Senate debates

Tuesday, 6 October 2020


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

12:05 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. Well, that's what the government calls this bill, anyway. It might be more fitting to call it the 'higher education support amendment (Scott Morrison is making it harder and more expensive to go to university) bill 2020', because that is the reality. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and his Liberal-National government want to make it harder and more expensive to go to university. At the time of the Morrison recession, the first recession in three decades—the worst, deepest and most devastating recession in almost 100 years—at a time when there are almost one million unemployed Australians and a further 400,000 Australians set to be out of a job by Christmas, at a time when youth unemployment has hit 14.3 per cent and even higher in regional areas, and at a time when there are 13 jobseekers for every job vacancy, what does this government decide it is going to do for people across Australia, including young people and people looking to reskill? The Liberals and the Nationals, led by Scott Morrison, want to make it harder and more expensive to go to university.

Labor will oppose this bill and we urge other senators, particularly the crossbench, to do the same. Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously said, 'If you have a go, you get a go,' but this bill is going to make it harder for Australians to have a go and it will make it more expensive for them to have a go. Let's face the realities of this legislation. First, thousands of Australians—many of them young Australians—will pay more than double for the same university qualification if it passes; 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 a year; and, on average under the government's legislation, students will pay seven per cent more for their degree. That means people studying humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degree than doctors and dentists. Second, this bill will cut $1 billion out of Commonwealth funding from universities. The government is going to increase the student fee burden and reduce Commonwealth funding of higher education. We know Scott Morrison loves to pass the buck with responsibilities—you know, the bushfires, the Ruby Princess, aged care and the first recession in three decades—but with this legislation the Prime Minister is literally passing the buck to Australians seeking a university education. Third, Scott Morrison's university plan won't do what he promised it would do. As is always the case with the Morrison government, they are big on the headline and the announcement and the photo opportunity but they never deliver.

This bill means that, in academic areas which the government wants to encourage students to take up, universities will receive less money to teach those students. In areas where the government wants to discourage universities, they will receive more money to teach those students. Don't take my word for it. The CEO of the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has said:

I honestly think it's one of the worst-designed policies that I have ever seen … Even if you accept its stated rationale, it doesn't go anywhere near achieving it.'

It doesn't take a university degree to know that, when you cut money that supports engineering and science courses, either you are going to get worse courses or you are going to get fewer scientists and engineers.

Under this legislation, universities will receive 32 per cent less to teach medical students, 17 per cent less to teach maths students, 16 per cent less to teach engineers, 15 per cent less for clinical psychology, 10 per cent less to teach agricultural students—and that's really not so good for regional Australia—and eight per cent less to teach nurses, in the middle of a global pandemic. Even the former Liberal foreign minister Julie Bishop has pointed out, in her role as Chancellor of the Australian National University:

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

Even former Liberal minister Julie Bishop has called it out: the government's policy will do the exact opposite of what they say it will do.

To put it simply, you can't promote science and engineering by starving universities and their departments of money. The Prime Minister has either been dishonest about the intention of this legislation or, worse, he doesn't actually know how university funding works. Maybe the Prime Minister and the Minister for Education need to return to university themselves to work out what would actually happen under their proposed plan. It's clear you cannot trust the Liberal Party with universities. All they do is cut funding, jack up prices and lock out students. They're cutting billions from the sector while doing nothing to help young people get into high-priority courses and jobs. They're depriving young Australians in years 11 and 12 of a chance to help rebuild our economy, by making it harder and more expensive for them to go to university. Scott Morrison is making students pay more for their degrees, and he's locking others out altogether.

Just like all parts of our society, COVID has wreaked havoc on our higher education system. Australian universities are in distress, classes have moved from in person to online, student unions have had to strip back their operations and estimates show that at least 12,500 jobs have already been lost in the sector. Student life has been turned on its head. International student numbers have dropped off a cliff. The ABC reported yesterday that from January to July this year Home Affairs received 40 per cent of the applications that they received in the same period last year. In June alone, Home Affairs received just 4,062 student visa applications, compared to 34,015 in June 2019.

Not only are Australian universities not receiving the tuition fees of international students; the ripples have been, and will continue to be, felt throughout the economy. Those students won't be spending money in shops, they won't be renting apartments and they won't be travelling around our country as part of their time here. International education was worth $37.6 billion to the Australian economy last year. It's our fourth-largest export industry. We won't know the true impact of COVID on the international education sector and the economy, but the Mitchell institute forecasts a $19 billion loss in student revenue over the next three years.

The international students who are in Australia are suffering because they've been left behind by the Morrison government. They've been denied JobSeeker by this government and they've been denied JobKeeper by this government. They've been forced to rely on charities and food hampers to survive because of the actions of this government. They've been exploited in their workplaces and faced shocking racial abuse. Close to two-thirds of international students say they are less likely to recommend Australia as a study destination than before the pandemic. I've met with international students and they've been in tears as they've told me how Australia, the country that they have lived in and contributed to for years—sometimes four or five years—has simply abandoned them.

Another group who have been abandoned by this government are the almost 30,000 Australians stranded overseas, and this does impact on our higher education sector. Let me explain. Australians are stuck overseas, abandoned by the government during a deadly global pandemic. They're stranded in the UK, the Philippines, the United States, Canada, Lebanon, India—the list goes on. Thousands are considered medically and financially vulnerable. They shared their stories with the Senate COVID committee only a handful of weeks ago, some with their lives at risk overseas and others with their livelihoods in Australia on the line. That's all because they're stuck overseas and have not been afforded assistance by the government. The Australian government's failure to help these stranded Australians come home is actually standing in the way of our international student sector reviving. With the support of their respective state governments, universities in both South Australia and the Northern Territory are considering launching pilot programs to see international students return to our shores. But the education minister, Dan Tehan, told ABC RN Breakfast just two weeks ago:

What's being holding that up, though, is that we've got to make sure, first of all, that we're getting Australian residents back into the country and getting them properly quarantined, so they can return home.

The Morrison government's failure to have a plan to get stranded Australians home is actually impacting Australian universities recovering. You can't make this stuff up! But, still, it should come as no surprise given the Liberal government's neglect of Australia's higher education system. They failed to save university jobs at every step during the COVID crisis and the Morrison recession. There have been over 12,500 jobs lost to date, with forecasts of 20,000 jobs lost by the end of the year—20,000 Australians, their families and their communities devastated. And what has the Prime Minister done? What has this government done? Nothing. Nothing at all.

In fact, the government went out of its way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. It changed the rules three times to ensure that universities don't qualify for JobKeeper. Government backbenchers often attack our universities and, more specifically, academics. When they do, we need to take a moment and realise not only are they attacking academics but they're attacking the people who are educating the next generation of Australians, who will help rebuild our economy, our society and our country in the wake of COVID-19. They're also attacking everyone who works at or is connected to a university. That means the librarians, the catering staff, the maintenance and ground staff, the security guards and the cleaners, many of who have had to continue going to work during the pandemic, many with families trying to make ends meet. That's who they're attacking when they attack universities.

They're also attacking regional Australia. Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia, and this crisis is already devastating our regional universities. Senator Hanson says she's for Central Queensland and for regional Queensland, but why isn't she standing up for the 300 jobs that have been cut at Central Queensland University? Will she stand up for the jobs that will be lost across regional Australia and the economic devastation that will hit those communities? No, she won't. The Liberal-National government, who want to make the changes and who include government senators sitting opposite, have benefited from Australian universities. I'm sure some of the government senators opposite would have received free university education thanks to Gough Whitlam, yet here they are today, unleashing another kick in the guts for students and uni staff. Every member of Scott Morrison's cabinet went to university, but they don't think that our kids deserve the same chance in life.

We're relying on our brilliant universities and their researchers to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but they can't even rely on Scott Morrison to protect their jobs. We will be relying on universities to drive our economic recovery, but the Morrison government is cutting funding to those very universities. We're relying on an additional 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025, but instead the government is making it harder and more expensive to go to university. Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam said:

We believe that a student's merit, rather than a parent's wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community's vast financial commitment to tertiary education.

Only Labor will ensure that a university education never remains out of reach for Australians no matter who they are, no matter what family they're born into, no matter how much money they have, no matter where they live. In that spirit, Labor is going to oppose this irrational, unfair and poorly designed legislation. We commend Senator Lambie for signalling she will also oppose this bill and we urge others on the crossbench to do the same.

