Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with David Bevan and Ali Clarke
Topics: Tertiary Education; Student Debt; Enterprise Agreements



David Bevan: Well, every Wednesday we bring three federal MPs from South Australia – they have to be South Australian through and through – to discuss the big national issues. We have in our studio Sarah Hanson-Young from the Greens. Good morning Sarah Hanson-Young.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Thanks for having me.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth, the ALP member for Kingston in the Southern Suburbs, good morning.

Amanda Rishworth: Good morning.

David Bevan: And on the phone line, Simon Birmingham, federal Education Minister and South Australian Senator. Good morning Minister Birmingham.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody.

David Bevan: Now, you’re on the phone because you’re interstate, about to walk into the lion’s den and tell a whole bunch of people from the university sector, if you didn’t see the big stick coming, you weren’t paying attention. Is that basically it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, the Government’s been very open for a long period of time about the fact that higher education costs, which have spiralled and grown by 70 per cent since 2009 – far, far faster than economic growth or revenue growth – need to be reined in a little bit to help make a contribution towards repairing the Budget deficit. We are now as a country paying $17 billion a year in interest payments on the debt that’s been accrued. Government has achieved a lot – more than $100 billion of savings – to work towards repairing the Budget, but we’re asking higher education to do a little bit, with a slightly slower rate of growth in funding over the next few years, and I’m explaining that once again to the higher education sector this morning.

David Bevan: So less money going to the universities from the Federal Government, more money coming back to the Federal Government from students who have to pay back their HECS debts earlier.

Simon Birmingham: Well, a small increase in student fees, that’s right, and a better structured arrangement for the repayment of debts. But listeners would be astounded, I suspect, to know that the Government is carrying around $50 billion worth of student debt at present as part of the HECS-HELP loan scheme, and that, on estimates, under the current arrangements about one quarter of that will never be repaid. Now, what we’re proposing is that students have an introductory payment level of one per cent of their income as a graduate once they start earning about $42,000. That’s still a far higher threshold than other countries, like New Zealand or the UK or elsewhere. It is the equivalent of about eight bucks a week that people would be asked to start repaying their debt at. So it is a very modest level of repayment. It will help to make …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] So that doesn’t sound like a lot to a federal minister who would probably be on, what, about quarter of a million dollars a year, eight bucks a week, but to a student you and I both know that’s a lot of money.

Simon Birmingham: Well, this is only, of course, once people are earning $42,000 a year that they would be asked to repay …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Forty-two thousand dollars a year? Hold the phone – 42,000 bucks? They can afford $8 a week, can’t they?

Simon Birmingham: Well, David, I’m not suggesting that people aren’t doing it tough in a range of ways, but also it is important that our student loan scheme is sustainable for the future. This is what allows people to go to university without having any upfront fees at all, and that is something that I think we ought to fight to preserve, but we’re not going to be able to preserve it if we’re carrying an ever-ballooning loan book. As I say, $50 billion of debts that are there at present, and a quarter of them expected not to be repaid. Now, we need to do something to address that.

Ali Clarke: Sarah Hanson-Young?

Sarah Hanson-Young: It’s really interesting to see the Minister try and spin this now as kind of a small contribution. When the Budget papers were handed down in May, the Government heralded this as the biggest single cut and savings measure in their Budget – $3.8 billion. It was put up in lights as, you know, we’re responsible, we’re cutting the Budget, we’re saving $3.8 billion – an attack on our universities, an attack on students across this country. It is going to make a significant difference to whether young people decide to go into university or not. If you have to start paying back your debt at $42,000, which of course is not an awful lot of money, and I take that point, David, that for those of us in Federal Parliament $8 a week might not sound much, but it is significant for somebody who is on $42,000. But the other thing I just wanted to add, though, is that we’ve got to think about what this means for our institutions. Here in South Australia, if these cuts go through, this will mean 220 jobs here in South Australia on the chopping block – 220 jobs.

David Bevan: Hang on, while you might have some sympathy for the students, do you have any sympathy for the institutions? Because frankly, the only people in this town who have got money right now are the universities because they’re paying their vice-chancellors enormous amounts of money and they’re throwing up buildings like there’s a boom going on.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Look, I think our universities offer an extraordinary amount to our local economy here.

David Bevan: There’s got to be some fat there.

Sarah Hanson-Young: And I think when the universities themselves are saying 220 jobs are going to be on the chopping block, this is regardless of what happens to students, these are real jobs in our universities now. I don’t think we should be throwing that away.

