Monday, 26 March 2018
Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018; Second Reading
I'm proud to be part of the party that stands up for education. In Labor, we believe in education. It's why Labor's been fighting for strong educational outcomes for Australians for many years. I don't believe investment in education is something we should be having to fight for, of course. We should be just fighting for what's right, for what just makes sense for the future of our country, for what all of the research says is a good idea, both in educational outcomes and as an investment in the future of Australia. But fighting for education is what we need to do with this government, because this Liberal-National government is doing whatever it takes to undermine every single educational system in Australia, from early childhood education all the way to tertiary studies.
What we know is that families with young children will be affected by the government's planned childcare package, which will see 2,239 families in my electorate worse off, 2,239 families whose children will have reduced access to affordable early childhood education. Families with school-aged children will suffer the brunt of the Liberals' $17 billion cut from schools and, once you're out of school, young people are faced with a $3 billion cut to vocational education and training. For those who would rather go to university, they will have to endure a $2.2 billion cut to unis. The University of the Sunshine Coast, which has just begun its first semester operating at the Caboolture campus, will be hit with a $34 million cut. I've been having a number of conversations with the USC staff, who are worried about the impact of cuts on their existing operations and on their grand plans for the future for our region. These cuts are disgraceful, and they are in stark contrast to how we on this side of the House see priorities.
When Labor were last in government, we lifted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. The steps that Labor took opened the doors of universities to 190,000 more Australians, many of whom became the first in their family to go to university. This was a great step forward, but the conservatives are determined to stand in the way of progress, and they're seeking to do this today with a bill that directly attacks students seeking to further their studies. It attacks students and undermines the fairness and integrity of Australia's world-class student loans scheme, the Higher Education Loan Program, or, as we know it, HELP.
Any changes to the HELP scheme need to be considered and evidence based. I'd like to point to a quote from Ms Catriona Jackson, the Deputy Chief Executive of Universities Australia. She said:
… the first principle—the first thing you must keep in your mind when you're changing this fundamentally important scheme—is to do no harm.
In last year's budget we saw the government attempt to compel students to start repaying their HELP debt when they started earning as little as $42,000. That's barely more than the minimum wage. That failed, thank goodness, and unsurprisingly so, because Australians value people who seek to further their education. That's why, we know, the Liberals are trying again with a slightly higher repayment threshold. It's $45,000 this time but it's still far too low. In fact, as the ACTU have stated, it's a mere $9,000 more than the minimum wage.
The point of these loans isn't to churn someone through a degree and be done with them; it's to give them an opportunity to set themselves up with a career that will benefit them, benefit their families and, of course, benefit the country. Students should not have to repay all of their debts in their first, low-paying job after university, especially not when the cost of living has grown to such exorbitant heights under this government. We must do all we can to increase participation in higher education, not make it harder to access.
It's already hard enough for a student from a low-SES or disadvantaged background to access higher education. For many students in Longman, this is a genuine barrier. If you're already struggling to get by—maybe you've suffered a pay cut through the government's cuts to penalty rates or maybe you're already working two jobs to help support your family—your capacity to go to university is already severely limited. I'd like to further pick up on that limitation when it comes to women. The National President of the National Union of Students, Mark Pace, stated to the inquiry of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee into the bill:
We know from the National Tertiary Education Union's submission to this Senate inquiry that 60 per cent of all Australians with outstanding HELP debt are women and that two-thirds of the Australians who will be dragged into the debt pool with the new proposed repayment thresholds will also be women …
There's already enough day-to-day stress. Adding yet another financial burden would certainly take its toll. Let's be very clear: the government made no significant case in this Senate inquiry for a change to HELP beyond some budget savings.
As I mentioned, the University of the Sunshine Coast have just started up their Caboolture campus in my electorate of Longman, and they're doing their part to ensure that disadvantaged students have a pathway into tertiary education. Earlier this month I facilitated conversations between staff at the USC and a number of our special assistance schools in the area. We discussed how we could get our disadvantaged students interested in tertiary education—how to open up a pathway and help get them there. What was pretty clear at that roundtable was that the changes proposed by the government will have a devastating effect on getting disadvantaged students to engage in tertiary studies. Experts have warned time and time again that if Australia does not boost participation in post-secondary education there is a strong chance that we will be left behind by the rest of the world. It is estimated that about 10,000 people could miss out on a university place again next year because of the Turnbull government's cuts. This will affect people in the regions, particularly in areas like Narangba and Caboolture. It will hit students in these areas the hardest. These areas are already lagging behind the wealthier, inner-city urban areas when it comes to participation in higher education. Now, with all the cuts the Liberals have forced upon TAFE and the vocational education sector, it's not like there are many opportunities left to turn to if you're a student in my electorate.