12:19 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I want to be clear from the outset: the only correct cost of a student's degree is zero dollars. University staff, research and teaching should be protected. Our universities should be fully funded, and this bill achieves none of those aims. This bill is cruel. This bill is punitive. This bill is an irredeemable mess. This bill is shit. This bill is not worth the paper it is written on.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Faruqi, can you withdraw that statement please?

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We will be moving a second reading amendment to give the government an opportunity to withdraw this terrible bill. It would take chapters to catalogue everything wrong with this legislation, but I'll sample its litany of problems today. This cruel bill hikes fees for students, massively shifting the cost of university education away from the government and onto students. We are not talking about a small tweak here; we are talking about more than doubling the fees for degrees like arts and commerce to more than $14,000 a year. Right now, the most common unit cost is the lowest cost. Under the Liberals' plan it will be the highest. The hypocrisy of these fee hikes is stunning when we know that 16 members of this government, including the Prime Minister, received a free education. Now they are forcing students to pay tens of thousands more.

The attack on the humanities that this package represents is particularly galling. One submission to the consultation rightly suggested that the government was legislating to ensure the irrelevance of the humanities. The Liberals salivate when they blather on with the corporate language of 'agility' and 'job readiness', but they wilfully ignore that the transferable skills needed to weather a recession and adapt to a changing labour market are those taught by humanities.

We know this legislation won't encourage students to study the so-called priority degrees. All the experts agree; even the minister's own department agrees. The modest fee cuts the government is tendering to a minority of students in exchange for destroying the quality of their education simply won't change the average high school graduate's plans. But I am gravely concerned that first-in-family and regional students who are less engaged with higher education will avoid Scott Morrison's astronomical fee rises and avoid the humanities and business, which have been a fantastic entry point to higher education for countless students. To see the arts return to an elite quasi-private pursuit would be a tragedy.

With the fee hikes come the cuts to teaching and learning that force universities to teach more students with less funding across the board. Billions are being cut over the years to come. That's how the government is creating its dubious new places—not through new funding but by cutting it and demanding unis take on more students. Make no mistake: this will destroy the quality of education in all courses, including, absurdly, the STEM subjects, like engineering, that the government claims to care about, which are expensive to deliver but have still suffered cuts. Overall, it means fewer teachers, less support and less choice of courses and degrees.

I feel in particular for the high schoolers watching on at the pointy end of an already terrible year. Many of them made course choices years ago and have watched their hopes of an education be dashed as the promise of decades spent in study debt is all but guaranteed by this government. Under this bill, high schoolers can't even rely on having a place waiting for them at uni. It's incredibly unlikely that the government's plan will create the places it claims to. But even if it does, the promised places are not enough to meet ordinary population growth, let alone the surge in demand during this recession. The result will be hardworking, deserving students missing out.

For those students who do get a place, this bill creates a grim future. Young people are already graduating from uni with a decade of debt repayments ahead of them. With youth unemployment skyrocketing, these fee increases will leave students in much deeper debt for much longer. Modelling we commissioned found that many students will be well into their 40s before they pay off the study debt that has dogged them through the start of their adult lives. The blokes who put this bill together, Scott, Dan and Josh, are probably proud of themselves—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

May I remind you to refer to those in the other place by their correct titles.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The blokes who put this bill together: the Prime Minister, the Minister for Education and the Treasurer are probably proud of themselves for crafting fee hikes that disproportionately hurt women. On average, fees for women will rise by 10 per cent compared to six per cent for men. They shouldn't be allowed to run from the misogynist consequences of their policy. To make matters worse, the bill also disproportionately impacts First Nations students. IRU analysis has found that First Nations students' fees will increase by an average of 15 per cent—that's years and years more debt. For struggling students the government's cruel answer is to take away their HELP loan if they fail subjects. I will be moving an amendment to strip this cruelty from the package.

Altogether, those are plenty of reasons to scrap this bill. But it gets worse. Universities themselves have said this plan encourages them to enrol students in courses with the highest fees instead of the supposed national priorities. That absurdity also destroys the vital research presently cross-subsidised out of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. Our researchers, who should be focused on securing a vaccine and helping us navigate through the pandemic, are instead worried about their jobs. A whole generation of young researchers working casual jobs are already being shown the door. Thousands of additional researchers are expected to lose work in the year ahead—and they won't come back.

This plan does nothing to protect university workers. The government has stood idly by as thousands of jobs have been lost already. They have rigged JobKeeper three times to exclude universities, voted down my disallowance motion in this chamber which would have scrapped the unfair rules and exacted the punishment they've long hoped to on a sector that they hold in utter contempt.

The impact of that contempt, which riddles this package, will be felt most by regional communities. Regional unis are at the heart of our communities. The great benefit of regional education is that students who study locally tend to work locally. The terrible consequence of this bill is that every dollar of extra debt for a regional student is a dollar not being spent in their communities when that spending is desperately needed at this time. You can guarantee the sweeteners promised for regional unis will disappear. Further Liberal cuts to education are a safer bet than the sun rising tomorrow. It's wishful thinking that they won't use the impending recession to eventually yank support from regional universities. In the meantime, as Charles Sturt University submitted, this bill will hurt the agricultural workforce. The university may need to concentrate enrolments in a smaller number courses leading to fewer opportunities for regional students and with flow on effects for the agricultural workforce.

This whole thing is a policy disaster. The Liberals arrived at such an all-round useless bill by relying on useless labour market predictions that even their buddies and donors on the Business Council disagree with. This bill will see, for the first time, students paying different rates for units depending on what type of psychology degree they are a part of. This not only runs counter to the idea that students should be able to make unit-level decisions but is completely confusing. The new funding rates for units are based on bad, incomplete data from the Deloitte report that doesn't fully cover the university sector, or pass intellectual rigour as one expert put it. Relying on it is an exercise in diving to the lowest common denominator that saves the government money at the expense of diversity of teaching offerings and research. Let's not forget the made-up TEQSA integrity unit the minister slapped together when he was called out on the perverse incentives in this legislation. Let's be clear: even if the plan was good, this legislation sucks! The few carrots the minister has dangled for industry and student support in the package aren't implemented in the legislation, and vital details are desperately lacking or totally absent.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, a point of order?

Photo of Linda ReynoldsLinda Reynolds (WA, Liberal Party, Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Faruqi is regularly flouting the chair—in fact, it was the Deputy President's ruling on unparliamentary behaviour. I ask you to seek more appropriate language from the senator for this debate.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Minister. Senator Faruqi, you were obviously reminded earlier, before I came into the chair. We would appreciate you keeping your comments in a parliamentary fashion.

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We have no guidelines for how this will work and no details at all of how the range of onerous new regulatory requirements co-opted from debt regulation will be enforced on universities.

Any one of these problems with the bill would justify voting against it. Taken together, they make Centre Alliance's decision to sell out students, young people and our universities for a reprehensible deal even more shocking. Rebekha Sharkie MP and Senator Stirling Griff, you've bought the government's spin hook, line and sinker. You should be ashamed of condemning generations of young students to decades of debt. You don't need to pass this unfair and unpredictable legislation in order to deliver new student places. It's really not a matter of accepting this messy bill, which punishes students and staff, or nothing. Minister Tehan's own conveniently timed announcement of millions of dollars for extra places has confirmed that it's not too late to do the right thing and block this bill. It's clear how far out of their depth Minister Tehan and the Prime Minister are. Instead of anything close to a vision for universities, we've got this jumble of competing priorities and a desperation to not invest in students or their education. They have neither the respect for higher education nor the command of the policy detail needed for reform.

Outrage is to be expected when the Liberals try to cut uni funding, as they have done time and again, but with the justified outrage this time came bafflement—an entire sector bewildered by the policy disaster that is this bill. Everyone, from the higher education unions to the business lobby to Julie Bishop, says this doesn't make any sense. The disciplines the government claims the bill will advantage, like physics and maths, were all out condemning this plan. The best defence the minister could manage was to tell the Herald that I, the only engineering PhD in parliament, should study a maths unit. That was mere hours before he was caught using dodgy figures in a press release in an attempt to talk this bill up. From the lack of detail in the original announcement to the mere six-day consultation period for the legislation and their opposition to a Senate inquiry into this once-in-a-generation legislation, the government has shown nothing but contempt for the university sector, the community and the parliament throughout this process.

