Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018, Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018; Second Reading
I rise to contribute to the cognate debate on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. These bills introduce a range of small cost recovery measures proposed in the 2017-18 budget. There will be a small annual charge for higher education providers and universities to support the cost of administering the Higher Education Loan Program. The bills also amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce an application fee for higher education providers to offer FEE-HELP loans to Australian students. I also note that the new charges will have to comply with the Australian Government Cost Recovery Guidelines. The government has revised the impact of these charges from $30 million in the 2017-18 budget to $14.1 million over the forward estimates. These are modest charges and go towards the administrative cost of Australia's world-famous income-contingent loan scheme, HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program.
Labor will not oppose these bills, because on balance these charges will have a very small impact on the higher education sector, especially in the context of our very positive policies for higher education. But we won't tolerate a situation where these costs, modest though they are, might be passed onto students. We will continue to monitor the operation of the scheme and, if needed, seek future amendments, changes to regulations or assurances from the higher education sector. Even though, overall, this is a small extra impost, we believe that it should be absorbed by the higher education sector, and not flow on to students and thus undermine equity of participation in our higher education system.
I also want to acknowledge that a great deal of the anxiety that's been expressed by the university sector in relation to these bills, but much more broadly as well, is in relation to the track record of five years of cuts, chaos and dysfunction from this government. Since the Liberals have come to office, universities have undergone a sustained period of attack with cuts and chaos. Only last week we saw the Minister for Education announce a cut of $134.8 million from the Research Support Program to fund unexplained projects in regional university campuses—unexplained projects that can only look like pork-barrelling without more information than we've been given. A majority of this funding is going towards repairing the damage caused by previous Liberal cuts.
So you come in and you cut the funding. There's chaos in the regional university campuses, in particular. We freeze student numbers, worsening the situation there. And then to repair the localised chaos, we take money from research and put it into these regional campuses. It is really not the way to run a higher education system. If the government were serious about regional education it would follow Labor's policy. I do acknowledge that in this period of cuts and uncertainty the sector sees the charges in these bills as unfortunate. I want to assure them that under Labor the university sector will have certainty of funding and a respectful and consultative approach.
So many people in the university sector remind me of the promise from the member for Warringah before the 2013 election that universities under a Liberal government would experience a period of benign neglect. I think they'd be praying for benign neglect given what they've, in fact, gone through over the last five years. There has been not benign neglect but malicious intent in a lot of the university changes that we've seen. There have been repeated attempts to cut funding from the university sector. There have been repeated attacks on students, trying to get them to pay more for a university education, restricting access to a university education. It was Labor that led the charge against these cuts in this parliament. The first Liberal education minister of this government, Minister Pyne, tried twice to cut funding. Then last year Minister Birmingham also tried to cut funding from our universities.
There were some cuts that we were able to stop and there were some, because they didn't require legislation, that we were not able to stop. We couldn't stop the $2.2 billion in cuts made just before Christmas last year, because the minister was using existing powers in the Higher Education Support Act to reduce funding. This decision means that the government have effectively recapped undergraduate places in our universities and forced students to pay their debts off sooner by lowering the HELP repayment threshold to $45,000. I described this decision then as 'reckless and unfair', and it still is. It has locked thousands of students out of the opportunity of a university education and put enormous pressure on other young people having to repay their debts sooner—often at the same time as they're trying to start a family and buy a house, and when they have many other expenses.
Changes like this disproportionately affect women. The ACTU have undertaken analysis that shows that 60 per cent of Australians with a HELP debt and a taxable income are women. So twice as many women are affected as men.
We've also learnt from Universities Australia that the cap on places meant that around 10,000 places were not funded this year, in 2018, and we expect that number to continue to increase year upon year. The Mitchell Institute's recent tertiary participation analysis says that because of the government's caps on university places around 235,000 students could miss out on a university place by 2031. At a time of year like this, when so many students are anxiously awaiting their results, having studied hard in year 11 and year 12 hoping to get a place in university, it really does tug the heartstrings to think that over the next decade or so almost a quarter of a million young people who would otherwise have a place in university will miss out if the policies of this government continue. Kids who are prepared to study and work hard, and invest their time and money, through the HELP repayment scheme, in getting a university education, which better equips them for the world of work, will miss out because of policy decisions of this government.
The decline in TAFE and apprenticeships is in some ways even worse than this. We've seen an extraordinary failure by this government when it comes to vocational education and training. We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary school education, either TAFE or university, so we need to increase participation in both universities and our vocational education sector to make sure our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing so very quickly. We need to boost participation, not cut it. The Liberals' record in this area is abysmal. If we continue down this path, we will severely jeopardise our future economic growth, undermine the opportunity of individual Australians to meet their full potential and, very importantly, compromise our ability as a nation to compete with the rest of the world using the skills, knowledge, discovery and invention of our people. Consequently, I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that, over five years, the Government has cut billions in funding from Australia's universities and vocational education and training, making it harder for Australians to attain a university or TAFE qualification".
Labor has a strong and positive plan for universities. We have committed to return to the demand-driven funding system to lift the caps on undergraduate places. This will see around 200,000 more Australians get a place at university over the next 12 years. We want to see more students who are the first in their family to go to university. I know that around Australia right now there are bright and talented students, many of whom might want a university education, but their opportunity to get that education is not evenly distributed across our towns, cities, suburbs and country areas. It makes no sense to me at all that a young person from the Moreton Bay region in Queensland is about five times less likely to get a university education than someone who lives on the North Shore of Sydney. It is not because brains are unevenly distributed across our country; it is because opportunity is unevenly distributed across our country.
We'll change that. Labor, if elected, will invest $174 million over the next decade to support more students from outer suburbs and the country, Indigenous students, students with disabilities and more people who are the first in their family to go to university. Funding will encourage universities to collaborate with TAFEs and not-for-profit and community organisations in areas with low university attendance and graduation rates to deliver mentoring and outreach programs to increase students' desire for a university education and their success once they get to university. We will establish, too, a university future fund so we can upgrade and invest in new university research and teaching facilities, as well as deliver projects that will support our economy and jobs and communities right across Australia. These positive plans will see more than $10 billion in additional funding flow into our universities over the decade. Universities, students and workers in higher education will all be better off under a Labor government. Under our better and fairer funding approach, universities will be more than able to meet the small charges in this bill. I thank Labor senators for their work on the Education and Employment Legislation Committee's inquiry into this bill. I also thank universities, unions, student groups and other stakeholders for their submissions on the bill.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment be agreed to. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.
I rise to support the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018. I note that we are not opposing it, because of the relatively small impact that it will have on the sector, especially in the context of the policies that Labor would like to be able to bring in to properly fund the sector should we win office. I also note that we do have some concerns about how the charges and other aspects of the bill will operate over the longer term. We'll be watching that closely and making sure that the new scheme has no negative impact on students, that these costs aren't—as so many things are—passed through to the consumer, in this case the student, in the form of higher fees or higher charges for services and that ultimately they don't undermine the equity in our university system.
