years 10, 11 and 12. But the cost of sending them to UTAS will make it virtually impossible. The burden of repayments will mean they will not be able to afford their own home ...

And Graham, an Indigenous Australian who is studying at the University of Queensland and wants to do a PhD, says:

I would never have had the courage to start my degree if I knew it would cost me a six figure sum.

Trinh is an aspiring 15-year-old student from Western Sydney whose mother migrated from Vietnam and worked hard to give her children a better life. She said:

I want to grow up and become a nurse and be able to have an apartment where everything's stable. I want to be able to give my mum the things she deserves. But with this current government, I don't even know if I'll make it to university and I'm scared.

How can the Senate remain silent when confronted by these legitimate fears about this legislation? How can the Senate remain silent when it is confronted by the lies that this government told the Australian people prior to the election? How can we in all consciousness tick and flick a package that would cause such massive harm? There is a better way here.

The funding crisis within universities caused by the government can be fixed by the government with one stroke of a pen, by withdrawing the cuts. Labor has shown it can be done. In government, we increased investment in universities by nearly 100 per cent between 2007 to 2017 at the end of that forward estimates. Universities are right to demand that this parliament act. We must, of course, expect that action and we should expect that people will reject this unacceptable plan.

In urging the Senate to reject this bill, Labor is not suggesting that nothing needs to change. The Commonwealth needs to live up to its responsibilities and properly fund our universities—and to do so by working with them, not seeking to impose an ideological position upon them. We need a compact between the Commonwealth and our institutions to promote diversity, to foster excellence in research and scholarship and to maintain access on the basis of merit, not money. In the words of talented historian Hannah Forsyth:

Higher education … needs to keep looking for solutions to the problems that confront the
world's economies, environments, democracies and philosophies.

Dwelling in the ruins is no solution.

This bill is no solution. Its ideology is no solution. No sugar coating, no side deals, no nudges or winks will save it.

The Senate has a legitimate choice here, and that choice boils down to one option in reality. Either we can destroy the university system as we know it by introducing structural changes to the university system which will see them have to cope, as the Parliamentary Budget Office highlights, with funding cuts of $18 billion—irreversible changes in the structure of universities—or we can reject this bill: send it back. That is what we should do. That is what the Labor Party will be urging all senators here to do, and I have every hope that that is exactly what will happen.


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