Tuesday, 15 October 2019
Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019, Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to continue the remarks that I was making last night on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. I was speaking of the extra $4.5 billion in funding that will be available to non-government schools over the next decade. This extra funding is not at the expense of government schools. From 2017 to 2029, Commonwealth funding for government schools will increase by 75 per cent, on average, and funding for non-government schools will increase by 55 per cent, per student, on average. Secure long-term funding is being provided for all students, based on need. We can do this because of our strong economic position.
When the time comes, the pipeline is in place to ensure that young Australians can move into longer-term careers—careers which have been made possible because of the environment that this government has put in place which has seen record jobs growth and lower unemployment because Australian businesses of all sizes have the confidence to invest and to grow. In fact, more than 1.3 million more Australians are in jobs since this government was elected. Nearly 60 per cent of these people are in full-time jobs.
Our 2013 promise for one million new jobs to be created within five years was delivered, ahead of schedule. As a government, we are ensuring that jobseekers have the tools they need to find work and that those young Australians who need a little more support are able to access it. The government's new Skilling Australians Fund is just one such initiative which will see more apprenticeships and vocational opportunities created. Over the next five years alone, 80,000 apprenticeships will be created in occupations with skill shortages, through incentive payments for employers and apprentices. We are also establishing 10 local industry training hubs in areas of high youth unemployment, to ensure vocational education programs are tailored to meet the workforce needs and skill demands.
Compare our track record to that of those opposite. When they were last in government, and Mr Shorten was the minister for employment, there was a decline of 110,000 apprenticeships—that's 22 per cent—in just one year, 2012-13. That 110,000 apprenticeships were gone in just one year is a special achievement in and of itself, but, of course, it is not one that should be applauded. It is something that those opposite should be quite embarrassed about. If you contrast that with our figures, you'll see we're delivering on our commitment to get more young Australians into work. Over 100,000 young people aged between 15 and 24 got a job in 2017-18. That is the largest number in a financial year on record. We on this side are reducing youth unemployment and are helping young people find jobs. Our Youth Jobs PaTH program—prepare, trial, hire—helps 17- to-24-year-old jobseekers move from welfare to work. It is a program that Labor do not support. This program has already helped over 43,000 young people get into a job, yet Labor continue to stand in the way. We will expand PaTH to pilot 10 industry-led programs to better target the training and internship experiences of young people. They need to get practical experience in the workplace. This program deals with the chicken-and-egg situation where employers say they want people who are skilled, who have a little bit of experience, so they can give them a go, but jobseekers say, 'How do I get that experience if that's what everyone is saying?' PaTH deals with that problem. We'll expand PaTH into 10 industry-led programs to better target the training and internship experiences of young people.
In my first speech I spoke about the VTEC program, the model pioneered by Fortescue Metals Group and trialled in Fitzroy Crossing, which has become a national program with national success. It has been funded by this government. The VTEC program has helped over 10,000 long-term unemployed Indigenous jobseekers, many with significant and multiple barriers to employment, to find work. The retention rate among these jobseekers, having been placed into a job, is over 70 per cent—70 per cent of them are still in work some six months later. This is a significant improvement, particularly when you consider the level of disadvantage and the types of barriers that some of those jobseekers have. As a Liberal, I am extremely proud that the coalition government has committed over $40 million to rolling out VTECs across Australia.
Our record on universities is also particularly strong. We are providing a record $17.7 billion to universities across this country and working with them to ensure that that leads to better outcomes for students. The funding is targeted and is being delivered to practical programs which are in the best interests of the student and the nation. We're also ensuring that all research is in the public interest. Taxpayer support for universities should always provide a return for taxpayers—they are the ones investing in it—so students, their families and the broader community who benefit from this world-class research are able to see the benefit to them. And this is undertaken in Australian universities. In Western Australia this investment is supporting key industrial outcomes, particularly in space, where we are on the doorstep to securing a critical share of global industry growth that is poised to be worth some $400 billion in the coming decades. This investment is also supporting research into new energy and critical raw minerals. I commend my colleague Senator Canavan for the important work that he has done in this space. It's also supporting agriculture, ocean research and the creation of groundbreaking technologies across the broader resources sector, among many others.
With all this, it is important that all Australians are able to access these opportunities. We have a strong economy and we have key traditional and new industries poised for growth. That's why we are also providing over $400 million in support for rural and regional students to go to university and have helped over 170,000 students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. We are also making sure that these opportunities work for and are accessible to everyone, no matter who they are, where they come from or where they started in life. In conclusion, our record as a government on education and on delivering practical career outcomes is strong. I commend these bills to the house.
