Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

2 December 2014

Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland—Nationals Whip in the Senate) (17:07): I rise to speak on the Higher

Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014 before the Senate. I want to take up some of the points

made by one of the previous speakers who spoke in the context of not wanting—

Senator Kim Carr: You are going to load up the speakers now.

Senator O’SULLIVAN: Mr Deputy Chair, am I entitled to speak?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Seselja ): Indeed you are. Order on my left.

 

Senator O’SULLIVAN: I want to pick up on a point made by one of the previous speakers in relation to

indebtedness for young students who go ahead and pursue higher education. Of course there is a fundamental

solution to that problem, and that is not to incur the debt in the first instance. This is true of almost everything in

life. It has always amused me when reference is made to free health care and free education when, in effect, these

are the two things that are by far and away the most expensive support and services that we give as a government

to those of our nation. The case has been well made that people invest my money—a point that is lost on many

—in acquiring their education. This is money which I have worked for and paid my part to the receipts of this

nation, which has been lent to these students so that they can advance themselves in life. I have no problem

with that. I understand the value of education, and I understand ensuring that we have arrangements in place that

create educational opportunity for everybody. If the circumstances of a student require them to borrow some of

my money and the money of other taxpayers to invest in their education, then that has my total support. But I

am afraid I do not have much sympathy for the argument that an investment, which I loaned to somebody so

that they can advance their circumstances in life, is a bad investment. I think that aspect of these changes is

quite appropriate.

This package has an expanding and demand-driven Commonwealth funding system for students studying for

higher education diplomas, advanced diplomas and associate degrees, costing some $370 million over three years.

I hark back to my own era. I recall that when I graduated in a class of 36 students, only two went on to higher

education. That opportunity was not there in my age. It was not an option for families who, in my case, could

not afford the cost of higher education and the costs of living away from home that were associated with it in

those days, before the expansion and regionalisation with universities. So for a government to continue to invest

in the opportunities for these young men and women, I think it is a terrific thing. It is of great disappointment

that we need to get caught up in this selfish attitude that somehow they have to pay off a debt that has given them

one of the greatest gifts in life. The figures are out there. I do not necessarily have them in front of me, but the

figures are out there that demonstrate that their earning capacity goes up threefold and fourfold. The investment

may also prove to be one of the soundest investments that they make in their lifetime.

 

The reform package extends Commonwealth funding to all Australian higher education students in nonuniversity

higher education institutions studying bachelor courses—costing $449 million over three years. So

there are combined investments heading toward a billion dollars in education and in expanding opportunities for

education for the young people of our nation. Indeed, whilst not being an expert on the legislation, this extends to

all applicants for higher education, be they young students graduating from school or those more mature students

who endeavour to enjoy some of the benefits of tertiary development.

Over 80,000 students each year will be provided additional support by 2018. This includes an estimated

48,000 students in diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses and 35,000 additional students

undertaking bachelor courses. Now that is a number worth repeating: 35,000 additional students. That is 35,000

young Australians who might not otherwise have had the opportunity without some of the reforms that have

been presented in this higher education reform package. The legislation provides for more opportunities for

students from low socioeconomic backgrounds through new Commonwealth scholarships—broadening out the

scholarship program with the greatest scholarship scheme in Australia’s history. This, in effect, means free

education for the brightest students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Often our colleagues from across the hallway here hold themselves out to have some sort of mortgage over

those in our communities who come from lower socioeconomic circumstances. I know some of these young

people; I know their families; I know their circumstances. I have employed people who came from lower

socioeconomic circumstances. I intend to support any form of legislation through this place that increases the

prospects for those young men and women. Indeed, it extends to mature students in this space also—people who

can better themselves in life. That is why I believe this piece of legislation is a very well-thought-through piece

of legislation.

 

I was disappointed to hear Senator Lazarus earlier say that there had not been sufficient consultation. That is

somewhat in conflict with some of the social media comments that the senator made earlier today, criticising Mr

Pyne, the minister responsible for this package in part, for endeavouring to make contact with him.

I want to attach my remarks to those of Senator Madigan, a statesman. I say on the record, his words today

were very measured; they are very applicable to these particular circumstances. This is as important a piece of

legislation as many that have come before this chamber in recent months. Everyone is in agreement that there

has been a deterioration in how the Senate is conducting itself. There are, I understand, conventions that have

been long held in this place that have been abused in recent times—with the gagging of debate. There cannot

be, from my point of view, a more important piece of legislation; it is equal to the legislation we have had to

deal with with the nation’s security.

 

Again, it is worth emphasising the point that there will be an additional 35,000 students, many of them from

lower socioeconomic backgrounds, whose opportunities will be dashed here today if this bill is not given the

opportunity for proper debate. As Senator Madigan alluded to, we need to allow the time for the ideas to mature,

and for everyone to listen to everyone else’s contribution. My pay-scale is too low to understand whether Minister

Pyne has a capacity to move and shift on some of these issues but I am sure that he continues to be open to

discussions to resolve any of the difficulties that members of this Senate have.

Another part of the bill is freeing universities to set their own fees and compete for students. There is a novel

idea! All of us operate in market arrangements away from this place—or have done, for those of us who have

had some experience in business. The provision of education is a business; and probably the most important

business, up there with the provision of health services and security for our nation. What a novel idea that we

might allow universities to set fees and create the environment where they pursue a particular market share! I

promise you they will respond to demand. You cannot survive in a free market environment unless you respond

to the demands and keep yourself price attractive. So this sort of competition will give that a lift.

