Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I too would like to make a contribution to this debate about something pretty important: education. So I do seek to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. However, in saying that, I would give way to a single Liberal who wanted to stand up and defend this government's record on higher education. But, alas, as you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, not a single Liberal is prepared to come and defend the record of this government on higher education.
In terms of the legislation before us, from the outset I can say that we will be supporting its passage. But that's just the start of the debate, which really does go to this government's record when it comes to higher education. When it comes to the tertiary sector, our universities and our TAFE are the things that are important for the future of our nation. What we have before us is really just fiddling on the edges. This is a tweak being applied by a third-term government that refuses to deliver comprehensive, genuine reform for higher education and for vocational education. It is looking at administrative matters in the main but nothing that goes to genuine reform of this sector.
In essence the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the VET Student Loans Act 2016, and it makes three fundamental changes. Firstly, the bill will give the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who, due to having multiple Commonwealth higher education student support numbers, have exceeded the HELP loan limit, and allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. That is a good thing and it is obviously supported by Labor. This is a favourable measure. It removes the possibility of a situation where the education provider, in fact, has to pay the government and then go about pursuing the debt from the student, which would be inappropriate. It would be problematic in the extreme, because, as I understand it, the amount of the debt recovery could be up to $12,000 per student. So that's a good measure.
Measure No. 2 in the bill extends the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students by requiring students commencing from 1 January 2021 and all students from 1 January 2023 to have a Unique Student Identifier in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under the act. A similar requirement is imposed on all VET student loan recipients who will also be required to have a USI number by 1 January 2021. It is hoped that this measure will prevent instances of multiple student identifiers which would result in HELP debt under the cap.
Thirdly, and importantly, the bill provides undergraduate students seeking FEE-HELP loans with an exemption from the requirement to pay a 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September. This provision is aimed at reducing the financial burden on students impacted by the current pandemic.
Whilst these are good measures, reasonable, dare I say, and well thought out, the legislation is still tinkering around the edges of higher education. The government simply refuses to deliver genuine reform to overhaul the system of higher education and to provide the funds necessary for both our universities and our vocational education providers to do what they are supposed to be doing—that is, developing our human resources for the future and applying their skills to ensure that we have the skill sets that we need for the future Australian economy. I don't need to remind too many people in this House that it has taken seven long years of this government for us to get to this stage. But don't forget that, during that seven long years, they have neglected higher education. They have taken $2.2 billion of funding out of our universities, effectively re-capping our undergraduate places. That in itself is putting in jeopardy the prospects of some 200,000 students who will probably miss out on a university education because of this government's cuts to Commonwealth funded places.
In electorates like mine and the member for Chifley's in Western Sydney—and no doubt this applies elsewhere—the impact of the coronavirus on our local economies has been pretty devastating. As a region, we've experienced significant unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We're seeing enormous social and economic disruption. At this point, during this pandemic, the government are denying additional support for our tertiary sector, a sector which has been particularly hard hit, given that some of our universities rely particularly on overseas students and research capability. But for the universities operating in our area, particularly the Western Sydney University, that's not really applicable, but they still are having the funds denied to them.
I'd just like to read what the vice-chancellor of the Western Sydney University, Professor Barney Glover, had to say recently. He was talking about Western Sydney and he said: 'For Western Sydney, the university is part of its very fabric. Alongside one another, the community, business and university have helped transform our region. This has changed the narrative from one of disadvantage to one of promise. That regional compact is vitally important, but the work is far from finished.' Here is the head of the university, knowing its place in a wide economic centre such as Western Sydney: education is so vitally important.
Far from being just a major employer—or employers, when you take TAFE into account—our tertiary education sector is integral to the sustainable development of our regions. Institutions such as the Western Sydney University and TAFE colleges out there in the west are critical for developing the pathways of many of our young people to be ready for those jobs of the future. They are pretty significant things. We know that, if the Liberals had their way back in 2013, they would have been introducing at that point $100,000 university degrees. They have already forced students to start paying their HELP debts when they're earning as little as $45,000, which is only around $9,000 more than the minimum wage. My electorate is overrepresented with families from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and, for them, a debt like that becomes pretty significant. As a matter of fact, it becomes a barrier to study. How is that about lifting people out of poverty? How is it that we apply a regime like this which acts, as I say, as a barrier to education, when we know education is a great enabler? We want to see greater participation in higher education, not less. In contrast, this government want to slam the door shut on universities and to more than 200,000 students. This is the track record of a government that love to talk big when it comes to education but in fact do little.
It's the same mob opposite who have diminished TAFE over the whole period of their government since 2013—three terms. They don't recognise that TAFE plays such a fundamental role for our young people and also, in doing so, for the growth of our local economies and, as a matter of fact, our national economy. They have spent seven years cutting the funding to TAFE and training by ripping $3 billion out of the system while underspending on the promises they'd already made to the sector. The Liberals failed to spend $919 million out of their budget on TAFE training over the past five years alone.
I'll just go back to Professor Barney Glover again. He was talking recently about the need to lift the cap on Commonwealth funded places for domestic students. This is where it does become very relevant to what we're talking about now. He went on to say, 'Lifting the cap would allow the university to work hand in hand with our TAFE sector and industry partners to rapidly strengthen the skills within our region to enhance productivity at a time when it needs it most.' I think that's exactly right. This is not just about universities and not just about TAFEs; this is about our higher education sector being able to do what we expect them to do, and that is to deliver the skill sets to our young people that are going to be so vital for our future.
The situation, I think, only gets worse when we look at the impact of the coronavirus on our respective regions. As a result of the government's lack of commitment to vocational education, we have now seen 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, which will deliver a shortfall in our skilled workers for the future. We have seen them in our critical trades areas. These are not areas where it's easy to go and manufacture people to just come and take their places. What this mob have done—and they have continually acted this way, ever since the mining boom, when we didn't have that skill set—was run to fill our critical skills shortages by short-term overseas employment visas. Why is it incumbent on a government to do that with our critical trades, whether it be our welders, our diesel mechanics, our carpenters or our plumbers? This is something we have a sovereign interest in. There's no point in those opposite wanting to talk about sovereign interests without addressing the basic issues. It's not all about trade; it's about making sure that we have the capability to be productive and competitive. Therefore, we need that skill base and we need to be able to develop it. We need to be able to develop it through our own resources—through our own universities and our own TAFE colleges.
I tell those opposite: we want genuine reform. But, the thing is, to get that, you need a vision. This mob opposite does not have a vision when it comes to higher education. A government that cuts and diminishes the significant role of universities and vocational education simply has no role in our future. We need a government that is going to look to the future of our young people. As a matter of fact, doing so addresses the future prosperity for our nation. Every dollar you commit to education is an investment in the future of our nation.
I note that Labor is supporting the passage of this bill, but I do call on the government to sit down, do a bit of navel-gazing and look for genuine reform, not just tinkering at the edges and calling that reform to higher education or tertiary education. We want genuine reform of this industry. We want to make sure that we have the young people skilled so they can actually take the jobs of the future. We want this. That would be something our nation can be proud of.