Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018, Student Loans (Overseas Debtors Repayment Levy) Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading
I commend the previous speaker for highlighting the obvious: education is good for all of us. It gives us control. It gives us options. It gives us choice. It gives us opportunities. And I know because my sisters and I are living proof of the transformative powers of a quality public education and the transformative powers of a tertiary education.
Like so many Australians, like so many here in this chamber, I was the first in my family to go to university. It was the changes that the Whitlam government made in the seventies that allowed me that opportunity. When I first went to university, when I went to the Australian National University in the early eighties, my first degree was free. That was thanks to Whitlam, who opened up those opportunities for so many hundreds of thousands of Australians who were the first in their families to be educated. It was an amazing reform, one of the many amazing reforms of the Whitlam era and one that was truly transformative for our nation in positioning us for a modern future and in opening up opportunities to so many hundreds of thousands of Australians who were the first in their families to be educated, thanks to free tertiary education.
As I said, education is transformative. It's been transformative for me and my sisters. Those who know my story know that, as I said, I was the first in my family to be educated at university. And here I am now, thanks to the people of Canberra, enjoying the great honour and privilege of representing them here in this parliament. My middle sister is Australia's first Master of Wine and a world-renowned winemaker and was also a scientist in her former life. She was at the vanguard of AIDS research in this country during the 1980s. And then there is my baby sister, who is a world-renowned neurologist who is a specialist in stroke and dementia. So here we are. My incredible sisters have had all these opportunities, as have I, thanks to the education that we received, thanks to the tenacity of my mother, thanks to a quality public education and also thanks to the great work done by Gough Whitlam in opening up tertiary education to hundreds of thousands of Australians.
Thanks to that work, thanks to that tenacity and thanks to that opportunity, I and my sisters broke a three-generation cycle—an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage, an intergenerational cycle of poverty, an intergenerational cycle of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of choice. My great-grandmother was a single mother. My grandmother was a single mother. My great-grandmother brought up 13 children on her own. My grandmother brought up seven children on her own in a Housing Commission house in Melbourne. And my mother, also a single mum, brought us up because my dad left us when I was 11—and with $30 in the bank. It was tough. But education is the silver bullet. It is the great transformer.
Over the years, various federal governments have increased their reliance on income-contingent loans. They've made students pay more for tertiary education, and they've expanded loan programs into completely new domains. There have been close to a dozen different income-contingent loans. Assuming that VET FEE-HELP is still kicking around, there are currently eight different active schemes.
Essentially, the Education and Other Legislation Amendment (VET Student Loan Debt Separation) Bill 2018 will separate VET student loan debts from other forms of debt taken under the Higher Education Loan Program, or HELP. The separation doesn't change the existing arrangement but prioritises the repayment of VET Student Loans over other loans, like the Student Start-up Loan and the Trade Support Loan. The new prioritisation framework lays the groundwork for courses to be specified as eligible for VET Student Loans by referring them to the national register of courses. This is a register of nationally recognised VET courses and training packages.
Labor has argued that it is time to reassess the architecture of our entire postsecondary education system. The measures in these bills are a timely reminder for us to reassess what we do with income-contingent loans. Labor's great reform of 1989—and the great reform of Whitlam in the 1970s—means HECS is now nearly 30 years old. That expanded higher education opportunities by helping to finance opportunities for people who, in general, would derive great benefits from university study. It did so without compromising the government's ability to direct resources to people who were less well-off—people who may be unemployed, people who may be aged, people who may have a disability or people who need health care. It's worth noting that, even today, 60 per cent of our young people will not go to university.
When I went through university in the eighties with my first degree, which was free, only five to 10 per cent of Australians were tertiary educated—and I was one of those. I must admit, I was opposed to the changes that were made by Labor—again, the great reforming Labor, particularly on education—in the eighties. I was the union president of the oldest workers college in the world, the RMIT. I was in the National Union of Students. My very first Labor conference was actually protesting against HECS out the front of Wrest Point down in Tasmania. There were probably many of us who marched. But, with age and with wisdom, we realised that the transformation that happened as a result of that HECS reform opened up the opportunity for so many to go to university.
When university was free, it opened up many opportunities—many were the first in their family to go—but it was still about five to 10 per cent. Once you got into the HECS era, it opened that up from that five to 10 per cent to about 30 or 40 per cent of Australians getting a tertiary degree, which is extraordinary. It was a great result, a great reform. As I said, I was opposed to it as a student politician and as head of the Labor Club down at RMIT and also head of the union. I protested with my NUS colleagues. But with age and wisdom, I now realise that this was a major reform that has delivered significant benefit and significant opportunity. The Whitlam reforms made that first step towards opening up opportunity for tertiary education. The Dawkins reforms broadened that even further to an even larger group of people who now had that opportunity.
