House debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020


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

1:00 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 and to support the amendment moved by the member for Sydney. This bill is primarily to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, or HESA, to implement a range of measures across the higher education sector. A key provision of the bill gives the secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine that certain students, due to having more than one Commonwealth higher education student support number, have exceeded the HELP loan limit and to allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amount through the taxation system. The department became aware of this problem during a data-cleaning process conducted in the second half of 2019. According to the department, HELP loan limits have been exceeded by 475 students, totalling $5.9 million. The average debt above the cap is $12,389; the median is $7,480.

If the provisions in the bill are not enacted, education providers will be required to repay the government, and providers will be free to pursue the debts with students outside of the current taxation system. This could lead to students being pursued for debt recovery of lump sums. The minister responded to a series of questions from the member for Sydney about the impact of the bill on students who may have exceeded the loan cap with dodgy VET FEE-HELP debt. Of the 475 students who have exceeded the loan cap, 128 have some level of VET FEE-HELP debt. Some of them hold those debts with Careers Australia and Phoenix, two of the most notorious VET course rorters. The member for Sydney has been given guarantees by the minister that the department will contact and support these students. This is welcomed.

The bill also gives effect to the government's 2019-20 budget measure to extend the unique student identifier, or USI, regime to all higher education students. Students must have a USI in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. The extension of the USI regime is likely to prevent further instances of multiple student identifiers and any resulting HELP debt above the cap. Also, the bill provides undergraduate students who are seeking FEE-HELP loans with 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. The application of this provision is aimed at reducing the financial burden on students who are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's welcomed by Labor. The department has advised that up to 50,000 higher education students, including full-fee-paying students at public universities, and 20,000 VSL students might benefit. This bill makes several other minor amendments around consistent census dates, definitions of vocational courses and the naming of universities.

Labor supports the bill. It will ease the stress for these students, worried that there might be a knock at the door from a debt collector. It will give some relief for a significant number of students around HELP loan fees in these difficult COVID times. However, this bill highlights yet again how this government serves up minor regulatory housekeeping when major reform is needed. Here we are, providing some minor relief to students, while in the meantime universities are predicted to shed 21,000 jobs by the end of the year. And what real help have our 39 universities had from this government? 'Zero, zip, zilch!' is the answer to that. Worse than that, the government have gone out of their way to change the rules to deny universities access to JobKeeper. Labor continues to call on the government to save university jobs.

You may not believe that education, at $36 billion, is our fourth-biggest export after iron ore, coal and natural gas, and $26 billion of that comes from our university sector. The effect of COVID-19 on university research is predicted to be devastating. On 6 May the Rapid Research Information Forum, chaired by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, released a paper about the impact of the pandemic on Australia's research workforce and its capacity to support our recovery efforts. It concluded:

Australia's research workforce will be severely impacted by the pandemic and the effects are likely to be felt for an extended period.

The forum said that, of the 22,000 full-time equivalent job losses, an estimated 7,000 could be research-related academic staff. It also said:

Income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies, CRCs, and the industrial sector is suffering from the loss of foreign students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.

To try and make ends meet as budgets contract, universities are reducing the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff, further limiting their research capacity.

These impacts are greater than during the 2008 global financial crisis and are being observed internationally.

…   …   …

Domestic and international post-graduate students comprise 57% of the university R&D workforce.

The forum also estimates that 9,000 international research students will not resume their research in 2020 and said:

Industry sectors may experience a reduced capacity to innovate given that universities perform approximately 43% of all applied research in Australia.

A decline in innovation may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills, and efficiency gains in service and production processes.

These are the Chief Scientist's words, not mine. This is absolutely devastating as we approach a post-COVID recovery. The Prime Minister can spin like a whirling dervish about building manufacturing capacity and diversifying supply chains, but if our R&D is decimated then we have little prospect of doing either effectively.

And still this government does nothing to help universities. There is no funding rescue package and no access to JobKeeper. But we shouldn't be surprised. There have been recent news articles about how vindictive certain coalition MPs are about universities and about how universities need to be punished for not dancing vigorously enough to the government's tune on foreign interference on campuses or on support for the government at election time. Well, the government is certainly punishing the universities now. Over the last decade, this government has pushed for universities to be more entrepreneurial and to take more and more international students. Those students have been a cash cow. Universities did a brilliant job, to the extent that over $12 billion was taken by universities last year in direct fees compared to $6 billion in 2014-15. But now the bottom has fallen out of the international student market and the government refuses to help, despite universities predicting a loss of up to $4.2 billion this year and a loss of $16 billion by 2023.