Unlike the government, the Greens vision for post-school education could not be more clear. Uni and TAFE should be free for all students for life. We recognise that our collective future depends on the education and training happening in our public universities and TAFEs. We see that our ability to see this crisis through and the opportunity to rebuild as a more just society afterwards turn on ensuring that people can access that education and training without going into decades of debt. We know everyone has a right to education, whether they're leaving school, changing careers, retraining later in life or looking to gain new skills and knowledge. This is not a flight of fantasy; this is a matter of priorities. If the government closed the loopholes that let one in three major corporations pay no tax and stopped giving tax breaks to the super wealthy, which they are going to do in the budget today, we could make lifelong access to public education a reality for all students and reap the collective benefits. We can do this and ensure that staff have security of work with fair wages, so they can do their work teaching and researching side by side and with certainty. That's the vision the Greens will keep fighting for in this place and in the community.

It's only fair that students of today have the opportunity so many in this place, including many of the hypocrites sitting opposite, had. The Senate can and should reject this package. We should call on the government to come back with a plan to support staff and create new student places by adding funding, not cutting it. The Greens oppose this cruel attack on students, on staff and on universities. I move the Greens second reading amendment on sheet 1050:

Omit all words after "That", insert:

", the bill be withdrawn; and

(a) The Senate condemns the Morrison Government and Minister Tehan for attempting to ram legislation through the Parliament which would irreversibly damage Australia's higher education system and harm and disadvantage students, university staff and communities; and

(b) The Senate condemns the bill which will:

(i) hike fees, pushing students into decades of debt as they face rising unemployment and hurting women and First Nations students the most,

(ii) slash billions in funding from teaching, including from STEM subjects, which will mean bigger classes, fewer teachers and a worse education, particularly in regional areas,

(iii) force universities to do more with less,

(iv) fail to create anywhere near enough new places to educate school leavers and people who want to study during the recession,

(v) shift the overall costs of university education away from the Commonwealth and onto students,

(vi) fail to encourage students to do STEM courses,

(vii) punish struggling students by unfairly and unnecessarily forcing them out of Commonwealth Supported Places instead of helping them, and

(viii) fail to save a single university worker's job and worsen the research funding crisis; and

(c) The Senate calls on the Government to:

(i) fully-fund university education and research, and provide ongoing funding certainty into the future,

(ii) ensure job security and good conditions for all university staff, and

(iii) make university and TAFE fee-free for all.

12:34 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, because this bill is a direct response to the workforce skills and training challenges that we are facing as a nation. It's a recognition of the unprecedented impact and churn within the Australian labour market and it's an acknowledgement that we, in partnership with industry, businesses and the broader Australian community, understand that skills will be absolutely critical in driving not only our recovery but also our long-term prosperity.

As we've heard only too often, the economic shock from the coronavirus challenge is unprecedented. Each and every Australian has been impacted in some way or another, whether it be them personally, their friends or their family. Small businesses have been disrupted. Local communities have been disrupted. Entire industries have been disrupted. Indeed, the higher education sector has been disrupted. Ensuring that the Australian economy is in the best possible position on the other side of this challenge will take every policy lever available to government. We know that, as a result of this disruption to our economy and the churn in our labour market, there will be record demand on our higher education system. We need to ensure that it's ready for that and accessible to as many Australians as possible who want to get the skills that they need to enter the workforce.

This government is providing leadership on this issue. We are making sure that our higher education system will be able to respond to this enormous challenge. We're getting on with the job. We're putting in place the reforms that our nation needs to not only recover but continue to prosper. I would make the argument that this is one of those rare 'Team Australia' moments which arise in this place every so often. You would think that those opposite would be supportive of getting Australians back into work and making sure that our higher education system remains accessible to as many Australians as possible. But, no, you would be wrong. We've heard that already this morning. They have continued with their policies of fear, their rhetoric of division and the old class warfare nonsense that they come up with every now and again when they have little else to argue with.

So let's look at the facts, shall we? I know that's something that those over there on the crossbench and in the Greens fail to do more often than not. Let's look at the facts and the practical impact of these reforms. This package will create 39,000 new university places in 2023 and 100,000 by 2030. It will also provide additional support for students in regional and remote Australia. With this bill, the Morrison government's record funding to Australia's higher education sector will also increase. I know that those over there don't like these numbers because it doesn't quite fit their narrative, but here they are. Through to 2024, funding will increase by an additional $2 billion—an additional $2 billion—increasing to $20 billion. Overall, Australian taxpayers will continue to pay more than half of the costs of Commonwealth supported places, with funding prioritised to areas of high public benefit and areas most needed by the labour market.

In addition, universities will work more closely with industry to ensure that graduates have the job-ready skills and experience that they need in this challenging labour market. This means that our universities will be able to respond more effectively to the jobs and the skills challenges that we have and are facing. It will give school leavers more options to take up the career of their choice. Commonwealth supported students starting courses in key growth areas—including science, nursing, teaching, engineering and IT—will see significant reductions in their student contribution for those units. In total, around 60 per cent of students will see either a reduction or no change at all to their student contribution. By choosing degrees with electives that respond to employer needs and the future demands of the Australian economy in subjects like mathematics, engineering, science and IT, students can actually reduce their total contribution and enhance the skills that they bring to employment.

Australian employers and industries are the ones that are actually best placed to know what skills they need for their business, for the jobs that they have. They're the ones that know what they need in the near term, for immediate recovery, and in the medium and long term. That's why those who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less for their degree—59 per cent less for their degree. Those enrolled in teaching, nursing—my wife's a nurse, my sister's a nurse, my mum's a teacher—clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. Why? Because these are careers that are needed, these are careers that are in demand in our economy. And students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degree. Importantly, these reforms also align the costs of completing these units with the costs incurred by the provider in teaching them. All of these decisions have been made using data from the higher education sector, which clearly show the breakdown of actual costs. These measures will be grandfathered for those students with a Commonwealth supported place who are already studying these subjects. They'll be grandfathered so that they'll either pay a lower rate or the current rate, so this notion that someone who has chosen to do a degree is now going to be faced with higher costs is an absolute untruth.

As a senator for Western Australia, I'm also very proud to be part of a government that's delivering for regional and remote students, and I know Senator Reynolds would completely agree with me. We are very proud of our regional areas in Western Australia, and this bill is going to help deliver opportunities for more and more students coming from those areas. We need to make sure that the opportunities afforded to students as part of this package are afforded to all students, particularly those who live in some of the most regional, remote and isolated parts of our nation—and Western Australia has those places in spades. It could be said that these places are often where the bulk of our national wealth comes from, but no doubt that's for another debate.

In addition to providing more student places at Australian universities overall, the government will provide more than $400 million over the next four years to increase opportunities for regional and remote students to attend university, lifting investment in regional university campuses. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas will have a guaranteed Commonwealth supported place upon admission to their university of choice. For the first time, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program will support regional, remote and Indigenous students, in addition to low-SES students, to access and complete higher education. This bill also amends the Social Security Act to reduce from six to three the number of months a student must be receiving student support payments to be eligible to receive the fares allowance for a return journey home—another important Napthine review recommendation. Regional communities will benefit from strengthened and newly established regional university centres, enhanced regional research opportunities and regional growth through additional funding to regional university campuses. I've seen the impact of these centres, I've visited the ones that are operating in Western Australia, and I acknowledge the good work of my colleague in the other place the member for Durack, Melissa Price, for the tremendous work that she has brought into this area in seeing a newly established regional university centre in Karratha.

Continuing to support regional students to get into their careers of choice with long-term demand in the Australian economy is critically important. I don't have the luxury of time this afternoon to go over all the measures in this bill. I've seen there's a long list of speakers, and I'm sure others will take us through that. But, despite not being able to do that today, I can say this: we cannot underestimate or downplay the long-term impacts of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus, particularly the effect that this is having upon the Australian labour market. We know that in a downturn the demand on skills and higher education providers actually increases. We must ensure that our higher education system can respond to this demand from a position of strength. At the same time, we must ensure that any reform we undertake makes further education and higher education more accessible to the broader Australian public—those looking to get into the workforce, gain those skills and set themselves and their families up for life. For those looking to have a go, we want to make sure that they certainly do get that opportunity to have a go. We need to make sure that our higher education system responds to the demand from businesses and industry, and those who will ultimately end up employing these graduates. We must ensure that they've got the skills that are in demand by employers—so that people are not just training or educating for training or education's sake but are undertaking courses and getting the requisite skills required to be productive in the workplace and to hold and keep down a job.

We're in partnership with our universities. They're best placed to know what skills they need for the near, medium and long term. And I believe that this bill meets those objectives. But don't just listen to me. Let's take a couple of points that we heard through the submissions that came in through the committee process. We heard from the Australian National University vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt:

The government has put forward a set of higher education reforms that should allow essentially everyone (young and old) who wants a university opportunity to get one.

