House debates

Wednesday, 17 June 2020


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

11:03 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor won't oppose the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act and makes a number of changes to the legislation around higher education funding. While a lot of these are technical in nature, the bill does include a more substantive provision which waives the 25 per cent loan fee usually paid by full-fee-paying university students. It waives that fee for six months from April.

The bill also gives the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who due to an administrative error in the student identification system have exceeded their HELP loan limit. The secretary will be able to allow these students to repay the excess amount through the tax system. In light of the fact that an error has been made, this is a sensible way of dealing with that error. Labor has sought and received from the minister a commitment that each of the 475 students who fall into this category who've been affected by this overpayment anomaly will be contacted directly by the department and advised of the changes, how those changes will affect them and any relief or redress that is available to those students.

The bill also extends the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students, requiring that all students commencing from January 2021 and all students from January 2023 have a unique identifier in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. We have long supported the expansion of the Unique Student Identifier across higher education. We know that this should reduce the likelihood of future overpayment anomalies.

And of course Labor welcomes any relief a six-month loan waiver will provide to full-fee-paying undergraduate students, even if this relief only applies to a small group of students—it's better than nothing. Even if the relief is meagre and piecemeal of course we won't oppose it. It does amaze me, though, that in the context of this generational crisis facing our higher education sector that this is what the government is presenting to the parliament: a bill with the minimum possible assistance to students mixed in with technical changes and administrative clean-ups. It's a bill that doesn't even begin to acknowledge the enormous financial challenges facing our university sector, nor do anything—take any steps—towards addressing them.

It's not like the government is unaware of these problems. Universities Australia has been saying for many weeks now that 21,000 jobs are at risk in our higher education sector. For months Labor has been urging those opposite to support jobs in higher education, to keep the universities afloat and to keep Australians working. We're open to what that assistance might look like, but we are very clear that assistance is necessary. Sadly for those who are working or studying at university, and for every Australian who benefits from our universities—from their teaching and their research—the government has chosen to ignore these problems. It's chosen to let our fourth-biggest export earner fend for itself. In fact, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to exclude universities from the assistance available to other businesses and other sectors during the COVID-19 crisis.

The government has repeatedly changed the rules to make sure that universities are not eligible for any assistance and to make sure that university staff, uniquely, are blocked from accessing wage subsidies. And we've seen those terrible forecasts playing out now. What we see before us is a slow-burning catastrophe, with universities shedding jobs, closing campuses and shutting courses. Some of the worst consequences of course are being felt in regional Australia. We've already learned that hundreds of jobs are going in Geelong and Warrnambool. Deakin is losing 400 jobs—so far. Central Queensland University has announced 280 job losses and three campus closures: Sunshine Coast, Yeppoon and Biloela, and jobs—hundreds of jobs—are at risk in Rockhampton as well.

Across Melbourne and Bendigo, La Trobe University is shedding jobs and, unfortunately, this is just the beginning of what will be a rolling crisis in coming months. The impact of these losses in regional communities is devastating. If we're talking about a small town or even a large regional centre, if we take out a few dozen jobs from, say, Rockhampton, people will feel that. They'll feel it right across that local community and that local economy.

Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia and help to underpin the local economy in countless towns. Across the board, we're looking at tens of thousands of livelihoods being destroyed. We're talking about academics, tutors, administrative staff, librarians, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners, security guards and many, many others. All of them have bills to pay and families to support. It is incomprehensible that the government has gone out of its way to exclude these workers, and it has continued to change the rules to make sure that these workers will not be covered by JobKeeper.

It is beyond me why the Prime Minister is so determined to abandon these workers. At this point it's hard to view this inaction as anything other than a deliberate attack on Australia's higher education system and at a time when we are relying on our brilliant university researchers to help us cope with the COVID-19 health crisis. We're relying on these researchers to help us find a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, yet the same people we're relying on can't rely on their Prime Minister to help them keep a job. The Prime Minister's $60 billion stuff-up with JobKeeper means that there is absolutely no excuse not to support people in the higher education system. University jobs can be saved, but only if the government comes to the table, sits down with universities and treats university staff with the same respect with which it would treat people in other sectors. If I were in government right now, I wouldn't want to look back in coming months and think about the thousands of jobs I could have saved but chose not to.

This bill also has some measures that relate to our vocational education and training sector. Again, these are generally sensible changes, but they really only work around the margins of the system. And of course our vocational education system is absolutely critical to our economic success as a nation. Vocational education is more critical now than ever, as we enter the first recession in three decades. Minor adjustments, as we find in this bill, are just not going to achieve what we need in the sector, and there certainly needs to be a much more genuine commitment to proper resourcing for vocational education. You cannot rip money out of vocational education year after year and expect vocational education to improve in the face of that. You can't systematically underfund vocational education and then ask vocational educators to meet the complex and evolving skills challenge that a sophisticated economy like Australia's has.

But this is exactly what this government has been doing. It has spent seven years cutting TAFE and training budgets while also, on top of the cuts, underspending the money that has been allocated for vocational education. Since coming to office in 2013, those opposite have cut $3 billion from TAFE and training. And, as we learned earlier this year, on top of that $3 billion that was cut, almost $1 billion that had been set aside for vocational education and training has not been spent—$3 billion cut and $1 billion underspent. You cannot remove that sort of funding from a sector and expect it to thrive. You can't remove that sort of funding and not expect standards to fall.

This was happening already, before COVID-19 made this crisis even worse. In fact, according to a survey by the Australian Industry Group, three-quarters of Australian businesses were already struggling to find the skilled workers they needed to expand and grow. That was three-quarters of businesses that wanted to employ Australians but could not find the qualified workers they needed in order to expand their operations. What a tragedy that is: before COVID-19 we had almost two million people unemployed or underemployed, yet three-quarters of businesses said they couldn't find the skilled staff they needed in order to expand.

We're in a recession now, and what was a serious problem before has become a crisis. Nowhere is this more serious than in the collapse of apprenticeship numbers. Even before COVID-19, Australia had lost 140,000 apprenticeships and traineeships since those opposite came to government. And, according to new modelling from the National Australian Apprenticeships Association, we're set to lose another 100,000 by December. We are talking about losing 2,000 apprentices and trainees every week for the rest of this year. That is 2,000 Australians, most of them young Australians, who will not get the opportunity of getting the skills they need to have a secure, decent job that can put a roof over their head, that can support a family in years to come. But it's also 2,000 skilled workers that we are taking out of our economy as it begins to recover, as we hope it will in the not-too-distant future. We cannot afford the loss of these skilled workers if we want to repair our economy.

If the Prime Minister does nothing about this crisis and lets the training pipeline collapse without support, we could lose a generation of apprentices and trainees. It's already beginning to happen. Between January and April this year we saw a 73 per cent decline in apprentice job ads. We know from past recessions that a five per cent increase in unemployment results in a 30 per cent decrease in apprenticeship commencements. That would be a disaster for young Australians and it would reverberate through our economy for decades to come. It's all very well to talk about renovations and construction projects, but you actually need the tradies and the apprentices to build them.

So what is the Prime Minister's response to this crisis? Well, we heard it at the National Press Club last month and, sadly, it's just another exercise in marketing and spin. The Prime Minister's so-called JobMaker scheme involves no new funding, no time line and no new detail at all. In fact, the speech involved pretty much no new substance at all. Like other recent policies from the Prime Minister, it is a shallow response to a serious problem. It is a marketing-led recovery that he is relying on. It is certainly not enough to address the crisis in apprenticeship numbers or to revive our TAFE system.

We on this side are happy to support sensible legislative change in this area, but we need to go much, much further than the tweaks that this legislation proposes. We need to offer our universities and our TAFE and vocational education systems much more than is proposed in these bills because this country is confronting its most serious economic crisis in a generation and education will be a critical feature of repairing our economy. We are, as all of us know, experiencing the greatest economic transformation of our lifetime. We need a well-resourced training system, offering meaningful skills and development to meet this future head-on. Unfortunately, after seven years of this government, the coalition seems very little interested in building the system that will help us respond to this crisis. We won't oppose these changes but, with the scale of our challenges, we need much, much more.

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 post-secondary education system by:

(1) cutting billions from universities, slashing research funding and locking students out of tertiary education;

(2) cutting billions from TAFEs and training, presiding over a dramatic decline in students undertaking vocational education; and

(3) failing to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system".