When it comes to education in this country, if we are talking about access for those who want to go to university or TAFE, what we have seen demonstrated over the last six years by this government is shameful. To have Senator O'Sullivan come into this chamber and lecture us in relation to the opportunities for young Australians to get a job, when in my home state of Tasmania we have excessively high youth unemployment—in fact we've lost over 5,000 jobs in recent time under the leadership of this government. So, coming into this chamber as a member of the coalition government, there is nothing to be proud of. University is supposed to be universally available for all young Australians, but that certainly is not the case.
But I am really here to speak about the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. Labor supports these bills; however, there are elements that need to be commented on. We treat education as a priority. That is what Labor does. Year in, year out, when we have been in government and at every election, we go with a substantially strong education policy to take to the Australian people, because we believe that education is the gateway to having the future that all Australians aspire to. How students are treated is so important, whether you are talking about early childhood education—and we know the track record of this government there—or funding of education in general.
Whether it's contributions from the Liberal state government in Tasmania or this federal government, every tier of education has been cut in my home state. We are not investing the amount of money that we need to. Those opposite have recklessly damaged the quality of Australia's world-class higher education system during their entire two terms of government. Under the Abbott-Turnbull and now Morrison government, the Liberals have cut billions from universities by effectively capping undergraduate places and slashing research funding. These are the facts that need to be placed on the public record.
Remember that famous interview that Mr Tony Abbott gave on the eve of the 2013 election? He famously said, 'No cuts to schools; no cuts to hospitals or to pensions.' Well, Mr Abbott took a knife to education in this country. That is the reality. We are still paying a heavy price now, and I am sure that our country will pay a heavier price in future, economically, culturally and socially, as we move forward with this Liberal government being re-elected.
On the other hand, Labor has a proud story to tell when it comes to education. It was Labor that created Australia's world renowned income-contingent loan scheme, HECS now HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program. Unlike the Liberals, we believe that funding education is an investment in our nation's future prosperity, not a cost burden. It is an investment in Australia being a country of hope and aspiration.
The changes in these bills would introduce small charges for higher education providers, including universities, to access their HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP schemes. The bill also introduces a small application fee for prospective education providers when they are applying to become approved providers under the Higher Education Support Act 2003.
This government has a track record of not consulting with the sector and not consulting with educators and educational institutions. But Labor understands that governments must consult, because we all learn from diverse opinions and from those who actually work in the education space. That is why Labor referred these bills to a committee for better consultation. There is no doubt that education and its delivery has changed and continues to change. What we need to ensure is that courses and skills meet job demands on the ground.
In my home state of Tasmania, we need to educate our young people so that they can go into jobs as the employees that businesses require for the future. We have a fantastic and very advanced agricultural sector which requires a certain set of skills, so our educational institutions must provide those courses so that students can find the jobs once they graduate. It's good for the individual, because they can find work as soon as they graduate, and it's good for our economy.
The University of Tasmania transformation project has potential for my home state, but if we do not get the settings right in terms of finding the jobs and educating for those gaps then we won't be able to meet the demands of the future. TasTAFE is another great institution that this government has continued to cut the funding for over the past six years. We all understand now, but 30 years ago, people were saying, 'The panacea for a great future in this country is that you must go to university.' Well, you don't have to go to university to be successful. We now have in this country the basic shortages of skills which are needed right across this country. What we should be doing so that we don't have to bring the skilled migrants into this country is funding our TAFE institutions so we have the best teachers, the best instructors and the best tradespeople who are upskilling the people we need going forward to the future.
We have a lot of infrastructure being built in Tasmania, and trying to find a tradesperson is hard—whether you want to do an extension to your home, or build a home or build a new hotel. It means we're seeing this pipeline where, all of a sudden, we have this massive demand for tradespeople and then it falls off. We have to do something about that so that we ensure that we don't lose the tradespeople in Tasmania who are working there now in six to 12 months because there aren't any future projects. But today it's been acknowledged that teachers and instructors in the TAFE system in Tasmania are actually losing confidence because of the cuts that have been made to their sector. There have been resignations and course delays. If you're a young person undertaking a traineeship or an apprenticeship and your course has been delayed, that puts you backwards and behind. You won't finish your requirements from an educational point of view, and the delay in being fully qualified means that you will learn less money. That may not worry those on the opposite side, but it certainly worries me and I know that it worries others on this side of the chamber.