These bills—unlike those significant reforms by Whitlam, unlike those significant reforms by Dawkins, unlike those significant reforms under the Hawke and Howard governments—just tweak the edges. It reminds us of all the work that needs to be done to ensure we have a world-class postsecondary education and training system. Tweaking the current system will not deal with the profound systemic problems in the VET system. It will not deal with the inequities that have grown as student loans have expanded and as costs have shifted onto young people, including apprentices and trainees. It reminds us that this government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better postschool system.
The VET sector is an area of huge concern for Labor. We are concerned about insufficient funding of the VET sector. We're concerned about the history of VET providers profiting under the VET FEE-HELP. And we're incredibly concerned about the skills shortage crisis in Australia. Canberra has been hit hard by the Turnbull government. We are always hit hard by coalition governments. When John Howard was elected in 1996, we lost tens of thousands of people from Public Service jobs and from our beloved national capital. We had three seats then. We had three electorates here in Canberra for the federal parliament. As a result of the plummet in the population, thanks to the savage cuts by the Howard government, we were then reduced to two seats. We've only, finally, got the third seat back. I look forward to helping whoever should win the preselection for that third seat to contest that election for Labor. I'm looking forward to being there. I've been there since 1983 handing out how-to-vote cards for Labor and I look forward to doing it yet again in the next few years. We're always hit hard by coalition governments. We've seen cuts to our Public Service and cuts to our national institutions, and I remind you of our pathetic share of the national infrastructure spend in this year's budget, but that's another speech.
Vocational education has not escaped unharmed. We are in a serious skills shortage in Canberra. The number of trainees and apprentices in Australia has plummeted by 49 per cent since 2013. That's a massive 49 per cent drop in trainees and apprentices right here in the nation's capital. This statistic does not go unnoticed in my community. You don't have to walk too far from this building to speak with someone who has been charged an absolute fortune for calling a tradie on the weekend, if they've managed to get a tradie on the weekend. I know that it's not just the expense for people at home but it's also the challenge for businesses that want to grow and prosper. Businesses with new ideas and innovations just can't find the talent to be able to do that. So it's hampering business opportunity and it's hampering economic opportunity here in the ACT. We're short on bricklayers, early childhood teachers, hairdressers, locksmiths, mechanics and bankers. The list goes on and on and on. Local businesses just can't fill these positions, even though they are trying. Instead of investing in skills and vocational education to fix this disaster, the Turnbull government ripped away $270 million in the 2018 budget, and this was on top of the $1.5 billion commitment this government made in last year's budget which wasn't spent. I repeat: not a cent of the $1.5 billion commitment to apprenticeships and TAFE in the budget last year has been spent. What's the point of budgeting for it if you're not going to use it?
What's the impact of those cuts in vocational education? It's a sector that provides a great opportunity, particularly for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who don't necessarily see tertiary education as an option for them and want to go into a trade or a vocational career. It provides a great opportunity for those who want to have a pathway from school through to VET and then on to university but want to take their time, find themselves and work out the groove for themselves. This government, with its never-ending cuts, has denied access and opportunity to tertiary education as well as the opportunities and choice that are provided by vocational education.
My community is in dire need of skills based workers—not just a quick fix but a permanent solution. We need a strategic solution. We need a considered solution. We need a well-researched solution. Canberra needs a government that is committed to trades and vocational education and will give it the investment it needs. This is the government that is constantly preaching 'jobs and growth', but it has failed miserably in investing in the skills to ensure the jobs and growth, particularly in the skills for trades. As I said, we've had a 49 per cent drop in trades and apprentices in Canberra since 2013.
Effective vocational education and skills formation is essential to national economic and social prosperity. It's essential for the jobs that haven't even been created yet. I'm talking here about cybersecurity. We need 19,000 cybersecurity experts in this country right now. We're not going to be able to get that through a tertiary degree. We need them right now. I don't even want to think what it's going to look like in two or three years in terms of our skills shortage. It is vital that we amp up the vocational sector and that we amp up the opportunities that are provided by cert IIIs and cert IVs to build that skill base, and build it quickly. What is this government doing on that front?
As I said, my sisters and I are living proof of the powers of education, as are hundreds of thousands of Australians. We need to provide opportunities for all Australians. We need to address the significant skill shortage that this nation is facing—not just our national capital, but the whole nation. If we are going to grow, if we are going to prosper, if we are going to be able to compete in the future and if we are going to keep our nation secure and safe, and cybersecure and cybersafe, we have got to make the investment in vocational education and we have to make it now.