House debates

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:02 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"The House declines to give the bill a second reading as it is of the opinion that:

(1)the Government is making it harder and more expensive to go to university; and

(2)the bill will:

(a)cause students to pay more to attend university;

(b)ensure thousands of students will have their fees doubled;

(c)result in billions of dollars being cut from universities; and

(d)do nothing to get young people into high priority courses or jobs".

This bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, comes at a time when young people are hurting and universities are hurting. It's no exaggeration to say that higher education is in the middle of its most severe crisis in living memory. In the past few months, thousands of university staff across the country have lost their jobs—thousands have lost their jobs already. These losses are being felt everywhere—in Tasmania, in Rockhampton, in Geelong, in Sydney, in Darwin, in Warrnambool, in Bendigo, in Wollongong and in Melbourne. Students have seen lecturers leave and subjects cancelled. They've seen some regional campuses close entirely. And they've seen a government with shockingly little interest in acknowledging this crisis, let alone solving it.

At the same time Australia is experiencing a recession that is hitting our young people hardest. Young people were last onto the working ladder and now they're being pushed off first. Like in previous recessions it is youth unemployment that has skyrocketed, and so too has youth underemployment. For many young people their imagined future has changed overnight. Apprenticeships are banishing, travel is impossible and work feels out of reach for so many. Think about those poor year 12 kids this year, those young people who are in their final year of high school who had so much to look forward to—finishing their exams, finishing school, schoolies, formals. All of that has been taken from them. On top of that, on top of the confusion and the stress that they've experienced this year, their government is now telling them that it's going to be harder and more expensive to get into university.

So we have two problems here: a financial crisis in our universities; and a surge in youth unemployment. And what's the government's answer to these two problems? What is the proposal to protect our universities and help our young people? Would it be the extension of JobKeeper wage subsidies to public universities? Is it a new investment in TAFE to make our vocational education system world-class again? Is it the expansion of places to make sure that if young people cannot be working in the next few years they'll have at least have an opportunity to study and learn? Sadly, no. We see none of these things from the government.

What we have here is a bill that will make it harder and more expensive to go to university—a bill that gives universities fewer resources and then asks them to do more with less; a bill that does not begin to expand places nearly enough to meet the huge growth in demand we've already seen from students who want to go to university or TAFE because, let's face it, they're not having a gap year next year; and a bill that says that it's promoting science and engineering when in fact it actually does the exact opposite of what it says on the packet.

Frankly, this bill shows a basic ignorance of how university funding works and how the changes proposed will work in practice. The legislation is a mess. It is not legislation that can be salvaged with a few tweaks here and there. We can't amend it and adjust it to improve it to make it acceptable. It is irredeemable, and the government really ought to go back to the drawing board. If the coalition really wants to legislate to help university students, or potential students, it has to go back to the drawing board.

As I said, this bill makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. The government can't get around this with amendments because the central purpose of this legislation is to push the cost of education more onto students. Actually what's at the heart of this legislation is the continuation of the effort of those opposite, since Christopher Pyne was education minister, to make students bear a larger share of the cost of their education and government bear a smaller share of the cost of university education. That is the aim of this legislation. That is the purpose of this legislation. There's no getting around that from those opposite. They've been trying to do it for years. They tried to do it in the 2014 budget. They tried it again in 2017, and sadly they are trying it again now just as unemployment in this country hits a million.

On average, Australian students will pay seven per cent more for their studies under this legislation. Around 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased, some of them to $14,500 a year. For thousands of students, this means that the cost of their degree will more than double. It will increase by 113 per cent. So if you're studying commerce, you will pay more than a dentist or a doctor for the cost of your degree every year. If you're studying humanities, you will pay more than a dentist or a doctor for the cost of your degree every year. If you're studying communications and law, you'll pay more than a dentist or doctor for the cost of your degree every year.