We heard from Professor Greg Craven, VC of the Australian Catholic University:

The package is massively pragmatic, responding to real problems in real time.

Industry is also on board. Employers are also on board. The president of the Australian Primary Healthcare Nurses Association, Karen Booth, said:

This is a major boost to our profession. It will attract more students into nursing by making their university education more affordable.

These are just a sample of the comments from universities and industry. There are many, many more. And they all acknowledge the importance of putting in place a sustainable funding model—a system which will deliver skills for the jobs of the future. We're in a rapidly changing labour market environment, and we have to adapt and change our education and training sector to ensure that we're meeting the demand and the needs of those jobs that exist not just today but into the future.

These are just a sample of some of the comments from universities and industry, and they all acknowledge the importance of putting in place a sustainable model—a system which will deliver skills for the jobs for the future, and, critically, allow all Australians who want to have a go to get a go. I commend this bill to the Senate.

12:48 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If that's the flavour of the contributions from those in government, this is a sad day for our democracy—reading those talking points while going through, with the support of the crossbench, with a radical structural change to higher education in this country that is unjustified, unjustifiable and found very, very wanting. It's a miracle we even got two days of hearings, because this government didn't want them. So hardball did they play it with the crossbench that they actually intimidated them. The government did not want any scrutiny of this bill—no scrutiny. We had to fight tooth and nail to get in two days of crammed hearings for this most significant, enormous structural change to our higher education sector.

We've got that nonsense contribution from those opposite: 'Oh, it's good, and we're going to make it sustainable.' The minute they say 'sustainable' the country should say 'cut', because that's exactly what it means. This will be a cut to higher education. It will forever dislocate teaching from research, and that is a recipe for disaster. This is the government that's gone out and kicked higher education to the ground every single year for the last seven years. They've inflicted multiple fractures on the sector to the point where it is a bruised and battered sector, and now they want to get this legislation through. And, with the shameful support of the crossbench, they're going to get it through here. What they will do is lock in, like a plaster cast, a multiple fracture that we will never recover from. That will be the record of this government in terms of higher education. It is an absolute disgrace.

The higher education bill that is before us today, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, despite its title, like most of the government's other nonsense bills, will do exactly the opposite. There is no support in this; this is about breaking things. As I said, this is about breaking the nexus between teaching and research. This is about breaking the sector that they have been working on breaking for seven years. This is about breaking the hearts of young students who want to go to university and now know that, after the government gets this bill through, their debt will be increased.

The dissenting report from Labor is 36 pages long, which is quite significant for a dissenting report during my time here in the Senate. It reflects the evidence that was received from the large number of submissions and the evidence that was taken, against the government's wishes, in the series of hearings that we had. The subheadings of our report give an indication of just some of what is wrong with this bill. There is a lack of time for proper scrutiny. There is a dangerous extension of ministerial discretion: the minister can pick his own winners when he wants to. The sector is very concerned about getting on the wrong side of the minister, who seems to be able to wield power in the most extraordinary way and advance or withdraw money at his will—or her will, as the case may be. But that's what's getting locked in and baked in with this legislation. There are student fee hikes that have no justification.

Our report goes on to say that the pricing model that underpins the funding structure that has been established is profoundly weak; the incentives in this bill for universities are perverse and they do not match the realities that confront our universities; and the labour market assumptions in this bill are wrong. The barriers to job-ready graduates are well discussed in this document, and we know that those barriers are going to increase as students fear taking on more debt. Many students will pay more, and some will pay much more than others, as this government arbitrarily redetermines the shape of higher education. The worst impact will be on women and First Nations people. An enabling loading will be removed. This is how many Indigenous students—and many older students who recover from not being such good students at school and develop their lifestyles—go to university. This bill plays with that system and leaves it to the discretion of the minister to respond.

There will be punitive and unnecessary interference in students' progress. I will have more to say about that and the severe impact that is likely to have on students mental health and wellbeing—compounding the COVID-19 crisis. This is just what we really need from a government that says we are all in this together! Well, this is about making it a very separate kind of experience for those with wealth, and those without wealth will miss out.

There are consequences for research and the economy from the dislocation of research from teaching funding. There are risks to regional universities. We had Senator O'Sullivan saying how good this is for regional universities, but he wasn't there to hear the evidence from the regional universities. We know there is every chance that, as regional universities lose their research status, they will simultaneously lose their status as universities. There will be massive job losses at Charles Sturt University, just down the road from here at Wagga Wagga in the Deputy Prime Minister's seat. There have been hundreds of jobs lost during the COVID-19 crisis and there are hundreds and hundreds of jobs still to go. What's going to happen to that university and the great town of Wagga Wagga if it loses its status as a university? A failure to attract research from overseas will be a common problem.

All of these issues were aired in our two days of furious receipt of evidence that the government didn't want to have on the record. We will have a loss of university status and private providers. There is a mirage of 39,000 new student places. Don't believe that number for a minute. That's an absolute lie. The last of these subheadings is 'Degrading the sector'. This is just a taste; they are just the subheadings in a 36-page dissenting report from Labor senators. That's how bad this bill is. It's wrong on many, many fronts.

As a former teacher and university lecturer in education, I've always believed in the power of education. Getting a proper education is the best way to build a dream career and a life worth living and to give your talents and capacities the strength that they need to become a vital part of the Australian economy as well. But, instead of supporting those sorts of goals and supporting aspirational young Australians, this government has created a bill that shifts a larger proportion of debt onto students. It's also a bill that, through research funding changes, further empowers the minister to punish or promote universities at his own discretion. In the dissenting report, there is a critical statement that indicates how dangerous what this government is doing is, and I want to read it into the record:

The bill breaks the nexus between teaching and research, and makes no provision for research funding at a time when universities are suffering huge revenue losses because of falling international student numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The cuts to teaching and to research will inevitably result in universities gradually losing their capacity for civic engagement with the communities and regions they serve. This challenges the very notion of a university as it has been understood in this country.

The impact on young Australians should not be overlooked. For those who are still locked up in Melbourne, can I just say, as a senator for New South Wales, how much my sympathies and the sympathies of my state are with you in that situation. But it's not just students in Melbourne but students across the entire country who have been locked up and engaged with a very uncertain path to university, and this is what we've said in our dissenting report:

Year 12 students graduating this year will have endured stressful exams during a deadly pandemic. This bill will ensure that they enter a depressed jobs market with more debt than ever and less opportunities than their parents. According to ABC News reporting, youth workers say instances of self-harm and suicidal thoughts have risen significantly among young people in recent months and The Kids Helpline reported a 40 per cent—

yes, 40 per cent—

rise in demand for counselling services in March. This bill does not take any account of the effect on the mental health of these young Australians, which has already been buffeted by the cancellation of the traditional rites of passage like graduations and formals, and instead presents them with a mountain of debt, rather than an open doorway of opportunity.

That is the general flavour of this bill. It's a vicious and partisan attack on the university sector. Its central premise, its central goal of supposedly creating more jobs-ready graduates, is not backed up by the evidence. The overall effect of this bill, if it continues to achieve the support of the crossbench as has been indicated in mail this morning, will be to cause deep and lasting harm to an already battered and bruised cohort of young Australians. It will result in vast cuts to research and jobs in our world-class university sector. This bill represents a billion-dollar cut to the university sector, and it forces the burden of funding that billion-dollar deficit—that cut, chosen by this government—onto Australian students. There is no merit in this bill.

The bill also seeks to make it cheaper for rich families to send their kids to university, by giving discounts for upfront payments of fees, thanks to the actions of One Nation. This is an obscene and unnecessary discount for those whose parents have the wherewithal to pay thousands and thousands of dollars upfront rather than take out what's basically an interest-free loan. It'll make it harder and more expensive for working-class students and easier for affluent ones to study. This bill will have lifelong impacts on working-class students' ability to accumulate wealth and personal savings or to get a loan and obtain property, while at the same time this bill, as it is baked by this government, will give that upfront discount to rich families who can afford to pay upfront.

As Labor's dissenting report noted:

If the bill becomes law, the difference between the lowest fees paid by students and the highest fees paid will grow to a magnitude of four.