I note that Australian students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for a university education, and we know that, if the Liberals had had their way, they would have already introduced $100,000 university degree fees. It's no wonder that, when I talk to young people and they remark that my generation had the benefit of a free university education, they question the sort of money they could be asked to pay under those opposite. It is hard to imagine that those opposite wanted the full deregulation of student fees, but we were very pleased that they were forced to back down. I note that they kept $2.5 billion of cuts to universities from 2018 onwards, and they have already forced students to start repaying HELP debts when they earn as little as $45,000. That's only $9,000 a year above the minimum wage, so it really isn't giving students very much breathing space to be able to make up for the years of penury while they were studying and then the years of struggling to build those first stages of their career. So I think students already face some pretty big challenges in the pursuit of not only getting a better education for themselves but making an additional contribution to this society and to our economy.
I think it's really important in debating this bill that we look at the key differences between Labor's approach to higher education and the Liberals'. We believe that funding education is an investment in our children's future, in our nation's future, and not just a cost burden. I've been interested to read the work of Glenn Withers, a professor of economics at ANU. He points out that the economic evidence is that not only does higher education build the economy's skills and knowledge but it pays for itself many times over. On average, university training in Australia has paid a rate of return of around 14 to 15 per cent, according to analysis of 2006 and 2011 census data. University research has delivered an average rate of return of 25 per cent. They're the sorts of rates of return that, if you've been in business, you'll be envious of. The rates of return for tertiary education far surpass most commercial rates of return, which historically average around 10 per cent, and surpass any hurdle rate for investment, which is typically seven to eight per cent. That's what's sought in formal government investment analysis. So you've got to say that every taxpayer dollar invested in higher education is really working hard, and we're getting a great rate of return.
On this side of the House, we believe there should be an even greater participation in higher education in Australia. The decision by the government to effectively put a cap back on undergraduate places in universities is going to smash participation rates—a $2.1 billion cut. Across the country, the Mitchell Institute says it will lead to 235,000 Australians missing out on a university education—and that is just an extraordinary figure—over the next few years. That has a shocking impact on our economy and on our society. The impact will particularly be felt in electorates like mine on the outskirts of Sydney.
There is a desire for Western Sydney to be part of an innovation drive, with high-quality, high-skilled jobs. The population requires a skills uplift to be ready for those jobs, yet the Centre for Western Sydney has found that, among young people, the attainment of a bachelor degree is 40 per cent lower than elsewhere in Greater Sydney—10 per cent, compared with nearly 17 per cent. So, we already have significantly fewer people even attempting university, which is not setting us up well for the skills that we need going forward. The freezing of funding to Western Sydney University is not going to help to reduce that gap. Western Sydney University is the key provider of education in the greater west, including the Hawkesbury campus at Richmond, in my electorate. It's in the interests of my community that we see more people go to university. We on this side of the House actively back participation—for a start, by lifting the caps the government has imposed.
There are a number of ways we think that the university system needs to be treated differently. Labor is committed to returning to the demand-driven funding system and to ensuring that there are three-year funding agreements. We also want to see more equity and pathway programs, and we've provided for much-needed funding for infrastructure. They are the areas we would like to see change. Labor's positive policies will see around $10 billion in additional funding flowing to universities over the decade.
I will now talk in a little more detail about where those different areas will be. Let's talk about participation. I want to see more kids from the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains getting a university degree. We've already announced that $174 million in equity and pathways funding will be available under Labor. That will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates so that more students are encouraged to go to university. In the Hawkesbury part of my electorate, particularly, we have a fabulous uptake of TAFE but we don't do so well on university. We need both of those things. We need young people and older people going to both those pathways so that we can bring together the skills mix that we need for the coming century.
It is still a reality that if you're a student on the North Shore of Sydney you are five times more likely to go to university than a student in, let's say, the Moreton Bay area of Queensland. You are also more likely to go to university than if you come from the Hawkesbury or Blue Mountains. We want to change that. The equity funding comes on top of Labor's nearly $10 billion commitment to return to the demand-driven funding system from 2020, which will see around 200,000 more Australians get the opportunity of a university education over the following decade.
Only last month or so Labor announced a new $300 million universities future fund that will go towards updating research and teaching facilities at our universities. We've also announced a specific commitment to the Hawkesbury campus in Western Sydney in my electorate of Macquarie. The Hawkesbury campus will receive $20 million to transform it into a global food-security powerhouse, which really helps put the region at the cutting edge of research on hardier crops, nutrition and biosafety.
My part of Sydney is really not Sydney; it is peri-urban. We have fabulous agriculture, we have orchards, we have berries, and we have vegetables being grown on the floodplains of the Hawkesbury, so agriculture is really important to the Hawkesbury. The $20 million will establish a new world-class agri-technology centre on our campus. We currently have the most amazing glasshouse that there is in Australia. This funding will help the work being done at that facility. It is a 1,700-square-metre glasshouse, where crops are grown for research. It uses the latest climate control technology. It features things like diffused glass and smart glass coatings that adjust the spectrum, direction and intensity of light, helping researchers to produce the highest possible crop yields with minimal energy, nutrients and water. The investment in this facility, which will enable additional research, will really build on our tradition in the Hawkesbury as an agricultural centre.
The Hawkesbury Agricultural College became, 126 years ago, the first agricultural college in New South Wales, and we continue to have that tradition carried through. People outside the area might not realise that the local dairy, beef, lamb, vegetable and food producers are already key contributors to Sydney's food supply. As the issue of food security becomes more and more pressing, we will have an opportunity to play a really key role there. In a lot of ways, this has the potential to put the Hawkesbury on the map internationally. We know this kind of technology is in demand around the world, so the investment has a huge potential to be a job creator as our local know-how is exported across the globe. I look forward to seeing this project come to fruition if Labor wins the next election. It will be a very exciting time.
So the choice for me is pretty clear. On one side you have a government that really doesn't value investment in education, that dos as little as possible, but asks students to do as much as possible.
An opposition member interjecting—
There is no point in shaking your head at it, because that's just how the numbers add up. On this side, we have an absolute commitment to ensuring quality education at every level—from preschool and early education through to our schools—which would mean an additional $16.5 million funding for schools in my electorate of Macquarie over the first three years. Those are the sorts of commitments we have alongside this commitment to university funding. So the choice in university funding at the next election is clear. Labor will properly fund our universities and give students who have the ability and are willing to work hard the opportunity of a really valuable university education—valuable for them and valuable for us as an economy and a society.
I join my Labor colleagues tonight—and I would note that we are once again bereft of speakers from the other side—in cautious support of the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018. The bill proposes to impose an annual charge on all higher education providers whose students are entitled to HECS-HELP assistance, with the revenue raised to go to the Higher Education Loans Program. The projected impact of the is a budget saving of $14.1 million over the forward estimates, and we don't see that as an extraordinary amount of money in this case.
