House debates

Wednesday, 11 September 2019


Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019, Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019; Second Reading

11:56 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the cognate debate on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. These bills introduce a range of small cost-recovery measures originally 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, with $11.4 million in savings over the forward estimates. These are modest charges and go towards the administrative costs 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. However, we won't tolerate a situation where these costs, modest though they are, might be passed on to 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 further undermine the equity and participation rates 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 six years of cuts, chaos and dysfunction from this Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. Since the Liberals came to office, universities have undergone a sustained period of attack, with cuts and chaos. In last year's MYEFO 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, without more information than we have been given, can look only like pork-barrelling. A majority of this funding is going towards repairing the damage caused by previous Liberal cuts.

So the Liberal and National parties together came in and cut the funding. There's especially chaos in the regional university campuses, and it is something that, perhaps, the Nationals or the Liberal-National Party should be especially ashamed about. I note the minister at the table has universities in the electorate of Maranoa, such as the University of Southern Queensland. They'll be experiencing some of this hardship. The member for Capricornia has Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. The member for Flynn has Central Queensland University at Gladstone. The member for Hinkler has Central Queensland University at Bundaberg. The member for Dawson has Central Queensland University's Mackay campus and a bit of the James Cook University campus at Mackay as well. The member for Wide Bay has the University of the Sunshine Coast and the Gympie campus of the University of the Sunshine Coast as well. I'm particularly pointing out where the Nationals have let down higher education in their own areas. We've seen a freeze in student numbers, with a $2.2 billion cut that is actually worsening the situation there. Then, to repair the localised chaos, we take money from research and put it into these regional campuses that are being so hard hit. It really is not the way to run a higher education system that relies on certainty and over-the-horizon-type investment decisions. You cannot trust this Morrison government when it comes to education, especially in our regional, rural and remote communities. The Nationals are asleep at the wheel when it comes to looking after the bush.

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 we're committed to providing certainty of funding and maintaining a respectful and consultative approach. So many people in the university sector remind me of the promise from the former member for Warringah right on the eve of the 2013 election. He said that universities under a Liberal government would experience a period of benign neglect. I think universities would now be praying for benign neglect, given what they've gone through over the last six years and as we commence our seventh year under the coalition government. It has not been benign neglect but malicious intent in a lot of the university changes that we've seen under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments. 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 and 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 the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, Minister Pyne, tried twice to cut funding. Then, last year, Minister Birmingham also tried to cut funding to universities. There were some cuts that we were able to stop and there were some, because they didn't require legislation, that Labor could not prevent. We couldn't stop the $2.2 billion in cuts made at the end of 2017, because the minister was using existing powers in the Higher Education Support Act to reduce funding. This decision means that the government has 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. The member for Sydney, the shadow minister for education and training, has described this decision 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, buy a house and cover all those other expenses.

Changes like this, sadly, 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. Nearly twice as many women are affected as men. We've also learned from Universities Australia that the cap on places meant that around 10,000 places were not funded in the 2018 calendar year, and we expect that number to have increased this year. The Mitchell Institute's recent tertiary participation analysis says that because of the Morrison government's caps on university places, around 235,000 students could miss out on a university place by 2031. At this stage of the year, when so many students are anxiously studying—preparing in the lead-up to their end-of-year exams, having studied hard in years 11 and 12, and hoping to get place at university—it really does tug the heartstrings to think that over the next decade or so almost a quarter of a million young people, a quarter of a million Australians who would otherwise have a place in university, will miss out if the policies of this Morrison government continue. Kids who were prepared to study, 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 the policy decisions of this coalition government.

The decline in TAFE and apprenticeships is in some ways even worse than what I've just described. 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 actually need a post-secondary-school education, either TAFE or university, so we need to increase participation in both universities and our voc ed sector to make sure that our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing so very quickly. We need to boost participation, not attack it and cut it.

The Liberals' record in this area is abysmal. If we continue down this path, we'll severely jeopardise this nation's 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—one of our greatest resources. 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".

I'm proud of Labor's commitments to university funding that we took to the election. Returning to a demand-driven funding system to lift the caps on undergraduate places would have seen around 200,000 more Australians get a place at university over the next 12 years. Labor is committed to putting fairness back at the centre of our education system, 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 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 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 this great land. We need to continue working to support more students from outer suburbs and the country, Indigenous students, students with disabilities and people who are the first in their family to go to university, as I was—sorry, I should clarify that for the sake of my siblings. I was the first in my family to complete a degree, not the first to attend—sorry about that, Simon.

University students and workers in higher education are always better off under a Labor government. Labor is committed to a better and fairer funding approach. Universities will be more than able to meet the small charges in this bill. I thank universities, unions, student groups and other stakeholders for their submissions on this bill and look forward to listening to the universities—not only in Queensland but particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and at other universities that I encounter—to find out what their issues are, what their concerns are. I look forward to consulting them about this bill and other pieces of legislation in the future.

