Wednesday, 12 May 2021
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to support this bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021, and 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:
(1) notes the Government has made it more expensive for Australian students to undertake tertiary study, and has pushed students into taking on more debt; and
(2) calls on the Government to ensure rural and remote students have access to quality continuing education".
Every Australian should have access to a world-class education, no matter their postcode. All Australians should have the opportunity to undertake further study should they choose to do so. We know that rural and remote students face extra and sizeable hurdles in undertaking high school and post-secondary education. In fact, I have just met with representatives from the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, and this was one of the issues that the group of women I spoke to raised with me. Boarding accommodation, living expenses and travel represent some of the major challenges for regional and remote students. We all know, too well, that accommodation can be expensive, especially in inner city and suburban areas, and that affordable accommodation can be difficult to find. Travel from remote and regional areas can also be costly, but we also recognise that travel to reconnect with family can be important for educational success and the successful transition into post-secondary studies. Many have to defer studies because their families are unable to afford to continue.
This is why social security measures to assist remote and regional students is a proud Labor legacy. This bill will make administrative changes to the operation of the Aboriginal Study Assistance Scheme, known as Abstudy, and the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, the AIC Scheme. Both schemes are designed to provide financial assistance to students and their families, helping to remove the barriers to education caused by distance and financial disadvantage. In 2020 the Abstudy scheme assisted about 27,000 students at school, university and TAFE. Over the same period, the AIC Scheme assisted around 13,000 students, some of whom are living in very isolated rural and remote regions.
The provisions in the bill align the tax file number requirements of the two schemes with those under our social security laws. Currently, under the legislation, primary school children are required to submit a tax file number. As a result of these changes, only the parents of the AIC applicants will need to submit a tax file number. Labor does support these changes, ending the bureaucratic absurdity of government agencies asking schoolchildren for their tax file number.
But the legislation does provides me with the opportunity to remind the parliament that these two education schemes are Labor legacy programs, introduced during the Whitlam government and its great education reform agenda under the guidance of Kim Beazley Sr. We know that Labor has a great history of equality of access to education. It was a Labor government that provided financial support for students to undertake study and training during World War II. This is our legacy. By contrast, this coalition has again done nothing new for this cohort. These legislative changes are a missed opportunity to introduce real reform of the scheme's administrative processes to fast-track benefits to families that are working to do the best for their children.
Labor believes that ease of access should be the priority of any proposed change for a government with the mantra of reducing red tape. In this case, the government knows that families applying to access the AIC need an online application process. In fact, this was one of the very issues that was raised with me by the isolated children program this morning. It's ridiculous to think that there isn't an online process for these families. They are living in very isolated communities—on cattle stations, on sheep stations and in rural and regional Australia, particularly in rural Australia—and the fact that they have to do this without an online application is just ridiculous and something, you would think, from times gone by.
So this legislation is a missed opportunity. Ease of access should be the priority of any proposed change for a government with the mantra, as I said, of reducing red tape. In this case, the government knows that families applying to access the AIC need an online application process. This is just a no-brainer. An update in the current administrative process doesn't require legislative change, just a political will. These families also want the government to recognise that geographic isolation creates additional costs for parents who are educating their children from home. Today, as I said, I met with parents from isolated parts of Australia and, again, there is nothing in the budget to address the concerns of these families.
You just need to reflect on the government's continued inaction on this issue and its education policies over the last eight long and tired years. We know that this government is trying to move us to an American-style system of tertiary education. Last year Scott Morrison passed a bill that makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. Around 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 per year, including in law, commerce, accountancy, economics and communications—doubling fees for some students, particularly those wanting to do humanities. That's more than for people doing medicine and dentistry degrees. It is a ludicrous situation, and I'm afraid it will come home to roost and it will be the people wishing to pursue those degrees who will feel the pain. Fees for law, commerce, business and communication degrees will increase by thousands of dollars per year. Tell me the logic in that. He is making students go into an American-style debt which will have lasting consequences throughout their lives, including in saving for a home. What's more, there is no evidence that studying these degrees will make you less job ready than any other. There is no logic to it. In fact, according to research from Victoria University, people with humanities degrees have higher employment rates than science or maths graduates.
Think about the year 12 students who have had a hell of a final year because of COVID. The last thing they need is the Liberals making it harder and more expensive for them to go to university. But that is exactly what is happening. Parents know that getting a great education is a ticket to a great job and a lifetime of opportunity for their children. Labor believes education and jobs go hand in hand. By locking young Australians out of university, Scott Morrison is locking them out of their job of choice. We want every Australian to get a great education no matter where they live. That is essentially what this bill is about—the training they need to get a job, whether that is at university or at TAFE, to get ahead and stay ahead.
Then there are the First Australian students and the Job-ready Graduates bill. Given the enrolment patterns of universities, these changes will be more costly for Indigenous Australians than for non-Indigenous Australians, which is just ludicrous. This is because Indigenous students are more likely than non-Indigenous students to enrol in courses affected by these changes. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium provided data in their submission to the Senate inquiry into the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 which revealed a significant impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. They said:
2018 data shows over 52% of Indigenous students were enrolled in programs that will be impacted by an increase in student contributions for humanities based disciplines.
This will result in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students graduating with a higher HECS debt than non-Indigenous students and moving into the workforce with a greater financial burden.
School funding is another example of a coalition government making it harder for Australian families to educate their children, particularly those living in rural and regional Australia. It's been remarkable to watch schools convert to online learning almost overnight. It is a testament to everyone in the sector.
Remote learning has been necessary, but there is no doubt that it's pushing disadvantaged students further behind their peers. Even when it works well, disadvantaged students usually learn at about 50 per cent of the usual rate. That means that they would have lost about one month of learning over two months of remote schooling. This is why Closing the Gap needs to be a priority, and this government needs to commit the resources needed to make it happen. But that certainly did not happen in the budget that we heard last night and have read about today. There is absolutely nothing but rebadged money in the First Nations space, and, despite the rhetoric of the Prime Minister at the beginning of the year, no additional money for Closing the Gap targets. That needs to be said clearly and plainly.
