Higher Education Reform

I listened to Senator O'Neill's contribution and I just cannot believe that these guys over there are such a shadow of their former selves—such a shadow!

Right now I am reading the biography by David Day of Paul Keating. Paul Keating, regardless of the disagreements we may have had with him on this side, was a man of courage. He was somebody who was not afraid of the big ideas and the big challenges facing the nation. He was part of a government that was not afraid of making changes that sometimes were unpopular and that sometimes were not accepted. He was not even afraid of putting a consumption tax on the agenda, and that was not accepted at the time; he failed in that endeavour. But we have a Labor Party now which will never have the experience of failing in policy because they just do not have the guts to put anything up in terms of policy to deal with the issues facing this nation.

They are now resorting to attacking the guy who came up with their university policy in the late 1980s. Bruce Chapman was the man behind the idea of HECS. HECS was a system put in place by the Hawke-Keating governments. It was a good system; it was a system that has stood the test of time. It was a system in response to the unsustainable policies put in place by the Whitlam government. Those policies of free education could not continue. They could not continue in an environment where we want upwards of 40 per cent of Australians to go to tertiary education. We cannot have a free education system for 40 per cent of our young people. We cannot afford it.

The Labor Party knows that we cannot afford it too, because that is not anything they did when they were in government. Indeed, they walked away from it 25 years ago. And when they did, they had a guy called Bruce Chapman advising them on how to move away from it. They introduced the system called HECS, which gave people an income-contingent, non-means-tested loan to cover their education expenses. It made sure that there were no barriers in this country: if you were young, intelligent and wanted to get ahead you could go to university with no up-front costs. It is a good system.

At the moment, the government funds around 60 per cent of a student's course costs. It depends on different degrees and qualifications but, on average, the Commonwealth government stumps up 60 per cent of a student's costs at university. HECS—the loan aspect, which is called HELP now—covers 40 per cent of those expenses. The proposal that the government has put forward is that, rather than being forty-sixty, we move that to be to about fifty-fifty. We do that because, of course, we have a big problem with our budget right now and we need to have some savings.

We also do it because we actually want to invest in higher education. We want to make sure that people can invest in higher education and that universities are not treated like some kind of New York flat where you cannot charge more than a certain amount of rent. What happens in markets when you fix a price and do not let them charge any more is that you do not get investment in those markets. You do not get higher quality in those markets. I want to see a higher quality university sector. I want to see Australian universities become some of the best in the world, and the way we do that is to encourage investment in those universities. The government's proposals will do that. They will do that because they allow universities to set their fees commensurate with the services they provide and commensurate with the quality of those services they provide.

Then they can afford to attract the best talent to Australia to teach people in physics, chemistry and advanced engineering. They can afford to keep the best people in Australia in those disciplines, rather than see them go to universities overseas which are not as restricted as they are here in this country and which can pay them more money. I am all for keeping that talent in this country and I am all for making sure that our universities become stronger. I am also all for fighting for a fairer system that reflects the fact that the benefits of going to university accrue to those who are actually at university.

I myself went to university from a high school where not many people went to uni. I went to school in Logan, just south of Brisbane, and only around 15 per cent of my year 12 went to uni. At the time I thought it was very unfair that I was doing an arts-economic degree funded by the good people—my good friends—who had gone and got a trade or been an apprentice or who were in some other line of work, paying tax so that I could do a philosophy degree and think long and hard every day about whether this table exists.

That was very interesting. It was a very interesting exercise, but it was not particularly beneficial to the wider society and I was being subsidised for it. We need to make sure that we have the confidence to put forward the policies that improve our universities, and these do.

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