MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE;Higher Education – 04 Mar 2015

 I too rise today to speak on the MPI on the Abbott Government’s plan for $100,000 degrees and a new student tax. I do this because I am extremely concerned about this government’s plan to make higher education the exclusive reserve of the children of the most well off in our society. They want to make it harder for young Australians to aspire to a high-quality education. And, as much respect as I have for Senator McKenzie, I have to say I think her contribution today was one of the most bizarre I have heard in this place in the seven years I have been here. It was all over the show. I have to say I do not think she did her side much good.

In contrast to what the Abbott government is up to, Labor of course has a proud record of investing in higher education. During our last period in government Labor lifted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We boosted the student population of Australia’s universities to 750,000, putting another 190,000 students on campuses. I have spoken about education in this place quite a few times previously. I have talked about the transformative power of education and how it can help lift people out of poverty, but I will say this again: education is one of the most important investments we can make to improve the lives of individuals and to improve society in general. I find it incredible that this education minister and his Liberal government area doing everything they can to make higher education unaffordable. They are doing everything they can to scare young people from low-income backgrounds away from university education by putting a mountain of debt in their way.

According to media reports yesterday, on top of their plans for $100,000 degrees Mr Pyne wants to slug an additional tax on universities, which will be passed straight on to students. Mr Pyne has spent the last 12 months saying, despite all common sense, that price gouging will not happen under his plan for $100,000 degrees. Now he is preparing a secret tax plan to stop something he said would never happen as an attempt to please some crossbench senators. I would just like to say to the crossbench senators that are considering this proposal: this tax will not end up being paid by the universities. They will pass this tax straight on to the students. I ask them to consider this very seriously. They might have been misled into thinking this measure will stop price gouging, but it will have the opposite effect. There would be no incentive for universities to limit fee rises under this proposal. In fact, the tax would fuel faster increases than would otherwise have been the case.

And this tax is not a small impost; it is huge. I would like to quote Andrew Norton, Higher Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute, who said about the latest proposal:

Using the tax rates in Chapman’s submission, and a fee of $30,000 for a law student, we estimate a tax of more than $11,000—

an additional $11,000 a year on top of a course fee that would already rise to $30,000 under the government’s higher education reforms. How can we expect students from low-economic areas to commit to such a debt?

To add insult to injury—and this is the real clincher for me—this tax is not even a new idea. It has been recycled. A similar project was rejected—and those on that side need to listen very carefully to this—by the Conservative government in the United Kingdom in 2010 for fear it would simply drive up fees and put more strain on the government’s loan scheme. Anton Howes from the Adam Smith Institute, a UK policy think tank supporting free market ideas, wrote:

The unintended consequence of this risk-free environment for students and universities, coupled with a levy on increased fees would therefore be to drive fees higher, placing further strain on the government’s ability to provide loans up-front, and perhaps prompting future government interference to mitigate this effect.

I would also like to quote the Hon. David Willetts, the UK Minister of State for Universities and Science and Conservative MP for Havant, who said in 2010:

As soon as universities raise their fees above the threshold they face a rapidly rising levy which can drive up their fees even higher in order to reach a given level of income.

When the UK Conservatives ditch an idea because it will be bad for students, that is when we know it is going to be terrible for Australian students.

The Australian government should look to the world and implement the best ideas we find, not the worst and certainly not recycled ideas that have been rejected by the Conservative colleagues of those on the other side. Australia has a wonderful higher education system thanks to reforms firstly by the Whitlam government and then by subsequent Labor governments. We have many universities in the top 100 worldwide, and the strength of our universities stems from the premise that everyone, no matter what their background, should have the opportunity to go to university. This government’s desire, for purely ideological reasons, to transform the Australian university sector into an American one is wrong and it will be disastrous for Australian students—and, I might say, for Australian society in general.

Australians are rightly proud of the university sector. Parents are proud that their children—often the first ones in their extended family—have the opportunity to go to university. Parents are proud that their children can gain tertiary skills they did not have the opportunity to attain. But these parents did not vote for these $100,000 degrees. They did not vote for this new tax on undergraduate degrees. The government never said before the election, ‘We will make it more expensive your kids to go to university.’ They did not say, ‘We want to price students from low-income families out of higher education.’ But that is what they are doing. The Australian people have been completely deceived by this government. Australian students and Australian parents are extremely angry about these harsh, thoughtless changes that they were not warned about. And unfortunately the ramifications of these policies are already being felt across the university sector. We have already seen enrolments down in some regions because students have been discouraged by the government’s talk of increasing the cost of going to university. This is extremely unfortunate.

When the time comes to vote on university deregulation and this new, secret tax, I urge the crossbench senators to oppose it. Higher education is way too important to the future of our nation to be sacrificed. (Time expired)