House debates

Tuesday, 8 November 2016


Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016; Second Reading

12:11 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition supports the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016. This bill contains proposals for two changes to the Higher Education Support Act and related acts. The first set of changes is contained in schedule 1, which relates to Indigenous students. Schedule 1 will make changes to the allocation and administration of grants for universities and higher education providers that support Indigenous students. If enacted, the bill will have the effect that three existing funds will be pooled into one. The three funds provide for support services, grants and other programs and bursaries for Indigenous students. By pooling the funds, the money can be used more flexibly and in a more streamlined manner. Making this change will relieve some of the administrative burden imposed on universities.

I am informed that the government has conducted consultation in relation to this streamlining and pooling of funds. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, which is an advocacy group for Indigenous higher education, has also gone on the record giving support to the proposed change. It is a change that we believe will be welcomed by the sector because the more streamlined and flexible approach will better allow grants to support Indigenous students and better allow universities to meet those students' needs.

The second schedule of the bill goes to VET FEE-HELP information sharing. Schedule 2 will amend various pieces of legislation to allow the Department of Education and Training to have access to tax file numbers for VET FEE-HELP debtors. This will ensure that data about students who utilise VET FEE-HELP can readily be shared between the Department of Education and Training on the one hand and the Australian Taxation Office on the other. This change will assist in bringing the VET FEE-HELP scheme into line with other loans under the HELP, including HECS-HELP, and it will assist in ensuring that the individual identifiers in the form of tax file numbers will be able to be used to better assist with information sharing between those two departments.

Insofar as this bill relates to Indigenous students, it deals with an issue that has long been a hallmark of Labor's work in this place. For many decades, we have been the party that has sought to promote access to and participation in higher education, including for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You only need to go back as far as the Second World War to see that it was Labor that was involved in ensuring that there were scholarships for returning servicemen. More recently, in the 1970s, Gough Whitlam made it possible for kids like me and many, many others to go to university. I have said many times before that I am the first in my family to go to university, and there are so many people in this country who, even now, are the first in their family to go to university and who have been able to do so because of Labor's legacy of reforming higher education.

More recently, again it was Labor that opened the doors of our universities to thousands more Australians. Today there are 750,000 undergraduate students at Australian universities, and one in every four of them is there because of what Labor did when last in government. We put 190,000 more students on campus. Labor has boosted Indigenous students by 26 per cent. We also boosted regional students by 30 per cent, and 36,000 extra students from low-income families are now there, compared with 2007.

The moves we have made over many years to increase participation stand in pretty stark contrast to the higher education policy of this government, since it was elected in 2013. In fact, notoriously, this government budgeted to fully deregulate fees, which of course would have led to the $100,000 degrees that were so unpopular with the public. In their discussion paper that must released this year there is still a move to deregulate some university course fees, which we of course have opposed. This comes at the same time as the government has a 20 per cent cut to Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding for higher education still in the budget papers, even though it has been unsuccessful in getting that cut supported through this parliament.

The coalition government is unfortunately not supporting the university sector, and that is a very great shame for a number of reasons. It is a very great shame because, of course, higher education forms part of our international education exports. International education exports and tourism together account for almost as much trade as iron ore. Those two sectors are symbiotic—international education tends to drive tourism and vice versa. So it is great shame from that perspective.

It is also very great shame, from the perspective of the future workforce and skills needs of this country, that the coalition is taking such a regrettable approach to higher education funding. Universities are needed because, as we move into the future, more and more occupations are going to require university-level qualifications. And it is a very great shame for the students and potential students of this country that the coalition has taken such an adverse approach to education funding, because of the growing inequality in this country. We have inequality at its highest level in 70 years and it is continuing to grow. It is an important reason why we need to focus more on investing in education and not less. We need to find forces to countervail against the forces that are making us a less-equal society. As you would be aware, one of the greatest forces for conversions—for bringing people together and for reducing extreme inequality—is education, and that includes higher education.

That is important for a range of reasons also: opportunity for the individual people who benefit from higher education in a private sense; the opportunity they get to go into higher paying jobs; and the opportunity for the country to have people working in those higher skilled occupations. But, from a broader perspective, it certainly is very broadly acknowledged that extreme inequality is a drag on growth. It is a drag on our ability to grow our economy. It obviously makes it more difficult for people to share in the benefits of the growth that we have in our economy.

So the difference between the coalition and Labor in relation to higher education and all forms of education is a very important one for the future of our nation and just what sort of country we want to be. Do we want to be the sort of country where your postcode is not your destiny, where your circumstances at birth do not determine the success or otherwise that you will have in life? Or do we want have a society where division is entrenched and where higher education more and more becomes the province of the more wealthy and those with higher incomes? Of course not. Of course we want the former. So we are very proud of our record on higher education as a force for countering the forces that push towards greater inequality in our society, and as a force for opening up opportunities for people of all backgrounds so that you do not have to be in a situation where your destiny is determined by the circumstances of your birth.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I found my grade 11 yearbook when we moved house recently. I opened my grade 11 yearbook and it had a list of what all the previous year's grade 12s had been up to—where they had gone. I counted about five who had gone to university. I grew up in a regional town in Queensland, and of all of the grade 12s in a very big school I counted about five who had gone off to university. It is not because they are not as smart. It is not because they are not as talented. It is for a few structural reasons. One of them is the absence of aspiration, because university does not even seem to be an option. It is not even something on the horizon. It is not on the radar. For the creation of aspiration in the minds of students who are outside the cities—who are outside the types of families where it is common, over many generations, to go to university—those types of students need to see, role models need to see, the opportunity for universities. That is why equity programs are really important: they build that aspiration. They make universities seem normal and make it seem normal to go to university after high school.

That is one of the reasons I have been so worried about the cut of $152 million to the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program. It has already been booked in the budget, even though the review into that scheme is still underway. It is the reason that so many universities are concerned about the cut to that scheme. It is not just a scheme that grows aspiration—but, of course, that is crucial—it is also a scheme that supports students from those more disadvantaged backgrounds, once they get to university, to help with participation, to help with graduation and to help with success.

