House debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2019


Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:32 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Schools) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018. This bill proposes a range of minor and technical changes to the operation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, TEQSA. These are to give effect to aspects of the government response to the 2016 Review of the impact of the TEQSA Act on the higher education sector that require legislative endorsement. I note that this review is the first substantive review of the agency, although, of course, the Lee Dow-Braithwaite review initiated and responded to some sectoral concerns about the scope of the activities of the agency.

Labor will not be opposing this bill and are supportive of the measures contained within it. I will be proposing a second reading amendment which goes to some other aspects related to the bill and the government's higher education policy. It was Labor that created the national regulatory system in higher education back in 2011, which was an important part of our response to the Bradley review. I'm sure my friend the member for Lingiari well remembers that and appreciates its significance. Labor in government recognised then, as we do now, that if we want to expand and strengthen higher education in Australia then we need a national approach to regulation that is fit for purpose today and tomorrow. While this system develops and evolves, Labor continue to recognise that there will be a need for periodic review of the operation of this agency to ensure that its structure is fit for purpose as the sector continues to develop.

The changes proposed in the review and incorporated into this bill before the House now are really under three broad headings. The changes include simplifying the Higher Education Standards Framework, and changes to the operations, functions and skill base of the Higher Education Standards Panel within the agency—this is to broaden the skill base and also require contemporary experience in higher education across both universities and non-universities. It also includes a range of measures that are updates to rules around disclosure of information, largely to ensure consistency with other provisions.

The proposals in this bill come from a review initiated by the government, as required by the substantive act. This was more than three years ago. It is difficult to see why the government have hastened so slowly. It really speaks volumes about their chaotic approach to governing and their neglect of this critical sector under three ministers. It has taken them well over three years since the review was completed to present this legislation to the parliament. To members opposite, this is clearly not the priority it should be, as it is to this side of the House. I say again that these changes are supported by Labor and by the sector, although I do note that some minor concerns have been expressed, particularly by Universities Australia. I make clear that we are paying careful attention to them as we consider the ongoing operation of the agency. These concerns, as I said, are minor and technical.

More generally, the sector has made clear its deep frustration with the government, for good reason. It is little wonder the higher education sector has had enough of this government. Since they've come to office, they have done nothing but undermine Australia's world-class higher education system. Instead of fostering our universities and all that goes on within them, all we've seen are cuts and chaos. But, worse than that, we've seen no plan—no plan for this vital export sector; no plan for this critical enabler; no plan at all. Billions of dollars have been cut. Undergraduate places have shamefully been capped. They've made students pay back their HELP debt sooner and millions of dollars have been slashed from university research funding, despite rhetoric to the contrary. 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 the Government has damaged the quality of Australia’s world-class higher education system, having cut billions from universities by effectively capping undergraduate places, and slashing research funding".

Labor knows that, if we are to fully realise the potential of all Australians—young Australians and those who are older—and seize the opportunities presented to us as a nation by the Asian Century, we need to invest deeply in higher education and research. That is a bigger challenge than that contained within the provisions of this bill, but the deputy leader, the shadow minister for education, and all of us in the Labor team are up for this challenge.

As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we need to ensure that we are at the forefront of these changes and that our education system remains responsive. Part of this challenge is, of course, having an adaptive and appropriate regulatory system, but obviously it goes much beyond that. Unlike most of the major economies in our region that are investing in universities, science and research, this government have been doing precisely the opposite: ripping money out of our universities, starving them for funds and starving our brightest Australian researchers of opportunities and the confidence to pursue careers in higher education. This is short-changing their potential and it is short-changing all of us as a nation. We know, on this side of the House, that this is going to do long-term damage to our economy as well as to our society. It's going to impact very, very significantly on the aspirations of thousands of Australians who will miss out on university places because of these cuts. As I said, it will impact on the capacity of others who have entered higher education to continue to flourish, develop their skills and pursue research excellence in the university sector. The last Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook demonstrated just how chaotic the government has become and the serious consequences of that for this sector. They have left so many regional universities in a dire state with the cuts.

