House debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020


Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:01 pm

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I indicated earlier this afternoon with respect to this bill, the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020, Labor has indicated that it won't oppose the bill. There are a lot of straightforward measures contained within it, particularly around full-fee-paying university students having a 25 per cent loans fee waived for six months due to coronavirus. The bill also includes a range of other provisions that are largely technical in nature, extending the unique student identifier regime to all higher education students by requiring students commencing from 1 January 2021—and all students from 1 January 2023—to have a USI in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under the HESA scheme, and all VET student loan recipients from 1 January 2021. We've also welcomed the fee relief that the bill provides for—such as it is—for that small proportion of full-fee paying undergraduate students that a six-month waiver in loan fees will provide. There are a number of different things in this bill that we've been quite happy with.

But, as I said in the contribution that I made earlier, we are concerned that, at a time where we need to be building up the range of skills of Australian students, both younger and older, we need to see more of an investment in those skills—be it through the tertiary pathway or through the VET vocational pathway. This is particularly true—and a number of contributors from this side of the House have focused on this—of the major skills shortages that exist within the tech sector, where we do not have enough skills and where we import a lot of skill simply because there aren't Australians with the skill set that is required by the tech sector in this country. While it's noted that we don't have enough people going through the tertiary sector to gain those skills in areas of high demand, particularly right now in the artificial intelligence area, we should be looking at what other countries are doing—for example, in the UK, where they are quite open about funding more PhDs in the artificial intelligence arena to ensure that they've got the skills to compete in that space. I notice that Professor Toby Walsh of UNSW has been saying publicly that we should be doing that. It's something that I've argued in recent weeks that we should be doing. We're losing a lot of talent to either China or the US because people feel that they don't have any options here—that their skills aren't being valued and aren't being put to use, in an area where we need to do that. We do need to see more of that happen. I absolutely agree that we should be funding more there, not just in the tertiary arena but in VET, where we should be encouraging more skills development in the information, communications and technology arenas, and we're simply not doing that. It is stunning to me that, at a time when businesses are crying out for skills, they can't get them. We're not investing enough here and, with the borders being shut, we've got a lot of firms that are unable to access talent that can come in from overseas now as well. It's a big issue.

I also notice that in this bill there is provision for some consequential or some straightforward procedural changes to allow for the University of Western Sydney to rename itself Western Sydney University. I am the first graduate of what is now Western Sydney University who has been able to serve in the House of Reps. I'm very proud of my old university. I'm proud of the fact that the Hawke reforms of the late eighties allowed for the emergence of the then University of Western Sydney. The then minister, John Dawkins, pioneered and argued for a lot of the colleges of advanced education to be converted into universities so that we would have an increase in school retention rates. That is something that people on this side of the House are very proud of. Bob Hawke championed those retention rates going up so that, instead of three out of 10 kids, we would have seven out of 10 finishing year 12. If you have that lift in retention rates you will hopefully see that extend into tertiary education, and you need to have the institutions of learning in those areas where you see greater growth, so the Hawke government championed that occurring in my part of the world. We saw retention rates increase, and then we saw more kids going on to university. The old Nepean College of Advanced Education was converted in part into the University of Western Sydney. I first attended the Kingswood campus, and then they opened Werrington and brought in Hawkesbury. These were important moves. We saw a big investment in tertiary education in my part of Western Sydney, which was fantastic.

The University of Western Sydney, now Western Sydney University, has grown, but I have to say that I am concerned that it is not growing in accordance with the growth that we've seen in our part of the world. It is a matter of deep concern to me that Western Sydney University did not take up the opportunity to set up a stronger presence within the local government area of Blacktown, which is one of the biggest LGAs in the country. More students leave this local government area to go to campuses outside of the Blacktown area. Western Sydney University has spectacularly failed to provide a campus in our area. I note the presence of the member for Berowra because of his connection to the university I'm about to mention. I have to say that it was quite stunning, though welcome, that the Australian Catholic University, to its great credit, has agreed to open a campus in Blacktown. I am impressed by that. Given that the member for Berowra has an association with that university, I speak very highly of ACU for their commitment to making an investment in the future of the young people of Blacktown and to doing that. But, to their great credit, they're not just limiting themselves to the central business district of Blacktown. They are, for example, committed to doing outreach in parts of the Chifley electorate such as Mount Druitt to ensure that kids in Mount Druitt are encouraged to take on tertiary education. ACU is making the commitment to do that in our part of Western Sydney, and it is simply staggering to me that Western Sydney University does not do that and did not have that faith.

