House debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019


Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019, Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:07 pm

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I second the amendment. I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the amendment moved by the member for Moreton. This legislation will allow the government to impose fees on universities for the administration of students' access to the Higher Education Loan Program. These changes are expected to save the Commonwealth just $11 million across the forward estimates—if they want a suggestion about what to do with that $11 million, I suggest they use it to fund the CapTel handsets program that they're closing in February of next year. These are relatively modest savings. The Labor Party won't oppose these bills, but, I'll be honest, I do feel uncomfortable supporting this legislation. I spent my life as a student activist campaigning for free education. I'm a passionate believer that you should have the most accessible education system possible, from the earliest years of early childhood education all the way through to lifelong learning. Sadly, here in Australia, we have the sixth-highest fees for tertiary education in the OECD. That is completely unacceptable.

Education is the most transformative investment we make in our people. It's something we should do with pride. We should look at ways to put more money into our university sectors, not just do small cost-recovery matters here and there. I served on Curtin's University Council in 2005 when that university implemented fee deregulation and increases to HECS fees. Sadly, that deregulation and those increases in university fees have continued year after year. Australia's higher education system has become unaffordable for far too many.

Some 15 years on from when I was at university, my brother, Joey, is now studying at the University of Western Australia. He is studying the hard science of biology; I only did the soft sciences, social science. For his undergraduate degree my brother has paid twice what I paid. That is completely unacceptable. In another 15 years my son, Leo, will be looking at his options for further study as he is, I hope, completing high school. I am really worried that the system we continue to defund and to increase fees for will be an even less accessible system than the one we have today.

By the government's own admission, this is low-priority legislation. But it's low-priority legislation because we have a more serious vocational education and training and skills crisis in this country. I know the TAFEs in my electorate of Perth are crying out for more investment in capital infrastructure—in new, modern classrooms and the facilities they need to train the next generation of aged-care workers; to train the next camos for channels 7, 9 or 10 or, indeed, the public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS; to train people in how to work in fashion design; or to train those who work in our labs. They don't have the facilities that they need in TAFE. Again, the government admits this is low-priority legislation, but when it comes to TAFE and vocational education there are huge, urgent priorities. Six years since the government was elected in 2013, we have 140,000 fewer apprentices. There has been $3 billion cut out of vocational education. We've seen a decline in enrolments in vocational education over those six years; in fact, if you look at TAFE enrolments between 2013 and 2019 you'll see there are 24½ per cent fewer TAFE enrolments than there were when this government was elected. That's a pretty remarkable record for six years in government and one I would be absolutely ashamed of if I were on the other benches.

Labor has other concerns in respect of this legislation, as the member for Moreton just outlined. The government's approach to the funding of the Australian higher education system is, in my view, mean. It doesn't appreciate the important role of universities in generating the next generation of academics and people in our workforce. Universities should be hubs of learning, research and innovation. I'm lucky to have Edith Cowan University in my electorate and the growing presence of Curtin University. The University of Western Australia is just across the road. And Perth is experiencing what has been described as a mini boom of construction of new inner-city student accommodation, something that is bringing much-needed life back into the heart of Perth.

Universities broaden minds. They create new possibilities. They will create the next Australian discoveries that we can be proud of. I loved being at university. I loved it so much that I went and did three degrees. Our universities are fabulous places for people to learn, meet other people and continue to contribute to the Australian economy. I did spend some time at university—this probably won't surprise anyone here—protesting against some of the changes of the Howard government. I won't recreate the chants that we used to use, but eventually Johnny Howard did indeed go.

I'm worried that these fees may be passed on to students. I spent that time fighting not just against increases to higher education contribution schemes but against parking fee increases, fee increases for the university gymnasium and other things, and I worry that these fees will get passed on to students. That situation would be unacceptable. We know that, even if these fees aren't directly passed on to students, the cost will be paid somewhere. It will come in reduced teaching and learning investment; it will come in decreased investment in equipment for students or in the never-ending deregulation of the long-term academic workforce we rely upon.

