Interview 2CC Canberra


SUBJECT/S: Abbott Government’s unfair changes to higher education; submission by University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor; Christopher Pyne’s Ernie award; AFL Grand Final.

CHRIS McLENAGHAN: There’s been plenty of talk about the education reforms or some people would say education destruction that’s going on, depending on your point of view, regarding the education changes being pushed through or attempted to be pushed through the Parliament by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, and of course this is resulting in what will be massive increases in the cost of university degrees, no matter what you’re studying.

Now, the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker has sounded a warning. He’s been a pretty strident critic of these proposals. He’s warning that an average female undergraduate who wants to be a teacher in Australia could quickly find herself graduating with debts of $50,000 or more as a result of their studies. Professor Parker has written a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment in which he tones down his rhetoric in the interests of presenting a short and stark warning of the damage these reforms could do to Australia.

He says, “in this submission, which I deliberately keep short and less colourful, I seek to emphasise the damage these measures will do to future graduates and indirectly our society, the unfairness to existing debtors of having the basis of their repayments changed after graduating, the inequitable nature of the proposals as between advantaged and disadvantaged people, and the distorting impact that the reforms will have on some key professions like teaching”. Someone who has got plenty of skin in this is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, and he’s from Victoria, Senator Kim Carr and joins us on the line. Senator Carr, good afternoon.


McLENAGHAN: Thank you for taking the chance, I know you’ve got a flight to catch shortly. Looking at these changes, and I was thinking when I was reading these stories and preparing the program this afternoon, Senator, as someone born in ’59, left school in ’76 and finished his tertiary education in the mid-1980s, it was free education for me, I was done pre-HECS. These kids were paying HECS and now it looks like many of them will be priced out of higher education.

CARR: And that’s my real concern as well. I, like you, enjoyed the benefits of the reforms under the Whitlam government and as we came to understand the need to have more money in higher education and the need to broaden out the numbers of people going to university, the HECS scheme was introduced and that was a tremendous success. We understood that there had to be a relationship between people’s private benefit and the public benefit. Now at the moment, that’s about 40 per cent from private, and 60 per cent from public investment. I think, given the circumstances, that’s about right. When the HECS scheme was actually introduced it was 20/80 – 20 per cent private, 80 per cent public.

It has shifted; the point being, though, that the government’s proposals to take it to even higher levels of private contribution will seriously disadvantage people who come from poorer backgrounds. It will seriously undermine the equity principles of Australian higher education. And a lot of folks in this country have this belief, and I think rightly, that if you work hard, you’ve got the brains, you’ve got the determination, you should be able to get a quality education which opens the door to so much in life as a whole. I’m really worried that these proposals that the Government is trying to force upon the Australian Parliament will undermine that basic principle of a fair go which Australians have come to accept and appreciate, that distinguishes this country from America and many other places.  

McLENAGHAN: Certainly does. Now we’re speaking to Senator Carr, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, regarding a submission made by the University Vice-Chancellor, or Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Parker from the ANU, about his concerns of increasing costs being proposed by Education Minister Christopher Pyne with his education changes. It’s interesting , we talk about the Whitlam years – Whitlam is often accused of crash through or crash with the Senate, and with trying to spend too much money too quickly, as indeed was the government of which you were part for six years.

Yet these changes seem to have been proposed by Christopher Pyne so quickly and they didn’t seem to be much thought through, and I raise this point with you, Senator: if you’re going to take away the ability of poorer people and people from lower income situations to be able to move through tertiary education and miss the chance for those studies and career opportunities, there did not seem to be much attempt, for example, to approach the private sector – traditionally business supporters of the Coalition – with an increased or enhanced number of scholarships, for example.

CARR: Well, the problem here is that the Government said during the election campaign there’d be no cuts to education. They also said there’d be no changes in the fee arrangements. And so what we’ve got is a complete breach of faith with the Australian people. Now the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra is making the point here is that these are things that should be done through proper discussion and debate, and when Dawkins introduced many of the changes that led to the HECS scheme being introduced, there was a green paper, there was a white paper, there was lengthy consultation, it was then put to the Parliament. It wasn’t like this government has done – by breaching election promises, dropping it as a Budget announcement and then saying, well, you’ve got to take it or leave it.