But I would like to take the opportunity, as my colleagues have, to talk more broadly about higher education in this country and this government's record while it has this bill before us, and seeks our support for, this bill. It has been at odds with us for five years over higher education. Sometimes those debates have been very heated because, on this side of the chamber, we desperately want to see that, as a country, we invest in our people. Investing in our people is an investment in our economy. But we're not happy to see investment in just some people; we want to see access to a quality education for all Australians. That's why the debates have been so bitterly argued.
As someone who stands here as the first generation in my family to attend university, I completely understand the transformational change that has made in my life, in the lives of some of my siblings and in the lives of those of us who were fortunate enough to pursue a university education. It has changed the lives of the next generation in my family. It has built aspiration into that next generation. My parents managed to make us aspirational by insisting that the first option for us was a university education and by aspiring to that. Of course, in the case of me and my siblings who attended university, they were assisted by a Labor government that allowed access to a free university education. Two of my older siblings accessed education through the scholarship program. There are eight children in my family, and I'm No. 7, so there is 10 years between myself and an older sister who accessed it through a scholarship, whereas I was fortunate to be of that generation who could sit in a classroom and say, 'I would like to go to university,' and it would be at no cost to myself or to my family. I would like to think I've repaid that debt to the Commonwealth. I'd like think that I've made a contribution in public education over 27 years and in this place. I also note that I wouldn't be in this place if I hadn't had that opportunity.
This government seems intent on narrowing that opportunity to a certain set of people that come with a cheque book and can afford it. We fought them on changes introduced once they were elected in 2013. We fought them over the notion of increased fees for students. At some points in that debate it was estimated that fees could have gone as high as $100,000 for a degree. We won that debate. The government lost that war on young people. I proudly stand here as a Labor member who fought hard both for my electorate and for attending university—which brings me to my electorate. Under the previous Labor government, my electorate saw increased numbers of students accessing university, and those numbers have slipped over the past five years in terms of percentages per capita. I find that to be absolutely reprehensible, because we know that, for our economy, we need young people to be as highly skilled as we can allow.
We know that nine in 10 jobs will need a TAFE or university qualification. We know, therefore, that we need to increase participation in both TAFE and university, yet this government attacks our university sector with funding cuts, including the 2017 MYEFO cut of $2.2 billion, which effectively put a cap on undergraduate places. This is where the rubber hits the road in an electorate like mine. The cuts in those undergraduate places bear poisoned fruit in my electorate. In the electorate of Lalor the population of the City of Wyndham, which is most of the electorate, has ticked over 250,000 in the last 12 months. That means we are more populous than the City of Greater Geelong. There has been a demographic change in our area as well, which has brought in families from all around the world—families, I might say, who are highly aspirational for their children.
As I stand here and speak on this bill, I'm reminded of a conversation I had at a year 12 graduation not two weeks ago, where a parent told me that his two daughters, one of whom was graduating that night, were both aspiring to attend a university outside of Australia. I pondered at that point what that meant and thought about all the other children and young people I know that are seeking to attend universities offshore. It reminds me that the globe is getting smaller and smaller in these terms, and people are willing for their children to travel to seek out an education. It brought home to me just how important it is that we have a world-class university system here for our children to access, and how important it is not to be in a situation where we are cutting research dollars from our world-class universities to create places in regional universities—robbing Peter to pay Paul—when in fact what is required here is investment across the board. What is required here for any young person who has both the talent and the work ethic to reach university is the capacity to get there.
This government seems to be intent on making it more and more difficult for our young people. They have changed the amount at which young people are asked to begin to repay their HECS debts. It is now at a level of $45,000 a year, which is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. On top of that, they have cut penalty rates, which lots of young people in my electorate rely upon to attend university. That brings me to another action from this government: the delayed application processes and payments of youth allowance. I have had students in my electorate wait a complete semester before receiving one payment. I don't have to paint too big a picture here for you to understand that that means that young people in my electorate, having worked hard and gained entry to the university, are walking away from university education because of cost-of-living issues. It doesn't take much to understand that there may be parents in my electorate, with both parents working and possibly not on much above the minimum wage, who find themselves with an 18-plus-year-old who can't access their youth allowance. It's not that they're not entitled; they are absolutely entitled. But from December, when they finish their exams, through to February, when they start university, they are possibly working part time. The other side of that is that they think that there will be an income there for them and that they will have support through Youth Allowance, but that support fails to come. That means kids are walking away from university. I can't put it more plainly than that. In an area like ours, it is incredibly important that every level of support be put in place to ensure that the young people in my electorate can access these things.
When this government was elected, the member for Warringah, the then Prime Minister, told the university sector that they were in for a period of benign neglect. In contrast, they have now seen themselves losing 10,000 undergraduate places this year alone under this government's changes. The Mitchell Institute suggests that the current policies of this government would see 235,000 students miss out by 2031. I know which areas of Australia those students are going to come from. Your IQ is not defined by your postcode, but it appears that university entrance can be, unless governments create policies that ensure equity of access; ensure that those students, our brightest and best, will be supported while they study; and ensure that there is not some kind of economic selection process that is being gone through to determine who will get the benefit. When the government were introducing the original cuts and suggesting students could pay up to $100,000 for a degree, they told us many times: 'That's fine. Those students who get a university education will earn an enormous amount of money at the other end.' So why would we want to narrow the economic factors here to prevent students from my electorate being the big winners in the education stakes?
Labor will ensure, if we win government, that over the next decade approximately $10 billion in additional funding will go to universities. This will see around 200,000 more students get the opportunity of a university education. I can't stress enough how important that is for the young people that I represent. This includes our commitment of $300 million, which will go to funding much-needed infrastructure to upgrade our research and teaching facilities, and $174 million in equity and pathways funding to provide mentors and pathways for students from areas with low university graduate rates. That would include the electorate of Lalor, which I represent. Our children are as talented as any set of children across this nation. Those who are fortunate enough to make it to university have incredible results. I've had young people working for me across the last five years—home-grown, home-educated kids—doing honours and JDs. They have been studying and working incredibly hard. We have the talent, but there are hurdles in the way. The Labor government will remove some of those hurdles.
There's a fantastic not-for-profit that operates in the western suburbs of Melbourne called Western Chances. It was founded by Terry Bracks, wife of former Premier Steve Bracks, to tackle exactly this issue—to put in place scholarships and support that will support students from secondary school all the way through to the completion of their studies. That has been operating in the western suburbs for a long time. It is time consuming for teachers to fill out the paperwork to suggest a child, but I have seen some fabulous stories from Western Chances when we've put the right supports in place and removed some of the hurdles.
I invite any member of this House to come to a Western Chances's graduation evening to meet some of their graduates. They are now forming an alumni. Western Chances are supporting young people from the western suburbs not only at senior secondary college and in their transition to university but also through university. Western Chances offers further support in employment. It's amazing to see their work on the ground. It's opening doors for many students in the western suburbs of Melbourne.