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Technology and the Future of Work) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

(Quorum formed)

11:22 am

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, 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 Sydney 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 words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 and to support the amendments moved by the member for Sydney. Education exports are an integral pillar of our economy, worth over $37 billion to the Australian economy in 2018-19. Australian exports dependent on international travel, such as tourism and education, have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis due to the global recession and the ongoing travel restrictions aimed at flattening the COVID curve. International education in particular bore the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak, with the primary market of China cut off from Australia universities since 1 February, but also important markets like India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and all through our region.

International education, including universities, vocational education and English language schools are Australia's largest services export industry and fourth-largest export sector overall. The Australian Bureau of Statistics trade in goods and services figures for April this year show the catastrophic impact COVID-19 has had on Australia's education exports. Tourism related service credits, including the education exports, fell $730 million, or 18 per cent, in a month. If you look at the data, you can see that the international education sector has fallen off a cliff.

The university sector alone is anticipating revenue losses of between $10 billion and $19 billion from 2020 to 2023. Universities Australia has estimated that there will be around 21,000 jobs lost over the next six months. This will continue into 2021 if international students are not able to return at this point. Yet the government refuses to extend JobKeeper to the tertiary education sector. This government went out of its way to exclude universities from the JobKeeper package. Of course, not all universities were excluded. Some private universities got some assistance. Torrens University, Bond University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Divinity were all granted an exemption and are able to access the JobKeeper program, but there was nothing for Australia's public universities, nothing for struggling universities in regional Australia or universities based in regional centres such as the University of New England, Central Queensland University, Southern Cross University and other unis such as La Trobe and Charles Sturt University with campuses all throughout the regions. There is nothing for those universities. In fact, there is nothing in the COVID response of this government for those public institutions which educate Australians as well as provide the means for our largest services export industry. There was some assistance, a very minor amount—$100 million—in this context of regulatory relief to be shared between the universities and the vocational education sector, but that, of course, will go nowhere to cover the shortfall being experienced by universities in this pandemic. All the government has done in substance to help is to simply confirm existing pre-COVID funding arrangements. It's like the Clayton's COVID response: the higher education package you want to announce when you don't really want to help the Australian university sector at all. And it's going to cost jobs. It's already costing jobs. The member for Sydney already mentioned this morning that 14,000 jobs in regional areas are going because of the inability of this government to get over its ideological bent against Australian universities.

We hear in this place, and outside of this place, constant refrains for increased local manufacturing capacity and Australian-made goods. The community at large want more things made in this country, as do I, as do people in this chamber. Of course, Labor will always continue to advocate for increased local manufacturing capacity that complements and builds upon our comparative advantages—in particular, high-end manufacturing through investment in research and development—instead of specific industry subsidies. However, any such R&D will depend on the strong higher education sector that this government is determined to see crash. University research, as many know, is heavily subsidised by international student revenue and will face significant cuts without government intervention. This government, as I've said and as we all know, has refused to intervene.

On top of this, the government's ham-fisted approach to our trading relationship with China has placed further pressure on our higher education export sector into the future. Letting rogue backbenchers speak without any measure and lead the debate in this place on China shows a shocking abrogation of their responsibility to lead by the Prime Minister and the foreign affairs minister.

The Prime Minister also took time out to tell international students to go home. This is going to have lasting reputational damage for Australian institutions. We had, at our feet, a chance to place higher education in Australia—and that export industry—as being the safest place in the world in the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But international students around the world know that this Australian government will not hesitate to abandon them in a crisis. Such an erosion of trust is unforgivable. The Victorian and New South Wales governments have stepped up to help international students, but the lack of support here in Australia offered by our federal government to international students is sorely lacking compared to what national governments in Canada and the UK have undertaken to do. They are our competitors in a very competitive international education market.

These countries helped these income-generating international students, but this Australian government left international students homeless and hungry. It's a disgrace—and I don't like to use this word very much—and it's 'un-Australian' as well for international students who are stuck here. There are no planes; they can't simply go home. The nations they come from have restrictions as well; it's not as simple as just telling people to go home or to rack off, but that's what this government has done to the people who provide our largest services export industry with billions of dollars into our national economy.

Despite what the Chinese ministry might say, Australia is a safe place for international students, and we hope that international students come back. But, quite frankly, we can't count on that when, in a crisis, this mob simply tells international students to go home when there are no means to do that. I would call upon the government to immediately act to repair the damage they've done to our relationship with the international students and those communities overseas which want to send their children to study here in due course, when we've recovered from the pandemic and it's safe to do so. But a lot of work will need to be done on recovering our international reputation in this area.

I've spoken a bit in the last few months about the need for diversification in our export markets. Quite frankly, a lot of people have spoken about that. This is important, in particular, in international education. Earlier this month, of course, we saw the spectacle of the Prime Minister finally discovering India. Just at the point when our government would want to think about taking our relationship with India far more seriously than cricket, curries and Commonwealth, all we got was the Prime Minister making 'Scomosas' to patronise the Indian community with. Australia's 700,000-strong Indian-Australian diaspora must have been rolling their eyes in embarrassment; likewise the business community, with its strong Indian links.

The real shame of this is that the government was presented with a blueprint for serious economic engagement with India two years ago. Two years ago—that's when the distinguished former head of DFAT, Peter Varghese, presented his report, An India economic strategy to 2035, to the government. This report has since then been gathering dust, and only a handful of the 90 recommendations have been acted upon. Peter Varghese found that no single market over the coming decades offered more opportunities for Australia than India, and he stressed that a stronger productive Australia-India relationship would have education as the flagship of that bilateral relationship. It is a massive economy and will only become bigger in coming decades. We know that the demand is already there, that Indian parents are eager to send their children overseas for a quality education and that many are looking to Australia.

I have a few quotes here from the Varghese report. I don't think the government has read it, so I'm happy to read some of the recommendations into Hansard. As Peter Varghese has said:

            And what have we seen? Very little.

            And while I'm on the subject of international education and diversifying our markets, I want to make a bit of reflection on our relationship with our nearest neighbour, if you're from Western Australia: Indonesia. This week, I wrote to the Minister for Education and the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment to express my grave concern that the Australian Consortium for 'In-Country' Indonesian Studies, known as ACICIS, may soon be forced to close unless it receives urgent financial assistance. In my former role at the University of Western Australia and as chief operating officer of the Perth USAsia Centre, I saw firsthand the immensely valuable work of ACICIS in providing an accessible pathway for Australian students to study in Indonesia. ACICIS is also the backbone of the New Colombo Plan, as it sends Australian students to Indonesia.

            Former foreign minister of this country the Hon. Julie Bishop would be absolutely appalled that the government is failing to help with the operating costs of ACICIS. ACICIS gets funding from the federal government, but that funding cannot be used for operating costs. It can only be used to facilitate the exchange of students, and, of course, that money does not became available at this time, because no-one is able to travel. So, in the meantime, this excellent organisation, which is a consortium of more than 30 Australian universities and which has run on a shoestring for 25 years, continues to run on a shoestring, yet this government will not help it make ends meet in this time of crisis.

            More than 3½ thousand students have studied in Indonesia through the consortium since 1995. ACICIS alumni now hold significant positions in government, the academy and business. It would be astounding and it would be a scandal if this government failed to support this organisation just weeks before the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is set to come into force. It will do our relationship with Indonesia a terrible disservice to not support this important organisation in its time of need.

            I have, of course, asked the Minister for Education to ensure that ACICIS receives the financial supports it needs. I have not yet received a response. I hope I will, and I hope ACICIS will receive a response to the request it has made for support from this government. You can hardly believe we could get to this position in a country where a government has expended enormous effort on its relationship with Indonesia—not before time, I might add. It was a Labor government that started the negotiations and the preparations for the IA-CEPA. We had some concerns, but we fully supported that agreement going through this parliament and being ratified as part of that important diversification of our markets.

            We know the value of student exchange. The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow. Australian students going to Indonesia today will have a greater understanding of Indonesian culture, its education systems and its governmental systems. Likewise, we want Indonesian students to come to Australia, when they can, to learn more about us. This is a vibrant democracy. It's a massive democracy to our north. It will be one of the four largest economies in the world by 2050, alongside India, yet this government won't put forward some few hundred thousand dollars to help an organisation such as ACICIS, which does tremendous work and has operated for 25 years. I call on this government to support ACICIS in its time of need for the advancement of Australian international education and our relationship with this important trading partner.

