House debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020


Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:27 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you to the government for coming in for my speech—it's very nice of them. I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. I'll say up-front that Labor will not oppose this bill. This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act, HESA. The funding of higher education in Australia is predominantly provided through that piece of legislation.

The measures this bill implements include measures which give the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who have exceeded the HELP loan limit. It will allow those students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. The current loan limits for HELP debts are $106,319 for most students and $152,700 for students studying eligible medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and aviation courses. The department has identified 475 students who have exceeded the loan limits. The total of excess debt is $5.9 million. This legislation is necessary so that students are not directly pursued for their debt by education providers outside the current taxation system.

It is only fair that students who have exceeded their student loan limit through an administrative glitch are given an opportunity to repay that debt over time, rather than be pursued for a lump sum that they cannot possibly pay unless they win Gold Lotto. How did the students exceed their loan limits? Students with multiple student identifiers have been able to exceed the loan limits without realising they were racking up enormous debts beyond the limit of the HELP system. To prevent this happening into the future, this bill gives effect to the government's 2019-20 budget measure to extend the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students. All students commencing from 1 January 2021, next year, and all students from 1 January 2023 will have a USI, a Unique Student Identifier, to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under HESA. Labor has consistently supported the expansion of the USI across higher education. It is time. This should reduce the occurrence of students exceeding their loan limits.

This bill also gives students an exemption from the requirement to pay the 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September 2020. This will help students finding it tough financially through the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be a welcome relief to students whose income from casual work has all but ceased during the pandemic. The department has advised that up to 50,000 higher education students and 20,000 VSL students might benefit from this measure, so it is not insignificant.

This bill also makes a technical correction to ensure that all students enrolled in aviation courses that enable graduates to obtain commercial flying qualifications, whether through VET or higher education, will be able to access the higher HELP loan limit. And hopefully they are doing that through a reputable organisation, such as those connected with Archerfield Airport in my electorate.

In addition, this bill changes the name of the University of Western Sydney to Western Sydney University, making it consistent with state legislation and the university branding.

As I said previously, Labor supports this bill. But the measures in this bill make only minor adjustments to the sector, a sector that right now actually needs a comprehensive, genuine and enduring reform package and support package. Sadly, the quality of education in Australia has diminished under the Liberal and National parties over the last seven years. What we have seen is billions cut from universities by the re-capping of undergraduate places. We've seen research funding slashed. Funding to TAFE and training has also been cut significantly, some would say to the bone in certain areas but particularly in some rural areas.

We now have a national shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. We see a Prime Minister running around looking for tradies to get into shot with to try and counterbalance the argument that flows from the cuts they've put into universities, TAFE and training. So we see, sadly, that the Liberal and Nationals parties do not value education. If they did they would deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the higher education sector, a package that properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the education and services that their students need, reflecting what this nation needs.

The 2017 MYEFO decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities re-capped undergraduate places. Because of that MYEFO decision 200,000 students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place, particularly significant for the rural parts of Australia—200,000 students! This will devastate our economy and our society. If the Liberals had their way students would already be paying $100,000 for a university agree. They have forced students to pay off their HELP debts earlier, when they earn as little as $46,000—just $9,000 more than the minimum wage.

Labor understands the importance of higher education and education generally. Labor understands that it is the great transformational policy, that great opportunity in life, for our best and brightest to be of service to this nation. That's why when Labor was in government we uncapped university places. I know that greater participation in higher education not only is good for the student but is good for the Australian economy and good for the nation generally.

Students who were already missing out on university places before this pandemic now have tougher circumstances lined up against them. We see in the aftermath of the pandemic that there is even greater demand for places. This government is doing nothing—nothing—to support these students. They are denying them a place at a university at a time when the unemployment queues are actually getting longer. That's not a turn of phrase. If you walk or drive past the Centrelink offices you will see that.