It would be nice if the Prime Minister would take educating children living in rural and remote areas seriously. The Prime Minister should be providing the resources needed to target and reverse the existing disadvantage that children are experiencing living in isolated regions of Australia instead of holding public schools back from their full fair funding. As expected, the coalition government has once again failed to provide the resources needed, even in a time of plenty, to meet the Closing the Gap targets for education. Shame on the coalition government, Prime Minister, when we know that it is education that delivers jobs and lifts people out of poverty.
The latest data shows a two-year gap in maths literacy between metropolitan and remote students. Our public schools educate more than 70 per cent of our regional students. But, under this government, these young people are missing out. Under the Liberal school funding deals, almost every Australian public school receives far less than its fair funding level. Labor believes every school in Australia should be an excellent school. No matter where you live, parents should be comfortable that they can send their children to a public school down the road where they will get a world-class education.
In conclusion, every Australian should have access to a world-class education, no matter their postcode. But, under the Liberals, our students are falling behind, especially in rural and regional and remote areas. It is unacceptable for anyone to miss out on achieving their potential because of their background, geography, disability or any other educational disadvantage. This bill is a missed opportunity to do just that—introduce genuine reform, reduce red tape and update and fast-track access. That is why Labor has moved the second reading amendment circulated in my name.
I rise to support the substantive bill in front of us, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. It's a pleasure to follow on from the previous Labor speaker. I know her passion for closing the gap. It is a passion of ours on this side of the chamber as well. But a lot of what the previous Labor speaker spoke about is not contained in this bill. In fact, the basic premise of the theme running through her speech—to make it easier for children, in particular from remote, isolated and rural communities, to access education—is contained in this bill. This bill will do exactly that. It will make it easier and streamline the process. If that is her central theme, if that is what she would like to achieve, she need only join us and vote for the substantive bill, unamended.
It is a passion of this side of the chamber to support Australian families. We saw that theme running through the budget last night, when the Treasurer announced the measures he did. Our efforts, like this bill, although it may be technical in nature, to streamline processes so that children have the very best access to education that is possible, are incredibly important. This bill performs that task by making the Student Assistance Act consistent with the social security law. This will lead to improving the effectiveness of the administration of vital schemes such as Abstudy, which provides assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme. I will speak a little more on that later. It is a very important program.
Although this bill is mechanical in nature, it is important as it continues to improve the way we do things. Before I talk about the specifics of the bill, I want to talk about the importance of this type of bill that is reducing red tape and reducing unnecessary burdens. This is a focus for us on this side of the chamber. It has been a firm goal of the government to streamline processes and reduce regulatory burden, and it is one that we are achieving. I want to compliment the work that my friend the member for Tangney, the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, is doing in this space. He is a passionate advocate for cutting red tape and his deregulation task force is making some real and continuing improvements. I look forward to seeing other bills before this place that continue to achieve that outcome. It is in our DNA to create jobs. It is in our fundamental DNA to reduce regulation and reduce burden to make things easier, and to create smaller government with less red tape and more opportunities.
I move to speak on the AIC, Assistance for Isolated Children, Scheme. The scheme helps parents and carers with the extra costs of educating their kids when they can't go to an appropriate government school, which could be for many reasons. They may live in an isolated area, they may have a disability or they may have special needs. The AIC allows them to get financial assistance to help with the additional costs. There are allowances for boarding or for a second home. It gives families options and choices, and that is what this government is all about. We are about empowering our nation's families to make the best choices for their families.
Those on the other side of the chamber believe they are best placed to spend your money for you and to make your choices for you. This government believe in empowering families to not only earn more dollars but also make the best decisions for their families. Programs like the AIC help to level the playing field and ensure that families have choices, even if they are in an isolated or remote community. Without it, they would not have the ability to choose their own outcomes and achieve the best education for their kids. The streamlining of the process contained in this bill means these families don't face further unnecessary burdens. It means they will have more help and fewer challenges, something I think even Labor members opposite could support.
Throughout the pandemic, we may have felt isolated from our friends, our work and our schools. This has given us all a greater understanding of isolation and what it might be like to live in isolated and remote communities. While we don't face those challenges ourselves, it has given us a better appreciation of the many challenges that they face every day. In the midst of the pandemic our worlds became smaller as restrictions saw us isolated and not able to travel, but our outlook became broader. I got many calls to my electorate office from people who were not concerned for themselves but concerned for others. Our community wants to make sure that the most vulnerable among us are looked after—the elderly, those in aged care, our veteran community and, importantly with this bill, our kids. It was a central theme running through last night's budget speech from the Treasurer, the member for Kooyong, for the path to recovery. We have the opportunity with this legislation and the last night's budget to take the challenges of the pandemic and to parlay them into opportunities to put more funding into some of our most vulnerable communities, as we have with massive funding injections for aged care, veterans and mental health. Those kinds of investments dovetail with bills like this one before the chamber, which is also providing opportunities for some of our isolated and vulnerable kids. With that, I certainly commend this bill to the House as part of the government's ongoing commitment to effective and efficient government, to reducing red tape and, importantly, in our efforts to help all Australian families.
It gives me great pleasure to stand here, having seconded the amendment by the shadow minister. Members can rest assured that we are speaking in support of the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021, but we have proposed an amendment, which is a good amendment, and we would encourage those opposite to support it.
Labor supports this bill, which will align the tax file number regime under the Student Assistance Act 1973 with the collection and use of TFNs under social security law. The bill removes the anomaly currently in place which requires all claimants of the two schemes—the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Assistance Scheme, known as Abstudy, and the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, the AIC Scheme, including primary school children—to provide a TFN to Services Australia. These two schemes were designed to improve access to education by reducing financial barriers to higher education and training, which disproportionately affect First Nations people.
