Tuesday, 27 March 2018
Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018; Second Reading
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Griffith has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.
In continuing from where I left off yesterday, in opposing the original bill and supporting the amendment, I'd like to draw together the comments that I made.
The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 would force people to start repaying their student debt when they earn $42,000. In fact, it's part of a broader agenda to cut and cut and cut our education budgets. There's a $17 billion cut from schools, there's nearly $3 billion from vocational education and training and there's $2.2 billion from universities. Of course, this is a government that has to find savings in order to pay for one of its big-ticket items, the $65 billion tax cut to big business. The consequence of that policy is going to be a disaster for education, but it has other ramifications. I think the Australian unions put it best when they wrote:
Privatisation hasn't resulted in the cheaper power prices we were promised. Penalty rates cuts haven't resulted in the jobs we were promised. A $65 billion corporate tax cut won't result in the higher wages being promised.
What the result will be is that it will be harder for people to get an education; harder for them to make a change in their life that would lead them to possibly maximising what they can offer back to our community professionally. No-one who's invested in improving a society would sacrifice education to big-business tax cuts that deliver absolutely nothing back to society.
I always think context is important, and when we're talking about students it's particularly important to remember where Australia sits in terms of the contributions that graduates are already making. Our students, whether or not they've finished a degree, already make the sixth-highest contribution in the OECD to the cost of their degrees. In the context of my local university, the Hawkesbury campus at Richmond of Western Sydney University—and, of course, students from my electorate attend Western Sydney University's other campuses in Penrith, Parramatta and Campbelltown—we're talking cuts in the 2018 to 2021 academic years of $93 million. This is at a time when the government talks of a science and innovation focus, where it wants to upskill people, yet at the same time it's cutting the very institutions which will equip people to be ready to face those changed working demands. So, when you combine this with the university funding cuts and with the disincentive to students because of the early demands to pay their loans back, you're setting our education system and our young people up for disaster.
People are under enormous pressure at the moment. If you finish university, you enter a world of insecure work where many of the jobs are available on a casual basis or on a contract basis. These often count as full-time and non-casual work in the employment stats, but can belie the fact that we have teachers who are getting employed on contracts which finish at the end of the term and they have to go and get work at Bunnings over Christmas because they don't have work to keep themselves going all year round. Many people are being told, 'You'll only get a job to be an Uber driver or a Deliveroo driver for us if you call yourself an independent contractor.' We know insecure work is growing, and it's increasingly becoming a reality for many people, including those who finish university.
Not only are they facing a world of massive insecurity on the job front; if they get a job, they'll find that their wages buy a lot less than they used to. Wages growth is now at record lows and in some years is, in fact, going backwards. So what you get for the money that you have is much less. Meanwhile, at the same time, the cost of housing is going through the roof. Back in 1990, the cost of an average house was, on average, six times an average young person's income. Fast forward a couple of decades, and it's 12 times an average young person's income.
That is the world facing young people, in particular, at the moment. And that's the world facing them even if they do the right thing—if they do all the things this government asks them to do: finish your school, go on and get further education and equip yourself for this changing world. You do all of the right things and you still find yourself facing massive insecurity, unaffordable housing and incredibly low wages. There's a direct correlation when you look back over the reforms of the last 30 years and the situation people find themselves in now. To deal with this, not only are people getting much more anxious—anxiety and mental illnesses are on the rise—but people are left with no option but to go into debt just to try and stay afloat. So now we have the shocking situation in Australia, that's gotten worse under this government, where the ratio between disposable income and the amount of debt a household has has blown out. In other words, this is about how much money people are bringing in versus how much debt are they in. Back in the late 1980s, it was 60 per cent—your debt was 60 per cent of your average income, which was eminently serviceable. Sometime around the 1990s, the two started balancing out and the amount that households on average owed was about the same as what they were bringing in. The ratio now is up at 200 per cent. It is nudging 200 per cent.
People are in debt more than they ever have been before, and this government rails about government debt. Well, it's much easier to service government debt than it is for households to service personal debt, and part of the reason that we have governments is so that we can share the burden. We can share the burden for things like education, because it's much easier when a government, through taxes, says, 'We're going to ask the rich to pay a little bit more, because they can, and then we will use that to spread the burden and fund good public education and share the cost, share the risk and share the burden.'