Let's remember, they were forced to rip hundreds of millions of dollars from university research in order to allocate additional places to some regional universities. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul and it is absolute errant nonsense. If members opposite really wanted to ensure that Australians, particularly those in regional and outer-metropolitan areas, have the opportunity of a university education, they should follow Labor's lead and return to a demand-driven system. Labor knows that we need to boost participation in higher education in order to meet the needs of our future economy as well as to respond to the trend towards inequality, which members opposite seem determined to accelerate. Let's remember that this is not just rhetoric on our part. That is what we have done, when it comes to higher education, since the government of Gough Whitlam, since reforms carried out under the Hawke and Keating governments, particularly on this point of the demand-driven system that boosted opportunities in universities—and in life—for so many first-in-family students under the governance of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

That's why we have committed, again, to uncapping undergraduate places—a huge $10 billion commitment—over the next decade. We have expressed our values clearly through the depth of our financial commitment to supporting the aspirations of young Australians, particularly those who are first in family. We have also made sure that we are underpinning a vision for Australia's economy with an approach that is all about inclusive growth, not the narrow, blind, ideological insistence on trickle-down economics that is failing Australia and failing too many Australians today.

We also want to do more to ensure that students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds get the opportunity of a university education. We will support them not just through words said in this place but through a real investment, our $174 million equity and pathways funding program. We know that, fundamental to our vision of the Australian economy of the future and a fairer Australian society for the future, is our appreciation that nine out of 10 jobs created by 2021 will require either a degree or a VET qualification.

We recognise that it is imperative to boost participation in universities as well as TAFE and apprenticeships. According to the Mitchell Institute, if the government doesn't lift its caps on university places, around 235,000 students will miss out on a place by 2031. This is absolutely shocking and an indictment of a government that has been asleep at the wheel under Minister Pyne, Minister Birmingham and now Minister Tehan. The numbers are even worse when it comes to vocational education. Quite frankly, it is a recipe for disaster.

In finishing my contribution to this debate, let me emphasise that Labor has a better and positive plan across all education sectors. We will support the measures contained in this bill today, but beyond that we will do so much more. We will properly fund our universities, with three-year funding agreements guaranteed, so they can plan with certainty. We will uncap university places so that 200,000 more Australians will get the opportunity of a university education in the next decade or so. We will invest in university research and infrastructure with our $300 million university future fund.

We will introduce—and this is absolutely vital at the other end of the education spectrum—universal places for three- and four-year-olds in early childhood education, a fundamental building block to an equal society, as well as equal participation in higher education down the track. I'm particularly proud that we will invest $14 billion extra in our public schools, those schools that educate two in three, or 2½ million, Australian kids.

We will waive up-front fees for 100,000 students to attend TAFE and invest $100 million in modernising TAFE facilities around the country. We will go further than this, when it comes to skills, by ensuring that one in every 10 jobs on Commonwealth priority projects are filled by Australian apprentices. We will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeships for young people who want to learn a trade and will provide 20,000 adult apprenticeships.

It's very clear when you look at this plan—and at the gulf, the void, on the other side of the House—that Labor is the only party Australians can trust when it comes to education.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Scullin 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.

12:44 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to this Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018; and to the second reading amendment, which talks about how we should fund education and places that should be available and how we should have world-class research.

I want to remind the House that there was a time when university was free. Many of the politicians in this place are from a generation that received free education and graduated without debt. They went on, though, to reintroduce fees for university and saddled a generation with repayments.

People entering university today are facing a totally different reality, and young people are getting screwed over. If you're a young person you enrol in university or TAFE because you're told it's the pathway to a good job and to personal growth that will let you make a contribution in our community. You enrol for possibly years of study. Throughout this time, the fees, or HELP payments, keep building up, and your debts keep growing. Class sizes are growing, and teaching staff are increasingly stretched because of government cost cutting. You have to work long hours while you study, because you have to pay rent or other costs, and Austudy is low, and youth allowance is low and hard to access.

Then, when you finish studying, thousands of dollars in debt, you get told: 'Sorry, but you don't have enough experience to get a job. You're going to have to study more. You're going to have to market yourself to employers and take on unpaid labour just to get your foot in the door.' Just don't rely on Centrelink, though, when you're seeking work, because Newstart is below poverty levels and you might be issued an incorrect robo-debt. And you get told that it's your fault that the housing system is broken and that the reason you can't buy a home is cafe breakfasts—not the unfair system that helps investors buy their fourth, fifth or sixth home to rent to you at inflated prices. And by the way: not only do you have to pay off your debt, not only can you not afford a secure home, and not only will you be working casual hours in precarious jobs or taking on side hustles, but you're also going to live in a world with a hotter climate and more-extreme weather, and you're going to have to lead the fight against big coal because the last generations of politicians failed and left it to you.

