Higher Education Support Amendment (Savings & Other Measures) Bill 2013


Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:57): The bill before the House is in fact a second-rate deal for students. Labor will not support the coalition's cynical move to go ahead with the $2.3 billion in savings from higher education when they have abandoned the plan that they were designed specifically to fund. The original purpose of this funding was to contribute to the $11.5 billion in funding that would make a once-in-a-lifetime change to schools and students through the Better Schools Plan. It was a difficult decision but it was clearly in the context of the funding of the Better Schools package.

Indeed, I would refer the House to the official statement put out by the then Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research on 13 April 2013. The very first paragraph of the statement says:

Today the Government announced savings in the higher education portfolio that will contribute to the funding of school education reforms designed to ensure that all Australian school children get a flying start in life.

These are cuts that the coalition disparaged while in opposition but have embraced in government. Their hypocrisy on this is truly breathtaking. Indeed, in introducing this bill, the Minister for Education repeatedly stated it was a bad bill for universities. I can take members to the exact words of the minister's speech. He said:

These are Labor's cuts. These cuts of April came on top of repeated attacks by Labor on support for universities, for students, and for research. These cuts show just how damaging to the university sector the previous government was. They show clearly that Labor is no friend to universities. They show that Labor is no friend of students or higher education.

On the basis of that, the minister then proposed to implement those very same cuts. He repeatedly said that they were bad for universities, and in the only explanation he provided for introducing the bill he blamed the previous, Labor government—indeed, he made the extraordinary claim that he had no choice but to introduce it. He is the minister, they are the government; this is their call and their bill, and these are their cuts.

The proposal that Labor put forward at the time was to put together a funding package for our Better Schools commitment. This was a six-year, $11.5 billion plan, and it was the result of the most comprehensive review of school education ever conducted. The Prime Minister at the time, previously the Minister for Education, had identified a serious issue in this nation—inequity in access to education. We had a long tale of disadvantage that we were not addressing in our school system and, as a result, we had Mr Gonski and his panel undertake extensive consultation and a review to produce the report that is now known as the Gonski proposal.

It was designed to see, for the first time, a student-centred model of funding, additional funding for students with additional needs—what we described as needs based funding—and better teacher training, a national curriculum, and individual school improvement plans in a locally led, national model. Perhaps most importantly, there was a guarantee that states would increase their funding for schools so that all schools would be better off. To me as a former teacher and to many of us in this place, it was a truly historic point, where we had moved beyond the old divides between systems and between students, and said that we wanted a system of funding that ensured that all our young people had access to highpquality education, regardless of their circumstances in life—where they lived, whether they were in a small country school, where they were born, whether their family was from a low SES background, whether they had a disadvantage, such as a disability or a particular learning difficulty. It did not matter what their circumstances were, we as a nation, federal and state governments together, were committed to addressing that disadvantage by all putting additional funding into the system and implementing a range of reforms. That was the heart of the Gonski proposal.

The government, on the other hand, have been entirely cynical on this issue—entirely cynical. They have walked away from the Better Schools Plan and what they have actually done is gut it. Yesterday's political stunt changed nothing. Who would seriously trust this government to maintain and deliver any commitment they make on schools? The absolute debacle we have witnessed this week shows that, above all else, the Abbott government cannot be trusted on these matters. They cannot, they would not, guarantee that no school would be worse off. The Minister for Education has refused to repeat his pre-election pledge that no school would be worse off because of the changes. The minister and the Prime Minister spoke directly to schools and their families before the election. Their clear intention was to assure those families and those schools that nothing, not a single aspect, would be any different for their school if an Abbott government were elected. They had gone from saying that they did not support the Gonski proposal to saying that they were absolutely in lockstep with the then Labor government on the Gonski proposal. They did that with purpose and they did it with words such as 'unity ticket' which were designed to present a clear political message that we now know could not be trusted—and they still cannot be trusted. The Prime Minister tried to get around the issue with weasel words. He said:

As you would know the states in the end apply the model, but what the Commonwealth is doing means that no school, state or territory, can be worse off because of the Commonwealth's actions.