But over the last few decades we've seen, under governments of both stripes, this idea that we can't have government debt anymore, even though it's much easier to service and you get a better bang for your buck when you have things like universal public education and universal health care and you keep the costs low, if not free. Instead, they're pushing all the costs and all the risks onto everyday people. So now, compared with a couple of decades ago, young people graduate from university and find themselves in debt and facing a world of insecure work, owing more than generations ever have before, and being unable to get themselves into a house. And what's this government's response? It is to come up with this bill to put these young people into even more debt and take away even more of their disposable income by saying that if you've done the right thing and gone to university then they want you to have even less money in your pocket on a weekly basis.
If you couple that with the government's other reforms that are about putting students into even more debt by increasing the cost of higher education, you start to understand why people around the country are saying, 'Enough is enough.' We are on the verge of being the first generation in peacetime history to leave a standard of living for coming generations that is worse than the one that we inherited. That will be in large part as a result of this government.
I feel deeply about this issue of the cost of education, because my dad was the first person in his immediate nuclear family to go to university. His dad—my grandfather—worked in the post office, served in the war and did a number of other odd jobs. His mum did what many people in that generation do, which is look after and raise the kids and raise a great family. When my dad went to university, that was something that was unusual for people in his immediate family to do, and he went off and became a social worker and contributed greatly to Lifeline in South Australia, the community that he came from. But he was able to do that because education was free.
And we all make mistakes in our youth. I'm happy to admit that my mistake when I was at high school and at university was that I joined the Labor Party. I joined the Labor Party because that's what people in my family did; that's the background they came from. The reason I left the Labor Party was that in the nineties I could see the Labor Party making education more expensive, beginning the process of HECS—and then increasing it—and putting people into more and more debt. And you could see, as surely as night follows day, that once you start saying that education isn't a public good that the whole country benefits from but is instead a personal commodity and a personal debt, then the door that the Labor Party opened the Liberals was going to open even wider—and walk through it and trample all over people—and that's exactly what has happened.
But once you start making it a personal burden, then that personal burden is only ever going to increase. And because Labor has swallowed the same lines about government debt that the government continues to promote as part of this trickle-down troika of Labor, the Liberals and big business, we have this approach where we can't possibly ever borrow more on the government books, and we have to shift the burden onto people. People need to understand: every time someone from the Labor or Liberal parties stands up and talks about getting government debt under control and cutting it, what they're talking about is shifting it away from the government and onto households. That is why the household debt-to-income ratio is 200 per cent now, when it used to be 60 per cent, back in the 1980s.
We need to stop and turn this ship around. If this keeps going, people are going to break. There is a much better way of running society, and that is by saying that these individual burdens of debt and risk are something that we're not going to push onto people, to make them suffer and try to navigate a world of high electricity bills, high housing costs, insecure work and high levels of debt. No. We say that is a system that breaks people, and we're going to do one of the things only government can do: spread the risk and the burden. We could fund our universities even more and get rid of the debts that people have if we had the guts to stand up to big corporations and the very wealthy, who are enjoying unfair tax breaks that are now completely unaffordable and unsustainable.
At the moment, most people who put petrol in their car are paying 38-odd cents per litre in excise tax. When the likes of Gina Rinehart and her wealthy companies put diesel in their trucks on their mining sites, they pay the 38 cents and then get a rebate, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer, and pay zero. It costs us a couple of billion dollars a year so that the likes of Gina Rinehart can get cheap petrol. Australian taxpayers are spending $2 billion plus to subsidise cheap fuel for Gina Rinehart. Why don't we get rid of that unfair tax break and put the money into higher education so that people are no longer in debt and we continue to have a world-class education system? Why don't we ask the mining companies to pay a fair share of tax by getting rid of some of the tax lurks that they have around accelerated depreciation? There are so many ways in which the top end of town, the billionaire class, are getting away with financial murder by having negotiated from Labor and Liberal these incredible tax lurks, because they have managed to patrol the corridors of parliament and get these slices of the national pie brought to themselves in the budget.