What we should be doing is investing more in TAFE, not making these cuts. As I said, having a Liberal state government and a Liberal federal government, we've seen education eroded in my home state. We already know that we have some of the worst figures when it comes to retention of young people to get their HSC and go on to university or to TAFE. It is the responsibility of the Commonwealth government to ensure that every young Australian has the opportunity to further their education, not to put up roadblocks to them or to TAFE. Our best and brightest lecturers and teachers should be available for young Tasmanians.
Let's be very clear: because of the Liberal cuts to TAFE, people are suffering needlessly. Students at TasTAFE are being forced to put their lives on hold, with courses being cancelled with no prior warning. Further to this, teachers are being worked to the bone. They're stressed and, ultimately, what they're doing now is resigning. People should not be treated like this and therefore they're looking for other opportunities. That leaves our young Tasmanians without the support that they need to get started in their careers. The fact that information technology students were in the middle of a course when it was cancelled is extraordinary! It's an indictment of TasTAFE under the Liberals.
Mr Morrison has told the Australian people that what we all need is more love. Of course, I want more love; I'm sure everyone in the gallery and everyone in this chamber would like to have more love. But the best way we can share that love around is to ensure that there's proper access for all young Australians, and Australians of all ages, to continue their education. Prime Minister, you have a responsibility. You made a commitment to the Australian people when you were elected. It's about time you stood up and invested in education in this country.
These students who have had their lives put on hold are under stress that they don't need to be under. One student said: 'I had to have some lengthy conversations with Centrelink. It caused some trouble because they did not understand why I was still a student but wasn't going to classes.' That's the reality of the lack of interest in and lack of funding commitments to TAFE. Young people now have to deal with Centrelink wanting to know why they're not going to class, because all the information they gave Centrelink at the beginning of the year is longer relevant. And it is out of their hands completely. It's unacceptable.
There is a further concern with these bills. We don't want to see higher fees for students in this country. Currently, Australia's students pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for a university education. This is not something any of us should be proud of. We on this side—and, I think, a good proportion of Australian people—think that if the Liberals had their way they would already have introduced $100,000 university degrees, as they wanted to do in the past two terms of their government. The Liberals have already forced students to start paying off HELP debts when they earn as little as $45,000—only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. This is happening when Australians are just getting established in the workforce and trying desperately to keep their head above water. They may even be trying to save for their own home. But, let's be honest, not many can afford to buy their first home on a wage of $45,000.
Labor understands that debt is a barrier to study, particularly for students from low-income families. Labor, instead of discouraging people, wants more people to take up the benefits of higher education, if that's something they wish to do. The decision of those opposite to effectively re-cap undergraduate places will devastate participation rates in higher education. The Mitchell Institute says that by 2031, because of the Liberals' reckless cuts, up to 235,000 Australians could be missing out on a university education. We should be ashamed of that. That would be devastating not just for the individuals and their families but, just as importantly, for our economy and society more broadly. Labor want to boost participation. We're committed to increasing equity and pathways for students to study at university. We, the Labor Party, are of the belief that there should be equality of opportunity. That is why we must support universities in Australia to do the job as well as they can and to be adequately funded to educate young minds—and the minds of all Australians—who want to have the option to go to university.
It's simply not fair that a student from the North Shore of Sydney is five times—five times!—more likely to go to university than a student from the west coast or the north-west coast of Tasmania is. Labor wants to see that change. It shouldn't matter where you live. It shouldn't matter what credit card you have access to. We should all have equal opportunity. Labor wants our students who have the ability and the desire to go on to university or to access TAFE to have that opportunity. That's the least that we can give young people. In contrast, though, the Liberals want to slam shut the doors of the universities to more than 200,000 Australians. Those people over there, who come into this chamber and talk about the great record that their Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government has on education, ought to be honest with the Australian people. Own up to the fact that you've cut education. Own up to the fact that we have in Tasmania alone, let alone other regional areas of this country, too high unemployment rates for young people.
Five thousand jobs have been lost in Tasmania alone under this government. They want to privatise everything. They now want to privatise visa applications out to the public sector, so there are 2,000 more jobs around the country that are going to be lost. I've not heard one word from the Liberal Senate team for Tasmania talking about the 100 jobs that would be lost in Hobart if they privatise these services. They probably think 100 jobs are not many for Hobart or for a state like Tasmania, but that is a significant number of people, because it's not just the individual who loses their job; it's their family, it's their community and it affects our economy.