            (Quorum formed )

            11:40 am

            Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

            I rise today to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020, with a particular focus on schedule 4, which forms part of the Higher Education Relief Package this government has introduced with the intent of supporting universities and other higher education providers throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

            Even before the pandemic I was a keen advocate—I remain a keen advocate—for reforms in the higher education and VET sectors to ensure all Australians, and in particular rural and regional Australians, have affordable access to further study and skill development opportunities. For years, higher education and VET students who have accessed FEE-HELP or VET student loans to defer their tuition fees have been subjected to a loan fee of 25 per cent or 20 per cent respectively. This is a straight-up student loan tax that is over and above the amount students borrow for their course and applies disproportionately to students for no discernible policy reason. Schedule 4 of this bill, which temporarily removes this FEE-HELP loan fee, is a step towards making higher education more affordable. And, frankly, it's a step which could have been taken before the pandemic. I also note the similar temporary relief the government will provide to those taking out VET student loans to undertake a diploma or higher qualification with independent RTOs and public TAFE colleges.

            Under these measures, prospective VET and VSL students who may be considering commencing or returning to study may in fact be incentivised to study in semester 2 this year. This is good. These types of incentives are needed in rural and regional Australia, even outside of the pandemic. I commend the government for doing this and I encourage them to continue to do this. People living in rural and regional Australia have much lower educational outcomes than our city cousins. We're less likely to complete year 12, less likely to gain a qualification at certificate IV level or above, and less likely to apply for or accept a university offer. This is not because students from rural and regional Australia are less able; it's because students from rural and regional Australia face so many more barriers.

            The government's own Napthine review found that high school completion rates are 80 per cent in metropolitan areas and 65 per cent in rural areas. It found that people that grow up in regional Australia are 40 per cent less likely to get at least a certificate IV and 50 per cent less likely than their peers to gain a bachelor degree or above. In my electorate of Indi alone, I know that our rate is half the state average for completing bachelor degrees or higher. Even VET enrolments are increasing faster in metropolitan areas than in regional areas, and it's this lack of training opportunities that is holding us back. The unemployment rate for those with a certificate III or above is 3.9 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for those without one. And many of our young students are forced to move to metropolitan areas to study and subsequently face higher costs for relocation, but so often lack support to do so. Many students simply never reply because they know their family can't afford to send them.

            We have excellent regional universities that, with the right investment and development, could really transform our regions, but they too need support. We also know that there's insufficient career advice guiding students towards courses that could make sense for them. Again, this was shown in the Napthine review, the government's own review. This affects groups with extra disadvantage especially hard, like low SES students and students with disabilities, and pushes study and skill development opportunities further and further out of their reach.

            This government has also fundamentally misunderstood how regional universities structure their operations and finances when compared to metropolitan universities, particularly the Group of Eight. The decision to exclude universities from the JobKeeper package left regional universities like those in my electorate, La Trobe and Charles Sturt, reeling. La Trobe is facing a revenue slump of $400 million to $520 million by the end of 2022. Regional universities and the entire university sector are facing more than 21,000 jobs lost, even under these measures, which is a drop in the ocean of what's actually needed and has always been needed.

            I can't emphasise enough the vulnerability of the regional universities in this time of pandemic. One wonders if the government would have been better placed to understand the unique position, needs and ambitions of regional universities and skills development opportunities if it had acted on the recommendations of the Regions at the ready report to build a white paper that includes a clear national regional higher education strategy. Yet, this government has stalled on the release of the expert panel review of that report and its recommendations for well over a year now. We could have been halfway along the course.

            It was only last week that I stood in this place and urged the government to support an amendment that would ensure regional Australia was included in its National Skills Commission, based on specific recommendations of the Joyce review. Including regional Australia explicitly in that bill would mean the government would have clear data and analysis on workforce development needs and opportunities in the regions. It's only with that data and the accompanying analysis that it can know exactly how regional universities and vocational education providers operate. It would make sure that future emergency measures, like those contained in this bill, understood regional Australia. But, instead, sadly, the government voted that amendment down.

            So, while welcome, the measures in this bill are piecemeal and too little too late. This relief was always needed in rural and regional Australia, not just in the middle of a pandemic. The irony is that this government has been told time and time again what it could be doing for rural and regional Australian education. I really encourage the government to move swiftly on the key recommendations of its own report, the Napthine review, which are no more urgent than now. That report urged the government to uncap places at regional universities and develop new, innovative VET offerings focussed on practical learning and technical skills. In his second reading speech, the member for Wannon said:

            The bill gives effect to the government's commitment to provide certainty to the higher education sector, so the sector can remain agile while meeting the needs of industry and contributing to the economy.

            With respect, this measure, which will only last for one semester, does not exactly fortify our universities and provide a reliable level of certainty. Even the Higher Education Relief Package at large, which includes some regulatory relief for education providers, cost reductions, short online courses and a temporary funding guarantee under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, is not enough. Universities Australia have warned that Australian universities now face a projected revenue decline of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.

            The demand for thriving regional universities has never been greater. The Universities Admissions Centre in New South Wales have stated that 14,669 students have applied to start university in 2021, compared with 7,824 students at this time last year. That's a phenomenal jump of 88 per cent. The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre and the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre are also reporting rising demand, with some applicants wanting to start their courses as soon as August this year.

            I will not stand in the way of this bill, but I want to remind the government that it must do more than suspend a disproportionately applied student tax that has no discernible policy rationale for six months. Reform in this sector should not be about relief; it should be about ambition, transformation, opportunity and optimism. I will continue to advocate in this place for this kind of future for higher education and for vocational skills and training. I shall do so, always and especially, for rural and regional Australia, and I call on the government to do the same.

            (Quorum formed)

            11:52 am

            Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. But first I want to raise this: I don't believe this bill does much at all in the way of reform, as previous speakers have pointed out. It makes a few technical amendments, and there are a few things such as extending the unique student identifier and some schedules around the repayments of debts, but I echo the sentiments expressed by the member for Sydney. I agree with her that I am completely bewildered that, at a time when the university sector is facing an absolute crisis that could potentially see the closure of Australian universities and a diminishing of Australia's standing as a destination for world-class tertiary higher education—one of our largest exports—this is what the government has come up with, in terms of reform of the university sector. It is absolutely beguiling that this is what the government has put forward.

            I also point out the fact that none—not a single one—of the members from the government side has taken the opportunity to stand here today and talk about higher education and universities, despite the fact they have some very, very well-respected people in their caucus—for example, the member for Curtin—who have worked at universities, and despite the fact that many senior Liberal politicians have benefited from the Australian university system and have multiple degrees. I didn't know, for example, that the Treasurer has four university degrees. Collectively, I think they have more degrees than a thermometer—that's a good joke, isn't it? There you go: ba-boom!

            Quite seriously, I find it quite extraordinary that nobody from the government side is speaking on this bill, either to defend it or to stand up for universities and the valued place that they have in our country. But, at the same time, I'm not really surprised, because since the election of this government in 2013 universities and university students have been under constant attack with cuts, attempts at fee deregulation, policy chaos and uncertainty.

            The 2017 MYEFO decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities and to recap undergraduate places, and their changes to the Higher Education Loan Program were both reckless and unfair. Some 200,000 students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place over the decade because of this government's cuts and capping of places. Not only will this devastate our economy and our society, but I want the House to think for a minute about the missed opportunity here for students who miss out on a place at university. And it's not going to be the students who go to wealthy schools, live in wealthy areas and have wealthy parents that are going to miss out; it's going to be the disadvantaged students—students in rural and regional areas; students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; and women, who, like me, sought to return to work and upgrade their qualifications by going back to university. They're the ones that are going to miss out on places.

            This government has buckled down on its contempt, its cuts and its strangulation of universities by failing to extend JobKeeper to universities at this time. I stand here as somebody who comes from the university sector, and it has been devastating for me to see my colleagues at the various universities that I've worked at facing the prospect of losing their jobs and also the closure of university campuses, the cutting back of the course offerings that universities are able to provide to students and the absolute uncertainty and insecurity which university staff face.

            What does it mean, that the government has resisted, time and time again, our calls to extend JobKeeper to universities? I want to be very clear here: it's not just the professors and the academics who are going to suffer and lose their jobs. In fact, if you are fortunate enough, like I was, to be a research professor, it's really your own research revenue that guarantees your tenure at a university. However, if you are—like many of my colleagues—employed on a casual basis or on a rolling one-year contract to deliver lectures and tutorials for different units at university, you face unemployment. But it is not just those people. It's the cleaners, it's the admin staff, it's the ground staff and it's the students. Like I said, it's the most disadvantaged students who are going to be cut first because these cuts and the failure of this government to boost and support the university sector through these unprecedented times means that those smaller universities are the ones that are going to go first: the universities that cater to the most disadvantaged domestic students. And I'm not talking here about universities that cater predominantly to international students because they're forced to take on that business model because of progressive cuts by this government. I'm talking about those smaller universities that serve communities and that serve regions. They also serve as a place of belonging for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and who, without those universities, would not have had the opportunity to go to university at all.

