House debates

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020; Second Reading

5:00 pm

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

The purpose of this bill is to implement the government's Job-ready Graduates program and make other amendments to the higher education support package in Australia.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Excuse me, Member for Warringah, do you mind stopping? We have the member for Corangamite in continuation by virtual presence.

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

[by video link] Yet this government is trying to ram through this legislation which would mean 40 per cent of students would have their fees increased to $14,500 a year, doubling the cost for thousands of them. I've spoken to many of these young people in my electorate about what impact these proposed changes will have on their lives and their education. One young woman who attended a recent forum I ran with the member for Sydney about these proposed changes was Lily Watterson. Lily is a bright, articulate, passionate young woman who is currently a student at Surf Coast Secondary College in Torquay. Lily hopes to study an arts degree next year. I want to share with you Lily's words about the impact of this bill. She said: 'I live regionally, so I definitely can't commute to uni every day, and having this added pressure of the fees more than doubling is just crazy. There is no way I can afford to move to Melbourne and support myself. I've got a single parent, so it's not like I'm going to get my rent paid for every week.'

Lily is not alone. I am truly worried for so many young people in my community who won't be able to afford to go to university because of these changes. And it's not just high-school students who will be affected; current university students will also be impacted. Ana Machado Colling is another intelligent young woman who attended the forum. She has already done a Bachelor of Arts and hopes to go on to a master's. This is what she told me: 'A lot of us have found ourselves unemployed due to COVID, and study has become a strong alternative for us. For a master's degree to cost something like $80,000 is just impossible. It will go over our HECS-HELP, which means we'll have to pay upfront. I don't understand how that's feasible for someone living out of home, paying rent, studying full-time.' Over and over when I speak to young people in my community, they're concerned and anxious about these changes. They're worried about the heavy burden of debt. They're trying to alter their plans, plans that they've had for years and years, because of the threat of these changes. They're being denied the opportunities that I had, that many others in this chamber have had and that previous generations have had.

I want to talk now about the particular impact this bill will have on the humanities. This bill would more than double the fees for thousands of people studying the humanities, locking many young Australians out of the chance to study in this field. I'm a proud graduate of the humanities. I studied drama and literature as an undergraduate and went on to study media communications at postgraduate level, as well as teaching. I'm so grateful for the tertiary education I received. It has taught me much about the world around me, and I use the knowledge and skills I gained at that time every day. I also believe that the humanities are more important than ever. The big problems we face right now—declining trust in our political system and institutions, like this parliament; inaction on climate change; income inequality; and injustice—are social problems, problems of collective action, and it is the humanities which equip us to deal with these social problems. As Robert French, the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia and former Chief Justice of the High Court, has said:

Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

Studying the humanities helps us to reflect, to inspire, to analyse, to create, to move people, to understand and to change the world around us for the better.

Importantly, studying the humanities also helps young people get jobs—good jobs, rewarding jobs, well-paid jobs—in the modern workforce. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have higher employment rates than science and maths graduates. This government claims it's trying to redirect young Australians towards industries where they can get jobs, but it has absolutely no evidence to back this up. What this government is actually doing is making it harder for young Australians to study courses that help them get jobs.

It's important that at this time of a pandemic we have strong university and TAFE sectors, and we know that Australia is now in the midst of a deep recession. I cannot think of a worse time for this government to make it harder for young Australians to study the humanities. I urge the government to move beyond this petty attack on the humanities and think about creating jobs and opportunities for our next generation. Give young people hope for the future and stop punishing them.

One of the aspects of this package that I find particularly troubling is the significant impact it will have on regional areas like mine. The government have said they want to help more young people in regional areas, but this bill won't actually leave regional, rural and remote universities, or their staff and their students, better off. It will leave them worse off. This is because regional universities deliver a greater proportion of courses that will have a funding cut than non-regional universities and because, under the government's proposal, nearly twice as many regional and remote students will have to pay the highest rate of student fees. I am proud to represent regional Victoria. Parents in my community want their children to have the opportunity to go to university. They know that getting a great education is a ticket to a great job and a lifetime of opportunities for their kids. They do not want to see their children priced out of an education.

This legislation will also have serious implications for university jobs, particularly in regional areas. Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia. They support jobs in my electorate at Deakin University. Funding cuts to regional universities will mean fewer jobs in our regions for academics, for support staff, for administrators and for service providers. Deakin has already flagged that 400 jobs will go due to the pandemic. I'm fighting hard to try and keep these jobs, to keep these people's livelihoods, and I will continue to oppose bad policy that results in fewer jobs in my electorate of Corangamite. The Morrison government likes to talk a big game on supporting the regions, but time after time after time, from changes to broadcasting to cuts in services and now these dangerous changes to higher education, this government has let us down. I'm proud of Labor's record on education in regional areas. Labor's policies in government saw enrolments of students from regional and remote areas increase by 50 per cent. I don't want to see that go backwards.

In closing, this bill is cruel, it is unfair and it is bad policy. It cuts billions from the sector while doing nothing to help young people get into high-priority courses and jobs. It will make thousands of students pay more than double what they now pay for their qualification, and it will continue the Liberals' track record on years of neglect and cuts to our higher education sector. The young people in my communities who have had a chance to meet and talk to me about this bill are so passionate, they're so clever and they're so articulate. They want to study at university, they want to get good jobs and they want to contribute to our community. I feel so much for them not just because of the big challenges they've faced this year but because this government, the Morrison government, is planning to make their future so much harder. As a mother of two daughters, aged 17 and 18, I've seen firsthand just how tough this year has been for our younger generation. Studying at home, coming home from university, having to study online—it is very challenging. For all those young people in my community who might be following this debate, I want you to know: I hear you, I stand with you, and Labor will fight for you.

5:10 pm

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

The purpose of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 is to implement the government's job-ready graduates program and make other amendments to the higher education support package in Australia. The measures contained in this bill seek to directly intervene in the Australian education market to incentivise students to study the degrees that this government and minister believe will be the jobs of the future.

This legislation restructures the higher education support scheme to allocate more funds to degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths at the expense of arts, commerce, communications and law degrees. Whilst in the past I have called for the government to do more to support STEM students and I continue to do so, it should not be at the expense of humanities and other subjects.

I'd like to acknowledge the workers of the university sector, who are struggling at this time. The government supported university staff are ineligible for JobKeeper, and many are losing their jobs. I continue to call on the government to develop a tailored package for this sector that is seeing many, many jobs being lost.

The minister announced this legislation in June, and an exposure draft was provided to the public on 12 August and open for just five days of consultation. This is not good governance, and this is not proper consultation. Each of the university peak bodies made submissions in the consultation phase highlighting the weakness of this approach. Despite a variety of views from the university sector with regard to the merit of this legislation—I should note that they're especially tailored around the locations of universities and in particular whether they are regional universities set to benefit from the legislation—they are united in their calls for further consultation through the referral of this bill to the Senate committee on employment and education. I strongly support this referral, and that has been a call heard loudly from the electorate as well.

There are a number of areas where this legislation could be improved to make it more equitable, and I would urge the government to, rather than rushing and doing the job badly, do it well. In particular, there's one area that does beg the question of why it's included because it really has nothing to do with job-ready graduate packages—that is, the student progression provisions; the 50 per cent completion rule. That has brought quite a bit of concern to many students. The bill removes the eligibility for all student loans and prohibits universities from enrolling a student as a Commonwealth supported student if in a bachelor or higher qualification the student has undertaken eight or more units and not successfully completed at least 50 per cent of them and in any other case where the student has undertaken four or more units and not successfully completed at least 50 per cent of them. While I agree that there is an issue with non-completion of degrees and bad debts being incurred by the government, this provision is too narrow and punitive and should be removed, and that is supported by the university sector. It does not allow for any discretion or consideration of the circumstances which may have led to a student having such difficulty in completing or passing their subjects.

The bulk of the feedback from my electorate concerns the impacts of this legislation on the humanities and students studying those degrees that will be disadvantaged. The government is directly intervening in the market to push new students towards courses in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM subjects—by redirecting funding so that a greater share goes to what are alleged to be job-ready courses while arts and law degrees, for example, become more expensive. In my meeting with the minister and his staff, he pointed me to the evidence that the sectors with the highest rates of job growth were professional, scientific and technical services; health and social assistance; and education and training. However, the data presented said little of the skills required to support the jobs in those industries. Many in those industries have said they also require graduates with arts, commerce and STEM backgrounds. There's an artificial manipulation here of the jobs market. I support the focus on STEM, but it should not be at the expense of arts, commerce and law degrees.

What you seek to achieve from tertiary education and university study is so important. It is about critical thinking, innovation, communication and creativity. These are essential components of the future of our economy and our society. These skills are fostered by degrees that will now be more expensive for students and potentially out of reach. People who have these skills will be essential to making the STEM economy a reality in Australia. The courses that have seen the greatest funding cuts have the breadth that enables young students to explore the full range of possibilities for future employment before narrowing down into a career choice.

As well, universities are not job factories. There is a role for encouraging diversity of thought, conduct of research and reflection on history. That will now be discouraged as a result of this policy. The changes will have a greater impact on the decisions of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as price signals make a greater difference to this cohort. This is disincentivising students from studying the arts. It will decrease the diversity of students in those degrees, leading to a weaker outcome for Australian universities, our people and, ultimately, Australian society.

Because the biggest impact will be on our youth, you can't touch on this without taking into account the mental health situation and the dire impact that this could have. The mental health of young people has to be a key consideration of this government. These changes may further damage the health of our young people because this is creating uncertainty about their direction of study. The latest study to come out of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney predicts—and these are frightening statistics—that, over the next five years, the economic impact of COVID-19 will result in a 30 per cent increase in suicides by 15- to 24-year-olds. As a mother of teenagers, these statistics terrify me. As a lawmaker, they challenge me, and they should challenge everyone in this place. I've spoken with 24 youth ambassadors representing the schools across my electorate. Mental health is the No. 1 concern for all of them. Exam stress and HSC rankings already weigh on their minds. They have the fees for the degrees they've already chosen. They've already committed to their pathway of study. They are in the final stretch of their secondary education journey. They now have to face a potential increase, by over 110 per cent overnight, to their chosen course of study. This will dramatically increase the level of stress on these young people.