That should tell you all you need to know about Mr Tehan's priorities. Once you strip away the bill's sophistry, if you ignore the lack of empirical evidence around its key aims, you get to the hard core, which is the cuts to funding, to student support and to research. The bill's declared aim is to send price signals to students to entice them into disciplines deemed to be growth areas in a future job market, but there was simply no evidence in any of the submissions or in the evidence heard during our committee hearings to support the government's claims about this method of funding. Researchers who gave evidence to the committee, such as Mr Mark Warburton and Professor Andrew Norton, instead said:

… the evidence suggests that student choice is informed by a more complex set of factors than a simple response to price …

The central premise of the bill is that price will drive students in a particular direction. The central premise is incorrect. That alone should be enough for us to reject this bill. In this time of change the government fails to heed the wisdom of thought leaders across all industries and professions, who know that knowledge is moving so fast that you can't train for today, let alone for tomorrow. Graduates need deep and broad knowledge. It will be historical, but they also need to know that their knowledge will have to be refreshed over and over as change continues apace. In all faculties we need problem-solvers who can think creatively and know how to learn, good communicators who can share their new knowledge with others, and skilled collaborators who work with others. Those things are not related to particular strains of learning or particular faculties; they are about learner disposition, the capacity to bring the knowledge and talent that you have to the fore in an ever-changing workplace.

The bill doesn't only affect students. It will have disastrous effects on universities as well. They've already shed tens of thousands of jobs due to the COVID-19-induced recession, the Morrison recession, and the callous decisions and political plan by Josh Frydenberg to exclude Australian universities from JobKeeper. Yet they didn't miss giving New York University's Sydney campus the opportunity to claim JobKeeper! The bill as it stands is a wrecking ball through Australia's university sector. We're seeing courses cut at the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, Monash and all of our regional universities. The enabling loading, which allows students from diverse backgrounds to achieve, is being removed. They're also putting pressure on struggling students by cutting off government support if they fail over 50 per cent of their subjects. Students live complex lives. As the submission from CQ University pointed out, the implementation of this will be extremely limiting and very, very damaging.

This bill is a major structural reform that's just not necessary. It's not called for and neither is it just. The bill goes to the cruel heart of this government and the national ideology—instead of support for an ailing sector, there are just the empty promises of a minister doing the cutting. The poison is locked in legislation and the antidote merely on the lips of the minister. The bill fails in transparency, in spending and in every possible generous way of considering education. (Time expired)

1:03 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. Before I get to what I have written down, I'd like to address a couple of the issues that have been raised previously. The first one is the discount upfront. When Paul Keating introduced this HECS debt originally, in 19—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me, Senator. Could you use the former Prime Minister's title.

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When former Prime Minister Paul Keating introduced this in 1989 there was a 15 per cent discount if you paid upfront. I well remember it, because I paid mine upfront. I'd got my money from fruit picking over the summer and then I used that money to pay off the loan upfront. I think it's a very good idea to have a discount in order to encourage students to get their loans paid off, because what we've now got is a $70 billion HECS debt that's being funded by the taxpayer, and the ATO estimates that about $30 billion of that is probably going to have to be written off. I think it's a very good idea that we do encourage our students to pay it off through doing part-time work whilst they study, so they both get rid of the debt and develop a work ethic. It is very easy to get caught up in student life. You can have a lot of fun there, but we should never forget that universities are about a pathway to a better future and getting work in the long run.

The other thing that I'd like to touch on is the misogynistic comments earlier by Senator Faruqi. She said we on this side of the chamber are misogynistic. I think Senator Faruqi should draw inspiration from the women in my family. I happen to be a fourth-generation graduate of the University of Queensland. My great-great-aunt got a degree in 1920: a Bachelor of Arts. She went on to teach at All Hallows, where she taught generations of women maths and physics, so much so that she's now got a hall named after her at the school she taught at.

My grandmother went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in 1930. She also became a teacher. She had four children before the war and four children after the war. One of those children was my uncle Keith, who, unfortunately, at the age of seven became blind. He went on and got a law degree through braille because he persevered. Finally, my other aunt, Auntie Helen, got a Bachelor of Arts from UQ in 1972.

There are a whole range of women in my family, including my wife and my sister, who all went to UQ and got degrees. This idea that somehow we're against women getting degrees I find totally repugnant.

Senator O'Neill interjecting

On Senator O'Neill's comments that somehow we're breaking hearts: the whole idea of this bill is to make sure that we don't give our children false hope, because we don't want to see our children go through university, rack up a huge HECS debt and then get to the end of it and not be able to get a job. So it is very important when it comes to universities and university degrees that there is a job at the end of it, because to come out before you've even left the starting blocks and have a massive HECS debt around your neck is not a good thing. It demotivates our children, and we don't want to see it happen.

It's also not smart from an overall economy perspective, because we've got a lot of unemployed graduates and at the same time have to import people from overseas to do our trades. If Senator Cash were here, she would say this bill about supporting apprenticeships is a great thing, because at the moment we've got a country where, in my view, we've got 500 architects and one builder as a result of those Dawkins plans, which turbocharged universities, instead of having one architect and 500 builders. We've got to try to fix all the money that's gone into higher education and hasn't actually got our children jobs, and that is what this bill is trying to do. We should never forget the importance of our trades—our carpenters, our mechanics—and lordy knows that out in the regions they can't get enough carpenters, mechanics or boilermakers. We need to match demand and supply so that our children can get a job and start earning a livelihood so that they can own a house, put a roof over their head and go forward and have children, basically able to provide for those children and have good health. I know it's an education bill, but it's about having a better economy and a happier lifestyle and about encouraging homeownership as well.

This leads to what I've written down here: whether through infrastructure, trade or health, good investment remains one of the best ways to grow the economy and produce jobs. This government has always been committed to smart investment. As we exit one of the biggest economic crises since World War II, investment has never been more important to getting Australians working again. This government has committed over $250 million in dam projects, $800 million for small business to transition into online business and $380 million for the regions in order to stimulate areas hardest hit by coronavirus, recent bushfires and drought.

Make no mistake: the job-ready guarantee bill is an investment. It is this government's investment in countless Australians who choose higher education. It is a stimulus for these Australians to make the most worthwhile investment in themselves. An investment in your own education creates opportunities for you for the remainder of your life. School leavers looking to start their career, people in the workforce upskilling and individuals looking for a change in career through new qualifications all have one thing in common: they are all investing in their future. Self-investment is a pillar of small government, a concept I am sure that those opposite could not hope to comprehend. But let me summarise: small governments allow individuals and businesses to largely manage and invest in themselves with appropriate checks and balances. It is a system where government does not overreach its authority or power but encourages individual improvement rather than government intervention. Common sense will tell you that when considering two investments that both see the same rewards, the cheaper investment will be more desirable. Higher education is no different. When a degree allows access into a rapidly developing sector with higher wage growth but also costs less to complete, then students will be inclined to study this degree. In 2009, enrolments in STEM subjects were approximately 14,000. When student contributions for these subjects fell in 2012, this number increased to 26,000. It was largely expected this growth would continue, paving the way for students to continue to choose STEM subjects and increase Australia's standing in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. Unfortunately, due to a conveniently quiet 78 per cent increase for student contributions enacted by the then Labor government, a tactic Australians have come to expect from those opposite, we saw this number plateau, stifling growth in this sector of study. What do these figures demonstrate? They show us that the Australian public shares this government's view that higher education is an investment. It is not a small investment but one that, in many cases, reaps large rewards.

This government is not interested in making higher education a more difficult process for Australians. Instead, we want to support investment Australians make in themselves, in their future and in their education. We would like to see Aussies go through higher education and gain a foothold in the job market in order to receive the returns on their investment that they deserve, and that's a really key point about this bill. It's about making sure that Aussies can get a foothold in the job market when they graduate. We do not want to see students, after spending years of study putting their nose to the grindstone, come out and have no opportunities. There is nothing more heartbreaking than false hope. This is why, in conjunction with private industry, we have readjusted the funding being allocated to units based on future growth. This restructure shows Australians where the best possible returns are available for their investment. It has been restructured to ensure Aussies see the benefits both financially and personally in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics by allowing student contributions to fall by 18 per cent for all STEM units.

