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

6:13 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I agree with him. What he said! That was good. On the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020 and the Higher Education (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2020, Labor will not oppose the bills. In November last year the shadow minister actually wrote to the minister, asking him to consider exactly these changes. We voiced our concerns 10 months ago regarding the exclusion of domestic upfront fee-paying students from the Tuition Protection Service. We said it'd create a complex situation where different students had different rights and protections. Now, it may have taken the minister nearly 10 months—that's actually pretty quick for this mob—but we're pleased that the government has finally legislated to tie up these loose ends and we welcome the bill's practical effect of creating simpler arrangements for students and processes for decision-making, student placement and loan recrediting. When you look at the budget, this is about as visionary as reform gets for this government: cleaning up some processes and simplifying arrangements.

But, more broadly, while we welcome the tweak to the tuition protection scheme, we do have to consider this bill, as the second reading amendment says, in light of the government's attacks on Australia's higher education system. With regard to the government's broader approach to universities, honestly, they deserve a gold medal for policy stupidity when it comes to the mishandling of universities. As the Morrison recession takes hold, the first recession in this country for 30 years, now is the very worst time to do what the government are doing, sitting by and watching the loss of thousands and thousands of jobs. These are existing jobs in the university sector that the government are sitting by and failing to act to save. They're actively making it harder. Neglect, if they just did nothing in that sense, would be a better option. They're also actively making it harder for Australians to improve their skills and boost their education. Could anyone in this House seriously think of a stupider thing?

Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 people in the last few months alone. It's no surprise, though, that demand for university courses has nearly doubled. If you can't get a job because there are no jobs in a recession, it makes sense to improve your education. That's a sensible, rational, logical, personal choice, and it's the choice that the country should want people—particularly young people and other people who can't find work—to make. Go and improve your skills and improve your education so that when the economy eventually picks up you're in a better position to add value. It's better for the country. What do the Morrison government do in response? They cut. They cut university funding, they jack up prices and they lock out students.

You can't trust the Liberal Party with universities. It's the eighth year of this government. Year after year, we see yet another attack on universities. Compare their treatment of universities with their neglect of aged care. That neglect of aged care was criminal neglect, sitting by and ignoring the advice and their own responsibilities while people died. The Morrison government did nothing but make announcements. For universities themselves, for people wanting to study and for Australia's economy, it would have been better, though, in this case if the government did sit by and do nothing. Instead, they're actually taking deliberate actions that will drive further job losses and make it harder for kids—especially those from poor families, as the previous speaker so rightly spoke about—to go and get an education.

Education is so critical not just for our economy but for aspiration. The government love to talk about aspiration. Last term, of course, by 'aspiration' they meant trying to ram through tens of billions of dollars of company tax cuts. This term, in the first part of the parliament, 'aspiration' meant the priority on tax cuts for the highest income earners. The government's priority for aspiration was to give everyone sitting in this House a $16,000 tax cut in the hope that some of it might just trickle down to everyone else following their failed, discredited, conservative economic theory.

For me, 'aspiration' means, above all else, making sure that every kid, no matter where they're from, can fulfil their potential in life and get an education without being unreasonably burdened by debt or deterred from study. It was part of my family story, seared into me from as young as I can remember. My mum was from a poor family in Footscray on the other side of Melbourne. Her family couldn't afford the uniforms to send her to a school that did matriculation, year 12. So she could never go to university. She actually got a scholarship from, I think, the Baptists, but they found out she'd been baptised as a Methodist and took the scholarship off her. She was the wrong brand of God. That's how it was back then. So she could not go to university.

It was the most important thing I discovered doorknocking. I doorknocked almost 10,000 houses for 18 months before I was elected to this House. My favourite question to ask people at the door was: what's most important to you? It was open ended, not yes or no. As people would know, it should be an open ended question, never yes or no. It got them talking and thinking about what matters. Overwhelmingly, the No. 1 answer was education. It surprised me at first. It didn't matter who I spoke to—young people wanting to go to TAFE or university, older people at that point worried about the Liberal Party's $100,000 degrees policy and cuts to TAFE and parents worried about their kids. But then I joined the dots and realised above all else at that point I had the highest proportion of migrants of any electorate in this parliament. People come to this country with that laser-like focus on education being the key to a pathway for a better life for their kids. It's a priority that my community continues to place on improving their lot in life.

Recessions such as the Morrison recession are the very time, more than any other time, when you'd think you'd want to encourage and incentivise people to improve their skills, rather than having everyone sitting around and applying for jobs over and over again that don't exist. There are not enough jobs. I heard of a part-time casual job at Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne where they got 700 applications in the first couple of days. That's what a recession looks like. Instead of doing that, you want to encourage people to go and get new skills at TAFE and university. They should be making it easier, but the government's whole agenda continues to be to make it harder.

Everything that's wrong with the government can be seen from their mishandling of universities—the criminal neglect and their failure to save 12,000 or more jobs. We've been urging the government in recent months to finally step in and help universities save these jobs. Since then, more than 12,000 have been lost across the country, and thousands more jobs are predicted to go by the end of the year. Of course, those job losses don't include the thousands more casuals who have just been let go. They don't show up in the figures. We'll never know how many of them there are. I've spoken to people in that situation. As the previous speaker said, the Prime Minister's done absolutely nothing to support or save jobs in our fourth-largest export sector. You can't imagine the government treating any of our other top 20 export sectors—let alone one in the top four, worth $40 billion to the country—in this way. The Prime Minister actively told students to bugger off and go home. What do you think that did to people and our reputation globally?