In 2020, Abstudy assisted around 27,000 students to pursue further education in school, university and TAFE. We should just pause and reflect on that for a moment. Twenty-seven thousand young First Nations Australians were assisted in furthering their education thanks to Abstudy, which of course is a proud legacy program of the Whitlam government. Similarly, the AIC assisted around 13,000 students. The AIC enables people living in regional areas, including my own electorate of Lyons, to pursue educational opportunities that they might not ordinarily have felt were an option for them.
For the people currently on these schemes, the reforms we are debating today are inconsequential. What Labor is focused on, and what the Morrison Liberal government should be focusing on, is implementing real reform that ensures that benefits can be fast-tracked to families and educational opportunity can be further opened up for people living across regional Australia. For a government whose mantra is supposedly about reducing red tape, I would have thought that this would be a logical aim.
In speaking to this bill, it is important to reflect upon the history of tertiary education in Australia. Labor has a proud history of supporting students to undertake study and training. In fact, financial support to students began under a Labor government during the Second World War. I've stood in this place before and talked about the fact that Labor builds. Unfortunately, those on the opposite side, the Liberals, cut. Labor builds. Liberals cut. Under the Whitlam government Abstudy was reformed into a means tested payment scheme, and the AIC was established to assist students in remote and regional areas.
Labor is proud to support Australia's youth from regional and remote areas in gaining higher education and training. We fundamentally believe that every person deserves the opportunity for an education in Australia no matter where they're from, and we are committed to ensuring that this opportunity continues. Labor has a very proud legacy in improving education across Australia. We fundamentally believe that every person in Australia deserves the opportunity to pursue higher education and training as well. Skills training is very important, but higher education is equally important for those who wish to pursue it. Labor fundamentally believes that it is a role of government to assist with this aim, and a good government will ensure Australia's higher education sector is truly first class and working for students. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the government. The evidence of that was all too apparent in last night's budget.
In his second reading speech on this bill, the minister said:
This bill strengthens our student support system so that it can focus on the important task of ensuring that Indigenous students and isolated students from across Australia have the opportunity to gain a first-class education.
If only this government was truly committed to investing in education and training for people in our regional and remote communities—and you don't invest in higher education when your budget for 2021, over the forward estimates, cuts 10 per cent from the higher education sector. The maths doesn't add up on that. You can't profess to have a commitment to higher education in this country and then slash 10 per cent from the sector over the next four years. It doesn't add up.
The comments the minister made about this bill are another example of all talk and no delivery from this government when it comes to higher education. The budget last night—this goes to the shadow minister's second reading amendments—locked in the Prime Minister's policy to make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to uni. That runs counter to the sentiments of the minister in speaking to this bill. The budget papers confirm for the first time that the government is actually saving money by jacking up university fees and increasing student debt. That's going to be this government's legacy: crushing student debt and cuts to universities; crushing, crippling student debt, just like we see in America, that makes it harder for young Australians to get ahead. It makes it harder for them to save for a home. It makes it harder for them to raise a family. It makes it harder for them to save for retirement. The longer it takes you to pay off your student debt out of your wages means there's less money going into your superannuation account, so you're earning less on the compounded interest over your working life. It gets you when you're young and it gets you when you're old. It is absolutely counterproductive to the national productivity of this country.
Wham—higher fees; wham—low wages; wham—crippling mortgages; and, wham—less superannuation! Australians are being hit at every stage of their lives by this government, including with the cuts that it made to higher education last night. It's a lifetime of kicks to the incomes of Australian workers. Instead of helping young regional Australians get ahead, which is what this bill is supposed to be doing, the Liberals are putting roadblocks in the way. They should hang their heads in shame over the budget they delivered last night for what it does to higher education.
Labor does not want Australia to be like America, where our kids have to get a lifetime of debt to get an education. And we are talking about our kids. My daughter is 22. She is graduating this year from university, so she misses out on this, but there are kids just behind her who will be facing very, very high fees. They will have debts of around $60,000 for a basic degree at the same time as they're trying to find work, save a deposit for a house and start a family. What a way to say to young Australians, 'We're on your side.' If you're doing this to young Australians, you are not on their side. The Prime Minister's huge uni fees and huge uni debts will rob Aussie kids of the jobs of their dreams. They are not setting Australian kids up for success; they are loading them up with a lifetime of debt.
If this government is so invested in advancing students in remote regions of Australia, why is it cutting funds from the university sector? As of January this year, more than 17,000 people have lost their jobs at Australian universities since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet the government wants us to believe it is committed to improving our education system. The job losses amount to 13 per cent of the pre-COVID university workforce. That's a massive chunk of a national workforce that this government completely abandoned because they were not eligible for JobKeeper. This government excised them from JobKeeper. So 17,000 people were let go from universities and told, 'You're on your own.'
In my home state of Tasmania, the University of Tasmania has suffered immense financial hardship throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With around half of UTAS's international student cohort being comprised of Chinese students last year, the closure of international borders and travel restrictions sent shock waves through UTAS and the broader higher education sector. A lot of it was unavoidable, but the real test is what you do about it. When the shock happened and the borders were closed, which had to happen, how should a government have come in and assisted? This government just locked the gates on the universities and said, 'You're on your own.' UTAS was forced to expedite a planned restructure, which led to a cut in the number of courses from 514 to just 120. Staff were offered redundancies, cleaning and security staff were stood down—again, without the protection of JobKeeper—and the broader university community were severely affected by such large-scale change being implemented so swiftly. UTAS needed to implement these changes as a priority matter of sustainability and survival. Their survival was on the line. It is outrageous that Tasmania's only university was forced to go through such turmoil because the Liberals would rather hand hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper subsidies to profitable corporations than provide support to the nation's universities, which had been crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a show of naked hostility from the Liberals to our traditional learning establishments.
