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February 10, 2015

Mr CHESTER  (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (17:43): I rise to again lend my support for the Higher Education and Research Reform Bill 2014. It is sad to see the Australian Labor Party reduced to this. It is not the way to go about reform the previous speaker said, and then he offered absolutely nothing in alternative plans or visions for the education sector. What we have seen from the Labor Party over the past 16 or 17 months is one long whinge session. Unfortunately, the modern Labor Party seems to have perfected the complaints department, but it does not have an ideas department. It is disappointing. It is disappointing for the people who actually voted for Labor members that they have actually given up on being constructive participants in the democratic processes in this parliament. As the member for Throsby leaves the chamber, I encourage him to get on board with the government’s attempts to reform the higher education sector and to come up with some constructive suggestions just as other senators have in the other place.

As a regional MP, I think it is important to speak on this bill again because a lot has happened in the months since I last spoke in September last year. Obviously as this bill stands, it is destined to pass the lower house. I would like to congratulate the Minister for Education for the mountain of work he has done in developing and refining this bill and I would like to pay special mention to the minister and his staff for being prepared to listen and negotiate with members from the crossbench in the other place. For reasons which I will go into in a little more detail later on, I believe this bill should pass through the Senate. I will be urging those crossbench senators to consider their position on this higher education reform. 

It is good to see that the majority of the crossbench senators have actually been acting in very good faith in assessing these reforms and taking the time to negotiate with minister. I pay special mention to Senators Day, Xenophon, Madigan, Leyonhjelm and my Gippsland senator Senator Ricky Muir for being prepared to at least listen to the government’s case in relation to this which is in stark contrast to the Labor Party’s position in this debate. At least the senators were prepared to provide some feedback on the original reforms that passed through the lower house. That feedback has been acted on largely by the Minister for Education and included in this latest package of reforms. 

Feedback has also been via the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee. It was chaired by my good friend and Nationals colleague Senator Bridget McKenzie. I congratulate Senator McKenzie for the work she has been doing not only on higher education reform but also on the broader issue of access to universities for regional students. The committee that was chaired by Senator McKenzie sought input from the vice-chancellors of all the Australian universities, who articulated very well what is at stake here. The bottom line is deregulation is the only option and in fact it is the only plan that is on the table. 

The Labor Party seem to have vacated the field in relation to higher education reform. The support for the government and its work in this regard has come from across the sector. I will not go through every single quote of support but support has come from Universities Australia, Regional Universities Network, Australian Technology Network, Innovative Research Universities, Group of Eight, TAFE Directors Australia, Australian Council for Private Education and Teaching and Council of Private Higher Education. They all support the higher education reforms with amendments as proposed by the minister. There is broad community support and broad sector support for the reforms proposed by this government. 

It is regrettable that governments in any circumstance have to make savings through budgetary pressures. I know those opposite would understand that because when they were in government they actually cut $6.6 billion from higher education. So it seems odd that they are not prepared to be part of the debate about how we make sure that the university sector is sustainable in the longer term. The vice-chancellors have told us that deregulation is a sensible development from the early reform process that the previous government undertook. In fact, it is regarded as one of the most significant reforms since the Dawkins review itself. 

I challenge the Labor Party, as I did the previous speaker, to outline their alternate plan. What is their alternate vision? Surely the Labor Party are not going to be in here all day, as we have seen in the last couple of hours, and just whinge and complain, and suggest that there is no need for any reform whatsoever in the university sector. Surely, that is not the Labor Party’s position. Are they seriously saying that there is no reform required? If that is their position, that is fine. They can say that the university sector can stagnate into the future. Surely, if they recognise that reform is required, they should be prepared to get on board and do the responsible thing and suggest possible alternative policy positions that the minister could take on board. I fear it is going to be left to the crossbench senators to negotiate this important reform through the Senate. 

There is an alternative. The Labor Party could come to their senses and offer some bipartisan support. I am not sure why they have chosen this path of relentless negativity. Surely, the Labor Party could at least consider some bipartisan support. There are actually a few things we agreed on in this place when it comes to higher education. We all want better access to high quality tertiary institutions. I am sure that those opposite agree that we all want a sustainable HECS system. We all want our universities to provide world-class courses and training. We all want more young people from the country to go to university. We all want young people who cannot get the ATAR score they need to still have the opportunity through different pathways to go on to tertiary studies through the expansion of the number of Commonwealth supported places that are available. 

Members opposite would also agree we all believe we should have a sustainable HECS system so tertiary education remains affordable with no upfront costs and where you only pay it back when you earn a decent wage. I think members opposite would also agree with me that we all believe that people who desire a tertiary education should have to pay a significant proportion of the course they benefit from. One other area where I think regional members would agree with me is that we want those young people who are the first in their family to go to university to be given that chance to achieve their full potential. 

The coalition have a plan on the table to achieve these things. I commend the minister for the work he has done in this regard. I do not understand why the opposition, with no alternative plan on the table, choose to simply obstruct the government in its efforts to make the higher education sector more sustainable in the longer term. I think it speaks volumes that the Minister for Education has been so willing to listen to universities and students on this particular issue. 

Some significant changes have been made to the original bill that was before the House last year. Some of the changes the government have been willing to make include withdrawing the proposed Treasury bond rate and retaining the CPI indexation for HECS debt; providing the indexation pause for new parents; providing a structural adjustment fund to help universities adjust to the changes, in particular for our regional universities; introducing an additional scholarship fund for universities with high proportions of disadvantaged students; and guaranteeing domestic fees are lower than what international students are charged. That is an indication that the minister has been prepared to listen and to negotiate with senators in the other place. I implore and encourage the Labor Party to consider being part of the solution rather than just being involved in this 18-month long whinge session, and not providing any constructive alternative policies or alternative plans for the Australian people. 