You can't sit back in your ivory towers and come in here and preach about your great track record around education and unemployment figures, because the reality is very different. The Australian people know that because they live with the consequences of it every single day. So we, in this chamber, will come in here, we will hold you accountable and we will put the facts on the table so that the Australian people know and understand what is really happening in our universities. They will know what the real issues are around youth unemployment, and I haven't even spoken about underemployment in this country, underemployment which is predominantly affecting middle-aged and older Australian men and women in this country. It's not good enough, and we've seen no leadership whatsoever from this government.
You never hear them talking about the benefits of training and education and getting older workers skilled and back into the workforce, because if they truly believed that they would be increasing the funding for TAFE in this country. If we look at the aged-care sector, it is facing a crisis because we don't have enough workers, we don't have universal training and we don't have universal registration of aged-care workers, but it's good enough for nurses to have a national register. My view has been for a very long time that there needs to be a national registration of workers in the aged-care sector. Hopefully, that will be a recommendation—I am sure it will be—out of the royal commission. This is a government who just doesn't care. They got elected without an agenda. They got elected without an agenda for education and doing something to inspire young people and to encourage older and mature age students to go on to university. Enough is enough! We will, at each and every opportunity, come into this chamber and put the real facts, and we will talk about what Labor would do and what we expect from this government. We will hold you accountable.
Today, as we debate the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019, we see that we are essentially debating legislation designed to shift some of the modest costs of administering the Higher Education Loan Program to higher education providers themselves. Labor doesn't oppose this legislation due to the very small impact that it will have on the sector and, indeed, because the bills do not seek to pass these costs on to Australian students. But, while we are cautiously supportive, we will be monitoring the progression of these measures very closely and the ramifications that they could have on students, because you can't look at this particular legislation in isolation from the government's overall higher education and skills agenda—or lack of agenda, as I would frame it. This is a government that seems set on making life harder for those seeking an education in our nation. We shouldn't be a nation that will tolerate a situation where further costs are passed on to Australian students. This is not a value shared by those opposite. Since the election of the coalition to government in 2013, we've seen universities and students systematically and constantly under attack through the callous actions of this government. There were your initial attempts to create a system of full $100,000 degrees, and the government also forced students to begin paying off their HELP debts once they began earning just $45,000 a year.
I highlight to the chamber today that the $45,000 a year at which you start paying back this debt is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. When Australian students work hard for many years, often working multiple jobs to support themselves—and they do that to earn themselves a qualification and a skill in the field that they are interested in—it is galling that they're forced to start repaying their HELP loan for their degree just as they're starting out in a new industry and trying to establish themselves in what can be a very competitive workforce. And it should be of no surprise to those in this chamber that there are many Australians who find the idea of a HELP loan a disincentive to undertaking study at all.
It's not just Australians who deserve a good income from having a good education and from putting in that time. We need, as a nation, to support Australians getting these qualifications because we need their skills. The economy absolutely demands that. This kind of debt can be a significant barrier to study for students from lower income families, and paying that back while on a lower income can be seen to exacerbate that reality.
I was delighted during the 45th Parliament to serve as Labor's shadow assistant minister for universities. I know from that experience that, by and large, universities, peak bodies and other organisations have a strong commitment to supporting Australians in their education. They understand that Australia's economy should be a smart one, one that's well resourced, and that that resourcing of education is absolutely key to success. One of the things that Labor did in government back in 2008 was create the Education Investment Fund, a fund for the development of research infrastructure to provide refurbishment of TAFEs and universities. We've seen 71 projects worth $7 billion in new investment under that program, but this government has now tried three times to abolish this important fund. Again, you are seeking to hold the nation to ransom by saying, 'You can have your disaster mitigation, or you can have quality education infrastructure, but you can't have both,' expecting Australians to say: 'Oh, my goodness! We can't leave people without disaster relief.' Well, you would be the ones leaving them without disaster relief, because you will not prioritise the funding of that disaster relief without it being at the expense of infrastructure in our nation's education system. You should be completely called out on that fact.
This is just one of the many ways that you have been damaging our education system. The government tried to argue that universities are wealthy, asset-rich institutions and can make more provisions for their own needs. Well, from the universities that I have visited the demand for infrastructure is large and it's meeting real gaps for students' educational needs. We have in our nation also experienced, thanks to this government, a $2.2 billion cut out of our education system in a malicious attack. The government has re-capped undergraduate places, and this has locked thousands of students out of the opportunity of a university education.
So let me break this down into some numbers for you. Thousands of students in years 11 and 12 right now, working hard in school, deserve a spot that they have earned through the marks that they've got, but thousands of those students will not have an opportunity for higher education through university. Why? Because you capped university places back in 2000 and—I can't remember the year, but I know that over the course of the cap it is about 230,000 students nationwide that the system will not have grown by. That means there are 230,000 fewer places for Australian students by the time you go back not to a demand-driven system but just to allowing growth in the system according to population growth.