But what makes it even worse is that the reason that the Turnbull government is pursuing these cuts is to give a $65 billion handout to big businesses. I find this truly, truly disgraceful. I also find it disgraceful that Pauline Hanson, who likes to claim she's a friend of battlers, has sold them out once again. After conspiring with her dear friends in the coalition here, Senator Hanson has agreed to throw $65 billion worth of taxpayer money at banks and big businesses. She's agreed to throw that money, while, at the same time, that will force the government to see universities like the University of the Sunshine Coast face $34 million worth of cuts in their aim to educate students, and we'll see $600 million worth of cuts to TAFE. That's what will happen.
When Labor win the next election, we will be putting Australia back on track. What you'll see is a government taking education seriously and investing in the future of this country, right from early childhood education through to tertiary education and TAFE. We'll be bringing Australia back to a position where we don't need to rely on so many 457 visa workers, for example. We'll be able to employ locally.
The Liberals and One Nation seem to think that the answer to a shortage of workers skilled through university or TAFE is to look overseas. Well, it's not. That's simply a bandaid solution. It does nothing to move more Australians into work, and it does even less to prevent this issue continuing into the future.
Senator Hanson's big-business-tax-cut sweetener, as we know, was 1,000 apprenticeship places. That barely scratches the surface. Under this government, we've seen 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships lost. That's right. So what we've got here is a One Nation vote in the Senate that will cost this nation $65 billion worth of tax cuts for banks and big businesses in return for less than one per cent of the number of apprenticeships that have been lost under this government. That's what it will cost.
But I can tell you that Labor's commitment to reversing the government's cuts to TAFE and training will take a huge step forward, as will the 20,000 fast-tracked apprenticeships for people facing redundancies or whose jobs have been lost, and our revolutionary national inquiry into postsecondary education will bring it all together. Within our first 100 days of government, we will examine every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems, and we'll make sure that they have the resources and systems in place to best assist Australia's economy and society. Investing in education always pays off. Whether we're talking about early childhood education or schools or we're talking about TAFE, vocational education or our universities, it always pays off. By any other name, investing in education means investing in people. It's investing in Australians.
What we know are cruel changes that the government want to pass show that they're too busy throwing money at big business to look ahead. I'd like to invite the government—any government member they like—to come out to my electorate. Come to Caboolture and visit some of those special assistance schools with me. Come and talk to those young students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the ones who are looking for a pathway, those who, even before turning 18, are struggling to get by and have struggled to get by.
I visit them quite regularly because, whether it's Horizons College or Alta-1 or YJET, they're doing some really great work. So I visit them quite often. They're inspiring young minds to believe in themselves, to give themselves some aspiration in life to do better for themselves and their families, not just to accept hardship that's been dished out to them but to strive for something more. That's why we're having these conversations with the University of the Sunshine Coast: to give them that pathway. We want them to look at tertiary institutions—like, as I said, the University of the Sunshine Coast or maybe, if they want to head into Brisbane, QUT or UQ—and just know that that's not out of reach for them. So I invite any government member to come and talk to these students at any of those schools. Ask them about the impact of these changes and what effect not having that pathway would have on them. Ask them if watering down our world-class student loans makes it easier for them to get into university. I openly give this offer, because I'll tell you what those opposite will hear if they come out. They'll hear students unanimously saying changes to HELP are anything but helpful to them. We're not just talking about school leavers. I'd like to extend that invitation. Come and speak to some of the students that are in their 30s and 40s and for whatever reason didn't get the opportunity or didn't take that pathway and now want to. Come and talk to them about how the government's changes to HELP will affect those people who want to create a better future for their families. The other thing those opposite will hear is about cutting funds to TAFE. They'll hear just how those TAFE funding cuts are affecting students and children that might want to head down that pathway.
Those opposite need to stop looking up at big business. Instead, we need them to look forward—and look forward to our students and to investing in their education. If they do that, they'll see that investing in people is the fastest way for our country to go forward into our future. Thank you.