It is true that the risk/reward factor is not the only factor students consider when choosing a degree. Passions and, in particular, some individuals' desire to help the community also play a role in determining the outcome. The government not only understands that desire to help the community but actively encourages it. This is why the funding has been restructured to support individuals who seek to give their lives to care for the sick and teach our kids. This will see a 42 per cent reduction in student contributions for units relating to teaching, nursing, psychology and languages. That can't come soon enough. When I was born, my home town, Chinchilla, had three midwives for a population of 3,000. It now has a population of 6,000, but no midwives and no maternity wards. One of the reasons it is so difficult to get nurses out to the regional areas is that the cost of studying to become a nurse is exorbitant. They have to do two degrees if they want to be both a midwife and a general practice nurse. When my mum did it—she had both tickets—she did it through training in the ward. That's something we need to look at—getting our nurses back on the wards, our teachers back into the classroom and our mechanics back in the workshop. I think there is a little bit too much emphasis on seeing our students spend time in the classroom rather than going out there and gaining on-the-job experience whilst they're studying.

Even in the COVID-19 era, this government understands that Australia is the food bowl of the world. We understand the need for growth in agriculture, particularly to support the rebound out of the pandemic. We understand one of the most rewarding investments Australia can make is in agriculture. All families need a farmer. Yet again I look at those opposite us. The Queensland state Labor government shut down three agricultural colleges in regional Queensland in this term of government. Why would they do that when our farmers look after the land? They're the ones on the land. Wouldn't you want to encourage farmers to adopt best practice so that they can look after their farms, manage their farms for all of our children's futures, generate income for themselves and have a prosperous regional community? For Labor to sit here and complain about what we are doing with this bill when they sat there and closed down pastoral colleges smacks of hypocrisy. This is why, in support of our agricultural industry, student contributions in units relating to agriculture will fall by 59 per cent.

Additionally, the government is allocating a further $400 million over the next four years for regional students, allowing greater opportunity and access to higher education for our regional and remote communities. It's interesting—I forgot to touch on this before—that my grandfather topped maths in the New South Wales Public Service exam in 1911. He never got to go to university; he had to go back to the farm. Maybe if this stuff had been around then, he might have gone and got a degree. Who knows? The additional funding will be prioritised into newly established regional university campuses and enhanced regional research opportunities in order to maximise the chance for these communities to attend university.

This government understands that regional communities have been particularly hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with many, particularly in Victoria, forced to sustain some of the world's harshest lockdown laws despite recording zero coronavirus cases in many regional areas. We also understand, particularly in this post-COVID era, that many within our regions and remote areas simply cannot afford to leave the home. This understanding has led to the development of a one-off $5,000 payment, known as a TAP payment, for regional school leavers who are forced to relocate more than 90 minutes in order to enrol in higher education. This new payment is designed to encourage students leaving school in these communities to enrol in higher education. I commend the bill to the Senate.

1:19 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] It's always interesting to speak after Senator Rennick. I heard him say he paid off his degree by picking fruit. He must have picked a lot of fruit, I think. He has a commerce degree. That'll be worth $14½ thousand a year to any student that wants to undertake it should this bill go through. I'm not sure if it is a three- or four-year degree, but it's a minimum of $45,000. That's a lot of fruit to pick. Maybe he's an expert fruit picker.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I ask the senators in the chamber to pay the normal courtesy for those people who are making a contribution remotely, and that is not to interject. It is disorderly to interject at any time. I remind senators to give Senator Bilyk the opportunity to be heard in silence.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. Senator Rennick also talked about how many architects and builders there are. If they didn't keep cutting the funding to TAFE then I think there would be a lot more builders around to help fill that gap.

But I am speaking today against the government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. It's a terribly poorly-thought-through bill. It was made in haste and is based on outmoded prejudices and ideology. I really don't know what made the government propose this ill-conceived bill. It's based on an ignorance of the higher education sector and/or of the wider community. Perhaps it's based on a dislike of arts graduates—although there are plenty of those on the government benches. But, honestly, I think they simply do not want young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds going to university.

The Liberals want a return to the past, where you had almost no chance of going on to a tertiary education unless you went to an elite private school and had wealthy parents. Those opposite should be ashamed that they introduced this bill and ashamed that they're supporting it. At least the Nationals, for once, managed to secure some government concessions with this bill. What did the Liberal party room secure? Did they all just sit there meekly and let it go through without giving it a second thought? I really believe that those on the government side have betrayed all those voters who believed that they did truly care.

The bill we're debating today makes it harder and more expensive for a lot of Australians to go to university. Why? Why are they making more people pay more money for the same qualification? And why, having hiked the fees, do they then still cut billions in funding from the sector? I'll tell you why: it's ideological, and I don't believe that this policy is backed by any evidence. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14½ thousand a year, doubling the costs for thousands. That means people who are studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degrees than doctors and dentists.

The title of this package, the Job-ready Graduates Package, is farcical—like a lot of bills that we come across from this government. There's no evidence that these degrees make students less employable than other degrees. In fact, the job prospects of humanities students are very healthy. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have higher employment rates than those with science or maths degrees. The government has provided no sensible or reasoned arguments for these changes; perhaps they should study some units in logical and critical thinking.

Terrible bills have terrible consequences, and I'd like to focus for a while on how this bill will affect my home state of Tasmania. In Tasmania we have only one university, the University of Tasmania, and Tasmanians are rightly proud of their university. It's an affordable and quality pathway to a higher education, and plays an important role in providing skills and training opportunities, as well as research and development capabilities. Higher education can have a transformative effect on individual lives. It creates employment and opportunities, and it results in generally higher salaries. It also creates employment opportunities in the wider society, increasing the capabilities of companies to deliver services and products, as well as the creation of new services, products and technology. The benefits of higher education do not just flow to students; they're shared by the whole of our society. Particularly in regional areas, like Tasmania, by working smarter and not harder, we can leverage our natural advantages and utilise them for the maximum benefit for our state and for our people.

We'll be relying on university graduates to drive our recovery from the recession. Recently, I spoke to the National Tertiary Education Union about the bill in general and, more specifically, on the impacts it will have on UTAS. They told me, 'Under the Job-ready Graduates scheme, some institutions will be more severely impacted than others due to the mix of disciplines that their Commonwealth-supported students enrol in. Put simply, the universities that have a relatively high proportion of students enrolled in disciplines which experience the largest cuts in total resourcing will be under even more financial pressure should the JRG package come into effect. No university will be better off under the JRG package. The University of Tasmania will see an average reduction of over $900 per Commonwealth supported place. In fact, the NTEU's calculations based on 2018 student data show that 60 per cent of the Commonwealth supported places at UTAS will see a reduction in total resourcing under the package. This means UTAS not only will have less resources per student but, like all institutions, will have to teach more with less in order to maintain current levels of funding. They also advised me that the JRG package will not alleviate the funding issues facing UTAS as a result of the COVID crisis. In fact, the JRG package will increase pressure on the university to increase its level of discretionary funding. While there are some sweeteners in the JRG that UTAS may be able to access, such as regional loadings, these do not outweigh the loss the university will be facing overall. Furthermore, most of these benefits also rely on the university substantially increasing domestic enrolments, which will be a challenge. So it's clear UTAS will be disproportionately impacted by this bill.'

The NTEU also made the following point about research funding: 'While the JRG package will see a reduction overall in the resourcing for teaching per student, it also removes the research allocation from CSP funding. In fact, the JRG package does not provide a single dollar for research, and the government has remained silent on any research funding changes, despite the importance of research in a post-COVID recovery.' Tasmania does important, innovative research, particularly in marine and Antarctic sciences, and it's disappointing that this government wants to attack not only students but the important research our universities are doing as well.

It's a stark contrast to what Labor did in government. In government, we made policies to ensure that university education never remained out of reach. In order to achieve this goal, we invested in our universities and we supported them when they needed it. After years of neglect under the Howard government, Labor boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013, and our policy resulted in an additional 200,000 going to university. Sadly, those opposite don't have that kind of vision.

It's clear that this is a bad bill and it's coming at a really bad time. We all know what a terrible year 2020 has been. We've seen increases in the rate of youth unemployment. It has risen by more than 90,000 in recent months alone. We're in the depths of recession, so now is the perfect time to be training young Australians. The demand for university places has surged, yet we've got Mr Morrison refusing to provide enough extra places to meet the increase in demand. Even when the government promise new places, they provide no extra funding to support them and no guarantee that those numbers will eventuate in practice. The effect of this bill would be to increase the student fee burden and reduce Commonwealth funding for higher education.

As I said earlier, perhaps the government simply doesn't have an understanding of the current labour market, and the industry stakeholders tend to agree. Bronwyn Evans, CEO of Engineers Australia, said the government's announced changes may:

… lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

…   …   …

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

Megan Lilly from the Australian Industry Group said:

We're not of the view that the humanities is unnecessary. Graduates get very good generalist skills and it can lead to very good career opportunities. There is also potentially a problem with reduced total funding to some courses being promoted. Universities might have limited places for engineering courses (despite student fees being slashed) and that could be very problematic.

