House debates

Thursday, 18 February 2021


Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Refunds of Charges and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

11:04 am

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Refunds of Charges and Other Measures) Bill 2020, and I move the amendment circulated in my name:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House is of the opinion that the Government, by failing to support Australia's higher education institutions and international students, has undermined the bill's objective of providing sector-wide support in the special circumstances of the current coronavirus pandemic".

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000 to provide for the secretary to refund Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students charges, otherwise known as CRICOS charges, in special circumstances and change the definition of 'course' to allow certain education and training to be provided to overseas students without the need for CRICOS registration. The stated purpose of the bill is to provide sector-wide support to the registered providers in special circumstances, such as the current coronavirus pandemic. However, I note that the legislation is drafted so that the relief can be provided on a case-by-case basis at any time. So Labor calls on the government to ensure that any fee waivers will be made publicly available to ensure that there is transparency in the application of the new refund arrangements. Exemptions from CRICOS registration charges in 2020 and 2021, in the circumstances of COVID-19, are the very least that this government can do. There's no legislative basis for refunding these payments where fees had already been paid, so act of grace payments were used. What this bill does is to correct that. That's important, but it's not enough.

While Labor supports the changes proposed in this bill, the amendments also highlight the government's failure to support the sector as a whole. The government has absolutely neglected universities during this pandemic, during this health and economic crisis, and, not surprisingly, as a result of that thousands of jobs have been lost across the country. The government's Higher Education Relief Package in response to the impact of this pandemic has been manifestly inadequate, and what's worse is the treatment of international students, who play such a big part in our education sector. Their treatment from this government during this crisis has, frankly, been appalling. Every international student in this country absolutely knows that when the pandemic hit, at that moment, on that day, our Prime Minister said, 'It's time to go home.' That was the fundamental response of this government to international students at that moment, and universities themselves were left to fund international student welfare. Indeed, in my own electorate, Deakin University had to announce funding of $25 million to target support for international students who were slipping through the cracks that existed because there was no, or very limited, access to government assistance, and that money had to be spent by the university in a context where they themselves were losing much revenue.

This neglect, of course, is nothing new. This government does not have a plan for education and for training. In fact, this government has a very scant plan for Australia's economy as a whole. Over the last eight years, it has been trying to undermine the fundamentals of our higher and vocational education systems. Eight years of the coalition government has seen billions of dollars cut from TAFE and training, widespread skill shortages arising and the loss of 140,000 trainees and apprenticeships—and that was before COVID-19 struck. These institutions—universities and our TAFE sector—are critically important in the skills and the education that they provide for Australians, but they are also economic institutions. We will never get the economic benefit and the growth potential that we can in this country if we don't treat them properly.

The government has tried in every way possible to cut funding to this sector. Whether it's cuts to grant funding to institutions, increased fees, more student debt or cuts to research funding, this government at every step along the way has attacked education and training in this country. The government's failures in funding higher education, for example, have forced them to fund public research through student and international student fees. This has created a system which has become unsustainable. It's little wonder that our higher education institutions have, accordingly, been hit so hard during this pandemic, because the squeeze on our higher education system that has been put in place by the conditions that have been enacted by this government during its time in office has created a chain reaction for universities as a result of the coronavirus then occurring. The seeds of the difficulties that our universities face now as a result of COVID-19 were sown by this government well and truly before the pandemic hit.

When you erode funding to higher education institutions, you fundamentally make them more fragile and more vulnerable. In Australia, the erosion in funding to our higher education institutions began on the day that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government was elected. Under this government, there has barely been a budget that has not included cuts to higher education in our country. It's a history of cuts. It's a catalogue of its failure on higher education. All of this attests to this government's lack of vision.

Even before their first budget, eight long years ago, the government announced almost $200 million in cuts to regional higher educational institutions and an efficiency dividend on higher education funding in the 2013-14 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. After that came the horror 2014-15 budget, with its cuts to higher education in the order of billions of dollars, an increase in student fees of 20 per cent and a deregulation of student fees. Labor at every step fought those steps, here in the parliament and across the country. In the 2015-16 budget, the coalition made a further $250 million in cuts to sustainable research excellence funding. That's funding that Labor put in place when we were last in government to power innovation in this country. Then came cuts of almost $4 billion in the 2017-18 budget and the capping of student places. The announced handbrake on funding put pressure on universities to cap student enrolments because they would not receive any additional direct Commonwealth grants funding if enrolments increased.

By failing our higher education institutions, the government has failed Australia on jobs. It has failed as an economic manager. Australian universities shed at least 17,300 jobs in 2020. The government, in the face of that, excluded universities from JobKeeper, despite the pivotal role that universities have played in Australia's virus response. It's probable we will see further job losses in the university sector this year. Higher education powers so much of our workforce. We need it to develop the skilled workforce that will power the economy in the future. We are transitioning to an economy that needs more postgraduate education. Falling Commonwealth funding for higher education has meant more reliance on international student revenue and, when international travel dried up as a result of the pandemic, the higher education system buckled.

Higher education is one of our biggest export industries. According to the Reserve Bank, Australia's education exports totalled $40 billion in 2019. This included $17 billion in tuition fees paid by international students and $23 billion in international students' living expenses while they were studying here in Australia. On fairly conservative assumptions it means that 27 per cent of total research expenditure, or about $3.3 billion, relies on profits from international students.

Public research has a multiplier effect on jobs in our economy if it is done properly, and the choices we make now will have a profound impact on the economic recovery that we hope will occur. Australians right now are experiencing one of the highest levels of unemployment in decades and record underemployment. A million Australians, since 2014, have been underemployed in this country, throughout the tenure of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. It's in that context that our higher education and training sectors are so fundamental to our economic future. But the track record of this government has been characterised by cuts, mismanagement and neglect of the sector.

Labor recognise that for a strong recovery we have to invest now in giving our people the capacity to work their way out of unemployment and underemployment. Unlike this government, we believe that investing in education and training is an investment in the future of our people, but also in the future of our economy. It's an investment in, not a burden on, our national prosperity. We won't oppose this bill, but the changes here do little to address the enormous problems facing our higher education and our training sectors. This government needs to do so much more.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded.

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

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Corio has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand as part of the question.

Debate adjourned.