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

6:58 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020. I'm pleased to follow the member for Gilmore. I commend her for her lifelong commitment to higher and vocational education, as I do many members on this side of the chamber. I acknowledge the strong commitment of the member for Kingston, the member for Moreton and the member for Makin not only to early education but to education throughout life.

Labor support the changes in the bill tonight, which, as we've heard from previous speakers, are as a result of the diligence and hard work of the member for Sydney and shadow minister for education in writing to the minister last year to ask for fairness and for the rights of our students to be protected in regard to university fees. Sadly, as we've heard in tonight's debate, it has taken around 10 months to legislate on what are really loose ends for our university students.

Australian universities have suffered an absolutely horrific year at the hands of this government. I want to talk about that a little tonight, and I'm delighted that the member for Sydney has moved a second reading amendment to this legislation as it enables me to put on the record very clearly the impacts that this government has had on the higher education system and the university sector, and how those are impacting our economy and the labour market. Obviously, the end result is not only an economic question for our nation; there's an economic question as to the massive debts on people seeking a higher education.

Not one speaker from the government, nor, indeed, the minister, has outlined why these changes are necessary or required. This government has some kind of ideological disposition against the university sector; I know, from listening to the debates right across the country. We're seeing government member after government member obsessed about what's happening not only with the content at universities but what's being taught at universities and what's allowed on university campuses. For a government and a party that alleges that they are interested in free speech, they've a funny way of demonstrating it when it comes to what goes on at universities in this country. You only need to pick up a paper or turn on the television and you'll see one government backbencher from the extreme right wing of the Liberal Party talking about their obsession with what's being taught at university and the sorts of people that are going to university.

Honestly, in my community, in my electorate, in the south-west of Brisbane and Ipswich, people are worried about education. They're worried about whether they can afford the cost of education: will their children be able to afford an education?

As we've seen time and time again, we're seeing the government standing sort of idly in front of this pandemic, and as a result of this pandemic, while one of the industries which is most critical to our economy has seen literally thousands of workers lose their jobs, regional campuses close, whole university departments shut down and funding dwindle down to nothing. There's no other industry of this size that has been treated with the absolute neglect and, I believe, contempt that the university sector has, and no other industry that employs 260,000 Australians has been thrown under a bus in the way this sector has by the Morrison government.

Australian universities are world-class institutions that represent our fourth-largest export industry, placing Australia and studying in our universities on the international stage and setting a standard for higher education. Yet the Prime Minister and members of the government seem to have no interest in preventing the job cuts and the harm to the community and the ability to deliver quality higher education that these will bring.

The impact of this on regional universities is going to be absolutely devastating. Those universities support around 14,000 jobs in regional Australia. Regional universities educate around 115,000 students each year, and that's around nine per cent of enrolments at Australian public universities. If those numbers don't speak for themselves, this means hundreds of jobs, and areas of Australia that have already suffered due to resource management and lack of tourism are going to suffer even more.

I've had countless conversations and street corner meetings with community groups, churches, welfare organisations and international students—which I'll touch on a little bit in my remarks tonight regarding the second reading amendment—about these issues. Time and time again, our not-for-profit groups and churches are filling the gaps that the government has allowed people to slip through. They help our stranded international students who are stuck in Australia with no jobs and no way to get home.

This is an important sector in our economy in Queensland. There are students who saw Australia with purpose and future, who wanted a better life and education for themselves, whose parents in some cases saved for years to be able to help send them here, only to be stuck with a government that doesn't want to acknowledge or support them—basically a government that's happy to leave them behind. In 2019 there were 120,000 international students in Brisbane. Most of our universities are now seeing between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of their student base consist of full-fee-paying international students. International students in 2019-20 contributed $32 billion to the Australian economy. I've stood in this House and spoken about this before, and I'll say it again: why does this government want to lose them? I know from talking to brilliant organisations like Riverlife Church, who have filled the gap, who have been advocating and working hard, as the member for Moreton knows through our strong partnerships that he and I have with the communities from the subcontinent, from our ethnic and migrant communities, that these students have been abandoned by the government.

Now, I could understand if this were an ideological thing, but this should be key economics 101. The more support that we can give these students, the greater our economic survival and rebuilding of our economy, particularly in the southern suburbs of Brisbane. As I said, they also contribute over $2.1 billion and 14,000 full-time jobs to the national economy. So, if the minister is listening—and his office, I'm sure, is tuned in to this—and the Prime Minister can do something, we are re-issuing the call to arms to help rebuild through our international students and to support those students that are here.