I applaud the member for Sydney, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, on announcing that the money in HEPPP will be now open to not-for-profit organisations. This will allow not just universities to seek out appropriate students and put in supports but generous minded individuals in the community and in the not-for-profit sector who are already doing this work to leverage off their existing structures to help more students in the western suburbs of Melbourne, particularly in the outer west area that I represent.
I support these bills cautiously. I urge those opposite to review the position they are taking on higher education and to come back to this House with some better policies and better funding structures to ensure that students in my electorate are given access to the quality education that they deserve.
With a hefty dose of caution I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and related bill. This is a government that is always looking for savings wherever it can find them. It's a government that will take cost-cutting to a knife's edge before it impacts on those who are trying to get a university education in Australia.
My electorate of Werriwa has access to three world-class universities: Western Sydney University, the University of Wollongong and the University of New South Wales, which is based at Liverpool Hospital. More universities still have signed an expression of interest for the aerotropolis at the new Badgerys Creek airport. The electorate of Werriwa is also the most vulnerable electorate in Australia when it comes to fluctuating cost-of-living pressures. Therefore, I worry that, if universities even mention the prospects of sharing the tax burden through student fee increases, bright young people from my electorate may see a university education as beyond their reach, and that is something we can't do. We must encourage our youngest to go to university.
I am proud to say that it was Labor that created Australia's world-renowned income-contingent loan scheme—HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program. For those students who might otherwise be deterred by the cost of a university education, this loan program says clearly, 'You don't have to pay back the loan to the government until you're reaping the benefits of an increased earning capacity.'
Labor believes it's fair that students make a contribution to the cost of their higher education, but students should never have to pay these fees upfront. In principle, universities paying to have loans administered seems reasonable; however, we must ensure that these costs do not touch students, making going to university even more unaffordable. Students in Australia already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD. This is why Labor will be referring these bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry.
Equality in access to tertiary education has been utterly transformational in my family. My generation was the first in my family to attend university and benefit from the opportunities that higher education can provide. My sister, Kathy Mee, of whom I am very proud, attended the University of Sydney. Kathy recalls that, when she first attended Sydney, there were very few students in that first economics class that came from as far away as Liverpool. Certainly most of them didn't come from west of the GPO. The opportunities that the university has given my sister have been extraordinary to watch. She has a PhD and she is also a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. These opportunities would not have been provided in any other way.
My sons, too, have all attended university. So, in just two generations, the wealth of opportunities provided by university education have been incredible to observe. My sons work as secondary school teachers and graphic designers. Access to tertiary education has been my boys' pathways to opportunity and prosperity. It makes me nervous when the government starts putting legislation like this forward, because I know how fragile the possibility of going to university is for some Australians. A university education has meant that my eldest son has been able to join the housing market and just recently buy a house. That's probably something he wouldn't have done if he continued his previous job, working very hard—no less hard than what he currently works—but in retail, considering that penalty rates have now been cut.
It is with the utmost caution that we on this side of the House provide our support to the bill. We know that this is a government that seems to cut, trim and hollow out until only a skeleton is left, and a skeleton of a higher education system has no option but to pass on increased cost burdens to those who access it. These charges must not flow back to the students. They really mustn't. We do not want to see higher fees and higher charges for those trying to access a university education within Australia.
The decision to recap undergraduate places will devastate participation rates in higher education. Recent data from the Mitchell Institute tells us that, because of this government's decisions, up to 235,000 Australians could miss out on a university education by 2031. That's only 12 years away. Labor want to see more participation in higher education in Australia. We want to boost the number of students accessing the benefit that a university degree brings. I note what the member for Lalor said about IQ and your postcode. She is absolutely correct. It doesn't matter where you live, but quite often your ability to afford to go to university does matter, so it is very important that we make these things accessible to everyone.
It's not fair that students from the North Shore of Sydney are five times more likely to go to university than those in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland. Labor wants to change this. We have already announced $174 million in equity and pathways funding that will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates. Such funding measures are critical. The value of personal mentoring for students who have little family precedence for navigating university systems is critical, because if you can see it, you know you can do it. Labor knows how much it means to have someone who has done it all before walking beside a first-time student. The funding for this scheme comes on top of Labor's $10 billion commitment to return to the demand driven funding system from 2020, which will see around 200,000 more Australians over 12 years access a university education. What's more, it is Labor that will pour $300 million into a universities futures fund that will be dedicated to updating the teaching and research facilities at our major universities. These are the policies of our party, and we value higher education.
The choice on university funding at the next election is crystal clear. A Labor government will proactively fund Australian universities, giving students who have the ability and the gumption for hard work every opportunity to access a university education. Who knows—if we give everybody that opportunity, we may find the things that are needed to look at our future and cure cancer and all the other things that are currently eluding us. We don't want to slam the door on university to anybody in our country who wants to go.
In closing, Labor's commitment to higher education is relevant here because, just like where there's smoke, there's fire. Where there have been little snips, there are funding cuts looming overhead, and where there are funding cuts, there will be lost opportunities for bright young Australians all over the country to access the benefits of a university education and, furthermore, lost opportunities for the rest of us, missing out on the benefits of that university education when coming back to the workforce. Asking universities to contribute towards the cost of loan provision is an appropriate measure, but it is critical we ensure that this taxation measure is not passed onto the students. Universities must shoulder the burden of the tax. Whilst we support this bill in principle, it must be submitted for further inquiry. Labor will continue to fight for affordable university education, and putting this bill under the microscope is no exception.
I too would like to make a contribution in this cognate debate. I want to make it clear from the outset, as the other speakers and the member for Werriwa has, that we will be supporting the passage of these bills, but we do so with a degree of caution. That's why we want to refer the bills to a senate committee for inquiry. In essence, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 seeks to impose an annual charge for higher education providers, including universities, to access the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP schemes. These charges will be imposed on higher education providers as a tax. The second bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018, seeks to introduce a small application fee for higher education providers that apply for FEE-HELP status.
As I've said, we have certainly offered our support for the passage of these bills, because we understand the policy needed and the requirement to assist the funding of the Higher Education Loan Program, the Commonwealth's program that provides income-contingent loans for Australian citizens studying vocational and higher education programs in this country. The income protection loans have been one of the key foundations for Architecture Australia's fair and accessible higher education system. On this side, we understand that. Labor certainly understands the issue of the fundamental role of income-contingent HELP loan scheme plays in our higher education system. After all, it is Labor that has always stood in this House to protect its integrity. It is Labor that first introduced the concept of HECS in 1989. We understand what is necessary to provide appropriate incentives to support young people, in particular, in their quest for higher and tertiary education.
Universities Australia highlights the integral role played by the HELP scheme when they noted that it:
…underwrote the growth of a mass higher education system in Australia and it continues to support expansion of access and opportunity.
I think they're pretty right about that.
