Education should not be determined by income

I rise to emphasise the importance of investing properly in universities and tertiary education and ensuring that access to higher education is determined by ability and not family income. I do so because it is one of my key commitments as a Labor member of parliament. I do so because I have had an overwhelming number of pleas to defend and extend our support for universities from my constituents. I do so because access to quality higher education is one of the most fundamental requirements for ensuring equality of opportunity and fulfilment of personal potential. And I do so because it is one of the most fundamental foundations for a progressive, dynamic and growing economy and nation.

 Sadly, this government's first budget ignores all these factors and instead marks the end of fair and affordable higher education, and it is a betrayal of Australian students and their families. This budget will mean spiralling university fees for young people and demonstrates that the government has broken its promise not to increase fees or to cut funding to higher education. Not only has university funding been cut but student debt will skyrocket. Women and students from lower-income families, as the people of my electorate understand all too well, will be the hardest hit as they are made to shoulder a larger burden of university costs.

These measures will be disastrous for our nation as a whole, but they will cause a disproportionate amount of pain and disadvantage in my electorate in particular. In an area where families struggle to cover the costs of everyday life, where low-skilled jobs are becoming ever harder to find and keep—in part because of this government's contempt for the Australian manufacturing sector—affordable access to tertiary education is a vital key to the future for so many young people. It is not surprising, therefore, that I have been overwhelmed by the number of calls, messages and letters I have received from my constituents, anxious about the future of tertiary education under this government. Our investment as a nation in higher education is not only vital as a means of giving young people, regardless of background, the tools for productive, creative and rewarding careers but also vital to our future as a clever, competitive and productive nation. Our health as an economy and as a just society depends on the quality of our knowledge, our research and our innovation, much of which is developed in universities, research centres and other higher institutions.

We have heard a great deal about 'lifters and leaners' from this government, about the end to the age of entitlement and other such cliches to justify the withdrawal of the Commonwealth from the bulk of its responsibility to build and maintain a fair, progressive and inclusive society. It has been argued that the burden of spending cuts must be fairly shared across the community. But we need to be careful that a sector as vital to this nation as tertiary education and research is not made to shoulder an unfair burden in this regard. Universities are already struggling to provide teaching and support. It is inevitable that further cuts will translate into staff reductions, larger class sizes, axing of subjects and whole courses, and, of course, cutting back on research.

Under the previous Labor government, despite the pressures and debates about adequate funding models, we were at least clear in our support for university education. Greatly increasing the number of Commonwealth supported places and encouraging greater participation in tertiary education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds has always been central to the Labor Party. If the parliament agrees to the current government's proposed changes to HECS fees and student support, we will seriously undermine the ability of students from disadvantaged communities to attend university.

My electorate of Calwell, one of the most disadvantaged in the country, also has one of the lowest rates of tertiary education participation. The funding cuts to universities and changes to HECS would obviously exacerbate this worrying trend and further entrench generational disadvantage. I speak for a great many Australians in my electorate and elsewhere in saying that proper levels of investment in our greatly valued tertiary institutions are imperative if we are to be a fair, competitive and clever country.