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

5:58 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | Hansard source

I speak in support of the amendment moved by the member for Sydney in relation to this legislation. This legislation is quite fine in itself. The operations of the Tuition Protection Service are, of course, funded by education providers through a levy. It's interesting to note that from 2012-13 to 2018-19 the Tuition Protection Service responded to 62 closures—62 providers of tertiary assistance that closed in that period. Obviously, the Tuition Protection Service then impacted to the benefit of 9,215 students. So a levy is necessary.

The bill before the chamber, the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020, comes as a result of advocacy by the member for Sydney and with the support of a number of key stakeholders, including the Independent Tertiary Education Council of Australia, Independent Higher Education Australia and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, who've supported the concept of universal coverage. So the legislation has some key backers as well.

We're pleased the government has listened to our entreaties. It's taken them a long time to do it, but this particular legislation expands Australia's Tuition Protection Service to make sure that domestic higher education students are covered. It makes sure that those people who pay their study costs upfront are covered by the Tuition Protection Service. It makes sure that, if something happens to their provider, new arrangements are set in place and they can complete their study at a similar educational provider. So this legislation has worthy benefits. It is in the best interests of all domestic fee-paying students that we have universal coverage here.

But it is the amendments that I really want to talk about. I sometimes think that, in Australia—unlike in other countries, where the division between the political parties is often on the basis of, say, race, religion or culture—the division between political parties has often been of an industrial nature. Labor has been often seen as the party of the worker, because our background is as the party of the trade union movement, and that's where we come from. Those opposite have had their various iterations, whether as the United Australia Party, back in the days before World War II, or the Nationals party, or the Liberal Party, or the Protectionist Party, or whatever they used to call themselves in the prelude before the Liberals, or even the Liberal National Party of Queensland—they've called themselves many things. We've called ourselves the same thing since about 1892. That division has been on industrial relations.

But when I see the government's attitude to higher education, I start to think that the real division in Australia is not just about industrial relations; it's on attitudes to higher education. It's as if kids from working-class backgrounds—like me, for example, and others on this side of the chamber—are to be denied the avenue for their aspiration to go to university.

I come from a pretty working-class background. My dad was a cleaner in the meatworks and my mum was a shop assistant. Neither of my parents went to high school, nor did their parents go to high school, nor did their parents go to high school. So it was a pretty big thing, going to high school. And the idea of me going to university and doing a law degree and an arts degree at the University of Queensland was a pretty remarkable thing in my family's life. My two younger brothers went on to university. One's a successful physiotherapist with a very big practice west of Brisbane, and the other got a doctorate of education and has been the school principal for many of the biggest high schools in South-East Queensland and is now in head office. But, without a Labor government and the opportunities a Labor government provided, those higher education opportunities wouldn't have been there.

Now, when I read legislation like the previous legislation, the policy of the current government on higher education, with the cuts that they've inflicted, with the idea that somehow higher education is not for people who come from my background, I'm in despair, because that's not the Australia that I believe we should have. The Australia that I believe in is an Australia for all Australians, where there is social justice, equality of opportunity and a fair go for every Australian kid, whether they live in Boonah, Kingaroy, Ipswich, Townsville, Cairns or wherever—it doesn't matter. That's why I reckon that every young person should have the aspiration and, if they've got the skill and talent and ability and they're prepared to work hard, they should have the opportunity to go to a TAFE or a university.

When I look at the current government's policies in this space, I see that what they're doing seems to be motivated by ideology. There's a class aspect in their attitude to higher education, which I simply reject and think is just wrong. I remember the last government, led by John Howard, where Work Choices was their industrial relations obsession, and I referred to industrial relations earlier. What this government did under John Howard was to try to inflict on the higher education sector the idea that, if a university didn't sign up to their workplace agreements—which, in fact, brought in Work Choices—that particular university would have its funding cut. It took the election of a Labor government to overturn that. And I see in the policy of this government the same sort of thinking, the same mentality. Law, the arts, humanities and certain degrees are not valued.

Ministers in this government, including the Prime Minister, are very happy to go to a university research centre—and I commend the fact that in the budget they put a bit more money into funding for research; that's a good thing, but they don't back it up in what they do. They forget that the university sector is one of the biggest sectors and the biggest export industries in the country. It's the fourth-biggest, after gas, coal and iron ore. But in some states it's even more important. For example, I read a report by Deloitte—I think it's Aaron Hill who runs Deloitte in South Australia; I had a meeting with him a couple of years ago—which showed that, in South Australia, the biggest industry after the mining sector was in fact the higher education sector. But that's the case even in my home state and your home state, Deputy Speaker Wallace, of Queensland, where we've got lots of iron ore and gas and coal. We export all of it; the resources sector underpins the Queensland economy. When I look at the Liberals' attitude on this issue, it's almost as if they forget that, in a country of 25.5 million, there are 1.6 million people who attend our universities. Over a million Australians attend higher education at university, and they study all manner of things, from science to physiotherapy to the arts. All forms of education, I think, are beneficial for the individual. You never know what you could do with that degree, and what you learn can be useful for your life skills, your vocational future and your financial security.

