Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2020


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

9:31 am

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

As I was saying yesterday, contrary to claims I've read, the changes proposed in this bill will not disadvantage students from lower social and economic areas. It will enable more graduates from these areas and graduates going into fields that industries support and that support jobs and support regional development, such as health and agriculture. That is why our regional universities are supporting this package. By strengthening our regional universities, by improving access to our universities for children, regional and remote students and Indigenous students, and by offering incentives for universities to target students from these areas, this package truly delivers for rural, regional and remote Australia.

9:32 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm just going to make a short contribution in this debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, but I do want to put on record my position and Labor's position, especially insofar as this bill affects regional universities in my state of Queensland and students and aspiring students in our regions. For reasons that have been explained by a number of my colleagues, Labor will oppose this bill. This legislation makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university.

It's hard to imagine a worse time in Australian history for a bill to be introduced which seeks to increase the cost of higher education for students, making it more expensive for students to attend university. This is at a time when we have seen hundreds of thousands of Australians lose their jobs and, for the first time in many years in some cases, consider undertaking university or other studies to reskill so that they can re-enter the workforce. At a time when we've got hundreds of thousands of Australians losing their jobs, making decisions about retraining so that they can get a new job, the government wants to make it more expensive for people to obtain those qualifications which will assist them to get that new job that they're looking for. It's absolutely bizarre and an incredible disincentive to people to undertake the sort of study that they may need to obtain a new job. But it's consistent with the approach that this government has taken to education and training the entire time it has been in office. We've seen their cuts to universities in the past. We've seen them increase the cost of study and put more of the burden onto students, and that's just for higher education.

If we look at apprenticeships and traineeships, arguably the changes have been even worse than in higher education. There are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in Australia than when this government came to office in 2013. As usual, they make all the promises in the world. Only a short time ago, they were going to create 300,000 new apprenticeships and traineeships. But, if you look at the facts, there are 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees in this country now than there were in 2013 when this government came to power.

So the government have cut universities, they've made it more expensive for students to go to university, they've cut apprenticeships, they've cut traineeships, and, all of a sudden, they realise that we've got a massive skills shortage. This is only going to be exacerbated by the fact that they won't be able to use the trick they've used for years to fill skills shortages, which is to bring in people from overseas. We are going to pay a significant price, as a country, in coming years for this government's failure to invest in universities and in training. We're not going to be able to resort to bringing in people from overseas to fill skills shortages. We never should have had to rely on that as the way of filling skills shortages in the first place. If this government had properly invested in the skills of Australians, by properly funding universities and training, we wouldn't have needed to rely so heavily on bringing in people from overseas; we would have had more Australians able to fill skills shortages rather than be on the dole queues. So we've already paid a price for this government's failure to invest in universities and training, and it's going to really catch up with us in the next few years, as we are not going to be able to resort to bringing in people from overseas in the way that we have done for year after year.

This bill just makes it worse. There has been a lot of attention given in the last 24 hours to the extremely disappointing decision of Centre Alliance to back this bill. One group who haven't had enough attention for their decision is One Nation. Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts, once again, as they have done ever since they entered this parliament, line up with the LNP to pass legislation which will hurt the battlers who they say they care about. We've have an upcoming election in Queensland. Day after day, we see One Nation candidates out there masquerading as the people who are standing up for battlers in our community. If only that were true. If only that were true, because we know that a lot of the people who vote for One Nation are battlers. They are people doing it really tough. They are people who need someone in this parliament who's standing up for them. But what we have seen day after day, month after month and year after year from Senator Hanson and her party is that they come down to Canberra and they vote with the Liberal and National parties to shaft the very battlers who they say they care about. We've seen them do it on pensions. We've seen them do it on apprenticeships. We've seen them do it on labour hire. We've seen them do it on however many examples you want to pick, and now they're doing it again on universities.