In an attempt to balance the books, governments are now coming up with outrageous plans like putting students and former students into more debt. No. The time has come to say that this place should be about standing up for the public interest, not succumbing to sectional powerful groups who have the ability to negotiate tax breaks for themselves and not doing what the Liberals have tried to do in this term of parliament by making people pay more to see the doctor or what Labor did in their last term by cutting payments to single parents. No. This place has to stand up for the public interest. A good place to start is education, because, if we don't ensure that everyone in this country, like my dad, can go to university without having a debt the size of a small mortgage hanging around their neck by the time they graduate, and if we don't say to every graduate, 'We're going to make life easier for you when you leave, by making sure you have enough disposable income in your pocket rather than dipping our hands in and taking out more,' then people are rightly going to say: 'What is the point of parliament if you are making my life worse and worse and putting me under even more pressure at the same time as giving tax breaks to big business and continuing the unfair tax breaks they already have? What is the point of government if you can't stand up for the public interest?'
The Greens will be opposing this bill because it's a continuation of an attack that we've seen for several decades, where education is increasingly treated not as a public good, the key to our national prosperity and something we want every person in Australia to have, but simply a way of making money and shifting debt onto individuals and households. If you don't want to be in any more debt, you will oppose this bill. If you want to take away people's income, as the government wants to do, then you will support this bill, but, if you want people to have more money in their pockets, then you've got to oppose this bill. At a time of low wages growth, a time of high housing costs and a time of record personal debt, there can be no justification for saying to people who are on below average incomes, 'The government is going to put its hand in your pocket and take out even more.'
Let's do what we're meant to do and stand up to those big corporations, who are getting away with financial murder. If we do that, we can fund education and take the pressure off students and former students.
The avid listeners at home may get a sense of deja vu from this debate. Here we are again, six months on, arguing the case against the government's ongoing attacks on education and young people, especially those from disadvantaged or middle-class backgrounds. The best you could say about the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 is that it's a little bit less awful than last year's efforts to lower the repayment thresholds to force people to repay their education loans even earlier. It's a reheated version of last year's leftovers—sloppy seconds, as they say. Of course, the midyear financial update package is the fourth attempt by the Liberals to cut universities and make students pay more and pay earlier. So Labor is, rightly, again opposing this bill. It is still unfair and it's still unnecessary.
There is a risk of just repeating oneself in speaking on these bills. There's a pattern we've seen this year, in every sitting week, of the government proposing bad legislation, it being defeated by the Senate and the government serving it up again, a bit less awful, with a few tweaks. We had the bill to repeal the bereavement allowance yesterday. We've got the ongoing attacks on pensioners, the pensioner education supplement, the pensioner energy supplement, making you work till you're 70, changing the indexation rates for pensioners, drug testing people on social security—better known as the 'drive up crime bill'—the English grammar test to become an Australian citizen and the list goes on. The same stuff which was defeated last year represents the government's ongoing agenda. So the thrust of my speech in September still stands, but I'll summarise it briefly and then in the second half of the speech I will build on a particular aspect and respond to some of the comments made in the debate yesterday by the member for Tangney, who's sitting opposite.
To summarise the key arguments, which still stand, this bill makes it even harder for young people from everyday backgrounds to climb the ladder of opportunity through education. Rather than helping young people fulfil their potential, to climb that ladder of life and opportunity and secure a better future, except for the very few amongst us who happen to be born into wealthy families, last year the government tried to make young people repay their education loans when they started earning $42,000. This year they picked a different number: it's $45,000. If we knock it off, maybe they'll come back with $47,000. The point is it's still too low, and there are a few fundamental truths that remain about lowering the repayment threshold from where it is now. Firstly, it still makes it harder—for many people, impossible—to buy a house and provide for a family. We hear in the speeches of those opposite, prattling on, 'It's only $10 a week;' 'It's $5 a week;' 'It's $20 a week.' The point remains: it makes things more unfair and more unequal and it's the wrong way to go, especially at a time of stagnating wages, poor graduate employment outcomes and spiralling house prices fuelled by regressive tax breaks for the wealthy. The point still remains: this bill will worsen inequality in this country. Good luck saving for a deposit for a house, saving for a family, repaying your uni debt, paying off a car, paying your rent, paying your phone bill, paying for food and paying for electricity and any other costs that come up. You'd better hope you don't get sick.