The university peak bodies are conflicted in their support for this legislation, because, on one hand, it locks in the indexation of funding which has been frozen since 2017, which they so desperately need, but, on the other hand, they will receive less funds overall per student accepted. In relation to more places, the changes proposed by the government are budget neutral, so the government are using the existing budget to fund more university places, which effectively reduces the government contribution to degrees from 58 per cent to 48 per cent per degree. Consequently, student contributions will need to increase proportionately, from 42 per cent to 52 per cent.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia's leading universities, have estimated that, in 2021, their per-student funding, through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, will decrease by five per cent, and total per-student funding, incorporating the student contribution amount, will reduce by six per cent. It would be naive for the government to not appreciate that this is going to have to come from somewhere. This is going to affect the quality of education for domestic students, it is at odds with the government's supposed post-COVID needs and it is drafted without the full appreciation of the likely consequences.

The current draft legislation asks that more is done, with less support, at a time when, collectively, the university sector is facing a significant revenue downgrade in 2021 and 2022 due to border closures and reduced numbers of international students. It seems at odds with what governments will require the universities to achieve for the nation post COVID. For example, in relation to the pressure on the universities, under the old system a science degree would have received $28,958 in combined student and government funding. In the new system the same degree received $24,200, creating a shortfall of $4,758 per student. STEM courses are also more expensive to provide and teach. They rely on more university resources than arts or law degrees but universities are expected to meet these costs. It's insufficient to meet expected demand for university places across the board at this time. The innovative research universities have called for a minimum of 10,000 additional places, on top of the increase captured by this legislation, to really meet demand in terms of jobs. They argue it does not cater for the increased demand due to the recession caused by COVID-19 and increased demand from older students and the new cohort of young people.

I encourage the government to refer this bill to the committee for further refinement. I thank the minister for the briefing and for understanding and getting more information as to the basis for the legislation, but I encourage the government to take up the following four actions. The implementation should be delayed by at least two years to accommodate the current cohort of year 11 and 12 students who have already chosen their subjects. To qualify for STEM courses, students need to have studied relevant prerequisites during high school, none of which are compulsory under the current curriculum. To gain entry to STEM courses students will be forced to take bridging courses, adding further financial burden, anxiety and uncertainty for school leavers. The existing fee structure for existing students wishing to pursue further study in their field should be grandfathered. They are already committed to their pathway.

Similar to the previous amendment, the legislation should not disincentivise students wishing to pursue further study in line with their current degree. There also needs to be an additional budget allocation to fund the Industry Linkage Fund and the Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund. The bill provides for demand-driven funding for eligible Indigenous people but the definition restricts Indigenous persons to those who live in regional and remote areas. In a situation where over a third of Indigenous persons do not live in regional or remote areas and a high priority needs to be given to reducing the gap in further educational attainment for all Indigenous persons, I would encourage and urge the minister to extend the definition of an eligible Indigenous person in the bill. It should be broadened to include all Indigenous persons. This would better align the bill with the government's recently announced approach to Closing the Gap and the revised further education target.

I personally have had the privilege to study both a bachelor of arts in media and communications and a law degree. The opportunity to study what I was interested in has enabled me to be here to represent the people of Warringah, so I cannot in all conscience endorse legislation that will make it more difficult for others to have the same opportunities that I have had. I don't support this legislation, and I strongly support the government to refer the legislation to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee.

5:24 pm

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Labor opposes the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, as it is fundamentally going to make it harder and more expensive for young Australians to go to university. While the bill is promising more places, they will be achieved with no extra Commonwealth funding but by reducing the average funding for each student going to university. The cost burden of these extra places will instead be borne by the students themselves. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased. Some increases are up to 113 per cent. On average under this legislation, students will pay seven per cent more for their degree.

All this is during a time when providing young people with the opportunity of a higher education is more important than ever, especially with the impacts of COVID-19. We're in the depths of a recession, and youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in recent months alone. This is a significant missed opportunity to invest in our young people. Instead, this government is choosing not to invest in them and not to support them to succeed in their chosen careers.

I can't fathom why this is. Is it ideologically motivated? It can't be anything but that, because what the government are really proposing here is that the costs for degrees that they don't like—and I'll come to that in a moment—go up. I can only presume it is for ideological reasons that the costs of humanities degrees are going up. Students studying law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce, communications and the humanities will be paying more for their degrees than people doing medicine or dentistry degrees. These costs will more than double for people studying humanities, jumping from some $27,216 to $58,000 for a four-year degree.

This is not just about covering costs for more job-ready degrees, which is the government's argument. It actually fundamentally diminishes and undermines the essential, critical importance of humanities to civil society, to our society. I graduated with a law/arts degree, and I know that many of my colleagues in the chamber would have got arts degrees, law degrees or economics degrees. I was afforded that opportunity for a good education despite my particular socioeconomic circumstances. But, under a cost structure that undermines humanities degrees, the question has to be asked: would I or millions of other Australians who are not particularly wealthy—whether they're new migrants, as we were, or working class, as we were, or in regional or rural areas—be able to get a degree that gives them a knowledge base and the critical reasoning skills that you get out of a humanities degree, which would allow them to work towards senior and leadership roles in the law, politics, industry and the corporate sectors? It's a legitimate question. Is the government deliberately limiting access to this type of education and to these types of skills only to wealthy Australians who can afford what is now going to become the luxury of an arts degree?

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with trying to meet skills shortages by making some courses more available and more affordable, but it should not be done at the expense of the humanities. Of course science and engineering degrees are important. We've heard from Bronwyn Evans, the CEO of Engineers Australia, who's said:

… the … Government's announced changes … may … lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

…   …   …

An increase in university fees risks increasing structural inequality for women and people from low socioeconomic status … backgrounds who choose to study humanities, law and other courses that will now leave them in even more debt.

The thing that this government cannot understand and cannot ever get over is the fact that a tertiary education is not just about vocational or job-ready technical training. It's not just a sausage factory; it's also about knowledge and critical thinking. A vibrant, robust, civil society is made up of far more than technical expertise. Robert French, the former High Court Chief Justice and now Chancellor of UWA, has said:

Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

I continue to quote:

I'm not talking about the more obscure courses. The mainstream of humanities allows teachers and universities to transmit our history and our society to students.

The humanities are vital for the work of our political leaders, leaders of corporations, leaders of public authorities. I'm very happy for an emphasis on science, engineering and maths; we should also emphasise humanities.

It's not an either-or. This government seems to think you have to set them up against each other.

We oppose this bill for a number of reasons. One of the ones I want to emphasise is that we should not, in any way, as a Commonwealth be denying or limiting the access to those skills, to that education and to that skill set that you get from a humanities degree. We should not be denying that or limiting that to people from a particular socioeconomic background, whether they be disadvantaged, starting out as new migrants or of a particular ethnic background. By extension, this bill from the government seems to go in that direction. It undermines the importance of a liberal arts focus on history, civics, social sciences, arts and culture, critical thinking and reasoning, as I described, which are more important to humanity and societies than ever before, especially as we enter this era of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and big data analytics. Those skills you get out of a humanities degree are more important than ever—more important for leadership, more important for analysis and more important for navigating and problem-solving for the future.

We know that authoritarian governments are harnessing AI and STEM for their own purposes. We need a democratic counterpoint to what is happening in those states, which means that the humanities, the arts and the social sciences are more important than ever. We should be expanding access to those skills not limiting access to those skills. Dan Woodman, President of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said in his media release:

Some of the fastest growing job areas for university graduates are new, many of which require exactly the skills and experiences that the study of HASS subjects can provide. Content Specialists, Customer Officers, Data Scientists, and Sustainability Analysts are in high demand. These jobs did not exist five years ago, and a strong humanities or social science degree provides a foundation for working in these and the new, related fields that will inevitably emerge in the coming years.

This is the short-sightedness of this government and what they're doing with this bill.

The other part of it that is ridiculous is that there is no evidence that humanities degrees make students less employable than other degrees. In fact, the job prospects of humanities students are very healthy and are in demand, as I've just pointed out. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. Experts are saying that the price is unlikely—and this is part of the government's thinking here: that they'll put a pricepoint on this—to have any effect on student choice. But it's going to have a dramatic effect on the funding of universities, and the funding of universities, particularly during this coronavirus crisis, is in dire straits. So many jobs have been lost. So much teaching and learning and research capability has been lost. It's just going to make that much worse.

One of the great Labor traditions is ensuring that an education never remains out of reach of anyone wanting to obtain one, particularly a tertiary education. Not everyone can get a university agree—absolutely. That's why we support TAFE and want to put funding into TAFE and vocational training. But, if people want to access a university agree, they should be able to obtain one. We in Labor put our money where our mouth is, unlike the Liberals. After years of neglect under the previous Howard government, Labor boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion by 2013, and Labor policies when we were last in government saw an extra 220,000 Australians get the benefit of a university education.

I was one of those young people who got the benefit of previous Labor governments, the Hawke-Keating governments—and, one could argue, the Whitlam government—giving more people access to university. I got access to an education, and a quality education, despite my socioeconomic background. That's part of our DNA. That's what real equality of opportunity is about: it's giving people access to a quality education so that they can fulfil their potential.

We have also focused on making sure that people who are disadvantaged get that opportunity, overcoming those structural disadvantages, making sure that enrolments for financially disadvantaged students increased, and they did, by 66 per cent; that Indigenous undergraduate student enrolments increased, and they did, by 105 per cent; that enrolments of undergraduate students with a disability went up, and they did, by 125 per cent; and that enrolments of students from regional and remote areas went up, and they did, by 50 per cent. This is in contrast with this government, this Liberal-National government, that just doesn't get it. They don't believe in it. They don't understand it, or they're blind to it.