The reason that Senator Hanson and One Nation think that they can get away with this is that they perpetuate this idea that universities are only for rich people—that universities are only for elite people in the big cities. That is total rubbish, and if Senator Hanson and her party had bothered to actually speak to any of the regional universities in Queensland, they would know that these claims that universities are for snobs and for elitists, and not for regional people, are wrong and are insulting to regional Queenslanders. I have bothered to speak to regional universities in Queensland. I have learnt, as a result, that, for regional universities in Queensland and probably the rest of the country, one of their core missions is to offer university education to people who have never had a family member go to university. To give you one example, CQUniversity—but the same could be said of James Cook University, the University of the Sunshine Coast, the University of Southern Queensland and other regional universities in my state—has a national reputation for offering university study to those who are called 'first in family': people in families who have never had a family member go to university. They are people who have the school marks to qualify, who want to follow some sort of career that requires a university qualification but who were always shut out of pursuing their dream because university places weren't available or were too expensive. The system that was brought in by previous Labor governments, opening access to higher education, has allowed regional kids and mature-aged regional Queenslanders to go to university for the first time, to be the first person in their family to have that opportunity. As a result, they've been able to get certain jobs that they've never been able to access, sometimes on higher pay than any member of their family has been able to achieve. These are universities for battlers. They do a fantastic job in research. They do a fantastic job of educating high-achieving people from families who have had access to university before. But the thing that's special about our regional universities is that they do an incredibly good and important job for regional Queenslanders and regional Australians whose families have never had access to university before.

This bill, which One Nation is voting for, is going to take that opportunity away. What an incredible sellout of the battlers you say you represent! You say you want people in regional Queensland to have a better life. For some, that's going to be getting an apprenticeship; for others, that's going to be getting into a university course. You're ripping that opportunity away, by making the courses more expensive and by increasing class sizes through reducing the funding that universities are going to get, and just making life a whole lot harder for those battlers. It is yet another sellout from this government and from the One Nation Party that supports it.

We'll be opposing this bill because, unlike One Nation and unlike the Liberal-National coalition, Labor actually does stand up for battlers. It does stand up for the people who want to go to university and be the first person in their family to do so; who don't want to come out of it with a crippling debt, like you see in America; who want to be able to get on after they've graduated—buy a house, take out a loan and build a family. These are things that are pretty expensive and much harder to do if you have a big university debt. That debt is just going to become bigger as a result of this bill being pushed by the Liberal and National parties and their accomplices in One Nation. Labor will continue to support higher education for all Australians—rich and poor. The Liberal and National parties, aided and abetted by One Nation, want to go back to the old days when universities were just for rich kids. I can tell you: Labor will fight that tooth and nail as long as we are in this Senate.

9:43 am

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the higher education reform package. In a perfect world, the package before us would dramatically raise funding for higher education. I want our universities and TAFEs to be the best in the world and I want them to teach our children to be talented, creative thinkers who can solve the problems that face our communities and our world. We're a long way from achieving that vision. As much as I would like to see more funding delivered into education, it is clear the government have no appetite for this. I understand their need to manage the financial impact of COVID-19, but this position is short-sighted. It helps our financial position today at the expense of tomorrow. Nonetheless, that is their position and they have made it clear that they are unwilling to shift. So the question is whether we should support this reform or stick to the status quo, whether this reform brings us closer to that vision of a world-class education system.

There are good things in the reform. First, it creates tens of thousands of additional places for students. Demand for these places will increase sharply in the next few years as workers left unemployed by the recession choose to upskill, and as the Costello baby boom moves through the system. Without this reform, many of those students will not secure places and will be forced into the worst job market in a generation. With the reform, there will be up to 30,000 new places. And changes to funding clusters mean some universities will be able to offer even more places in courses like commerce, humanities and law. The reform also ensures the Commonwealth places are used appropriately. Professor Andrew Norton has shown that six per cent of new students fail every course they take in the first semester and a quarter of those go on to fail every course in the second semester. Universities will be prompted to engage with students who have high fail rates and are accruing significant debts. They will have to work with students to understand their circumstances and ensure that continued study is in their interests. This is a sensible requirement, formalising a process that already exists in most universities.

Second, the reform restores indexations so universities can grow in the future. The Turnbull government froze university funding in 2017 in a move that was supposed to save $2 billion but actually saved a fraction of that—a lot of pain for absolutely no gain. Undoing that freeze may be the best part of this package, and we've been assured that this is a permanent change, giving universities ongoing certainty in their funding. The government is also offering faster growth in places for regional and high-growth metro campuses, and this is particularly important for regional universities. Most professionals who live and work in regional areas are the product of regional universities. More places at these universities will mean more professionals in these areas; more teachers, more nurses, more engineers, more scientists in regional Australia.