While all this was occurring, while universities were struggling to survive, what exactly was the Morrison government doing in the education and training sphere? It wasn't trying to help the sector. It set a mandate to make higher education more difficult to achieve for working-class families. It made it more difficult for people in rural and remote areas, including in my electorate, to achieve higher education. It set a mandate to raise course fees to frankly ridiculous levels, forcing future arts students—I would hazard a guess that most people in this chamber on all sides are arts graduates—to pay up to $100,000 for their degrees. No-one in this chamber has paid that much for their degree, yet we're foisting that legacy upon the kids of tomorrow. If the kids up in the schools gallery are going to do an arts degree in future years, they're facing bills of $100,000. It's an absolute disgrace. Instead of helping universities and the higher education sector during a global pandemic which was adversely affecting the sector, this government took a wrecking ball to higher education, restricting opportunity for people to pursue higher education.
Under the Liberal government, access to training and apprenticeships keeps getting worse. The government is making a lot about the fact that apprenticeships are back on the way up. What it doesn't say and what it never says is that, over the past eight years, $3 billion has been cut from TAFE and there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees now than there were eight years ago when the Liberals came to office. The government is increasing those numbers marginally now, but that follows the deep cuts it has already made. Things just keep getting worse under this government after eight long years. They have created a training environment where more people drop out of apprenticeships than complete them.
Key industries such as carpentry and plumbing have critical shortages of workers, and this has a flow-on effect to our construction industry and the ability for new developments and new homes to be completed. Australia's skills shortage now is a direct result of this government's incompetent decision to cut $3 billion from TAFE and rely on short-term visa holders from overseas to do the work. Labor is absolutely committed to training young Australians to do this work. The value of TAFE to Australia, to our productivity and to our economy is undeniable. Graduates of TAFE are invaluable to growth in this country, yet this government is failing to resource it properly. We know that it is in the Liberals' DNA to attack TAFE. Even now in Tasmania, the Gutwein Liberal government is seeking to restructure TasTAFE in a way that puts the quality of education and training at risk and leaves wide open the door to privatisation down the track.
As a result of the Morrison government's complete disregard for the higher education sector, tens of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs. As a result, the education of tens of thousands of students has been adversely affected. We are talking about lecturers, tutors, support staff, staff in the broader university community, security staff, cleaners and admin staff. These are the people who keep the ball rolling in universities across Australia, and without them the education of Australian students is much poorer.
Labor will support this bill, but we implore those opposite to support the amendments. The amendments are important. We support this bill and the administrative change that it makes to Abstudy and the AIC Scheme, but we do reject the government's preaching of its commitment to making education more accessible in the regions. The Liberals have a long history of attacking higher education. They have a clear mandate to turn the higher education system in Australia into a mirror image of the United States, a system burdened with debt. And the government has a long history of cuts, cuts and more cuts to the university and TAFE sectors. They don't care for educational opportunity. They don't care about the kids from towns and outer suburbs. They think that uni is for the kids from Kooyong and Point Piper, not Kalgoorlie and Primrose Sands, and their political agenda reveals that.
The Morrison government is increasing efficiency and improving ways that students can access Abstudy and the Assistance for Isolated Children, or AIC, Scheme. This bill will help to reduce unnecessary red tape and enhance consistency in the collection and management of information. The proposed changes are needed to improve the effective administration of the Abstudy and AIC schemes and allow the machinery of Services Australia to have a greater level of efficiency. Many students in my electorate of Lindsay rely on these payments to enable them to upskill and take on the opportunities that improve their education and employment prospects. Abstudy helps Indigenous Australians to undertake study and training from secondary school through to postgraduate study, many from remote areas, with study, living and travel expenses. Many of these students must move away from home to study and the Abstudy scheme provides Indigenous students with financial assistance to do so.
The additional assistance provided under Abstudy is specifically targeted at addressing educational disadvantage to close the gap. In 2019-20 the Australian government invested around $320 million in the Abstudy scheme. In 2020 around 27,000 students were assisted through Abstudy. AIC is an ongoing scheme that provides assistance to isolated families whose children cannot attend an appropriate state school due to geographic isolation, disability or other special needs. In 2019-20 the Australian government invested around $83 million in the AIC Scheme, assisting around 13,000 students. These are incredibly important services that make a tremendous difference in the lives of Australians embarking on their own education journey.
In my electorate of Lindsay there are over 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Minister for Indigenous Australians and I met—unfortunately it was virtually with COVID last year—with local Indigenous representatives and community health providers to ensure that people in my community were getting the help they needed during the coronavirus pandemic. While we couldn't be there in person, Minister Wyatt recorded a message. It was really quite special because it was around his personal journey through education and to encourage local people, particularly kids in my community, to think about their future and what they want for their own education journey and careers. Minister Wyatt said that if he hadn't followed through on his education and didn't have those opportunities he in fact wouldn't be in this place. He spoke very passionately about the teachers who have influenced him, even from year 1. This set the foundation from an early age to value his education. Minister Wyatt learned to value his education so much so that he got his Bachelor of Education and became a teacher, passing on that lesson to his students and he continues to do that now.
Education plays a pivotal role in putting kids in our community on the pathways to local jobs, and that is absolutely essential, ensuring that all children in my community of Lindsay have opportunities when it comes to education and then in turn getting into local jobs. I don't see that more than in parts of my community that do wonderful work in supporting kids to stay engaged in school, to keep up their schooling, ensuring that they are supported with things like getting picked up from home if they need to and going to a breakfast club. That's a really important service that's provided to local people in my community.
These amendments are technical in nature. For example, currently the Social Security Act defines the term 'social security law'. It includes the Social Security Act, the Social Security (Administration) Act and the Social Security (International Agreements) Act, which are the main parts of the social security legislative scheme. This bill amends the definition of the term 'social security law' to confirm that it includes any legislative instrument made under one of the acts, strengthening the Student Assistance Act in matters relating to Abstudy and the AIC schemes, and clarifies the definition of 'social security law'.
