Back to All News

Speech: Higher Education Support Amendment (New Zealand Citizens) Bill 2015 second reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 17 Sep 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:08): The Greens support the Higher Education Support Amendment (New Zealand Citizens) Bill 2015. It brings some equity to the loan scheme, which is obviously problematic in itself, but fairness always needs to be striven for. It removes the unfair treatment of long-term residents of Australia who, just because of where they were born-in New Zealand-are New Zealand citizens. Despite what the previous speaker, Senator Birmingham, has said-obviously feeling a bit anxious about his future-we know that his government, the former Abbott government, failed New Zealanders. However long they have lived in Australia, New Zealanders have been denied financial assistance under the HELP scheme. Senator Birmingham just cannot get away from that. He tried to dodge it in his speech. He has become quite expert at that. But that was certainly the essence of it.

I would even say that this bill is a small step towards internationalism, something the Greens have long supported. It is a step in the right direction. However, it does accept that the concept of education is a private good, not a public one, and that still does need to be challenged. Yes, it is fixing up an inequity, but we always have to get back to basics in education, and we should be talking about public education for public good. The debate on this bill is a reminder of what Australia has been subjected to under Mr Pyne's leadership with regard to higher education. It has been very destructive. He has twice attempted to bring in deregulation, a policy that Australians are now well aware just should not be happening in this country. I will come back to this in more detail.

We have a new leadership in the Liberal Party. Deregulation has become so discredited. What has been happening in our higher education sector has made people so angry. It has put so many students and their families under stress about how they would even pay if these changes came in. This should have been right up there under the new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, as something where he would clean the slate. But there has been not a word. Again, in so many areas, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister, it is business as usual, and this is an area in which he really should have had the sense to at least open this up and acknowledge that it needs to be revisited. But it looks like this policy will be continued.

And let's remember that the essence of deregulation was ripping money out of the public purse in the 2014 budget, the budget that enraged people around this country for over a year because of the damage and destruction the Abbott government was inflicting on people, not just in education but in so many sectors. In relation to education, the plan was to take $5 billion out of higher education and dump the costs onto students. That in essence is what deregulation is about. And yes, that is how neo-Liberal governments work. It is about leaving it up to the individual and ending up with a destructive two-tier system for our education.

Senator Birmingham time and time again has been in this place backing that whole policy to the hilt, and it really does reflect very poorly on him. In his speech, he spoke with largesse about how he was astounded at comments being made by the opposition. But the students, the staff and the people of Australia who are so deeply committed to a fair education system are the ones who are astounded. They are astounded by how extreme your government's policies have been when it comes to denying the basic funding that is needed to get higher education back on track. We do need to remember when we are revisiting higher education that there were problems, and I acknowledge that. There were problems when Labor was in government. Coming into the 2013 election, in April-I think it was the 12th or the 13th, a Saturday-the then Minister for Higher Education, Craig Emerson, announced a $2.3 billion cut to our public universities to pay for Gonski-crazy policy. Why do you put something out on a Saturday afternoon? You think it will not be noticed. It was one of the worst pieces of judgement that came from the Labor government.

Let's fast-track to after the 2013 election. There was then a big campaign. The Greens participated in this, and I am very proud to put that on the record. We knew how destructive this government, the then Abbott government that was elected, would be to higher education. But you could also tell that there were people in Labor who were deeply unhappy with those cuts. So we-with students, with staff-targeted Labor, and, to its credit, it reversed its position on that policy of $2.3 billion cuts to higher education. With students, staff, crossbenchers and so much of the Australian public targeting the former Abbott government on this destructive course of deregulation that they have taken, wouldn't you think they would be re-evaluating what their plans were?

But there has been not an iota of it under the education minister, Christopher Pyne, or under the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott-you would not really think he would. But surely the new leadership would at least, just for their own electoral prospects, think: 'Maybe we need to get smart. Maybe we should listen to the Australian public.'