We know that the COVID-19 crisis has hit many, many Australian universities hard. In my own electorate of Wills, we have a very high student and academic population who work at nearby universities like RMIT and University of Melbourne. Universities outside of capital cities have also been hit hard, and some have been subjected to huge funding cuts and hundreds of job losses which have serious flow-on effects to the regional community they support. Instead of investing in our universities and our young people and opening up opportunities for them, this government and this bill seek to cut the university sector's guaranteed funding by around a billion dollars a year. That would be the effect of what this government is trying to do. So universities will be receiving less money to do more.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected universities, and for months now Labor has been urging the federal government to step in and help universities, to save jobs. However, we've already seen 3,000 jobs lost and there's a forecast of 21,000 job losses in coming years. And this government doesn't even just sit on its hands; it goes the other way. It seeks to cut further and make it more difficult, and it's done nothing that gives us an indication that it understands the importance of university education and universities to our society. It's gone out of its way to actually exclude public universities from JobKeeper, changing the rules three times to ensure that they don't qualify. It's a disgrace.

Today, Curtin University in Perth announced they needed to cut employment costs by a whopping $41 million. Close to my electorate, the University of Melbourne has cut 450 jobs and there are projected losses of a billion dollars over three years. We're not just talking about students; we're talking about academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security—all of the people who make up university life and university work.

We know that we as a nation will require an additional 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025. These will be required across sectors and will be critical for our economic recovery and growth, and this government, with this bill, is not only wilfully blind to that; it's going in a different direction. This so-called reform is a complete mess. It can't be amended. It can't be fixed. It leads to more-expensive degrees, no guarantee of more places and less money for universities. As always, this Prime Minister's detail and announcement don't match reality.

5:39 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I must say it's a pleasure to be in this building today. I've been rostered off for most of it, but I promise: if there's a vote, I'll leave.

The reality that we now have is this. We are walking into a mountain of debt, and it's a debt that the Labor Party, if they had their way, would actually make even bigger. That means that we're going to have to have a reality check, not on how we got into debt but how we're going to get out of it. Getting out of it—and this is one thing I don't hear anywhere—means you're going to have to have some very honest conversations about where you spend money, where you invest money and where you intend to get a return. So the future is to be one of debt. There are threats from overseas that are becoming paramount, and we're seeing more of them, especially from China. We must have exponential growth to try and bring our economic circumstances back into something that's manageable. And, where the government invests, it has to get a return.

It's an unfortunate reality that, if you just skidded through on an arts degree, you probably would have been better off doing a trade—becoming an electrician or a carpenter. I'm an accountant. I've done the books for both, and I can tell you which ones make more money. Basically, people who are competent in the trades make substantially more money than people who have a matter-of-fact degree, especially an arts degree. So this is the reality that we have to deal with, and if we didn't have the debt that was started right back in the issues surrounding the GFC and the stimulus package—and I might note for this House that I didn't vote for any of them, not one of them—then we could probably have a more generous capacity in a whole range of degrees. But, if we are going to invest, we must invest in where the future lies, and the future is going to lie in the STEM degrees.

Last night we heard about a new avenue opening up before us: how affordable it's going to be to launch a satellite. We're seeing private companies coming into this space, whether it's Virgin or Elon Musk. They have capacity now to take part in that new frontier. Once it was the domain of the Soviets and China and NASA; now it's coming to private enterprise. One of the fastest-growing countries in that area is Australia. Australia has great capacity. But, for that, we need the people with the skill sets.

Another issue I always had was with the NBN and what happens when you invest in a technology. You can invest in water or dams; there's no replacement for that. But, when you invest in technologies, be careful, because they become out of date. Now, with the investment in the new technology, they're talking about broadband speeds from satellites of terabytes per second, which of course means that the NBN will be out of date and obsolete and you can book it as an impairment on your nation's books—an $80 billion or $90 billion impairment. Once more, to be in that space, you're going to need people in the sciences. You're going to need people in those degrees that are at the cutting edge.

In the future of this nation, one of the great strategic advantages we'll have will be in agriculture. But you are not going to survive in agriculture unless you're at the very top. If you think you're going to just be in agriculture then you'll just be in agriculture with Somalia and Kenya and Mongolia and a whole heap of other countries that are just in agriculture as well. But if you want to actually make a premium for our nation then you'll have to be at the very top, and to be at the very top means that you have to have the skill sets, whether they're in such things as genetics or nutrition or pastures. Those skill sets are absolutely essential.

We can look back through history to see why we are sustained at the moment and why we can sustain a world population of between seven and eight billion people. It's because of the investment we made in the so-called green revolution—the utilisation of fertilisers and other agricultural inputs. That's the only reason we have the capacity to feed the world's population as it is now. Now we've eaten that up, and, as we go on towards 10 billion people, we're going to have to make that next quantum leap. And where are the skill sets going to have to come from? I'm just being a realist: they're not going to come from the arts faculty but from people in the sciences, who have those skill sets. For the satellites, the people will not come from the arts faculty; they'll be the people with the skill sets in physics and chemistry and mathematics. The telecommunications of the future are going to comefrom people with those skill sets; they will not come from the arts faculty.

We're dealing right now with the COVID-19 pandemic , and people are in a race. We know the first person to develop a vaccine will own half of Babylon . They'll be the richest person in Babylon . And they're all lining up. We ' ve got Oxford University , and I note there are some concerns about the source material . M y own position, I have to say, is that I don't agree with material from an aborted person being utilised as the base material for the development of vaccines. I have to say that because it is my philosophical belief . But , moving on, w e've also got the Chinese who are moving forward in that space, racing forward ; we've got the Americans racing forward , and we've also got the University of Queensland racing forward. At this stage, i t looks like Oxford is at the front of the pack . And where are the se people coming from ; where are their skill sets coming from ? They're coming from the science faculties.

As marvellous as the arts are—and I love having a conversation with a person of letters ( I have written a book myself, not that I profess to be a person of great literary merit ) and of course it's an incredibly beautiful thing — we have to deal with the reality of the world we're about to walk into. Soon, in the coming years , our debt will pass a trillion dollars. And it isn't just a word. I t doesn't stop there. It keeps marching forward. We' re going to be leaving that debt for our children and grandchildren, because we ' re never going to repay it , and giving them the task of trying to manage it . So we have to provide the nation with people with the skill sets to do it, and the skill sets of those people, as much as we would love them to come from a knowledge of Shakespeare , are probably going to come more from a knowledge of chemistry and physics, mathematics , biochemistry , biomaths and those areas.

I'm not saying for one second there is not merit and virtue in any de gree. If we hadn't, way back before 2010, start ed spending money and putting it on the credit card like there was no tomorrow , then we wouldn't have to make a decision between this one or that one. But we do. We do. And those decisions and that corner that we're in are going to become more pronounced, whether we're the government , or the Labor Party and their associates are the government. It won't matter. The Expenditure Review Committee will follow the same patter, the same discussion , and it will be about this: s avings —o r , more to the point, 'Y ou don't have to worry about spending , because there ain't no money there. ' There is no money to spend.

P art of this process, and I'm trying to be as honest as that, as chair of the committee, is that there will be a need for the near ly four million degrees that the previous speaker, the member for Wills, was telling us about. There are no arguments about that . But we've got to make sure that we focus that investment by this nation—b ecause , overwhelmingly , university degrees are paid for by the taxpayer. They're n ot paid for by the student . And I've got four kids who go to university . They're paid for by the taxpayer and they'll be paid for by the taxpayer in the future. The person who's out on the building site as a labourer, the person who' s in the shed as a shearer, the person who ' s on the road as a plant operator, the person who ' s on the farm and never went to university — they're the people who are actually paying for the university degrees that other people are getting, and you 've got to ask what ' s fair to them. It's not just a position seen through one set of eyes. There 's the beneficiary , but there's also the benefactor —a nd the benefactor is the taxpayer, a nd , in many instances , the taxpayer never went to university . S o they also have a right to be heard in this debate and they also have requirements that need to be addressed.

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

The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

5:49 pm

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

[by video link] I speak today on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. There's so much wrong with this bill that I don't know where to start, but how about I commence with the Orwellian title, the bit that says 'supporting regional and remote students'? There is nothing in this bill that will support regional and remote students, nothing at all. The National Party members of the coalition should hang their heads in shame for betraying the bush. Maybe that's why it wasn't mentioned by the previous speaker, because this bill makes it harder and more expensive for all students to go to uni whether they live in a region or a remote part of Australia or not. Under this policy nearly twice as many regional and remote students will have to pay the highest rate of student fees. The Treasurer takes the gold while bush kids get the shaft.

Regional universities will be much worse off. Regional universities, like the University of New England, in Armidale, deliver a greater proportion of courses that will have funding cut than non-regional universities. So much for the National Party standing up for their regional communities. They are patting themselves on the back for their lobbying efforts when they really just folded faster than superman can on washing day, in greenlighting this policy. It's the bush communities, the regional communities, that will suffer more than others.

What this bill will actually do and what the government says of it are two very different things. The government says the purpose of this policy is to provide additional university places and to redirect university enrolments to areas of study linked to jobs that are in demand in the labour market. This, perhaps, seems like a reasonably sound basis for a policy, on the face of it, if only this legislation actually did that. The effect of the bill, however, is to increase the student fee load and cut funding provided by the Commonwealth. Treasurer Frydenberg gets the saving while young Australians actually pay more. How is that fair, particularly in these times of a COVID pandemic? Basically, overall our universities will receive less funding to teach students and the university sector will be facing a funding cut of around $1 billion a year. That cut is on top of the $16 billion projected revenue drop from international students being locked out of the country and the $2.2 billion in cuts already made to university funding by the Liberal and National Party government.

Students will be paying more for their degrees. On average, students will be paying seven per cent more for their degrees. Students studying humanities will see their fees jump from $27,216 up to $58,000 for a four-year degree. Forty per cent of students will be paying more than double for the same qualification. Their fees will be increasing by $14,500 per year. We're not talking about medical degrees here. The degrees that will double in price are degrees in the humanities, commerce and communications—degrees that this government thinks produces graduates that are less employable. I am pretty sure that there are actually quite a few graduates of those disciplines occupying the government benches in the current parliament.