As you can see, while these proposed changes are largely technical and mechanical in nature, they are important for the people who rely on these systems to access a quality education, including the Indigenous students in my electorate of Lindsay and those right across Australia, as well as isolated students. It improves efficiencies, delivering a better service. We want all Australians to have access to a first-class education, and these programs ensure that these opportunities are available for more Australians.
Labor will be supporting this bill, the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. We have a long history of supporting financial assistance for students to undertake study and training. From World War II through to the Whitlam government's reforming of Abstudy into a means-tested payment scheme and the establishment of the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme to assist students in the bush, Labor has been all about ensuring that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds get the opportunity to study not only at our universities but also at our vocational education centres.
This helps to reduce financial barriers to tertiary education and training for First Nations people. Access to education is a key part of the Closing the Gap strategy. Educational attainment is actually one of the areas where there has been some achievement and advance in closing the gap, particularly in the rates of completion of year 12 schooling in Australia.
In 2019-20, the AIC scheme assisted around 13,000 students, enabling children living in rural and remote regions to access continuing and appropriate education. For this cohort, the legislative changes are inconsequential, and real reform is needed to ensure fast-tracking of benefits to families. Updating the respective administrative processes of the scheme doesn't require legislative change; it just requires the political will—and that's what has been missing from this conservative government.
As of January 2021, more than 17,000 people had lost their jobs at Australian universities since the beginning of the pandemic. If you want to sum up this government's approach to education, look no further than what they did for Australian universities around JobKeeper. I make this point: this government provided JobKeeper to casinos in Australia, yet they denied JobKeeper to universities in Australia. That says everything about their philosophical approach to higher education.
We all know that this government is not about assisting students and making it more affordable to get a university education. We've seen that in the fact that they have increased fees across a range of courses, particularly in the humanities, and made it more difficult for kids to pursue their dream of a university education in the humanities. The result has been decreased enrolments in those forms of education. That deliberate approach from this government provides a disincentive to people enrolling in humanities courses in our universities.
We've all seen the job losses that have occurred at universities. I represent an electorate that has one of Australia's most successful and largest universities: the University of New South Wales. There were hundreds of job losses at the University of New South Wales; courses were stripped away because of this government's failure to support the university sector through the JobKeeper payment. Yet the Morrison government stood by while those jobs in that important sector were lost.
It's also bad for our economy, because education is usually in the top three when it comes to Australia's exports. We've all seen the success that Australia has had in marketing itself as a destination for foreign students to come to Australia and get a decent education in the Australian tradition. This government's approach to JobKeeper has made that all the more difficult. It's also been made all the more difficult by the fact that it's going to take our economy a longer time to open up than it is for those of other nations, because the government have completely bungled the vaccine rollout. Remember the promise that the Prime Minister made: four million vaccinations by the end of March. They only fell 3.2 million short of that promise. Again, we've seen the commitments that they've made in the budget about having Australians vaccinated. They are now walking away from a time line—understandably, because they can't deliver anything or meet any of the commitments. The states are now starting to say: 'These guys don't know how to run anything. The Morrison government can't handle the administration of the vaccine rollout. We'll take it over ourselves, to try and boost the numbers.'
In the university sector, we've seen job losses, as I said, and there are more expected to come. Unis have been hit hard by the fallout from COVID and the decline in international students. University education is one of our nation's biggest industries and one of our biggest employers, too, including in the electorate that I represent, but the Prime Minister changed the rules three times to make sure workers in that sector didn't get JobKeeper. They changed the rules to make sure that university staff were not covered by JobKeeper. UNSW was forced to cut 256 jobs last year, impacting many families in our community: academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners and many others trying to make ends meet.
Universities are the ones we've turned to during this pandemic. They're the people that we asked to help research and develop a vaccine and the treatments, to look at the ways the disease was spreading in the community and to try and come up with suggestions for government to reduce the rates of infection. Not only do thousands of Australians rely on universities for their jobs, but it's our brilliant university researchers who we've been depending on to develop those treatments to combat COVID. Yet what's the government's thankyou to the sector? What support is the government's providing the sector for doing this vitally important work? We'll deny you JobKeeper, and you guys have to stand on your own, fend for yourselves and try and make ends meet.
There have been 17,000 jobs lost across our nation's universities, and that's a shameful record for this government. It says everything, as I said earlier, about their philosophy when it comes to higher education. Academics and tutors have lost their jobs, as have workers and admin staff and others who keep those universities running. They've all got families and bills to pay. No other industry of this size has been treated with such contempt, as universities have been, by this Prime Minister and his government.
Now we've seen the university sector ignored again in the government's budget. Universities said that they're disappointed with the lack of support for higher education in last night's federal budget, and they're facing another setback, with no return of international students until at least 2023. The chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said:
"With borders shut until mid-2022 the picture for universities will get worse—with significant flow-on effects for the nation's research capacity and jobs, inside and outside universities,"
That's an important point to make because there are so many jobs in local communities where universities are situated that are related to the health of the university. I see it in Kingsford, in Kensington, in Coogee, in Maroubra, in Eastlakes and in Daceyville, the suburbs that surround the University of New South Wales, where there have been massive job losses. Small businesses in particular have been unable to survive and cope because the university sector has been decimated. So the effect goes way beyond what happens on the university campus, to many small businesses and communities where universities are situated and to those small businesses that do work for the university sector. It's clear that this budget is yet another marketing exercise that can't hide the fact there's no support for our university sector. This is another missed opportunity from this government to really undertake some significant reform and demonstrate philosophical and real support for higher education in this country.
