House debates

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

5:47 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

The Education Legislation Amendment (Up-Front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020 is all well and good, but the substantive matter remains that the tertiary sector is genuinely in dire straits, and the government's latest changes are going to make things a whole lot worse. To be fair to the government, the budget did include a billion dollars for research funding. But, to be honest, this is going to be a one-off sugar hit, and it will do little to offset the $7.2 billion in research funding that will be lost as a direct as a result of the much reduced international student income.

The budget failed to address the dramatic effect of the pandemic on universities, which, according to the NTEU's estimates, is causing the loss of 12,000 jobs in the sector and $3 billion in revenue. In that context, it beggars belief that JobSeeker was not extended to the tertiary sector—just as it beggars belief that it wasn't extended to other sectors such as local government. Now the tertiary sector has got to deal with the government's dreadful changes in the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, which will decrease funding in real terms to the tertiary sector by another billion dollars a year. I would associate myself with the comment by the member of Brand. One of the reasons I need to address some of these matters this evening is because of the dreadful decision by the federal government in the previous sitting to gag debate on that bill—a bill that was of nation-changing significance. Many of us were queued up to contribute to the debate. It was very, very disappointing that the government that week gagged debate and disallowed so many of us to make a contribution. It is lamentable that Centre Alliance backed those changes, in particular in the Senate, and I commend my Tasmanian colleague Senator Lambie for fighting the good fight as much as she could in the Senate to block those dreadful changes.

Let's not forget that the government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill, now act, effectively reduced the overall government contribution to degrees from 58 per cent to 52 per cent, and raised student contributions from 42 per cent to 48 per cent. And who is it going to impact most? We talk about humanities students and so on, but let's drill down a bit. It's going to affect women the most. The fee restructuring will impact women more greatly than men because the fees that will be increased are for courses that are more commonly studied by women. Indeed, on average, women will have their fees increased by nine per cent in comparison to men. Who else will it impact the most? It's going to affect Indigenous Australians. Because of the disciplines that Indigenous Australians currently study and work in, it's estimated that they will, on average, be paying 19 per cent more than non-Indigenous students.

And of course it's going to impact younger people. Perhaps no-one is more negatively affected by the government's so-called reforms than young people. Let's not forget that youth unemployment at the moment is at a 23-year high of 16 per cent. Many young people will be finishing school in a matter of weeks, after they finish their exams. I notice New South Wales students just started their HSC examinations. When the tertiary landscape is so difficult, what hope is there for those who want to study humanities and hone their critical thinking skills and competencies, at a time when this country needs them the most? These so-called reforms will also have a dreadful effect on regional universities and students, and it will be a significant impact. Characteristically, regional universities offer a greater proportion of courses that will have their funding effectively cut under this bill than their metropolitan counterparts.

The government's position is deeply misguided. Education should be celebrated and reinforced and funded properly. We need to understand that knowledge and education have an inherent value both to the people who enjoy it and to the country as a whole. Let's not forget that, the more educated the people in our community are, the more employable they are, the healthier they are and the happier they are. This country cannot rely indefinitely on our fabulous rural sector and our amazing mineral and other resources. We've ridden on the sheep's back, and on the mining sector—the fact that we are the world's No. 1 coal and iron ore exporter, and I think we're No. 1 or No. 2 for LNG. But we can't rely on that forever. We have to realise that our future lies in being a smarter country, so we should be doing everything we can to make this country smarter.

I have long advocated that the first degree for Australian citizens should be free. We should return to what Gough Whitlam's government introduced in the early 1970s. That was a fabulous reform, and the fact that it was wound back was very disappointing. We should be investing in all areas of education. We should properly fund early childhood education. It's not child care. It's early childhood education, and countries that treat it as such and invest in it as such are rewarded. We should fund our primary schools better, we should fund our high schools better, we should fund our colleges better, we should fund our vocational education and training and TAFEs better and we should fund our universities better.

Can we afford it? Of course we can. And it's not a case of 'you're an independent, you're up there on the crossbench, you don't have to worry about the Treasury'. The fact is that we are a fabulously wealthy country. I think we have the 11th biggest economy, measured by GDP. We're the second wealthiest, second only to the Swiss, when it comes to our median wealth per adult. I'll say that again, because I don't know that a lot of people, including in this place, understand that. As measured by median wealth per adult, we are the second-richest people on the planet. How is it that at a time when the government is growing our federal government debt to a trillion-plus dollars, taking debt to that level to get through the pandemic—with my full support, I would add; we need to be spending that sort of money—it is not addressing fundamental issues like properly funding education in this country? I think it is lamentable.

We had a budget the other week. Sure, it was a business budget and, sure, it was fabulous for middle-earners who've got a job to get a tax cut. But what a missed opportunity it was to fix so many of the enduring problems in this country. What a missed opportunity to solve our housing crisis, what a missed opportunity to lift government pensions and payments up to a level that people can live on with dignity, what a missed opportunity for the Treasurer to say, 'Okay, we can't give you an exact figure for unemployment benefits after Christmas, because we don't know what the economy will look like, but we make an in-principle, ironclad promise that unemployment benefits won't fall below the poverty line and certainly won't be reduced from the current JobSeeker rate.' What a missed opportunity it was to fund our public health system to provide universal free health care for every Australian; to restore our public health system to what it once was: the genuine envy of the world. What a missed opportunity it was to properly fund education at every level. In that budget so many opportunities to make this a fairer country were missed. We cannot build our future on jobs and growth and tax cuts for big business. Sure, we need to do those things, but we also need to fund everything else that this country needs, and there is no better time than right now when there is a justifiable preparedness to grow our debt to such high levels.

The bill we are discussing here tonight is all well and good, but really it's just a bit of theatre when you think of the context, the real issue here, and that is the desperate need to properly fund the tertiary sector. It's vitally important to this country. It's vitally important that we understand that education, knowledge and training have an inherent value. Education does make the community more employable; it does make the community healthier and happier. It will make this country more prosperous. Maybe we can go from being the second-wealthiest people on the planet to being the wealthiest people on the planet. We certainly won't ever be the wealthiest people on the planet if we continue to rely on our agricultural production and our mines. It's not a case of chopping it down and digging it up; it's a case of getting everyone into the classroom and making them smarter, and realising the potential that this country genuinely has.

The bill before us tonight does have my support, but I condemn the government's position on tertiary education overall. I've condemned it for a long time and I'll continue to condemn it until the government changes policy and turns this country around.


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