House debates

Tuesday, 25 May 2021


Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021; Second Reading

5:27 pm

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

I speak today on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021, and I move:

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

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the bill does nothing to address the crisis Australia's world-class universities are facing after the Government abandoned universities during the pandemic, resulting in:

(1) thousands of jobs lost;

(2) hundreds of courses cut; and

(3) Australian students being loaded up with a lifetime of debt".

Labor supports this legislation before the House. This legislation extends the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption that was announced as part of the Higher Education Relief Package in April 2020. Students studying full-fee degrees at table A public universities and private higher education providers are currently able to access FEE-HELP loans to pay all or part of their tuition fees, but these loans come at a cost to students. Until recently, if you took out a FEE-HELP loan to pay for your undergraduate course, you had to pay a 25 per cent loan fee. The Job-Ready Graduates Package reduced the loan fee from 25 per cent to 20 per cent from 1 July this year. The Higher Education Relief Package included an exemption from the loan fee for units of study, with the census date between 1 April and 30 September. In September 2020 the loan fee exemption was extended through to 30 June this year. The legislation before the House extends the exemption again by a further six months, to New Year's Eve this year. Domestic undergraduate students studying at non-university higher education providers will benefit from this exemption by it reducing their financial burden. It is intended that this exemption will provide an incentive for those students who have been financially affected by COVID-19 to continue or commence studies in 2021, in turn supporting higher education providers. It is appropriate to continue exempting students from having to pay the 20 per cent loan fee to access a FEE-HELP loan at this time.

Labor supports this bill because it will reduce student debt levels. Of course it's good to reduce the amount of debt that students are accumulating. That will encourage more people to improve their skills through study and hence boost productivity—which, as we saw from the budget, has some serious issues—and more students studying will also assist higher education providers, who are struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is just another in the laundry list of examples where this government has given private higher education providers much needed support throughout the pandemic while abandoning our wonderful public universities. This bill only reduces the debt for students studying with a private provider, while tens of thousands of students starting university this semester had their fees hiked. Many students have had to take on fees and debt at double the level they would have taken on prior to the government's job-ready graduates legislation.

This is a familiar pattern when it comes to the Morrison government. At the peak of the COVID pandemic, when universities were crying out for assistance, the Morrison government gave JobKeeper to private providers but changed the rules, three times, to exclude public universities. This has led to more than 17,000 jobs being lost and hundreds of courses being cut. We're talking about academics, tutors, admin staff, scientific assistants, lab assistants—everybody who keeps a university up and running. Seventeen thousand are now without jobs, all with families and bills to pay. Why is the Prime Minister not concerned that thousands of livelihoods have been destroyed and households bludgeoned because of his decisions, when he could have prevented this? If the Prime Minister really cared about jobs, he would be helping universities, not hurting them. If the Prime Minister really cared about families, he would have supported those families who were relying on universities to earn a living, instead of systematically targeting them—his very own culture-wars whipping boy.

Australian universities have really struggled during this pandemic. Last year they lost an estimated $3 billion, yet the budget had nothing meaningful for public universities. In fact, there was a 10 per cent real funding cut over the coming years, and emergency funding to keep researchers in their jobs was cut off, even though, as we all know, this health crisis is far from over. Instead, the Morrison government announced another $53 million for private providers for fee relief and short courses. We've had eight long years of this cruel, out-of-touch government—those opposite think a university education is good enough for their own kids but not for most Australians, and they're happy to sign students in every electorate across the country up to a lifetime of debt.

During the last parliamentary sitting period, the budget papers confirmed for the first time what the Morrison government has refused to admit—that the Liberals are saving money by jacking up uni fees. I don't want Australia to become like the United States of America, where kids have to take on a lifetime of debt merely to obtain an education. We're talking about our kids graduating from university with debts of around $60,000 for a basic degree, at the same time as they're trying to find work, maybe saving for a deposit for a house or thinking about starting a family. Late last year, I took the shadow education minister, the member for Sydney, to meet some graduating year 12 students in my electorate. We caught up with these students and had a good yarn. These students were very aware of the costs associated with their courses and what the increases would mean. Many of them were anxious. One of the students we met with talked about the fact that she had dreamed of pursuing a particular career but, sadly, had to change to a different course because she was worried about paying the increased fees. Her dreams were crushed by the Morrison government's policy.

People should never forget that government decisions have real-life consequences. I'm sure the aim of the coalition's policy was not to crush any student's dreams, but in this case that is exactly what was achieved and what I saw. The Morrison government's huge uni fees and huge uni debts will rob more Australian kids of the job of their dreams. The Morrison government is not setting Australian kids up for success. Instead, they're being loaded down with a lifetime of debt.

Labor will support this legislation before the chamber because it will reduce the amount of debt being accumulated for some students. But it is time for the Morrison government to stop the harm they're inflicting on people's lives and on our economy by abandoning the universities and research during this time of crisis and making it harder and more expensive for many students to go to university.

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

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

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

5:35 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

With the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021, the government is extending the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption already in place by a further six months. The extension to the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption provides an incentive to students to commence and continue their study throughout 2021. The Australian government originally introduced a temporary exemption from the FEE-HELP loan fee due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This extension continues the government's support of students in higher education.

Higher education leads to increased skills, greater job opportunities, economic output and growth and a better quality of life. Higher education is something I engaged in later in life—actually beginning two degrees and a PhD when I turned 49.

Government Member:

A government member interjecting

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you so much. I'm very proud of those achievements. In fact, I think mature-age students make wonderful students.

The future growth of Mallee depends on equitable access to higher education for students in our regions. Our businesses and industries need the right people with the right training to prosper and grow. As our industries advance and change, there is an increased need for highly-skilled workers. We need students in agriculture, manufacturing, energy and information technology, just to name a few areas. Higher education options in Mallee consist of two, fundamentally. There's La Trobe in Mildura—and I've spoken many times with Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar about what is being offered in Mildura, and have said that I'd dearly love to see that expanded—and Federation University in Horsham. Professor Geoffrey Lord is the head of Federation University's Wimmera campus in Horsham. That campus is under threat to diminish its courses, not expand them. I will continue to campaign and prosecute a greater expansion of courses down there.

La Trobe Mildura has been operating in Mildura for 20 years. It is led by Head of Campus Deb Neal. It is integral to our community and our economy. Eighty-seven per cent of students stay and work locally in Mildura. More than 1,800 La Trobe alumni are living and working in the Mildura region. It is an outstanding achievement. I believe, and this government believes, that your health shouldn't depend on your postcode, and we know that students who study in the regions are more likely to stay in the regions and work. That's why we need more students studying health in Mallee.

That is why we established the rural medical pathway program. This great program is rolled out in regional Australia through the Murray-Darling Medical School. I want to see that come to Mildura. I have been working closely with the vice-chancellor of La Trobe, Professor John Dewar, to bring the program to Mallee. This was the first program under Murray-Darling Medical School's network initiative. At the moment, students at La Trobe currently complete under-grads in Bendigo or Albury-Wodonga, meaning they leave Mildura. Students then complete post-grad medicine in Shepparton through the University of Melbourne—none of which takes place in Mallee. Monash Medical School does exist in Mildura and post-grad students do come here for periods of time. We have had an increasing interest in the program. In our first in-take in 2019 there were 230 applications, in the second in-take in 2020 there were 390 applications and in the third in-take in 2021 there were 540 applications to study medicine in a rural setting.