In conjunction with Labor's demand-driven funding, the HELP system has seen historic growth in higher education participation over the past decade, transforming higher education in this country. There is a reason behind all that. It is because we believe that an investment in education is in fact an investment in the future prosperity of this country. I emphasise that, while we won't be frustrating the passage of these bills, we do want to have the bills referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for further inquiry. We want an assurance by this government that the charges proposed in these bills will not flow back to students through higher education fees or higher charges for services provided by the respective academic institutions. Our concerns are how fees will be set and the proposed administration of the fees by the Department of Education and Training. With respect, given the department's poor record when it comes to the administration of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, we want to be assured that there is certainly a proper and well-thought-out process to administer the new charges, including what safeguards and quality assurance measures will be put in place.
In a time of significant economic transition such as we are presently going through, we should be investing more in our people. We don't want to make it harder for them to gain a university qualification. As a matter of fact, we want to have more people being able to access vocational and tertiary education. Australian students—as you probably would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker—are at the moment paying the sixth-highest rate of fees in the OECD for the privilege of their education. With respect to many on the other side, if they had had their way in the last couple of budgets, we would have seen $100,000 university degrees being initiated in this country. We don't want to put tertiary education beyond the means of young people, beyond the means of people in low socioeconomic areas or beyond the means of people who are committed to making a change and improving their lives and those of their families.
On most occasions when I've been able to speak in this place, I've discussed my electorate. My electorate is very vibrant. It's very colourful. In fact, it's the most diverse and multicultural community in the country. In addition to that—and my electorate is very much made up of migrants—one of the largest shares of all refugees who come to this country is in my community. So I know what it's like to talk to people who come to this country with the hope for better lives for themselves and their families. I know what their ambitions are like. People who are coming, particularly those who are coming with refugee backgrounds, come full of hope, dreams and great aspirations for their children.
That's one of the primary reasons why, at a school level, my P&Cs are essentially full. Parents will always participate with schools to ensure that their kids do well because they want their children to do well at school because this is their ticket, as they see it, into a university education. I think it probably should be broader than that, but in their mind they see that their children getting a university education will lift them out of poverty and will give them a better life than their mum and dad enjoyed, particularly those who came here directly as refugees.
So the aspirational value of trying to attract young people—particularly, in my case, from low socioeconomic backgrounds—into tertiary education is very, very strong. We don't want to do anything through these bills that acts as a disincentive in the way that the fees and charges are processed by the department and that could find its way back to putting a higher impost on those families for having their kids receive the benefit of a university education in this country. With the changes that this government has already brought about, apart from the cuts to higher education, we all know that people are now forced to start paying their HECS debts at $45,000 per annum, which is only $9,000 above the minimum wage in this country. As I say, we want to see a greater participation in higher education.
I attended only recently something organised by my old alma mater: the University of Sydney's Widening Participation and Outreach program. It's a program that's designed to be directed at low socioeconomic communities—as I indicated, mine certainly is one of those—but also at regional and remote areas, and it is also directed at people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. It is trying to target those to be able to make a significant difference in their lives and in their futures by higher education.
I'm very proud that the University of Sydney has, once again, sought to direct part of that campaign at my community, and I'll certainly be doing the best I can to ensure its success because I have seen how it's changed lives. As a matter of fact, when we opened their campaign only recently in Cabramatta, a young boy—whose name, regrettably, on the spur of the moment, I can't recall—and his mum attended. She didn't speak a word of English, but she wanted her child to be well educated in this country. He has now completed his university degree in commerce and economics. He is doing very well. He's looking after his family. I thought, 'That's a great success story of how these programs can change lives and change futures.'
What we've seen from those opposite, quite frankly, has been a relentless attack on higher education. The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have delivered budgets that have recently cut $2.2 billion from our universities. Since the election of the Liberal government in 2013, universities and students have been under a constant attack, with issues of fee deregulation, policy chaos and general uncertainty. The 2017 MYEFO decision was basically a backdoor way to once again cut $2.2 billion from our universities to effectively recap undergraduate places and charges and end the Higher Education Loan Program. They were just reckless and unfair. Thousands of students under that sort of scenario will miss out on the opportunity of university places because of the government cuts and of cutting of places.
These cuts leave many students with uncertainty as to how they will be affected. Universities Australia's chair, Professor Margaret Gardner, was pretty correct when she described these cuts by this government as a 'double whammy' on students, lifting fees and eroding funds for courses, student learning and support.
I want to just talk a little more broadly about higher education in my community. Only last week a young woman came into my office. She has agreed for me to use her name. Her name is Hilda Shamoun and she lives in Wakeley. She came to my office because she was attending a course of a private provider. She was doing a Bachelor of Design. Ms Shamoun, as I said, contacted my office only last week because her education provider had informed her that not only will her degree no longer be available at the institution that she was enrolled in; the institution will also be closing down in two weeks time without making any necessary arrangements or providing any assistance for her to transfer to a similar course in another institution. They just basically said, 'We're really sorry about this, but we're going into administration. We're closing down.' That's just one young woman who just happens to live in my electorate. That's one young woman who has been running up FEE-HELP. She has been doing all that, yet where was the oversight to look at the running and administration of these courses? The organisation simply says, 'We're going to close our doors now,' and there's no residual support to help her find a place anywhere else.
More recently, I've had many, many discussions with Professor Barney Glover, the vice-chancellor and president at Western Sydney University. In terms of the cuts, Barney sums up very succinctly the ramifications of the government's reaction, through their budgetary actions, to universities by stating, 'The changes that the government is proposing constitute a significant risk to the sustainability, quality and competitiveness of Australian universities.' I think that just goes to show that this government has a track record and, when looking to see where the hollow logs are, they pick on universities, pick on TAFE and pick on schools—they pick on education. This is not a government that's committed to the future of this country; this is a government that's simply trying to rob Peter to pay Paul.
Just about everyone on this side of the chamber has given speeches highlighting the $17 billion cut from our schools, the $637 million cut from TAFE colleges and the $2.2 billion taken out of our universities. How can people seriously think that those opposite are committed to the future of this country, when we all know that an investment in education is an investment in the future prosperity of Australia?
Deputy Speaker Vasta, I know you are probably well aware of these arguments. Regrettably, this is a government that has not shown the commitment that is necessary for the future of this country. Hopefully, come early next year, we will see a government on the Treasury benches that is committed to the future of the country by reinvesting in education.
I thank all those who've made contributions to this debate in the chamber today. I am happy to speak on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. Previous speakers have spoken at length and in detail on the subject matter of this bill and I'll briefly outline the key points. Labor will support the bill, but an amendment has been moved by the member for Sydney, which I would like to speak to. The bill seeks to impose an annual charge on all higher education providers across Australia whose students are entitled to HECS-HELP assistance or FEE-HELP assistance. This charge will effectively act as a tax on all higher education providers—not a very effective one—minimal but nonetheless an extra tax on universities around the country. It will be in place in conjunction with the cost recovery bill amendment and will introduce a provision for an application fee for universities seeking approval while offering FEE-HELP to students, as well as providing administration for this annual charge.