Third, the reform introduces a demand-driven funding system for Indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas. For some people here, demand-driven funding is the opposite of what they want for universities and there's merit to their views. But when it comes to Indigenous Australians, we should put aside our views on the broader system and agree this is very much a positive development. It means that any Indigenous Australian from a regional area would be able to attend university. There won't be any cap on places; that means an intelligent, motivated student misses out on their dream. That, very much, is a worthy call. And I hope in the future, we can expand that to all Indigenous Australians, regardless of whether they come from a regional or metropolitan area. So those aspects of the reforms are very much worthy but other aspects are less worthy.

Law, commerce and humanities students will have to bear almost the entire cost of their degrees. Many will graduate with $40,000 or $50,000 in debt. That's a hefty load for anyone but particularly for humanities students, whose careers tend to start a bit slower than those in other fields. Conversely, it will make life easier for those who choose to study other courses. The cost of an allied health degree will fall by 20 per cent. The cost of becoming a teacher or a nurse will fall by almost half, and the cost of studying agriculture will fall by more than half. These discounts will help to attract more of the best students into the fields that Australia needs them to study.

Personally, I would prefer to see an education system that doesn't saddle students with debt. But the cost of a university education has to be met by someone, and I think it is reasonable that students who enjoy the benefits of their degrees share in the costs. The government argues higher degree costs will provide an incentive for students to choose their degrees more carefully. Many people have been critical of this, arguing that school leavers tend to follow their passions. I think this criticism misses the point: mature-aged students make up more than half of all enrolments, and they attend university to improve their career prospects. They pay close attention to the financials and they will respond to price. The government is right when it says a different strategy is needed to influence the decisions of school leavers. But where is that strategy? Right now, hundreds of thousands of year 12 students are making decisions about their university applications. As far as I can tell, the government isn't doing anything to ensure those students are making careful, informed choices.

A final concern is that this legislation, as originally proposed, would not have provided loadings to South Australian universities. As the inquiry heard from the South Australian vice-chancellors, their universities would have received indexation but would not have qualified for high-growth metro or regional loadings. I don't believe it's appropriate for the federal government to have a policy that encourages the strongest students to potentially leave South Australia for another state because they can achieve a place. We already lose too many of our best and brightest, and I could not have supported a policy that permanently entrenched this. Centre Alliance has made these concerns very clear to the minister, and I'm glad to say he's listened to our concerns and acted on them. South Australian universities will receive an additional loading that ensures more places for South Australian students, and these places will be distributed to create greater equity. The vice-chancellors of all three South Australian universities have all welcomed these changes. The member for Mayo and I are happy to have once again secured a positive outcome for the state.

Like every controversial bill, this package has also had its myths. The shadow minister for education is one figure who has spread these myths, but she is not alone. The first myth is that the cost of degrees will double. This is untrue. Many degrees in areas of real need will be significantly cheaper. Some I've mentioned previously.

Another myth is that the package would deliver an Americanised system of higher education funding. That could not be further from the truth. Unlike the US, the package still has the Commonwealth funding more than half of costs associated with each course, and for the other half students will receive interest-free loans. Students don't have to make any repayment until their income reaches the threshold, and students with larger debts do not have to make larger payments. There are few countries in the world which support higher education students more than Australia, and this reform does not change that.

Another myth is that the reform cuts $1 billion from higher education. The shadow minister for education has repeatedly made this claim, and it is false. The only way the numbers support that claim is if you add up the costs and ignore the extra money put into this sector through the transition, equity and industry linkage funds. They are playing tricks with the numbers and are creating anxiety and worry to win political points. It is a dishonest way to conduct a policy debate and it undermines the public's confidence in all of us.