What's more, the government have tried to claim that they are doing this in the best interests of students. It's supposed to be directing students to areas where they'll have greater opportunity of employment. In fact, that's not the case, and just this weekend the minister was actually caught out using dodgy figures to mislead students and their parents about the employability of graduates. In fact, the prospects for humanities graduates, when it comes to employment, are quite healthy. When you actually read the report, you see that the figures that the government drew attention to on the weekend show that, after three years, the employability of humanities graduates and science and maths graduates—that the government claims it's trying to support or promote—are about the same, at around 87 per cent. I expect the minister knows this, because he has three humanities degrees himself and it hasn't stopped him getting a job.

The business world gets it. Many businesspeople you talk to started out with arts degrees or generalist degrees. That's why they have spoken out so strongly against these proposed changes. To quote Megan Lilly, a director at the Australian Industry Group:

The one thing we know about the jobs market is that all the balls are in the air and they could land in a very different place … we have to be as open as possible to lots of different growth areas.

We're not of the view that the humanities is unnecessary. Graduates get very good generalist skills, and it can lead to very good career opportunities.

Even the CEO of Engineering Australia acknowledges that this bill would produce 'a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce'. So the government say they want more people studying engineering, and the engineers say that this bill would be harmful. These are people who are out there right now looking for graduates to hire in this tough labour market. Are they saying that what the government is proposing is a good idea? They are not.

We need humanities graduates and engineering graduates. This government is forever trying to divide Australians. Now they're trying to divide one group of students against another group of students. We need Australians to have access to a first quality TAFE system and a first quality university system. The government's forever pretending that there is a choice to be made in Australia. We either fund TAFE or we fund universities. We get people studying humanities, or we get people studying engineering. It's just not the case that we should be dragged into these hostile binary positions when the truth is that we need an education system that meets the broadest possible needs of our economy and the broadest possible interests of our students.

This bill doesn't make economic sense, particularly at a time when we will need a trained workforce to help us recover from the recession that we're in right now. It doesn't make sense for the economy, and it doesn't make sense for students. Honestly, you would think that those opposite could put themselves in the shoes of students who have been making these hard decisions this year. They've just completed their HSC, or equivalent in other states, under the most uncertain conditions you could possibly imagine. They've watched as all of the fun stuff that was supposed to come after their years of study has all been taken from them. Think about how they feel as they watch the labour market collapse around them, just as they're preparing to graduate into it. They've been trapped at home. They've had all of the energy of youth pent up within them. Many of them have been focused for years on what they want to study. They've been working hard to get the marks to get into the course they decided they wanted to do last year or the year before or when they were eight years old—who knows?

They've had the rug ripped out from underneath them by this government, which has just told thousands of them that they'll have to pay more than double the cost for the degree of their choice. This bill changes the rules on people who have been struggling to get marks to get into those degrees. It's unfair and it's heartless. It ignores the reality of those young people's lives, and it ignores the massive contribution that their parents, their teachers and their communities have put into getting those year 12s through their final year of school this year, trying to make it possible for them to graduate with some sense of security and certainty and predictability around them in a world that has turned so chaotic.

Australia is about to experience an unprecedented increase in demand for university places and TAFE places. Since this recession began, an extra 90,000 young people are now unemployed, and another 90,000 have stopped looking for work altogether. We know that in the last few years a lot of people have been taking a year off after their final year of high school. They've been working and they've been travelling; they've been taking a gap year. There are not going to be any gap years next year. There aren't those entry-level positions for high school graduates to go into and, let's face it, none of us are travelling very much at the moment.

As well as that, we are actually facing a demographic bubble. Many of you will remember when then Treasurer Peter Costello said he wanted Australians to have 'one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the nation'. Well, Australians followed his advice and they received that $5,000 baby bonus, as it was at the time. They went out and had one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the nation. Those kids are ready to go to university or TAFE this year. So, on top of the massive hit to young people's employment prospects, on top of the fact that we're not going to have young people going off on a gap year, on top of the increased challenge and insecurity of their final exams this year, we have Peter Costello's baby boom just hitting the system now. What that means is that there has already been a huge increase in the number of young Australians who are applying to go to university. In New South Wales, just as an example, applications to go to university next year have more than doubled compared with applications for this year. This legislation does not come close to addressing that massive increase in demand for university.