            I stand here as a product of one of those smaller universities. I am a product of Edith Cowan University. And the only reason that I was able to go back to university, to build myself up and make a life for myself and my children, is because I had the opportunity to get a university degree through Edith Cowan University. I was able to go back as a mature age student, upgrade my qualifications and, then, not stop there but continue to upgrade my qualifications again and again. But I was given that opportunity through one of the smaller universities—the kinds of universities that will suffer exponentially under this government's cuts and their continued unwillingness to support one of the sectors that we should be incredibly proud of, and that we are incredibly proud of. Australia's higher education system is world-class. But that's at risk.

            But this coalition's antagonism towards universities and towards research is nothing new. We had the unprecedented intervention by the then Minister for Education in 2018 where he vetoed 11 grants that had been recommended by the Australian Research Council, predominantly for research in arts and the humanities—in history, music and art history. I've been a recipient of three Australian Research Council grants, a Discovery grant and an Early Career Researcher grant, and, just before I was distracted by a parliamentary career, I got another ARC Discovery grant. I know what it takes to get one of those grants. I know what you have to do to get one of those grants. I know how long it takes to write a grant proposal. I know the kind of research backing and publication backing that you need to have in order to be successful in getting one of those grants. And I can tell you, Acting Deputy Speaker Andrews, it is no mean feat. It is quite celebrated at universities when one of their researchers gets an ARC grant, because they are difficult to get. The process, the criteria and the ways in which grant applications are assessed are by a panel of experts. It is a panel of peers who actually understand what the research is about and who know how to assess a grant application. And yet along comes the Minister for Education and, with the sweep of a pen, he vetoes proposals that were deemed to be quality research proposals by a panel of experts in the subject area of the research. Now, if the Minister for Education came to me and said that he was an expert in 19th century Russian literature, and that he had therefore deemed that a particular research proposal should be rejected: fair enough. But I doubt that he's an expert in those areas. This government's contempt for research, their antagonism towards the university sector and their abject failure to support one of Australia's greatest exports in education put at risk our world reputation in this space. In doing that, it risks our engagement with the world.

            Education is one of the ways in which we engage with our region and with our world, through partnerships between universities and dual PhDs where a student can start a PhD at one university in, say, Toulouse and then finish it here in Australia. We're not just talking about students from China who come here for a business degree. We're talking about research. We're talking about collaboration. We're talking about soft power. We're talking about Australia's standing in the world and in our region. Education is one of the primary avenues for expanding that engagement and for increasing our soft power.

            Parts of this bill refer to 'reform'. I would say there's no reform in this bill. This government likes to talk a lot about reform, but this bill just tinkers around the edges. It's a few technical changes here and there.

            Mr Dick interjecting

            Yes, absolutely, as the member for Oxley says, it is 'window-dressing', much like a lot of the bills that I've stood up to speak about over the past two weeks. Tinkering around the edges, a few minor amendments here and there and—bang!—it's called reform. What kind of sorcery is this? It's not reform. It's not reform at all. If the government were serious about reform, they would devote investment into the university sector. They would talk about investing in our higher education, investing in the future of Australians, investing in the aspirations of young Australians in rural and regional areas—young Australians in areas in Cowan like Wanneroo, which has one of the lowest year 12 finishing rates—and investing in the people of Australia and the future of Australia in our region and in the world by investing in the university sector. This bill just doesn't cut it.

            (Quorum formed)

            12:09 pm

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

            I'm delighted to see that there are members of the government wanting to tune in to what I'm going to say about their cuts to TAFEs and universities. I only wish some of them would have the guts to actually stand up and speak on the legislation they have put before the House. But as they slink away, back to their offices, the lazy Liberals will once again not want to defend their appalling record with university funding and higher education allocations and their lack of commitment to vocational education and training.

            I take every opportunity in this House to speak about the future of higher education funding, because I know, representing a growth corridor and some of the fastest-growing suburbs in Australia, in the south-west of Brisbane and Ipswich, how vital it is that our national parliament focuses on higher education expenditure. If we are to remain competitive, if we are to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to higher education, then this government needs to start listening to the alarm bells that are being rung across the sector and across the community.

            The Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 makes provision for fee-paying university students to have a 25 per cent loans fee waiver for six months, obviously due to the COVID crisis. As the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, has indicated, Labor welcomes the small amount of fee relief that the bill provides for that small proportion of full-fee-paying undergraduate students—that six-month waiver of loan fees. So, there's no question that Labor will be supporting this bill. But in the larger scheme of things, this bill makes very minor adjustments to a sector that requires a comprehensive, genuine and enduring reform package.

            That's why today I am strongly supporting the second reading amendment, which I would ask all members of the House to consider and to indeed vote for. If those opposite, who claim to support the university sector, really believed the words they uttered they would ensure that due recognition be given to the cutting of billions of dollars from universities, as is indicated in the second reading amendment; the slashing of research funding; and, certainly in examples from my own community, students being locked out of tertiary education. We've clearly seen, due to the cutting of billions from TAFEs and training, a dramatic decline in the number of students undertaking vocational education. And I think the most important part of the second reading amendment is item (3), which is:

            failing to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system.

            The bill also gives the secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine that certain students, due to having more than one Commonwealth higher education support student number, have exceeded the HELP loans limit and to allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. The bill also extends the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students by requiring students commencing from 1 January 2021 and all students commencing from 1 January 2023 to have a USI in order to be eligible for the Commonwealth assistance. Finally, the bill includes a range of measures that are technical in nature.

            But what the bill doesn't do is identify some of the systemic problems that we have identified and that the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, has highlighted today. The coalition government's diminishing of the quality of Australia's world-class higher and vocational education system should be condemned. As I've said, they've cut billions from universities by recapping undergraduate places and have slashed research funding. Since the coalition government came to power some seven years ago they've also cut TAFE and training budgets.

            I know that in my home state of Queensland this has had some dire consequences, coupled with the fact that, unfortunately, between the years of 2012 and 2015, in the failed coalition government of the Newman experiment, which was a disaster for vocational education in Queensland, we saw everything from the potential shutting down of campuses to a number of TAFEs across the state being gutted by cuts in funding. But one of the saddest parts of that era, under the conservative government in Queensland, and which we're still rebuilding some five years later, was the frontline workers who were dismissed.

            The Newman government came to power promising that no worker's job would be under a cloud or a threat, and yet one of the first actions they undertook was to sack TAFE teachers. I remember a number of local residents in my own community at the time, when I was serving as a Brisbane City counsellor, coming to me and saying: 'We cannot believe we've lost our jobs. All we want to do is help—particularly, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and people from diverse backgrounds—to get into TAFE and secure long-term employment.' Thankfully, a number of those state measures have been reversed, and I pay credit to the Palaszczuk government, and particularly to the Minister for Skills and Training Development, the Hon. Shannon Fentiman. She has made it her mission, as the minister for TAFE, to really inject the lifeblood back into our TAFE sector in Queensland. In my own electorate, just down the road from where I live, we have some fantastic TAFE facilities located in Inala. I've often visited those facilities and have remarked on the level of commitment by the educators there, and also their enthusiasm and energy, that students—many from non-English-speaking backgrounds—are benefiting from in our world-class TAFE system in Queensland.

            But it shouldn't just be left to one government to deliver the heavy workload. It should be a national approach from a Commonwealth government which really invests in TAFE and vocational education and training. One of the saddest parts of what I want to put on record today is the number of apprentices in the Oxley electorate, which has collapsed since the government took power. There are 1,707 fewer apprentices in the Oxley electorate now as a result of this government's lack of investment in higher education and vocational education and training. That's a 47 per cent drop—that's a huge drop! As the member for Oxley I should be here celebrating and acknowledging an increase, and I think that any fair-minded person in this chamber would want to see the number of apprentices increasing. Do you know what? I'd just be happy if it stayed the same, if we just kept up with growth. But instead we've seen a fall of 1,707 apprentices.

