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
I also would like to make a contribution to this cognate debate on the upfront payments tuition protection levy bills. I should be clear that, ultimately, we will be supporting the passage of these bills, but we need to consider the amendment that has been moved by the member for Sydney. Essentially, the measures contained in the bills are sensible measures. They are sensible measures that go to safeguarding the integrity and reputation of the Australian education system, particularly to protecting vulnerable students. In essence, these bills extend the tuition protection scheme, which, by the way, was an initiative of the Gillard government, to ensure that domestic upfront-fee-paying students are protected in the event that a provider, course or campus is closed.
The member for Sydney, our shadow minister for education, wrote to the minister seeking to do just what's provided for in the bills before us. It is a matter that needs to be developed, but that was some 10 months ago. So it took this government 10 months, travelling at slightly less than warp speed, to bring forward this legislation on something they knew was going to be agreed to and was going to be positive and well received. Labor had voiced its concern with regard to the exclusion of domestic upfront-fee-paying students from the TPS, noting that it would create a complex situation where different students had different rights and were subject to different protections. It may have taken the government 10 months, but we're pleased the government has come around to addressing these deficiencies in the scheme, and we support them in respect of dealing with that.
We welcome this tweaking of the TPS. However, this legislation must be considered in the context of the Liberal government's broader inaction when it comes to education. That actually brings me to the member for Sydney's amendment and to consider, in a broader context, what this government has done, particularly in slicing billions of dollars from university education, which is bad for the economy, bad for our labour market and imposes massive debts on people seeking a higher education. It is retrospective of what this government should be doing with the state of our economy as it is at the moment. We're not about to let the government get away with a relentless attack on the university sector and higher education without making some comments in respect of that.
For months now, we've grappled with the significant impacts of the coronavirus. I think it's fair to say that there's been bipartisan support in that respect. We support the government's effort in doing everything that they can in protecting our communities. However, remember from the time of the initiatives to address the pandemic what's occurred when it comes to issues about the universities sector. We were the ones that requested the government step in and help to support universities in their efforts to save jobs. Since then the simple fact is that more than 12,000 jobs have been lost across the sector, with the prediction that thousands are to go by the end of this year. The Prime Minister's done really nothing to stop these job losses in what is our fourth-biggest export sector. The Prime Minister's shown little interest in protecting the livelihoods of the thousands of university staff losing their jobs or the communities that depend on their work. Rather, the federal government's gone out of its way to ensure that the public university sector was excluded from JobKeeper.
Oddly enough, having said that, that doesn't apply to the private tertiary higher education sector and certainly not to some of the foreign universities operating in this country who were successful in getting JobKeeper to maintain their staff. It was our public institutions—the ones that, by and large, service our community—that lost out. With the jobs that went, we're talking about not just academics, tutors, administrative staff, library staff, caterers, cleaners and security but all the families that depend upon that work. They are trying to make ends meet, clearly, and most of them are also facing pretty trying times. What we see is many of these institutions having to cut the very staff which underpin their academic excellence.
We as a nation are relying on our brilliant universities and their researchers now to help find a vaccine for COVID-19. But while we rely on them to do that we're not actually giving them assistance by guaranteeing their jobs. We are doing the exact opposite. This is hypocrisy in the extreme. Only recently—as a matter of fact, it was only this week; things have progressed, it seems—the government introduced the job-ready graduates bill. Put simply, it was going to make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. Not only did the government introduce the bill; they gagged debate and they rammed it through. It would put a university education beyond the reach of many in this country and certainly beyond the reach of many in my community that I represent in Fowler.
I'm not sure, but I think most here have probably heard me describe in the past how colourful and vibrant my community is. As you're aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do have many new arrivals to this country and I do receive probably the majority of refugees coming into this country. Interestingly, a lot of the new Australians and particularly the refugees see education as the ticket to success in a society like Australia. They see it as a pathway from dependency to success. They see it as a pathway for moving away from what they see as disadvantage requiring support to being able to make a success of their lives; hence why many of our migrants and particularly young children from refugee families do very well in our community, particularly using the resources of tertiary education.
What the government has done earlier this week is going to make it very hard for people in my community, for those families. Students will on average pay seven per cent more for their studies. Around 40 per cent will have their fees increased by $14½ thousand a year, almost doubling the costs for many. Students studying law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce and humanities will all pay more for their degrees. We're talking about up to $58,000 degrees. It understandably will be a disincentive for young people, for the predominantly working-class families that I represent in my community. It will make it very hard for younger people to make decisions about getting a university education. And think about this: given the amount of job losses we have—and we know there are more than a million people out of work, and this mob opposite keeps saying they're here to help reskill and retrain people—how is it going to be easier for older people to reskill, to increase their knowledge base and to become job ready? This puts it beyond their capacity to do that, to make a decision, particularly where they're supporting a family. It's indicative of what this government has been doing for some time.
I just find it strange. Not now but when I look around this place at question time, this room is full, and I would think there are probably less than a handful of people in this room that haven't had the benefit of going to university. And yet this is the very place that is now moving to put it beyond the reach of so many other families. Isn't that hypocrisy? We should be making it easier for people to get a university education, because it's not just what it does for them and for their communities; it's what it does for our nation. For every dollar you invest in education, it's an absolute investment in the future prosperity of our country.
You would think that, in the middle of this Morrison recession, you would start thinking about the pathways out of the recession and that one of those would be to actually encourage the use of our academic institutions to plan that way forward. And yet we are doing, as this government has committed to doing, the absolute opposite.
I don't know why we should be all that surprised about it. When you think about it, you see that they have for some time now made it harder not only for students but for the academic institutions themselves. This government has a track record when it comes to university funding. They are the ones that cut $16 billion, effectively, as a result of our international students. We know that there was a $2.2 billion funding cut by the government. Our universities are actually doing it very tough at the moment, and yet the expectations that they will produce the expertise that we want for the future still ride high in the minds of our communities. That's why we've got to hold this government to account and why we can't let the government fill everyday Australians' thinking with the idea that the government really cares about a higher education. Those of us who are here saw what happened under Tony Abbott, under Malcolm Turnbull and now under Prime Minister Morrison. They were relentless in their attacks on universities. They're the ones that did take $2.2 billion from the funding. By the way, they are the same ones who attacked the funding of our TAFE colleges and vocational education. Since the election of a Liberal government in 2013, university students have been under constant attack with cuts. We've seen fee deregulation, or attempts at it, and the uncertainty the government has instilled not only for students but for the university administrators themselves. In a 2017 MYEFO decision, the government cut billions of dollars from universities and recapped undergraduate places. There were also the changes to the Higher Education Loan Program. This was reckless and it was unfair.
Of course, we don't expect those opposite to really understand the impact of these excessive cuts to education. They are the ones that took $3 billion from TAFE. They underpaid the schools system by $17 billion, even though they went to an election saying there would not be $1 of difference between Liberal and Labor. When it comes to making cuts, it seems that the government sees education as a political plaything that they can use and abuse to prop up a budget bottom line. In the middle of a pandemic, we need to be planning our way forward, not looking back. And the way forward is to invest in education and give young people the break they need to do what they can to increase their skills and knowledge so they can play a significant role in the future of this country. I would ask those opposite to consider this, and not simply on the basis of this bill. As I said, ultimately we will support the passage of this bill, but we support protecting education. (Time expired)