These are not new issues. In fact, for a lot of different groups of people who have not traditionally been from families that go to university, Labor has been working on building equity and participation for a long time. I mentioned Gough Whitlam's reforms in the 1970s earlier, but it is also timely to remember that in 1990 Bob Hawke released the landmark paper A fair chance for all. This explicitly talked about the imperative to build involvement in higher education, and graduation from higher education, amongst groups that had not previously had those opportunities. That paper has been the subject of a recent book reflecting on progress in the 25 years that have passed since it was announced and released. It was a really important paper for putting onto the policy agenda the building of aspirations and participation and success in higher education. That was a very salient and landmark paper. Change did happen. Improvements did occur. You did see the increase in those equity groups' representation in higher education.

Fast forward to the last Labor government. By that time, around 2011, we were still in a situation where a lot had been done but more needed to be done. So the then education minister, the member for Lalor, Julia Gillard, commissioned the Bradley review to look at what had to be done in relation to higher education. That review found that Indigenous students continued to be vastly underrepresented in higher education, and that is a challenge we still have to contend with today. Another review, the Behrendt review, which was specifically in relation to education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, conducted in 2011 and 2012, recommended—among many other things—the pooling together of some of the programs, as we are seeing here this bill today.

The reason I am setting out those things is to talk about the fact that there has been a lot of work done over many decades to seek to improve representation by Indigenous students in higher education. But there is still more that needs to be done. At the moment, access rates for Indigenous students are around the 1.88 per cent mark compared with a population of about 2.9 per cent. So you can see that there is an underrepresentation of Indigenous students in higher education. Those are access rates. When you look at retention and graduation, the rates are even lower. The 2014 figures for retention are 0.89 per cent for Indigenous students. The 2014 figures for success are 0.84 per cent for Indigenous students.

It is very important that we continue to maintain a close eye on equity programs aimed at increasing Indigenous students' representation so that we are in a position to continue to build on those figures, to continue to improve representation, participation, retention and success. So we are very pleased to support this bill today. It is an improvement. But we are also very concerned about the more general propositions that the government has been putting forward in terms of participation in higher education: the increase in fees, which in my view is a barrier to participation; the prospect of massive public funding cuts for universities; and the prospect of the $152 million cut for the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program. These are all very concerning for all the reasons that I have articulated before—the trade reasons, the economic reasons, the participation reasons and the opportunity reasons. We are very worried about where those things might lead if the coalition government is allowed to continue to attempt to take the axe to higher education funding.

I ought to finish by saying, in relation to the VET elements of this bill, that we understand that there have been consultations with key stakeholders and they are supportive. That includes ACPET, the AEU and the TAFE directors' association. On that basis, and on the basis that the sharing of tax file numbers should assist in reducing administrative errors by providing that unique signifier, as I mentioned before, allowing that information sharing to occur, we are of the view that this bill is non-controversial in respect of vocational education and training as well. On that basis Labor supports the bill. I commend the bill to the House.

12:26 pm

Photo of Melissa PriceMelissa Price (Durack, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016. I would like to speak on an issue that is very close to my heart—the representation of Indigenous Australians at university. The desire to further Indigenous career prospects is a passion of mine, and I believe it has to be one of the few real, tangible ways to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I am pleased to hear that Labor supports this bill.

The legislation we are debating here today aims to streamline the confusing and convoluted support system currently available to Indigenous students wanting to further their education post high school. Any improvement in this area is welcome, as the current system has far too many conflicting and overlapping guidelines to be practical and workable for young people attempting to study full time.

The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016 serves two functions. Firstly, it creates a new section in the Higher Education Support Act 2003 so that existing Indigenous student assistance can be combined into a single division and managed under simpler and more consistent guidelines. It will also allow the Minister for Education and Training to allow his department to collect tax file numbers for the purposes of administering student assistance and managing information collected under the scheme. The purpose of these changes is to encourage Indigenous Australians currently attending university to maintain their studies and to complete their degrees. This will greatly improve their employment prospects and will allow them to advance themselves in the ever-changing Australian job market.

As our economy changes, so will the requirements needed for entering it. As our economy moves towards a more combined resources economy and a skills economy, our workforce will need to be highly educated and upwardly mobile to meet the challenges facing it in the years to come. It is expected that young people in today's world will move through at least five different industries and take up some 17 different jobs over the course of their working lives. I believe it is vitally important that we are equipping young Indigenous Australians with the skills and qualifications to function in this new economic climate. That is why it is imperative that, as our job market changes, our policy towards furthering the opportunities for Indigenous students changes with it. Indeed, we cannot allow the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to continue into the future. This is why we have to change policy now—to beat these challenges before they become too difficult to overcome.

The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment Bill is intended to reduce the red tape and overlap that currently exist between the many different programs available to assist Indigenous students. The collection of tax file numbers is a good example of this, as it allows refunds and deposits to be paid directly back into students' accounts when rebates are available. Tax file numbers are currently collected for all other loans under the Higher Education Loan Program except for VET FEE-HELP. This incompatible Labor policy will now be brought into line with the other higher education support programs, providing clarity for prospective Indigenous students.

This current practice, unfortunately, exposes vulnerable students to predatory loan services, coerces students to take out loans when they are neither required nor necessary, and leaves them without an avenue for compensation for their student loans. This legislation will bring VET FEE-HELP into line with all other current university FEE-HELPs, simplifying the process for application for both the applicant and the governing department. The intention is that this will streamline the process of accessing government assistance and will improve Indigenous education outcomes.