International student income has, of course, masked the decline in the Commonwealth's own contribution to universities in general and for research. The impact of the government-imposed freeze on Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding in 2018 and 2019 is obvious. Even by 2018, with the growth in international students, CGS funding accounted for only 21.9 per cent of all university funding, while international student fees accounted for 26.3 per cent. This rapidly growing income from international students has been subsidising domestic teaching and, more alarmingly, the growth in research and training. In real terms, the Commonwealth contribution to universities under the coalition has declined from just under $9.5 billion in 2014-15 to only $9.4 billion this year. This is despite the total number of Australian students studying at universities increasing to over 50,000 in the same period.

What we will probably face with this crisis is a renewed push by universities to deregulate university fees, making degrees even less affordable—a move rejected twice by this parliament in recent years. Labor will continue to oppose $100,000 degrees. We will undoubtedly face increased marketing and poaching campaigns by universities to enrol more domestic students with an adverse impact on regional unis and VET.

The drop in Commonwealth effort is even starker when it comes to research. Since 2008, the universities have almost doubled their contribution to research from $3.6 billion to $6.8 billion. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth total contribution has only increased modestly from $3.4 billion in 2014 to $3.65 billion in 2018. According to Universities Australia, up to $3 billion may now be lost from R&D budgets due to COVID. In a recent opinion piece, UA called on the government to invest more in research, writing:

The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said: 'Research is creating new knowledge.'

That knowledge is the raw material that makes new ideas, new technologies and entire new industries that will generate economic success and create the new jobs vital to Australia's future national recovery.

Without extra government help, we know for sure that there will be many fewer of these skilled researchers in work in one, two or even three years from now.

UA noted that the recent Deloitte Access Economics paper estimated that for every one dollar invested in research another five dollars is added to GDP. In 2016, almost half of all university R&D funding in higher education was spent in three crucial areas: medicine and health sciences, 28.4 per cent; engineering, 10 per cent; and biological sciences, 9.2 per cent. These are the key areas we will be relying on to help us rebuild our industry, our economy and our society post-COVID. Yet, what is this government doing? Nothing.

Finally, I want to speak about the effect on the regions. In my own region around Geelong, our university is Deakin University. They are a vital player in building our region, collaborating with manufacturing and developing new technologies. They have developed the Institute for Frontier Materials, Carbon Nexus and ManuFutures—amazing incubators for new manufacturers. Deakin have been brilliant for our region, and I love them to bits.

We know that universities are vital to regional Australia. Universities employ tens of thousands of staff. While only 23 per cent of metropolitan university graduates ever work in regional areas, 73 per cent of all graduates from regional universities stay and work locally. I note that young people in regional areas have only half the higher education attainment rate of people in metropolitan areas, so universities are a vital tool in closing the economic and social development gap in regional areas like Corangamite.

During this COVID crisis, Deakin have made over 400 positions redundant, and that is only the beginning. Shamefully, Deakin have deliberately rejected a brave and responsible deal negotiated between Universities Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union to cut wages in return for saving jobs. They are going straight to redundancies. The NTEU should never have been put in that position. There will be a protest by staff against those job cuts outside Deakin, in Geelong, this Friday. I say to all of those staff and NTEU members that I support you—all power to you!

In quieter times, we might have pondered whether universities have invested the revenue from international students wisely. We might question whether they should've kept some of it for a rainy day, but that misses the point that the coalition has failed to fund universities and research properly. Now is not the time to reflect; now is the time to help. These job losses should never have happened. This vindictive, visionless government should have stepped up to the plate with a rescue package and access to the JobKeeper subsidies for universities. They should be wearing the blame for these job losses at Deakin University, Central Queensland University and many others.

I haven't got time today to speak about the tragedy of the VET sector—the $3 billion in funding taken out of this sector by the coalition over the last seven years, the 140,000 fewer apprenticeships and trainees since the coalition came to office and the severe skills shortages in critical trades. Again, this government has no idea and no plan for the VET sector, just as they have no idea and no plan for universities. It is about time they did.

(Quorum formed)


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