Labor offers support for this bill but I note the amendment moved by the member for Sydney: that the House notes that over five years the government has cut billions in funding from Australia's universities and vocational education and training, making it harder for Australians to attain university and TAFE qualifications. It's imperative that the Australian public and those opposite are reminded of the cuts that they have made to this sector—significant cuts that will affect the operation of the great universities in this country that have been progressing education, knowledge, research and science for many, many years.
Labor believes, and has done so for a long time, that it's right that students do make a contribution to the cost of their higher education, but it does not mean that we think students should be forced to pay up-front fees. That's a notion that has been introduced before in this place by those opposite. Whilst the coalition members across the divide here argue and bicker about the merits of higher education in Australia and seek to restrict the research that goes on in those institutions, they also try to filter who gets to go to university. We on this side of the House understand that the funding of education—higher education or otherwise—is an investment in this country's future and shouldn't be considered a cost burden that you might cut at your earliest and briefest whim.
Whilst we don't oppose these measures, we've referred the bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for an inquiry in order to make sure there's no scenario in which the charges outlined in these bills will flow back to students through higher fees or through increased service charges applied to them by the universities. We know that Australian students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for university education and we don't want to see that figure rise any higher. And, of course, we know that if the government had had their way, as proposed in the 2014 budget, they would have already introduced $100,000 university degrees. That's one of the figures that was put about, in fact by a university I used to go to: the University of Western Australia. Some might say it was a courageous decision, but not so courageous in the end. Of course, those fees have not come through, but only through the efforts of the Labor Party in this place.
As it is, the government has already forced students to start paying off HELP debts when they only barely reach the minimum wage. Debt is a huge barrier in many aspects of Australian life; however, it is particularly hard for students from low-SES families to rise above and try to improve their lives through tertiary education when they have this extraordinary debt applied to them from what is a young age. It makes it very tough on these students. They certainly have a very difficult time trying to move out of home, let alone trying to get on with their lives and their careers through gaining a university degree.
The Liberal-National coalition government have smashed the funding levels of universities across the country, and I believe they have put the sector at significant risk. In my own state of Western Australia, we've seen the impact of the federal government's cuts: Curtin University will receive a cut of $86 million to its funding, Edith Cowan University will receive a cut of $49 million to its funding, Murdoch University will receive a cut of $35 million to its funding and University of Western Australia's funding will be cut by $38 million. This is not what Australians and Western Australians want to see from their federal government. They want to see improvements in funding and in participation. Labor does as well. We want to see increased participation in higher education across the country, and that's why we uncapped places when we were in government.
The government's decision to again cap undergraduate places will distort and smash the participation rates of people in higher education across this country. The recent reckless decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities and put this cap back in place will slash participation. Fewer and fewer students from diverse backgrounds will have access to higher education in this country. Research on this issue by the Mitchell Institute has found that these cuts will put at risk around 235,000 Australians who are seeking to go to university by 2020. This would devastate not only the university sector but the wider Australian economy as well. Labor has a plan in relation to higher education. We want to boost participation in the sector. We have announced $174 million in equity and pathways funding that will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates. That funding is on top of Labor's almost $10 billion commitment to return to the demand-driven system from 2020, which will make sure that around 200,000 more Australians, over a decade, will get the opportunity of a university education.
I would like to have a think about my electorate of Brand. It covers the areas of Rockingham and Kwinana, which is a low-socioeconomic-status district with very low attainment rates in high school graduations and achievements and therefore into the university sector. Adding these charges and cutting funding from universities does not help the cause of young people from my electorate being able to go to university. They are seeking to improve their lives and seeking to participate in what some people call the 'new workforce' and in a changing economy, which will be a knowledge economy. If it is not that already, it will only go more towards that. University education and post-high school, higher education degrees will be essential for them to participate in the new economy of this nation and, indeed, the world. The current $2.2 billion worth of cuts, put on their lives by this government, will be devastating to their chances in the future.
Labor, however, has committed to a new $300 million universities future fund that will make sure that research and teaching facilities are modern, up to date and ready to face the challenges of the digital age. Having worked at a university for 10 years, I'm well aware that that is a challenge. Bricks-and-mortar universities need to adapt to a changing economy and the changing desire of students around the country to receive their education in different ways. They are adapting; it takes time. I know they are moving quickly, but it's tough and this future fund will help them to do it. At the end of the day, the Australian people will have two choices at the next election: a party that will properly fund our universities and protect our future or a party that wants to lock the gate against those seeking to improve their lives through education.
Labor is also conducting a review into the higher education sector. We are committed to a fulsome review of higher education and vocational education, which will look at the difficulties in the system. It is a very complex system. As I said, I worked for a number of years at a university and realise the changes. It would be good thing for more people in this place to realise the challenges. It would also be good if more people in this place were able to understand the importance of the Australian Research Council and the funding that it provides to universities. What they call the teaching-research nexus is a very important part of what higher education is in this country. Research is critical to higher education. Better research makes for better teaching. It makes for better access to more-advanced thoughts, theories and modes of education.
There was a remarkable thing earlier in the year. We found out in Senate estimates that Senator Birmingham had blocked $4 million worth of ARC grants to 11 projects. I believe that these were across discovery projects and perhaps also linkage projects. Anyway, they were Australian Research Council grants. It was an attack on the Australian Research Council, which is renowned throughout the globe for the extraordinary reputation of its peer review process. This is something that Senator Birmingham has flippantly disregarded, applying a very meek, childish test of judging someone's research proposal by a title. I might add that the forms a researcher has to fill in are limited in the number of letters you can use. You simply can't write out the whole title of your project; you have to make it brief. This can lead to a ridiculous misunderstanding when an incompetent minister decides to make a judgement because he thinks a two-sentence title—or not even that; it's a 20-word title—will dictate the whole benefit or otherwise of such research. Of course, it was an attack on the humanities and social sciences. It was a ridiculous judgement call on things this government simply doesn't like. It goes against any inkling of its so-called push for freedom of speech in universities when a ministerial direction, a little stroke of the pen, just cuts out research projects and, I might add, cuts out people's livelihoods at that.
I want to make it clear to people in this House and in the other place that academics are people too. They do research. They deserve to get paid for their research. They spend a lot of time doing their research. It turns out they have families. They have mortgages to pay as well. They pay their taxes. They send their kids to school. And a government like this one and its ideological warriors who sit inside their own impenetrable Canberra bubble—they make such a meal of this Canberra bubble, yet they are the ones trapped within it—ruin someone's livelihood with a stroke of a pen because they don't think it's worth it.