I am genuinely concerned that what has happened is that Western Sydney University has focused principally on Parramatta, which is now at the edge of where the bulk of growth is happening in Western Sydney. They've had some focus in south-west Sydney, but other universities are now coming in and recognising the potential of the region and are investing in it. I have to question why the leadership of Western Sydney University is letting the grass grow under its feet in such spectacular fashion.

We have 200,000 people that are moving into north-west Sydney. While the Hawkesbury campus, which is largely focused, importantly, on agriculture, is doing tremendously and has had a legacy and proud tradition of a lot of work in this area, I don't think Western Sydney University has flagged any intent to expand or provide an additional campus in the north-west growth sector where 200,000 people, as I said before, are moving in. I don't think there's any real plan—and I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong—to expand vocational education within that part of Western Sydney. Specifically, I'm talking about Marsden Park through to Schofields and Riverstone. I actually think this is the Bermuda Triangle of Sydney development. You've got 200,000 people moving into that part of Western Sydney, and yet there's very little focus on providing the supporting infrastructure or services in that area.

I note the presence of the shadow infrastructure minister, who I've spoken with about improving infrastructure in that part of Western Sydney, but we also need to see hospitals built. The New South Wales government has said that it'll build a hospital in north-west Sydney around Rouse Hill. We'll be interested to see when that actually occurs. We need to see additional services—for example, the building of further schools so that we have educational support for those 200,000 people that are moving into north-west Sydney so that their kids can go on to secondary schools that also need to be built. We need to have TAFEs or vocational education providers, plus a university campus in that part of north-western Sydney to make sure that we've got education and training happening right there on the ground. I'm genuinely concerned Western Sydney uni will be absent from all that. They will just focus on Parramatta and south-west Sydney, and they'll completely neglect north-west Sydney.

We can have some consequential amendments, as are delivered in this bill, sure, and we can facilitate the name change getting recognised, terrific. But Western Sydney University has to be more than a name. It cannot just say it's Western Sydney in name and not fulfil the ambition that drove its creation in the first place, which is to ensure that young people in our part of the world can defy the low expectations that are set because there's this belief that the socioeconomics won't justify the investment. That is just patent garbage. There are a lot of young people in our part of the world that have a lot of talent and need to have that talent twinned with a serious investment by governments at federal and state level—and, in particular, institutions like Western Sydney University—to make that a reality. And I would call on Barney Glover, who heads up Western Sydney University, to demonstrate his commitment to growth in our part of Western Sydney and to show us what his plans are.

Western Sydney does have a presence at the old Nirimba site, but it's largely administrative. Again, if that has changed and I haven't kept track of it, I'm more than happy to be corrected. I'm happy to be wrong but, if I'm right and it's not there, that has to be fixed. Certainly, Western Sydney uni can do that and should do that. Because at the moment, all I see is a lot of focus on Parramatta, a lot of focus, potentially, on Bankstown and a lot of focus on south-west Sydney. But, again, this whole group of people, this huge residential growth in north-west Sydney, is being neglected.

It's not good enough, and I'm absolutely committed to standing up for people within the Chifley electorate but also in the surrounding areas, joining up with people, to make sure that young people's ambitions are not neglected and that we do make the proper investment in their future and in our area to ensure that we've got the talent there. It needs to be backed up by economic opportunity, if we get the infrastructure right, and the bringing of businesses into that part of the world so that we have local jobs for local people and the local jobs are actually filled with people who've been trained up either through TAFEs or universities in that part of the world. There is absolutely no excuse for that not to happen now. I would rather us make the investment at this point in time instead of playing catch-up down the track. The test is whether or not Western Sydney will continue to have other universities—like the Australian Catholic University, like the University of Wollongong, which is nipping at their heels, or the University of New South Wales or the University of Sydney—coming into Western Sydney to do the job that Western Sydney University won't do. It's an absolute tragedy that that's occurring, but that's competition, and if it spurs Western Sydney to do better, than I'm all for it.