The minister claimed, in a media release on Sunday, that degree holders with the lowest full-time employment rates after three years included humanities and communications graduates. In fact, if the minister had done his own homework he would know that recent research shows that people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. But rather than admit that he got it wrong, the minister reportedly blamed his senior media adviser—and still didn't provide the correct data.

Even worse than misreading this data, Minister Tehan's policy will actually do the opposite of what he promises. The government wants to encourage enrolments in maths, science and engineering. That is a noble and strategic aim, but what the bill actually does is reduce the money that universities will receive to provide these courses. Consequently, there will be a disincentive for the universities to provide more places in these courses or to provide these courses at all.

The government claims that this policy will create 39,000 new places over three years, but even if it does that would be woefully inadequate in terms of meeting demand. There is nothing in the policy to account for the expected increased demand due to the recession or for the increased enrolments due to the so-called 'Costello babies' now reaching university age.

This policy is a mess. It's a dog's breakfast. It will cut billions from the university sector, a sector hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but even before that the Liberals had been cutting and neglecting this crucial and important sector. This is a sector that is a foundation of the Australian economy. It is our fourth-largest export industry. The Liberals in their 2017 MYEFO cut $2.2 billion from universities and re-capped undergraduate places, so 200,000 students miss out on the opportunity of university places because of that cap. We know that, if the Liberals had their way, students would already be paying $100,000 for their degrees. They've forced students to pay off their HELP debts earlier, when they earn as little as $46,000, which is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. This year, international students have been locked out, and that has caused a massive hit to our universities' coffers. Those full-fee-paying foreign students actually help to fund the degrees of other, Australian students.

For months, Labor has been asking the federal government to step in, help universities and save jobs. Instead, they've ignored the member for Sydney and done nothing—less than zero, in fact. So far, thousands of jobs have been lost across the country, and there are more to come. More are being announced regularly. Campuses have been closed. Not only have the government done nothing to help universities; the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. Three times he has changed the rules to ensure that universities are ineligible.

Regional universities have been particularly hard hit. The impact on these communities is going to be devastating. Universities in regional communities support 14,000 jobs, including not just the academics, the tutors, the admin staff and the library staff but the catering staff, the ground staff, the cleaners and the security staff—and on it goes. They are big employers in cities like Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Wollongong, Armidale, Bathurst, Newcastle, Ballarat, Bendigo, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Launceston and Burnie, to name a few. All of those workers have families, and they're just trying to get through this challenging year and put food on the table and a roof over their heads. But the Morrison government hasn't lifted a finger to help them.

The universities themselves are doing remarkable work during this very difficult time. Look at their researchers working around the clock to find a vaccine—a big shout-out to the University of Queensland especially. They have some promising trials occurring right now. Universities may end up saving humanity, but they can't rely on this Morrison government to protect their jobs.

This bill will also have greater impact on two other groups: women and First Nations people. Many of the degrees which will incur the fee increases have larger enrolments of female students and First Nations students. Twice the number of First Nations students will be enrolled in the highest-fee-paying courses, and the average female student's contributions will increase by 10 per cent. The First Nations students' contributions will increase by 15 per cent. That will cost those students $9,550 a year.

This bill also includes provision for students to lose access to government support if they fail more than half their subjects. This is a punitive measure that is not going to help students to be job ready. This policy, coupled with the funding cut, will see reduced support for students who are struggling—perhaps only temporarily struggling—and just need a helping hand. Even worse, the policy would create an incentive for universities to lower standards so fewer students fail. This is another ill-thought-out policy that won't achieve its stated aim.

This bill has been criticised by experts in the university sector as well as industry groups. Bronwyn Evans, the CEO of Engineers Australia, says:

… the … Government's announced changes … may … lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

The Australian Council of Deans of Science says: 'Cost is not a critical driver for students to study STEM, and it will not serve to generate more STEM-capable graduates if the funding changes undermine the capacity of universities to produce them. The funds that will come to university science to produce graduates will shrink by 16 per cent under the Job-ready Graduates proposal—less from each student and less from the government.' Julie Bishop, the Chancellor of ANU and a former Liberal minister, says:

My concern is that under these new arrangements, there is a greater incentive for universities to take in a higher number of law, commerce and humanities students than there is to take in students in engineering and maths … that appears to be contrary to the government’s policy intentions.

That message from Julie Bishop could not be clearer.

It's remarkable that a government minister, Minister Tehan, could get this policy so wrong, but not when you realise the policy assumptions that Minister Tehan has relied upon. Flaw No. 1: the experts say students will not choose their study discipline through price signals. Flaw No. 2: the pricing model used to calculate average university teaching costs is weak, and the authors of the research caution against using their finding for that purpose. Flaw No. 3: the job demand modelling is based on labour market forecasting done before the COVID crisis, which is highly likely to skew those figures. So this policy now before the chamber is a putrid, stinking mess—and a dangerous one at that.

The students in year 12 right now are the ones who will be most disadvantaged by this policy. The seniors of 2020 need a helping hand. They have had such a tough, uncertain year already. No other year 12 cohort has had to endure a final year of schooling quite like the one they have endured—online classes and less face-to-face time with their mates and teachers. They've had their sports and cultural activities curtailed, many have had their formals cancelled, and perhaps there will even be no schoolies in Queensland for most of them. Now the Prime Minister is going to make it harder and more expensive for many of them to go to university. I know how excited I was at the end of my schooling—the promise of learning in an environment that fostered ideas and promised a future paved with opportunity and a new career. I understand the importance of education both from my time as a student—and from being the parent of students—and from my time as a teacher.

Labor has always valued education. It is a great transformational social policy area. Lives are changed, lives are saved and lives are improved. When in government, Labor ensured that a university education was never out of reach for our best and brightest. Labor invested in universities, boosting university investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. From 2012 we opened up the system with demand-driven funding so that an additional 195,000 Australians were able to go to university, and we ensured that structural disadvantage did not preclude a university education. An extra 220,000 Australians were given the opportunity of a university education under Labor policies.

We know that if you lock someone out of an education you can lock them out of employment. This government doesn't seem to understand that. Investing in Australian universities is good for all of us, but this policy before the chamber is a complete mess—a great steaming mess. No amendment can fix this. The minister needs to rip it up, do some homework and start again. I cannot support this bill. No person who believes in education could.

6:02 pm

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

[by video link] This bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, must be stopped. This bill would double the cost of many university degrees and cut university funding. This is a dog act from a bunch of selfish politicians who got free university themselves and now want to bury young people under a mountain of debt. Make no mistake: if this bill goes through, it could take 20 years to pay off a three-year arts degree. And it's not just going to be the cost of arts degrees that doubles; everyone will be hit, some worse than others. Law and business degrees are going to rise by about 28 per cent. For all those other courses where the government says, 'Oh, no, it's okay, we're going to leave you better off', don't believe the spin.

This bill also means universities get less money for teaching, and students, on the whole, have to pay more. At the moment the balance is about 58 per cent to 42 per cent between the government and students. This bill is going to shift that so that students end up paying about 48 per cent, not 42 per cent, of the costs of universities. In other words, universities are going to get less and students are going to have to pay more—some will have to pay double what they are now—and it could take them up to 20 years to pay off the cost of a three-year degree.

Why is this happening? Very simply, it's happening because the Liberals do not want people to get educated, because then they might not vote for them. That's what this is all about. This is an ideological attack from a government that has it in for universities and for people getting educated in this country. They look at the United States and think, 'What a great way to go.' In the United States you can only go to university if you're rich, or if your parents start saving from the day that you're born or sell their house. That is the vision that this government has for Australia. Not many people look to the United States and think, 'Jeez, we'd like to be more like them when it comes to education,' but that's what this Trump-following government does. This bill will make Australia a more unequal society like the United States, where education is the privilege of a few, of the rich, instead of being for everyone.

Education in Australia should be a right. It is not a privilege, it is a right. Everyone should have the right to go to university or TAFE or do whatever level of education they want. And you shouldn't be worried that if you go to university you're going to graduate with a debt the size of a small mortgage that might take you decades to pay off. But that's what this bill will do. That will mean fewer people will go to university, because they will be worried about carrying that debt for most of their lifetimes. That's what this bill is designed to do—deter people from going to university. As I said, the Liberals are worried that, if you go to university, you might get educated and you might then decide not to vote Liberal. So they are attacking universities right across the board. We know they've got it in for universities. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister got up and beat his chest and pretended to be concerned about jobs. One area where he could save jobs is in universities, because they are government funded. But what did he do? Instead of giving them a lifeline so they can keep employing people, he pulled it. He gave JobKeeper to the private sector but then pulled it from universities, so universities now have to sack thousands of people across the country. The government is pushing universities to sack people in the middle of a recession.

If you look at any other place around the world, at any other time in history, the lesson is very clear. In the middle of a recession or a depression, what you do? The government, where it can, invests to keep people on the payroll, to keep employment high. Otherwise, you end up with Depression-era jobless queues snaking around the corner. What does this government do? It oversees the sacking of people from universities—and it is deliberate. This is about social engineering from the Liberal government. This is about the government saying there are certain people it doesn't want educated—people who are poor or come from a working-class background or who might not think the same way as the Liberals. The Liberals only want people going to university if you can afford to pay for it—and not everyone in this country can. This is something the Liberals probably don't understand.

My dad was the first person in his family to go to university. It wasn't something that wasn't done in his family. It was a very working-class family. He was able to go to university because it was free—or close to free. He knew that he would be able to afford it and wouldn't graduate with a massive debt hanging around his neck. As a result of that, he managed to go on and give back to his community in a way he would not have been able to do had he not gone to university. He helped set up Lifeline in South Australia. He studied courses at university that helped him look after other members of the community. Similarly, my mum was able to learn to become a teacher and go and do other courses as well.

All of that is under threat if bills like this one get passed. People will then worry about whether they will be able to afford to pay it off and whether it is really worth the investment. And then they decide not to go to university, which is precisely what the Liberals want. When it comes to university fees, if the Liberals are looking around at how much university should cost, I've got a simple answer. When it comes to university, the only acceptable cost for a degree is zero dollars. That's what it should cost to get a university degree in this country. And we can afford it if we stop giving handouts to billionaires and big corporations. If we have a fair, progressive tax system in this country and we don't go ahead with giving tax cuts to billionaires, which Liberal and Labor voted for, which is going to cost the budgets billions of dollars, if we decide to make our society equal we can have free education for everyone in this country.