That was on 2 December 2013. However, Senator Abetz—helpfully, no doubt, to those opposite!—revealed the truth yesterday, the same day, in the Senate, when he said:

… you might actually find that some schools are worse off, courtesy of various state government decisions.

The Abbott government have no guarantee that the states will not continue to do as they have in the past and cut funding from schools. In fact, they are subsidising state budgets with this money that they are proposing, with no guarantee of benefits to students in return. Unlike under Labor's plan, the coalition's hasty, last-minute, rushed deal puts no obligations on the Queensland, Western Australian or Northern Territory governments to maintain, let alone increase, school funding.

The Abbott government has in fact rewarded the WA, Queensland and Northern Territory governments for not putting additional money into their schools. What's to say they won't just take the money and then cut funding to schools as they have done before? It is very clear that the reason that Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory governments did not sign up to Gonski originally was that they are planning more cuts to education in their own jurisdictions.

In July last year, the Queensland government cut $23 million from its education budget. Queensland's commission of audit or, more accurately, 'commission of cuts', proposed closing 55 schools. The Queensland education minister announced that six schools would close on 17 September 2013. In this year's budget, the Western Australia government cut 500 teaching jobs and capped teacher numbers for 2014 at present levels. They cut the student support program resource allocation, which tackles behavioural issues, and literacy and numeracy, by 30 per cent. Extra time allowances were cut. An additional levy on schools was introduced and a 1.5 per cent efficiency dividend was imposed. At the end of October, it was revealed that the Northern Territory government is cutting 71 jobs in schools. They have not committed to the six-year plan; they have adopted, and this government has signed off on, a no-strings-attached model. They talk about it as if it is some great benefit. In fact, it just provides no details as to where money would go.

It is important to acknowledge that, while we made a tough decision in government, along the lines of the efficiency cuts which are the subject of this bill, we did it in a context of utilising that money in order to fund a full reform of the school funding system. We also did it in the context of having significantly invested in the higher education system over the period we were in government.

We have a proven track record of growth in support for higher education. Labor increased spending on universities from just $8.1 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We introduced the demand-driven system of higher education funding, getting rid of the archaic system—if you want to talk about the archaic centralised system of allocating places—that the coalition had had in place prior to us coming to government. I know that those opposite have reflected in question time their great abhorrence of central control of anything, but they were still centrally controlling what universities had to offer.

Ms Collins: That is right.

Mr Ian Macfarlane interjecting

Ms BIRD: I am sure the minister at the table, the Minister for Industry, would absolutely be opposed to that sort of centralisation of decision making. So Labor removed those prohibitions on universities and put in place a demand-driven system. That actually means that a lot more students are attending university now—190,000 more than when we came to power.

It is also important to identify that Commonwealth funded places increased by 35 per cent under Labor. With this there was an increase in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the shadow minister indicated, attending universities, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. When I was the Minister for Higher Education and Schools, one of my great joys was to go to many of our universities and meet first-in-family people who were attending university. These students were the first in their families to be able to do attend universities, and increasing numbers of them had an Indigenous background. So it was a really important task to undertake. Perhaps most importantly for the sector we introduced fair indexation for the first time, helping prevent university funding from falling behind year on year, as it had under the decade of coalition neglect of this matter. For students themselves, we made sure that support payments went to those who needed them most by improving access to student support. This meant that 220,000 young people received the maximum rate, a higher rate or a payment for the first time.

We introduced the relocation scholarship, a payment to remove financial barriers for low SES students who must relocate to study, particularly those from regional and remote areas and Indigenous students. And we introduced the student start-up scholarship, which helped students with up-front costs of studying such as textbooks and specialised equipment. We have a proud record in higher education.

If we compare this to the opposition, we see a fairly appalling record on higher education from those opposite. I remind the House that, when the coalition was elected to government in 1996, one of the very first things they did was to cut a massive five per cent from the higher education budget. That massive cut was also not announced before the election. There was no warning for universities; there was no warning for students. Student fees skyrocketed. Commonwealth supported places slumped and billions of dollars were stripped out of the system in the decade of neglect that followed. All of this took place, I would point out, while the now Prime Minister was a senior voice in the cabinet. Much of it was orchestrated under the stewardship of his deputy leader, Julie Bishop.