The point remains: what have young people done to deserve this? If we want Australia to remain the land of a fair go, as they say, we have to do more to address inequality, especially that which is of an entrenched and intergenerational nature. We know that education is the best single tool that governments have to encourage social mobility. People in my electorate get it. It was the No. 1 issue over 18 months of doorknocking that came up from grandparents, parents, young people and, particularly, migrants. Fifty-five per cent of people in my electorate were born in another country. They come here seeking a better life for their kids, with that laser-like focus on education. So Labor is opposing this bill because it sells out the country's future as well and takes us in the wrong direction.
The dissenting report of the inquiry into the bill by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee sums it up well:
… the changes to HELP repayment thresholds are simply driven by budget cuts.
They are simply driven by budget cuts in this government's ongoing attempt to cut education. We should not be cutting higher education or making more barriers and disincentives for people to take it up. It's not just a tool for social mobility or to curb inequality but critical to our future economic success. I outlined in more detail why that is in my speech in September. Again, to summarise, our region is the fastest growing in the world. This century holds enormous opportunity, but the world does not owe us a living. We're at the bottom of a region of 4.5 billion people, and we can choose to innovate and compete or get left behind.
Right now, Australia has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD. So while our neighbours, partners and competitors in Asia are increasing investment in education, our government spends month after month, year after year, thinking of new ways to cut funding for higher education and make it harder for young people. We need an equitable higher education system if our best future is to be realised, so that the smartest and brightest get the same access, no matter where they're born, how much their parents earn and their capacity to pay.
The last time I spoke I made a few remarks about HELP debt levels and repayment. I want to build on those and respond very positively to some of the comments made yesterday by the member for Tangney in his speech on the bill. The government is concerned about growth in unpaid debt. To be clear, I mean unpaid debt by students, not unpaid debt because of your terrible budget management. Overall, student debts are increasing significantly for a range of positive reasons—there are more people going to higher education and so on—but over the last four years we've seen the number of students with debts grow from 1.7 million to 2.5 million and the total debt grow from $25½ billion to about $48 billion, and 23 per cent of those people are not expected ever to repay their debts. The fact is unpaid debt is largely with people who haven't earnt above the income threshold for long enough to repay, and that debt is written off when they die. I outlined last time that there are still three broad options you can choose, philosophically, to deal with that fact. The first option is that you could just accept that writing off a huge chunk of the debt is an essential part of the scheme—an equity measure if you like, an investment in human capital, some of which will be lost as people never repay the debt. That's one option, and that's got an argument. The government's approach of course is option two, to lower repayment thresholds so as to push young people, effectively, in my view, into a poverty trap. That's their choice. There is a third, interesting but politically very difficult, option, which is to explore recouping unpaid debts from deceased estates when people die.
In September I gave a gentle nod towards option three, floating the idea that it's time to review the current and very peculiar rule, when you put it into context, that HECS debts, HELP debts, are written off completely when you die, no matter how wealthy you are and no matter how big your estate is. It is a fact that the major reason for the high doubtful HELP debt is that it's not collected from deceased estates when people die. The Grattan Institute did some very thoughtful and detailed work on this in 2014. It's also a fact that many people who die without repaying debts will actually be from wealthy households. That's because their family arrangements are such that they may never have personally earnt above the threshold or paid off much of the debt, but they will have married and will end up inheriting a lot of wealth from, often, a husband or wife who dies and who has a lot of wealth. By the time they die they may not have ever earnt enough taxable income to pay their debt, but they will pass away with a lot of wealth. It's politically difficult, mainly because it's very easy to carry on and call this a death tax and such nonsense, but there is a case to look more closely at it.
I'm very conscious that it's not my party's policy, and I am just a humble backbencher, so I am able to explore things more freely, and I think there's a case to do so here. The case for it will only grow over time as we see more debt written off, pressure to pursue more regressive and unfair options, as the government feels necessary to do, and concerns about growing wealth inequality. This could be explored as a small but progressive measure.