Undoubtedly, we as a nation have been successful in engaging Indigenous students in university and higher education. We have seen a 70 per cent rise in Indigenous student enrolments in university in the last decade, which is a credit to our higher education institutions around the country and the hard work of the Department of Education and Training—not forgetting, of course, the Indigenous students for taking the first step. But we must now do more. Rather than simply getting Indigenous students through the door, we now need to work on bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous completion rates for post high school study. We want to ensure every dollar we are putting into Indigenous student assistance programs is working as hard as possible to improve the outcomes for Indigenous Australians. We can no longer be simply content with creating Indigenous students; we need to be producing Indigenous graduates and leaders.

This is a core facet of this government's election commitment to change the way our economy functions and views itself. With a dynamic, skilled and engaged young Indigenous workforce, we will take incredible steps towards bridging the gap between the quality of life currently experienced by Indigenous Australians and that experienced by non-Indigenous Australians. This is an issue that I am particularly passionate about as chair of the House Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs and as the member for a very large electorate with the third largest Indigenous population in Australia. I am pleased that the aim of this legislation is to simplify the guidelines, making the variety of supplementary programs available for Indigenous students more workable and more accessible.

Currently, because these supplementary programs are drawn from different sections of the Higher Education Support Act, as well as several other appropriations outside of the Higher Education Support Act, a number of Indigenous students are unaware of or unable to claim the support services they need because of the complexity required in obtaining services. This is an issue that this bill seeks to address. The bill will consolidate the Commonwealth Scholarships Program, the Indigenous Support Program and the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme into one single body administered under a single set of guidelines. This will make the application process far more streamlined and far easier to understand for potential Indigenous applicants. Funding will be distributed to universities based on their full-time enrolment, progression and completion rates of Indigenous students, as well as their share of regional and remote students. This is part of our election commitment to eliminate red tape and to allow services for Indigenous Australians.

It is imperative that this legislation be introduced now and be passed quickly through the House, thereby allowing universities to present Indigenous students who are thinking of studying in 2017 with a clear indication of what government programs are available to assist them. It is therefore a matter of urgency. These measures are critical to allowing Indigenous Australians who want to further their education the best possible chance to do so at the earliest possible date, starting with the very next semester and the next round of university admissions.

When we improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, we lift up and improve all of Australia. Education is the key to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

12:35 pm

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

I am pleased to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016, not to oppose but it but indeed to support it. That is a good thing and worth remarking on, because I know people in the gallery and elsewhere in Australia often have the erroneous impression that we disagree about everything. That is not the case, although you might not believe that from watching question time, which misses the fact that on many issues there is strong support across the chamber.

This bill, as we have heard, has two elements, two schedules, the first being changes to arrangements regarding assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to participate in and, as the member for Durack pointed out, graduate from university. The second I would characterise, having tried to read the amendments last night, as—and no offence to the drafters!—mind-numbingly boring but very, very sensible technical amendments to facilitate better data sharing between government agencies in relation to all HELP debtors.

While this is worthy enough, I do want to remark that it is not exactly substantial education reform, is it? I suppose the House should be grateful that these two elements or schedules have been combined into a single bill, which is a nice change from some of the habits we have seen in the past few weeks of splitting things into multiple bills to fill time in the House and distract from the fact that the government really appears to have no agenda. At least today we are not—although it is early in the day, and who knows what will come later—fixing grammar and punctuation and rearranging clauses and calling that deregulation. But I will make some brief comments in turn about each of the schedules and areas. As has been noted by the member for Griffith, this bill provides an important opportunity also to reflect on the broader context in relation to education policy and on what is not in the bill and what is lacking.

In relation to the first schedule, the objective of the provisions to combine the three existing programs is fine. Who could argue, really, with the stated goal of allowing universities and institutions to better decide, as suits their circumstances and students, how best to support their students to study, succeed and complete their qualifications? And I do not mean just to enrol, but to study. I saw this firsthand in my previous life, when I was a public servant who sometimes drafted such pieces of legislation. One of the most privileged tasks I had in my time in the Victorian Public Service was as the senior executive responsible for oversight of Indigenous policy coordination across the Victorian government and for managing the Commonwealth-state liaison. In that time I actually worked for a Liberal-Nationals coalition government and minister, and it was an area where we did have broadly bipartisan agreement and worked around the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs framework and economic strategy. In talking to elders across the state and to communities and in diving into the policy, it became absolutely clear that education is the key to solving long-term disadvantage and economic opportunity. From all the work and research and conversations, we realised that the single most important thing we could do in the long term for Indigenous people was to help them succeed in education and lay the foundations for a prosperous life.

The early results in Victoria in relation to early childhood and school completion rates in the past few years were encouraging. Indeed, participation in higher education has improved across the country. That needs to flow through. As we know, targeted support is absolutely critical at every level, but it is fair to say that it is not necessarily received by every student. We need to be careful not to put some kind of welfare disadvantage frame over every individual Indigenous student, because of course many students come from the kinds of backgrounds and have the kind of intellect and aspiration to sail through university and succeed. But the evidence is clear that the systemic disadvantage—the intergenerational disadvantage—requires this kind of support for the foreseeable future.

In the last decade we have seen a 70 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students awarded higher education courses, but that compares with a 43 per cent increase across all domestic undergraduate students, and it is a fantastic thing that that rate of entry into the higher education system is improving and increasing faster than the broader population. But, as the data says and the explanatory memorandum makes clear, completion rates are a problem, and only 48 per cent of Indigenous students, compared to 74 per cent of other domestic students, completed their studies between 2005 and 2014.

While on completion rates, I have heard in the minister's second reading speech, the explanatory memorandum and the previous comments of the member for Durack 'if only the government had paid attention to completion rates more broadly across the board'. The evidence is clear that attrition rates have become worse in the last few years. Indeed, this was a key point of difference between the government's policy and Labor's policy at the last election—and it is still up there on the website—that quality and encouraging and supporting students not just to sort of churn in and enter the system but to complete their qualifications is critical. Enrolment at university is not an end in itself.

The Department of Education figures show that 23 per cent of people who started a degree as full-time students in 2006 had not completed it after eight years. I should just do a true confession moment and say that I was one of those students who meandered their way through a chemistry degree and a law degree. I did kind of get to nine years and think: 'Oh, God, they are about to throw me out. They gave me 10.' So having a time limit was a great motivator to complete those last few subjects and exit university.

