Higher Education

13 September 2017

House of Representatives

Tuesday 12September 2017

Rebalancing, efficiency measures, dressing up cuts as reformthe bill to cut university funding, currently before the House, is yet another example of the government dressing up its cuts as so-called reform. There are some $3.8 billion of cuts to university funding, cuts that come on top of cuts of $17 billion in school funding and cuts that come on top of cuts to TAFE of more than $2.8 billion, with further cuts of $637 million slated in this year's budget. These cuts aren't just numbers on a budget paper. These cuts are putting education and training out of the reach of the most vulnerable people in our community.

This government is cutting university funding, increasing student fees and hiking up student debt, forcing students to pay back bigger debts sooner. It is introducing fees for university-enabling courses that are currently free and that under these changes will cost a student $3,200. It is putting financial obstacles in the path of people who can least afford itpeople starting out in life, people starting over in life and people who've never had a start in life.

I want to particularly focus on the government's proposed fees for enabling courses. Enabling courses are taken by some of the most disadvantaged people to give them the skills and the confidence they need to go to university. Dr Joy Christensen is a program convener for enabling education at the University of Newcastle Ourimbah Campus. Joy and I went to primary school together. I spoke to Joy this afternoon. There are currently more than 800 students enrolled. They are predominantly from under-represented backgrounds, low SES, regional and remote students, people with disability, people living with mental illness, and students who are predominantly the first in their family to go to uni.

This is what Joy said when I spoke to her today:

We don't want this pathway to be taken away. These students have so many obstacles already, the introduction of fees is a huge obstacle for them. The reason many of them are involved is to improve the financial situation for them and their families. They are taking time away from work, they are taking time away from their families and money away from their families to find out whether they can do this. They won't do it if there is a financial cost.

Joy says:

I am amazed what it has taken many of them to put a foot in the door

to take a step on a university campus

they have incredible potential. This program is life changing for them, their families and our community. It transforms lives.

Enabling courses are particularly important in my electorate of Dobell, where around 57 per cent of people of working age did not have the opportunity to complete high school. At the Central Coast Campus of the University of Newcastle, around a quarter of undergraduate students begin their studies through one of these preparation courses. The University of Newcastle, under the government's cuts, will lose $63.2 million of funding over four years. In July, Labor's deputy leader and shadow minister for education, the member for Sydney; Senator Deborah O'Neill; Anne Charlton, Labor's candidate for Robertson; and I visited Ourimbah Campus of the University of Newcastle. I met with Dr Joy Christensen and Associate Professor Seamus Fagan, the Director of the English Language and Foundation Studies Centre, together with Open Foundation students Maureen and James and current Newstep student Claire.

The story I will share with you now, Jackie's story, is typical of the stories that we heard that day. I spoke to Jackie's sister, Sam, today. She gave me permission to speak on behalf of Jackie. Jackie started Open Foundation at Central Coast Campus this year and wants to be a teacher. Jackie finished high school without an ATAR, fell pregnant at 19, is a mum to three children and at 29 years old was working in a bakery earning $15 an hour. Jackie is doing it tough: her middle child, Ryan, has autism and started kindergarten this year. If Jackie were charged $3,200 up front she couldn't start Open Foundation. She wouldn't have taken the first step to a better life. This is unfair. The enabling course is a perfect introduction to a degree. It gives people access to the confidence and support that they need to be able to make a decision, when all they have been told is that they are not good enough, that this is out of their reach.

This is unfair. These cuts must be reversed.