This is the wrong attitude. We need to be a country that is strong, that has a strong economy and that has decently paid jobs, and that is why we believe our top priority is an investment in education. You are severely limiting our capacity for economic growth with this agenda. We know that the opportunity to sustain growth in the long term across governments in our nation must be driven by investment in education and the capacity of our Australian citizens. Education is a nation-building exercise. When Labor brought in Australia's world renowned income-contingent-loan scheme in 1989, it was created because we believed, as we do now, that funding education is an investment into our nation's future prosperity. HECS was about expanding the number of university places so that we could be that kind of economy. But we can see now more than ever—not that those on the other side have ever tried to hide this—that the truth is that our people in our nation are not getting access to the education they deserve. This government is more concerned about the appearance of keeping the budget in surplus than about the future skilled workers of our great nation.
The kinds of trade-offs you're talking about—the nation-building capacity of access to higher education, of access to skills and TAFE, of quality infrastructure for our universities—are all stuff that we need to grow the economy. The idea that you can hold that to ransom and just cut it away because, you argue, if you don't cut it, you can't afford drought relief and disaster relief for our nation is patently absurd. We need to invest in education in our nation in order to be able to fund emergency responses, in order to be able to research how to respond to emergencies in our nation.
If participation rates in higher education and vocational training fall as the population increases, there will be fewer people of prime working age who can effectively participate in the labour market of the future, and this is my grave fear. We've had the Mitchell Institute state that, because of the Liberals' reckless cuts, up to 235,000 Australians are missing out on a university education. The long-term and rigorous gutting that the coalition have been putting our higher education sector through over their time in government is absolutely short-sighted and unfair. Labor believe in equal access to education. Every student who has the ability and who is prepared to work hard should have the opportunity to get a university or TAFE qualification. We currently have a skills shortage in Australia. It's key to my own shadow portfolio of manufacturing. It's across the board in the bricklaying, plumbing and electrical trades, with Australia having 150,000 fewer apprentices. We are growing more desperate for skilled workers, and that need will only grow into the future. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship today is lower than it was a decade ago. And you can see that. Manufacturers in Australia are talking about the quality of the skills of their staff and the issues they are now confronting with not having an appropriately skilled workforce. There are more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than there are people finishing them. And a report from the Australian Industry Group states that 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. So what are the government doing to help us train the workers of the future? What have they done? They've cut federal support for TAFE and training by some $3 billion. They're locking Australians out of TAFE and training and they're holding Australia back from the prosperity that it deserves.
We want every student in our nation who has the ability and is prepared to work hard to have the opportunity of a quality education. We want to boost participation, increase equity and create more pathways for students to access university and TAFE. Currently, I'm sad to say, a young person in Sydney's North Shore is five times more likely to get a university education than a young person living in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland is. In my own state of Western Australia, a young person from the inner suburbs of Perth is around three times more likely to have a degree than a young person from Mandurah is. The electorate of Canning, where Mandurah is located, is full of bright and talented students. We fundamentally believe that the intellect and effort of these students should be rewarded. Whether or not they go to university or TAFE should not be determined by where they live or by their bank balance. Just 14.7 per cent of young people living in Mandurah have a bachelor's degree—less than half the national average. That's not just young people but people aged 25 to 34. And I have to say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that that difference is not made up by them having TAFE or other trade qualifications. They are, in general terms, less qualified, and that is an absolute shame and completely unacceptable.
We must do more and we must do better. We should not let distance and income be such a large barrier to young Australians accessing education. We owe it to Australians to make sure they can access excellent TAFE and excellent universities. However, this government seems to be intent on destroying both. As I said in my opening remarks, we cautiously support this bill, but let's be clear: the university sector has suffered under this government, with devastating impacts on young Australians and the economy at large.
I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. I'll be clear from the outset: the Greens do not support these bills. These bills impose yet another levy on the higher education sector, which is already under pressure from round after round of funding cuts. The Greens are deeply concerned about the ongoing cuts to higher education. The proposed bills represent a worrying continuation of this government's larger pattern of defunding the higher education sector and shifting the costs of providing higher education away from the Commonwealth. These proposed charges must be considered within this context of underfunding and defunding of education. When the Liberal-National government froze Commonwealth funding for teaching and training, they effectively cut trillions of dollars of funding from the higher education sector.