With the Commonwealth investing $14 billion plus of taxpayers' funding in universities every year, it is important that we reflect on the data that is coming out and see what we need to do to improve completion rates. A Shorten Labor government's commitment at the election was to have quite an ambitious goal to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates by 2020, and to work with the university sector to introduce more incentives into the demand-driven system to achieve that improvement.

You cannot go past the topic of completion rates without remarking on the disgraceful failure of the government in relation to the VET system and completion rates. It is a scandal, as everyone knows. Billions of dollars was wasted in rorts. In fact we debated that legislation in the last sitting week, I believe, and it has just sailed through a Senate inquiry—I would not say 'sailed through'; many flaws have been picked up, given the rush. But billions of dollars have been wasted on dodgy private providers, leaving vulnerable students across the country, and certainly in my electorate, with a mountain of debt for effectively no meaningful qualification.

Completion rates were one of the clearest warning signs that something was amiss in the last two to three years. They were matters that Labor kept pointing out. At which point, we were told it was somehow all our fault and we designed the system badly. Absolutely, there were improvements that were needed in the system. But, at the end of the day, if you are in government, if you are sitting in the chair, it is what you do in 2015 and 2016 that matters, not what happened in 2012. And, indeed the starkest reminder, in a statistical sense, is that in 2014 the graduation rate in the largest 10 private providers across the country was five per cent. So $900 million of federal money was invested to produce a five per cent graduation rate in a vocational set of courses, which amounts to $215,000 for every graduate.

So the focus on completion rates is correct—it is laudable—but it is somewhat hypocritical given the government's complete failure in the vocational space and lack of attention in the broader higher education area. Again, as in the vocational area, they would be well advised to have a look at Labor's policy, talk to us and see what we could agree on together.

It is good that they are finally talking about completion rates. On that point of picking up Labor policy, I do have to note that the intent of combining these three programs arose in 2012 from a Labor commissioned review. In fact, it was the Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that recommended Commonwealth scholarships for Indigenous students be amalgamated and that overall these programs be reformed. They were recommendations 13 and 17, as the explanatory memorandum, the background section, notes.

Concluding my remarks on this schedule in the bill, I do have to note the last line in the explanatory memorandum: 'No savings were taken through this Budget measure.' That is a cause for celebration to be remarked upon—indeed, you may want to frame it as a collector's item—that this government proposed a budget measure in relation to higher education without taking a hack and cutting funding.

As we know—at least, as we on this side of the House believe—investing in education is the single most important thing that we can do to maintain Australia's prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. It will underpin innovation across the economy. The OECD continues to remind us that the best investment a nation in a situation like ours can make is in improving our human capital—that is, investing more into education and infrastructure, which is a topic for another day. Contrast this government's continued efforts to hack and cut the higher education sector with the investments that our neighbours, partners and competitors in the Asia or Indo-Pacific region are making, and we are really putting our future prosperity at risk. That is why, again, the government would be well advised to have a look at Labor's policy around the student funding guarantee to provide greater certainty for universities and remove the need for higher fees.

Schedule 2, relating to the VET and technical amendments, deals with administrative processes. It will see agencies efficiently exchange loan data. There is no argument with that—they are sensible technical amendments—but it must be disappointing for the government to have to keep talking about the VET FEE-HELP scheme again, because they introduced this bill before they introduced their last-minute fix-up four years on to the entire VET loan system only a week ago. Of course, if the government had acted more quickly, billions would have been saved. Instead, successive ministers—five, actually—in the vocational space failed. I think I did the math last time I spoke: on those averages, the current minister's tenure will end in about February. As we have said, we have no issue with the bill as drafted, but we are deeply concerned about the rest of the government's education agenda, or lack thereof.

I doorknocked 14,000 houses in my electorate during the election campaign. I had a street stall in three or four suburbs in various parts of my electorate only this Saturday. The public focus on education has not abated. It is indeed, in a social sense, the great equaliser. It has been the key over time to Australia's higher levels of social mobility, to our great egalitarian society, and people get that. As the member for Griffith outlined, the proud history of Labor—stemming from the Whitlam government's bold decision to open up higher education to everyone based on merit, not their ability to pay—is something that Labor will always be proud of. Our reforms and commitment to access to higher education continue. That is why we oppose the $100,000 degrees, full deregulation, the Americanisation of our university system, which would have left students with a lifetime of debt, which everyone, in their honest moments, knows would deter students from low-income families from entering higher education, maintaining our social mobility. As I have said, it is fundamentally unfair.

Indeed, there is still a lot of love for Gough out there. I was chatting to a local chap called Stavros at the Waverley Gardens Shopping Centre on the weekend. He remembered fondly—he is an older chap—that it was his generation who benefited from free education from the Whitlam government, and he believes that Labor should return to its roots and reintroduce free education. We had a robust conversation, as you tend to do with some people. We did agree in the end that it probably was not, fiscally, the right thing to do. There was a strong policy case for people who benefited throughout their lives and received higher incomes to reinvest some small percentage of that in their education. Nevertheless, the people keep us honest.

The final thing I would say in closing in relation to economic prosperity is that it is profoundly dumb for Australia, not just at a social level but at an economic level, to pursue this government's agenda of locking the poorest students out of the system—those from working-class families; those who, as the member for Griffith said, have come from families that have never had anyone enter or complete higher education.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this bill. We do think that this is a technical bill and that it will sail through, but as always with this government it is an opportunity, and a sad opportunity, to reflect on what is not being put forward to the parliament—important matters that may actually improve the education system as opposed to tweak around administrative arrangements, as necessary as they may be.

