Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading
Firstly, I direct my remarks to the former speaker's remarks. I'll go backwards through what she said. The historic changes to tertiary education were brought in by a Labor government, under John Dawkins as minister, to allow many more students to participate in the university sector. This was a massive change for Australia at the time. It was supported by both sides of the House at the time. So we can't historically stand here today into this broader future and say that this government brought this change in, because this government didn't bring this change in. That's incorrect.
Mr Hill interjecting—
That's not the point. The whole theme of what we're talking about today is about this sector. Remember: these changes were brought in by a Labor government, under John Dawkins at the time, and heralded as a breakthrough for tertiary education for ordinary students across the board in Australia. That's how it was argued.
Mr Hill interjecting—
Yes, for the lowest percentile also, because they also received scholarships. Those opposite would well know the history of all of this, because both of the members in parliament today have been through the process and know the history. Let's just leave it at that, for a start.
Then the criticism was that this is just a cost-recovery exercise. No. You would all admit that these are difficult times. So, what are the opportunities around this adversity that we face? The opportunities are to deliver the best tertiary education that we can in the circumstances we find ourselves in. I think the intention of government, and I believe the intention of the opposition, would be to do exactly that: given the circumstances that we find ourselves in, how do we progress this sector? The shadow minister made the point, saying that we need to train these people for our future recovery. Education is one of the major keys to that future recovery—a key for the thousands and thousands of people we're going to need to be trained to fill the jobs and to fill the expectations for new innovations. We need people who are smart, proactive and perceptive of what's going to be needed into the future. It's not about what we're doing now; we probably have no perception of the type of education that they're going to need to deliver future outcomes for this nation.
And it has to be our own people, because, right now, we're not getting the influx of skilled immigration that can fill those positions, and we don't have our own people trained to do particular jobs. COVID has been catastrophic. It has had catastrophic consequences for the tertiary education sector, and there was nothing in the power of government to do any more than that which we have done. Each sector has to take responsibility for where it finds itself.
There are no increased costs for students here. If you then say, 'No, that's wrong,' well, that means the private providers and the public providers would then be transferring a charge levied on them to recover these costs—at $1 per student, it would work out. That would look like it was a pretty ordinary thing to do to a student, at $1 a student. I think that's not on, and I don't think that the tertiary education sector would do that. So there are no increases in costs for students.
What has to be our focus all the way through this, as I have just mentioned a few minutes ago, is that those students are our future creative opportunity. If that is the case, and we believe that to be the case, we have to provide the best student outcomes possible. Since these opportunities have been taken outside the public sector into the private sector, have there been problems for the last 15 years? Absolutely there have been problems for the last 15 years. Have there been 'difficult operators'—is that a nice way of putting it?—in this sector? There sure have been. Did some people see it as a quick opportunity to make money and exploit students to the detriment of our community overall? Absolutely they did. So, therefore, these regulatory regimes are crucially important to good public governance in tertiary education—if we're going to be responsible in government and if we're going to choose to have the best outcomes. And that is what our public generally expect. They believe that if their children or grandchildren are going into these tertiary education centres that the focus is going to be on them—on the delivery and the outcomes that benefit the students and, therefore, the broader society. That's the expectation. But how can we guarantee it when we're handing it over to other people to deliver? It's a bit like housing. We don't get the opportunity as a government to go and build the homes. We supply to the states. Even now in Indigenous affairs we supply the money to the states who deliver the outcomes of the programs. Are we always happy with their delivery? Obviously not. Do we have a lot of control over that? No, not enough. But, remember the states are sovereign entities in themselves; therefore, state regulations also come across this part of the tertiary sector.
Where do we land now? We land in a place where there has to be decent cost recovery back to government from the regulatory controls, when, at the moment, we're only receiving 15 per cent of the moneys outlaid back into government outlays and the government picks up the rest of the regulatory program. That's unacceptable, and I think these institutions will come to see that this is a reasonable part to play for government. That is, one: to give us some ability as elected members to say, 'No, we have control over this area so your student will get the best outcome.' Two: we can direct when anybody is way out of order, and there are penalties for those people who are out of order—that's important. Three: it's not just wanting the best outcomes; it's getting really good people, but sometimes the only opportunity that they get is through tertiary education by getting themselves through secondary education, but then their outcome to lift themselves out of poverty is through education. There are hundreds of thousands of examples of that in this nation. Education is the gift.
I'm probably one of the very few members in this House who is not tertiary educated. My education came through business, and actually I think I learnt more after I left school than I did when I was there. I had a few other things that concentrated my mind at that age. I should have had a good talking to—it never happened. So, in that place, I still come with my expectation that the systems that we have in place in this nation are actually delivering the outcomes that we want as a parliament, we want as a government and we want the parents of these students to feel.
Why is it that prior to COVID parents from all over the world wanted to send their children for an education in Australia? It was a safe place for their children to be, and though there are those that claim racism, that wasn't the case. These students also provided vital labour for much of our entertainment industry, for nearly all of our restaurants and cafes and baristas and all of those people. They are the ones suffering the COVID crisis now. Especially in my tourist areas in my electorate you see businesses not open, and you wonder why they're not open. You ask the owner, and they say, 'There is no staff.'
We have other problems too that are COVID-related, including people moving out of the city into regional areas and taking rental properties. Therefore, the labour was once supplied by these students where they had somewhere to live when they were down there. Now they have nowhere to live. So, even if there is an availability of that backpacker market or that student market, there's no accommodation for them left in these tourist areas, so they're not going there. They'll stay and work in the cities or around their education facilities, whereas previously they'd move out.
I'd like to commend the government on the way they have gone about these changes. There have been three years of consultation. Legislation was first moved in 2018. They have worked through it slowly and, on top of that, these charges come in over three years, so there won't be an impost next week on all of these institutions. Hopefully, they will have time to get in a much stronger position in three years time than they are in today. Many students will have received the benefit that this nation provides through government support of education and they will go on to do great things, both nationally and internationally. In fact, we expect our students of today to be the national and international leaders of the future in whatever field they choose, so the investment by government in tertiary education in this country is crucial for our national wellbeing and our international wellbeing. They are going to be the innovators that start the start-up companies and the small businesses that are going to employ all of the other people around them. These are the people that are coming in to the innovation centre in Warragul and putting up their hand to say, 'I've got an idea.' Actually, they don't judge the people on their idea; they judge them on their talent in having an idea and putting it in place because they're the sorts of people that we want to grow this nation into the future.
I don't want to labour any further, but I don't see the opposition to this as real. I think it was a statement on education more broadly and I think the shadow minister's address was a general statement on the state of education. Most of it is out of our hands. They're accusing this government of an ideological attack on tertiary education. I have been a member of this government for all of its life and I've been around Labor governments and Liberal coalition governments before that. There has never been an ideological attack on universities that I have seen. There has been critical cost cutting at different times by different governments and new directions in where they might go. But one thing that we did find—and it doesn't matter in which area of public policy—was that just throwing more money at it without designed and properly managed outcomes is not the way to go. We have to get a benefit from the dollars that we put in. We need a nation that's growing and growing strongly. Part of that growth, part of that recovery, part of where we are heading in the future, has to be these very students that we're training today, including those that are still in this country to finish their courses and have stayed here to do their education. These are important issues for the nation and they should be taken seriously.