I've had the privilege to meet some of these students from Mallee, including Xavier and Jake. Xavier Kendall is from Ouyen in my electorate. He says:

I believe that with a rural medical degree I will be able to have the biggest impact, rural physicians are in demand, and working in a rural area will enable me to serve the community in a way that will truly make a difference.

I hope to work in regional areas as a doctor for a start, then I hope to specialise in radiology and utilise my skills in a regional community.

I wish Xavier all the very best. Jake is from Mildura. He says:

When you see large communities like Mildura struggle to find doctors and provide care, it becomes really obvious something needs to be done to protect people and inspire future doctors to look into rural health. I want to be a part of that.

I want to provide care for the most remote people in the world, including a 3 month stint in Antarctica and hopefully the chance to work with the rural flying doctors. But most of all I want to return to the community that raised me.

We want you back too, Jake.

I, along with La Trobe, want to see this program come to Mildura so students like Jake and Xavier don't have to move away. La Trobe are seeking funding of $6.25 million over four years to establish the program. That includes a $2.2 million one-off capital cost for a new wet lab. I've walked into the facility where that wet lab, hopefully, will be built. We also need an allocation of Commonwealth supported places. The minister for regional health, Mark Coulton, has visited La Trobe. I've also met with the minister for education, Alan Tudge, to discuss the proposal. There are obvious benefits in bringing the rural medical pathway program to Mallee—to attract more tertiary health students to Mildura, to support higher education delivery in Mildura, to train more doctors of rural origin in our regions and to make us more likely to retain doctors in regional areas. If we train local, we stay local.

This government is also supporting students in regional universities through the Destination Australia scholarship program. The Australian government funds scholarships for students to study in regional Australia under this program, with scholarship funding of $15,000 per student. This is about giving students in regional areas valuable exposure. La Trobe currently is hosting nine Destination Australia students locally in Mallee. In a few weeks I'll be meeting some of these students, but I wanted to share with the House what these students have said about studying in the regions. Brianna O'Connor-Byrne, who is training in a Bachelor of Education (Primary), says:

Being in a regional area for study has been extremely helpful for my studies. I am in in classes where everyone knows each other and the tutors and lecturers know students and are greatly invested in our studies. Living in a regional area provides many opportunities for growth and career development, even before graduation; with a number of people being able to volunteer in their field or apply for placement opportunities available only in the regional areas.

Once I graduate, I hope to stay in the regional areas of Victoria giving back to the smaller communities in the regional areas.

Alexandra Littore is studying a Bachelor of Business. She says:

The scholarship has provided me with support, which has given me confidence to know that I do have the potential to complete my studies. It has given myself an opportunity to further become a leader and know in myself that I have the potential to do what I put my mind to it. It has also increased my drive to further want to succeed in my studies. It has allowed me the support to know I have options and peace of mind, as my knowledge of accounting and what I want to pursue further has broaden.

Studying at La Trobe Mildura has been great, the smaller campus means being able to see so many friendly faces around, especially the staff. In the classes on campus, the number of students is smaller, meaning it feels more 1 on 1 with the teacher, I feel more likely to want to ask questions and want to learn more. Actually, studying regionally, I believe has made me enjoy my course more. Living regionally is great, I'm able to really enjoy the little things and have so many opportunities to really succeed.

Eilidh Noblet is studying for a bachelor of nursing. She says:

I have learnt and loved being on a smaller campus and forming personal relationships with my lecturers as well as my peers. I feel like I can always ask and receive help when I need it. Within my nursing group, majority of us go out to local cafes and restaurants for lunch between classes to reflect on classwork and just be social. I started off the year not knowing anyone in my classes, however it did not take long to get to know one another and start up some friendships. I have made many great friends through Uni so far and believe these new friends of mine will be hanging around for the rest of my lifetime. I have spoken with many of my school friends who are studying in Melbourne and they all say how they are jealous of my Uni experience and friendships made as their experience is a lot different, and they don’t get the opportunity to make new friendships with the other students in their classes like I do in Mildura.

There is so much to be said for studying in regional campuses, and we as a government are committed to seeing those experiences enhanced and multiplied.

5:45 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Republic) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm speaking in support of this bill. In doing so, I think that, with this bill, the government is implicitly recognising what pressure our public universities are under because the bill does extend the FEE-HELP loan exemption, which was first announced in April last year to deal with COVID because we all knew that people studying at our universities were going to be under pressure and needed that exemption from tuition fees for students studying at our public universities and private education providers. Prior to COVID, if you took out a FEE-HELP loan to pay for your undergraduate course, you also had to pay a 25 per cent loan fee. In the Higher Education Relief Package the government announced an exemption from the loan fee for units of study with a census date from 1 April to 30 September. This bill, of course, extends that loan exemption for the fee. But in doing so, the government is really admitting that our public universities are under enormous pressure. This government hasn't done much at all to support public education in Australia, particularly at that tertiary level.

We all know that the government's recent budget has built into it $150 billion worth of debt, the largest budget deficit that our nation has ever seen. A trillion dollars of debt will hit over the course of the forward estimates period, so the Australian people are saying: 'We've got a large debt, a very large budget deficit. What is this government's plan to make sure that our economy recovers from COVID in better shape than when we entered it?' I have to say that, in this bill and in everything that this government has been doing, there is no plan. If you look at the government's budget papers, they actually admit that out of this large deficit, this huge debt that future generations are going to inherit, not much occurs that will grow the Australian economy. In fact, the level of growth at the end of the forward estimates is the same as it is at the moment. Wages don't grow, so people's incomes aren't going to be increasing, and there's certainly no hope that we're going to get an improvement in labour productivity or efficiency in our economy. The key to doing that and in particular the key to improving labour productivity, which has been a handbrake on growth in our economy and will continue to be so under this government, is education, is ensuring that more Australians have better educational attainment and are more productive in the work that they do to produce incomes that contribute to GDP for this economy.

Everyone knows that the key to improving our economic performance into the future is education, getting more people into better skilled jobs. We are seeing a lack of support from this government for not only the university sector but also for the trades. In Australia, over the course of the last eight years under this government, there were 140,000 fewer apprentices than in 2013. Think of the opportunities and the productivity improvement that have been lost with that. They've smashed the TAFE system. There's been $2 billion in cuts to TAFE funding from this government. That's seen state governments push up the cost of a TAFE education and getting a trade. That's meant that many young Australians simply can't afford to anymore. And they're not; they're not taking up trades. And what is the result of that? All you need to do is walk down any main street of Australia, in any town, regional centre or city, and ask an employer how they're going with employing staff, and they'll all tell you the one thing: 'I cannot get skilled staff at the moment. I want to grow my business. The customers are there. The demand is there. I could grow my business, but I can simply cannot get skilled staff at the moment.' What is the reason for that? It's because this government has not invested in trades education and training in this country, and, as a result, we've got skill shortages.