This is what happens when government stops seeing education as a fundamental right and starts seeing it as a business. Australian governments over decades—Liberal but also Labor—gave into neoliberalism, and this generation of young people now is paying the price. We accept in our society that schools and hospitals should be free and universal. You can receive health care and secondary education no matter what your bank balance is—and that is one of the good things about this country. It would be a scandal if we were forcing people into debt to access these rights. But that is what is happening with TAFE and university. This is one of the reasons I got into politics in the first place. My dad was the first person in his family to go to university, and he was able to do it because it was free. When I was at university I got involved in the education campaigns, against a then-Labor government, because you could see the cost of education going up and up and up, and people being put into such debt that people like my dad might not have been able to go to university and might not have made the decision to go there in the first place.

That is why I am proud to be part of a party—the Greens—that have a plan to bring back free university and TAFE education. We will make TAFE and undergraduate uni free, and we'll pay for it by making the fossil fuel industry pay its fair share. No more unfair tax breaks, no more right to pollute for free; just start making them pay the same tax as everyone else on things like diesel fuel in the mining industry, and you will find that we have the money to pay for things like free education. We can increase youth allowance, Austudy and Abstudy by $75 a week so that students can get by while studying. Let's lift youth allowance by $75 a week. And we'll fix the government cuts that led to stretched staff and teaching. We have to boost university funding by 10 per cent per student. This bill talks about education quality. The only way we're going to restore quality back to the world-class level that so many of our institutions were at is by boosting university funding by 10 per cent per student. That call has been out there for many years. The first real funding increase for universities in decades, this would improve learning and teaching conditions, would reduce class sizes and would enable researchers to pursue solutions to the big problems of our time, because for too long universities have been asked to do more with less.

It has been decades since the last real increase in funding to universities. Our plan delivers an extra $16 billion over the next decade for universities to improve learning and teaching conditions, reduce class sizes and give researchers the resources they need. Importantly, we will work with universities to reduce casualisation in the sector and to reduce job insecurity and improve staff working conditions. Government must also link additional funding for universities with an increase in security of work for university staff. We must reverse the decades-old trend of casualisation and insecure work.

People have this idea that somehow universities are places where everyone has tenured positions for life. Well, you're looking at less than a third of people who work in universities at the moment enjoying that security of ongoing employment, which should be a right. People working in research, academia and teaching are facing the pressure of successive governments' failure in this area and the neoliberalisation of higher education and research. I know this, and I see it on a daily basis, because my electorate is home to major universities and research institutions. I have spoken to too many people in Melbourne who've always dreamed of working in research and teaching, and who've worked hard their whole careers to get there, who are feeling the pressure of competitive grant applications for a diminishing pool of funding, administration, growing workloads not related to their core research, casualisation and the insecurity that comes with not knowing whether you're going to have a job after the next grant round.

We looked into this a couple of years ago. I introduced a bill into this place to wind back casualisation in our workforce, with a special focus on the university sector—a bill that, at the time, didn't get the support of either Labor or the Liberals, but I'm hopeful the tide might turn on that. When we introduced that bill and had an inquiry into it, we heard from a woman who had worked for 10 years in the same area and for the same institution but had not been entitled to a period of sick leave or long service leave during that time because she was on rolling contracts and treated as a casual. This must stop.

We are always going to have universities, and we will have better funded and more jobs in those universities if we lift funding. Because we're always going to have universities, people there should have greater rights to secure employment. Good people at the moment who are experts in their field or on the way to becoming experts in their field are being pushed out of research because of the insecure conditions and lack of funding in Australia.

The tragedy is that this is entirely preventable. It's a consequence of government decisions to cut costs and to treat research and universities like money-making businesses instead of something contributing to the public good. If only, for example, we could say to universities: 'You don't have to spend more money advertising on billboards or the side of trams, trains or buses. You can put that money into research and teaching, because we're not going to make you compete against each other. Instead, we're going to encourage collaboration.' Most staff around the country would breathe a sigh of relief. The advertising companies might get a bit worried about it, but that money could go back into supporting staff and students.