In that context, I was surprised and pleased to hear the remarks of the member for Tangney yesterday welcoming my speech, quoting me even, and offering to explore this in a bipartisan way. I welcome that offer and I would be pleased to do so. I say I was surprised because my speech was given six months ago and you're never quite sure whether anyone listens to anything you say in here during legislative debates. The Australian newspaper picked up on it and wrote something on it. I say for the record that I did not send it to them. They must just have been listening or reading Hansard or someone opposite thought they'd give us a poke. Also, it's a good reminder of some advice that the member for Watson gave me when I was first elected: never underestimate the impact that something thoughtful, sensible or silly that you say in here can have in unpredictable ways.
I am also pleased because, as I said in my first speech, I want to be someone who is prepared to work across the aisle and find compromise without compromising our values. I talked about structural deficits and fiscal challenges, acknowledging the community's desire for more bipartisanship. I'm committed to doing my bit to listen and learn and stay true to those words, so I will accept the offer. We can flesh it out, run some numbers and see if the case does stack up, and then we can garner some broader support across the parliament.
In the remaining time, I will precis the 2014 Grattan Institute work because it is a good starting point. They explored one approach—this was their approach—which was a system of asset contingent repayment to ensure the eventual recovery of most outstanding HELP debt but, importantly, protecting the estates of HELP debtors with little wealth so you don't cause hardship. That work highlights that debts are really discharged at death. Tax debts, personal debts and social security debts all have to be repaid from deceased estates—no-one objects to that: we understand that—but just not education loans. The repayment of education loans is income contingent when someone's alive to smooth the income and consumption over a person's life, but:
Once their life is over that policy goal is no longer relevant.
They're dead. It is in that context difficult to understand why government collects tax debts and social security debts but writes off education loans, even for very wealthy estates. Grattan makes the point that the vast majority of people actually die late in life—about 95 per cent of women and 90 per cent of men die quite late in life—and partnered people earning less than the repayment threshold tend not to be the main earner in the household. In effect then, writing off all HELP debts gives a windfall gain to partners who are higher income earners or adult children, with no obvious public policy or equity rationale. Grattan's proposal—I'm not saying I agree with this; we'd need to look at it—was to require HELP debts to be repaid just like tax or social security debts from estates over $100,000 in value. This would raise up to around $2.8 billion over three years and flow from there.
They proposed, obviously, that we would need to craft any such policy carefully. You'd need a reasonable threshold. They thought $100,000. We can model and look at scenarios a bit higher. But importantly—and this is important—there have to be appropriate exemptions or delayed payment provisions to protect people. For example, families with children where a parent dies young or people with surviving partners and cashflow issues where capital is tied up in a house—you don't want to force someone to sell a house. There are a lot of practical issues to be worked out but they could all be done. The Grattan's work also points out that the ATO already has a lot of discretion simply to waive debts where collection would cause financial hardship, and this is important.
Aside from the death tax furphy, there'd be lots of other arguments against it, including one which I've heard before, that HELP, in effect, is a contract between the Commonwealth and the student and addressing the estate exemption is going to be a breach of contract. But really, there have been many changes to HELP repayment rules over the years without any legal concerns—it's a political issue. There's also the argument about pain for gain: it's not worth the political pain as it wouldn't produce any short-term cash. But the reported savings would actually be immediate because of the way the budget accounting rules work. To quote Grattan:
… an allowance for estimated non-repayment is made—
In the budget—
… in the year that the loans are made.
So you lend some money and you make an accurate estimate based on the best info about how much is going to be repaid. So $2.8 billion is a worthy, progressive, long-term or structural reform over only three years, if it can be crafted to be fair and progressive. They conclude the write-off of debts to deceased estates 'has very high financial costs relative to its benefits'.
In putting that out there, I understand this isn't my party's policy but there's a case to explore it, consistent with our values, as it would be a progressive reform if crafted properly. I understand it's also not the government's policy at this time. But I do note that they did float it in their own discussion paper and it's entirely consistent with the government's objective as stated in recouping more HELP debt.