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

12:07 pm

Photo of Patrick GormanPatrick Gorman (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment. I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the amendment moved by the member for Moreton. This legislation will allow the government to impose fees on universities for the administration of students' access to the Higher Education Loan Program. These changes are expected to save the Commonwealth just $11 million across the forward estimates—if they want a suggestion about what to do with that $11 million, I suggest they use it to fund the CapTel handsets program that they're closing in February of next year. These are relatively modest savings. The Labor Party won't oppose these bills, but, I'll be honest, I do feel uncomfortable supporting this legislation. I spent my life as a student activist campaigning for free education. I'm a passionate believer that you should have the most accessible education system possible, from the earliest years of early childhood education all the way through to lifelong learning. Sadly, here in Australia, we have the sixth-highest fees for tertiary education in the OECD. That is completely unacceptable.

Education is the most transformative investment we make in our people. It's something we should do with pride. We should look at ways to put more money into our university sectors, not just do small cost-recovery matters here and there. I served on Curtin's University Council in 2005 when that university implemented fee deregulation and increases to HECS fees. Sadly, that deregulation and those increases in university fees have continued year after year. Australia's higher education system has become unaffordable for far too many.

Some 15 years on from when I was at university, my brother, Joey, is now studying at the University of Western Australia. He is studying the hard science of biology; I only did the soft sciences, social science. For his undergraduate degree my brother has paid twice what I paid. That is completely unacceptable. In another 15 years my son, Leo, will be looking at his options for further study as he is, I hope, completing high school. I am really worried that the system we continue to defund and to increase fees for will be an even less accessible system than the one we have today.

By the government's own admission, this is low-priority legislation. But it's low-priority legislation because we have a more serious vocational education and training and skills crisis in this country. I know the TAFEs in my electorate of Perth are crying out for more investment in capital infrastructure—in new, modern classrooms and the facilities they need to train the next generation of aged-care workers; to train the next camos for channels 7, 9 or 10 or, indeed, the public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS; to train people in how to work in fashion design; or to train those who work in our labs. They don't have the facilities that they need in TAFE. Again, the government admits this is low-priority legislation, but when it comes to TAFE and vocational education there are huge, urgent priorities. Six years since the government was elected in 2013, we have 140,000 fewer apprentices. There has been $3 billion cut out of vocational education. We've seen a decline in enrolments in vocational education over those six years; in fact, if you look at TAFE enrolments between 2013 and 2019 you'll see there are 24½ per cent fewer TAFE enrolments than there were when this government was elected. That's a pretty remarkable record for six years in government and one I would be absolutely ashamed of if I were on the other benches.

Labor has other concerns in respect of this legislation, as the member for Moreton just outlined. The government's approach to the funding of the Australian higher education system is, in my view, mean. It doesn't appreciate the important role of universities in generating the next generation of academics and people in our workforce. Universities should be hubs of learning, research and innovation. I'm lucky to have Edith Cowan University in my electorate and the growing presence of Curtin University. The University of Western Australia is just across the road. And Perth is experiencing what has been described as a mini boom of construction of new inner-city student accommodation, something that is bringing much-needed life back into the heart of Perth.

Universities broaden minds. They create new possibilities. They will create the next Australian discoveries that we can be proud of. I loved being at university. I loved it so much that I went and did three degrees. Our universities are fabulous places for people to learn, meet other people and continue to contribute to the Australian economy. I did spend some time at university—this probably won't surprise anyone here—protesting against some of the changes of the Howard government. I won't recreate the chants that we used to use, but eventually Johnny Howard did indeed go.

I'm worried that these fees may be passed on to students. I spent that time fighting not just against increases to higher education contribution schemes but against parking fee increases, fee increases for the university gymnasium and other things, and I worry that these fees will get passed on to students. That situation would be unacceptable. We know that, even if these fees aren't directly passed on to students, the cost will be paid somewhere. It will come in reduced teaching and learning investment; it will come in decreased investment in equipment for students or in the never-ending deregulation of the long-term academic workforce we rely upon.

Also, while students continue to pay that little bit more and that little bit more for their education, we see that they are having to start repaying their HECS debt earlier and earlier. Commencing on 1 July this year, people earning $45,000 are now required to begin repaying their HELP debt. This is asked of both graduates and those who are still completing their studies. While they're being asked to repay those debts, students are under huge financial pressure. Universities Australia conducted a survey in 2017, which was released in 2018, on the finances of students and how they manage their day-to-day expenses. It's very relevant for this debate, because ultimately we're talking about how students afford their education and how we as a Commonwealth, as a federal parliament, make sure that that education is properly funded.