Let me say it clearly: education is not a product, students are not consumers and university is not a factory. The Greens will fight for free education and a thriving research sector. I'm proud that we're putting free education on the agenda, and I believe that sooner or later the other parties will follow us as they have on so many other issues. I call on everyone in this place to get serious, join us and back the plan to push for free education in Australia again.

12:53 pm

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

I rise to enter the debate and speak on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018, and strongly support the amendment moved a short time ago by the member for Scullin. For a long time, Australia's higher education has been world leading. Can I say at the outset that my Labor colleagues and I support this bill because it helps to keep Australia's higher education system as a world leader. Students come from all over the world to further their education on our shores with some of the best universities, professors, researchers, tutors, support staff and administrative staff anywhere in the world. Our universities support more than one million students, both international and domestic, and our universities directly employ 120,000 people and support another 40,000 jobs.

On this side of the House, Labor has a long record of standing up for our universities. I listened to the member for Melbourne prattle on about the Greens' achievements. He had the hide to talk about free education. It was a Whitlam Labor government that introduced free education. We know in Australia, when it comes to higher education, this side of the chamber has a proud record and, indeed, custodianship of supporting education at every level across our country—investing in students, courses and research so that Australia can become a world power when it comes to higher education. This is where we educate the next generation of doctors, engineers, teachers and entrepreneurs.

A strong, stable and future-focused higher education industry is what Australia needs. That's why, in 2011, the Gillard government established the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. It's Australia's independent national quality assurance and regulatory agency for higher education to safeguard student interests and the reputation of Australia's higher education sector. At the time, Prime Minister Gillard said that the TEQSA will be at the heart of bolstering our reputation by ensuring quality for all students, domestic and international students alike, because that is what good governments do.

Good governments support our higher education sector. Good governments back students, teachers and universities. This is in stark contrast, as we know, to what those opposite have delivered for our universities. The second reading amendment moved today by Labor's shadow assistant minister for schools, the member for Scullin, notes that we do, and should, recognise that:

… the government has damaged the quality of Australia's world-class higher education system, having cut billions from universities by effectively capping undergraduate places, and slashing research funding.

Make no mistake, this government has taken a wrecking ball to our universities and our higher education system, with $2.2 billion in cuts since they came to power. That's a simply staggering number that means our universities will be under-resourced and our students will miss out on the vital education they need to succeed in the fast-moving 21st century.

When Labor was last in office we lifted the caps on the number of uni places—which saw, in my electorate in Oxley, huge increases in the number of students going to university. But we've seen the complete opposite from this government. Their $2.2 billion axe to our universities means that 9½ thousand Australians missed out on an Australian university place in 2018 and another 9½ thousand will miss out again in 2019. This is just unacceptable. We must be supporting and investing in our universities, rather than gutting the institutions that will guide the next generation of scientists, doctors and teachers.

Here's what the cuts by this government and this Prime Minister mean for universities in my home state of Queensland: the University of Southern Queensland, who have a campus in my electorate, are facing $36 million in cuts; Griffith University is facing a cut of $92 million; the Queensland University of Technology is facing a cut of $100 million; and the university that I attended, the University of Queensland, is facing a $100 million cut as well. That is ironclad evidence that this government does not care about students in this country going to university and receiving a higher education. We know this because they have a track record of tearing down our universities. They have repeatedly attacked higher education, year after year.

When this government was first elected there was a 20 per cent cut and full fee deregulation, as we've heard, which would have seen $100,000 degrees. In the next iteration they wanted to hike up fees by 7½ per cent, have a commensurate cut in university funding, have a further cut to university funding and then drop the HECS repayment threshold down to as low as $42,000. This is barely more than the minimum wage. It would mean Australians on low incomes who have a HELP debt would be required to make huge repayments. This change would also have a greater impact on women, particularly those who return to the workforce part-time after taking parental leave.

I have to wonder if those opposite are aware of where Australia currently sits in public investment in universities in the OECD. Are we near the top? We're not even close. Are we about mid-range? Absolutely not. Australia has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD, and this government only wants to make it worse. At MYEFO last year they went after research, ripping $328.5 million from university research, which will devastate our critically important research sector.

