This government, having walked away from needs based school funding, now seeks to squeeze universities and step down hard on university students. It’s a recipe for economic harm. It’s a recipe for sharply reduced opportunity and fast-rising inequality. It is a shame.
Mr Wilson (4:03pm) — It’s interesting to reflect on the contribution from the member for Goldstein and how you can have two gents in this place with the same last name that bring very different perspectives to an issue like this. I guess if your perspective on universities is from having sat on a university board and if your approach to universities is in terms of the personal agency and resources that enable them to secure a university education and invest in a university education, then you might well take that approach.
But that is not the perspective of a young Indigenous woman who attends an at-risk high school that has an on-site childcare centre so that young pregnant mums can first finish high school and perhaps aspire to university. That is not the perspective of a young fellow I spoke to at an open office at the weekend, who can’t see a way forward in his life. He doesn’t understand how he is going to get an education that will enable him to participate in the workforce. He can’t see how he will ever have the opportunity to buy his own home. So Labor understands that education has always been the great enabling force in Australian society; the great leveller and the key mechanism for delivering opportunity. And that’s why we lifted investment substantially in universities when we were in government.
The member for Gellibrand talked about 190,000 additional students. That included 36,000 additional students from low-income families. It included an increase in Indigenous student numbers of 26 per cent and an increase in regional student numbers of 36 per cent. That’s the commitment that we made, just like we make commitments across the full range of the education system, from early childhood and schools through TAFE and apprenticeships and university. From this government, those people who can’t secure themselves a spot at university and who can’t invest in a university place get $4 billion in cuts to funding. They get an additional $4 billion in cuts to uni infrastructure. They get fee increases of 7½ per cent. They get a lower HELP repayment threshold.
When I started university in 1990, it was the first year that HECS was introduced. The threshold was $22,000, which at that stage was 73 per cent of average earnings. The new threshold, down from $55,000 to $42,000, is less than half of average earnings. It’s barely $6,000 above the minimum wage. Two-thirds of new university graduates will be women. Women face the worst of the rising inequality in this country. The gender pay gap is bad enough as it is. Even women with university degrees face a 10 per cent pay gap at the point of graduation, and these changes are going to make those kinds of inequities even worse than they currently are.
In Western Australia, we will see cuts of $75 million to Curtin University, $42 million to Edith Cowan, $26 million to Murdoch University, $50 million to the University of Western Australia and $19 million to Notre Dame, which has a campus in my electorate. The cuts to enabling courses are among the most terrible, short-sighted and mean aspects to these changes. Enabling courses help people who otherwise are very unlikely to go to university to have that chance. I know that’s important in West Australian electorates like mine, and others. Murdoch’s OnTrack program is delivered in the seat of Brand. Of the participants in OnTrack, 55 per cent are the first in their family to attend university and 56 per cent are from low-SES households, and the success of that program is such that 70 per cent of the people who participate in OnTrack go on to undergraduate enrolment. That’s how successful it is. Those people now, instead of getting that assistance, face a $3,200 up-front fee.
This government is making a clear transition from ineptitude to outright harmfulness. Proper support of our education system from top to bottom is critical to our future wellbeing. This government, having walked away from needs based school funding, now seeks to squeeze universities and step down hard on university students. It’s a recipe for economic harm. It’s a recipe for sharply reduced opportunity and fast-rising inequality. It is a shame.