This package is far from ideal. We would prefer to vote for a package that provided universities with better long-term funding. The decision before us is whether this package is better than the status quo. Centre Alliance supports the creation of more places for students at a time when they are desperately needed. We support the measures that will help those who struggle the most—Indigenous students, students from regional areas and first-in-family students. We appreciate that the government has listened to our concerns about South Australian universities that were going to be adversely affected. They've also listened to our concerns about social work, youth work and psychology students; about students with special circumstances; and a formal review of the changes to ensure that they are working. We welcome the government's commitments and look forward to supporting the legislation when it comes to a vote.

9:53 am

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unlike my colleague Senator Griff, I stand here in opposition to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I stand here in opposition to it because it is complete and utter rubbish for university students, for the university sector, for children who aspire to go to universities and for their families who aspire for them to go to universities. Ultimately, it's rubbish for our economy because we know the best way to increase productivity in our economy is to invest in people.

This bill represents a shocking attack on those who hold the aspiration to attend university. Not everyone holds this aspiration, and nor should they. University is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to opportunity and life. But we in this place should never be standing in the way of the aspiration of those young people for whom university will be the ticket to the bright future that they aspire to and for whom university will be the answer for a better paid job or the job of their dreams, and of the families who look at their children, who see that hope in their children, who can't afford to support them through university, who want those children to live their dreams and who feel locked out because of this legislation and the additional financial burden it will impose on those who seek to attend university.

What kind of country do we want to be in Australia: one which brings the axe down on the aspirations of young people to better themselves, better their opportunities, or one which gives every student in Australia, regardless of the postcode they're living in, the opportunity to learn, develop and fulfil their individual dreams? I know what kind of Australia I want to be part of. I want to be part of an Australia which supports aspiration, supports opportunity for young people and, when those young people choose university, doesn't add such a huge financial burden to those dreams that they don't get to realise them. How many of us in this chamber got that opportunity? I did. I think most of the frontbench on the other side did. Plenty of us in this place got the opportunity to attend university, and we took up that opportunity because we saw university as a path to the future that we wanted. So who are we to take that away from the young people who see that opportunity in their future as well?

My colleague from Centre Alliance stood here today and said that in an ideal world we would see more funding for the university sector here today. Well, in this place we make choices. We get to help choose the world we want to live in. We get to help choose the country we want to live in. We get a vote in this place. He gets a particularly powerful vote sometimes, as a crossbencher, in this place. If he doesn't think this is ideal, if he doesn't think this is the Australia we want to see in an ideal world, then he could change it. He could change his vote. He's voting for this. It's one thing to say, 'Oh, it's not ideal.' You actually have the power to do something about it, Centre Alliance—Senator Griff. You have the power to do something about it, and today you've chosen to sell out the aspirations of young people in Australia. You've chosen to sell out South Australian families who see that aspiration in their children and, by God, desperately want to see them achieve it. You've sold out productivity. You've sold out opportunity in our state. You can come in here and pretend to have done something different, you can come in here and lament that we don't live in an ideal world, but you actually have the power to create the Australia you want to see. That's why we've all come here. So I think that is a pathetic excuse from Centre Alliance to justify them turning their backs on aspiration, on South Australian students, on South Australian families and on our future productivity and potential prosperity in South Australia. It is outrageous, and we should never let them forget it.

We can make no more important choice in this place than how we help Australians achieve and realise their dreams and their aspirations for a better future for themselves and their families. That should be a key test for all of us. When you take away opportunity in education, when you snatch it out of the hands of students from particular postcodes or backgrounds, then you take an axe to opportunity. You take an axe to the potential of young people and you take an axe to our economy and our future. South Australians will suffer as a result of this legislation. Their dreams will suffer and their opportunities will suffer. The sector will suffer. You cannot pretend it is any other way. This legislation will make it harder and more expensive for young South Australians to go to university. That is at the core of this legislation. Thousands of students will pay more for the same qualification. If that qualification is part of their aspiration, well then that's shot for a lot of them. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased to more than $14,000 a year, a debt burden that they simply cannot afford. And this is all happening at a time of record youth unemployment, when young people are doing it particularly tough. When they're looking at their future opportunities, the jobs of their dreams, the economy and the burden of debt in front of them, it is an anxious time for young South Australians out there. We are adding to that anxiety by imposing a further limitation on their ability to realise the opportunities they seek for themselves.

