Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019, Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to contribute to the cognate debate on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. These bills introduce a range of small cost-recovery measures originally proposed in the 2017-18 budget. There will be a small annual charge for higher education providers and universities to support the cost of administering the Higher Education Loan Program. The bills also amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce an application fee for higher education providers to offer FEE-HELP loans to Australian students. I also note that the new charges will have to comply with the Australian Government Cost Recovery Guidelines. The government has revised the impact of these charges, with $11.4 million in savings over the forward estimates. These are modest charges and go towards the administrative costs of Australia's world-famous income-contingent loan scheme, HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program.
Labor will not oppose these bills, because, on balance, these charges will have a very small impact on the higher education sector, especially in the context of our very positive policies for higher education. However, we won't tolerate a situation where these costs, modest though they are, might be passed on to students. We will continue to monitor the operation of the scheme and, if needed, seek future amendments, changes to regulations or assurances from the higher education sector. Even though overall this is a small extra impost, we believe that it should be absorbed by the higher education sector and not flow on to students and further undermine the equity and participation rates in our higher education system.
I also want to acknowledge that a great deal of the anxiety that's been expressed by the university sector in relation to these bills—but much more broadly as well—is in relation to the track record of six years of cuts, chaos and dysfunction from this Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. Since the Liberals came to office, universities have undergone a sustained period of attack, with cuts and chaos. In last year's MYEFO we saw the Minister for Education announce a cut of $134.8 million from the Research Support Program to fund unexplained projects in regional university campuses—unexplained projects that, without more information than we have been given, can look only like pork-barrelling. A majority of this funding is going towards repairing the damage caused by previous Liberal cuts.
So the Liberal and National parties together came in and cut the funding. There's especially chaos in the regional university campuses, and it is something that, perhaps, the Nationals or the Liberal-National Party should be especially ashamed about. I note the minister at the table has universities in the electorate of Maranoa, such as the University of Southern Queensland. They'll be experiencing some of this hardship. The member for Capricornia has Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. The member for Flynn has Central Queensland University at Gladstone. The member for Hinkler has Central Queensland University at Bundaberg. The member for Dawson has Central Queensland University's Mackay campus and a bit of the James Cook University campus at Mackay as well. The member for Wide Bay has the University of the Sunshine Coast and the Gympie campus of the University of the Sunshine Coast as well. I'm particularly pointing out where the Nationals have let down higher education in their own areas. We've seen a freeze in student numbers, with a $2.2 billion cut that is actually worsening the situation there. Then, to repair the localised chaos, we take money from research and put it into these regional campuses that are being so hard hit. It really is not the way to run a higher education system that relies on certainty and over-the-horizon-type investment decisions. You cannot trust this Morrison government when it comes to education, especially in our regional, rural and remote communities. The Nationals are asleep at the wheel when it comes to looking after the bush.
I do acknowledge that in this period of cuts and uncertainty the sector sees the charges in these bills as unfortunate. I want to assure them that under Labor we're committed to providing certainty of funding and maintaining a respectful and consultative approach. So many people in the university sector remind me of the promise from the former member for Warringah right on the eve of the 2013 election. He said that universities under a Liberal government would experience a period of benign neglect. I think universities would now be praying for benign neglect, given what they've gone through over the last six years and as we commence our seventh year under the coalition government. It has not been benign neglect but malicious intent in a lot of the university changes that we've seen under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments. There have been repeated attempts to cut funding from the university sector. There have been repeated attacks on students, trying to get them to pay more for a university education and restricting access to a university education.
It was Labor that led the charge against these cuts in this parliament. The first Liberal education minister of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, Minister Pyne, tried twice to cut funding. Then, last year, Minister Birmingham also tried to cut funding to universities. There were some cuts that we were able to stop and there were some, because they didn't require legislation, that Labor could not prevent. We couldn't stop the $2.2 billion in cuts made at the end of 2017, because the minister was using existing powers in the Higher Education Support Act to reduce funding. This decision means that the government has effectively recapped undergraduate places in our universities and forced students to pay their debts off sooner by lowering the HELP repayment threshold to $45,000. The member for Sydney, the shadow minister for education and training, has described this decision as reckless and unfair, and it still is. It has locked thousands of students out of the opportunity of a university education and put enormous pressure on other young people having to repay their debts sooner, often at the same time as they're trying to start a family, buy a house and cover all those other expenses.
Changes like this, sadly, disproportionately affect women. The ACTU have undertaken analysis that shows that 60 per cent of Australians with a HELP debt and a taxable income are women. Nearly twice as many women are affected as men. We've also learned from Universities Australia that the cap on places meant that around 10,000 places were not funded in the 2018 calendar year, and we expect that number to have increased this year. The Mitchell Institute's recent tertiary participation analysis says that because of the Morrison government's caps on university places, around 235,000 students could miss out on a university place by 2031. At this stage of the year, when so many students are anxiously studying—preparing in the lead-up to their end-of-year exams, having studied hard in years 11 and 12, and hoping to get place at university—it really does tug the heartstrings to think that over the next decade or so almost a quarter of a million young people, a quarter of a million Australians who would otherwise have a place in university, will miss out if the policies of this Morrison government continue. Kids who were prepared to study, work hard and invest their time and money through the HELP repayment scheme in getting a university education, which better equips them for the world of work, will miss out because of the policy decisions of this coalition government.
The decline in TAFE and apprenticeships is in some ways even worse than what I've just described. We've seen an extraordinary failure by this government when it comes to vocational education and training. We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will actually need a post-secondary-school education, either TAFE or university, so we need to increase participation in both universities and our voc ed sector to make sure that our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing so very quickly. We need to boost participation, not attack it and cut it.
The Liberals' record in this area is abysmal. If we continue down this path, we'll severely jeopardise this nation's future economic growth, undermine the opportunity of individual Australians to meet their full potential and, very importantly, compromise our ability as a nation to compete with the rest of the world, using the skills, knowledge, discovery and invention of our people—one of our greatest resources. Consequently, I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Government has damaged the quality of Australia's world-class higher education system, having cut billions from universities by effectively capping undergraduate places and slashing research funding".
I'm proud of Labor's commitments to university funding that we took to the election. Returning to a demand-driven funding system to lift the caps on undergraduate places would have seen around 200,000 more Australians get a place at university over the next 12 years. Labor is committed to putting fairness back at the centre of our education system, to see more students who are the first in their family to go to university.
I know that around Australia right now there are bright and talented students, many of whom might want a university education, but opportunity to get that education is not evenly distributed across our towns, cities, suburbs and country areas. It makes no sense to me at all that a young person from the Moreton Bay region in Queensland is about five times less likely get a university education than someone who lives on the North Shore of Sydney. It is not because brains are unevenly distributed across our country; it is because opportunity is unevenly distributed across this great land. We need to continue working to support more students from outer suburbs and the country, Indigenous students, students with disabilities and people who are the first in their family to go to university, as I was—sorry, I should clarify that for the sake of my siblings. I was the first in my family to complete a degree, not the first to attend—sorry about that, Simon.
University students and workers in higher education are always better off under a Labor government. Labor is committed to a better and fairer funding approach. Universities will be more than able to meet the small charges in this bill. I thank universities, unions, student groups and other stakeholders for their submissions on this bill and look forward to listening to the universities—not only in Queensland but particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and at other universities that I encounter—to find out what their issues are, what their concerns are. I look forward to consulting them about this bill and other pieces of legislation in the future.