It's vitally needed, because we all know that Australia is falling behind when it comes to our productivity performance. We're actually going backwards; we're one of the few nations in the OECD where productivity in our economy has gone backwards. It's actually the first time in Australia's history, since we began measuring labour productivity, that it's actually fallen, and that's on this government's watch. It never happened under a Labor government and never happened under a previous coalition government either, but it is happening now under this government's watch.
What does that mean? Ultimately it means that living standards will fall because the income per Australian worker that we're generating is falling. There are a host of reasons associated with that. It's associated with the fact that there has been a dramatic reduction in business investment in Australia as a result of this government's lack of support for research and development and for business investment in Australia—and I'm not talking about the investment that comes from buying a ute or a new freezer for a small business. I'm talking about long-term real investment in new technology, new ways of doing business and the next breakthrough around medical, food technology, horticulture or agricultural research. Those next big breakthroughs aren't being encouraged by this government because of their lack of support for business investment, and that's seeing the productivity of our economy fall off a cliff.
This is something that we'll pay for in the future. It means, ultimately, that this large debt we've racked up has to be paid back. It's $1 trillion. Can you believe it or not? Imagine what this government, those opposite, would have done to us if Labor said we were going to institute a trillion dollars worth of debt? That's exactly what they've done; it's the largest budget deficit in the nation's history. How are we going to pay it back when we've got falling and declining productivity, which is going to be a handbrake on economic growth, and make sure that we are getting growth in the economy, more people in jobs, greater income tax receipts and therefore fewer welfare payments? It's not going to happen.
So the forecasts that they're making in the budget are pie in the sky without the necessary investment in productivity-enhancing business investment. That is simply not happening in our economy and will not happen under this budget because there is no decent reform there. It's simply a short-term fix to try, really, to get this government through a successful next election. That's what all this is about. It's about them trying to win an election, it's not about the long-term health of the Australian economy and the long-term living standards of the Australian people.
Despite spending almost $100 billion and racking up a record $1 trillion in debt, the Morrison government is still leaving our universities stranded. While the private and not-for-profit colleges, reliant on foreign students, are receiving a $53 billion lifeline, our public universities, which account for the vast majority of enrolments, are once again mostly passed over and receive nothing.
… the government has missed the opportunity in this budget to fully utilise our world-class university system.
Group of Eight CEO Vicki Thomson said that the delay in returning international students has now made it more difficult for universities to play their part in securing Australia's economic recovery. She said:
Universities are critical to everything the government has announced (in the budget), whether through our research or the provision of a highly skilled workforce.
She is spot on. There is nothing in this budget that supports that research or the development of skills in our economy. I could go on forever about the skills shortages that we have in Australia because of this government's lack of commitment to higher education and vocational education and training. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices in Australia. Billions of dollars have been cut from the TAFE budget. TAFE colleges are being sold off by state Liberal governments. There is no pathway to securing the skills of the future that we will rely on to, as I mentioned earlier, boost our productivity, encourage business investment and enable us to be the engine room for the next big economic breakthrough that will hopefully spur our economy on into the future.
Although we're supporting this bill, it's disappointing that this government has once again ignored the higher education system in the budget, and we'll pay for it in the future.
What an important opportunity it is today to remember just how important the future of Indigenous Australia is, founded upon the availability of high-quality education. Let's concede that this very minor amendment, which makes it administratively easier for those students accessing Abstudy to be able to be part of education, both secondary and tertiary, is a significant step to making sure that we remove every barrier there possibly could be to Indigenous Australians getting the education they deserve.
Let's not forget Noel Pearson's great words about both the challenge and the advantage of Indigenous Australians walking in two worlds and doing so confidently, and it's education that allows that to happen. There is every argument that Indigenous Australians can have significant advantages because of their cultural connection to land as well as the Western benefits of an education that need not be Western at all. Today I want to make the obvious point: I see no reason why Indigenous Australians cannot lead, design and deliver their own education system within Australia's. They should be forming parents and friends groups—not just being teacher aides following the advice of Western teachers, but actively designing and co-designing. The member for Lingiari is in this chamber today, having been part of the discussions with the Northern Territory government. It is at the frontline of these challenges.
To take away an administrative concern from, potentially, pursuing tax file numbers from Indigenous Australian minors or their parents is logical, and of course it will have the support of both sides. But it raises the bigger question: while we endlessly debate here the importance of rights, are we as a nation serious enough to admit and can we agree that not only is education a right but it's an obligation of any extended family unit to ensure that all minors of the appropriate age are getting an appropriate education—not just enrolled, not just counting it for the sake of closing the gap, but taking on board that, if a child leaves at lunchtime, starving, we're going to do something about it? Can we commit to having a family commission's approach that says that, if we see children dropping out of education, it is a clear and present emergency to be addressed?
I don't know about the member for Lingiari, but I've been to plenty of community councils in remote communities in Australia where none of those individuals know anything about school attendance, nor have they ever been engaged seriously in the question of how do we keep our children at school? Gone is the time to claim that school is simply not cultural. Gone is the time to say that someone is potentially abusing substances and therefore the rest of the family can't go. Gone are the times of saying that parents simply can't find the shoes to send their kids to school or get out of bed on time to get them there. Gone are these recurrent excuses in a great civil democracy where there are not only rights but also responsibilities to not only confront a problem but seek a way through it. At every level in our social security law, no matter how well we design the back end, it seems that, fundamentally, if someone provides an acceptable excuse for not engaging, it's tools down for the system. It's no longer, 'How do we fix it?' and 'How are you a responsible part of the solution?'
I concede that, coming from my background, I may not have experienced a household where you cannot afford a pair of shoes or a school uniform or where a significant family crisis or a health status is such that you simply can't get your children to school. But are we a society serious enough to say that that is an emergency to be dealt with—no more excuses and shoving between agencies or claiming it's another level of government? Are we serious enough as a community to be saying that, if we're going to be an Indigenous cultural council, an elected town council or an Indigenous land council over a region, part of our responsibility is for our minors and seeing that, when they're of the appropriate age, they're in early education, primary and secondary school, and then a community wraps together to get those children through as young adults into tertiary and vocational education?