Also, while students continue to pay that little bit more and that little bit more for their education, we see that they are having to start repaying their HECS debt earlier and earlier. Commencing on 1 July this year, people earning $45,000 are now required to begin repaying their HELP debt. This is asked of both graduates and those who are still completing their studies. While they're being asked to repay those debts, students are under huge financial pressure. Universities Australia conducted a survey in 2017, which was released in 2018, on the finances of students and how they manage their day-to-day expenses. It's very relevant for this debate, because ultimately we're talking about how students afford their education and how we as a Commonwealth, as a federal parliament, make sure that that education is properly funded.

One in seven students in this survey reported going without food and other necessities as they were continuing their studies. In the case of Indigenous students, the survey showed that one in four Indigenous students were going without food or other necessities while they were in a higher education institution. Three out of five students said that finances were a source of worry and anxiety. That was higher amongst low-SES students and higher again, with most anxiety and worry about finances, for regional students. If you have to move away from home, there is the cost of being in student accommodation and everything else that comes with being a regional student going to a campus that might not be in your home town, and then you still need to worry about your own personal finances. The survey also found that one in 10 students were deferring their studies because of financial pressures, and two in five students said that their paid work adversely affected their university performance. One in three students were reported as regularly missing university lectures or classes because of their need to work to stay in their studies.

That's not how it should be. We should have a university system where people can go and enjoy studying, where they can learn properly, where they can attend the classes they're paying thousands of dollars for, where they can participate fully in the tutorials which they're paying thousands of dollars for and, indeed, which this government also pays thousands of dollars for. The universities absorbing the costs that will be imposed on them as a result of this legislation will result in reduced university staffing and services, as I said earlier.

I must acknowledge what the university sector itself has said about this bill. Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson has described the government's approach to higher education funding as 'death by a thousand cuts'. That's the university sector's own description of this government's higher education policies. This piece of legislation is one of those thousand cuts. It's not building anything new and exciting for students. It's not making any investment in research. It's just one more fee.

Last Saturday marks six years of the coalition government. As I said before, over that time we've had a huge decrease in investment and participation in the vocational education and training space. Unfortunately, we've also seen an increase in the casualised workforce in our universities. Universities are making redundancies. Permanent and fixed term staff are facing the prospect of losing their jobs and being moved into more insecure and casual work. Analysis from the National Tertiary Education Union shows that approximately eight out of 10 full-time equivalent teaching-only jobs are casual. That is, we are saying that we don't value teaching as much as we value research. The reality for most of us who engage in the university sector is that yes, we're lucky to have bright academics who make sure that we're learning from fabulous pieces of thoroughly assessed research; but teaching and learning are equally important. If we continue to underfund our universities, we're going to continue to underfund that vital piece of teaching and learning that provides the workforce of the future that we so desperately need. Figures from the Department of Education and Training itself show that now less than half of all jobs in our university sector are permanent. That is a shocking statistic. Indeed, if you think about what this legislation does, it continues that trend of casualisation of our university workforce.

What do universities do to fix the gap that this legislation leaves? What do they do? They turn to international students—a great export market. It's a fabulous thing that we share our universities with the world, and I'm so lucky that when I went to Curtin University about 25 per cent of the student cohort were international students. It provides so much richness to campus life and richness to the university and to the tax coffers as well—some $35 billion contribution to the Australian economy, supporting some 240,000 jobs across the country. But it shouldn't be a substitute for proper funding of our universities—just valuing them in and of themselves. The government must properly fund higher education and research in this country. I'm glad that we are properly scrutinising this legislation and making sure that students aren't disadvantaged by this policy. Indeed, in coming years, I hope that we do not have any reports of universities passing these costs on directly or indirectly to students.

The member for Moreton spoke earlier of the ultimate vision for higher education in this country. Indeed, Labor did take to the election a $10 billion plan for universities over the next decade to make sure that we invest in the capital infrastructure and invest in the academic and mental infrastructure that's needed to make sure that our universities remain some of the best in the world. Sadly, as I and many on this side have acknowledged, Labor did not win that election, but it doesn't mean that we should be any less a voice for proper funding of our universities and proper investment in student learning. I will leave my remarks there.


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