If difficult choices have to be made, to my mind, that's certainly far less regressive and unfair to young people than the government's approach. In plain English, if someone dies wealthy or with reasonable assets, then it seems more reasonable to me to have their estate repay an education debt where it doesn't cause hardship, rather than slugging a low-income young person with higher repayments while they're alive and trying to get a start in life.
This morning I telephoned the member for Tangney to make time for a coffee and a chat. We obviously won't agree on the government's ongoing attempts to lower the repayment threshold. We'll see how that goes in the Senate, for people who are alive—by that I don't mean the senators, I mean the young people. I presume the senators are alive and kicking. But it is worth exploring the issue of deceased estates further in a bipartisan fashion, so we'll see what transpires. Thank you.
I, too, rise to oppose the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018. I do so because, as we heard the member for Bruce say, it is an attack on students, it's an attack on young people and it's especially an attack on people from the lower socioeconomic group—people who need help and assistance, people who are willing to get an education to better their lives.
As we know, there is no better way of getting out of a particular rut or out of poverty than education There is no other tool that is as effective as education to ensure that you go on to get a career, go on and get a decent job, go on and be able to participate in this world and do all the things that we all aspire to. This particular bill is one that attacks all those things. Increasing participation in universities and reducing barriers to higher education should be a priority of governments. It should be a priority but, instead, what this bill will actually do is decrease participation at universities and bring barriers upon people who wish to undertake a higher education.
As I said, the priority of governments, whether they be Labor, Liberal or Callithumpian is to make sure we get more participation and reduce barriers to higher education. But instead, we see a government that's doing the exact opposite. We're seeing a government that's having another attempt, after six months, at cutting funding to universities. We see a government that, through this bill, would make it harder for people that perhaps won't get an opportunity to go to university thereby ensuring that they don't get to better their lives because of their social background, because of their circumstances, maybe perhaps because of their parents' circumstances. So that's the reason we, on this side, will not be supporting this bill.
We know that every dollar spent on education is an absolute investment in this country's future. Whether it be through industry or through technologies, investing in education ensures that we make this place a better world. This, I think, is the government's fourth attempt at cutting university funding. This time around it is to a tune of $2.2 billion. You can't cut $2.2 billion out of a system, out of a particular area and expect that it would not have an adverse effect. Those adverse effects will make it harder for people to get a higher education. But the government still remain committed.
The government are cutting $2.2 billion from education but they are absolutely committed to supporting a $65 billion tax cut for Australia's richest people—that's a $65 billion cut to their mates on the other side of town. At the same time, on the other side of town, they are making it harder for kids and young people to go to university to better their lives and perhaps get out of a particular situation that they are destined to be in because of where they were born, for example. We know they have also cut penalty rates. Students have lost a considerable amount of their income yet they are still the most likely to work those antisocial hours on weekends—Saturdays and Sundays. We saw the Fair Work Commission hand down that dreadful recommendation to cut penalty rates. We had a proposal in this place to overturn that. The government refused to do so. That will have an adverse effect on students as well.
We've seen the mismanagement of Centrelink. Waiting times have ballooned out. One in five calls to Centrelink are made by students and young people. The government have removed the student start-up scholarship and installed a student start-up loan. They have done nothing about the wage stagnation in this nation and the casualisation of our workforce. And now they are saying that students and graduates will have to repay their HELP debt when their earnings have reached a lower rate, making it harder for those students who are already struggling, who are already working hard to balance study, home life, education and work—in many cases low-paid work, where students depend on the penalty rates on the weekend to get through university. The members opposite recognise these significant social issues. It's not hard to recognise these social issues. But instead of addressing them they intend to make the system more unfair for those people on the other side of town and take from the back pocket of vulnerable Australians while at the same time pursuing and insisting on that $65 billion tax cut to Australia's richest people.
This government has already done its damage to students, and they're saying that there's still more to come. And that doesn't surprise me one little bit. Why would it? They cut from pensions and they cut from working people, and we have the worst wage stagnation in the history of Australia. We have enormous casualisation and part-time work. Why wouldn't you be surprised? This is not a government for students or graduates. This is not a government that is committed to investing in education. And that is a real shame, because when you invest in education you're investing in this nation's future, you're investing in the next generation of Australians and you're investing in the stability of the nation. Pricing people who are seeking qualifications or retraining out of higher education, as this bill would do, is not the reform that this nation requires or needs. And of course we've seen the other path as well—the $100,000 degrees that they have been pursuing for many, many years in this place.
