ABC Newcastle, Breakfast with Aaron Kearney


SUBJECT/S: Labor’s “A Degree Shouldn’t Be a Debt Sentence” campaign; impact of cuts on University of Newcastle; a federal ICAC.

AARON KEARNEY: Depending on who you believe, the Government’s plan to deregulate universities fees will either make higher education cheaper – 

[Christopher Pyne audio]

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, mounting the argument that deregulation equals lower university fees. Perhaps the effects of deregulation are not, or cannot, yet be known – 

[Professor Caroline McMillen audio

Professor Caroline McMillen, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, speaking to me in May this year in the wake of the federal budget announcements.

Well, perhaps the changes, the deregulation, mean a brutal debt schedule that will haunt students for much of their life – that is the argument being made by the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Kim Carr, who is in the Hunter today as part of Labor’s “A Degree Shouldn’t Be a Debt Sentence” campaign. He joins us now. Good morning, welcome.


KEARNEY: What’s wrong with Christopher Pyne’s argument? Competition equals lower prices, doesn’t it?

CARR: I’m afraid that Christopher doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He was very lazy in opposition; he’s relied now in government on a very old cabinet submission from 1999 under Dr Kemp and we saw that when it was leaked it was dropped pretty quickly when people understood what it meant. Now this is a government that went to the election and promised there would be no cuts to university funding and promised there would be no fee increases. Yet at the University of Newcastle, they’re now facing a cut in funding of $168 million, and this is an amount of money that they’ll have to make up at that university just to stand still.

The Government then says, well, we want you to charge more money from students, to take more money from students, so that you can fund your research program. We know that the research program is the foundation stone upon which the university’s reputation rests. The University of Newcastle is a very, very good university. It has a very good research program. It’s also a good university because it serves the needs of its local community, and this is a community that has very high numbers of people from low incomes and it is a community which the university is serving by having, amongst the nation’s universities, one of the highest levels of support for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. So these are people that simply can’t afford the increases in fees that the Government wants to charge, and the university needs to charge under the Government’s policy, if it simply wants to stand still.

Where is this $168 million going to come from, is the question I ask. And why is it that working families, middle-class families, should be asked to pay the extra money which would take them 20 to 25 years to repay simply to get a university degree?

KEARNEY: That’s the philosophical argument – I realise there’s practical implications, but that is the philosophical argument.

CARR: It’s the moral argument.

KEARNEY: Quite, and I also note that Clive Palmer, who has some considerable control in the Senate right now, has said that he won’t support university deregulation. He has made that statement in the last 24 hours. Nonetheless, let’s assume for a moment that deregulation goes ahead, is Newcastle University not ideally placed to take advantage of that with lower overheads, a regional campus, and surely those Ivy League sandstones, Sydney and Melbourne universities, are the ones that are going to hurt?

CARR: No, on the contrary – because Newcastle actually has higher overheads. It has students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, it has higher numbers of Indigenous students, it has higher numbers of women students – these are people that are least likely to be able to pay the extra money. It has a very good research program, but they are very expensive and you need good research programs to maintain the university’s reputation. So the university has been growing in status and standing while maintaining a social equity program, and that’s why I think it’s a very, very good university. But it can’t be asked to meet these extra costs, without having to fund, well effectively, it means that there will have to be reductions in the offerings the university is able to provide, simply to stand still.  They’ve asked the university to do that and expect people not to be very, very unhappy.

KEARNEY: Senator Carr, understanding Clive Palmer’s now publicly stated position and with this own campaign that you are leading being launched yesterday, how confident are you that deregulation can be headed off or rolled back?

CARR: The Labor Party believes that this is wrong. This is just wrong in terms of what this country needs right now – we need to be able to fund our universities properly and we need to be able particularly to fund our research programs properly to sustain the high-skill, high-wage jobs of the future. So Labor is saying, this is not a proposition we can vote for and we’re calling on all the other senators to agree with us, to actually join us in opposing these changes.

The Government should go back to the starting blocks on this. It should not try to find some sort of tinkering at the edges compromise; it should actually stop what they’re doing, and do what they said they would do during the election campaign, which of course was to not cut the funding and not increase the fees for students.

KEARNEY: Senator, on a completely unrelated matter, I know you were waiting on line listening to the report from yesterday’s ICAC. There is a strong push outside of New South Wales for the introduction of a federal ICAC. Can you see some value in a similar system being instituted for federal practices?

CARR: Well, I just don’t see the evidence of corruption that has been demonstrated in New South Wales operating at the national level. I firmly believe that there has to be integrity in the way in which governments make decisions. There are clearly breaches of the law here in this state and it’s the state parliament that seems to be riddled with those concerns. I want to ensure that nationally we’re able to maintain the reputation for running clean government, which I think is essentially the situation at the moment. Incidents of malpractice of this type are very rare nationally, so the question arises what is the most effective way?

Now I think the parliamentary system is the most effective way. The Senate is a bulwark against corruption, and it’s very, very important that the Senate committee system is able to scrutinise government and to hold governments to account, and that’s why obviously the work that we do in the Senate is so important to protect the integrity of government decision-making.

KEARNEY: Welcome to the Hunter, Senator. We appreciate you being with us this morning. The Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Senator Kim Carr.


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