It is not a pipedream. Yes, things have to be paid for. And the question is: what is the fairest way to pay for it? Is having arts students paying double the debt and having a debt hanging around their neck for 20 years the fairest way to pay for it? Or is not giving tax cuts to millionaires the fairest way to pay for it? Maybe we could rethink the Labor and Liberal tax cuts to millionaires package, stop giving handouts to those who can afford it, and instead have free education in this country. That is what we need to do now, more than ever, as we deal with the effects of the coronavirus, because we know the coronavirus has brought about an economic crisis in this country, and the burden of that has been disproportionately felt by young people.

Before the coronavirus crisis started, three out of 10 young people in this country either had no job or not enough hours at work. I think that's a national crisis and a national shame. Within a month of the coronavirus distancing restrictions happening, it jumped up so that four in 10 young people either didn't have a job or didn't have enough hours of work. And the jobs that many young people were looking forward to—it's going to take a long time for those industries to get back on their feet. Areas like arts, hospitality, tourism and education will not go back to the way they were before, if they go back at all, because of social distancing restrictions that may well linger from the coronavirus. So young people are looking at a very bleak jobs future, indeed, under this government.

What we should be doing is offering young people—not more debt, not more attacks—a guarantee and some hope. We can do it if we have the courage to stand up to the billionaires and stop giving out unfair tax breaks to big corporations. We could fund, instead, a guarantee for young people, where every young person in this country has a guaranteed place at a university or TAFE, has a guaranteed income that they can live on, or a guaranteed job, if they want it, working on some nation-building, planet-saving projects as we invest in industries to tackle the climate emergency and make Australia more creative and equal.

We have two ways out of this crisis. We either stand up to the big corporations who've been making a mint while this crisis has being going on and stop giving handouts to millionaires and billionaires and, instead, say, 'You've got to pay your fair share,' and we can take that money and use it to invest in nation-building, planet-saving, job-creating projects and give young people a guaranteed place at university or TAFE—a guarantee that's free—a guaranteed job or a guaranteed income they can live on, or we can go down the road that the government is taking us. That is where Australia turns into a US-style unequal society: if you want to go to university, you'd better hope you've got rich parents who can start saving from your birth; otherwise, it'll be out of your reach. We'll end up with a society, under this government, where young people can't find a job either.

The government has a very big track record in blaming people for not finding jobs that aren't there. When you've got 13 or so people competing for every one job vacancy that's there, when you have young people facing, on the government's projections, high unemployment for months if not years to come, you can't punish them even further by putting them into more debt because they choose to go to university. The government is forcing people to make a terrible choice. They're saying, 'If you go to university you're going to end up with a debt that's saddled around your neck for 20 years or so,' and, on the other hand, they're saying, 'By the way, there are no jobs available in the job market, so what are you going to do? We're going to cut JobSeeker or the unemployment assistance as well.'

The government is giving young people the middle finger with this bill and saying that it does not care about the future of young people. This bill must be stopped, because it would fundamentally alter who is able to get a university education in this country and what Australia looks like. It's an attack on equality in Australia. It's an attack on democracy in Australia. Most of all, it is an attack on young people. Young people have been suffering enough. It is time to bin this bill, to say we need free education and say we'll stand up to the millionaires and the billionaires and the big corporations and make them pay their fair share so that in this wealthy country of ours everyone is entitled to a university education, no matter how much money they earn or where they come from. This bill must be stopped.

6:14 pm

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

The Prime Minister speaks of giving hope but his actions aren't matching his words, and this legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, is an example of that. This legislation takes away hope, takes away hope from young people, and it should not be passed by this parliament.

We're in the midst of a recession. Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in just the last few months. There are fewer job opportunities for people leaving school. They have little hope of planning a gap year for next year to expand their horizons, so study is the obvious route for them. And what does this Prime Minister want to do? He wants to jack up the cost of a university degree for those thousands of students. This legislation makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. It saves the government about a billion dollars, but students will pay more for degrees. Thousands of students will pay more than double for the same degree that other students are currently looking at. Forty per cent of students will have fees increased to $14,500 a year. That might not seem a lot if you're paying $30,000 at an elite private school for your year 12 education. But, for most families, that $14,500 is a killer. That's the difference between being able to say, 'Yes, we're pushing you to go to university' and 'Wow, that's a debt that's going to take a long time to repay.'

Right upfront, I want to deal with one of the misconceptions of this legislation. The government say that they want to encourage students to take certain degrees to be job ready. I'll deal with some of the nonsense of that statement shortly. But, to this issue of encouraging people to take certain courses, such as maths, science and engineering, among others: as always, what the Prime Minister delivers doesn't match the promise. This legislation actually reduces the money universities will receive to deliver those very same courses. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in those STEM disciplines. People studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degree than doctors and dentists. They'll also take maybe twice as long to repay the costs of those degrees. Yet there is no evidence that these degrees make students any less employable than other degrees. In fact, the most recent research shows that people with a humanities degree have the same employment rates as those with a science or maths degree—87 per cent, no matter which degree you're doing.

In this place, there are many of us with a communications degree. I didn't go and study communications because I thought I would use it to become a member of parliament. You don't know what your journey's going to be when you're an 18- or 19-year-old university student. Those degrees offer a pathway. Every member of the Prime Minister's cabinet went to university—many went for free—but they don't think anyone else's kids deserve the same opportunity.

I want to talk to you about the sorts of kids who are going to be scared off a university education if this bill passes, thanks to this Liberal government—the kids who, when they start their degree, don't know what they want to be when they grow up, but for whom it is a step in the journey of being an employable, contributing member of our society. I'm not going to give you the statistics; I'm going to give you just one person's story.

This is part of Ellie's story. She's given me permission to tell it. By the end of year 11 at her Blue Mountains public high school, Ellie was living out of home. She was bright, and she wanted to finish year 12 and go to university. She didn't really know what university would be like. No-one in her family had been to university. Getting through year 12 was a struggle, but she did it, supported by some wonderful teachers. With some special consideration, her marks resulted in an offer of an arts degree at the University of New South Wales. Even then, a decade ago, she was really uneasy about the debt that she'd be building up by doing this degree. People were saying to her: 'Well, what's an arts degree? What does it give you at the end? What job does it skill you for?' Ellie lived with me during her first year of university, and no doubt it was a struggle still. Meeting the deadlines for essays would bring on waves of self-doubt about whether she was capable of it. Friends not at uni would tell her that she could always quit. But my message to her was: of course it's hard—it's meant to be hard, and your brain is meant to work hard, but it will get easier. And it did.

Ellie's degree allowed her to explore all sorts of disciplines, from philosophy to languages, global development, psychology and international relations. She got to have a taste of all of those. She took a bit longer to finish her degree, because it took her a while to work out which discipline was for her. In the end, she thrived and discovered a love of how society works and of social justice issues. She was offered an honours year, and she completed that, learning even more the ability to explore, sort and make meaning of large volumes of information and ideas—exactly the sorts of skills we need in this information-rich age that we live in.

On finishing her degree, Ellie moved to Darwin and, after persistence, found herself working in a variety of government departments, including on the Territory government's response to the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, and she worked on policy around the foster child care system. She learned how policy is developed and how is it, or isn't, implemented. When she began her degree, if I'd said to her, 'Hey, Ellie, this is where you'll be; this is what you'll do,' she would not have believed me. I couldn't imagine where she would go, but I knew she would find herself on this journey and become a really valuable member of our public service. But she hasn't stopped there. She would not have imagined that she would now be living in Newcastle, working in the mental health sector and doing her PhD, doing research around the carers of people with mental illness. I asked Ellie just the other day if she would have pursued an arts degree at university a decade ago if she'd faced a $14,000-a-year bill for it, and she said, 'No way.' Her decision at the time was already a leap of faith.

This is the sort of student that this government wants to deny an opportunity—an opportunity to explore their potential. They're saying to people, 'You have to be rich to get a university degree in certain humanities subjects,' or in commerce, or in business, for goodness sake! This cannot be denied to all those students who have potential, who haven't yet had the opportunity to reach that potential. Those opposite talk about aspiration. How dare they say that a student like Ellie shouldn't aspire? They say that she should know her place—that she should not have the same future that they want for their children.

So where are we now? Let's think about the timing of this legislation. It is so unfair that the government is raising this matter as year 12 students are facing what we all look at as the toughest year any year 12 has had in their schooling and as they're preparing for their final exams. They've had a year of uncertainty. Many of us have been parents of year 12 students and we know what it's like in a regular year, let alone a pandemic. While there's a world of uncertainty for them, here the Morrison government is throwing uncertainty and trepidation into their future university aspirations. The bottom line is that this law would shift the cost of education further to students, and the Commonwealth would be contributing less.

In spite of this, we know that it's not that people don't want to go to uni—they do. Right now the demand for university places has surged. In New South Wales, twice as many people have applied for university this year as last year, and yet the cap remains, and there are not going to be enough extra places to meet this increase in demand. Where they've promised new places, the government have provided no new funding.

In fact, there's an extra kick in this for aspiring university students living in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. The electorate of Macquarie has been classed as a low-growth area. What does that mean? That means we get a lower allocation of university places. It must suit the political leanings of those opposite to make these sorts of decisions, to make sure that many people in large swathes of Western Sydney, which is the fastest-growing area in New South Wales and probably in Australia, will have even fewer options to go to university. Under these reforms, the whole package of reform that this bill sits within, there is less support for low-SES students—that is, disadvantaged students. While those opposite might crow about some benefits in some regional areas, those benefits are taken away from Western Sydney. Western Sydney is paying the price for this government refusing to put more money into the system.