The government's failure to act to save university jobs, though, exposes the lie at the heart of this government's budget—that it's all about jobs. The Prime Minister—their chief marketing guy over there—has shown no interest in the thousands of university staff losing their livelihoods or the communities that depend on those jobs. The Morrison recession, frankly, will be deeper and longer and harder and harsher and darker for thousands of Australians because of the government's missed opportunities and their failure to act. But they've actively gone out of their way. Universities are in a special category for this government. They're a target. They're something to be targeted. The government have actively gone out of their way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. Private universities can get JobKeeper. But, for public universities—where the vast majority of Australian kids go—the government changed the rules three times to make sure that none of them could ever qualify for JobKeeper. Academics, tutors, administrative staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security—they all have families; they're all trying to make ends meet. But the government thinks anyone who works at a university is a lesser kind of worker than people who work elsewhere. It's disgraceful.

The government's relying on our brilliant universities and researchers to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but those researchers cannot rely on the Prime Minister to save their jobs. The government is relying on them to help drive our recovery. We know that we'll need an extra 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025. But, when it comes to higher ed, the government's priority is always to cut and to make it harder to go to university. The Prime Minister, of course, loves announcements, doesn't he? He loves announcements. He's never happier than when he's at a launch—the marketing guy. But then, of course, usually nothing happens. And the longer he's around, you realise that he starts announcing the same stuff, because stuff actually doesn't happen. We've seen this in education. It's always about the photo op, never about the follow-up. We saw it in the bushfires. After his little Hawaii break, he came back and said he did some stuff. There are still people living in tents. There are still funds with billions of dollars that they haven't spent a dollar from. But he had the marketing opportunity; he had the photo op. Nothing much happens. We saw it in education. They announced in the budget something like 12,000 new places: 'We're going to fix the problem. We're going to have 12,000 new places. How good's that?' Over the last year, they cut thousands of places. It's more spin and marketing. TAFE might be an option, you'd think, in education. They've announced more money for TAFE, but that doesn't address the fact that they cut $3 billion from TAFE. And, on apprenticeships, we've seen what I term a 'blind panic' in the last few months, with the government running towards announcing new apprenticeships. None of that makes up for the fact that there are 140,000 fewer apprentices in this country than there were in 2013, when this government got elected. Two years ago, the Prime Minister was out there. He announced that we were going to have 300,000 extra apprentices. Well, they're still down on that number today. It's just continuous announcements, but nothing actually lands.

The government, though, doesn't like to talk about universities. It's no wonder. Last sitting week, they gagged us from speaking on the last university bill. On Monday, when it came back from the Senate, they gagged us from speaking on the bill. In fact, the Prime Minister's voted more times in this parliament to gag members of the opposition from speaking than he's voted on his own legislation. But the whole agenda is to make it harder for people to go to universities. As Senator Jacqui Lambie said—and she nailed it on this one: 'The government's legislation, their approach, hurts poor kids, telling them, no matter how talented they are, no matter how determined, they should dream a little cheaper.'

It's as though the government's trying to pretend that the recession isn't real, that the Morrison recession isn't actually happening. 'La, la, la. Make it go away. We'll just make some more announcements. We'll rename some things. We'll change Newstart to JobSeeker. That'll help. Then we'll make up something called JobMaker. Then we'll call training stuff JobTrainer. Then we'll have JobKeeper.' They could well call their university policy 'JobCutter' or 'JobKiller' if they were being honest, because that's what it does. Every member of the government's cabinet went to university, but they don't think that our kids deserve the same chance, that Australian kids deserve the same chance.

I will give the government a little tick for this bill in that they actually got support for it, which is an achievement. They actually got some stakeholders in the real world and in here to support a higher education bill. Unlike their last bill—look at the stakeholder response to that. Literally no-one supported it. They couldn't get anyone at the Senate inquiry who said it was a good idea. Expert after expert, university after university lined up to tell them what a profoundly dumb idea and bad, flawed piece of legislation it was. There were, of course, a few universities they bought off with a few pieces of silver at the end, but fundamentally the sector didn't support it.

They won over Senator Hanson by legislating to let university staff say more racist stuff, as part of this bizarre culture war that they're running on campuses to distract from the fact that they actually don't have an education agenda—protection of racist stuff that universities themselves said they didn't actually need and would create a whole bunch of other complications.

They said they wanted students to study job-ready degrees, but the economist responsible for designing the HECS system, Professor Bruce Chapman, said, 'Evidence showed that the changes in course costs were unlikely to change student demand. Instead—who knew, brilliant advice—students make study choices based on interests and their earning potential.' People choose what they want to study.

Even Julie Bishop, the ANU Chancellor and the former Liberal education minister—yes, the former Liberal education minister, the former deputy leader of the party, that loyal deputy to so many leaders over so many years that they had—said:

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 students than there is to take in students in engineering and maths. That appears to be contrary to the government's policy intentions.

That's almost an achievement. In areas where the government wants greater enrolment they're now paying universities less per student. And in areas where the government wants to discourage enrolment—because apparently you shouldn't study history or humanities or anything anymore—they're paying universities more. It is a gold medal achievement in awful legislation.

The original architect said it wouldn't work. A former Liberal education minister said it wouldn't work. The overwhelming majority of the university sector said it wouldn't work. But the government was dead set on it because it helps them cut access to universities.

What the government should be doing in a recession, when thousands of jobs are being lost, is investing in education. In plain English: if you don't have a job you go and study. Study is better than applying for jobs that don't exist. Education is still the best way to skill up Australian workers, to prepare our workforce and lay the foundations for economic recovery. When the choice is between joining the growing dole queue and facing the cuts that're looming—coming down the pipeline at millions of Australians who are going to be pushed into abject poverty under this government, being forced to live again, or try to live again, on $40 a day—surely it's a better choice to enable, to incentivise, to encourage, to let more students go to university. The government should be making it easier to go to university, not harder. They should be acting to save tens of thousands of jobs, not watching them disappear.


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