Dan Woodman, President of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, or CHASS, said:

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

The bill has even been criticised by the former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives, Ms Julie Bishop. That's right: Ms Julie Bishop has criticised the bill. Ms Bishop, who is now chancellor of the Australian National University, has argued that the substance of the bill won't result in the government's stated policy goals. Similarly, the CEO of the Grattan Institute, Danielle Wood, has said:

I honestly think it's one of the worst-designed policies that I have ever seen … Even if you accept its stated rationale, it doesn't go anywhere near achieving it.

When industry, students, business groups, unions representing staff including academics, and even a former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party are all opposed to the bill, you know it's a bad bill. It's just another move in a continuing pattern attacking our higher education sector.

Of course, we shouldn't be surprised. This government has had a habit of attacking and failing to support the university sector. For months now, Labor has been urging the federal government to finally step in and help universities save jobs during the pandemic. Since then, thousands of jobs have been lost across the country. Australian universities forecast 21,000 job losses in coming years, and Scott Morrison has done nothing to stop these job losses in our fourth-largest export industry. He's shown no interest in the thousands of university staff who are losing their livelihoods or the communities that depend on their jobs. The federal government has gone out of its way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. It's changed the rules three times to ensure that they don't qualify.

The impact of this crisis on regional universities will be devastating. Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia. These are not only academics and tutors but also admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners and security. All these people have families. All are trying to make ends meet. We know that Australia will require an additional 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025. Yet, when it comes to our higher education system, this government's priority has always been to cut. While promising to support the study of maths, science and engineering, this legislation reduces the money universities will receive to provide those courses. In areas that the government say they want to encourage, universities will receive less per student, and, in areas that the government say they want to discourage, universities will receive more per student. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in these disciplines.

In total, this package will cut $1 billion from universities. As always with this Prime Minister, the detail doesn't match the announcement. Mr Morrison is making students pay more for degrees and he's locking others out altogether. While promising to support the study of maths, science and engineering, this legislation reduces the money universities will receive to provide these courses. Either the Prime Minister is misleading Australians about the intention of this bill or he doesn't know how university funding works. The reform is a complete miss. It can't be amended or fixed, and we can't trust the Liberal Party with universities. All they do— (Time expired)

1:34 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, which is, sadly, the latest in a long line of attacks on the university sector from this government. This is a bill that would hike fees and push students into decades of debt right at a time when youth unemployment is at record highs. It will hurt women and First Nations students the most. It will slash billions in funding from teaching, leading to bigger classes, fewer teachers and worse-quality education, including for rural and regional students. It will force universities to do more with far less. It will shift the overall costs of education away from the Commonwealth and onto students' shoulders, it will fail to encourage students to do STEM courses and, of course, it will fail to save a single university worker's job from the COVID crisis—workers who are excluded from the JobKeeper support package, despite multiple occasions where the government could have fixed that.

So here we are again: the government is ripping money out of the tertiary education sector, yet at the same time it's got the audacity to be relying on that same sector to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. It's saying to universities: 'You're going to have to do more with less. Students are going to have to pay more. We're not going to support you to keep your staff on the book. You can just fire thousands of people because we're not giving you enough funding. Oh, but you need to save us from COVID-19 and you need to be the first; you need to get ahead so Australia can do that.' What an absolute farce once again from this anti-intellectual government that sees everything as potential profit making and as the potential to privatise and flog off to the private sector.

With successive cuts to university funding by this government for decades, we have seen universities forced to become more and more corporatised. Thanks to the cuts by this government to university funding, unis have had to go cap in hand to industry, do more research for sale and more research for industry, become more and more like a business and more and more corporatised, with less focus on public interest research and less focus on the interests and the outcomes of students. And this government is continuing that trend. It's excluded universities from JobKeeper, leading to tens of thousands of people in that sector losing their job. It's expecting unis to do more with less. They've already faced so many cuts and now they have to teach even more students with even less money. This government is cost-shifting shamelessly onto students.

I genuinely don't understand why in a recession with record-high youth unemployment you would discourage young people from skilling up, from getting further tertiary education. I just don't understand why the government thinks that that is a bad investment when we all know that education is a boon for us all. It is not only good for the individual but it is good for our prosperity as a society and a community. Naturally, this government wants to defund the sector. They don't value education, they certainly don't value tertiary education and they're ready to continue to see it flogged off and corporatised, while they give yet more subsidies of public dollars to the fossil fuel donors that they are so cosy with.

Well, we here at the Greens think that education should be free. The Prime Minister got his university degree for free. I think there are 15 others in the government ranks that also benefited from free education. We all benefit from free education. That is the point. Education is a universal public good. It should be free, yet these old white guys that got free education when they were at uni now want students to pay even more for a worse-quality education. They are squeezing universities and bleeding them dry. Wrong way. Go back.

We'll be moving a second reading amendment which calls for decent support for universities: for universities and their research programs to be fully funded, for the employees of universities to be properly supported and covered by JobKeeper and for university—and TAFE for that matter—to be free. It is just tragic to watch the progression of increasing fees and increasing corporatisation of the higher education sector. This government has a chance, as always, to rectify that, but it's just doubling down. So I don't have a lot of hope that we'll get much support, in all honesty, when we move that second reading amendment that says higher education should be free. Nonetheless, we will move it, because I believe that the majority of Australians see education as a good thing that should be supported by governments because it's an investment in people and in the prosperity of our shared future. I look forward to seeing where the numbers will fall in that regard.

I want to talk briefly about the impacts on women, because this government's not really known for prioritising women. It hasn't really met many women; it certainly doesn't have many women in cabinet, with a handful of exceptions—

Government Senator:

A government senator interjecting

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It's still too low, I'm afraid. It is still about one quarter. That is not good enough. Do better! Maybe if there were more women around the cabinet table we wouldn't see such a terrible policy as this one, which will disproportionately affect women once again. About two-thirds of the students in the fields of humanities, social sciences, and media and comms are women. The yearly fees in those courses are set to more than double. They're just shy of $7,000 at the minute; they're set to go up $14,500. My colleague Senator Faruqi, who has our portfolio responsibilities on this matter, also mentioned a very interesting statistic: the fee increase will again be disproportionately borne by women. Should this bill pass, women will pay, on average, 10 per cent more for fees, whereas the blokes will pay only an extra six per cent. We don't think anyone should be paying more, because we think universities should be free, but there is absolutely no case for women to be bearing the brunt of increased university fees. We women already take longer to pay off our HECS debts thanks to the facts that we're still paid lower wages and we often have to take time out of the workforce for caring responsibilities, which we disproportionately bear the unpaid brunt of. Doubling the cost of humanities and comms degrees will push women further into debt and lead to even more long-term economic insecurity.

We know that the additional debt burden just compounds the systemic disadvantage that flows from the gender pay gap, but this government either hasn't thought about that or does not care. This whole pandemic has disproportionately affected women, the bill before us will disproportionately affect women, yet we still don't have a women's budget impact statement and we still don't have enough women around the cabinet table making these sorts of decisions. So it's no surprise that once again we have a bill that's completely blind to or doesn't address the disproportionately negative impacts on women.

Interestingly, some other female-dominated degrees, including teaching and nursing, will cost less under these changes. However, these industries are already highly feminised, and it won't surprise anyone that they are amongst the lowest paid. Those two concepts are, sadly, linked. In fact, nursing has also been the highest-risk profession in the year we have just had. Those sectors have been subject to public sector pay freezes and casualisation and, of course, they've been largely ignored in the COVID stimulus packages. Lower fees to encourage women into lower-paid, undervalued professions is not good policy.

The minister has argued that the proposed changes could advance gender equality by prompting more young women to study STEM, because of the cheaper university fees for STEM. However, that flies in the face of evidence that financial incentives alone repeatedly fail to achieve gender equality in STEM. If we really want more women and girls in STEM then we need some serious investment in that sector. We need to challenge the gender bias that, sadly, still persists in that sector and in so many others. We need to look at the way in which young women are encouraged to study STEM at school—look at the role models that they have, look at the teachers, look at the gender composition of that mentoring—and destigmatise flexible working conditions in institutions that practise STEM.