For months now we have been calling out the government's approach to universities. It has constantly tried to take funding away and limit the ability of universities to offer the sorts of education we want our children to have. JobKeeper is a classic example of that, and the Prime Minister has done nothing to stop job losses. He has failed to provide JobKeeper for universities, even changing the rules three times to make sure that universities are not eligible for JobKeeper. And we're not just talking academics, we're talking tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners and security—all of these people who work within the confines of a university campus who are now desperately trying to make ends meet. We know that the job losses are already more than 3,000, with thousands more to come. University Australia is forecasting 21,000 job losses in coming years, and yet the Prime Minister talks about giving people hope. By this very action, by this legislation, hope is what's being taken away.

Interestingly, when I started my communications degree, like most people, I didn't think about where it would go, but if I were going back in time now, having to think not just about the journey but about the price that I would pay for that journey, I don't know if I would have made that choice either. I was ambivalent. I picked a degree and said, 'I will see what it's like.' One of the things we're taking away from our young people is the opportunity to make a mistake, to pick the wrong degree and to then be able to start on something else. Everything I've seen about young people shows we just need to get them to take that first step. I just don't know how those opposite can live with themselves knowing that they are removing that sort of hope from so many people. Really, all I think about is how dare they do this. How dare they do it to young people and their families. It's parents and teachers who, right now, are trying to keep an even keel for students at this time. How dare they dictate to young people what their future studies should be. How dare they tell young people by their actions that they should study this but not that.

How dare they say to young people that learning for its own sake is not enough and everybody should value learning. We talk about that going through school: that we should learn to love learning. To value some learning above others, when all learning, whether it's university or TAFE, has value, is an absolute disgrace. And how dare they deny the Ellies of today the chance to be ambitious. How dare they take away hope, but that's exactly what this legislation does.

6:28 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'd like to acknowledge that I'm speaking on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

What a friendless bill this is. It is so friendless that even the coalition's partner the Nationals don't even really like it. This is a dangerous bill. It's dangerous because it will mean that Australia and Australians will be far the worse for it. It is dangerous because it has the potential to see this country go backwards. It's dangerous because it will stymy the potential that we know Australia harbours, that we harbour in the minds and the future growth of our youth. It's dangerous because it tells some of our brightest and most ambitious young folk that they are not valued, that their talents are not wanted and that their potential is not worth the time or the trouble to invest in. What kind of government would say and do that to our future?

Despite the hubris and the marketing speak of the minister, this is a bill that will make it harder and more expensive to go to university. This is a bill that gives universities fewer resources and then asks them to do more with less. This is a bill that does not begin to expand places nearly enough to meet the huge growth in demand we've already seen from students who want to go to university or TAFE. This is a bill that says it's promoting science and engineering when in fact it actually does the exact opposite, and it is a bill that says social sciences or humanities have no value. It's a disgraceful and dangerous bill. Perhaps if the member for Wannon had undertaken a degree in social sciences, he might have actually helped draft a bill that assisted kids to go to university. You'd think that a government would want that. As it currently stands, the bill will make it harder and more expensive for our kids to go to university. As the National Tertiary Education Union said, it's a headline-grabbing assortment of student fee hikes and student fee discounts that has cunningly hidden the government's most important decision—to make real cuts to university funding and real increases to the average fees paid by Australian students.

I'd like to acknowledge my colleague the member for Sydney for her incredible work on this. She is the real deal. She knows what it takes to be the smart country, to unlock potential and to make kids feel valued for who they are and for what strengths they have. Labor's position on this is loud and clear: we do not support this bill. We do not love this bill. Deputy Speaker, let me count the ways and take you to the depths and breadths of the problems with this bill.

Firstly, many students will pay more, some much more than others. This Liberal government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support people in a pandemic. Thanks to the union movement and thanks to Labor, they were forced into a position where they had to agree to a package to help those affected by the crisis. But, of course, they left many people out, and we've had a lot to say about that. The fact is that this government does not like supporting everyday people. We know how they feel about Medicare. They think if you're sick, you should pay for your own health care. If you're unemployed, bad luck—it's your fault. If you're young, you don't deserve help. If you're old—well, we know what they think about that. And if you want a good education, you can pay for it yourself.

Only last week, I think it was, the Treasurer confirmed this when he wistfully invoked the memories of Thatcher and Reagan, confirming that he and his government don't believe in society. They think there are only individuals out there, on their own, with their bootstraps. So it's no surprise to see that the central purpose of this legislation is to push the cost of education onto students, onto individuals. As I said, it's in the Liberal Party's DNA to make individuals bear a larger share of the cost of their education and for the government to bear as little as possible.

On average under this legislation, students will pay seven per cent more for their degrees. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 a year—doubling the cost for thousands. Some students will see increases of 113 per cent. That means people studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degrees than doctors and dentists. Year 12 students have persevered through incredible uncertainty this year. The last thing we should be doing right now is making it harder and more expensive for kids to get into university or saying to them, 'Your strengths, your potential, are not valued.' We are in the depths of recession. Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in recent months alone. True to the Liberal government, they say, 'Bad luck'. As the member for Sydney said earlier, how dare you limit the potential of some of our kids. In a country like Australia, every child should have the opportunity to go to university to fulfil their own potential.

The second main problem with this bill is that it is a pea and thimble trick. Universities will get less to do more. If you actually believed the minister, you would think this bill was flooding the higher ed sector with money, but the effect of this bill, as I said, is to actually increase the student fee burden but at the same time reduce the Commonwealth funding to the sector—and not by a small amount, either. It will cut $1 billion from universities. The average funding per student paid to universities will drop by 5.8 per cent. By reducing expenditure in the higher-cost disciplines, the government is expecting universities to deliver high-quality teaching and student support with even less funding. These cuts are on top of the $16 billion projected revenue drop due to the loss of international students and the $2.2 billion cuts already made to university funding by the government. La Trobe University in my electorate has been hit hard: hundreds of jobs lost and no access to JobKeeper. As we know, the government specifically changed the rules in universities to access JobKeeper.

But wait; there's more. The third major problem is that it has built in perverse incentives. It's completely unclear what on earth the member for Wannon was trying to achieve here, but the incentives in their legislation work against the stated aims of the government's own policy. Either they think the Australian people are stupid or they themselves are not really very bright. In areas where the government want greater enrolment, they are paying universities less per student. To be clear, while promising to support the study of maths, science and engineering, this legislation reduces the money that universities will receive to provide those courses. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in these disciplines and a perverse incentive to enrol students in other areas which will deliver more funding. I ask you: go figure, Deputy Speaker.

A fourth issue with this bill is: what's wrong with studying humanities? What's wrong with studying commerce or social sciences? I think this is the part of the legislation that infuriates me the most. It's an attack on humanities degrees with the assumption built in that graduates of these degrees amount to nothing or add no value. In fact the job prospects of humanities students are very healthy. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. Humanities degrees are the ones that teach students how to critically study the world. As Robert French, Chancellor of UWA and former High Court Chief Justice, said:

Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

I'm not talking about the more obscure courses. The mainstream of humanities allows teachers and universities to transmit our history and our society to students.

What's wrong with having more experts in the humanities? What's wrong with having more experts in child welfare? What's wrong with having experts in family and domestic violence, in helping disadvantaged youth in drug and alcohol recovery, or in international relations? What's wrong with having more authors and more people shaping our cultural growth? And what's wrong with having success stories like that told by the previous speaker, the wonderful member for Macquarie, about the young woman, Ellie, who is so successful in doing research improving lives? We need more critical thinkers, especially when we have people like the member for Hughes peddling dangerous myths, when my inbox is swamped with people sucked in by crazy conspiracy theories and when international diplomatic expertise is vitally important. Surely we need more people to study humanities, not fewer.

This bill is reckless. It makes it more expensive to go to university. It cuts university funding. It doesn't even set out to do what it's supposed to do. It locks kids out of their full potential, and it will send Australia backwards. This bill is a dangerous bill, and, no, we do not support it.

6:39 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very proud to stand in this chamber, along with my Labor colleagues, in strong opposition to this bill before the House, and I am also very pleased to support the amendment moved by the member for Sydney earlier today. I thank her for standing up for young Australians and for tertiary education in this country.

Both young Australians and the tertiary education sector have a lot at stake with this legislation before the House. I note that there have not been an overwhelming number of government speakers on this bill, which is a little surprising, given the purported significance of this bill according to the ministers. The Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 is a very obvious and shameful attack by the Morrison government on universities and young Australians alike. It rips $1 billion out of universities, right at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It makes getting to university harder and more expensive for young Australians. It forces students to pay higher fees, on average, and thousands will miss out on a university education altogether because the Morrison Liberal government is failing to produce enough places.

The government likes to pretend that this legislation is designed to encourage students to take up courses like STEM, yet it is slashing the amount that universities will receive for these very same courses. How on earth does that make sense? At the same time, it is waging a fevered ideological attack on the very foundations of critical thinking—the humanities—by hiking the cost of these courses by 113 per cent. Let's not forget that every single one of the Prime Minister's cabinet ministers went to uni. Indeed, they've got 51 degrees between them. It was good enough for them, but now they want to pull the ladder up behind them so that future generations can't benefit.

This will hit thousands of young Australians hard and at the very worst possible time in our nation's history. Almost one in five Australians under the age of 20 and more than one in 10 of those aged between 20 and 29 have lost their jobs since this pandemic hit. Now, with youth unemployment sitting at more than 16 per cent, the only alternative to university for many Australians is going to be a dole queue. This is an outrageous proposition. We know that our universities should be a critical part of our economic recovery plan. Instead, the Morrison government is starving them of funds.

I'm particularly concerned about the impact this plan will have on my university, the University of Newcastle, and on our world-class enabling programs in particular, which have had all loadings removed from Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. This legislation also instates annual growth funding of 3.5 for regional campuses, but, shamefully, the University of Newcastle won't be able to access this, because it's been classified as metropolitan despite an excessive regional presence. Make no mistake, this legislation is damaging, it is reckless and it is going to hurt our young people and hold back our economic recovery.

Universities make a massive contribution to our country and our economy. They support a staggering 260,000 jobs, including 14,000 in regional communities like mine. But the sector is now in dire straits as COVID-19 restrictions shut the door on international students and slash billions of dollars from universities' income. It is estimated that, without support, 21,000 university jobs will go in just the next six months. In fact, it's already started, with thousands of job cuts already announced by universities across Australia.