David Bevan: Amanda Rishworth.

Amanda Rishworth: I just want to, I think, make a couple of points. One, the Government has been, for the last four years, working out – there have been different plans and they’ve been rejected by the Senate – but working out how to cut money from our universities and make students pay more. I have to say, looking at the future of this country and the next 10 years and the next 20 years, we know that the job market is going to look absolutely different to what it does today, and we need to prepare our country, our students, our young people, but also those mature age students that are transitioning.

Ali Clarke: How?

Amanda Rishworth: Well, in education. By actually giving them a higher education. We know you can’t necessarily leave school in year 10 now and hope that you get a job and it’s all going to be okay. We know we need to invest in education.

Ali Clarke: So then, if a quarter of- or $50 billion of student debt is not expected to be repaid, how do you figure that this gets funded?

Amanda Rishworth: Well, we need to be seeing this as an investment to start off, and that there does need to be public money invested in our universities.

David Bevan: So would you waive the debt?

Amanda Rishworth: There is a threshold set which is the average- well, it was the average weekly earnings. So once you earn more than what an average person does, you’ve benefited from your university degree, you pay it back. That’s the appropriate level. We shouldn’t be bringing it down to the poverty line and saying once you get over the poverty line then start paying your university back.

David Bevan: Is it Labor policy to restore the payment threshold to what it was?

Amanda Rishworth: Our first position is we will reject this in the Senate. We will reject this in the Senate and we’re going to oppose these changes.

David Bevan: Yeah, but what is your policy? Should you win government, will you restore the threshold at which you pay back your HECS debt?

Amanda Rishworth: Well, we’ve got to see what the proposals are. At the last election …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] No, I’m asking you what your proposal is.

Amanda Rishworth: Yeah, at the last election we were going to reverse the Liberal Party’s changes that were there currently. Now we’ve seen them change the iteration now,
we’re going to reject these in the Senate and we’re going to restore the funding to our universities.

Sarah Hanson-Young: The Greens are obviously going to vote against this bill in the Senate as well, but I must put this out there: there are people on the crossbench who are currently sitting on the fence here, and I think for those of us in South Australia we do need to have a think about what this means for educating our young people as they transition to the new economy. What that means for jobs currently here, our academics and staff at universities are worried that they might be on the chopping block. When you hear that people are worried about manufacturing closing down, why on earth would we be taking the axe to our educational institutions? It’s ridiculous.

Ali Clarke: Well, Sarah Hanson-Young, let’s just go …

Simon Birmingham: Let’s just deal with a couple of facts here. Universities across Australia will, over the next four years under these reforms, still see a 23 per cent growth in their funding. Now, you could line up many businesses who would love to see that type of guaranteed increase in their revenue. So, this idea that the reforms are going to put unis on some sort of hard luck street is just ridiculous. They are clearly going to still see growing funding, growing at a slightly slower rate, just as indeed when the Labor Party was last in office they proposed an efficiency dividend but then never actually legislated it. So this is, in many ways, doing precisely the types of things that the Labor Party proposed, because they recognised that the opening up of access to universities that saw such huge growth in student numbers – more than 30 per cent growth in student numbers – necessitated taking some steps to make it more affordable and sustainable and that’s precisely what we’re doing.

Sarah Hanson-Young: But the Government wants to cry poor and can make the savings from our university as education institutions, making life harder for students, at the same time as handing out $65 billion to big businesses through corporate taxes. I mean, cry me a river, Birmo, that you say that the Government has to pull the strings and try and make budget savings. How about putting some proper taxes in place for big business and then we can fund the education of the next generation.

Simon Birmingham: Sarah, I know you don’t think – and the Greens don’t think – that you actually need to be competitive to have investment and jobs, but I think [indistinct] deserve to have a job market out there …

Sarah Hanson-Young: [Talks over] I’ll tell you what, our universities need to be competitive and that means actually funding them properly.

Simon Birmingham: … a job market out there which requires us to actually have investment.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, we actually need investment in our people. I mean, that is ultimately- we need to invest in education, and the question for you, Simon …

Simon Birmingham: [Interrupts] And we’re doing that at record levels, Amanda.

Amanda Rishworth: No, no, no. The question: Are you planning to cap university places? I mean, that is a question that hasn’t been very clear from the Government’s position. Are you trying to restrict the number of talented people that can go to university?