The bills propose to shift the cost of administering HELP loans to higher education providers, who are already struggling under massive cuts to their budgets by the Liberal-National government. Some TAFEs will also be slugged with this needless tax at a time when they're already being destroyed by this government's neglect, lack of funding and a push to privatise.
This is part of an ongoing pattern of the Commonwealth shrinking and shirking its responsibility to fund the delivery and administration of higher education, which is actually our responsibility. Shifting costs of administering students loans to higher education providers is not only wrong in principle; it also further burdens the sector, which is already in strife on many fronts. It is our collective responsibility to fight back against every bit of funding taken away from higher education and to build a movement for meaningful funding increases that bring with them secure and permanent ongoing employment for university staff.
Several submissions to the inquiry into these bills highlighted that these charges will mean that higher education providers will be forced to divert resources away from teaching and learning, essential activities such as supporting equity outcomes and overall provision of a quality education for students. For too long, both—and I say both—Labor and Liberal governments have treated education as a piggy bank from which money can be drawn at whim. Every time you need to fill up government coffers, you attack universities and students. This is death by a thousand cuts, and it is shameful for Labor to side with this government today, which has cut millions of dollars from the higher education sector. Labor is hiding behind the Liberals, offering no opposition to these terrible bills. They claim to be a party that cares about higher education, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof will be in Hansard when Labor votes with the government to impose yet another levy, another tax on higher education providers. Just last week there was a Guardian headline, 'Labor must help coalition pass legislation even if it disappoints' with a big picture of Labor deputy leader Richard Marles. No! Labor, you need to join us in opposing this government, which destroys everything it touches.
Evidence provided by the majority of stakeholders to these two bills when the inquiry was held in the last parliament showed clearly the concerns that higher education providers have over yet another levy. Universities rightly pointed out in their submissions to the inquiry that higher education providers and student bodies already share the cost of administering the HELP scheme by providing a range of administrative and student services in order to ensure that HELP funding is administered property.
This legislation is also an attack on students. The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations stated in its submission:
Inevitably, cuts impact the delivery of teaching and research, the core functions of universities in Australia. Funding cuts will be passed onto undergraduate and postgraduate students, whether they are built into tuition costs for full fee-paying students, result in increased student to academic staff ratios, or lead higher education providers to otherwise reduce the "cost of delivery" of education.
The fact that the Liberals have revived these bills in the new parliament is a clear signal of the dangerous lack of vision for the future of our young people, for the future of our society. At a time when we should be looking to transform our higher education system, we have the Liberal-National coalition government decimating the higher education sector.
I've been involved in higher education for most of my adult life, and I'm still a proud card-carrying member of the NTEU. When I moved to Australia from Pakistan, now almost 27 years ago, the University of New South Wales was actually my first home, where I did my master's, where I taught environmental protection and sustainability and where I completed my PhD. I spent 14 years at UNSW, either as a student or as an academic. I have seen the sector dramatically change for the worse. I've seen universities forced to become businesses, where access to the privilege of education is being sold at a higher and higher price. The courses, the reputation, the buildings and the plush jobs are now all part and parcel of this rampant marketisation. First, funding has been structured to incentivise universities to adopt the methods and cultures of corporate institutions, replacing formerly collegial and democratic academic governance. If the Liberals have their way, universities will be funded only to the extent they are able to contribute to the profit-driven economy—as businesses, not as places for building the capacity for challenge, for critique, for invention and for intellectual growth, which is really what universities are all about.
It is our collective responsibility to fight back against every bit of funding taken away from higher education and push for increases that change universities to what they actually should be. We should be looking at how we can guarantee lifelong learning for everyone who wants to be in TAFE, training, education—whatever our community and our young people want. In these changing times, removing the burden of ever-increasing debt is the only way to transform our society into what we want it to be. This means free higher education—TAFE and university. It means increasing funding per student so staff can provide the best learning and teaching environment, it means supporting students by increasing youth allowance and it means providing job security to academics, researchers and staff.
Yet here we are extracting much-needed funds out of universities and doing it at a time of uncertainty, when the nature of work is changing. The future of many jobs is precarious at best. These are times when we should be looking at inspiring and creative solutions to the massive challenges of the climate crisis and inequality. These are times when we need to make it easier for our researchers to advise on the radical changes we need for a hopeful future. But we have the Liberals here, who are imposing yet another levy on higher education. The Greens will be opposing this shameful and backward move.