I might also add that this government's attacks on TAFEs and apprenticeships are appalling. We know that since the government came to power Australia has lost over 140,000 apprenticeships, a decline of over 35 per cent. I speak about this a lot when I move around chambers of commerce, high school graduations and even local businesses. Locally, the apprentices in my electorate have been hit even harder. Our community has seen a loss of almost 1,500 apprenticeships, which is equivalent to a 43 per cent decrease and the signs are that this will only continue to get worse. The 2017 budget cut a further $637 million from TAFE training and apprenticeships. And their proposed Skilling Australians Fund, supposed to deliver 300,000 apprenticeships, has been widely panned as unworkable.

The evidence continues to stack up that this government does not take higher education seriously, which brings me to the finer points of this bill and the government's incredibly slow response to implement the recommendations from the review into the TEQSA. I shouldn't be surprised. This slow response is in line with everything else that they've done to higher education in this country, and that is to cut it down. The review, undertaken by Deloitte Access Economics, was undertaken between July 2016 and March 2017 and was a substantial body of work. Thirty-six written submissions were received, 33 stakeholders were interviewed and the act was extensively analysed. Overall, the review was positive about the establishment of TEQSA as the national regulator noting that, 'Broadly… the Act is operating effectively and as intended.' Therefore, the review did not recommend changes that would significantly alter the regulatory framework or its role.

However, the review did recommend amendments to the act that are designed to improve the act's administration, strengthen the regulatory role and better reflect the role of the Higher Education Standards Panel as the statutory advisory body established under the act. I want to go through those recommendations now. They are to simplify the Higher Education Standards Framework by removing references from the act to specific categories of non-threshold standards that have never been made and are not needed and expanding the skill set that the minister must ensure is encompassed by panel members, so that the panel has contemporary experience in the provision of higher education by both university and non-university providers.

However, the general positive outlook from the review should not mask this government's lack of attention to it. We know where they have been focusing all attention lately, and of course you only need to pick up a newspaper to realise that the government is focused on themselves first, second and third. As we know, the chaos and dysfunction of this government is unrelenting and grows on an almost daily basis, whether it be in this chamber, outside in their party room or outside in the community. We know that they have basically given up on governing, but there are so many important pieces of legislation that this government has decide not to turn up for. We know that this important work must continue. The recommendations in this bill were given to them years ago, yet here we are debating them now. The only thing this government has been doing in that time is tearing down the higher education system in this country and, let's be honest, tearing down themselves. The fact is that when you look at the Notice Paper today not one member of the government is actually speaking on this legislation, on the government's bill.

We know that the Australian public deserve a lot better, but there is an alternative. We know that when it comes to higher education and general education this side of the chamber does believe in the best for our students. That's why in the time remaining I want to focus on the alternative positive plans that the Australian community are crying out for, including the announced National Inquiry into Post-Secondary Education. This is a once in a generation national inquiry that will look at every aspect of the vocational and higher education systems to ensure that they can best respond to the needs of the Australia's economy and society.

I want to place on record that this is the first time that a national inquiry has put TAFE and unis on an equal footing. It is about making sure that Australians have access to the best post-secondary opportunities in the world. We want our kids to get the education and skills they need to thrive and to make sure that all Australians have the opportunity of lifelong learning. If as a country we are to continue to be a wealthy and highly educated nation, we must boost participation in quality postsecondary education. It's clear when you look at the evidence—it's not a term that this government likes to use too much of the time. Experts have warned that, if we rest on our laurels or continue with the cuts from this Morrison government, Australia risks being left behind.

On this side of the House, we know that. Labor knows education at all levels is key to the future of prosperity and key to a stronger community. That's why we will properly fund our universities with three-year funding agreements, guaranteed; uncut university places so that 200,000 more Australians will have the opportunity of a university education over the next decade or so; invest in university research and infrastructure with our $300 million university future fund; and provide more support for disadvantaged and underrepresented students to get the confidence and skills they need to get into university with $174 million for equity and pathways funding.

One of the greatest joys that we have as members of parliament is to attend school graduations. One of the greatest joys we have is to participate in those school graduations. Being in parliament, you don't always get to visit every single school in your electorate. I have approximately 53 schools in and around the Oxley electorate. I visit high schools and I see kids from non-English-speaking backgrounds, from migrant families—kids who started perhaps at Inala State School in my electorate and had little English. I see those students go on, whether they be from Somalia, South Sudan, Vietnam or Malaysia. When I see those kids graduate—and they not only graduate but are dux of their schools and have done early entry university courses or will be going to post-trade or secondary education—they have a look of pride. They're the people who we need to always be remembering—those kids who perhaps have had it a little harder but who are just as smart and just as talented as any other student at that school.