Let us not forget the $103 million those opposite plan to rip out of the Australian Research Council. And in the past week, while announcing his three different policies on school funding, the Minister for Education announced that he had found another $1.43 billion of cuts, with the Prime Minister confirming that this is over and above the savings that they identified before the election. There were $235 million on Tuesday and another $1.2 billion yesterday. Those opposite have form when it comes to massive cuts to higher education. They are at best indifferent to the knowledge economy, which Labor believes is vital to this country's future. Their neglect of the knowledge economy is again demonstrated by their failure to appoint a minister for science—

Mr Ian Mcfarlane: That is simply not true.

Ms BIRD: And, again, by their cuts to jobs at CSIRO.

Mr Ian Mcfarlane: CSIRO are very happy.

Ms BIRD: I hope the minister is going to protest against the cuts to CSIRO, as well. The Abbott government's cynical and desperate bid to proceed with these savings, despite opposing them just weeks earlier, will amount to $2.73 billion worth of cuts from education. The announcement of the additional savings the coalition is making shows beyond doubt that the policy intent of this bill has disappeared. They will not use the money to fund better schools; they will not use it to fund education. What will Tony Abbott do with these savings? Where is the money going? When in opposition, they cried foul of these measures and now they want to take the money from education altogether. Not only are they ripping off our school-aged children; now they are ripping off our university students. Labor is not going to support these cuts because this is a second-rate deal for students at all levels of the education system.

The purpose behind Labor's focus on education was to increase opportunities for all young people. This can be seen right through from our interventions in child care, aimed at making sure there were quality childcare services providing good educational experiences for our very youngest children, to our reforms in the schooling system. Our reforms under the Better Schools program were aimed at helping those who experience the most disadvantage and at ensuring that young people come out of our school system best positioned to take up the opportunities on offer—not only in our university sector but, more broadly, in our vocational education sector and in the world of work. That means giving them the 21st century skills they will need to succeed. That was the package we put together.

It is true that, in that context, we asked the university sector to make a contribution—to have a slower rate of increased investment than they had been expecting. But we did that specifically because it was part of a broader education task—to produce an outcome for young people that made better opportunities available to them.

That is not what this bill does. This bill cynically attempts to pocket the money after the government has had so many positions on the Better Schools program that no-one would have any confidence at all that their last position, as announced yesterday, will even last until next week. Indeed, if it lasted until next week, it would be one of the longest lasting commitments they have made on Gonski.

There was some suggestion in question time today that there were more conversations to be had. Heaven knows what will come out of those! If you valued the investment in education that was originally proposed, you would not, after this absolutely shambolic process, have any confidence that the outcome of those conversations will be any better for schools, students and their parents. The number of positions the coalition have held since before the election, through the election and up until now has been extraordinary. Having recognised before the election that the community wanted to see the Gonski reforms put in place, the now government presented to the public that they were no different to Labor on these issues. They did so in order to quell a problem for them with the electorate during an election campaign period. Almost immediately after winning government, they completely walked away from that. They said: 'We are going to have a whole new review. We did not like Gonski at all.' It was a shambles, a terrible proposal, they told us. 'No government with any sense would support Gonski,' they said. They said they were going to get rid of it, only grudgingly giving one year of funding because there had to be some indication of the money schools were going to get next year. Otherwise, they said, the Gonski model was such an appalling proposal that they were going to have nothing to do with it.

Clearly the Minister for Education has no authority, because yesterday, despite how adamant he was about the Gonski proposal being unacceptable on educational grounds, a political solution was put in place to try and avoid some pain in this place over the next two weeks. It would not surprise anybody that, in that context, I am pretty cynical about how long even this half-baked agreement will last. Beyond that, the bill before the House now reflects an attack on the university sector—one that is not being pursued for the greater good of the education system. There is absolutely no way we will be supporting it.