I think it is worth reminding ourselves of what went down with the 2014 budget in regard to higher education-it was so deeply wrong. Minister Pyne came in with his plan to load up the public with the $5 million cuts and his plan about extensive deregulation. That is when we started to become aware of the cost of degrees and that is where the slogan came from about $100,000 degrees-some would be more, some would be less. I remember it infuriated the minister and infuriated supporters within his own government because it was exposing what deregulation would mean and how damaging it would be. It would mean that many students would not be able to continue with their education and that many people hoping to go to university would not be able to. I do feel very passionate about this. I was the first in my family to be able to go to university. I know what a difference it has made to my life, and I saw it with my generation. It is so deeply wrong that this policy of deregulation is being pushed so harshly.

What did we see when the minister ran into problems of selling this unpopular policy? He continued to back business interests in this and hang out with his favourite vice-chancellors. We heard how he would trumpet about the support that he would have from vice-chancellors around the country-often misrepresenting their position. It is particularly relevant here to look at what he was endeavouring to do with bringing more corporate interest into the education sector. This bill-the one we have defeated twice-had this very concerning aspect of handing over about half a billion dollars of public money to private for-profit providers. The reason these companies are on the planet and the reason that they have been formed is to make profits. I am not against companies making profits in the right places if people are not exploited, but there is no place for companies to make profits out of education.

Education is about the public good, it is about looking to the future, it is about looking at student needs, it is about having well-resourced education systems and it is about ensuring that staff have good working conditions. But that does not go with companies that are out to make a profit. They have to cut corners and they have to look at reassessing-and I am being polite about it-their industrial relations conditions. They have to look at all that stuff if they are going to maximise their profits-and that is what their job is. The two things do not match up.

There was the minister-and I nearly called him the former minister, which is not surprising because we hear that Mr Pyne is hoping to be the defence minister so he can save his seat. Time will tell what he is up to next and where the next round of damage will be that he will inflict, because seriously that is how the conservatives work when it comes to public issues, and defence is another part of that.

That was the first budget. When it came to the 2015 budget we saw that the former Abbott government had not learnt anything. By then they had seen the outrage around the country by the students and the staffers, as I have mentioned. Let us remember that there had been some very courageous actions by students who were really deeply committed to getting the word out there. Again, I congratulate the students who went on the Q&A program and unfurled their banner. Then in November last year five students from Monash University, who were deeply frustrated by the Liberal-Nationals abandonment of even the most basic commitment to educational access, also took action. There were direct actions and some of them were arrested. Again, I congratulate them.

When you have to get decent policies adopted by governments and when you are moving to have widespread progressive change in society, there is a place for direct action. The only reason I am standing here as a woman MP is that our forebears long ago, a century ago, were out there literally rattling the chains, getting arrested and doing some very creative direct actions, and life changed. We see this in so many big areas where society has to change and that is why those students were so courageous in what they did and why I congratulate them.

Deregulation is not an education policy; it is a budget measure. Again, the current education minister tried to hide this, but it was so easy to see. When you are ripping $5 billion out of a budget that is there to fund our public universities and loading up the costs on students and their families, you can clearly see what the intent is. Deregulation is not about improving the equality and accessibility of higher education. That is why we have challenged it so deeply.

The way the funding has worked for our public universities in this country really has been disgraceful. We have seen years of neglect from successive governments. While the average OECD government invests 1.1 per cent of GDP on higher education, public funding in Australia is only 0.7 per cent. In 2011 this meant an annual shortfall of US$3,965 per student at our public universities when compared with the OECD average. We are only talking about the OECD average and we are below that. This underfunding has gone on for too long. Again, this is something that needs to be urgently addressed.

I want to move on to the 2015 budget. The government has gone through all the grief, all the anger that people have expressed in a whole variety of ways about the harshness of deregulation that came out in the 2014 budget. But did it learn any lessons? No. What we saw when that budget came down in May this year was that universities were again set to receive a 20 per cent cut and the government restated its commitment to handing out all those hundreds of millions of dollars, nearly half a billion dollars, to the private providers. So the intent to deregulate was still there. They might have tried to cover it up with, I think it was, $15 million spent on an advertising campaign, trying to sneakily misrepresent what their own policy would do. But their clear policy intent could not be hidden, and that is why the protests continue.