Now, I’m of the view that this is a package that should be rejected and I’ll be calling on the Australian Senate to say no to this. The Government should go back to the drawing board on this. This, in fact, should be a matter for the next election – it’s so important to the future of Australia that the public has to have a big say in the direction that this country goes in and something like this should be a central part of the next election.  

McLENAGHAN: Indeed, and, Senator, I just want to correct something I said earlier, Stephen Parker is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, my apologies for that error. But, when you look at this situation, and I suppose I’ll probably be accused of Pyne-bashing here, but I noticed there was a separate note today regarding those Ernie awards, you’ve probably heard of?

CARR: Yes.

McLENAGHAN: Well, there was an Ernie award – apparently Christopher Pyne got the silver Ernie for this quote in the debates about  education, I’m not sure if this was in the Parliament or elsewhere, but he’s purported to have said sometime in the last couple of months: “Women are well represented amongst the teaching and nursing students, they’ll not be able to earn the high incomes that dentists and lawyers will earn.”

CARR: Well, this is really –  

McLENAGHAN: Did he really say that?

CARR: Yes, he says lots of stupid things. The point is he is missing the central part of this and that is the right of Australians to get a decent education and to actually share in the benefits that this society has to produce. What he’s managed to do is offend people that are from well-off backgrounds, from middle-class backgrounds, who are concerned that they’ll simply be priced out of the education provision and also working people that aspire to pass on to their kids a better opportunity than they had. So right across the board in this country, there’s intense public opposition to what is being proposed by the Government, and that’s why I say this is something so critical that ought to be an election issue and I trust that’s exactly what will happen in an election, which of course will have to be within two years now. So it’s not long to wait.

The Government has proposed a number of Budget cuts. The Parliament has said no to those Budget cuts. These are measures that the Government can’t impose upon the universities unless it changes the legislation – it hasn’t been able to do that. So the claim that some universities are making – and I make the point here that Stephen Parker is clearly not in this camp – but those vice-chancellors who are saying that they have the choice between deregulation or Budget cuts are simply wrong, they’re simply wrong. You don’t have to do it in this way, and in fact the vice-chancellors are walking away from their obligations to defend public education and public investment in education. They ought to be demanding that the political system respond to genuine public need and fund the university system properly.

McLENAGHAN: And the question you’re talking about politics and whether or not there’ll be an early election, who knows? The other issue is, I suppose, we’ve seen it happen again this week, the fellow that I’ve probably disrespectfully called Uncle Clive, the Palmer United Party senators – do you think there’ll be another deal?

CARR: All I can say to you is that all the indications are that they are going to reject these measures, all of them, both public and private. I don’t know where this will go. All I can do is  put Labor’s view, and through the Senate inquiry put the evidence forward that this is a measure that should be rejected by the Australian Parliament. The public has an obligation here too, to be able to put to their senators what they think about the situation, and I’m absolutely certain that all senators who are genuinely engaged with the Australian electorate will know the public does not want to see these measures introduced.     

McLENAGHAN: Well, it’s going to be an interesting time, Senator, now you’re shortly going back to Melbourne which of course the eyes of Australia and much of the world will be on Melbourne this weekend with the AFL Grand Final, I understand that like my team, Carlton, your team the Western Bulldogs won’t be featuring this weekend, but do you have a tip for us?

CARR: Well, they’ve been rebuilding since 1954, so –

McLENAGHAN: When’s Carlton starting to catch up? For us was it the mid-‘90s?

CARR: A few of my friends who work in Canberra are telling me that the Sydney Swans are the favourites this year, I think you can’t really go past that can you?

McLENAGHAN: No, probably not. Senator Carr, thank you for your time this morning – have a good flight home, and I’m sure we’ll speak again.  

CARR: Thank you very much.


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