This has to be more important than fighting for grant money and internecine debates over which family benefits. But that's become the new reality. Don't for one minute misinterpret what I'm saying as me blaming Indigenous Australians for that. They had a structured working system over tens of thousands of years that passed on education far more successfully than we did as we tumbled into our own Dark Ages. So the question I ask is: how responsible are we as non-Indigenous Australians for the system that we designed and implemented, the system that moved in from the top and created governance that passed money down to families in remote Australia and then a Centrelink and social security system that effectively undermined individuals and their power by simply paying them a cheque for nothing in return?
What other outcome was likely but a complete disintegration of those kinship groups that have always looked after family? Fundamentally, the Western system never got that. And, by not recognising it, we devalue and demote it and we do not work within those kinship groups to acknowledge that senior men and women have that power if, as a Western government, we're prepared to confer the power. But we don't; we take the power away. We've created community organisations to fight over the money that comes from above—effectively a cargo cult—that activates internecine warfare between families, and we created an individualistic payment system that is blind to kinship groups and families. As anyone, even a person who has visited Indigenous communities as rarely as I have—I have had the privilege of visiting a few dozen—will tell you, if you talk to people on the ground under the tree they'll tell you who's responsible and who's in charge. And, I tell you what, it's probably not the person you expect it to be, but there is someone who can make things happen. But our system has made that almost impossible to deliver.
I have spent a lot of time thinking these thoughts and talking to Indigenous people about them—it's mostly been in remote and regional areas, where the services taken for granted by the rest of us are not immediately available—and they tell you that these problems are surmountable but that, every time someone tries to crawl their way out of the slippery bucket, they're pulled back in, and we don't have a sustainable solution. The government's tried everything, you could argue. We tried making it an element for the Family Responsibilities Commission in Cape York to monitor and enforce. The end result was that school principals didn't want to enforce school attendance or be the cop on the beat.
Today in this chamber we make a minor administrative amendment to do something entirely sensible, and that is to bring Abstudy and AIC back in line with every other piece of educational assistance—to not require a tax file number. It takes me back 20 years to the mid-1990s. I know that the member for Lingiari was representing the Northern Territory at the time. I was working as a young doctor, learning more about the semi-desert community of Lajamanu. At the time we were pushing out Medicare numbers in a similar way to tax file numbers today. Would you expect traditional semi-arid community people to carry a Medicare card everywhere? It was impossible. The solution was that every Medicare card from the community was stored in a shoebox, and, when they came in and they needed care, we found a way to deliver Western care in a way that was culturally appropriate.
So I conclude today: what is the solution to what all of us can agree on—and we have to agree on nothing less than the lesson learnt from around the world—which is that, no matter how traditional the community, there is no substitute for a good education?
We've got to be prepared to change the way we deliver education, and if that means more support for families that most need it to attend school, we've got to be committed to doing it. Removing a tax file number obligation? That's important, because it's a barrier to engaging with the system, but, once through it, our obligation doesn't stop. Our obligation isn't just to enrol students. Our obligation is that students turn up, engage, retain, remain and graduate, and that is a never-ending challenge that every level of government is responsible for, including for those communities that do not talk about it.
Let's be honest: there is no tougher public policy challenge in a nation as wealthy as this than delivering social security and social services to the remote corners of Australia. This is not a comment about whether or not anyone is Indigenous. It's challenging in every way to deliver those services, but it is right to have an expectation that a child growing up in the most remote corner of Australia can gain a complete education and retain a connection to country, but can leave with confidence knowing they can always return. There are a million ways you can tailor that, but I tell you what we can't accept at the moment, and that is surrendering, giving up on families, doing nothing after visiting a community that says: 'There are always a couple of families that simply never send their kids to school, and that's just how it is. There are a whole lot of kids that turn up for the breakfast, but they're gone by the middle of the morning, and that's just how it is.' There are a whole lot of excuses around support between siblings and family connections where, quite rightly, young people who should be getting an education are forced, through health or another crisis, to be delivering care for extended family members. We need to work with that. In the Western world we found putting schools in hospitals worked. Maybe we have to deliver this differently?
Today we take a very simple measure and prove that there can be support on both sides of this chamber to remove, let's be honest, a ridiculous requirement that wasn't enforced on anyone else. Long may there be decisions like this. And let us not waste our time in this chamber but ask ourselves really hard questions about why there cannot be 95 to 100 per cent attendance.
The Closing the Gap targets simply aren't right at the moment. I have made the point that a snowstorm of 16 targets is too many. They're poorly designed, despite how much they have been workshopped. They simply are too heavily focused on administrative inputs. You cannot measure enrolment if you don't care about what they're doing after they're enrolled. It's okay to count graduation, but too many are casualties in between. My academic career, which I began by being part of Australia's greatest education faculty and doing a doctorate in just this area, tells me that you cannot write a family off. You have to take the entire cohort and work with what you have. Not all of them can see a direct line of sight from education to employment, so we need to make sure that is possible. Not all of them are close to an employment opportunity or close to a large metro centre. We need to be imaginative about those empty fly-in fly-out flights that could be taking students into culturally appropriate accommodation for short periods of education with the automatic right to return at any time. Of course it's expensive, but is it more expensive than not doing it?
These issues must be put on the table at community level. I'll defer to the member for Lingiari—he's had more of these conversations than I have—but I want to know which communities are serious about this. Take a 100 per cent enrolment, attendance, retention and graduation and work backwards. The minute the first person drops out of that it's an emergent situation. We ask ourselves what's it going to cost to get that child re-engaged? But what does it cost if we don't?