Pre COVID, the government's solution to that was simply to import foreign labour: 'It doesn't matter; we won't invest in trades training and education. We'll be able to just import foreign labour on temporary visas so that we'll fill the gaps.' And that's what was occurring. Many of those small businesses were having to go through the rigmarole of sponsoring people and getting people in on temporary visas. Then, of course, COVID hit and the borders had to close. That stream and that wave of temporary migrants, that labour supply, has now dried up, and all of these Australian businesses, including small businesses, now have skill shortages. They have skill shortages because of the Morrison government. It's the Morrison government that's put a handbrake on the growth of small businesses and jobs in this country, and they ought to be ashamed.

It extends to the higher education sector as well. It says everything about this government's approach to higher education that it gave JobKeeper to Australian casinos, yet it refused to give JobKeeper to Australia's public universities. That says everything about this government's priorities when it comes to education: 'We won't invest in education. We won't invest in ensuring that we've got a better-skilled workforce on the back of COVID so that we can reduce some of the skill shortages that we've got and so that we can improve labour productivity and therefore get economic growth. No, we're not going to do that. It's against all of our philosophical views about education. We're not going to invest in it.' What's the result? Look at the budget papers. They tell us the result: no growth over the forward estimates, in terms of economic growth, and no growth in incomes for Australians. We're going to be stuck in this rut for many years to come because of this government and its lack of support for higher education in this country.

I'm very fortunate to have the University of New South Wales in my electorate. This is a university that is a world-leading facility when it comes to solar, PV solar and photovoltaic research; medical research, particularly at the Children's Cancer Institute, which is connected to the university; technological advancements in tackling climate change; and in space research—all of the new, modern industries that Australia has enormous opportunities in. And what's this government's approach? 'We're going to deny them JobKeeper.' As a result, what happens? Five hundred jobs are lost at the University of New South Wales, with academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners and many others trying to make ends meet.

The irony is that, when COVID hit, who did we turn to and say, 'Help us get of this; help us open up our economy again. What should we do to make sure that we can eventually live with this virus and open up our economy again'? We turned to those researchers. We turned to those epidemiologists, the medical professionals, the virologists and of course the people who put together the vaccines. Where were they working? They were working in our universities. That's the thanks that they get from this government: 'We want you to come up with the vaccine for COVID, but we're not going to give you any support to make sure that you can do it.' It says everything about this government's approach to their treatment of COVID, their development of a vaccine and their lack of support for higher education. It's 17,000 people and 17,000 jobs that have been lost in our university sector as a result of this government's lack of support for Australian universities. Not only do hundreds of thousands of Australians rely on universities for their jobs but also the universities are the home of those brilliant researchers that have been developing the new treatments and equipment to combat COVID—17,000 jobs have been lost. What a shameful record from this government about approaching higher education in this country. I don't think there'd be any nation in the developed world that would have a poorer record when it comes to supporting industries that are vitally important to combatting COVID. That's the great shame about this government's recent budget—that, once again, there's this distinctive lack of support for the university sector in Australia.

We all know that education is an important contributor to the Australian economy. It was the third-largest export contributor to Australia's GDP pre-COVID. But many of those universities, of course, had to close their doors to foreign students because of the closure of the borders, so many of them have seen their incomes diminish and the number of students doing courses at their universities diminish. They classically fit the need for JobKeeper and the need for government support, but they haven't been given that support at all. Despite spending $100 billion and racking up a trillion dollars worth of debt, this government has nothing to show for it when it comes to the university sector. They've left our universities stranded.

Private, not-for-profit colleges get a lifeline. They're being given a $53 billion lifeline, but do our public universities? No, because those opposite are philosophically opposed to public universities. They see them as a hotbed of radical thought. How dare people go to university and get an education where they may be exposed to other theories that are anti to their philosophical way of life! How dare they be hotbeds of thought and philosophical views about the future of the country! No, that's not the sort of thing that they would like to support because of their philosophical objection to the notion of people thinking and thinking about the future of our country—so, 'We're simply not going to support them.' What a petty approach! What a spiteful approach to education that will see less kids, particularly those from working-class backgrounds—they say all the time that they are all about supporting workers. What rubbish! How is this about supporting workers and their kids getting into education, particularly when, last year, they amended all the fee structures so that a kid that comes from a working-class family that's got a dream of studying the humanities, economics, business or something like that, can't afford it anymore, because the costs of those courses have increased by factors of 100 per cent.

It shows you everything about this government's approach to universities. Unfortunately, the country will pay for it down the track, because we all know that we've got a deep problem in this country with labour productivity. For the first time in the history of the records that we've been keeping around labour productivity, under this government labour productivity fell. In other words, there was no growth. There has usually been a little bit of growth, and we argued about the level of growth. But, no, under this government it fell. It went backwards, and it's not going to come back any time soon because there's a distinct lack of commitment to education, be it in the trades, dealing with some of the skill shortages that we're facing in the country, or in the higher education sector, dealing with those issues around technology and doing things smarter and the jobs of the future. This government simply is not committed to that way of life and ensuring that our universities are there to grow the economy into the future, ensuring that we do have labour productivity growth once again in Australia and ensuring that we do grow our economy over the forward estimates instead of the pathetic result that we're going to get of flatlining for the rest of the forward estimates.

5:59 pm

Photo of Vince ConnellyVince Connelly (Stirling, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I relish this opportunity on two fronts. Firstly, it is a good opportunity to correct the record on a number of matters raised just now by the member for Kingsford Smith, principally that assertion that was just made that this government is somehow under investing in education. Secondly, there was a spurious and incorrect claim made that this government does not have a plan. I will pick up those two points under this address. I'd also like to make the observation that when we talk about education, we should acknowledge that there are many different paths that people take and, indeed, some of those paths change over time.

I was impressed as I am sure those of us who were here in the chamber at the time were as well, when the wonderful member of Mallee pointed out she was in fact 49 years of age when she began her two degrees and her PhD—what a wonderful story—and now she's here in this place adding massive value every single day. My own path was slightly different again. I went straight out of high school into the Australian Defence Force Academy down here in Canberra, which has a structure where students obtain a university degree through the University of New South Wales at the same time as undertaking military studies that lead to, obviously, a military career. So in my case, I was paying for my education through service to our nation for quite a number of years thereafter, which suited me quite well. Then my own eldest daughter, Tiggy, is in her first year at the University of WA undertaking a degree in psychology and criminology and comes home every day bounding with enthusiasm and energy, so they must be doing something right out there.

I would also take a moment to remind all of us that, unlike in previous generations, everybody who can go to university doesn't have to go to university. Certainly when I was leaving school, the approach was different. If you had the academic aptitude to go to university, that was the path you must take. I am very pleased to see there is an acceptance much more across our society now in having manual skills, having skills in technological fields, including IT, that may not require a university degree. Indeed the Deputy Speaker himself, I am well informed, hasn't been to university and now is a high-performing member of parliament. So I do take that moment to note that our kids growing up, and I am sure everyone would agree, should assess their options for what suits them, not what others say they must do.