Access to university education is something that I have been passionate about since I was first elected in 2008. In fact, in my inaugural speech I mentioned that one of the biggest barriers for country youth is the cost of moving from home to another town or capital city to go to university. It is not just about the cost of the course fees. That is why I have been so passionate over these past six years in advocating for a proper system of student income support, or a tertiary access allowance, in addition to the existing youth allowance scheme. 

I have heard other members speak in relation to this. The member for Forrest spoke extensively on the challenges facing regional students. Throughout the course of this government I am very keen to work on that with members from regional electorates so that we can achieve. 

Access to university is a critical issue for Aboriginal students, and their families are at a huge cost disadvantage right now—not in relation to the course fees, but in relation to the costs of living away from home. I think we can do a lot better and a lot more in that regard in the months and the years ahead. It is an important point when we look at the bigger picture of the higher education reforms, because earlier this month my parliamentary colleague the Deputy Prime Minister—the member for Wide Bay—and my fellow Nationals colleagues— 

Mr Briggs:  A good man; a very good man. 

Mr CHESTER:  I agree with the member for Mayo: he is a very good man. The member for Wide Bay has made an important contribution in this place and made an important contribution in relation to the debate on higher education reform. The Nationals team met in the beautiful city of Wodonga for our annual start-of-the-year party-room meeting, and one of the big issues that was discussed at that meeting was the need for a more complete regional youth policy which includes improving access to tertiary education. 

This is at the crux of the argument. The previous speaker talked about it, but the problem is that the Labor Party only ever talked about it. In government, the Labor Party made some amendments to youth allowance which made it even more difficult for a lot of students in regional areas, and since then has failed to participate in the debate in any constructive way. This is the crux of the argument for deregulation, with these important changes that are before the House this evening. There will be improved access to tertiary education for young people from regional areas under these reforms, and the coalition government is committed to expanding the demand-driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees. The coalition is also committed to removing all HELP loan fees, which are currently imposed on some students undertaking higher education, vocational education and training. 

It is good that throughout this debate some members opposite have shown an interest in a little thing called debt. They have been worried about young Australians being burdened with debt. It is good that they have finally come to the conclusion that burdening future generations with debt is a problem, because this government has been left with the Labor legacy of debt which is already costing about $1 billion a month in net interest payments. But the claim that there will be $100,000 degrees has really just been reduced to a sloganeering scare campaign which is grossly misleading and withstands no scrutiny whatsoever. But worse than that, over the past six months, that scare campaign has been effective in scaring students away from even applying for university. The vice-chancellors I have spoken to inform me that from the moment the Labor Party started its scare campaign the level of interest and inquiry in relation to future study at their campuses has reduced, such was the diminished confidence amongst the students who had been scared by the Labor Party’s campaign. 

It is irresponsible to conduct such a scare campaign. It is okay that those on the opposite side of the chamber would want to score a political point. I do not mind that. I do not mind the Labor Party scoring political points at our expense. But when they start running scare campaigns of any substance, members opposite need to realise they are playing with the lives of young Australians. The scare campaign has to stop because it is irresponsible and it is completely inconsistent with the facts. 

What the Labor Party refuses to acknowledge in its discussion of this issue is that no student actually has to pay a cent up front. No-one needs to pay anything until they are earning over $50,000 a year, so higher education is guaranteed to be affordable and accessible for people in that regard. The Labor Party knows—or at least some Labor Party members know—that deregulation of fees will have no negative impacts on disadvantaged students, because the shadow Assistant Treasurer himself, Andrew Leigh—I am not sure if he is on the list to speak—did say in relation to deregulated fees, ‘There is no reason to think that it will adversely affect poorer students.’ So at least some members opposite understand that in terms of people from rural, regional and lower socioeconomic areas, the deregulation debate is not the bogeyman they have tried to present it to be. I call on those opposite to think before they conduct their scare campaign. They are actually having an impact on the choices that people are making in the community today.

In summary, all the vitriol, the attempts to scare students and the Labor Party zingers are not going to get us anywhere in relation to this debate. Those who are responsible members of this place, those who are interested in this debate in the Senate, understand that the status quo cannot continue in relation to higher education in this country. It is easy to sit back and criticise, but the relentless negativity from the Labor Party has to stop. Doing nothing is not an option, and I call on those opposite to think about putting forward a constructive plan as part of this debate. I am yet to hear a credible alternative proposition from the Labor Party. I encourage those opposite to try and put aside their partisanship and to look beyond the short-term politics of this. They should not be thinking about the next opinion poll; we need some bipartisanship on this issue. 

It is up to this parliament to implement a reform which I believe is fair and which will enable universities to provide more places for students from right across the country, particularly—from my point of view—from regional communities. These are reforms that will ensure that students are not burdened with unreasonable debts, despite the scare campaign of the Labor Party. They are reforms that will help our nation grow. It is time for the Labor Party to sit down with the government in relation to this issue and work through it in a constructive way, to ensure that the higher education deregulation can proceed. I would hate to see the Labor Party—which likes to claim a proud history of involvement in education reform—leave itself out there on a limb, alone, not playing an important part in ensuring that we continue to have a high-quality, sustainable tertiary education system in this country. I commend the bill to the House.

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