Higher education represents an opportunity for many in my electorate of Hindmarsh and many other electorates around the country, and I want to support those people who want to take up this opportunity—people who are committed to bettering their lives through education, people who want to turn it around—and this bill will not help this one little bit. I've recently been contacted by constituents from my electorate, and I'll give you a bit of an idea of what they've been saying. One constituent who recently reached out to me is a first-year university student at the University of Adelaide. She started university only a month ago and already this government's reforms are affecting her ability to successfully engage in her education. Under financial hardship provisions, my constituent was able to have her youth allowance claim processed faster. However, reforms for the start-up scholarship have become a challenge for her. The start-up loan which has replaced the scholarship requires student payment applicants to opt in to receive the grant. The issue for my constituent is that the start-up funding is no longer processed automatically. So, despite my constituent's youth allowance claim having already been processed, this start-up funding is yet to reach her bank account, causing enormous hardship for her.
Universities deliver increasing amounts of their content online, and my constituent also was dependent on this loan to acquire a laptop for her tertiary studies. I anticipate that when she's able to get this laptop, at some stage in the future, it won't be long before she encounters problems with this government's NBN as well—another burden for this particular student because of the NBN rollout and its poor connectivity. In the meantime, accessing courses and textbooks is an issue for this person as well. This two-part processing for student start-up funding is disadvantaging low-income students by delaying their access to study resources.
Completion of a tertiary qualification absolutely puts a lot of responsibility on the student. We see university students working unsociable hours and balancing family, work and study commitments. Due to deadlines, working commitments and financial stressors, tertiary students are becoming increasingly vulnerable to health issues, especially mental health issues, and this bill will do nothing to alleviate that. The National Tertiary Student Wellbeing Survey of 2016, which was completed by the National Union of Students and headspace, found that only 1.6 per cent of the students who participated in the survey had reported no symptoms of mental health problems that impacted their studies in the previous year—only 1.6 per cent. So, we see that students struggle to cope with tertiary stressors and demands. Psychological distress for tertiary students has become an issue internationally. And we're aware that mental health is a serious problem in this country and certainly for our younger populations and students. Suicide rates in Australia are at an all-time high. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, many of them students. The 2017 federal budget allocated $115 million in new funding over four years to mental health, one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years.
Sometimes major family issues impact upon a student's ability to complete a degree. Recently a constituent who had been formerly enrolled at the University of South Australia contacted me. They left study a few years ago to help out with a family situation that wasn't working that well at the time. Four years later, now that family situation has changed and progressed to a more healthy state, my constituent sought to return to university. It was four weeks before he could even find out if he was eligible to return to study as he'd originally hoped for and was planning. It was to be some time before the university accepted him as a student again. Even if they had said he could return, he'd still be four weeks behind all his colleagues. To return to university again, he'll have to undergo a lengthy process and test, and if successful he'll have to apply for recognition of prior courses completed. You can see some of the hardships they go through and how this particular bill will have an adverse effect on these people.
Staying at university is hard, but this government is making it harder for people to even get their foot in the door, let alone go to university and complete a degree. Labor made it possible for 190,000 students to access higher education, and many were the very first in their family to do so. The Liberal government froze university funding at the end of 2017, at levels that hadn't been seen before. They're already making it harder for students to get a place at university, and this bill will make it even harder. Freezing university funding is cutting university funding. It's no different. When you freeze something, it's a cut. You can polish and dress it up in any way you like, but it's a cut. These cuts, delivered in late December last year, were a kick in the teeth for year 12 graduates who worked hard to get into university and now may not be able to do so. It's estimated that 10,000 students missed out. The majority of those would have been from low-income families and perhaps won't get that opportunity ever again. There are reports that some universities are already turning away students and cutting programs. We see it every day. What does this mean for university services, like on-site counselling, that don't bring in revenue? What does it mean for all the other services at university? The university sector needs certainty, and funding to the sector needs to be stable. On this side, Labor and I are committed to fighting these cuts.