This year's budget opens wonderful opportunities for education in areas needed to add value here in Australia. This budget has flagged significant investment in areas which include aged care, with an additional $17.7 billion allocated, so it is a great opportunity for those who want to work in both technical and non-technical means within aged care to get on board, as we rightly expand those products and services in the aged-care field. For the NDIS, an additional $13.2 billion has been allocated for that very important program, so there are some more great opportunities for those who want to apply their skills in an area that absolutely matters in helping out their fellow Australians—what a great opportunity. For mental health, there is a further $2.3 billion. Again, we need so many workers into the future in that mental health space. Sitting as I do on the Select Committee for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, one of the key things identified is that need for an enhanced workforce. So again, there are some great education opportunities in the pipeline. The last one I will finish on, as we talk broadly before I move more specifically to the structure of the bill and the purpose behind it, is around defence capability, something else that is near and dear to my and many other hearts in this place.

Defence capability will be boosted to the tune of $270 billion over the next 10 years. It's an appropriate and necessary investment and one that certainly comes with a great deal of opportunity for people to work in defence industry, building the ships and building the engines for our unmanned aerial vehicles, like I saw happening in my own electorate of Stirling, to be exported to the world. There are some wonderful opportunities right across that supply chain. For some of them, university education requirements will apply and for others they will not. So a very, very exciting future is ahead for our nation.

I'll turn now to some more of the specific detail in this bill. Of course, this bill is focused on extending the student loan fee exemption at a time when that just makes sense. Obviously we want to help our next generation of students who do choose to undertake university degrees to get there sooner and with greater ease. That's why we're seeking to extend this FEE-HELP loan fee exemption, which is already in place for a further six months until the end of this calendar year.

FEE-HELP first came into effect in 2005. It allowed people who were paying full course fees to access a loan similar to HECS-HELP. This provided choice to those who wanted to study at private higher education providers without having to borrow money, which some had previously had to do in the past. Undergraduate students accessing the FEE-HELP loan would normally accrue a 20 per cent loan fee, which would be on top of their amount, while HECS-HELP loans do not incur this fee. So what we want to see is the extension of this level playing field until at least the end of this year, which will be a boost for around 30,000 students at more than 100 private education providers across Australia. It's an incentive for students who wish to continue or commence study this upcoming semester and will bolster student enrolments. It's vital that we continue to support our higher education providers to deliver the high-quality education that is required for our nation's future workforce.

Yes, this will benefit Aussie students, but it will also be essential to our nation's economic recovery as we move forward through this recovery phase associated with the COVID-19 global pandemic. We are continuing to support our students—our future workforce—including apprentices and trainees. In this budget, the Morrison government is providing a record $20 billion investment in the higher education sector. That funding is a whopping 37 per cent up since we came to government. We're also committing more than $903 million over the next four years towards more places in the higher education sector and towards supporting more students. This year alone our government's Job-Ready Graduates Package is creating an additional 30,000 places, with the aim of creating 100,000 spots by 2030. But it doesn't stop there. The cost of degrees in key areas is going down: the cost of an agriculture degree has been slashed by more than half, 59 per cent down, to be exact; the cost of a maths degree is also down 59 per cent; the cost of a teaching or nursing degree has decreased 42 per cent; and the cost of a science, engineering or IT degree has gone down by 18 per cent.

It was only seven months ago, in October, when the government handed down our last budget, providing $1 billion to the sector for research and development due to COVID-19. This cash injection also helped ease the burden that was faced because of the inability of foreign students to study in Australia in the numbers that they had been and, of course, because of the associated loss of their tuition fees. Last year's budget also included an additional $298 million in funding for undergraduate places and $252 million for up to 50,000 additional short course places. These are just some of the initiatives that relate to the financial relief our government is offering to Australian students.

Extending the loan fee exemption will be a another step in the right direction by this Morrison government when it comes to supporting Australian students and reducing the financial burdens they face. As I said earlier, the exemption came into place in April last year before being extended to 30 June 2021. We want to see it continue until at least the end of this calendar year so that we can help undergraduate students with their learning as they seek to get out there and make a difference to the future of our great nation.

It is critical that this bill be passed as soon as possible, because the 30 June deadline is fast approaching, as is semester 2, 2021. Prospective students need certainty. They cannot be left in the dark when it comes to receiving accurate information from providers about their fees.

We are backing Australian students. We are investing in our future. I commend this bill to the House.

6:10 pm

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

The Morrison government giveth and the Morrison government taketh away. We've just voted on the TEQSA bills, which would see this government slam higher education institutions with a new fee structure at a time when they are already suffering huge job losses, are unable to cater to international students and are already brought to their knees. I spoke on those bills, and I will speak on this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021, because I will always speak about the sector of which I was part for many years of my life and because I will always stand up to hold this government to account on its record on higher education.

Labor supports this bill because it is good legislation. It's about extending the FEE-HELP loan exemption that was first announced in April 2020, which Labor supported. The bill will extend the exemption until at least the end of this calendar year, as the previous speaker, the member for Cowan, said. Hopefully, when we revisit it, if it's needed, the government will continue to respond in appropriate ways.

As I said, the government giveth and the government taketh away. I will talk about the government's record on higher education, but I want to start by telling you a story that, to me, really illustrates the importance of education and the kinds of changes that it can make to an individual's life. A couple of years ago I was out door-knocking in my electorate. I knocked on a door, and this young fellow answered. I said to him: 'Hi, I'm Anne Aly. I'm the member for Cowan. I represent you in federal parliament. Are your parents home?' He said, 'No, my parents aren't home. I'm here alone.' I said, 'Okay, what do you do?' He said, 'I'm in year 12.' I said, 'What are you going to do when you finish?' He said, 'I've got no idea what I want to do with my life.' I looked at him and said, 'Have you ever thought of studying a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security?' He looked at me like I had three heads and was this crazy, mad woman who'd just rocked up on his door and said, 'No. I didn't even know you could do a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security.' I said, 'Well, you can, because I wrote the degree.' So I left him with a bit of information about the degree and where he could go, and I gave him my number, in case he ever wanted to call me an have a chat about it. About six months ago I got an email from his mum. She said in her email: 'You came knocking on my door. I wasn't home, but you spoke to my son. You left some information for him and you convinced him to do a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security.' She said, 'I'm pleased to say that his older brother, who had left school and had been going from job to job to job, not really knowing what he wanted to do, joined him. They are both now in their second year of that degree and are loving it, and they would love to come and meet you.' Of course I said, 'Yes, I would love to meet them!' So they came over, and we had a little meeting in my office over a cup of coffee. I was like: 'What assignment are you working on now? Who's your lecturer here and who's your lecturer there? What are you thinking of doing as a minor? Which area are you thinking you might go into?' It was such a heartening thing to see that a chance encounter with a young person who had absolutely what they were going to do, who could see a pathway forward in his life, both he and his brother could see a pathway forward in their lives, to something that they could do, to something meaningful that they could do that gave them meaning, gave them opportunity and gave them optimism for the future. That is the power of education, and that is why we are so lucky to be in a country where our higher education sector is one of the best in the world. Our universities are some of the best in the world. Our university lecturers, our professors, our tutors and our admin staff are some of the best in the world—some of the most hardworking in the world and some of the most dedicated in the world. Sadly, many of them have been forced out of their jobs because this government was too slow and didn't do enough in supporting higher education institutions through the COVID pandemic. Education is Australia's fourth largest export; imagine that, a country where our education is one of our largest exports. Higher education institutions and universities rely on international students and rely on being in face-to-face situations for their interaction with our young people. Jobs were lost.