Finally, the proposal to remove HECS support from people who fail their subjects also will have an immensely gendered impact. This government is saying that if you fail more than half of your subjects you'll be cut off from your HECS and HELP support. Sadly, we know—because we pay attention and we talk to young women and we talk to university students and workers—that many women who have been subject to sexual harassment, rape or assault on campus will fail many of their subjects in that semester. That is understandable; they have been traumatised, and they are often very much let down by the university system in grappling with those assaults. Yet this government has not factored that in. It hasn't factored in the burden that young people bear, the juggling exercise they have to undertake to even afford to go to university. Many of them are working in jobs and have carer responsibilities. Again, this government is blind to the realities of life as a young person and as a woman; so it's no surprise that this package will have a disproportionate effect on women.

I'm from Queensland. There will be some extremely poor outcomes for some of our universities in Queensland. The University of the Sunshine Coast will lose $31 million per year, more than any other university. James Cook University, up in North Queensland, will lose $6 million a year. Central Queensland University, in Rocky, and Griffith University have also opposed the changes in this bill.

The Greens stand with students. We stand with those universities that are saying, 'We would like more funding, rather than less; we're spread quite thinly as it is, thank you very much.' We stand with investing in a prosperous and bright future for young people, for anyone who wants to go back to uni and study a new skill, for anyone who needs to retrain as our economy changes. Yes, we are in a global health pandemic; but we are also in a climate crisis and there will need to be some retraining and reskilling of workers as industries change and adapt to our climate collapse. That's another reason why we think university should be free. Tertiary education, in all its forms, including TAFE, should be free.

Unfortunately, it looks like we've just lost the numbers. That's why we're debating this bill here today—because the government has finally got Centre Alliance to vote to cut university funding. It has given them a few crumbs from the table for South Australia. The reality of the balance of power shows itself once again in a poor decision that will be rammed through this chamber because the government has managed to bribe enough support out of the crossbench to get them to support it. I commend Senators Lambie and Patrick for standing with the opposition and with the Greens to oppose this bill. We're extremely disappointed that Centre Alliance—I think we are calling them Liberal Alliance now—have decided to stand with the Liberals and slash funding for universities nationally just to get a few crumbs from the table for South Australia. My South Australian colleague, Senator Hanson-Young, will be saying some considered words about this very issue later in the debate.

We have a government that has never met a young person, doesn't think much about women and doesn't value tertiary education—and they are ramming this bill through, right before the budget, after successive cuts to our university sector already and after refusing to support university staff with JobKeeper eligibility. They are shameless. Let's turf them out next time.

1:48 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would just like to correct Senator Waters. Many of us have not only met young people but are parents to young people and support young people in our communities. I appreciate the generalisation, but it is false.

The Nationals support the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill. We support our regional students and our regional universities, and we support the contribution they will make to our economic recovery. I acknowledge the work of my Nationals colleague in the other place Minister Andrew Gee, who consulted extensively with regional universities to ensure that these reforms meet the needs of regional students and regional institutions alike.

Higher education is an important career pathway choice. It plays a vital role in our economy both through producing qualified jobseekers and professional development opportunities and as an income generator in its own right. We want to ensure that tertiary education is available to any Australian who wants to attain a university qualification. That's why this package will create more places—39,000 new university places by 2023 and 100,000 by 2030. To kickstart it, we're increasing the funding of universities from $18 billion to $20 billion by 2024. These extra places and the extra funding will also assist people from rural, regional and remote areas to access university courses, because we know that there is disparity in educational participation and attainment for people from regional and remote areas and our Indigenous populations.

The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee heard in the recent round of hearings that the biggest impediment to rural, regional and remote students undertaking a university course is not cost but access. Mr Duncan Taylor, CEO of the Country Universities Centre, which manages six supported study hubs across regional New South Wales, told the committee that:

Without doubt, it is access. It is the up-front costs of potentially relocating to a distant university campus or, in the case of online study at home, it is the supports in place that are likely to make that study successful and the student not feel isolated and drop out of university.

When I asked for a figure on the attrition rate for students who choose to study at home in remote locations, Mr Taylor said that it is about 2½ times higher than that of face-to-face learning. But that rate falls greatly for those who can access the supported study centre. That's why the Nationals in government are very proud to support regional university centres, because we know that not everyone can relocate and move to a university campus for their study and that regional university centres do a very important job in providing additional support for those students.

We recognise, however, that some do want the benefit of face-to-face learning and some remote students want the choice to go away and experience university life. The job-ready package acknowledges this and provides for a tertiary access payment for those students. This one-off payment of $5,000 for school leavers from outer regional and remote areas who relocate more than 90 minutes from their home to undertake tertiary education will make relocation and accessing university easier for many. It is estimated that over 8,000 students will benefit from this payment next year alone. But, importantly, this tertiary access payment is not limited to university courses, because we recognise that university is just one career pathway for our young people; some go through university, some go through TAFE and others learn on the job. There is no right way to enter the workforce.

This bill also amends the Social Security Act to reduce the number of months that a student must receive eligible student support payments to be eligible to receive a fares allowance to return home from six to three. That is really important, because we have seen recently the stress of students who have been blockaded by state border closures and unable to travel home for holidays, to see their family or for special events. Our package will also ensure that universities target the enrolment of rural, regional and remote students by expanding the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program to recognise these students as a key target group, along with the already-recognised low socioeconomic group and Indigenous students. Currently, around 130 students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or Indigenous students are eligible for support under the HEPPP. Our changes will mean an additional 125,000 students who either meet those criteria or are from regional and remote areas will be eligible for this support.

Contrary to what we're hearing in this debate from Labor and the Greens and some of the Independents, we're not making it harder for students from lower socioeconomic demographics; we are actually supporting and facilitating those students to access pathways through higher education and, ultimately, into the workforce. And we're making sure that this includes a new regional partnership pool to support outreach activities to increase the aspirations of rural and regional school students to attend university, because we know universities have a big role to play in reducing the gap in educational attainment between metro and regional areas.

We are also supporting our regionally based universities, because we know that if someone learns in the region they are more likely to earn in the region; they are more likely to stay regional. Not only do our regional universities make it easier for these students to study and, hopefully, to continue to work in regional areas; they support our regional communities through employment, through research and by fostering regional development. We support them. Indeed, we heard this over and over again through our inquiry at the Senate committee. The Regional Universities Network told the committee that they support this bill and that its timely passage would enable relevant arrangements to be put in place prior to 2021.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania—Senator Bilyk rightly said today that she is very proud of the University of Tasmania; it is the only university in Tasmania—said this package supports regional and rural education and assists in creating a sustainable university for the island. The Central Queensland University vice-chancellor, Nick Klomp, said reducing the cost of studying teaching, nursing, agriculture, health and engineering will make these courses more attractive to students from all walks of life, particularly from the regions. And, in Victoria, the Federation University vice-chancellor, Helen Bartlett, remarked that students, communities and providers should benefit from this new reform package and regional, rural and remote students, communities and tertiary education providers will benefit from this decision. In New South Wales, the University of New England vice-chancellor, Brigid Heywood, said, 'This reform will help regional Australia.'

I also note that Senator O'Neill referenced Charles Sturt University. They did not appear before the Senate committee, but I have had extensive briefings from them about their recent restructure. In my consultation with Charles Sturt University, they made it clear—and I want to put this on the record—that their restructure was not brought on by these reforms, nor was it brought on by COVID; it was brought on by their strategy to ensure that they can continue to deliver quality, modern education into the future. I commend CSU for being proactive, for undertaking this work and, importantly, for keeping their stakeholders informed.

Now to reducing the costs for students studying priority areas. I fail to see the problem in reducing the costs for 60 per cent of students. We know there is a gap between the skills of graduates as they leave university and the skills and experience needed to succeed in the workplace. We have shortfalls in priority areas, including sciences, health and IT. I note there has been a welcome increase in the number of Indigenous students enrolling in health courses; and our reforms will encourage, rather than discourage, more of that. There are also key growth employment areas which will require more graduates, such as engineering and agriculture—particularly relevant for regional Australia.

Because our government is committed to regional Australia, we are committed to developing and delivering major infrastructure projects, such as Inland Rail, that will need such graduates into the future. We also commend the National Farmers Federation and their ambitious goal of $100 billion in farmgate return by 2030; but we know that, to reach it, agriculture needs to continue to innovate. We need more graduates and more agricultural research—both practical and developmental—if we want to fulfil that goal. By strengthening our regional universities and by improving access to university for outer regional, remote and Indigenous students, and by offering incentives—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator, Davey, you will be in continuation when debate resumes.