12:49 pm

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016. As we have heard, this bill proposes two new schedules to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and related acts. The first of these changes relates to providing more support for Indigenous students and the second assists with information management. As stated by members on this side, we have made it clear that these bills are supported by the opposition. While supporting these measures, many speakers on this side have highlighted the fact that Labor continues to call on the government to do much more when it comes to education and invest much more at all levels of education. We have indeed seen some harsh cuts over the past three years. We should be seeing a greater investment, not cuts, when it comes to education.

The first schedule in this bill relates to greater support for Indigenous students. The Indigenous Student Success Program aims to address the current inequality between the higher education outcomes of Indigenous students and the higher education outcomes of students in general. Whilst over the last decade we have seen an encouraging increase in the number of Indigenous students participating in higher education, in fact there has been a 70 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students in higher education award courses. This compares favourably to the 43 per cent growth experienced for all domestic undergraduate students. It is, however, quite disappointing that less than half—only 48 per cent—of Indigenous students who commenced their studies in 2005 had completed those studies 10 years on. This stands in stark contrast to non-Indigenous students who have a completion rate of 74 per cent. So we do have to do more to make sure that we can encourage Indigenous students into universities, provide more support and make sure they are retained in the universities and graduate. We need to create the conditions for universities to capitalise on improvements to Indigenous students' participation in higher education. We can do that by providing that whole of support to ensure they can graduate and to ensure they can succeed in their higher education studies.

This bill creates, in the Higher Education Support Act, the facility to enable assistance for Indigenous students through grants to certain higher education providers. It makes consequential amendments to other legislation to ensure that scholarships provided for under these changes will be treated in the same way as scholarships provide for under the Higher Education Support Act, particularly in relation to the calculation of income for social security purposes and eligibility for other forms of student assistance.

The amendments in schedule 1 are in response to the 2012 Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The recommendation from the review to amalgamate three Indigenous student funding sources would create greater flexibility with funding and the environment for administrators to increase their focus on addressing current problems, such as the retention and completion rates. This measure consolidates existing funding from three sources into the new Indigenous Student Success Program, which will be administered under the Higher Education Support Act. The three funding sources are the Indigenous support program, which is currently administered under the other grants guidelines, the Commonwealth scholarships program and also the tutorial assistance offered under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

The changes this bill brings to the first schedule relating to grants available for universities to support their Indigenous students is, I understand, supported by the sector. The sector highlighted that often the red tape involved in manoeuvring across three separate funding pools was an impediment and a challenge to the delivery of good service due to the fact that it was not very flexible and it had become somewhat of a burden administratively. The proposal will assist universities in better responding, in terms of having all those three pools into one. It will make it a lot more easier.

The second schedule is essentially about information management and amends various pieces of legislation to allow the Department of Education and Training to access tax file numbers of VET FEE-HELP debtors in order to streamline some of the data exchanged between the department and the Australian Taxation Office. As our speakers have said, of course we support any changes like that that do allow greater information management.

Whilst we are touching upon issues relating to VET FEE-HELP, I know some speakers on this side have highlighted what an absolute bungle it has been by the government—it really has been. We have seen over the last three years that they do not really seem to have much understanding or concern about technical and vocational education, or, indeed, about TAFE. With VET FEE-HELP, from one bungle to the next we have seen them basically do nothing. We have seen a whole range of dodgy providers run rampant. Students were being ripped off. We saw people being saddled with massive debts and huge amounts of distress because of the fact that the government failed to act on this. This crisis was continually in the media. We saw it on the front page over and over again and we kept asking the government what they were going to do about it, but they did not seem to act at all. It certainly has been blown out and the government has been too focused on their internal matters to focus on issues like this in education.

So when we are touching on any matters relating to vocational education and training I think we do have to look at what has been a complete debacle with this government across a whole range of training measures, but certainly with VET FEE-HELP. Funding for education is a really core Labor value. When it comes to education, Labor has always been the party of greater investment and focus on education. We have always looked at improving educational outcomes through a whole range of measures, because we understand how accessing a good education is life-changing.

There are many measures we are incredibly proud of, particularly the Building the Education Revolution. In my electorate I still see firsthand what an incredible difference it makes in the lives of so many students. More than 90 schools benefited from the over $100 million investment in that. Indeed, it is a very proud Labor legacy we have right throughout the country. It is built on so many Labor legacies in relation to educational opportunities.

Labor has opened the doors of our universities to thousands more Australians. Today there are 750,000 undergraduate students at Australian universities and one in four of them is there because of Labor. Compared with 2007, we have more than 36,000 extra students from low-income families in our universities. Labor has put 190,000 more students on campuses. We have boosted Indigenous student numbers by 26 per cent and regional students by 30 per cent. It is a great record, especially for my electorate of Richmond on the far North Coast of New South Wales. My focus in terms of education is making sure those regional students can access university.

Labor has a very proud record of making sure that regional and rural students can have the same access to educational outcomes as those within the cities, because we have always seen such a great divide. In contrast to all of that—the funding, the investment and the focus that Labor has had upon, particularly, higher education—we have the really harsh plan by the Turnbull Liberal-National government when it comes to higher education. Their plan is for $100,000 university degrees. I quite often hear families tell me of their disillusionment and anger with the government in regard to that particular plan, because it means they just cannot go to university. They just cannot access it.

I do not quite understand why they keep cutting it, particularly when we know that an investment in education is an investment in the country's future. When we look at the economic growth we have had in this country it has of course been achieved by many necessary economic reforms and one of the cornerstones is the raising of workforce skills through education and training. That is a reality. There is a very clear linkage between increased funding for education and economic growth. The challenges ahead are very clear. If we want to ensure that we continue to be competitive globally and that we are a fair society with a high standard of living, we have to invest in education. It is that straightforward. Our future prosperity will depend upon that transition to an economy that is more diverse and upon embracing education in this increasingly technology-driven world.

It is estimated that by 2020 two out of every three jobs created in Australia will require a diploma or a higher education qualification. The Liberal-National policies continually fail to recognise this and would indeed see us falling behind other nations, committing us potentially to a lower standard of living. We know universities across Australia are facing very significant budget cuts under this current government. It is a concern for students, parents and teaching staff. For many areas right across the nation their harsh cuts are very concerning.