5:15 pm

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

Can I acknowledge the contribution of the member for Chifley, who's nicked off.

Hon. Members:

Honourable members interjecting

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

Oh, he is here! I do want to acknowledge the member for Chifley. I should say that the vice-chancellor you referred to, Barney Glover, was with CDU in the Northern Territory prior to going to you, and it is CDU that I want to talk about very shortly.

As others from our side have mentioned in this debate, including the shadow minister, we support this legislation and can see some merit in many of the proposals within it. However, I do draw your attention to the amendment which was put by the shadow minister. It gives us the opportunity to talk about the billions cut from universities, the slashing of research funding, the locking of students out of tertiary education, the cutting of billions from TAFE and training, the presiding over a dramatic decline in students undertaking vocational education, and the failure to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system.

It's not my intention to speak at any length, but I do want to, particularly, talk about the impact of the cuts that have been made by this government—the billions of dollars of cuts to universities—through the re-capping of undergraduate places and the slashing of research funding. I say that as someone who lives in the Northern Territory, where we have one university, the Charles Darwin University. We have the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, which is an organisation dedicated to opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia and, most particularly, in the Northern Territory. What we know is that since the election of this government in 2013 students in universities have been under constant attack with cuts, attempts at fee regulation, policy chaos and uncertainty: 200,000 students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place over this decade because of the government's cuts and capping of places. This will have a devastating impact on our economy.

As we know, regional universities are really important in a number of ways for local communities—most importantly for the local economy, but also in providing educational options and opportunities and research opportunities for people who live in those regions. If you think about the north of Australia, you isolate James Cook University in the east and you look at what's happening in the west. There's not much happening north of Geraldton, I have to say, in terms of the provision of tertiary education. We've got Charles Darwin University operating out of Darwin and operating a campus in Alice Springs. It's very important for the people who live in those communities to be able to have access to tertiary education and to TAFE—the provision of services out of Charles Darwin also includes TAFE services.

Historically, when young people from regional communities, isolated farming communities and pastoral properties were aspirants for higher education, they had to leave town, leave their communities and leave the Northern Territory to get access to that higher education. That's still the case for many. When we talk about the impact of government expenditure cuts, it makes it really difficult for universities like Charles Darwin to provide the range of courses that they should be able to provide for the student population they seek to attract. As the Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University, Professor Maddocks, said:

At the end of 2017 the Australian Federal Government, the Minister for Education, capped all funding for Australian universities for domestic undergraduate places. That means, ultimately, that fewer students can be enrolled year-on-year, and that's the current environment we've faced.

We know that the CDU has a growing net deficit. In 2018, it was $21 million; it's higher now. But we know that the funding cap on the Commonwealth grants scheme, which froze university funding at 2017 levels from 2018 to 2020, has been crippling for the university. There's no need for this. If the government had its eye on the ball and was concerned, as it says it is, for opportunities for all Australians, particularly those who live in regional communities across this country, the very last thing it would do is inhibit opportunities for people to attend university by cutting university places. Yet, sadly, that is what it's done. As Professor Maddocks has said in the past, 'When you constrain our income, the costs of delivering education and training continue to rise.' We know that, when your budget is constrained and costs are increasing, the relative impact on your educational outcomes has got to be heavy. That's what has happened in this instance.

What we need to impress upon this government is that the best way to improve the life opportunities for young Australians is to make sure that they've got access to a high-standard university opportunity, whether they live in Western Sydney, in Darwin in the member for Solomon's electorate, across the Northern Territory or, indeed, across northern Australia. We can only do this by making sure the funding is properly put in place. We know that Charles Darwin say they've lost over $30 million in federal money over the four years that I referred to earlier. That's an eight per cent decline in their funding. We do have to change the way in which we deal with these universities, but we've got to make sure that we're doing it for the purposes of improving the opportunities for young people, particularly, to attend universities and get the qualifications they require to be able to get a decent job. That's what this is about.