            In my earlier remarks, I said that I represent fast-growing suburbs, and it is fantastic to see infrastructure—led primarily by the state government—out through the Springfield and Springfield Lakes corridor under the leadership of the Springfield City Group, who are doing a fantastic job in providing some of that infrastructure. But they can't do it alone; they have to have a partnership with a Commonwealth government that's really interested in investing in training and infrastructure. I know, from visiting a whole range of businesses in that corridor—everything from manufacturing, food processing and new emerging microbusinesses all throughout the Wacol, Richlands and Carole Park industrial estates—how hard those businesses are working, particularly under difficult circumstances with COVID-19. But when I've met with them—and I was delighted to have the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, accompany me to a local business just before the COVID-19 crisis really kicked in—I've heard firsthand about what those businesses need. There's everything, including giving them their infrastructure needs to get their product around the south-east. The one thing that they kept telling us over and over—and continue to keep lobbying me on—is that they need support for trainees and apprentices.

            A couple of weeks ago we heard the Prime Minister reveal at his Press Club speech that he had woken from his slumber and realised that we had a skills crisis in this country. You would think that, after seven years, this government would not take it lightly, but there we have it. We heard that this was a priority for the government. I don't know why it took them seven years to work that out.

            We on this side of the chamber understand and have always understood that TAFE provides a critical role to the public by providing value through skills, apprenticeships and hard work, particularly through the passionate work of our hardworking TAFE teachers. Unless this government takes this seriously, we could potentially lose a generation of traineeships and employees. So my plea to the government today is this: start taking the sector of vocational education and training more seriously in this country. We know that we are desperate for more apprentices. We know that the businesses—and I speak from a lot of experience of engagement with businesses and the chambers of commerce in my area—are crying out for leadership in this area.

            But this bill also, in the second reading amendment, describes the lack of funding for the university sector. I'm really pleased that I have a lot to do with the University of Southern Queensland in the Springfield area, and I pay tribute to the vice-chancellor there, Geraldine Mackenzie, who is an outstanding leader that I know a number of members on both sides of the House respect. She and the university have a vision that that campus, alongside the Ipswich and Toowoomba campuses, will become world leaders. They are doing fantastic work in the area of aerospace and a whole range of telecommunications and communications on that campus, but they are desperate for this government to ensure that more support is given to our university sector. This is even before we get into the issue of support for students who call our country home while they do their studies.

            I spoke in the House twice last week about the appalling way the Morrison government has treated foreign students, particularly our international students, that are really struggling under COVID. I've met with church groups—in particular, the Riverlife Baptist Church located at Seventeen Mile Rocks in my electorate—who are filling the gap that the government should be filling. A number of these students who are either studying at university or are doing further education have just been completely cut off. They're unable to leave Australia and return home due to international restrictions or they've yet to complete their studies. They're, of course, unable to have any support through JobKeeper or jobseeker. The industries where they were working part time have collapsed and are not back on their feet, so they've been literally left in limbo. It's not because the government could do something about it; they have chosen, deliberately, not to do something about it. I stand here today to condemn the government for its lack of support for international students at our campuses across the community. It is not good enough. We as a nation have to remember that many are our neighbours that need our friendship and support.

            The university sector is struggling thanks to this government who won't allow the universities to access JobKeeper. They are struggling, and we know a lot more has to happen. Today's bill is a very small step, but I'm here to tell the government that I will continue to hold them to account to make sure that our university and higher education system get a fair go under this government.

            (Quorum formed.)

            12:27 pm

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

            Thank you to the government for coming in for my speech—it's very nice of them. I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. I'll say up-front that Labor will not oppose this bill. This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act, HESA. The funding of higher education in Australia is predominantly provided through that piece of legislation.

            The measures this bill implements include measures which give the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who have exceeded the HELP loan limit. It will allow those students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. The current loan limits for HELP debts are $106,319 for most students and $152,700 for students studying eligible medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and aviation courses. The department has identified 475 students who have exceeded the loan limits. The total of excess debt is $5.9 million. This legislation is necessary so that students are not directly pursued for their debt by education providers outside the current taxation system.

            It is only fair that students who have exceeded their student loan limit through an administrative glitch are given an opportunity to repay that debt over time, rather than be pursued for a lump sum that they cannot possibly pay unless they win Gold Lotto. How did the students exceed their loan limits? Students with multiple student identifiers have been able to exceed the loan limits without realising they were racking up enormous debts beyond the limit of the HELP system. To prevent this happening into the future, this bill gives effect to the government's 2019-20 budget measure to extend the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students. All students commencing from 1 January 2021, next year, and all students from 1 January 2023 will have a USI, a Unique Student Identifier, to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under HESA. Labor has consistently supported the expansion of the USI across higher education. It is time. This should reduce the occurrence of students exceeding their loan limits.

            This bill also gives students an exemption from the requirement to pay the 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September 2020. This will help students finding it tough financially through the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be a welcome relief to students whose income from casual work has all but ceased during the pandemic. The department has advised that up to 50,000 higher education students and 20,000 VSL students might benefit from this measure, so it is not insignificant.

            This bill also makes a technical correction to ensure that all students enrolled in aviation courses that enable graduates to obtain commercial flying qualifications, whether through VET or higher education, will be able to access the higher HELP loan limit. And hopefully they are doing that through a reputable organisation, such as those connected with Archerfield Airport in my electorate.

            In addition, this bill changes the name of the University of Western Sydney to Western Sydney University, making it consistent with state legislation and the university branding.

            As I said previously, Labor supports this bill. But the measures in this bill make only minor adjustments to the sector, a sector that right now actually needs a comprehensive, genuine and enduring reform package and support package. Sadly, the quality of education in Australia has diminished under the Liberal and National parties over the last seven years. What we have seen is billions cut from universities by the re-capping of undergraduate places. We've seen research funding slashed. Funding to TAFE and training has also been cut significantly, some would say to the bone in certain areas but particularly in some rural areas.

            We now have a national shortage of tradies, apprentices and trainees. We see a Prime Minister running around looking for tradies to get into shot with to try and counterbalance the argument that flows from the cuts they've put into universities, TAFE and training. So we see, sadly, that the Liberal and Nationals parties do not value education. If they did they would deliver a genuine reform package that overhauls the higher education sector, a package that properly funds both vocational training providers and universities to deliver the education and services that their students need, reflecting what this nation needs.

            The 2017 MYEFO decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities re-capped undergraduate places. Because of that MYEFO decision 200,000 students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place, particularly significant for the rural parts of Australia—200,000 students! This will devastate our economy and our society. If the Liberals had their way students would already be paying $100,000 for a university agree. They have forced students to pay off their HELP debts earlier, when they earn as little as $46,000—just $9,000 more than the minimum wage.

            Labor understands the importance of higher education and education generally. Labor understands that it is the great transformational policy, that great opportunity in life, for our best and brightest to be of service to this nation. That's why when Labor was in government we uncapped university places. I know that greater participation in higher education not only is good for the student but is good for the Australian economy and good for the nation generally.

            Students who were already missing out on university places before this pandemic now have tougher circumstances lined up against them. We see in the aftermath of the pandemic that there is even greater demand for places. This government is doing nothing—nothing—to support these students. They are denying them a place at a university at a time when the unemployment queues are actually getting longer. That's not a turn of phrase. If you walk or drive past the Centrelink offices you will see that.

            The re-capping of university places has devastated participation rates in higher education. How is it fair that a student in the North Shore of Sydney is five times more likely to go to university than a student in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland? Perhaps we should blame the federal representatives—but I couldn't possibly comment on that—but obviously something needs to change.

            Investing in Australian universities is good for all of us. The minister himself acknowledged that productivity improvements in the sector can increase economic growth by $2.7 billion a year. But the Morrison government doesn't value the university sector and it is deliberately throwing the people who add value to that sector under the bus. This government is sitting by and watching as universities shed jobs, close campuses and cut back on courses and degrees. In fact, this Morrison government has gone out of its way to exclude universities from COVID support. The Morrison government has repeatedly changed its policy to stop university staff accessing wage subsidies and it's putting thousands of jobs at risk.

            We've already learnt that hundreds of jobs will go in Geelong and Warrnambool—Deakin University has indicated that 400 jobs will go. In Rockhampton, Central Queensland University has indicated 180 jobs will go and, particularly, I point out that that will involve closing three of their campuses: one on the Sunshine Coast, one at Yeppoon and one at Biloela—areas, which have LNP representatives, that are going to be devastated because they're big parts of those communities. Across Melbourne and Bendigo, La Trobe University has indicated jobs will go as well.

            Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a sector-wide crisis. In my discussions with vice-chancellors we clearly see—and I've done Zoom meetings all around Australia with vice-chancellors—that it is tough now and about to get a hell of a lot tougher, particularly if overseas students are not able to access courses for 2022, and those flow-ons will continue for a very long time.

            The impact of these losses on regional communities will be particularly devastating. Universities support 14,000 jobs in rural Australia—and I'm sure the member for Lingiari would agree on how significant Charles Darwin University is in the Northern Territory. They help underpin the local economy in so many of those regional towns. Across the board we're looking at tens of thousands of livelihoods being destroyed. We're talking about academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security and all the other jobs associated with universities—all people drawing a wage with families who rely on those wages, with bills to pay, mortgages and so many other commitments to meet.

            So, why has the Morrison government gone out of its way to exclude these workers? It's like an anti-intellectual push that befits a Donald Trump or someone like that, a populist, not somebody who actually understands the value of investing in education and the economic benefits that flow from it as a former Treasurer should understand. Why is the Prime Minister so determined to abandon these people connected with the higher education sector and the TAFE and training sector?

            At this point, this action seems like a deliberate attack on Australian higher education. This has never been Labor's approach to universities and it never will be. Labor's priority will always be that university education should be accessible to all, making sure that we get our best and brightest in front of the opportunities that come from university. No-one's education should be limited by their background, location or their credit card limit.

            Labor boosted investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We opened up the system, uncapping places giving an additional 190,000 students a spot at university and the life opportunities that flow. This decision was driven by our commitment to improving Australia's productivity—something that has been flatlining for too long—and to breaking down disadvantage and inequality in the system. It succeeded in bringing in new people to university. We saw Indigenous enrolments go up. We saw more Australians with disability entering the system. I point out to the National Party: we saw people from rural and remote areas going to university.

            Why is this important? Education helps create jobs that bring higher wages and a better quality of life for all Australians. This should be the guiding principle of Australian education policy rather than short-term budget savings that actually damage what's coming over the horizon. We need a vision of equity and productivity supported by funding and resources. Sadly, this is not a vision shared by this myopic Morrison government, a government that is watching thousands of jobs go, campuses close and is doing nothing to stop it.

            The Liberals have neglected the skills and vocational training sector as well. As I mentioned earlier, there's a national shortage of tradies, and it is no wonder. We see that the Liberals have slashed $3 billion from TAFE and training. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees and there is a shortage of workers in critical services, including things like plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. If no action is taken immediately by the Morrison government, another 100,000 apprenticeships and traineeships will be lost by the end of 2020. This is a disgrace, and it's young people who are getting near the end of their schooling who are going to miss out.

            The failure of this government has a real effect on people's lives. That is the tragedy of their neglect—their neglect of universities, their neglect of higher education and their neglect of vocational education and training. This government doesn't care enough or have the capacity to do the hard work that needs to be done to build a better post-school education system.

            (Quorum formed)

            12:43 pm

            Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            I too would like to make a contribution to this debate about something pretty important: education. So I do seek to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. However, in saying that, I would give way to a single Liberal who wanted to stand up and defend this government's record on higher education. But, alas, as you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, not a single Liberal is prepared to come and defend the record of this government on higher education.

            In terms of the legislation before us, from the outset I can say that we will be supporting its passage. But that's just the start of the debate, which really does go to this government's record when it comes to higher education. When it comes to the tertiary sector, our universities and our TAFE are the things that are important for the future of our nation. What we have before us is really just fiddling on the edges. This is a tweak being applied by a third-term government that refuses to deliver comprehensive, genuine reform for higher education and for vocational education. It is looking at administrative matters in the main but nothing that goes to genuine reform of this sector.

            In essence the bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and the VET Student Loans Act 2016, and it makes three fundamental changes. Firstly, the bill will give the Secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine certain students who, due to having multiple Commonwealth higher education student support numbers, have exceeded the HELP loan limit, and allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. That is a good thing and it is obviously supported by Labor. This is a favourable measure. It removes the possibility of a situation where the education provider, in fact, has to pay the government and then go about pursuing the debt from the student, which would be inappropriate. It would be problematic in the extreme, because, as I understand it, the amount of the debt recovery could be up to $12,000 per student. So that's a good measure.

            Measure No. 2 in the bill extends 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 Unique Student Identifier in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under the act. A similar requirement is imposed on all VET student loan recipients who will also be required to have a USI number by 1 January 2021. It is hoped that this measure will prevent instances of multiple student identifiers which would result in HELP debt under the cap.

            Thirdly, and importantly, the bill provides undergraduate students seeking FEE-HELP loans with an exemption from the requirement to pay a 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September. This provision is aimed at reducing the financial burden on students impacted by the current pandemic.

            Whilst these are good measures, reasonable, dare I say, and well thought out, the legislation is still tinkering around the edges of higher education. The government simply refuses to deliver genuine reform to overhaul the system of higher education and to provide the funds necessary for both our universities and our vocational education providers to do what they are supposed to be doing—that is, developing our human resources for the future and applying their skills to ensure that we have the skill sets that we need for the future Australian economy. I don't need to remind too many people in this House that it has taken seven long years of this government for us to get to this stage. But don't forget that, during that seven long years, they have neglected higher education. They have taken $2.2 billion of funding out of our universities, effectively re-capping our undergraduate places. That in itself is putting in jeopardy the prospects of some 200,000 students who will probably miss out on a university education because of this government's cuts to Commonwealth funded places.

            In electorates like mine and the member for Chifley's in Western Sydney—and no doubt this applies elsewhere—the impact of the coronavirus on our local economies has been pretty devastating. As a region, we've experienced significant unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We're seeing enormous social and economic disruption. At this point, during this pandemic, the government are denying additional support for our tertiary sector, a sector which has been particularly hard hit, given that some of our universities rely particularly on overseas students and research capability. But for the universities operating in our area, particularly the Western Sydney University, that's not really applicable, but they still are having the funds denied to them.

            I'd just like to read what the vice-chancellor of the Western Sydney University, Professor Barney Glover, had to say recently. He was talking about Western Sydney and he said: 'For Western Sydney, the university is part of its very fabric. Alongside one another, the community, business and university have helped transform our region. This has changed the narrative from one of disadvantage to one of promise. That regional compact is vitally important, but the work is far from finished.' Here is the head of the university, knowing its place in a wide economic centre such as Western Sydney: education is so vitally important.

            Far from being just a major employer—or employers, when you take TAFE into account—our tertiary education sector is integral to the sustainable development of our regions. Institutions such as the Western Sydney University and TAFE colleges out there in the west are critical for developing the pathways of many of our young people to be ready for those jobs of the future. They are pretty significant things. We know that, if the Liberals had their way back in 2013, they would have been introducing at that point $100,000 university degrees. They have already forced students to start paying their HELP debts when they're earning as little as $45,000, which is only around $9,000 more than the minimum wage. My electorate is overrepresented with families from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and, for them, a debt like that becomes pretty significant. As a matter of fact, it becomes a barrier to study. How is that about lifting people out of poverty? How is it that we apply a regime like this which acts, as I say, as a barrier to education, when we know education is a great enabler? We want to see greater participation in higher education, not less. In contrast, this government want to slam the door shut on universities and to more than 200,000 students. This is the track record of a government that love to talk big when it comes to education but in fact do little.

            It's the same mob opposite who have diminished TAFE over the whole period of their government since 2013—three terms. They don't recognise that TAFE plays such a fundamental role for our young people and also, in doing so, for the growth of our local economies and, as a matter of fact, our national economy. They have spent seven years cutting the funding to TAFE and training by ripping $3 billion out of the system while underspending on the promises they'd already made to the sector. The Liberals failed to spend $919 million out of their budget on TAFE training over the past five years alone.

            I'll just go back to Professor Barney Glover again. He was talking recently about the need to lift the cap on Commonwealth funded places for domestic students. This is where it does become very relevant to what we're talking about now. He went on to say, 'Lifting the cap would allow the university to work hand in hand with our TAFE sector and industry partners to rapidly strengthen the skills within our region to enhance productivity at a time when it needs it most.' I think that's exactly right. This is not just about universities and not just about TAFEs; this is about our higher education sector being able to do what we expect them to do, and that is to deliver the skill sets to our young people that are going to be so vital for our future.