Let's take a look at some of the key facts of this government's record on higher education, because I believe it would be completely remiss of me to talk about this bill without putting it in the context of a protracted campaign from this government and a history from this government of what can only be described as attacks on the higher education sector. You do not need to take my word for it. Go and talk to the universities. Talk to the university vice-chancellors, talk to the lecturers, talk to the professors and talk to the students. They will tell you just what the impact of this government's consistent cuts and attacks on higher education has been. Talk to the researchers. The researchers are just beside themselves that they have a minister—the previous minister—who intervenes in the ARC process to veto, at his whim, research projects that have been through a very vigorous ARC process, as if he is the one who is an expert on the research project. He's not the expert on the research projects; the college of experts who are appointed to assess Australian Research Council grants are the experts, not the minister.

This government talks about innovation, but at the same time they're talking up innovation and talking about commercialisation and talking about research, they're attacking the humanities. Let many tell you what the future is for the humanities. It's not what this government thinks. People aren't going to be studying sociology so they can navel gaze. They're not going to be studying anthropology so they can watch videos of cats on YouTube.

The future of the humanities can be encapsulated in two words: artificial intelligence. The artificial part is going to come from sciences and technology—from the technical aspects—but the intelligence part of it is going to come from the humanities, because the intelligence part of it is about understanding human behaviour. That's sociology. That's anthropology. That's social psychology. That's media and culture. That's behavioural studies. That's all of those things—all of those humanities subjects about which the government has said to young people, 'If you what to study them, you are going to have to pay more.' That is what this government has said to them: 'We're going to incentivise the sciences by making you pay more for a humanities degree, if that's your passion and that's what you want to pursue.' There is no foresight, no vision and no thinking that, actually, the humanities play a huge roll in the future of technology and innovation, because it puts the intelligence in artificial intelligence. That's what that part of artificial intelligence is.

Before the COVID pandemic, international education was our fourth-largest export industry. It contributed $37.9 billion in export earnings to the economy. So can put aside all of those things that you might think are 'touchy-feely' about the value of education—the things about opportunity and aspiration and giving people hope and giving people a pathway into their lives. If you want to put that all aside you can, but the economic facts are that it is a $37.9 billion export industry with 250,000 jobs across the Australian economy.

Before COVID, universities employed 130,000 full-time-equivalent workers in academic and professional roles. Let me tell you about those academic roles. You can't teach without having research. You can't. You cannot impart knowledge about a subject without having a good body of knowledge from which to draw, and that body of knowledge only develops with good, high-quality research. If you cut research funding, you immediately impact on the quality of teaching. It's a simple equation. You need research in order to be able to teach. You absolutely need it, whether it's research in pedagogy and teaching and learning or whether it's content research. When I was a professor and I used to lecture to my students, I would use my research findings to give them new insights into the topic that we were talking about. Whether that topic was international security, terrorism, the history of terrorism, or terrorist profiling, I used my research in order to ensure that my students, when they graduated, had the best knowledge and could apply it in different work settings. Without research, you don't have quality teaching. That is an absolute fact. If you cut research, you compromise the quality of education.

Universities were really hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were at least 17,300 job losses in 2020 because they weren't able to get JobKeeper, and I know many people who lost their jobs. Some of those who do tutorials or are casual lecturers at university are only on rolling contracts. I myself was on a one-year rolling contract for many years before I was made permanent and had some tenure at a university. That's just what you face when you enter into an academic career. Many of them lost their jobs. The sector is set to lose $3.8 million in revenue across 2020 and 2021, and the economy has lost $9 billion because of decreased international student revenue.

This government abandoned our universities during the pandemic. There is no other word for it. There is no other way to describe it. While we welcome measures like the higher education support amendment and the extension of the student loan fee exemption, we will stand up to measures like the TEQSA measure that was voted on earlier today, which wants to hit universities and higher education institutions with a new fee at a time when they are hurting most. The job-ready graduate reforms, which the member for Stirling spoke about, will mean that the government pays less to cover the cost of many university courses, and that will effectively result in a hiking up of fees. I've had people in my electorate contact me. They're matured-age students who decided to go back to university during COVID. They'd never had the opportunity earlier. They enrolled in a university degree and are now facing double the cost that they initially enrolled with and have had to withdraw from their courses. Universities will receive less money to teach some courses, including science, engineering and teaching.

The 2021 budget, put forward last week, has nothing for our universities, and it's not just me saying that. Our university vice-chancellors, including the vice-chancellor of the ANU, have said that this budget is absolutely bleak for universities. It offers them nothing at all. Instead, the government comes in here and votes for a bill that is going to hit them with another fee. The very least that we on this side can do is support this bill, which will at least give some students the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption, which might get them through to the end of this year.

So, while we support this bill, I think it's really appropriate that we look at it in the context of a range of other measures—or the lack of measures, so to speak, on this government's record in higher education. The universities are hurting. You only have to listen to them to know that. This bill will go some way to helping relieve some students with their loan fee exemptions, but there's so much more that can be done. If this government truly believed in the value of higher education, they would do more.

6:25 pm

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Universities and students have been through a pretty grim year. Universities had all the challenges of COVID that we all shared, combined with closed classrooms, closed borders and uncertain futures. Students, meanwhile, had to move online, adjust their schedules and lose the face-to-face learning and socialising that make university life such a special time and which are an important component of education. But students had an additional burden over the last year. University schedules suit part-time and casual work, and huge numbers of students are employed in less stable workplaces like hospitality and entertainment—exactly the sorts of jobs that were hit hardest in the COVID recession and have been the slowest to return. Higher education students didn't just have their education interrupted by COVID; many also had their financial world upended too.

So, in response to the continuing financial impacts of COVID-19 on the higher education sector, the government is extending the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption, which was initially introduced as part of the Higher Education Relief Package in response to COVID-19. The decision to extend the exemption to the end of 2021 was announced on 30 April, as part of the $53.6 million support package for international education providers, and detailed in the recent budget.

Now the exemption will apply for units of study with a census date between 1 July 2021 and 31 December 2021. While most of Australia's undergraduate students are eligible for a subsidised Commonwealth support place and can access the federal HECS-HELP loan scheme, in 2019, 4.6 per cent of all domestic bachelor students were full-fee-paying. In most cases, these students were studying at specialist non-university and higher education providers such as NIDA. Because such institutions do not usually receive funding for CSPs, they can charge undergraduate students full fees. While many of these students are eligible to access the government's FEE-HELP loan scheme, they would ordinarily see a 20 per cent fee applied in addition to their loan amount. For students enrolled in a standard three-year bachelor's degree, the financial burden of this fee can be in the region of $5,000 to $10,000, in addition to the cost of their degree. This fee is an unbearable strain on the students.