The re-capping of university places has devastated participation rates in higher education. How is it fair that a student in the North Shore of Sydney is five times more likely to go to university than a student in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland? Perhaps we should blame the federal representatives—but I couldn't possibly comment on that—but obviously something needs to change.

Investing in Australian universities is good for all of us. The minister himself acknowledged that productivity improvements in the sector can increase economic growth by $2.7 billion a year. But the Morrison government doesn't value the university sector and it is deliberately throwing the people who add value to that sector under the bus. This government is sitting by and watching as universities shed jobs, close campuses and cut back on courses and degrees. In fact, this Morrison government has gone out of its way to exclude universities from COVID support. The Morrison government has repeatedly changed its policy to stop university staff accessing wage subsidies and it's putting thousands of jobs at risk.

We've already learnt that hundreds of jobs will go in Geelong and Warrnambool—Deakin University has indicated that 400 jobs will go. In Rockhampton, Central Queensland University has indicated 180 jobs will go and, particularly, I point out that that will involve closing three of their campuses: one on the Sunshine Coast, one at Yeppoon and one at Biloela—areas, which have LNP representatives, that are going to be devastated because they're big parts of those communities. Across Melbourne and Bendigo, La Trobe University has indicated jobs will go as well.

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a sector-wide crisis. In my discussions with vice-chancellors we clearly see—and I've done Zoom meetings all around Australia with vice-chancellors—that it is tough now and about to get a hell of a lot tougher, particularly if overseas students are not able to access courses for 2022, and those flow-ons will continue for a very long time.

The impact of these losses on regional communities will be particularly devastating. Universities support 14,000 jobs in rural Australia—and I'm sure the member for Lingiari would agree on how significant Charles Darwin University is in the Northern Territory. They help underpin the local economy in so many of those regional towns. Across the board we're looking at tens of thousands of livelihoods being destroyed. We're talking about academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security and all the other jobs associated with universities—all people drawing a wage with families who rely on those wages, with bills to pay, mortgages and so many other commitments to meet.

So, why has the Morrison government gone out of its way to exclude these workers? It's like an anti-intellectual push that befits a Donald Trump or someone like that, a populist, not somebody who actually understands the value of investing in education and the economic benefits that flow from it as a former Treasurer should understand. Why is the Prime Minister so determined to abandon these people connected with the higher education sector and the TAFE and training sector?

At this point, this action seems like a deliberate attack on Australian higher education. This has never been Labor's approach to universities and it never will be. Labor's priority will always be that university education should be accessible to all, making sure that we get our best and brightest in front of the opportunities that come from university. No-one's education should be limited by their background, location or their credit card limit.

Labor boosted investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We opened up the system, uncapping places giving an additional 190,000 students a spot at university and the life opportunities that flow. This decision was driven by our commitment to improving Australia's productivity—something that has been flatlining for too long—and to breaking down disadvantage and inequality in the system. It succeeded in bringing in new people to university. We saw Indigenous enrolments go up. We saw more Australians with disability entering the system. I point out to the National Party: we saw people from rural and remote areas going to university.

Why is this important? Education helps create jobs that bring higher wages and a better quality of life for all Australians. This should be the guiding principle of Australian education policy rather than short-term budget savings that actually damage what's coming over the horizon. We need a vision of equity and productivity supported by funding and resources. Sadly, this is not a vision shared by this myopic Morrison government, a government that is watching thousands of jobs go, campuses close and is doing nothing to stop it.

The Liberals have neglected the skills and vocational training sector as well. As I mentioned earlier, there's a national shortage of tradies, and it is no wonder. We see that the Liberals have slashed $3 billion from TAFE and training. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including things like plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. If no action is taken immediately by the Morrison government, another 100,000 apprenticeships and traineeships will be lost by the end of 2020. This is a disgrace, and it's young people who are getting near the end of their schooling who are going to miss out.

The failure of this government has a real effect on people's lives. That is the tragedy of their neglect—their neglect of universities, their neglect of higher education and their neglect of vocational education and training. This government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school education system.

(Quorum formed)


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