            The situation, I think, only gets worse when we look at the impact of the coronavirus on our respective regions. As a result of the government's lack of commitment to vocational education, we have now seen 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, which will deliver a shortfall in our skilled workers for the future. We have seen them in our critical trades areas. These are not areas where it's easy to go and manufacture people to just come and take their places. What this mob have done—and they have continually acted this way, ever since the mining boom, when we didn't have that skill set—was run to fill our critical skills shortages by short-term overseas employment visas. Why is it incumbent on a government to do that with our critical trades, whether it be our welders, our diesel mechanics, our carpenters or our plumbers? This is something we have a sovereign interest in. There's no point in those opposite wanting to talk about sovereign interests without addressing the basic issues. It's not all about trade; it's about making sure that we have the capability to be productive and competitive. Therefore, we need that skill base and we need to be able to develop it. We need to be able to develop it through our own resources—through our own universities and our own TAFE colleges.

            I tell those opposite: we want genuine reform. But, the thing is, to get that, you need a vision. This mob opposite does not have a vision when it comes to higher education. A government that cuts and diminishes the significant role of universities and vocational education simply has no role in our future. We need a government that is going to look to the future of our young people. As a matter of fact, doing so addresses the future prosperity for our nation. Every dollar you commit to education is an investment in the future of our nation.

            I note that Labor is supporting the passage of this bill, but I do call on the government to sit down, do a bit of navel-gazing and look for genuine reform, not just tinkering at the edges and calling that reform to higher education or tertiary education. We want genuine reform of this industry. We want to make sure that we have the young people skilled so they can actually take the jobs of the future. We want this. That would be something our nation can be proud of.

            (Quorum formed)

            1:00 pm

            Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

            I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 and to support the amendment moved by the member for Sydney. This bill is primarily to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, or HESA, to implement a range of measures across the higher education sector. A key provision of the bill gives the secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine that certain students, due to having more than one Commonwealth higher education student support number, have exceeded the HELP loan limit and to allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amount through the taxation system. The department became aware of this problem during a data-cleaning process conducted in the second half of 2019. According to the department, HELP loan limits have been exceeded by 475 students, totalling $5.9 million. The average debt above the cap is $12,389; the median is $7,480.

            If the provisions in the bill are not enacted, education providers will be required to repay the government, and providers will be free to pursue the debts with students outside of the current taxation system. This could lead to students being pursued for debt recovery of lump sums. The minister responded to a series of questions from the member for Sydney about the impact of the bill on students who may have exceeded the loan cap with dodgy VET FEE-HELP debt. Of the 475 students who have exceeded the loan cap, 128 have some level of VET FEE-HELP debt. Some of them hold those debts with Careers Australia and Phoenix, two of the most notorious VET course rorters. The member for Sydney has been given guarantees by the minister that the department will contact and support these students. This is welcomed.

            The bill also gives effect to the government's 2019-20 budget measure to extend the unique student identifier, or USI, regime to all higher education students. Students must have a USI in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. The extension of the USI regime is likely to prevent further instances of multiple student identifiers and any resulting HELP debt above the cap. Also, the bill provides undergraduate students who are seeking FEE-HELP loans with an exemption from the requirement to pay the 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September 2020. The application of this provision is aimed at reducing the financial burden on students who are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's welcomed by Labor. The department has advised that up to 50,000 higher education students, including full-fee-paying students at public universities, and 20,000 VSL students might benefit. This bill makes several other minor amendments around consistent census dates, definitions of vocational courses and the naming of universities.

            Labor supports the bill. It will ease the stress for these students, worried that there might be a knock at the door from a debt collector. It will give some relief for a significant number of students around HELP loan fees in these difficult COVID times. However, this bill highlights yet again how this government serves up minor regulatory housekeeping when major reform is needed. Here we are, providing some minor relief to students, while in the meantime universities are predicted to shed 21,000 jobs by the end of the year. And what real help have our 39 universities had from this government? 'Zero, zip, zilch!' is the answer to that. Worse than that, the government have gone out of their way to change the rules to deny universities access to JobKeeper. Labor continues to call on the government to save university jobs.

            You may not believe that education, at $36 billion, is our fourth-biggest export after iron ore, coal and natural gas, and $26 billion of that comes from our university sector. The effect of COVID-19 on university research is predicted to be devastating. On 6 May the Rapid Research Information Forum, chaired by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, released a paper about the impact of the pandemic on Australia's research workforce and its capacity to support our recovery efforts. It concluded:

            Australia's research workforce will be severely impacted by the pandemic and the effects are likely to be felt for an extended period.

            The forum said that, of the 22,000 full-time equivalent job losses, an estimated 7,000 could be research-related academic staff. It also said:

            Income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies, CRCs, and the industrial sector is suffering from the loss of foreign students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.

            To try and make ends meet as budgets contract, universities are reducing the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff, further limiting their research capacity.

            These impacts are greater than during the 2008 global financial crisis and are being observed internationally.

            …   …   …

            Domestic and international post-graduate students comprise 57% of the university R&D workforce.

            The forum also estimates that 9,000 international research students will not resume their research in 2020 and said:

            Industry sectors may experience a reduced capacity to innovate given that universities perform approximately 43% of all applied research in Australia.

            A decline in innovation may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills, and efficiency gains in service and production processes.

            These are the Chief Scientist's words, not mine. This is absolutely devastating as we approach a post-COVID recovery. The Prime Minister can spin like a whirling dervish about building manufacturing capacity and diversifying supply chains, but if our R&D is decimated then we have little prospect of doing either effectively.

            And still this government does nothing to help universities. There is no funding rescue package and no access to JobKeeper. But we shouldn't be surprised. There have been recent news articles about how vindictive certain coalition MPs are about universities and about how universities need to be punished for not dancing vigorously enough to the government's tune on foreign interference on campuses or on support for the government at election time. Well, the government is certainly punishing the universities now. Over the last decade, this government has pushed for universities to be more entrepreneurial and to take more and more international students. Those students have been a cash cow. Universities did a brilliant job, to the extent that over $12 billion was taken by universities last year in direct fees compared to $6 billion in 2014-15. But now the bottom has fallen out of the international student market and the government refuses to help, despite universities predicting a loss of up to $4.2 billion this year and a loss of $16 billion by 2023.

            International student income has, of course, masked the decline in the Commonwealth's own contribution to universities in general and for research. The impact of the government-imposed freeze on Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding in 2018 and 2019 is obvious. Even by 2018, with the growth in international students, CGS funding accounted for only 21.9 per cent of all university funding, while international student fees accounted for 26.3 per cent. This rapidly growing income from international students has been subsidising domestic teaching and, more alarmingly, the growth in research and training. In real terms, the Commonwealth contribution to universities under the coalition has declined from just under $9.5 billion in 2014-15 to only $9.4 billion this year. This is despite the total number of Australian students studying at universities increasing to over 50,000 in the same period.

            What we will probably face with this crisis is a renewed push by universities to deregulate university fees, making degrees even less affordable—a move rejected twice by this parliament in recent years. Labor will continue to oppose $100,000 degrees. We will undoubtedly face increased marketing and poaching campaigns by universities to enrol more domestic students with an adverse impact on regional unis and VET.

            The drop in Commonwealth effort is even starker when it comes to research. Since 2008, the universities have almost doubled their contribution to research from $3.6 billion to $6.8 billion. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth total contribution has only increased modestly from $3.4 billion in 2014 to $3.65 billion in 2018. According to Universities Australia, up to $3 billion may now be lost from R&D budgets due to COVID. In a recent opinion piece, UA called on the government to invest more in research, writing:

            The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said: 'Research is creating new knowledge.'

            That knowledge is the raw material that makes new ideas, new technologies and entire new industries that will generate economic success and create the new jobs vital to Australia's future national recovery.

            Without extra government help, we know for sure that there will be many fewer of these skilled researchers in work in one, two or even three years from now.

            UA noted that the recent Deloitte Access Economics paper estimated that for every one dollar invested in research another five dollars is added to GDP. In 2016, almost half of all university R&D funding in higher education was spent in three crucial areas: medicine and health sciences, 28.4 per cent; engineering, 10 per cent; and biological sciences, 9.2 per cent. These are the key areas we will be relying on to help us rebuild our industry, our economy and our society post-COVID. Yet, what is this government doing? Nothing.

            Finally, I want to speak about the effect on the regions. In my own region around Geelong, our university is Deakin University. They are a vital player in building our region, collaborating with manufacturing and developing new technologies. They have developed the Institute for Frontier Materials, Carbon Nexus and ManuFutures—amazing incubators for new manufacturers. Deakin have been brilliant for our region, and I love them to bits.

