Wednesday, 21 October 2020
Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020, Higher Education (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Deputy Speaker Claydon, I will start by thanking you for relieving me in the chair so that I can make my speech in continuation from yesterday. As I said yesterday, we will not be opposing this bill, the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020, and cognate legislation. We know that the shadow minister for education and training wrote to the Minister for Education asking him to consider exactly these changes. Even though we're supporting this bill, we do it in light of the bill that went through this place a couple of weeks ago that will be detrimental to higher education. For months we've been saying that, through this bill, the government has finally taken steps to do a range of things, but, at the same time, the implementation of the previous bill will be detrimental to higher education.
We know that the government will be making students pay more for their degrees and locking others out. There will be an Americanisation of our higher education system. The government refuses to provide enough extra places to meet an increase in demand. Even when the government is promising new places, they come without the funding to provide them, and there is no guarantee that the numbers will eventuate in practice. Some of the crossbenchers voted for the previous bill because they were promised extra places. But, to have those extra places, you need extra funding. It is impossible to get the extra university places without the funding for them. The effect of the legislation is to increase the student fee burden and to reduce Commonwealth funding of higher education. It just doesn't weigh up.
We know that the government has cut about $1 billion of Commonwealth funding from universities, and, with job prospects so weak right now, the choice for many people will be between waiting on the dole queue and getting an education. What a choice to have to face. Year 11 and year 12 students have persevered through incredible uncertainty this year. We've seen students all around the country in virtual classrooms, not knowing when they're going to go back to their schools, and the uncertainty that surrounds that, and what have we done? We've made it harder for them to get into university. They will have to weigh up the costs—what their parents can afford or what they can afford—to make that choice. What a terrible situation to be in if you have a thirst to learn, if you want to go to university to improve your education and to be able to participate and contribute to this nation. Those students are going to have to weigh up that choice at the age of 17 or 18. Their financial situation will determine whether they attend university. That's what the previous bill has done to the thousands and millions of students who are currently sitting their final-year exams at high school. They will be making that choice, and it's not a good choice. Education, including higher education, should be accessible for all, regardless of wealth, background or family situation. This is another burden on students. They've gone through so much this year, with COVID-19 and not knowing what their future will be, and now they're having to decide whether or not they can afford a higher education.
What's more, the government's university plan won't do what it promises. All sorts of experts have been scathing about how terrible the policy is. For example, the CEO of the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has said: 'I honestly think it's one of the worst-designed policies that I've ever seen. Even if you accept its stated rationale, it doesn't go anywhere near achieving it.' When you look at the detail, you find that, in the academic areas the government wants to encourage, universities will receive less money to teach students. As I said earlier, it just does not add up. Under changes that have gone through this place, universities will receive 32 per cent less to teach medical scientists, 17 per cent less to teach maths students, 16 per cent less to teach engineers, 15 per cent less to teach clinical psychologists, 10 per cent less to teach agricultural students and eight per cent less to teach nurses. You don't have to be a rocket scientist or a genius to guess where this is headed. When you cut money that supports engineering and science courses, you're either going to get worse courses or you're going to get fewer scientists and engineers. Given the environment we're in today, we want to create cutting-edge jobs. We want to be at the cutting edge of technology. To do that, we have to build the foundations. And where are those foundations? They're in our education. They're in the teaching we provide in higher education. You can't talk about high-tech jobs, cutting-edge technology and being a leading nation in this sphere and then not put the money where it has to go so we can get students to study these courses.
I've got to say it's not just the science and engineering courses that will suffer. It's also the humanities, of course, and the arts. There are a whole range of areas where it will be costlier at university now to do those courses, those degrees. There is no evidence that a humanities degree won't get you employment when you finish. In fact, in some of the stats I was looking at, humanities is way up there with engineering and other courses. But, then again, it's not just about landing a job once you finish university. It's about the intellect of the nation. It's about who we are. We're a thinking nation. Every course at a university, whether it be philosophy, the arts, politics or humanities, makes the person studying it a thinker. That's what we need in this nation, thinkers who can do the best that they can for the future of this country.
Another area that's going to be badly damaged by these changes is languages. We already lag behind much of the world for students learning a second language or studying languages at university. We've got one of the lowest rates in the world for languages. I was talking to some academics who teach at Flinders University and Adelaide university, and they both said that languages will be decimated under the government's changes. The changes are going to have a catastrophic impact on language studies. They will also mean that only the well-off kids or other people who can afford it will do those courses and learn a second language. As we said, there'll be cuts to science and technology, but also the humanities. This will be catastrophic for languages. The proposed changes to university fees are going to cripple languages further in Australia. They've been raised by different community groups who consider community languages an important part of linkage to other countries, but it's also an important part for us, because we can utilise these languages and these cultures to be able to further our exports and imports and the business that we do overseas. Languages will be crippled. They've already been cut to the bone in most universities if not eliminated completely.
We need a government that values education, that values learning, that produces Australians that are thinking, whether it be in humanities, engineering, sciences and the cutting edge technologies. We need to improve in this area.