All the while in the background, you have an internationally renowned, peer reviewed, independent process that has been going on up until this time, very non-partisanly accepted as a means by which you would distribute precious research dollars. Of course, it's been attacked before, and that was by the former minister for education Brendan Nelson. He cut a few ARC grants. This is not the first time the Liberals have sought to giggle and titter at titles that they don't like the sound of. They really should stop it. They should consider what research is. They should consider the value of arts in this community. It's a community that values research into all manner of things—the technical sciences as well as the social sciences. You might remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the former member for Wentworth. He had this policy about science and innovation and how agile we could be—wouldn't that be great for the nation? Of course, that disappeared rather quickly when the knuckle-draggers in the government really didn't like science at all. They also don't like social sciences and history and reviewing history and thinking about the lessons we could learn from history.
Now the current minister for education has held up the approval of the Australian Research Council grants, again putting at risk people's livelihoods as they move into Christmas. This is ridiculous. It's unnecessary. It's an attack on higher education and an attack on research in this country—on a system that has served this nation very well. We depend on it to build this nation's knowledge economy, yet you take a pen out and you just rub someone's life and their livelihood out for a bit of a giggle and a stupid little Twitter statement—a couple of digits to make a laugh and get, I think, only about three likes for Minister Birmingham. So good on you! It's pettiness in the extreme. It's ridiculous. It denigrates research in this country. It's shameful. They attack the whole of the higher education system and, quite frankly, respect for Western civilisation—and they've attacked that before, haven't they? The words that come out are ridiculous—not from all members opposite, but some are pretty cranky with different things. One of them is about freedom of speech at universities and the protection of Western civilisation. Then, when someone wants to do research on that, they think it's not on because they don't like the title.
I urge the government to consider what it's doing sometimes. I'm sure you have friends and you talk to these ministers. Maybe you could give them a nudge and say: 'Calm the heck down. Stop this political interference into the independent Australian Research Council process which looks at these.' It is only a 30 per cent success rate. It is really hard to get an ARC grant. They work for months. You and I might have a couple of weeks off in January, but I can tell you that the researchers in this country won't. They will be doing their grant application, which takes them the full month. They will have rejoinder systems. They have to go back to their big research offices so they can get it through university admin before it even gets to the ARC, then have to come back again to improve the grant application so that they can get the grant. Some have been successful but have had to leave the country to get a job elsewhere, because a minister exercises a petty, ridiculous little decision-making power whereby he can just sweep someone's research away at the stroke of a pen. I really wish this government would stop it, would stand up for universities and would look after researchers.
This is part of the government's ongoing attack on universities. What we've seen over years is funding cuts to universities and the burden of the cost of education shifted further and further away from the government. This government doesn't think that education is a public good, doesn't think that having an educated society is important and doesn't think that everyone should have access to higher education or tertiary education of any form, no matter what their background, and so we are seeing Australia slowly go down the road of other countries, where you have to start saving up from the moment that your child is born if you want to be able to send them off somewhere after high school.
We know, because we've had review after review tell us, that universities themselves are under enormous financial strain, because they are being underfunded. In the same way that we underfund our public schools in this country, we also underfund our public universities. So what does the government do? The government says, 'Let's make sure the universities have even less money to spend on teaching, on research and on their students.' The Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018 will further shift the cost of providing education away from the Commonwealth. It comes in the context of the government's decision back in December of last year, by which time they had effectively slashed $2.2 billion from the higher education sector by freezing Commonwealth funding for teaching and learning.
The Senate wasn't even allowed to have hearings when they conducted the inquiry on these bills. People made submissions and wanted the chance to front up and tell the government and the senators about the impacts of all of this, and they weren't even allowed to front up and make their case. No, the government just said, 'We will impose this obligation on you.' What's it going to do? This will make universities have to pay more money back to the government for things that the government should be doing as of right. As a result there is going to be less money available to the universities themselves. The bills propose shifting to higher education providers the costs of administering HELP loans, via yet another levy on higher education providers, who are already struggling. Universities Australia, which represents all the universities, said in its submission:
It is a very good point. We are now saying universities have to pay a levy to the government for processing the things the government requires them to do. That is what the department is there for. This will mean less money for teaching, less money for research and less money for students. The University of Melbourne put it politely:
The principle of asking universities to meet the costs of Government administration is an unfortunate precedent and one which should be, at the very least, interrogated …
Absolutely right: if we say that public institutions now, in some sort of money-go-round, have pay back to the Commonwealth, in the form of a levy, money that they have received then this is going to be something the government presumably will want to start rolling out to other areas. They can say, 'We haven't cut funding.' Well, no, but you have given with one hand and forced them to give back—you've taken away—with the other.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations stated in its submission:
Inevitably, cuts impact the delivery of teaching and research, the core functions of universities in Australia. Funding cuts will be passed onto undergraduate and postgraduate students, whether they are built into tuition costs for full fee-paying students, result in increased student to academic staff ratios, or lead higher education providers to otherwise reduce the "cost of delivery" of education.
In other words, to make ends meet, to make up for this effective cut, universities may well turn around and ask students to pay more, so the cost of education will go up, thanks to this government. And the University of Newcastle stated in its submission:
… the costs of administering HELP are already shared by the university sector and government – the University of Newcastle, like other universities, provides a range of administrative and student services in order to ensure it properly administers HELP funding.
Those services are now going to be under threat, potentially, as well.
In the Greens' view, shifting the cost of administering student loans to higher education providers not only is wrong in principle but overburdens an already underfunded sector. We should be putting more money into students and education, not taking it out, which is what this government is proposing to do. It's going to penalise students, as the Innovative Research Universities stated in their submission. They said this will 'penalise students by further reducing the resources universities and other higher education providers have to deliver students a good education'.
It's also of great concern that the charges that are potentially going to be levelled under this bill are not explicit. They will sit wholly outside legislation—including the methodology to calculate these charges—and what that does is that it prevents proper parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed changes. The amount and the calculation of the annual charge, by the time the bill had gone through the Senate inquiry, were going to be wholly determined by regulation which hadn't even been drafted. No wonder the universities are ringing the alarm bells about this. This is just a licence for the government. After we pass the budget, pass the appropriations bills, pass all the legislation that says, 'This is how much money we are going to give to universities,' this bill now gives the government the right to say, open ended, without parliamentary scrutiny, 'We are going to determine how much of it you're going to now have to give back. So forget what's in the budget figures. They're not actually going to be the real figures, because we're now going to be able to take a bit back from you.' A bit or a lot—who knows?
You've got to ask: why did the government rush this legislation here with a very short consultation period, with no public hearings on this? The university sector aren't just screaming about the impact that this is going to have on them; they're also saying loud and clear, 'If you're going to do it to us, give us a chance to respond and tell us exactly what you're going to do.' The government wouldn't even give them that courtesy. So this bill should not proceed, and I hope that there are others in this chamber, in the opposition, who join us in opposing this bill.
We need to make education free in this country. We need to start saying: it is time that everyone has a right to go to university, no matter what your background, and, when you leave university, you should not be saddled with a huge debt. That has been a Greens policy for a very long time, and at successive elections we've gone with plans that will get us, over time, towards that goal of having free university education.