I regularly speak about the innovation sector of my electorate in Macquarie Park and Macquarie University, but higher education is not solely isolated to the halls of Macquarie uni. We are blessed with other providers, including two TAFEs, hundreds of apprentices and countless independent education providers offering courses specific to their industry—like the incredible specialists who come out of the Royal Rehab's trauma wards.

This amendment will affect private universities most of all. In Bennelong, we are fortunate to be the home of one excellent private university, Excelsia College. Excelsia is a Christian college, but one of the few Anglican ones in Australia. They were based in Drummoyne for decades, but, in 2016, they realised that the future was in Bennelong. Anyone who wants to be connected to Australia's most innovative companies simply has to move to Bennelong. Like many growing universities, Excelsia is prioritising its offerings to students and providing specialised learning in a few selective subjects, predominantly in the areas of business and the performing arts. Specialising allows this university to use its limited space to benefit its courses. They even have a full theatre, equipped for acting, music and performance. The size, capacity and complexity are most impressive, considering the space they have to work with. Back in 2016, I was delighted to open the university's new campus and, before COVID, was always happy to see their performers and students at their annual open day. They have a very talented student body who always put on excellent shows. They are a testament to the hard work of the teachers and to the facilities on offer. I can't wait to visit again and watch them grow as we, hopefully, leave this pandemic behind us.

We know 2020 has been tough for universities, and border closures hit those that relied on international students hard. One day these borders will reopen, and I'm confident students will rush back. Australia will be even more desirable, as we complement our existing high standards with the confidence that we were able to keep our students safe and our job markets flourishing while the rest of the world struggled with the pandemic and recession. But, until that time, it is imperative that we encourage as many students as possible to attend uni so that universities keep their doors open until the borders reopen. This amendment will do that by making it cost less to attend uni now.

The Morrison government has provided record investments in higher education, with total funding up more than 37 per cent since we came to government. In the 2020 budget, we announced more than $290 million in additional funding for undergraduate places and $252 million for up to 50,000 additional short-course places. We also injected $1 billion to back university research during the pandemic. Our Job-Ready Graduates Package is greatly reducing the cost of degrees in key areas such as nursing, teaching and STEM.

The extension of the FEE-HELP loan for exemption proposed by this bill provides an incentive for students to commence or continue their studies in 2021. During COVID-19, it has become even more critical to remove the financial disincentive to higher education and support the reskilling and upskilling required for the nation's economic recovery. Encouraging as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible to invest in their higher education is essential to bringing in the different viewpoints which make our institutions more dynamic and to creating the outside-of-the-box thinking that initiates the next great breakthrough.

This bill reveals this government's commitment to supporting higher education providers to retain their student base and to continue delivering the high-quality education and training in which Australia has earned such a desirable reputation, of which we are justifiably proud.

6:32 pm

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

I also rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021. As previous speakers have highlighted, this extends the FEE-HELP loan and reduces student debt levels. That's always a good move, certainly, and that's why Labor support this bill, but we should not let this distract us from the coalition's long list of failures with respect to universities and the tertiary sector and their long list of failures with respect to students which have occurred time and time again during their period in government.

The COVID crisis, of course, has impacted all Australian universities. In my own electorate of Wills, the impact has been quite severe. There are thousands of university students who live in my electorate. There are hundreds of academics and university workers from various university campuses, like RMIT and the University of Melbourne, who live in my electorate. This past year, they've told me about their struggles—the job losses, the redundancies, the casual contracts not renewed. Students have told me they can't study what they want to study, because they don't want to be stuck with a lifetime of debt.

But in many senses these stories, as important as they are, have been white noise to this coalition government. They just don't care. If they did, then they wouldn't have abandoned universities during the global pandemic; they wouldn't have abandoned students during the global pandemic. Instead of investing in our universities at this most critical time, instead of investing in our young people and their education, the coalition government cut university funding by around $1 billion a year. They just don't care. It is pretty obvious they don't care.

The university sector was the first hit when international borders closed in March last year. The university sector was crying out for help, and what did the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, do? He deliberately excluded public universities from JobKeeper. It was deliberate; he knew what he was doing. In fact, he changed the rules three times to exclude them. The result: 17,000 university jobs lost on this government's watch and hundreds of courses cut on this government's watch. Every course cut is lost knowledge and lost opportunity. And the pain isn't over: we expect another 21,000 job losses in the coming years. We're talking about academics, tutors, administrative staff, library staff, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners and security.

I touched on this a bit earlier, but what makes this so bad and what makes it worse is that these decisions in fact are ideological. Let me explain. For degrees that this government doesn't like students studying, such as the arts, law, accounting, commerce, communications and the humanities, this government's policies and decisions have actually made it more expensive to study those degrees. This is despite the majority of the government members actually graduating with degrees in humanities. It is good enough for them to get their degree when those educational opportunities are provided—largely by Labor governments over the decades—but, when they are here in this place making the decisions, they shut it down and make it more difficult for young Australians to get the same degrees.

Fees will more than double for people studying humanities, jumping from $27,216 to $58,000 for a four-year degree. That's a massive jump, especially when you consider that, when HECS was first introduced in 1989, students paid $1,800 a year. Even with inflation over the last 30 years, this doesn't even come close to what they will have to pay now. The average student is now graduating with between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt—a number that just keeps going up and up and up. This keeps students from wanting to or being able to go to university. It is a disincentive. Yet the government just don't care. They don't care. They do nothing about this. There is nothing in the budget for universities, no plan and no vision—just cuts. We are talking about cuts in a place where they actually should be investing. All of the economic evidence tells us that investment in education, particularly in higher education, actually leads to growth of the economy. You create a base of knowledge for workers—innovative workers, educated workers—who can actually contribute with those educational outcomes to business and entrepreneurship and in all sectors of the economy. It grows the economy. That's investment in the economy, not just spending.

Last time Labor were in government, we had the vision and we did the work. After years of neglect by the previous Howard government, Labor, when it won power, boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion by 2013. Under Labor, 220,000 more Australians got the opportunity for a university education. This included many who had had to overcome disadvantage. During that period, financially disadvantaged student enrolments increased by 66 per cent, Indigenous undergraduate student enrolments increased by 105 per cent, enrolments of undergraduate students with a disability were up by 123 per cent and enrolments of students from regional and remote areas were up by 50 per cent because of our policies.

We are ready to do the work again to invest in our universities and our education systems because valuing education is actually about that quintessential value, the fair go, giving everyone the equality of opportunity to get a good education. When you value education, it's about preparing people for the jobs of the future, for the emerging industries, for advanced manufacturing and for other sectors of the economy as we go forward hopefully into this post-COVID economic reconstruction. Valuing education actually makes us a stronger, smarter country. One of the great Labor traditions is giving everyone possible that fair go—a fair go for all—and that's very much part of our commitment to investment in education for all the reasons that I've described—the economic reasons, yes, but also the importance to society of people getting that opportunity to get an education. Whether it's a liberal arts degree, a law degree, accounting, commerce or science, you value-add when people get that education and they can make a contribution when, because of their education, they bring their ideas to life.