I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. Labor have indicated that we won't oppose these bills. This is the same position we took when bills to enact these measures were presented to the 45th Parliament. These bills introduce a range of small cost-recovery measures that the government proposed in the 2017-18 budget. The bills amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce an application fee for higher education providers to offer FEE-HELP loans to Australian students. There will also be a small annual charge for higher education providers and universities to support the cost of administering the Higher Education Loan Program. In total, the measures in the legislation will deliver budget savings of $11.4 million over the forward estimates from 2019-20.
These bills are expected to have very little impact on the sector. However, we call upon the government to monitor the situation to ensure that these changes do not have a negative impact on students. It's simply not fair for any of the small additional charges in these bills to flow back to students through higher fees or higher charges for services. This would undermine equity in Australia's university system and be an wanted outcome of these changes. We're concerned about this possibility because Australian university students have faced nothing but attacks from this Liberal government during the last six years. Continued cuts to higher education funding, incorrect robo-debts sending students into poverty, attempts at fee deregulation and the shifting policy landscape have made life harder for Australian students. It's clear from the government's policy that they want to make it harder for Australian students to get a university education.
Unlike the Liberals and Nationals, we believe that funding education is an investment in our nation's future prosperity, not a cost burden. The Liberals and Nationals see university education as a privilege for an elite few and do not understand the power that education has to improve the lives of individuals and communities. Our universities and TAFE education sectors are struggling after six years of coalition government. It's time the current Prime Minister told us what his plans are to help more Australians gain a tertiary education. The government has cut $2.2 billion from universities and capped undergraduate university places. This means 200,000 people will miss out on the chance to go to university over the next decade. It's clear that the government does not care about Australian students.
Labor took to the last election a policy to undertake a once-in-a-generation national inquiry into post-secondary education, because we need to get this issue right rather than just stumble along on with whatever suggestions the government's mates come up with. This inquiry would have examined the current funding system and income-contingent loans scheme to ensure they are sustainable and are fair. In contrast, this government has no plan for higher education. Under this government, Australian students pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for university education. Costs have blown out for students. We know that if the Liberals had had their way they would already have introduced $100,000 university degrees in this country. The people in my home state of Tasmania don't accept the plans for $100,000 degrees. It's simply too much. Any government member who thinks that $100,000 degrees are a fair outcome needs to reflect on how out of touch they are with Australia.
In Tasmania, students often don't follow a traditional pathway. In fact, according to the 2018 Good Universities Guide, 84 per cent of UTAS students do not come straight from school. They may have done some casual work while figuring out what they want to do or may be transitioning from one profession to another or may be mums returning to study. Indeed, we are seeing university education as an important pathway back to full-time employment for people who have previously worked in industries which have lower employment levels than in previous decades. But no matter their story, the choice of Tasmanian students to move on to study at UTAS is a major turning point in their life. It requires dedication and perhaps a reordering of their life, maybe arrangements for caring for children, rearranging how or when they work or a move closer to the university campus that best meets their needs. But when the government makes it harder to gain a place and makes it harder with higher fees or lower repayment thresholds it can discourage or prevent people from pursuing their dreams.
While we're aware that graduates often earn more than nongraduates, and so study delivers a personal benefit, the overall economy of Tasmania also benefits when there are more graduates. Skills and knowledge gained by graduates can create new economic opportunities that flow through to everyone. In the 2016 census just 16.4 per cent of Tasmanians had a bachelor-level or higher qualification, compared to 22 per cent nationally. Tasmania has a largely regional population, and overall rates of university graduation are lower in regional areas. Unfortunately, I think those opposite look at the personal benefit of education and not at the social benefit. Last year, the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers undertook an inquiry into the challenges facing our future workforce. A submission from the University of Technology Sydney to the inquiry outlined some of the societal benefits of increasing the level of university graduates. The submission said:
University graduates are increasingly critical for the whole Australian economy and workforce, particularly the knowledge economy that Australia needs to move towards. In 2014 Australian universities educated 1.3 million students and produced 300,000 skilled graduates and as a result are key economic powerhouses – universities directly contributed $25 billion to our GDP in 2013 and the skills of our graduates were worth $140 billion to the economy in 2014. The skills of our graduates will contribute more to Australia's innovation agenda than almost any other initiative.
It is crucial to note that universities are job creators. For every 1000 university graduates who enter the Australian workforce, 120 new jobs are created for people without university degrees.
The National Tertiary Education Union, in their submission, cautioned that the policies of this government were undermining the sector. Their submission states:
Current government policy and direction in higher and vocational education and research is alarmingly short-sighted, driven almost exclusively by the budget bottom-line with the most recent consequence being major cuts to public investment in tertiary education. This has led to a lack of policy coherency and indeed contradictory measures to the stated aims of developing a tertiary education system able to meet future workforce challenges.