Sadly we've seen this government not investing in those students. Sadly we've seen this government remove the access and equity to higher education, remove the pathways. That's why I'm such a strong supporter of what the Leader of the Opposition and the deputy leader have announced with $174 million to improve equity and pathways funding. We need to be lifting people up wherever we can. To all those students who I have witnessed and the tens if not hundreds of thousands across Australia who are doing it tough and perhaps have just gone back to school in the last week or so: I want you to be very clear that we on this side of parliament will support you, we will invest in you and, more importantly, we value you.

We know a Shorten Labor government will invest across the whole education sector, whether it be by universal accessibility to early childhood education for three- and four-year-olds or investing a vital $14.1 billion of extra funding in our schools. We'll waive up-front fees for 100,000 students to attend, we'll provide 20,000 adult apprenticeships and we'll provide 20,000 pre-apprenticeships for young people who want to learn a trade. This is how a government should support education. We will continue to invest in and support education because we know it is the right thing for our country, for our economy and for the future of our nation.

1:08 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand here as someone who formerly spent 27 years in state education, in high schools and primary schools in Victoria, someone who spent many years in a role as a secondary year level coordinator, who worked with young people year in, year out not only in their classrooms as an English teacher, a drama teacher and a history teacher but also as a coordinator working with young people from year 7 through to year 12 to build in them an aspiration to gain entry into university or, if that was not going to be the case, an aspiration to attend TAFE and to build in them an understanding that we need to be lifelong learners. So it is with absolute pleasure that I rise to speak today on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018 and to support the amendment moved by the member for Scullin. It was Labor in 2011 that established TEQSA as the national regulator of Australia's higher education system, so I'm happy to speak today on the importance of government support for our education system at all levels but particularly at the university level.

Support of our education system is something that is foreign to the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, as we have seen across the last five-plus years. The fact that we are only debating this bill now, three years after the recommendations from the review of TEQSA were provided to the government, speaks clearly about this government's attitude to universities and its responsibilities in responding to reviews and ensuring that we have the best system possible. It demonstrates just how much this government doesn't value our higher education system. I'm not surprised, and why should I be when all we have seen from this government is cuts and chaos in this space?

Let me be clear. After the government were elected in 2013, students were placed under attack with the threat of university fee deregulation. Those of us on this side fought the government on that war, and we won in support of young people across the country, joined by those people who were seeking to retrain, seeking higher education or seeking to rejoin education as a way of ensuring that they had a bright economic future. Students are now forced to pay back HELP debts when they earn $45,000 a year. That is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. We know that debt is a barrier for many students, particularly those from low-income families. It puts more pressure on household budgets at a time when they can least afford it. No-one knows this more than I do from working in Melbourne's western suburbs with kids from working-class families, kids whose parents were struggling to pay the rent every week. Building aspiration in those young people meant confronting their family's fear of debt at a young age. So I know full well how hard people are working on the ground to build that aspiration; to have those conversations with young people; to ensure that they seek a tertiary education; to identify our best and our brightest; to encourage them to talk to their families about the fact that the debt they will take on will be worth it; and to assure them that they have their government's support.

Since this government was elected, we have also seen students turned away by universities because of capped places. This unfairly leaves regional and outer suburban communities like mine worse off. It means that we are not seeing our best and brightest. It means that other determinants are getting in the way of us seeing the best of every young person in our country. Universities have been under attack with various funding cuts, the latest being in the 2018 MYEFO with the slashing of $328.5 million from university research, something that our university sector is speaking loudly on but without effect.

In electorates like mine all over the country, we are seeing youth allowance wait times blowing out. This leaves young people and those waiting to retrain with no support. I have stories in my electorate of people waiting for up to six months, so it's the end of first semester and they're yet to receive a youth allowance payment. What that means in communities like mine, in those families, is that they could be in a situation where that young person chooses to discontinue a university education because the family can't afford to support them while they study. This is heartbreaking—absolutely heartbreaking—and it's under this government's watch that these things are happening. It goes to the very core of what we believe.