I know that in my area regional Australians do not want to see $100,000 university degrees. We do not want an American-style system where only the wealthiest can afford to go to university. As I have said, there is that strong linkage between our economic growth and our investment in education. We see that all the time. We see evidence right across the board, from Australian economists and the OECD, that investment in education builds a more prosperous nation over a long period of time.

I always find it quite remarkable when we hear the Prime Minister waffling on about pursuing economic growth. If we know that investment in education is one of the best ways to do that, why does he continue to make cuts across the education sector at all levels?

We do continue to see those funding cuts at all stages, and they are all equally detrimental. We see funding cuts in early childhood education, funding cuts in schools, funding cuts for the TAFE and vocational education sectors, and apprenticeships, and, indeed, as I have referred to, we see many funding cuts for universities.

In contrast to all this, look at some of Labor's proposals before the last election. We said we would invest an extra $13 billion over the decade in higher education, including a higher education funding guarantee so that, year after year, the money to support teaching extra students in universities would continue to increase. We wanted to see an extra 20,000 students graduating each year by 2020 and were supporting those students getting a really good quality education. We made a range of other announcements as well, ensuring we got more, not fewer, students into universities and ensuring that funding really guaranteed teaching standards in our universities, and making sure that university education was in fact available. We had a very comprehensive higher education plan, particularly focused on making sure that university was much more affordable to so many people.

In schools, Labor had a very clear set of goals that we wanted to pursue over the coming years, including increasing the number of students who are being taught coding in our schools, making sure that more of our teachers have science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications, and making sure that our young people are more connected to Asia through studying Asian languages and fostering positive relationships with Asian schools. We need to set very clear goals about targets for returning Australia to being one of the top-performing school systems in the world, and we need to have a government that understands that and invests in that. Labor understood this and we acted through our commitment to Gonski, unlike those on the government side, who have continuously attacked everything about Gonski and the needs-based funding our schools really need.

The Gonski school education funding had barely even started when the government began their $29 billion cuts throughout our schools. People on this side have talked about the impact of the Gonski funding and what it meant in terms of improving literacy and numeracy outcomes by focusing on some of those children who may have fallen behind, by making sure that kids who are gifted and talented get the opportunity to explore some of their talented outcomes, by making sure things like occupational therapy or speech therapy is available to those students who need it, by ensuring that we had that needs-based funding there. In regional and rural areas, the Gonski funding was an absolute game changer. The fact that the government has cut so much funding means that those students now just will not be able to access that greater individualised training that they were getting under the Gonski funding. We were making sure that schools got the resources that they needed, and that was so important. Indeed, throughout the election one of the most positive responses I had was in relation to Labor's 'Your Child. Our Future' plan, which would have benefited every child in my electorate of Richmond, with an additional $20 million set to flow to local schools—a huge amount that would have made a massive difference. Extra funding does make a massive difference. By committing to the Gonski reforms on time and in full, every student in every school in my electorate and right throughout the country would have been better off under a Labor government. That is the reality, and parents know that.

In contrast to that, what we saw from the government side, from the Liberal and National parties, were cuts of $29 billion in classrooms over the next decade—cuts which will continue to have negative impacts on the future of our students and the future of our nation. Properly funding our schools and our educational sectors at every stage of life is vitally important, and we will continue to hold this government to account and raise these issues. Its lack of funding and continuous funding cuts are hurting the future prospects of young Australians, hurting the future prospects of our economic growth, and they are hurting, in particular, those in regional and rural areas because they limit the opportunities that younger people have. Not only do they have cuts in the whole vocational educational sector, and cuts to apprenticeships, but their access to university is limited as well. These areas, as we know, have high rates of youth unemployment, and this government has done nothing to address that. When it comes to education, we do need to see a much greater investment, not less.

In conclusion, as I and other speakers have said, we do support the measures in this bill but ultimately we want to see a greater investment in education, because those in the opposition, in the Labor Party, understand that it is education that transforms lives and it is only education that will sustain future economic growth. Labor will always continue our commitment to do that. We are very proud of what we took to the last election and we are very proud of our history and our legacy in terms of our commitment to educational funding.

1:05 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Like my Labor colleagues, I support the passage of the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016, which makes a number of minor amendments and changes to the Higher Education Support Act and related acts. Schedule 1 will make necessary changes to the allocation and administration of grants for universities and higher education providers that support Indigenous students. There is a great Indigenous population in the seat of Kingsford Smith, revolving around the La Perouse community, and there has been a concerted effort by many institutions, both school institutions and the University of New South Wales, to encourage more Indigenous students through a tertiary education pathway through a number of programs. This amendment bill is pleasing to those who work in that space in the community that I represent. The changes will also remove some of the red tape and back-office processes imposed on universities and merge three separate funds into one.

In 2015 there were more than 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders studying at Australian universities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student numbers have increased by 50 per cent since 2009. We talk about closing the gap and increasing opportunities for Indigenous Australians, particularly through education and employment pathways. This is a very pleasing statistic. Unfortunately, it is one of the few areas where, in terms of closing the gap, Australia is making progress on encouraging more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to take up university education. This increase is greater than the increase seen more broadly in Australian university enrolments. It is encouraging to know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enrolling in university now more than ever.

When Labor were in government we did as much as we possibly could through a number of reforms and new policy areas to open up universities not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students but more broadly for people from a non-English-speaking background and those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Labor did open the door to university for thousands more Australians. We boosted Indigenous student numbers by 26 per cent during the period in which Labor were in government.

In my electorate of Kingsford Smith, the University of New South Wales has a number of great programs that actively encourage Indigenous people to study and support them through their higher education journey. The university's Nura Gili program is designed to ensure access for Indigenous students to all that that important university has to offer. Through Nura Gili the university runs an Indigenous science and engineering program that allows Indigenous students in years 7, 8 and 9 to explore the world of science and engineering at university. The university runs a year 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander information day and offers enabling programs designed for Indigenous people who have the potential but are not yet prepared for first year or undergraduate studies. These programs generally run for one year and provide the students with a pathway to transfer into a degree program at the University of New South Wales.