… … …
There is a fundamental disjuncture between the significant structural change the Australian economy and labour market is undergoing and the direction of the Coalition government’s tertiary education policies.
Universities Australia also expressed disappointment with recent government policies in higher education. Their submission read:
Given the wide-ranging importance of higher education and research, UA is disappointed that recent governments have prioritised cuts to universities in the pursuit of Budget savings. There is no case for large cuts of the kind that recent governments have proposed.
So it's clear to me and to those on this side of the chamber that the government does not understand the importance of our universities. The government just sails blindly along, saying, 'Everything's all right,' when it's clear that things are getting worse and they're not doing anything to fix it.
While there has not been an inquiry into the bills we're debating today, when bills for these measures were introduced during the 45th Parliament, Labor referred them to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry. In particular, we wanted stakeholders to be properly consulted—something this government cannot be trusted to do. Time and time again, we see this government making policy changes without discussing what these changes are with the people who are affected by them. In the higher education sector, in particular, the Liberal government has made significant changes without considering the impacts that these changes will have on students, lecturers, universities and the overall sector.
Consultation is a key part of the public policy cycle, and an important one in ensuring the best possible policy outcomes. However, we're seeing the disastrous impacts on the higher education sector that this government's ill-thought-out policies have wrought. Labor senators provided the following additional comments to the Education and Employment Legislation Committee report I mentioned earlier:
Since the election of the Government in 2013, universities and students have been under constant attack with cuts, attempts at fee deregulation, policy chaos and uncertainty. The 2017 MYEFO decisions to cut $2.2 billion from universities, effectively recap undergraduate places, and change the Higher Education Loan Program were reckless and unfair. Thousands of students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place because of the Government’s cuts and capping of places.
The government should be ashamed of these cuts. They're not in the interests of students, universities or, particularly, the nation as a whole. They have already forced students to start paying off HELP debts when they earn as little as $45,000, only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. Given the current housing crisis and higher rents, this additional impost on these low-income graduates has just made life unnecessarily harder.
Labor has said that this change forces thousands of students out of the opportunity for a university education and puts enormous pressure on other young people in having to repay their debts sooner—often at the same time as they're trying to start a family and buy a house, and when they have many other expenses. We on this side know that the debt is a barrier to study, particularly for students from low-income families. Unfortunately, there are many prospective students who look at the debt they could rack up at university and immediately give up on their dreams.
Before the election, Labor committed to return to the demand-driven funding system, to ensure three-year funding agreements, to fund more equity and pathway programs to encourage more students to go to university and to provide much-needed funding for infrastructure through our $300 million University Future Fund. Labor's positive policies would have seen around $10 billion in additional funding flow to universities over the next decade. We're proud that under the previous government we oversaw an increase of over 190,000 students. Labor is absolutely committed to the demand-driven system. Labor wants to boost participation. We're committed to increased equity and better pathways for students to study at university. It's simply not fair that a student on the North Shore of Sydney is much more likely to go to university than a student in Herdsmans Cove or Acton in Tasmania. We want to see greater participation in higher education in Australia. Labor wants to give every student who has the ability and who is prepared to work hard the opportunity of a university education. In contrast, the Liberals want to slam the door to university shut on more than 200,000 Australians.
I thank those senators who have contributed to this debate on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019. As senators have noted, these bills seek to provide for a process where higher education providers who are seeking approval under the Higher Education Support Act 2003 will face an annual cost recovery charge in relation to the administration arrangements around HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP assistance under the Higher Education Support Act 2003. This modest annual charge will partially recover from higher education providers the costs incurred by the Commonwealth in administering the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP programs. These programs, of course, are essential in terms of the support that they provide to Australian students to access higher education opportunities without facing any upfront fees.
The measures, as we've outlined, are consistent with the Australian Government Charging Framework, linking the cost of providing regulatory services to higher education providers that benefit from having access to the Commonwealth balance sheet to provide low-cost, income-contingent student loans on terms that would not be available under any commercial financing arrangements. Clearly, access to these loans is not only of benefit and essential to the equity of higher education students but also of significant benefit to higher education providers in terms of their attractiveness as a destination for students. The measures will also raise awareness in the higher education sector of the costs incurred by the Commonwealth for the regulatory arrangements of these programs.
I thank members for their contributions during the debate and the opposition for their indication that they will be supporting passage of these bills, and I thank them for the ongoing bipartisan support shown to the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP programs. I commend the bills to the Senate.
The question is that the bills, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019, be now read a second time.