With such devastating consequences you'd think the government would do anything to provide a lifeline to this critical sector, wouldn't you? Astoundingly, they haven't. Indeed, at every turn, at every opportunity, the Morrison government have refused point blank to help. They've even gone out of their way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper, changing the rules three times to ensure they did not qualify. Now they're levelling a further billion dollars worth of cuts at possibly the worst time in history. Australian universities hold the key to our recovery and indeed our future prosperity, but this government seems hell-bent on kicking them when they're down.

I'd like to just go to a couple of parts of this legislation in detail—matters I flagged in my opening remarks. As I mentioned, this plan more than doubles the fees for people studying humanities now. They will go up from $27,216 to $58,000 for a four-year degree. The government tries to justify this with a shameless ruse about prioritising job-ready courses. Of course, we know this to be a nonsense. Indeed, it has now been thoroughly demolished by data that came out this week showing humanities graduates have exactly the same post-study employment rate as those who studied science or maths. This is clearly a brazen attempt by the Liberal government to socially engineer outcomes by hiking the costs of degrees that they don't want people to study. But why? If it's not just about jobs, what on earth is going on? Some say it's the outcome of conservative ideology and a longstanding disdain for the humanities. Others think this gives the Liberals too much credit for acting in line with any sort of values. They would argue that this is about partisan politics pure and simple. So great is the Liberals' fear of a critically thinking and, it must be said, disproportionately progressively voting citizenry that they'll use any means they can to cut this off at the source. Whatever the motivation, it is not rooted in evidence, and our entire nation will be the poorer if it proceeds.

On the other side of the fence, we have the STEMM funding. The government tell us that they want to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine. That's great. These are all strong skill sets from the University of Newcastle, I can assure you, and there will certainly be plenty of opportunities for these graduates from STEMM and their skills in the years to come. But the government's argument about STEMM rapidly comes unstuck when you learn that, rather than encouraging universities to enhance their STEMM offerings, they're slashing the funding that universities receive for these courses. You might recall, Deputy Speaker, that I just said what strong suits these subjects are for the University of Newcastle, but they don't get to benefit in any way, shape or form from additional funding. Indeed, this legislation is creating a disincentive for universities to offer STEMM places. Let's be clear. This isn't about fostering the great scientific and mathematical minds of the future; it's about cutting funding to universities, pure and simple. This bill slashes $1 billion at a time when we are going to need an extra 3.8 million Australians to get a tertiary education by 2025. This is unconscionable and absolutely against the national interest.

I'd like to turn now to a matter about the enabling programs which I feel very passionate about, as indeed does my community. The complete lack of certainty about ongoing funding arrangements for enabling programs is deeply worrying. Enabling programs offer people an alternative pathway to university, and they've been doing so for decades. There are now tens of thousands of university graduates who might have never gone to university at all had it not been for an enabling program. Regrettably, the bill before us today removes all enabling course loadings from the Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding, when its replacement program is not yet developed or included in this legislation. It gives zero certainty to the Indigenous, regional and low-SES attainment funding that would support all the enabling students who are currently eligible. On the contrary, if this fund proceeds as it has been foreshadowed, up to 60 per cent of enabling students, including those with disability and those who don't fit neatly into equity categories, may be ineligible for funding. This could potentially slash support for this important program by over $20 million if other provisions are not made.

As the nation's oldest and largest provider of these programs, the University of Newcastle—indeed, our entire region—has the most to lose with any reduction in enabling support. The university supports thousands of disadvantaged students into degrees through three enabling programs, including a very large proportion of first-in-family university students—like my sister, like me, that generation of kids coming through first in the family to ever step foot inside a tertiary institution.

With close to 20 per cent of current University of Newcastle students undertaking an enabling course before commencing their undergraduate degree, any reduction in resources from these programs would impact severely on the university's ability to deliver on its equity mission for disadvantaged students. If the university were forced to charge fees for these life-changing programs to make up the shortfall, we know that up to 80 per cent of students simply would not proceed at all. This would be to their great personal detriment. It would also be a very real loss to the university, our region and our national productivity and capability.

It's gravely disappointing that the university sector has had no support from the federal government through the COVID-19 crisis. This will make a bad situation even more dire in my community. Enabling programs are known as positive, life-changing experiences that thousands across Newcastle and the Hunter region and the Central Coast—I acknowledge the member for Dobell in the chamber—have benefited from. More than 40,000 graduates of the University of Newcastle have come out of an enabling program. That's because they have a university that demands an equity consideration in their education. They strive to be both excellent and equitable. When the Abbott government tried to charge fees for students to participate in enabling programs, which is the last time a Tory government had a crack at this, I was inundated with heart-felt calls and messages from current and former students as well as university staff about the terrible impact this would have on our community and beyond.

I can see no sensible reason to rip support for enabling programs out of the legislation, given their remarkable and undeniable success. Given there has been no consultation on how the IRLSAF, as proposed, will work and given the new arrangements for equity funding aren't scheduled to start until 2023, it seems highly premature to remove course loading from enabling programs now. At a time when we should be giving disadvantaged Australians every opportunity to get a quality education, support for these important programs should be bolstered not diminished. Last week I wrote to the minister about this issue. I called on him to commit to ensuring that no changes are made to enabling programs until there is a clear pathway delineated for equity funding. I also asked for his assurance that current and future enabling students and our university won't be detrimentally affected by these changes.

There's so little time left, this evening, but I do wish to say in closing how distressed I am about the changes to regional classifications that are also part of this university. This legislation means that not counting the University of Newcastle as a regional university—despite the fact it has campuses in Taree, Moree, Orange, Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour, a very big regional footprint—will mean a massive loss of funding for this university. I look forward to seeing the members for Robertson, Lyne and New England stand up and reject this legislation.

6:54 pm

Photo of Jim ChalmersJim Chalmers (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this really important debate about university funding and university education more broadly and, at its core, the opportunities that we make available to our people, particularly our young people. Tomorrow, late morning, we will learn what a lot of Australians already know and will have confirmed, that Australia is in the deepest and most damaging recession of any of our lifetimes. We will learn when we get the national accounts tomorrow that Australia is in a diabolical recession. I think that should make all of us pause and reflect not just on what that means for all of our people—especially our young people—but also on what we want Australia, the best nation on earth, to look like after this nightmare has ended, what we want to be able to say about what we did here and what we want to be able to say about this generation of political representatives and the opportunities that they've made available to generations that follow us.

One of the things about recessions is that they rob people of opportunities—one of the reasons why we are in such a serious state as a nation, as the economy goes backwards at a faster rate than it ever has since these records were first kept. We have one million unemployed Australians already, and the government expects another 400,000 Australians to join them between now and Christmas. These are pretty confronting numbers. They remind us, as we are reminded daily, that recessions rob people of opportunities.

Recessions also have a disproportionate impact on different parts of our country, people of different ages, people of different genders, people from vulnerable backgrounds, people who need a little bit of help to access and hitch their wagon to the tremendous engine of opportunity that higher education can provide. That, again, is really what this legislation is about. Our job—our responsibility, our obligation, our calling—is to make it easier for more people to grab the opportunities of a nation like ours, especially but not only when those opportunities are so difficult to come by. This recession accelerates some of the things we were most worried about in our economy, our society and our communities even before most of us had heard of COVID-19. It accelerates some of the inequality, it accelerates some of the social and economic immobility—some of those issues that we were already quite concerned about. The circumstances we find ourselves in make those problems much, much worse.

I have talked before about how our responsibility needs to be to avoid sacrificing a generation of Australians to this recession. We can't have a lost generation. We can't look back on this time and conclude about our own actions here that we did nothing when it came to losing a generation—sacrificing a generation, discarding a generation—to the worst impacts of this recession that we're going through right now. We need to be absolutely certain that our objective here is to leave nobody behind during the recession and to hold nobody back in the recovery. That is our task. In order to do that, when it comes to education, our young people in particular—not that it is just young people who access a university education—are probably the most vulnerable people impacted by what is going on here. We need to make it easier for them to access opportunity, not harder. That means making it easier for them to access a university education, not harder—and that goes to what those opposite are proposing in this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020.

The member for Sydney, the member for Newcastle and other speakers, in their high-quality contributions tonight, have pointed out that the reason we will oppose this bill is that it makes it more expensive for more Australians to go to university. It makes students pay more for their degrees. It means thousands of students will pay more than double for the same qualification. It cuts billions from the sector while doing nothing to help young people get into high-priority courses and jobs. Unfortunately, this effort to diminish higher education—to diminish our universities, to make it harder for our people, including our young people, to access the opportunities which we were all able to access, which were within our reach—makes that harder for a number of reasons. But I think the most damaging conclusion—the most damaging impulse, the most damaging instinct—that those opposite have drawn from this crisis that we confront together as a nation is that this is an opportunity for them, an excuse for them, to indulge some of their longstanding ideological obsessions. And, unfortunately, universities and university students are caught in the crosshairs of the government's ideological obsessions.

Sometimes it feels like those opposite are trying to continue and prolong the experience that they might have had in student politics on campus or something like that. It seems like too many of them are here to prosecute some kind of vendetta against the higher education system, the university system and university students that have come after them. So many of them were able to access the opportunities which are so crucial to making your way in the world of work, but they want to deny those opportunities for so many people—including, disproportionately, the types of students which are represented on this side of the House and certainly in my community.

One of the things that I'm proudest of is the efforts of the Labor side of the parliament throughout history in making higher education more available and more accessible to people from communities like the one that I represent. This bill takes that effort backwards rather than forwards. It is part of a bigger ideological play. We know this because it's not just universities those opposite are going after; they're also using this as an excuse to go after superannuation, for harsher industrial relations and to go after pensions. All of these things are of a piece. What they speak to is a government that isn't sitting down during the course of this crisis and working out what is the best version of this nation after the recession subsides. They're sitting around and working out: 'How do we indulge some of these ideological obsessions? How do we, in the hope that too many people are distracted by the near-term pressures of the first recession in almost three decades, sneak through changes on uni, pension, super or industrial relations'—the list goes on and on. I think that's a shameful conclusion for them to draw. The country is counting on them.