One in seven students in this survey reported going without food and other necessities as they were continuing their studies. In the case of Indigenous students, the survey showed that one in four Indigenous students were going without food or other necessities while they were in a higher education institution. Three out of five students said that finances were a source of worry and anxiety. That was higher amongst low-SES students and higher again, with most anxiety and worry about finances, for regional students. If you have to move away from home, there is the cost of being in student accommodation and everything else that comes with being a regional student going to a campus that might not be in your home town, and then you still need to worry about your own personal finances. The survey also found that one in 10 students were deferring their studies because of financial pressures, and two in five students said that their paid work adversely affected their university performance. One in three students were reported as regularly missing university lectures or classes because of their need to work to stay in their studies.

That's not how it should be. We should have a university system where people can go and enjoy studying, where they can learn properly, where they can attend the classes they're paying thousands of dollars for, where they can participate fully in the tutorials which they're paying thousands of dollars for and, indeed, which this government also pays thousands of dollars for. The universities absorbing the costs that will be imposed on them as a result of this legislation will result in reduced university staffing and services, as I said earlier.

I must acknowledge what the university sector itself has said about this bill. Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson has described the government's approach to higher education funding as 'death by a thousand cuts'. That's the university sector's own description of this government's higher education policies. This piece of legislation is one of those thousand cuts. It's not building anything new and exciting for students. It's not making any investment in research. It's just one more fee.

Last Saturday marks six years of the coalition government. As I said before, over that time we've had a huge decrease in investment and participation in the vocational education and training space. Unfortunately, we've also seen an increase in the casualised workforce in our universities. Universities are making redundancies. Permanent and fixed term staff are facing the prospect of losing their jobs and being moved into more insecure and casual work. Analysis from the National Tertiary Education Union shows that approximately eight out of 10 full-time equivalent teaching-only jobs are casual. That is, we are saying that we don't value teaching as much as we value research. The reality for most of us who engage in the university sector is that yes, we're lucky to have bright academics who make sure that we're learning from fabulous pieces of thoroughly assessed research; but teaching and learning are equally important. If we continue to underfund our universities, we're going to continue to underfund that vital piece of teaching and learning that provides the workforce of the future that we so desperately need. Figures from the Department of Education and Training itself show that now less than half of all jobs in our university sector are permanent. That is a shocking statistic. Indeed, if you think about what this legislation does, it continues that trend of casualisation of our university workforce.

What do universities do to fix the gap that this legislation leaves? What do they do? They turn to international students—a great export market. It's a fabulous thing that we share our universities with the world, and I'm so lucky that when I went to Curtin University about 25 per cent of the student cohort were international students. It provides so much richness to campus life and richness to the university and to the tax coffers as well—some $35 billion contribution to the Australian economy, supporting some 240,000 jobs across the country. But it shouldn't be a substitute for proper funding of our universities—just valuing them in and of themselves. The government must properly fund higher education and research in this country. I'm glad that we are properly scrutinising this legislation and making sure that students aren't disadvantaged by this policy. Indeed, in coming years, I hope that we do not have any reports of universities passing these costs on directly or indirectly to students.

The member for Moreton spoke earlier of the ultimate vision for higher education in this country. Indeed, Labor did take to the election a $10 billion plan for universities over the next decade to make sure that we invest in the capital infrastructure and invest in the academic and mental infrastructure that's needed to make sure that our universities remain some of the best in the world. Sadly, as I and many on this side have acknowledged, Labor did not win that election, but it doesn't mean that we should be any less a voice for proper funding of our universities and proper investment in student learning. I will leave my remarks there.

12:21 pm

Photo of David LittleproudDavid Littleproud (Maranoa, National Party, Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management) Share this | | Hansard source

I take note of the comments that have been made by those opposite. But let me say: this is a responsible measure that will make sure there's a sustainable tertiary education system into the future. The member for Moreton quite rightly identified a number of regional universities, one of which has a posting in Stanthorpe, in my own electorate. And let me tell you that it is a strong and robust campus, particularly around wine and the creation of wine. But the investments by universities and government into regional Australia, particularly regional Queensland in my electorate and those surrounding it, is important, and this bill is around the sustainability of that. This is about making sure that we can do it in an affordable way without having to put an extra $340-odd billion worth of tax on the Australian people. This is responsible and measured and will ensure the sustainability of the university sector for generations to come. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Moreton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the House is that the amendment moved by the member for Moreton be agreed to.

12:03 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that this bill be read a second time.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

As there are fewer than five members on the side for the noes in this division, I declare the question resolved in the affirmative in accordance with standing order 127. The names of those members who are in the minority will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.

Question agreed to, Mr Bandt, Dr Haines and Mr Wilkie voting no.

Bill read a second time.