Speech - Adjournment (Higher Education)









Australia has one of the most egalitarian and socially mobile societies in the world and we would not be where we are today, ranked second on the United Nations Human Development Index, if it were not for the hard work that has been put in over the years to build the institutions and the norms which allow the people of Australia to reach their full potential. This, of course, does include constructing a higher education system which allows all Australians, regardless of their background or wealth, the opportunity to attend university. We are now told by the government that we should junk our current model in favour of an American education model and also health model across the board. This government loves American models and they want one here which would replicate the sorts of outcomes we have seen in the United States—a society where over the past 30 years social mobility has gone backwards and where the middle class has been hollowed out because opportunities through higher education have been fewer and fewer for the millions of people in their system.

I remember our higher education system when it was first introduced in 1974. I was at the University of Queensland and I remember how the feeling on campus changed. I remember how we opened up our higher education system and there was new life in our institutions, which had for too long been dominated by the wealthy elites of our society. I remember how, for the first time, a university education was no longer a dream for ordinary Australians—it would and did become a reality. The changes to higher education in 1974 and again in 1989 changed the cultural mindset of our society, and we reaped the benefits through higher university participation and through that higher economic growth as our society and education systems matured.

Now the Abbott government is attempting to tear down this higher education model and, as I said before, take us down the American road. The Abbott government is attempting to return Australia to the 1960s, when a university education was only there for those who were wealthy, particularly from the North Shore of Sydney. Before the election, Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne promised that there would be no changes to higher education. They said that there were no plans to increase fees and, of course, in the same interview where Mr Abbott promised no cuts to the ABC and SBS, he promised there would be no cuts to education. On Insidersone week before the election, he gave us an absolute assurance there would be no cuts to education. That is not what occurred. It was an absolute assurance and today we stand here with the higher education system $5.8 billion worse off.

The government has also announced plans to slash funding for student places by up to 37 per cent. This means that universities will be forced to increase their fees by as much as 60 per cent for some degrees just to cover the funding cut. They also plan to cut $1.1 billion of funding for Commonwealth supported places and to remove caps on undergraduate fees, thereby allowing universities to charge whatever they like. This will result in many vital degrees like nursing and teaching more than doubling in cost, saddling students with enormous debts that are disproportionate to what they would earn in the years ahead and making it almost impossible for them to pay back these debts and making those occupations very unattractive.

This is a radical and regressive agenda. Essentially what it boils down to is $100,000 university degrees, which will make students think twice about pursuing a university education, and this will particularly be the case for those from lower-income backgrounds, those who may earn intermittent income—particularly women who might want to take time off to have a child—and so on. It is an incredibly regressive agenda, which will discourage participation, which, after all, lies at the very core of what we must do in our society if we wish to grow and prosper economically.

As Joe Stiglitz pointed out when he was in Australia recently, the United States' system is one in which student debt is now in excess of $1.2 trillion. It is a system which has failed that country and is producing regressive outcomes. So the fight is on. There are those who will stand for a fair Australia, where there is a high degree of social mobility which flows from universal access to quality health and education, and a decent industrial safety net. The battle is still ongoing and it is happening here on the floor of the parliament every day. The Labor Party are going to stand for fairness in our system and we are going to ensure that one more barnacle is scraped off that rotten hull of the Abbott government—that is, the Hockey barnacle—and these university charges with it.