What should happen with higher education? Again, it is not just that Australia has fallen behind because of the problems created by the former, Abbott government and their very destructive approach to higher education; we are also falling behind because of our failure to recognise that there is an international trend towards free higher education. Now, we had it once in Australia. People used to think, 'Wow, we will never get that back again,' but that is happening around the world in an increasing number of countries. We need to get this back into the public discourse, not just for the future of education but for the future of Australia. This is very, very important.

Across Latin America and across Europe, this trend is real. Governments are changing their policies. It is bringing benefits to both individual students and the nation as a whole-economic benefits. Interestingly, the issue is coming up in the US primaries now. Hillary Clinton and other candidates I have heard are starting to talk about free higher education.

Coming back to the bill before us, I would argue that it should be extended to international students. I was at O-week at Sydney university-they have an O-week in the middle of the year, not just at the beginning of the year, these days-for orientation day and, as I was giving out Greens material and working with the Greens students on campus, I was surprised by how many students I met who were from Germany and some of the Scandinavian countries, interested in what we were doing and what we were saying. Because I was giving out material about free higher education, they were telling me about free higher education in their countries and the fact that, when they come to study at our universities, their free higher education continues. So we have the very interesting situation where some overseas students are getting free higher education in our own country. It is, again, a reminder of why we need to look at that issue.

Let us look at some of the countries with free higher education. Germany has actually had free higher education in a number of its states for 30 years, but, since last year, there is free higher education right across the nation. They offer tuition-fee-free higher education to their students. As I said, that policy has been in place for 30 years in most states and now in all states. It is recognised as bringing huge benefits to that country. Often in this place I hear ministers talking about Germany, giving examples of their economic policy, their growth and the benefits that come from certain things in Germany. Well, the foundation of that is free higher education, because the young people of that nation are getting a proper education. They have the choice and they have the opportunities, and they are not burdened with debt. They are not just thinking about what the next career path is. Their minds are open, and that is what education needs to be about. Yes, it needs to be about career paths-please do not misunderstand me; I understand that totally. But it is about more than careers, particularly with the complexities that our world is facing. This is a solution: free higher education.

Scotland is another example. It is absolutely fascinating. They actually set up a government committee of inquiry. This was in the 1990s. There was a recommendation that they abolish up-front tuition fees and improve support for students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they did. That was a very impressive decision they made to address how they brought more disadvantaged students into higher education. So it was not just about making education free but also about how to give the necessary support to more disadvantaged students. I am sure most people in this place have heard stories about how difficult it is for many students, particularly in the big cities, to be able to afford rent and to address cost-of-living issues. Transport can be a big one if you are not living close to the education institution where you are studying. So Scotland addressed both of those issues-very impressive.

In Brazil, free higher education became a constitutional issue, and the Brazilian federal constitution established the right to free public higher education for all citizens. So countries are coming to this in different ways but there is this international trend that we need to look at. Last year, the Chilean government rejected the privatised model for higher education, and that rejection was driven by high-school students and tertiary students across the country. Again, students used a lot of direct action. It became an election issue, to the point where some of the parties changed their own policies because they listened to the students.

That is what needs to happen in this country now. The new Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, needs to quickly remove the deregulation policies and the criticism of those that have dogged the government. The Liberal-National coalition have had major failures in the Senate on a policy that was so central to their budget plans-their plans for higher education. That needs to be removed from Liberal-National policy forever. It needs to be recognised as an embarrassing failure, and they should put it in the bin straightaway. It is also a reminder to Labor that they need to get back to progressive policies on higher education. Yes, this bill before us should be passed, and there are necessary measures in it to address some of the inequity, but there is so much more to do in higher education. We have that opportunity before us. And there is an election coming up; higher education should be a top priority. Let's get that debate going about free higher education.


Back to All News