As someone who has spent most of their life teaching, I believe that every child can learn if given the right circumstances. What is the message we're sending now? We know intelligence is not defined by postcode or region, but under this government it appears that going to university is determined by postcode or region or by the wealth of your family. The basic support that governments commit to—to support our best and brightest from low socioeconomic areas to go to university—is not being met in that critical first semester, which is when their studies get set up. It is an absolute shame.

In contrast, under previous Labor governments my electorate saw increased numbers of students accessing university. Those numbers have slipped over the past five years, in terms of percentages per capita, on this government's watch. 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 need to be investing in our young people to ensure that Australia continues to be competitive in a global economy. We all know that in this place. We hear member after member on their feet talking about just that, yet we have a government that doesn't back that in with the legislation required and with the support required. Perhaps a review of why Centrelink can't manage to process youth allowance applications in a timely manner would allow young people in any community to pursue their dreams.

Unfortunately, it is not just the higher education sector that this government has cut and slashed. We've seen vocational education and training cuts, as well as 2.5 million public school students in this country being left worse off by its failure to properly fund public education. This government has cut more than $3 billion from TAFE skills and apprenticeships since being elected. This clearly demonstrates that they do not value vocational education and skills. When it comes to our public schools, almost nine in 10 public schools will never get to their fair funding level because of the Prime Minister's cuts. You have to extrapolate that to what that means in our university sector and what that means in our economy. On this side of the chamber, we understand that education, at all levels, is the key to a stronger society and the key to future prosperity.

In contrast to this government, a Shorten Labor government, if elected, will properly fund our universities with guaranteed three-year funding agreements. We will uncap university places so that 200,000 more Australians will have the opportunity of a university education over the next decade. We will invest in university research and infrastructure with our $300 million university future fund. We will provide more support for disadvantaged and underrepresented students to acquire the confidence and skills they need to get into university, with our $174 million equity and pathways funding.

We will invest across the whole education system by introducing universal early education for three- and four-year-olds and by investing $14.1 billion extra into the public schools across our nation, who educate two out of three Australian children. We will waive up-front fees for 100,000 students to attend TAFE. We will invest $100 million in modernising TAFE facilities around the country. We will be ensuring one in every 10 jobs in Commonwealth priority projects are filled by Australian apprentices. Labor has a plan for the entirety of education across this country. We will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeships for young people who want to learn a trade. We will provide 20,000 adult apprenticeship places. We will establish an apprenticeship advocate to ensure Australia has an excellent, high-quality and inclusive apprentice system.

On top of that, we will return the workforce to Centrelink so that we can get over some of these processing issues that this government has been ignoring. When you draw all of these pieces together, what we see from this government is not just a lack of care. It's not just a lack of interest. If you grow up in my electorate and you're from a low socioeconomic area, what you perceive is a government that doesn't want you to be educated; a government that doesn't want to see you strive to be your best. It's a very sad state of affairs.

On this side of the parliament, Labor have committed to a national inquiry into post-secondary education. It's an inquiry that would look at the needs in this country and the broad, post-secondary space with TAFE and university. Importantly, it would look at them separately, but it would also look at the way they work together and the way they need to be supported by government to ensure that we're getting the best and the brightest in the right places—doing the right things and providing them with the level of support that they need.

I cannot get past the fact that it has taken this government three years to respond to the review conducted. It has taken them three years to draft a piece of legislation and pay attention to the recommendations made. They have been slow to act and, when they act, they act in limited ways. In contrast, I stand here proudly as a member of the Labor Party and proudly as the member for Lalor, because I know the people on this side of the chamber will act in the best interests of all Australians. I also know they'll take particular care of the students who are being raised in my electorate. They want all children in Australian schools to aspire to be their best. We want to see Australians leading in every industry. We want to see Australians applying themselves. We want to see them aspiring to high education levels. We want to see them applying themselves. And we want to see a government that will support our young people and those retraining—all people engaging in lifelong learning. We want to see a government that's prepared to support the industries that provide the education and support young people across their lifetime, from kindergarten all the way through to their PhDs.

I'd like to thank the member for Scullin for moving the important amendments that give us the opportunity to speak on this bill and support the government's recommendations—slow to act as they are. We will support the bill, but we speak strongly about the amendments that were put forward by the member for Scullin.