Simon Birmingham: No, the whole point of these reforms we have is to make the demand-driven system for university places viable and sustainable into the future. That is exactly why we are doing this, is to ensure that the record level of spending that is there is something that can be sustained and doesn’t come under pressure to cap places in the future.

Ali Clarke: It is a quarter to nine. You are listening to ABC Radio Adelaide. We are in the middle of Super Wednesday with federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, Member for Kingston Amanda Rishworth, and also Green Senator for South Australia Sarah Hanson-Young.

Amanda Rishworth, the Labor Party has made a lot and done a lot to protect penalty rates for workers. Front page of The Australian today reports that a new group, or groups, arguing that they’re actually not better off now when you look at penalty rates and the lowering of those as opposed to the better wages that they get overall. So have you made a mistake?

Amanda Rishworth: Well, not at all. And I think the issue is that Michaelia Cash, the Employment Minister, is trying to argue that enterprise bargaining and increasing the base rate and changing arrangements around penalty rates within an enterprise is the same as unilaterally the Government coming in and not stepping in to stop unilateral cuts to penalty rates. They are two very, very different propositions. There is an independent umpire that actually looks to make sure that individual workplaces, when they do enterprise bargaining, are better off overall. That means a higher base rate; every hour of pay is a higher base rate.

David Bevan: But that’s not the way it works out, is it, for many, many people who just work on weekends? And that is why your old union, the shoppies union – you’re patron with Don Farrell; he’s very much sponsored your career – that shoppies union is now facing a breakaway group – that is, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union – and they’re actually making great gains in the commission, aren’t they? Because they’re pointing out that many workers, under deals signed off by the shoppies union, are much worse off.

Amanda Rishworth: Look, in terms of enterprise of agreements, you have voting in a local enterprise. It’s not the same as cutting penalty rates overall. Now, I’d just like to point out that in South Australia, the SDA did an enterprise – a model enterprise agreement – with Business SA. Not one business took that up. It was a model agreement because the wages bill was greater, was higher than what they would be paying under the awards.

David Bevan: But what do you say to people like Coles worker David Suter, who was quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald a few days ago, and he says he was losing between $1500 and $2100 a year from an agreement signed off by the shoppies. He said every hour and every shift I work attracts reduced penalty rates when compared to the award. I’m not looking for handout; I just want a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Now, what he’s saying is – if I’ve understood him correctly – is that he was a weekend worker. Now, the deal that the shoppies signed off with on Coles meant that other people got pay increases, but they work during the week. The people who – and there were many people – who just work on weekends were much worse off. They’re just tough luck.

Amanda Rishworth: The base rate goes up overall, which means the base rate’s higher on weekends as well as during the week. Overall, there is an overall better off test and …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] Not for David Suter.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, there is an enterprise agreement. There is voting. This not individual agreements like the Liberal Party wants to bring in – take it or leave it contracts. This is enterprise agreement. If you are genuinely suggesting that we get rid of enterprise bargaining, if the Liberal Party is genuinely saying forget enterprise bargaining, we want to go back just to the awards system, then bring on the legislation, but they are not doing that.

David Bevan: What I’m putting to you is the campaign that your union and your party have been running on penalty rates, there’s a disingenuous element to that.

Amanda Rishworth: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. What is happening in the commission when it comes to penalty rates is unilateral cutting of the penalty rates. There is not an increase in the base rate. There are not other wages and conditions that compensate that. It is cutting the penalty rates with nothing in return in terms of paying conditions.

Ali Clarke: So if this worker was your family member and coming home with, what, 1500 did you say, David?

David Bevan: Fifteen-hundred to $2100 less a year.

Ali Clarke: What do you say to him?

Amanda Rishworth: In terms of the enterprise bargaining agreement, I would say be a voice in that – vote and organise your other workers to vote for it. There is an enterprise agreement …

David Bevan: [Interrupts] But he’s a weekend worker and he’s in a minority so he gets screwed.

Amanda Rishworth: Well, that is enterprise bargaining. If you actually do not think enterprise bargaining with higher base rates and other improvements that come along for the workforce should be abolished, but it is very, very different, it is entirely different from unilaterally cutting penalty rates.

Ali Clarke: Unfortunately, we will have to leave it there. Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister is off to make that speech now; Amanda Rishworth, Member for Kingston, who you just heard there, thank you very much; and also Green Senator for SA, Sarah Hanson-Young, thanks for coming in.