I acknowledge the contributions which have been made thus far in this debate. I'll come to the member for Bowman in a moment, but I do want to particularly acknowledge the member for Barton, the member for Lyons and the member for Kingsford Smith. It's not my intention to go over the ground they have covered, at least not in any detail, but I will repeat some of the obvious points about the heritage that Labor brings to the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 in terms of support for Abstudy in particular, but also financial assistance for students to undertake study and training which, as has been said, commenced under Labor during World War II.
I'm sorry the member for Bowman has left the chamber, as I want to make some observations about his contribution. I will do that shortly. I want to briefly and, in part, repeat two elements of what others have said before I refer to the member for Bowman. In 2020, Abstudy provided financial assistance to around 27,000 students at school, university and TAFE. As has been said, it helps to reduce financial barriers for First Nations people to tertiary education and training. Access to education, as we know, is a key target in closing the gap. I took note of the member for Bowman's observations about both targets.
The Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme assisted around 13,000 students in 2019-20. I want to make some comments about the Isolated Children's Parents' Association and the wonderful work they do in advocating for students who live in rural and remote communities across this country. They do this pushing stick uphill. It's a very difficult row to hoe and they do it so professionally and well, and they have had significant outcomes over the years. This legislation will assist them, but it won't make a marked difference to the educational opportunities or outcomes for kids from the bush—those who utilise the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme.
It is important that we appreciate the commitment of their parents and carers, and school communities that they attend, for what they provide young people in terms of educational opportunities. Some of them do extremely well. I was talking to a pastoralist in the Northern Territory the other day, in sad circumstances. His father had died and the burial was to be held in the local community. He observed that his daughter, who is in her fourth year of medical training, was able to come and be of great assistance to her dying grandfather at the time when he needed close attention and help. That is a commendation not only of that student but of her parents and the wider community and her family.
I now go to the member for Bowman's comments. I don't agree with all of his comments or his observations, but I do accept the commitment that he has demonstrated in terms of getting outcomes for First Nations kids wherever they might be, in particular in remote communities. I want to say to him that it is important that we see the connection between other elements of social policy as well as education. He knows this because of his observations and his experience. We can compel kids to go to school as much as we want, but if they don't have the right familial circumstance, if they live in overcrowded housing, the social determinants of health, including education, come into play. I have observed this now over many, many years—too many years to recount, really.
Whilst we are prepared to tolerate significant overcrowding in bush communities, where there might be 20 or 30 people to a house, we are going to be forever frustrated in getting decent education outcomes. I do note, though, your observation about giving First Nations people the opportunity to control their educational outcomes. I understand it, and I want to commend the Northern Territory government in this regard. It is now entering negotiations and discussions with First Nations communities around local decision-making, including controlling the school system in their local community. That is a very positive thing. I make the observation that I think there was a mistake in policy introduced some years ago in the Northern Territory where they effectively sidelined bilingual education. In my view that was a grave error. It seems to me that we've got to understand that, if we want to get the educational outcomes to which the member for Bowman referred, we have to engage with the whole community, that's true, but we have also to understand the circumstances in which those communities are situated in terms of their economic and social profiles and to understand the need to put in the resources that are required to get the outcomes that we all want. Those are not just in education but in housing, primary health care, communications and other infrastructure. If we don't do that, we will not get the outcomes that we all want.
I'll say a couple of words on the budget. There is nothing in this budget of any consequence, really. There are two elements. I'm not going to be so churlish as to say they're not decent, but there's nothing substantial in this budget to address the poor educational outcomes of First Nations kids in the bush. There is nothing, zero, zilch. There is nothing in this budget to advance those issues around the social determinants of health, to which I referred—nothing, zero, zilch. There is some money for further primary health care, and I acknowledge the commitment made for the 2,700 additional places for Indigenous girls academies across the country. That just balances the ledger, because of the commitments made for young men's programs. I also acknowledge the commitment to provide $16.6 million for schools and youth support for boarding school viability in 2021-22 post-COVID.
I'll make an observation. The House of Representatives standing committee on First Nations did an inquiry into education. It looked at boarding facilities and boarding schools across the country and discussed their merit. The conclusion arrived at was that they had questionable outcomes. There were certainly young First Nations students who profited by going to a boarding school, but what we noticed also was that a large proportion of kids who went to those boarding schools dropped out before they'd finished or completed their education. We came to the view that the best way to get better educational outcomes for those kids was to invest in educational opportunities locally, in their own schools and in their own communities. This is where the money should be spent in the first instance. I have no issue with kids going to boarding school if that's what they want. I have no issue with needing to make sure those boarding schools provide good facilities—none at all—but that should not be the priority. The priority should be to look at the fundamental needs of preschool, primary school, high school and post-school education in remote and regional Australia. That's where we should be spending on resources. It seems to me that the government has missed an opportunity in this budget.
I note that there has been significant comment already in this debate about the impact of the government's budget on higher education and the failure of this government to see that the needs of Australian students are properly addressed. More than 17,000 jobs at universities have been lost because of the Prime Minister's pig-headed decision to stop universities getting JobKeeper. How stupid can you be? Yet that's what we've got. That's sad, and it's a handicap on kids who live in rural and remote parts of Australia, just as it's a handicap on kids who live in major urban centres. The availability of courses and the restructuring of fees that we have seen have already been commented on here. They make huge university fees and university debts that will rob Australian kids of the job of their dreams. That's what will happen as a result of the decisions taken by this government.
I will go back to where I commenced. There is an opportunity for us here, and I pick up again on the plea of the member for Bowman. Yes, we do have to do things differently, but we have to acknowledge the right of First Nations people to make their own decisions. That's absolutely true. But it requires an investment, and that investment is not coming from this government. The budget last night puts nothing towards local decision-making or investing in the education outcomes of these First Nations kids who live in rural, regional and remote Australia. We're going to have to do a great deal more if we are serious about closing the gap, for which we say we have bipartisan support.