1:22 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill—it's not the catchiest title that we've had before us, but it's a worthwhile evolution of that agency—and to support the amendments moved by this side of the House. What concerns me is the fact that we are talking about this today. Having been in this chamber for 2½ years, I can say that it's not often that we get to speak about the broad quality of higher education here. It really highlights for me a lack of interest in this area by those opposite.

There was a review of the national regulator. That is the body that regulates our world-class higher education system. It looks at what's working and it looks at how it needs to be tweaked to ensure standards are met. The review of this regulator was provided to government three years ago. That's a really long time for there to be no action. I don't think the complexity of it meant that anyone was unable to get their head around it. I think it shows us that it just kind of got pushed to the side. Quite frankly, I do not get a sense of the belief we have on this side of the House. Education is a game changer for people. It transforms people's lives. They deserve quality education. Whether it's at the preschool level, primary school in the public school system, high school, TAFE or university, that quality needs to be available to people, especially at a time when we are shifting the cost to students more than they have ever seen. Those opposite have done that to an enormous degree. They have shifted the cost to students so that they now have to pay higher fees and they need to pay off their HELP debt sooner. It is only fair that they should expect a reasonable standard—a high standard of quality, in fact—that reflects the high level of fees that they are expected to pay.

Not many people have mums and dads who can afford to pay the fees. Most young people will finish TAFE or university with a debt. They will then have to spend years, at the same time that they've got this debt, trying to get themselves established in their chosen profession or career. They will have to equip themselves for that career and that role. They may also be looking at moving into a place that isn't perhaps five students squished into a four-room house. They'll be wanting to invest in themselves and their future at the same time that they've got this debt, so the cost for them to make their way in this world means it will just become really tough. I see it time and time again. I've got kids who are in their 20s. I see story after story of the challenges they face, not just when they're educating themselves but when they're taking the time to equip themselves for this world that is rapidly changing.

There will be many students right now preparing for their first semester of university. But, unfortunately, the freeze that the government has put on university places—the capping of places—means far fewer students are going to be doing that, especially in the outer western suburbs and regions like mine on the periphery of Sydney, such as the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains that make up the Macquarie electorate. There is no doubt that we in this place should be talking about broadening participation in higher education, in both TAFE and university, not talking about things to reduce it. Nor should we be talking about anything that reduces access or quality. Yet what we've seen from this government is the capping of university places. We have seen a slashing of research funding. Research done in universities is what's going to set us up to cope with a world that we can't even predict, and to take that away is the most short-sighted thing I can imagine. We've also seen under this government cuts to vocational and education training the likes of which no-one could contemplate or imagine, and we've also seen a failure to fund public education. We have, in addition, seen a lack of commitment to early childhood education. That is where it all starts, and it's vital that every step of that education cycle gets funded—preschool, school, vocational training and universities. That's how we create our future. That's how we make sure that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as a parliament to make the opportunities for those who are coming behind us that much easier and more suited to the world in which they're going to live.

It does concern me that this is a technical bill, and I'm very grateful that we on this side of the House have moved amendments to recognise just how important quality of education and access to education are. That's why, under a Labor government, we will also properly fund universities with three-year guaranteed funding agreements—not just 'here's a little bit to get you through the next year'. Universities need certainty in funding and they need to be able to plan. Their staff need to know that there's a future there so that they have a sense of assurance that the work they do will be able to continue and evolve. We also will uncap university places, and that is expected to lead to 200,000 more Australians having the opportunity to get an education over the next decade or so.

I think one of the most impressive things we're going to do is focus on research. As I said, I think it's just fundamental. Our $300 million university future fund, which will invest in university research and infrastructure, is part of that. In the electorate of Macquarie, we have the Western Sydney University campus at Richmond. That campus—the Hawkesbury campus—will benefit under Labor because of the incredible greenhouse that they have constructed. It is a massive glasshouse. You have never seen anything like it because there is nothing like it anywhere else in Australia. And Labor has committed to an additional $20 million in research funding that will make sure that we capitalise on the potential that we have in agriculture, in terms of working out how much water or how little water we can use to grow things, how few nutrients we can use to get the maximum benefit, and how we can grow things that will transport easily, either within Australia or, more importantly, for export. Labor's commitment to research will really pan out in my electorate in supporting our agricultural sector to be able to make the most of the opportunities as one of the most fertile areas within a short drive of Sydney. We should be growing for, and we should in fact be feeding, not just Australia but Asia.

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

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