There is untapped human potential residing within all members of our society, and education opens up the door to opportunity. It gives people the opportunity to succeed in life based on their merit, based on their hard work. It opens up that door to opportunity, and making that ideal of equality of opportunity a reality is what we're about. I just don't see any of that commitment on the other side. I see lots of talking points and I hear lots of spin and obfuscation about what they actually do, which is to cut funding for education. They oppose the fundamental idea of giving people that fair go. They can't claim otherwise when they're cutting university funding by $1 billion a year. How else can you explain this government's ideological position on giving people a fair go by giving them the opportunity for a good education?

More important than that, no matter who you are, whatever your background—whether you're an Australian in remote or regional parts of this country, whether you're disadvantaged, whether you have a disability, whether you come from a new and emerging migrant background, whatever your gender, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your faith, whatever your cultural background—you should be given these opportunities like every other Australian should be given these opportunities. You should be able to get a good education in Australia. It's of critical importance. That's what I got. I got it as a migrant kid growing up in public housing because of Labor governments and their policies. I got an opportunity to get a good education and to go to university because of Labor governments, because of our commitment to that equality of opportunity.

Bob Hawke, one of the great Prime Ministers of this country, was also the member for Wills. I'm very proud and privileged to also represent the people of Wills, as Bob did for all of those years. I used to catch up with him, mainly after I got elected although I also saw him a couple of times before I was elected. I asked him once, 'Bob, what is the policy area that you are most proud of, but is probably not talked about much in discussions about the legacy of your government or in your biographies?' He said, 'Peter, when I started as Prime Minister in 1983, about a third of students finished high school.' They used to call it matriculation. He said, 'Because of the policies that my government put in place, by the end of my time as Prime Minister, it was almost 80 per cent.' I said: 'Bob, I was one of those kids. I did year 12 in 1990. If it wasn't for you and your government, I wouldn't have had those opportunities to go to university. Given my socioeconomic circumstances, my migrant background, I still got a chance to do something with a good education.' That's what to invest in education means to us because it gives people that chance, the opportunity for them to shine based on their potential and to actually reach their full potential. But if it is too expensive, if it's out of the reach of people because they can't afford to take on that debt then we are failing our citizens before we even begin.

6:45 pm

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

I was just having a very intriguing conversation about higher education with the member for Boothby. We talked about all the things that make us so attracted, that give something so much pizzazz, colour and wonderment. You see that when you give someone the capacity for their advancement, for the advancement of that wonderful part of their body which resides between their ears. It allows people to challenge themselves and stay informed. When we talk about FEE-HELP, it is to take people with that vast experience out of their normal environs and place them in a situation where they are challenged to talk to new people, to hear new ideas, to mix with people they probably otherwise wouldn't mix with. FEE-HELP allows people to continue on to university. University should not just be to tick a box, to go there because you haven't got much else to do—although, I have to admit, a lot of us did precisely that; it should actually have a purpose and it should drive people to a more—not so much enlightened—informed position and, by their experience in university, have their minds opened and challenged by views from both sides of the political sphere.

One of the big issues in regards to university is the cost of fees. Fees are affected by basically the cost of running things and one of the major things that run things is the price of power. It is amazing tonight that, after Callide Power Station went down, the spot price of power in a 30-minute block went up to $15,000 a megawatt in Queensland and in excess of $13,000 in New South Wales. It remained in excess of $15,000 for quite a period of time. The people who paid for that are not only the students but everybody. This is the result of not having an open mind, of being rutted in a certain view and of being carted along by a philosophical zeal and a quasi-religious view which is completely removed from the logic that you believed university would teach you about.

What we have with the successes of this so-called climate socialism, the so-called renewable debate, is no debate at all about what happened to the price of power tonight. The people who have to pay that are the same people who have to pay the taxes for people to go to university and the same people who ultimately pay for fee support. Tonight we're so lucky and blessed that nobody was hurt or killed in the Callide Power Station. We must make sure that we understand that it created a test for an electricity grid and it overwhelmingly failed. Tonight, they have to do load shedding in Queensland. Load shedding means they have to start shutting things off because, if they don't shut things off, the grid collapses.

What are we going to do about this? The same people who are paying the fees should be the same people encouraging Queensland to build a new coal-fired power station in Central Queensland to avoid these sorts of circumstances again, to build a new coal-fired power station in the Hunter Valley as insurance against these circumstances happening again. This is a process that should be driven by the form of an open-minded analytical assessment of the pricing facts, the grid facts, that we have had to deal with tonight.

In response to COVID-19 and the higher education system, the government is extending FEE-HELP. Loan fee exemption is already in place for another six months, so the exemption will apply for units of study with a census date between 1 July 2021 and 31 December 2021. Ordinarily, an undergraduate student accessing a FEE-HELP loan and providers other than Table B providers, mostly private providers, would incur a 20 per cent loan fee on top of their loan amount. Students accessing HECS-HELP loans do not incur this fee. This is an assistance for those at the private providers and for the students who are in that space. And, of course, being people who believe in the private sector, it's a logical position for us to hold. Ultimately, though, any support that comes from government doesn't come from government; it comes from taxpayers. And if it can't come from taxpayers, it's borrowed from people overseas to be repaid by taxpayers at a later date.

6:51 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm delighted to speak in support of this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill. The higher education sector is a sector that I am very familiar with. I was a university student when HECS was first introduced. I was a university student when the two first private universities in Australia opened, Bond University and Notre Dame university. I was working in universities and in the sector all throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, and I am familiar with all of the changes which have occurred in this sector over that time period.

There's a lot of similarity between those on our side of the chamber and those on the other side of the chamber as to valuing education and the importance that education provides in giving people an opportunity to learn new things, to actually be able to go out into the world with more knowledge and to change their lives. There is a difference, and I do absolutely refute all of the arguments that this side does not support higher education. This side does support higher education, and this side actually supports there being real choice and real opportunity for students to study.

FEE-HELP, when it was first introduced in 2003, becoming effective in 2005, was introduced to allow domestic students undertaking studies in a full-fee-paying course to access a loan scheme which was very similar, albeit not identical, to the HECS-HELP scheme. It is currently utilised by approximately 30,000 domestic students studying in Australia, and the majority of these are studying at small, private higher education providers. FEE-HELP, when it was first introduced—and I do remember it being introduced—was an innovative and welcome introduction into the higher education sector in Australia as it opened up choice to all of those students who wanted to study at private higher education providers.

Prior to the introduction of FEE-HELP, there were very limited opportunities for those students who wanted to study in these sorts of organisations to obtain government loans. There were a couple of government loans which were available for post-graduate courses, but these were limited. It meant that those students who were seeking to undertake their studies outside of a public university—that is, exercise their choice and go against the grain of going to a public university—were often required to borrow money, frequently at commercial rates, from retail lenders. Needless to say, the fact that these students, in choosing to go a provider of their choice, having to borrow at commercial rates from commercial lenders, acted as a real dampening effect on choice for many students. It also provided a handbrake on the growth and development of private higher education providers. As I said before, the majority of these aim to be small, niche and focused providers, catering to identified areas of study.