When we're looking at places like the north of this country not only are university places and university courses extremely important but TAFE is also. What we've seen this government do is emasculate skills training across this country by attacking apprenticeships. We've now got 140,000 fewer apprenticeships and trainees and a shortage of workers in critical services, including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. In communities like mine, these basic skills are really very important. If you're a young person who is living outside of Darwin, in particular—but not only Darwin—you've got no other opportunity but to travel somewhere else to get your training. What we've got to do is make sure that the TAFE services are available and accessible for all Australians, and they should not be burdened with the costs that have been applied as a result of the decisions made by this government. The Liberals have cut $3 billion from TAFE and training. The government clearly don't care enough. But I say to you: if you want to improve the opportunities for Aboriginal people living in remote parts of this country, particularly in Lingiari, then what you will do is make sure they've got decent access to TAFE-type services. Currently, they do not. And you'd make sure that the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education was properly funded so we could provide a better range of courses and a fuller range of services.

These are decisions that this government could make today, and I ask it most sincerely to do so. And we're not only talking about opportunities in traditional areas of education. In the health space, for example, we're talking about providing opportunities and access to training for Aboriginal health practitioners, who are vital in delivering primary health care across the north of Australia, particularly in my own electorate of Lingiari and in the minister's own electorate. I know Durack reasonably well, having travelled around it quite a few times. But you would appreciate the importance of making sure that, for people who don't have access to higher education or TAFE-type services, their life opportunities are severely limited. We've got to make sure that that doesn't happen, and we've got to make sure that this government sees what its responsibility truly is and to remedy the cuts they've made by ensuring that we get a number of opportunities available in the TAFE sector for apprentices and in higher education to the level they need to be at in order to meet the demands of the community.

5:25 pm

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

I'd like to thank those members who have spoken on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. The bill implements part of the higher education relief package, the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a period of six months, from 1 April to 30 September, the loan fee that applies to undergraduate students accessing a FEE-HELP loan for their studies will be removed. Undergraduate full-fee-paying students who may have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis will be given an incentive to either begin or continue to study in semester 2 of 2020, therefore supporting higher education providers to continue to support student enrolment. Through this measure, the government demonstrates its commitment to ensuring that Australians are able to upskill and retrain, even during these difficult times.

The bill also enables the implementation of the government's decision to extend the unique student identifier, the USI, to all higher education students. By replacing existing student identifiers with the USI, students and providers will have access to a single identification system. To support a single identification across the tertiary education system, the bill will require students who are accessing Commonwealth assistance to have a USI. With almost all students who are in tertiary education using the USI, we will be able to monitor and collect unprecedented data to better inform education programs and policies. In addition, through the USI, students will be able to move between VET and higher education more easily, encouraging ongoing engagement in education and lifelong learning, personal development and career aspiration.

The bill also introduces measures to validate loans for students who have been assigned multiple Commonwealth higher education student support numbers to prevent unfavourable financial outcomes for providers and students. Following the passage of the legislation, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment will make best efforts to contact the affected students as soon as is practicable. The correspondence will contain information on their situation and the effect of the legislation and will also include information on how to challenge debts that may be inappropriate or incorrectly allocated. Additional information on managing financial hardship and the income-contingent nature of the HELP scheme will be provided to ensure that students are aware of their obligations and any course for redress or relief where required. The Minister for Education has written to the opposition to confirm this. I thank the opposition for their constructive engagement on this bill.

The bill also clarifies the point in time that a student's HELP balance is taken to be reduced to ensure consistency across the HELP and VET student loan programs and makes minor amendments that streamline and improve the operation of the Higher Education Support Act. Once again, I thank all the members, in particular on behalf of the Minister for Education, for their contributions with respect to debating these measures and supporting the government's continued commitment to the higher education sector and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 Sydney has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted, with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand as part of the question.

5:38 pm

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

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

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.