The government is making much of the fact that there are an extra few thousand places at university as a result of this legislation—well, potentially as a result of this legislation; it's not legislated that these extra places will appear. But who pays for those extra places? Other students pay for those extra places because of the increase in student contribution as a direct result of this legislation. Extra places are paid for by other students paying more for the cost of their education.

There's a lot of smoke and mirrors in this bill. There's a lot of moving money around. What there isn't—what you cannot hide—is the fact that students will pay more and the government will contribute less to the cost of university in this country. In fact, the government will provide about a billion dollars a year less for universities—on average, six per cent less to teach every student, and, as I've said, students will pay more. We're not going to manage to create the sorts of places we need at TAFE and university now simply by charging more to students who want to get an education. That is not the way this country should meet the increased demand for education that is created by the recession that we're in right now. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why any government presiding over the first recession in three decades would want to make it harder for people to get an education. If young people or anyone, like a middle-aged worker who's lost their job, want to train, retrain, get an education or develop their skills so they are more employable in this hostile labour market that they're entering into, with a million unemployed, doesn't it make sense for their government to support them in that effort? No. Instead, this government wants to make it harder and more expensive for people to upgrade their skills or get a new qualification. I can't understand why something that is so obvious to me is not obvious to our Prime Minister.

As it stands, this legislation will lock out thousands of students just when they need an education the most. What's sad about this is that all of the Liberal cabinet ministers have had the opportunity to get a great education—they've all been to university; it's good enough for them—but they're saying to thousands of young Australians that it's not good enough for them. They're saying, 'You don't deserve an affordable university education.'

Even if we were to take this bill on its stated aims, even if we were to have a look at what the government says it's trying to do and say, 'Well, let's measure this bill against what the government claims it wants for students,' the bizarre truth of the legislation is that in many respects this bill will do pretty much the opposite of what the government is claiming. When the Prime Minister announced the changes, he said that they would promote the study of engineering and science and that that is in fact the entire purpose of this bill. That's why he has given it another marketing slogan name: the Job Ready Graduates Package. But, as you often have to do with this Prime Minister, you look at the headline and at the slogan on one day and then over the subsequent days you look at the detail and you find that the detail doesn't always match up to the first day's slogan.

When you look at the detail here, you will find that, in academic areas that the government apparently wants us to encourage study in, universities will actually receive overall less funding for each place. The government says, 'We're going to encourage students to study in these areas by dropping student fees.' But most people say that that is not going to work. In fact, the former education minister, Julie Bishop, who is now the Chancellor of ANU, is the first to point out the fact that she tried this and it didn't work. When you look at the detail here, they're not just dropping what students will contribute to the cost of their education but they're also dropping what the government will pay for those places. For every extra student that universities take in these areas, they'll be losing more funding. In fact, under this legislation, universities will receive 32 per cent less to teach medical scientists. They'll receive 17 per cent less to teach maths students. They'll receive 16 per cent less to teach engineers. They'll receive 15 per cent less to teach clinical psychology. They'll receive 10 per cent less to teach agricultural students. They'll receive eight per cent less to teach nurses. You don't need a doctorate in aeronautics from one of these engineering schools to guess what the impact of that will be as universities are deciding where they're going to allocate places. When you cut money that supports the teaching of engineering and science courses, either you're going to get worse outcomes in those courses or you're going to get fewer scientists and engineers.

The Chancellor of the Australian National University, Julie Bishop, pointed out:

My concern is that under these new arrangements, there is a greater incentive for universities to take in a higher number of law, commerce and humanities than there is to take in students in engineering and maths … that appears to be contrary to the government's policy intentions.

That is the sort of diplomatic understatement that the former foreign minister learnt in the job as foreign minister.