FEE-HELP has changed over time—for example, the limits on how much can be borrowed under FEE-HELP have changed—but one thing which has been consistent throughout all of that time is the imposition of a loan fee on students who access FEE-HELP to pay for their studies. This was originally set at 20 per cent. It was increased to 25 per cent in 2011, and this loan fee which is placed on FEE-HELP is the chief differentiator between FEE-HELP and HECS-HELP. With HECS-HELP, there is no loan fee; with FEE-HELP, there is a loan fee.

This particular bill does two things. The first thing it does is extend one of the COVID-19 measures put in place by this government last year. Under the previous changes, an exemption from the FEE-HELP loan fee was provided for domestic undergraduate fee-paying students for units of study with census dates from 1 April 2020 to 30 September 2020. This was later extended by another bill to 30 January 2021, and this particular bill tonight now extends the exemption for units of study with census dates from 1 April 2020 to 1 December 2021. This bill also changes the FEE-HELP loan fee back to 20 per cent for units with a census date on or after 1 January 2022. This measure provides domestic higher education undergraduate students seeking FEE-HELP loans with an exemption from the requirement to pay the 20 per cent loan fee for units of study with census dates within the eligible period, thereby reducing the overall financial burden on these particular students. This provides an incentive for those students who have been financially affected during COVID-19 to continue or to commence their studies in 2021, and this in turn supports those higher education providers to continue to deliver the high-quality education which will be essential to Australia's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are currently over 100 private providers who meet the strict requirements to offer FEE-HELP to their students. These providers are found across Australia and include the wonderful Engineering Institute of Technology on the border of my electorate, in Western Australia. As noted at the outset, most of these providers are not huge. The majority of them are actually not-for-profit providers, and the number of total students enrolled in them is small: 30,000 students compared with the approximately one million domestic students studying at Australian universities. But these 30,000 students and these private providers are a vital part of the higher education landscape in Australia, and they offer considerable choice. On the whole, they offer an outstanding quality of education to those who choose to study at them. The results of student surveys from students who undertake their studies that these providers provide are often greatly higher than students studying at other institutions.

I would note here that, in voicing my support for the temporary exemption and reduction of the FEE-HELP to 20 per cent beyond 1 January 2022, I do believe that we should go further and we should get rid of the loan fee on FEE-HELP all together. We should make these loans subject to the same indexation increases as apply to HECS-HELP, and that should be the cost of both FEE-HELP and HECS-HELP.

As I understand it, the loan fee was originally introduced to act as a risk premium against the debt not expected to be repaid. The FEE-HELP loan fee was implemented to assist in managing the cost of extending the HELP program to students studying at private providers and to ensure that the program would be sustainable into the future. It was considered that the government's exposure to a higher level of 'do not expect it to be repaid' was going to be greater with FEE-HELP loans and that the sum that was going to be needed to be repaid was going to be higher. However, since its introduction in 2003 and in light of changes to the higher education help scheme since it was first introduced, we now have 15 years of data. I'm firmly of the view that this original justification for putting a loan fee on FEE-HELP now needs to be re-examined to determine, in the first case, whether the level of debt incurred under FEE-HELP continues to be significantly larger—if, indeed, it ever was—and, secondly, to determine whether or not the 'do not expect to repay' is in fact any higher. It is now time that we could analyse this data to see if that original justification for putting the loan fee onto FEE-HELP is actually warranted.

This is not about private providers. This is not about lining the pockets of some people who are running expensive private higher education facilities. As I said, the majority of higher education providers are in fact not-for-profits. This is about providing real choice to students. I know from my experience working in the university sector that, when students are faced with two options—one of which is to go down a standard path and take out a HECS HELP loan without a loan fee or to go to another institution which they might actually be more attracted to and which might suit their mode of studying more and which might be smaller or might have the course which is specifically relevant and interesting to them—if they're faced with the possibility of an additional 20 per cent impost on what they're paying, that acts as a real disincentive. I know this. I've seen it. It happens.

I believe this bill is excellent. I know I am a member of the government, but I do urge this government to actually commission the research that is necessary to determine whether the imposition of that loan fee is still justified, because we do want higher education to be open to students and we do want to create those pathways. But we also want there to be real choice and differentiation in the higher education world, because that is the way that our students of the future will be able to find a place which suits them best, which actually helps them to learn in the best way that is applicable to them. Not every person fits the standard model of institution. Not everybody suits being taught in a particular way. People learn in different ways. People thrive in different environments. We want to make sure that we have a higher education landscape in this country that has a range of providers, so that our students of the future have real choice, that they can go somewhere where they will flourish, where they will learn and where they can go out and the world will be open to them because of how and where they have studied. So I am very happy to speak in support of this bill.

7:02 pm

Photo of Trevor EvansTrevor Evans (Brisbane, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank honourable members who have contributed to this debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021. This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to extend the current FEE-HELP loan fee exemption for a further six months to 31 December 2021. The original loan fee exemption, as part of this government's support for the higher education sector, in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, commenced on 1 April last year. This loan fee exemption has already been extended once for nine months until 30 June 2021.

This bill will ensure continuity of support for the higher education sector and will assist around 30,000 undergraduate students that are currently studying or planning to study and accessing FEE-HELP loans. This bill will provide continuity and additional support for the mostly private higher education providers with whom they have chosen to study. By extending the loan fee exemption, this bill will encourage more people to enrol in higher education and support higher education providers to continue to deliver high-quality education opportunities for Australians. In the long term, this will help the Australian workforce to upskill and retrain, which will be vital for Australia's economic recovery and for our long-term growth and prosperity.

So I thank members for their contributions to this key debate on extending the government's support for domestic undergraduate students and higher education providers, and I commend this bill to the House.

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

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Moreton has moved that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

A division having been called and the bells having been rung—

Whilst I've got everybody here, can I just remind the ministers—in particular the Minister for Health and Aged Care and the Minister for Education and Youth—that, as I said at the start of the week and in budget week, we have everyone back in the chamber, but you need to be sitting in your own seats. Don't move now. Frankly, that's the health advice, and that's the advice on which we're back here.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER:   I'm actually not sorry to do this. I spelt this out at the start. Can the tellers pause for a second? The Minister for Health and Aged Care can come back to his seat. The spacing is based on there being two people per seat, not three. The Minister for Education and Youth can go to his seat. If everyone just sits in their own seat, it'll be okay. The tellers may proceed.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER: Quite a good point has been pointed out. Member for Kennedy, there is a special allotted seat for you, up with the crossbench. It's okay where you're sitting.

An honourable member interjecting  

The SPEAKER:   It is on our side. That's why it's there.

An honourable member interjecting  

The SPEAKER:   My main issue is the spacing. The minister for health has come back to his seat and the minister for education has vacated the minister for health's seat.