The thing is: we can afford it. We do not need to be putting people further and further into debt just because they've got a university education, because the life of a university graduate at the moment is a very, very difficult one. You enter an environment where 40 per cent of the jobs that are available are non-standard or insecure. You enter an environment where, back in the 1990s, an average house cost six times an average young person's income; by the mid-2010s, it cost 12 times a young person's income. You enter an environment where wages have been flatlining. You enter an environment where personal debt is now at, I think—and I stand to be corrected, but, if it's not there, it's pretty close—its highest when compared to household income for a very, very long time. Debt in this country is huge because wages are flatlining and people are having to borrow to make ends meet.
If you're a university graduate, you've now got a debt that you've got to pay back, and pay back earlier, thanks to this government—before you even start hitting average wages. And now the government are saying, 'Well, we're going to enable universities to put up the cost of education even more.' We are creating a generational divide in this country, where people will be graduating with debts the size of small mortgages and will be forced to pay it back in a very insecure job market, where housing is unaffordable and where costs are going up but wages are flatlining. We are putting people under enormous pressure and eventually they are going to break.
We should be going the other way. One way of doing that would be by lowering the cost of education, lowering the debts that people have to pay. When you think about it, there's actually no reason that students and graduates in this country have to go into debt. The debt that they've got is not a debt the government can call in like any other commercial debt. It's a bookkeeping entry; it's an accounting entry. What matters to the government is getting a stream of money every year, at the moment in the form of repayments. So what matters for the government is having a revenue stream to fund the cost of education. Well, let's wind back some unfair tax breaks and we could make education free.
At the moment when people go to the petrol station to put petrol in their car they pay 40c a litre tax. When Gina Rinehart and her mining magnates put diesel into their trucks, they pay the tax and then they get it back, courtesy of a free kick from the taxpayer every year. People pay a couple of billion dollars so that wealthy mining companies can get a tax rebate on their diesel fuel. Why not just ask Gina Rinehart to pay the same tax on her fuel that everyone else in her country has to pay when they go to the bowser and put that money into funding education and making university education free again? Why not do that? That's what the Greens have been arguing for, for a very, very long time. Instead, we seem to be going down a different road; we are heading on the road to becoming a more unequal society, where the gap between the very rich and everyone else will grow and grow and grow.
Can I say this, too: in a concentrated media market, where in some states you wake up in the morning and your choice is between a Murdoch newspaper and a Murdoch newspaper, we are going to need an educated population to hold powerful interests to account, to hold the parliament to account, to hold big corporations to account. If we don't have an educated population, then, heading into the 21st century, Australia is stuffed. Our advantages in this 21st century are going to be our minds, not our mines. Our advantages are going to be from investing in science, research, innovation and the humanities and in being able to lead the world. Instead, through this policy, because they've got to find money to be able to give Gina Rinehart unfair tax breaks, because they want to find money to go out and start funding new coal-fired power stations—because that's going to cost money and the money has to come from somewhere—they're looking around and they're saying, 'We'll cut it from universities,' and they cut it from universities again and again and again. They put students further into debt, and they lift the cost of education for students, and they are growing the divide and making inequality worse in this country.
So we will oppose this bill, and I hope others in this place will join us in opposing this bill. It's not just about making sure there's more money for universities, which there should be; it's about making sure that students aren't being forced to pay more and more, which they will be if this bill passes, and the student organisations have expressed that concern very forcefully. Going to the next election, people will have a choice between a government that says, 'We don't care how much it costs to go to university because the people that we represent are going to be able to find the money from somewhere,' or the alternative government, which introduced HECS in the first place and has overseen an underfunded university system, or the Greens, who say, 'We need to make sure education is a right for all and we need to get back to the days of education being free and available.' We will have a plan to get there, and it does not involve cutting funding to universities. It involves saying that we're going to stand up to big, powerful interests—the big corporations—and say that it is time they paid their fair share. Enough unfair tax breaks! By winding back their unfair tax breaks, we will have enough money to make sure that Australia has a public education system that we can all be proud of and where you don't need to get a debt the size of a small mortgage to go to university.
This bill should be opposed. It should die here in this House. If it doesn't, we'll put it to the test in the Senate. And who knows? We may well have an election by the time this bill comes around, so I hope that no-one else in this place is keen on rushing this bill through. It's a bad bill and it should be opposed.
I want to make it very clear that I am incredibly tentative about supporting these bills, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. The changes in these bills would introduce small charges for higher education providers, including universities, to access the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP schemes. These bills also would introduce a small application fee for higher education providers when they are applying for FEE-HELP status. I am hesitant about this for two reasons: the fact that universities might try to pass this fee on to students—and students simply cannot afford this additional cost—and the massive cuts that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the LNP government are also making to universities. I will deal with each concern in turn, and in addressing these concerns I firstly want to acknowledge and thank my Labor colleagues for referring the bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for an inquiry—for a thorough review regarding these concerns.
I do not want to see the charges in these bills flow back to students through higher fees or higher charges for services. Australian students currently pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for a university education, and we have already witnessed the LNP trying to increase student fees. First the LNP tried to introduce $100,000 university degrees, at the same time that they were cutting penalty rates to those students who relied on that money to live. Students have been under constant attack by this LNP government. Those opposite clearly don't have a good history of looking after university students' bests interests, so why would these bills be any different? The inequality and disparity for regional students is already incredibly high. Regional students face major challenges studying in higher education. Whilst over the past five years overall numbers have increased, regional student numbers have remained under-represented in Australian universities.
Why is it so tough for regional students? The main obstacles and how we can tackle these issues are the questions we should be asking ourselves. The No. 1 issue for students is the cost of living. All students struggle to meet the full-time demands of university, the part-time demands of work and the costs to just be able to live, pay the rent, buy food and pay electricity and mobile phone bills—all items that these days a full-time worker can barely afford. As a guide to what these living costs are: the Australian government requires international students to demonstrate funds of $18,600 per year to meet the cost of living. For Australian students at the age of 18 who live away from home, the full rate of youth allowance paid is around $426 per fortnight, which equals $11,000 per year. This amount begins to taper when annual parental income exceeds around $51,000. There hasn't been an increase in Newstart in real terms for 24 years. The single rate of Newstart is $278 per week, and we know that essentials such as rent and food could cost approximately $433. Clearly there is a significant gap between what is considered a minimum cost of living for international students and the full-time rate of student income support. For regional students who are transitioning to residential colleges or the rental accommodation market, living on $11,000 is a serious challenge. This income figure is well below the poverty line. Cost of living is crippling students, and it is clearly disproportionately affecting regional students.
Then there is the startling statistic that one in seven university students regularly goes without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them. The latest national financial survey of Australian university students has found this statistic to be true. This rises to one in four First Nations students and almost one in five students from the poorest quarter of Australian households, including those who are also shouldering the costs of raising children. The Universities Australia—