But I look at what the government is doing, making students pay much more for their degrees, and I think about how poor we will become as a country and how sad it will be for working-class boys and girls who aspire to better things. Jacking up the prices means locking out students. If my two younger brothers and I had gone to our parents and said we were going to go to university and study the courses we did, at these sorts of costs, I'm not sure how my mum and my dad would have reacted. We were from a working-class background and, with the substance abuse and the gambling and alcohol issues that my father suffered from, we were pretty poor, even by Australian standards. The idea that we could go to university was just amazing.

These things that the government is doing are blocking kids from even thinking about going to university. They're putting barriers in place. We had a review by Bradley some time ago, the Review of Australian higher education, which said that we wanted our universities to achieve the Bradley target of getting kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds into university. I love it when I go to universities, like the University of Southern Queensland in my electorate, in Ipswich and Springfield—it also has a campus up in Toowoomba—and I see students from poor backgrounds, from tough backgrounds, getting an opportunity to go to university. When I speak to people like the vice-chancellor Geraldine Mackenzie and I see kids from the country areas of my electorate, and yours, Member for Wright, getting an opportunity to go to university, I think: this is a great country. Don't put the barriers in place. Don't jack up the fees. Don't cut the funding. Make it easier to go to university. Don't to what this government is doing. This government is making so many students pay more for their degrees, locking people out altogether and putting financial barriers in place.

About one in three young people are unemployed. We've just had Anti-Poverty Week. I can hardly say we celebrated it, but we talked about it. We talked about it locally, amongst the social welfare groups and organisations in my area. One in three young people are unemployed and locked out, and there are others who are underemployed. I don't want to see the figures that show in my area about 6½ thousand people on what we used to call unemployment benefits left behind. We've got 160,000 Australians expected to lose their jobs between now and Christmas, and areas like mine are pretty hard hit. I've said that, whether it's the Food Barn at Ipswich, Cityhope Church, Tivoli Miracle Centre or the Vedanta Centre at Springfield, they're all explaining to me big increases in activity and people going to their organisations, seeking more food and more assistance with household supplies. I don't want to see that in my community. I don't want to see those young people locked out of their dream to get a good job. And the university sector and tertiary education are really important to getting that good job.

When 40 per cent of the students in university are going to have their fees increased to $14½ thousand a year—double the cost for thousands; that's what the government's doing—it means that people studying humanities, commerce, law and communications will all pay so much more. Cutting $1 billion from the university sector is simply a retrograde step. How can that increase productivity? How can it increase and improve people's financial security? It can't. This is also about 14,000 jobs in the university sector. There are 260,000 people who work in the university sector, and they are not just academics. They are from all different backgrounds: maintenance crew, financial controllers, accountants, clerical workers, cleaners—a whole bunch of different professions and vocations. Fourteen thousand of those 260,000 live in regional communities, and the impact of those cuts—the impact of the loss of jobs in that sector—is immense.

The fact that this government has picked out certain sectors and decided to exclude them from JobKeeper, whether it's the childcare sector, whether it's, in effect, the arts community, whether it's the university sector or whether it's the local government sector, is really quite astounding and astonishing, and it shows what this government really thinks about the value of those sectors. I don't know what happened at university for so many of those people opposite. I really don't know. But somehow they didn't have a very good experience. Maybe they're reliving their glory days. It's like they want freedom at university but not freedom to get to university. It's like they want to put a bar there. When you're there you can have a good time and you can say whatever you feel like—and over there they think that's the case regardless of the impact on people's feelings or whether it's in the best interests of our community. But we're going to put blockages and barriers in the way of getting there. That's what their attitude seems to be. And that is not in the best interests of our country. It's not in the best interests of our economic development and our GDP. It's not pro jobs and it's not pro justice either.

So this government needs to have a good look at itself. If they want to improve the equality of opportunity in this country, if they want to improve also the educational opportunities for our young people, if they want to make sure that we can recover from this global pandemic, they've got to be pro the higher education sector, remove the barriers and get people into university, because we're never going to compete with the world by lowering our wages. We're going to compete with the world by improving our skills, our talents and our productivity, and that's why you should invest in higher education.


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