Posted on Monday, 27 February, 2017
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (10:49): It is a pleasure to rise on this motion from the member for Sydney on higher education. It is interesting to listen to the member for Richmond speaking about Labor's vision for higher education and education generally. Labor's record in office is an absolutely classic example of the Labor Party doing the easy half of the workload: spending the money, but not making a serious effort to fund it. Of course, that was the case when they uncapped the university places in Australia. They delivered half the deal.
Since that time in 2008, places have grown exponentially by 71 per cent, compared to 35 per cent growth in GDP in those eight years. Something has to give. We have faced the same conundrum in a number of other policy areas where Labor has implemented a vast plan for the future with no plan on how to fund it. We are left with some fairly unpleasant types of solutions that we can ponder in this place. We could cut intake numbers, I suppose. We could trim VET FEE-HELP. We could find savings in other programs, something that the Labor Party consistently opposes—any savings in any other area. We could raise taxes. Already, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you well know, this country is falling well behind and well out of step with our trading partners when it comes to general taxation and specific taxation across a wide range of measures. Whatever we do, if we continue to get out of step with our trading partners, it will come to no good.
And of course there is the issue raising its head now. We do not have an answer on this at the moment. Former students are coming to me in increasing numbers and saying: 'I've done my university degree, but I can't get a job. There are too many students in this area that are qualified in my industry.' The coalition will not be keen to move in that area of capping places, but I think we have to start putting some pressure on the universities to take some responsibility for the numbers of students they are accepting into certain courses. They have a responsibility beyond just delivering the degree. They have a responsibility to say to the student at the beginning of the course, 'You have a reasonable prospect of getting a job when you finish.' Theoretically, the market should sort this sort of thing out, but markets are often too slow an indicator to bring about change in time.
We must be collectively up to having an honest and open debate about the issue. Something has to be done in higher education. As the Labor Party knows and as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have already tried in a previous parliament to make moves to make the income from education more closely match the expenditure.
The proposition that is put forward by the Labor Party that somehow the coalition is withdrawing money from higher education is an absolute fabrication. There is a record amount of $16.7 billion per year. There is something about a record. A record indicates that it has not been done before, that $16.7 billion a year has not been spent before by the Commonwealth on education. We cannot listen to an argument that says we—the parliament, the government—are cutting funding for education when in fact we are reaching record levels. Funding cannot continue to grow as a proportion of GDP unless we savage some other part of the economy. If we do not do anything, our tertiary sector will fall behind, and—this is the very important point—if we allow it to fall behind, one of our greatest export earners as a country will be emasculated.
In the last parliament we tried to uncap fees, and we have taken that off the table. Our opponents, the Labor Party, used that to bludgeon us around the head about $100,000 degrees, which were of course a complete beat-up, a beat-up of the first order. To continue to use that language after we have taken that option off the table is misleading. In another place, I would use a stronger word, and it would start with an L. We will bring reforms to this parliament by midyear.