The Australian Council of Deans of Science says the same thing: 'It will not serve to generate more STEM-capable graduates if the funding changes undermine the capacity of universities to produce them. The funds that will come to university science to produce graduates will shrink by 16 per cent under the Job-ready Graduates proposal.' That's the deans of science. They might know a thing or two about teaching science graduates at university.

The Prime Minister has either been dishonest about the intention of this legislation or, potentially worse, doesn't have a clue about how this funding arrangement will work in practice. You cannot promote the study of science and engineering by starving science and engineering departments in universities. We've heard a lot from the government this year about their attitude to universities. The Liberal Party have made it very clear that they think universities are hotbeds of Marxism, feminism and cultural studies nonsense. They have almost been suspicious of universities, and they been proud of their suspicion. It didn't stop them from attending university themselves, and it probably won't stop them from sending their kids there.

But this year we've seen this suspicion about the role that universities play in our society jump the shark to outright hostility. We've gone from suspicion to outright hostility this year. No other major industry has been treated the way universities have been treated at this time. There are thousands of university workers have already lost their jobs. That is professors and tutors, but it's also librarians, cafeteria workers, ground keepers and admin staff; it is people across the board. The Prime Minister has sat with his arms folded and his lip curled watching those jobs go. There are thousands more jobs set to be lost. One estimate is that 30,000 jobs will go. The government has changed the JobKeeper rules three times to lock universities out of receiving JobKeeper.

And now the Prime Minister wants to make it harder and more expensive for students to go to university. This government wants people to feel that universities are a bit dodgy, a bit strange, a bit weird—'You don't really want to send your kids there'! They want people to think universities are an indulgence, something to resent, a luxury for the elite. This is really the fundamental difference. I don't share that view and I don't think Australians in general share that view. I think it's worth saying that 41 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 40 now hold a bachelor's degree because of the changes Labor made in government of uncapping places at university. All of those people we are looking to to help us during this pandemic—doctors, nurses, teachers, epidemiologists, scientists, researchers—have all been to university. Why is there this terrible suspicion about universities from the government? I know that people don't agree with them. I have 15½ thousand people who have signed this petition today, and another 11,000 people who don't agree with them have signed a petition that is being tabled in the Senate.

But it's more than that. I said earlier that this is a government that has spent its time in office trying to pit Australian against Australian. I think of my own family here. My parents both left school much earlier than they would have liked to. They were little children in a war zone in Europe during the Second World War. One day they woke up and all their teachers were gone, and basically there were teachers speaking German in their classrooms. They were two super-smart people who, like a lot of people of their generation, never had the chance to finish high school let alone go to university. Those opposites say we shouldn't look down on people who choose a TAFE qualification, people who want to choose a trade. We never have. My dad was a plumber and gasfitter. I never looked down on him for the work that he did, which fed our family and put a roof over our heads. He worked six days a week. But I'll tell you what: when he had a minute to himself, he'd pick up New Scientist or a newspaper and he would read and he would educate himself. When my brothers and I expressed an interest in going to university, he didn't say it was better than going to TAFE; he didn't say it was worse. He said: 'You should do what will satisfy you, what will make you happy, so long as you make a contribution to the economy that you're part of.' That's how Australians feel about education—not that there is a gap or a difference between TAFE and university, not that one is better or worse than the other, but that every Australian citizen should have the opportunity to do what makes them satisfied, contributes to our economy and means that they are employable, can support themselves and can make a contribution to our economy as a whole.

That's what we want to do on this side. We want to expand those opportunities so that there is no kid anywhere in Australia who is prepared to work hard and study hard and put the hours in when they're in high school who is denied a university education because those opposite have doubled the cost of the degree that they want to study. There should be no child anywhere who is saying: 'I can't afford to go to university. I can't afford $58,000 to do a university degree.' That is so fundamentally wrong.

Those opposite are saying I'm misrepresenting this. If you think that, you haven't read this legislation, because that's exactly what this does—it more than doubles the cost of a university education. And if you don't get that, you should be embarrassed that your minister and your Prime Minister haven't told you the truth about what this legislation does.


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