I am also very fortunate to be involved in and a member of the advisory committee for the University of New South Wales Matraville Education Partnership. This partnership exists between the University of New South Wales and Matraville Sports High School, which is in the south of Kingsford Smith. Matraville Sports High School has had a very distinguished career producing many great Australians. Many great Australians have graduated from this high school, including the likes of Bob Carr; the Ella brothers, who played rugby union for Australia; Eddie Jones—he is not in the good books at the moment, but he nonetheless was a graduate of Matraville Sports High School—and Russell Fairfax. The list goes on of great Australians who are graduates of Matraville Sports High School.

I think it is fair to say that in recent years the results and enrolments at the school have fallen dramatically. This has raised concerns among a number of people in the community, myself included. A number of leaders of the community came together with the University of New South Wales. I must pay tribute and credit to the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor Ian Jacobs, who has done a marvellous job and actually comes along and chairs this very important committee on a regular basis to improve educational standards at Matraville Sports High School. It involves a partnership. It involves the university's education faculty working with teachers, students and parents of Matraville Sports High School to improve in a number of important educational areas. There are key performance indicators that the school hopes to achieve through this partnership. Basically, what they are doing is encouraging the best and brightest education students at the university to come and experience and work with students at Matraville Sports High School.

Although the program has only been working for one year, they have achieved amazing results on a number of key performance indicators. They include the percentage of year 9 students in NAPLAN bands 8 to 9. Over one year, in terms of reading and literacy, it has gone from seven per cent in the baseline of 2014 to 16 per cent achievement in 2015. In terms of aspirations of Matraville Sports High School students and increasing the number of year 12 completions, we have seen great results already—going from 31 year 12 completions in the baseline of 2014 to 43 achieved after the first year. Building capacity for parents, carers and families to engage with the school: there was no school engagement with the wider community and with parents. From a number of parent events held and the average attendance going from a baseline of zero in 2014 to two events in 2015 and 40 attendees from parents of students at the school. Connecting existing community organisations and individuals with UNSW departments to provide programming and opportunities to elevate the school's community profile: again, there has been great achievement and increases in that key performance indicator. Building the capacity of Matraville High School staff and teachers at surrounding schools to teach diverse learning outcomes effectively through hands-on professional educational sessions: the number of teachers from the school involved in those programs has gone from three in the baseline to 15 over the course of one year. Providing the necessary infrastructure to encourage teachers to encourage more collaborative, critical reflection and improvement of their own practices: we have seen a 50 per cent increase in one year.

The university has also got something from this program. In terms of better equipping UNSW preservice teachers for work with students, parents and community members from diverse backgrounds, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of those students that are involved in that program.

Again, this is an example of the University of New South Wales working with a local school that has a very high proportion of Indigenous students—around 70 Indigenous students in a total enrolment of around 230, which is quite a large number. The university has been working with those students, their teachers and their parents to improve educational outcomes. It is a program that is paying dividends and something that I am very proud to be involved in.

Of course, Kingsford Smith has a very strong Indigenous culture and heritage. It is an Indigenous community that is active with many outstanding individuals excelling in art, music, business and so much more. Recently I commissioned an artwork for my office by two of the Indigenous students at the school. They presented that artwork to me last week at a ceremony at the school. It is a fantastic depiction, in an Aboriginal dot painting, of Botany Bay. The different cultures that come together and are depicted in the artwork are very, very special. It is something I cherish. It is a great symbol of the work of those young Indigenous students, and I have to congratulate those students who were involved in putting together that particular artwork for me.

We have a proud local Indigenous heritage and community, and I am pleased that this bill does something for them and has something in it for them. Importantly, the more streamlined and flexible approach to grants to support Indigenous students that is detailed in this bill will allow universities like UNSW to better meet the needs of their Indigenous students. Schedule 2 of the bill will ensure that data about students who utilise VET FEE-HELP schemes can be readily shared between the Department of Education and Training and the Australian Taxation Office. This change will ensure that VET FEE-HELP has the same provisions as other loans under the Higher Education Loan Program.

Unfortunately, I think it is fair to say that the Turnbull government has shown a complete lack of ability to properly manage VET FEE-HELP. As the government has sat idly by, the sector has been filling with shonky providers who, rather than provide valuable educational experiences for students across the country, have been dishing out pain and suffering through crippling debt to thousands of Australians. VET FEE-HELP loans have blown out from about $700 million in 2013 to a staggering $2.9 billion in 2015. But, in the face of such wastage and human suffering, for years the government sat back and let the chaos continue, before belatedly adopting Labor's course of action that we announced in the lead-up to the last election.

Before that election, Labor's VET spokesperson, Sharon Bird, announced a very positive suite of reforms to make good changes to the operation of this scheme and weed out some of the shonks. Those have, thankfully, been adopted by the government, and we have discussed those changes in recent weeks in this chamber. They involved capping student loans to stop rip-offs, cracking down on brokers, linking publicly funded courses to industry need and skill shortages, requiring providers to reapply under new standards so only high-quality providers could access the loan system, linking funding to student progress and completion, and a VET loans ombudsman. Thankfully, the government has copied a lot of those reforms and introduced those proposed measures. I understand that the Senate will amend the legislation, to adopt all of Labor's proposals.

Meanwhile, the future of TAFE does remain in the balance under Liberal governments—particularly the combination of Liberal governments at a federal and state level, such as in the state that I represent, New South Wales. TAFE, as we know, is the backbone of the apprenticeship system in Australia and, unfortunately, under the combination of federal and state Liberal governments, apprenticeships have been decimated in Australia, with $2.5 billion cut from skills training, including $1 billion stripped from apprenticeship programs and the Tools For Your Trade program since 2013. The $1 billion cut to apprentices has seen apprentice numbers across Australia plummet from 417,700 since September 2013, with 122,400 fewer apprentices in training. In Kingsford Smith, in our community alone, apprentice numbers have fallen from 3,211 in June 2014 to 2,137 in March 2015. That is over 1,000 fewer apprentices in training in our area. We talk about growing the productivity of the nation and we talk about providing high-quality skilled jobs for people, but we are going backwards in doing that, in terms of apprentice numbers throughout Australia.