            We know that universities are vital to regional Australia. Universities employ tens of thousands of staff. While only 23 per cent of metropolitan university graduates ever work in regional areas, 73 per cent of all graduates from regional universities stay and work locally. I note that young people in regional areas have only half the higher education attainment rate of people in metropolitan areas, so universities are a vital tool in closing the economic and social development gap in regional areas like Corangamite.

            During this COVID crisis, Deakin have made over 400 positions redundant, and that is only the beginning. Shamefully, Deakin have deliberately rejected a brave and responsible deal negotiated between Universities Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union to cut wages in return for saving jobs. They are going straight to redundancies. The NTEU should never have been put in that position. There will be a protest by staff against those job cuts outside Deakin, in Geelong, this Friday. I say to all of those staff and NTEU members that I support you—all power to you!

            In quieter times, we might have pondered whether universities have invested the revenue from international students wisely. We might question whether they should've kept some of it for a rainy day, but that misses the point that the coalition has failed to fund universities and research properly. Now is not the time to reflect; now is the time to help. These job losses should never have happened. This vindictive, visionless government should have stepped up to the plate with a rescue package and access to the JobKeeper subsidies for universities. They should be wearing the blame for these job losses at Deakin University, Central Queensland University and many others.

            I haven't got time today to speak about the tragedy of the VET sector—the $3 billion in funding taken out of this sector by the coalition over the last seven years, the 140,000 fewer apprenticeships and trainees since the coalition came to office and the severe skills shortages in critical trades. Again, this government has no idea and no plan for the VET sector, just as they have no idea and no plan for universities. It is about time they did.

            (Quorum formed)

            1:18 pm

            Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

            The Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to implement various schedules across the higher-education sector. Schedule 1 will give effect to the Australian government's measures to require all students commencing studies next year to have a Unique Student Identifier number in order to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance under the act. Schedule 2 will allow the department to resolve debt collection problems arising from an administrative error. This bill will streamline administration in our education system, and I support that. I also support schedule 4 of this bill, which, as a result of COVID-19, provides undergraduate students seeking FEE-HELP with an exemption from the requirement to pay the 25 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates from 1 April to 30 September 2020, thereby reducing the financial burden on these students during that period. I note that this will assist many local students in Warringah, including those studying at the International College of Management.

            But this bill also raises important issues when it comes to education, skills and our economy in the post-COVID-19 world. Prior to COVID-19, I was concerned our economy was losing its competitive edge. GDP and wage growth were slowing. Labour productivity, an essential driver of both, had also stalled. Many people, especially the youth in Warringah, were rightly stressed about their future and finding good employment. COVID-19 has amplified these concerns and put our economy into recession for the first time in 27 years. The young generation of Australians finishing school this year face unprecedented headwinds and uncertainty, including a contracting labour market and high living and education costs, as well as unaffordable housing.

            But COVID-19 has also provided opportunities by accelerating trends towards developing new knowledge and skills in areas like digitisation and automation, both high-wage areas. Provided we have the right policy settings in our tertiary education sector, we can harness these shifts and unleash a new wave of economic growth, higher living standards and full employment for our youth.

            According to a recent report by Pricewaterhousecoopers, prior to COVID-19, 75 per cent of businesses reported they were concerned about the shortage of digital skills within their industry. This is consistent with my experience. In Warringah last year I talked with several start-up entrepreneurs who were struggling with the lack of skilled employees that they could access. COVID-19 has put further demand on digital skills as many organisations have been forced to shift to remote work and diversify their product and service offerings.

            After restrictions set in, businesses quickly needed to upgrade their IT infrastructure and remote-working capability of employees; to shift their product offerings online; and to improve their service delivery. The experience with remote work environments through COVID-19 will likely generate increased demand to deliver an effective, remote experience for employees, which is likely a reality for the foreseeable future.

            So we need digitally-savvy employees who can work in a digital space with the skills to collaborate online efficiently and effectively. We need to take advantage of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to lead the way in digital business and developing technologies. But machines and technology cannot do everything and, according to the Business Council of Australia, the future of business will also require emotional and social capabilities, or soft skills. Travel restrictions have put a halt on our immigration intake, which has previously supplied high-skilled labour in these areas. Australia should turn and rely on our internally-sourced labour to fill these needs. This means we need an efficient and effective tertiary education system to supply these high-skilled workers.

            What are the barriers in relation to tertiary education? The costs are high. Our tertiary education system, prior to COVID-19, faced significant obstacles which have only been compounded. High tertiary education costs existed. They have now made access to important post-COVID-19 courses prohibitive. A student entering a graduate course in artificial intelligence could be expected to pay up to $90,000 for a course. The government has recognised this and, in the short term, is offering a 25 per cent fee exemption, provided for in schedule 4 of this bill in relation to deferral. The government has also announced discounted six-month online courses in information technology, engineering and mathematics. I suggest that these measures should be extended past the six-month courses and be incorporated over the long term.

            The Productivity Commission's 2017 report, Shifting the dial: 5 year productivity review, raised concerns about declining admission standards, increasing student attrition rates and declining graduate outcomes in higher education under the demand-driven system. The Productivity Commission also found in a series of surveys that employers were not satisfied with the quality of recent graduates and that university students were not satisfied with the teaching in their courses—many did not even complete their courses. So kids and parents are rightly questioning the value-add of these expensive courses.

            The Productivity Commission found that to improve these outcomes the tertiary education sector must improve the relevance of the skills and knowledge that are taught during their degrees and better match students to universities and courses that suit students' long-term interests, thereby reducing wasted education investments. KPMG, in their Reimagining tertiary education report, recommended that the government improves information available to support the operation of the tertiary education marketplace and assist students to make good educational choices. To achieve this, consistent with the research of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the Mitchell Institute and the Vice-Chancellors of the dual sector universities stated that we need to consider tertiary education holistically, not just universities or vocational education and training independently but as a unified sector, to address issues of relative spaces, funding, policy and regulatory coherence. By improving these measures, this could also lead to lower amounts of HELP debts expected to be repaid by students and to lower dropout rates and switching between courses.

            Prior to COVID, our tertiary sector had already been suffering from increased demand for services and decreased government funding, leading to poor outcomes. Government funding of the Australian tertiary education system has received successive reductions in funding through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and research block subsidies. The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in 2017-18 announced that Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding would be frozen for the 2018-19 year—that was a change that did not require legislation—and that increases from 2020 would be contingent on providers meeting performance targets. In August 2018, the parliament passed legislation to reduce the repayment threshold for HELP and introduced a lifetime borrowing limit. And the MYEFO for 2018-19 announced reduced funding growth for research block grants, a key component of university research funding.

            There is clearly a difficulty if we are going to equate tertiary education with a business model. As growth in Australian government funding has contracted, overseas student fees have accounted for an increasing proportion of university revenue growth. University finance data from the DET shows that from 2016 to 2017 overseas student fees accounted for 64.2 per cent of total university revenue increases.

            The lack of policy coherence between VET and universities is problematic. The Australian Industry Group, citing the Business Council of Australia, stated that preparation for the jobs of the future requires all the education and training sectors to operate as one system, and that this continues to act as a barrier to the creation of the responsive, integrated education and training system required to sustain economic growth in a changing world. The Bradley review highlighted that the efforts to resolve this have had limited success. To resolve this, the first act of the new National Skills Commissioner must be to outline how the government can better coordinate government policy in this area.

            We are facing an unprecedented challenge through this crisis. It has exacerbated many of the underlying systemic issues with the economy. Our youth are facing daunting headwinds for their future prosperity and opportunities. And yet the crisis also offers opportunities to accelerate trends towards digitisation and automation. If we reform our tertiary sector to reduce costs for education, to place students more efficiently, to rectify funding disparities and to create a uniform policy framework between VET and the university sector, we can fill skill shortages in the high-growth, high-wage areas that will be the foundation of Australia's future prosperity. So whilst I rise in support of this bill, I call on the government to do much more in this sector.

            1:29 pm

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

            In the exhaustive time I have to make a contribution—

            Honourable Member:

            An honourable member interjecting

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

            Well, then I'm fortunate that I've only got a minute! There are a number of aspects in this Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 that I want to comment on, particularly in picking up on some of the elements relating to some of the fee relief that's being provided and particularly as that relates to technology. I hope that I'll be able to expand upon that in my later contribution, post the matter of public importance.

            It is important for us to note that Labor is supporting, the opposition is supporting, the amendment bill but that there are things that do need to be pointed out with respect to the overall investment in tertiary education in this country because there is a concern that the role that tertiary education will play in terms of enriching human capital will be boosted by greater investment, not less, in this area.

            Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, 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. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.