When we consider what the economy looks like, what our society looks like and what our nation looks like after this crisis, it can't be a harsher version of Australia. It can't be a version of Australia where opportunities are harder for people to grasp. It can't be an Australia where there's a small group of people who find it easy to access opportunity and to get ahead, and more and more Australians who find it harder and harder and harder. This is not the vision of Australia that we on this side of the House will sign up to as we contemplate the recovery from this recession.

If we are to recover strongly we need to make sure that more people can access those opportunities and that more and more people have a stake in our national economic success, when that success returns. We have a lot to be proud of in this country, but one of the things we should be proudest of is how we provide those opportunities. We shouldn't be the type of society where your bank balance determines the type of education or the type of opportunities that you can access.

So we won't be supporting this bill. We have made that very clear; the member for Sydney and others have made that point with characteristic eloquence. We can't sign up to things that make it harder for people to get by and get ahead. We can't sign up to something which uses this recession, the first recession in three decades, the deepest and most damaging recession in our lifetime, as an excuse to make university life harder for people to access in this country.

7:04 pm

Photo of David SmithDavid Smith (Bean, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the Labor amendment and in opposition to this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I do this on behalf of students and university staff, and their representatives and their families, across Bean. The government has been almost completely absent from this debate, as this is a bill difficult to defend. So many of the announcements of the government have been long on sizzle and short on sausage. This bill, and the Job-ready Graduates Package, is even short on the sizzle.

Let's put this upfront: this bill is bad for the university sector. It will cut billions from a sector already under financial pressure at a time when we should be investing more across our higher education sector. This bill is bad for year 12 students. It will make it harder for these young people to get a degree and a job, in what is likely to be the deepest recession of our lifetime. It tries to force young Australians into hand-picked fields, possibly undermining their own aspirations and job opportunities. At a time when there are likely to be fewer gap years, the path to university will be harder. This bill is bad for future students. It will cost-shift onto students. It goes beyond the proposed 2017 reforms—there's a red flag!—and shifts the Commonwealth's share of tuition costs backwards, to 51 per cent of the load. This bill is bad for the economy. It does not make sense that, when we need to invest in university and TAFE education, this bill will cut university funding. At a time when we have one million unemployed, we should be investing in education and skills, investing in the knowledge of our future workforce, investing in the productivity of the nation. This bill is bad for our regional university sector and our local professions. It will reduce base funding for many of the careers we rely on in the capital, and indeed across the region, and will likely impact low-SES students.

What will the bill achieve? There has already been significant public and expert criticism of the bill and the associated Job-ready Graduates Package on a wide range of matters. These include flawed underlying assumptions, a limited evidence base, unintended consequences and perverse incentives in the policy as it's designed. Some of the key criticisms include that many students will actually pay more, some much more, than others. Students will, on average, pay seven per cent more for their studies. Around 40 per cent of all students will have their fees increased. Fees will more than double for people studying humanities, jumping from $27,000 to $58,000 for a four-year degree. The package will not support enough places, despite the rhetoric. Claimed additional student places will be achieved with no additional funding, by reducing the average funding for each student going to university. It's all smoke and mirrors. There is nothing in the reform for increased demand due to the recession or to account for the increased number of children now reaching university age.

If those over the other side don't think this is an issue, applications to universities have already more than doubled compared to last year. Under the bill, universities will get less to do more. The university sector will face a cut in their guaranteed funding of around $1 billion per year. The average funding per student paid to universities will drop by 5.8 per cent. For example, the fee per student will drop by 16 per cent for engineering, eight per cent for nursing and six per cent for education—critical occupations. These cuts are on top of the $16 billion projected revenue drop due to loss of international students and the $2.2 billion cuts already made to university funding by the government.

There are in-built perverse incentives that work against the very policy objectives that this government claims it wishes to achieve. In areas where the government wants greater enrolment, it is paying universities less per student, and, in areas where the government wants to discourage enrolment, it is paying universities more. Further, the claimed policy assumptions are flawed. Experts, including the Council of Deans of Science and the Chancellor of the ANU, the Hon. Julie Bishop, are convinced that student choice will not be swayed by price signals. The government's job demand modelling is based on labour market forecasting done prior to COVID and is highly likely now to be wrong. Let that sink in for a moment. Further, humanities graduates are just as in demand in the labour market as maths and science graduates, but the cost of humanities degrees will more than double. The argument about supposed job-readiness or attractiveness is a complete furphy. Further, the package will have a worse impact on regional universities. Despite an apparent redistribution to regional, rural and remote universities, analysis of the course pricing changes suggests that they will be worse off. The legislation is likely to have a worse impact on women and First Nations people. Average female student contributions will increase by 10 per cent. Average First Nations student contributions will increase by 15 per cent. Twice the number of First Nations students will be enrolled in the highest-fee-paying courses. And, finally, the package is punitive and unnecessarily interferes in student progress.

I think it's important that local members represent their communities and their local industries in this chamber. I'm a proud advocate for the Public Service and for our national cultural institutions. I am also a strong supporter of our local world-class higher education sector. The University of Canberra has similar concerns to some of those that I've outlined. The University of Canberra is an institution with a civic mission for Canberra and the region and has a focus on the professions that provide for the workforce needs of Canberra and the immediate region. They strive to produce job-capable graduates, and they have highlighted to me that the Job-ready Graduates Package represents a cut in base funding for key courses—that is, a cut in per-student funding across many subjects, including environmental studies, engineering, clinical psychology, teaching and nursing.

If we take a minute to look at the health and nursing field, the per-student annual funding in the allied health field will be cut by more than $2,045 per student, and nursing will be cut, on a per-student basis, by $1,729. Under this package, it is uncertain how clinical placements will be funded. I ask members of this chamber to reflect on the support these workers have provided during the COVID crisis. If you have had a COVID-19 test in Canberra, your test may well have been conducted by a University of Canberra graduate. Indeed, it is likely that UC students are also active as contact tracers, and the university is likely to have trained nurses to use ventilators in a simulated environment.

To give further context to the University of Canberra's contribution to the ACT's health system, here are a few statistics. In 2019, they graduated 250 nurses, and 87 per cent started work in the ACT. Last year also, they graduated 325 allied health professionals, and 78 per cent started work in the ACT. One must ask the question: does the package reflect the value our community places on our health professionals and potential health professionals? The answer is no. For the university, it does not end there. For science, the per-student annual funding cut is over $4,000.

Let's look at teaching under this package. The per-student funding cut is more than $1,000. Teaching is another profession that has been under the spotlight during the COVID crisis. The university has a commitment to the ongoing education of our local educators, which saw 70 local teachers commence the new capital region Master of Education program in 2019. Under this package, it's uncertain how the teaching practice component will be funded.

The University of Canberra also has concerns about inequity in the package. The Graduate Outcomes Survey—Longitudinal released this week shows high levels of full-time employment for University of Canberra graduates, across all areas of study, three years after completing their qualifications. This survey showed nationally that full-time employment rates for humanities, culture and social sciences, at 87 per cent, were basically the same as for science and maths three years after graduation. This shows that the government's rationale for fee setting across disciplines is misplaced.

Like other institutions, the University of Canberra also has concerns about late inclusions around unit failure and removal of Commonwealth support for students. These may particularly impact the most disadvantaged students in the sector, including those from First Nations or lower-SES backgrounds. We should be seeing a package that furthers opportunity rather than strips opportunities away, and Labor does not want to see increased disadvantage because of these reforms.

There are many others with concerns about this package, including those representing the sciences and engineering. Bronwyn Evans, the CEO of Engineers Australia, had this to say:

The … Government's announced changes … may … lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

…   …   …

An increase in university fees risks increasing structural inequality for women and people from low socioeconomic status … backgrounds who choose to study humanities, law and other courses that will now leave them in even more debt.

The Australian Council of Deans of Science had this to say:

Cost is not a critical driver for students to study STEM. And it will not serve to generate more STEM capable graduates if the funding changes undermine the capacity of universities to produce them.

The funds that will come to university science to produce graduates will shrink by 16% under the Job-Ready Graduates proposal; less from each student and less from the government.

Innes Willox, CEO of AiG—that well-known radical!—said:

A large financial burden is being shifted to these future workers who will fill important professional roles required by industry.

It's a time to invest in science and research, not cut funding to critical courses and drive perverse incentives into the market by increasing the price of other degrees. It's a time to invest in knowledge, not cut funds and cost-shift. We've already lost thousands of workers across the higher education sector, and these changes will put more pressure on the sector workforce. Just stop and think for a minute. Those on the other side of the chamber who profess to care about the economy, lift your gaze from the ministerial talking points provided to you and consider this: if skilled immigration is limited in the short to medium term, and we are in a recession with likely large job losses in the science and research fields, then we must invest in the knowledge capital of our population, and we must invest now. I agree with Dr Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist, who argues:

There are several ways to improve productivity but knowledge capital, through new technology, skills, R&D and efficient services and production processes, is the most significant factor.

He argues further for these investments in R&D, saying:

R&D also has positive spillovers, meaning that knowledge can result in increasing returns to scale up production cheaply, and can generate significant benefits for those other than the primary investors as discoveries are made and spread.

To conclude: while promising to support the study of maths, science and engineering, this legislation reduces the money universities will receive to provide those courses. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in these disciplines. Whilst talking up the importance of STEM careers, the government continues to cut STEM roles in CSIRO and in the DST Group in Defence. Unfortunately, as always with this Prime Minister, the detail doesn't match the announcement. Either the Prime Minister and the minister are misleading Australians about the intention of this bill or they don't know how university funding works. The reform is a complete mess for students, for our community and for the university sectors, and it will be bad for our regional economy here in Bean. It's short on sizzle, short on sausage and long on fizzle—a fizzle we can't afford. That is why Labor opposes the bill.

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

The question is that the question be put.

7:29 pm

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

The question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

7:38 pm

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

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