On higher education, we support this bill. We believe that Labor has a positive story to tell. In terms of access to education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, this bill does go some way to improving that access, and it is something that Labor supports. But we do have a long way to go if we are going to improve our training system and our apprenticeships system, and if we are going to right some of the wrongs that have been occurring in VET FEE-HELP over recent years.

1:19 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016. The first schedule of this bill relates to grants that are available for universities to support their Indigenous students. Previously, there were three separate pooling funds available for support services, grants and other programs, and bursaries for Indigenous students. You can understand why the sector found operating across three separate pools of funds absolutely administratively burdensome and inflexible. So the proposal makes sense. Schedule 1, for example, is for the three existing funds to be pooled together into one. This allows universities to better respond to the needs of individual Indigenous cohorts. This change should be welcomed by the sector.

I am pleased to speak on this bill because Labor has a very strong record when it comes to education and helping students, regardless of background or postcode, to go on to higher education. We know that if you want to better someone's life, if you want to change their world and make it a better place, we can do this through education. Our record was extremely strong, when we were in government, on this particular topic. Labor has opened the doors to our universities to thousands more Australians.

In the Whitlam era we brought in free education for university students. Many thousands of people who would have been unlikely to get an education or a degree at university ended up getting degrees. For some people it was the very first time and, for the majority, it was the first in their family's history. Prior to the early seventies it was the circumstances that people were born in that determined whether they went to university. We have Gough Whitlam to thank for that. I am sure all my colleagues, on this side, are very proud of one of the greatest achievements that Labor has ever come up with.

Today there are 750,000 undergraduate students at Australian universities, and one in every four of them is there because of the policies we put in when last in government. We put 190,000 more students on campus. We boosted Indigenous student numbers by 26 per cent. We boosted regional student numbers by 30 per cent. We now have more than 36,000 extra students from low-income families in universities compared to 2007. This is in contrast to the current government, who have the wrong plan for Australia's education system. Prior to the election we heard the debate about introducing $100,000 degrees, which put debt walls around universities, making it very hard for people to go to university and pay their debts. The government's policies would see us fall behind, committing us to lower standards of living and lower incomes.

Since the last election, in 2016, the Labor Party has wanted to reset the relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in a renewed push to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. One way of doing that is through education and higher education. Education plays a very important role. It was Labor that created the close the gap framework and only Labor has a clear plan for meeting the ambitious targets—that we designed, when last in government.

Addressing Indigenous disadvantage will not happen in one term. We know it is a long road ahead, and we know that it will not happen in one term of government. So what have we seen after three and a bit years? We have seen the Liberals sidelining the voices of Aboriginal people, slashing funding for community controlled services and neglecting the closing the gap framework. We need to put forward a series of positive policies to help close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. We on this side are committed to improving early childhood outcomes, health outcomes and education and employment outcomes, as we drive a new agenda for tackling the outrageously high levels of Indigenous incarceration and victimisation. Most importantly, unlike the government, Labor is committed to working in a meaningful partnership with Indigenous Australians to close the gap and improve those outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Investing in education is the single most important thing that we can do to maintain Australia's prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. It is no good talking about the jobs of the future and talking about the cutting-edge jobs that will be developed in the future; if you do not get the foundations right and provide the funding, those jobs will never come. That is what we have to do. Labor has always been committed to opening access to higher education for more Australians and supporting universities as critical drivers of innovation across the economy. We are committed to this not just because it is the fair thing to do but also because our future prosperity depends on it. Two in every three jobs created in the future will require some form of higher education degree. So we need to be building the workforce of the future today—and that starts today. The role of a government should be to improve access and to make it easier for people to gain higher education, not to put walls around our universities through massive debt burdens.

As I said earlier, Labor is the party of education and expanding opportunity to higher education. This additional investment will ensure that students are encouraged rather than deterred from studying at university, improving the productive capacity of our economy to provide certainty and confidence to a sector that is vital to maintaining Australia's prosperity. We want to legislate the student funding guarantee and index the value of the investment to ensure the value of the contribution is not eroded over time. Again, only Labor is committed to investing in higher education to create and sustain those jobs of the future.

The previous Labor government opened access to universities. As I said, 190,000 more students are at university today as a result of our reforms. Access will always matter to Labor and we will continue to support the demand-driven system, but our next wave of university reform will focus on completion and quality. We want Australian students who start university to finish university with a degree. Department of Education figures show that 23 per cent of people who started a degree as full-time students in 2006 had not completed it after eight years. So you can see that there needs to be a real focus on ensuring that people complete those degrees. There is evidence that attrition rates have been getting worse in recent years, meaning even more students are likely to leave university with a huge debt but no degree.

With the Commonwealth investing $14 billion of taxpayers' money in universities every year, Australians are right to expect outcomes that benefit the entire community, with young Australians graduating as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists enhancing our society and our economy. We have set an ambitious goal to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates per year from 2020. Labor will also work with the university sector to ensure that incentives within the demand-driven system are introduced to achieve this goal. Investing in education is the single most important thing that we can do to maintain Australia's prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. Labor has always been committed to opening access to higher education to more Australians and supporting universities as critical drivers of innovation across the economy.

The second part of the schedule amends various pieces of legislation and this proposed change would make data exchange of individuals using VET FEE-HELP consistent with other aspects of the HELP program. We welcome this change. However, it is not enough to make up for the government's neglect of the VET sector and of TAFE. Over the last three years the Liberal government have shown they simply do not care about technical and vocational education.

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.