The government's just passed its job-ready graduates legislation, and this cuts $1 billion a year from our universities, as has been outlined tonight, making it even more expensive for people to get an education at a time where one in three young people are looking for a job or more hours for work. Prime Minister Scott Morrison's cuts will mean 10,000 fewer fully funded university places next year, according to analysis from the ANU from one of Australia's leading higher education experts. Then there's double the number of year 12s who want to go to university next year, and the minister has said that from next year:

Students will have a choice.

Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities.

This is advocating for freedom of education only if you study maths or science, not the humanities or half the degrees that most people making up the 46th Parliament have obtained. It's good enough for the members of parliament, it's good enough for cabinet but it's not good enough for the kids in my electorate.

This reform is a complete mess. What it's going to mean for our economy is that, in five to 10 years time, when all the graduates and all those looking for work are skewed to one set of industries, they can't get work, because it's too competitive. Better yet, they can't even get to university, because it's expensive.

I congratulate the university leaders who are standing firm against the Prime Minister and his plan to make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. I acknowledge the University of Southern Queensland campus located in Springfield, just over the border in the member for Blair's electorate. He spoke passionately tonight about the regional universities, particularly in Queensland. And this is not an argument about the large sandstone universities and some ideological issue; this is a practical economic outcome for places like the University of Southern Queensland and the regional impacts that this has in places like Toowoomba. We have a by-election coming up in the seat of Groom, and this is a perfect example where the government can actually deliver for the community.

I know some university leaders have allowed themselves to be bullied by the government into accepting cuts and fee hikes, and young people and university staff have every right to feel betrayed. Particularly for the year 12 students that are finishing this year, it's been a horrific year, and these changes have just made it worse. You wouldn't find many school principals who'd support government cuts to their school budgets or support policies that disadvantage their kids, so why should families with students graduating be in fear? In the face of a tax from the Liberal government, we are asking the university sector to stand strong for our young people and their parents. Parents know that getting a great education is a ticket to a great job and a lifetime of opportunity for their kids.

Labor believe education and jobs go hand in hand and, by locking young Australians out of university, the Prime Minister is locking them out of jobs. We want every Australian to get a great education no matter where they live and to have the training they need to get a job, to get ahead and to stay ahead. That's obviously whether it's at university or TAFE. I've said this before in this House: every member of the Prime Minister's cabinet has benefited from Australia's world-class university system. In my opinion, they now want to pull up the ladder when young Australians need to access training and education the most. Many of these cabinet members wouldn't have paid a cent for their degrees. On average, under this legislation, 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 per year. Students should have the choice to study whatever they wish and not be penalised down the track when they have to repay that debt.

With job prospects so weak right now, the choice for many people will be between waiting in the Centrelink queue and getting an education. Year 12 students, as I've said, have persevered through incredible uncertainty this year, and I pay tribute to those students, many on their last day of school this week, particularly in my electorate, where I've already attended some graduation ceremonies and award nights—mind you, virtually. It is a credit to those amazing teachers. I'm very proud, in my own family, that my sister, Susan, is an educator with around 30 years experience. She teaches in the southern suburbs of Brisbane in the mighty Moreton electorate. There is no place she would rather be than with her year 4 class, transforming lives.

I understand the power of education and the transformation that it has made through my family. My parents were unable to go to university. My mother was lucky to finish form 6, as it was, in Brisbane in 1947. There were three options, she always said—nurse, teacher or governess. They were the three occupations. There was a girl who graduated in her form 6 class who went on to become the first woman to graduate from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Commerce.

When you put that in perspective with what we're dealing with today Australia has come a long way for the access, particularly for women, to higher education. These changes will have a direct impact on, particularly, women and workforce participation. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased, as I said. The vast bulk—67 per cent—will be to around $14,500. Around 10 per cent will see their fees more than double, and more than 20 per cent will see their fees go up by nearly one-third. Around 10 per cent will see their fees go up by around 16.8 per cent.

We are simply asking the government to do the right thing by our kids. No Australian should miss out on the job they want and the education they need. For months, Labor has been urging the federal government to act, to help universities to save jobs and, for months, the Prime Minister has failed to do so. So, once again, I'm using my time in this parliament to speak out on behalf of those parents who want a decent education for their kids and on behalf of those people who work in and around the university sector. In my electorate, that means kids trying to get into university in Brisbane or trying to get into the University of Southern Queensland in the Springfield area. Those universities do amazing work. But they not being supported by this government. They are not being invested in by this government. Labor will always stand up for higher education in this country and, tonight, I'm calling on the federal government to do the same.


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