 

Competition will definitely enhance quality and make higher education providers more responsible to the needs

of the students and the labour market. When universities and colleges compete, students are the winners. These

additional 35,000 students and many tens of thousands of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds will

be the winners, because competition by its very nature drives institutions or businesses to the edge to make sure

they provide the most attractive, the most competitive goods or services—in this case services—for the lowest

possible price. That is how you achieve your market share. Then you have an absolute obligation to maintain the

quality in the delivery of those services—if you are to retain your market share and grow your business.

I agree with the statement that when universities and colleges compete, students are the winners. By extension,

our communities are the winners; our economy is a winner; all of Australia wins; we all win. That is why I

am happy—despite the protests of some previous speakers—to have my money lent to students on these most

equitable terms, so that they can grow.

I had a couple of hundred staff before I left my business to come here. I invested tens upon tens upon tens

of thousands of dollars in my staff, for them to advance and develop their educational background, because I

was rewarded in increased productivity. It is no different here. In my case, they paid me back through their

productivity as employees. In this case, these students—most of whom I will never know—will pay me back as

they contribute to the productivity of this nation, and we will all be rewarded as a result.

 

The argument about the loans is a moot argument and needs to be set aside. When you do that, you find that a

little bit of the heat comes out of this debate and you can concentrate on the positive uplift that this particular

reform package delivers right across our community, not discriminating at any level.

Strengthening the Higher Education Loan Program sees taxpayers support all students’ tuition fees upfront and

ensures that students only repay their loans once they are earning a decent income, of over $50,000 per annum.

Let’s just think about that. Not one cent needs to be paid upfront by the students, and they do not have to make a

repayment until they are earning $50,000-plus. Some might think that $50,000 is not a lot of money. Certainly,

some of my colleagues in this place could be forgiven for thinking that $50,000 is not a lot of money. But, if

you are a young person starting out, I promise you that $50,000 is absolutely head and shoulders above what my

good wife and I earned when I was 18, 19, 20, 21 or 22, when I was starting to collect some copper coins to get

a bottle of milk. That’s how long ago it was. The milk was still in a bottle.

Senator Payne interjecting

 

Senator O’SULLIVAN: Correct. And I promise you there was no-one at my gate wanting to lend me money,

not one red razoo, so that I could get ahead. I would have loved a bit of this stuff around the place going back

30-odd years ago.

The package also removes the FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP loan fees which are currently imposed on some

students undertaking higher education and vocational education and training. I have listened to the contributions

of a number of speakers and there was not one mention of that. You want to talk about money and you want to

talk about those things that you think are an impost but not one single speaker raised it, and that is so typical

of the contributions often made in this place against progressive government legislation. It is almost as if every

night—certainly starting last September—people go to bed, they fit up this machine, it erases the past, it erases

the 26 deficits in a row and it erases all the promises of surpluses that would have allowed governments more

flexibility in the space of education, in the space of health, in the space of—

 

Senator Wong: No cuts to education, no cuts to health—

Senator O’SULLIVAN: Mr Acting Deputy President, could you deal with the interjection. It really drives me

nuts. It is not a practice I engage in.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Seselja ): Order on my left.

Senator O’SULLIVAN: Thank you for that, Mr Acting Deputy President. It was very effective. The higher

education reform package also secures Australia’s place at the forefront of research. It makes us competitive—

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator O’SULLIVAN: with an investment of $150 million in 2015-16 for the national collaborative research

infrastructure. Just think about that. What a wonderful boost that will be to allow that to progress and make its

contribution to these reforms.

There will be $139.5 million to deliver 100 new four-year research positions per year under the Future

Fellowships scheme. What a wonderful progressive measure that is under the reforms. There will be 100 of them

—all brand spanking new, polished up four-year research positions. Only the good Lord would know what will

come out of that sort of investment. Even if we only get a productivity yield of 25 per cent, imagine the impetus

to it will give to our nation and, in doing that, to our economy. These students who were yesterday on $50,000 a

year will be on $60,000 a year and their repayments will be free as a result of the investment in the first instance,

which is often a test that we apply in business before for we make the commitment in the first place.

There will be $42 million to support new research in tropical disease, which will be of great interest to my

colleagues and I from the great state of Queensland where tropical diseases sometimes affect us. We have had

little inflictions during the Queensland inquiry recently, where obviously the pollen from the mango trees had

got to colleagues while we were trying to examine the witnesses. So this $42 million to support new research

in tropical disease will be well received and supported by the good folk of Queensland, who do their share—

and someone else’s—in supporting the receipts of this nation so that we have sufficient money to lend to these

absolutely privileged young men and women, bright young men and women, my nephews and nieces and all my

staff’s children. What a wonderful opportunity this is. I am having difficulty getting through this without being—

Opposition senators interjecting—

 

Senator O’SULLIVAN: There are so many important things to bring to the attention of those opposite because,

clearly, by the contribution made from the other side, they were not aware of some of these things otherwise

there is no way in the world they would resist this legislation, as we saw from some of the crossbench.

Finally, I will close on the centrepiece, which is a $24-million contribution to the Antarctic Gateway Partnership

because, as you know, I believe that wife beaters should be sent to the Antarctic—I said so a fortnight ago—and

this sort of investment will make that so much easier for our nation, so it really is a double benefit—we get rid

of the wife-beaters and we also support the Antarctic Gateway Partnership.

It has been a great privilege with very short notice to allow me to make a contribution here today. I hope it has

had some impact on colleagues.