I think this is an outrageous piece of legislation. I think it's complete and utter rubbish. I think what Centre Alliance is doing here today, under the cover of budget week, is shameful. It's shameful for the people in South Australia they claim to represent. Labor will oppose this legislation. It is unsalvageable. We will continue to stand for aspiration, for opportunity and for the potential of young South Australians, the dreams they hold for themselves and what they want to achieve.

10:00 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in opposition to this terrible piece of legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. Firstly, I'd like to associate myself with the comments made by my colleague Senator Faruqi, who leads this area for the Australian Greens.

I am gobsmacked at the dodgy deal done this week by Centre Alliance—Senator Griff and the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie. After months of them telling the South Australian people that they had problems with this bill, that they knew this piece of legislation was bad—bad for students, bad for the economy and bad for education—we have seen the most significant backflip Centre Alliance has done since Nick Xenophon left this building. They have sold out South Australian students. They have sold out families. They have sold out our university sector. They are going to make our South Australian economy suffer even more.

In our state we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the country. Under this dodgy deal between Scott Morrison and Rebekha Sharkie, life will be made even harder for young people. If there are no jobs for them or if there's nowhere for them to go after they finish school, we want young people to go to university and study—if, indeed, that is what their aspiration is. This piece of legislation makes that nearly impossible for some of these young people.

We heard the platitudes from the Centre Alliance senator, Senator Griff, this morning. After he'd hidden for the previous 24 hours from the Australian media, from the Australian people, we finally had some type of explanation. I tell you what: it's rubbish. They have been sold a pup. They have been hoodwinked by the government and they are now passing a piece of legislation that is going to undermine our university sector for decades. It is going to throw young people under the bus and lock them out of future career opportunities forever.

Let's just be clear: the coalition government, Centre Alliance and Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party are all voting today to cut funding to universities and to make it more expensive for students who are studying things like arts and humanities. Do you know who that disproportionately affects? Women. Who has been the hardest hit in the middle of this economic crisis and this recession? Women. Who has been the most hit by the loss of jobs, loss of hours and cuts to wages in this country because of this pandemic and this recession? Young women. And who is now going to carry the burden of the changes and cuts to universities and the hikes in fees that are going to pass this parliament because of this grubby deal that's been done? Young women. Women are the sacrificial lambs of this deal being done today by Scott Morrison and Rebekha Sharkie. It's just unthinkable.

There is actually the ability in this place sometimes to make a real difference, to protect people from bad decisions that government try to make, to make sure that decisions don't disproportionately affect one group in the community. Centre Alliance had an opportunity to do something and they've stuffed it. This government has had it in for universities since day dot, and now they've been handed the ability to follow through. Let's remember, Tony Abbott when he was Prime Minister took an axe to the university sector. Let's remember, this government has never thought that students who choose courses like arts, humanities and the creative industries should be supported by government. They've had it in for them forever, and now they've just been given the green light by crossbenchers in this place.

I think South Australians will be very, very angry that their senator Stirling Griff is voting with Pauline Hanson today to make it harder for a young woman to study humanities at Adelaide university. That is what is happening today. Senator Griff will be voting with Pauline Hanson to make it harder for students to study an arts degree, a humanities degree. Stirling Griff is voting with Pauline Hanson today to make life harder for young South Australian women. It's appalling, and Centre Alliance need to be called out for this. What did they get for this grubby deal? A couple of million dollars for a road in Hahndorf. How do we know that? The member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, stood in the House yesterday and asked a dorothy dixer of the government: 'Please, Deputy Prime Minister, tell me how good I am!'

Senator Patrick interjecting

And just so no-one would miss it, she issued a media release saying exactly the same thing. Senator Griff had a slip of the tongue earlier when he referred to the member for Mayo as 'the minister for Mayo'. Is that what's going on here? Is this all part of some deal to get the member for Mayo into the government: throw young South Australians under the bus, throw our universities under the bus, sell out the future generation of workers and educated professionals so that the member for Mayo can get a cosy job with the government? This isn't Centre Alliance anymore, folks; this is Liberal Alliance. It is absolutely appalling that, after knowing all the facts, after tweeting about all of the problems that this legislation has, you would then turn around and expect people to believe that this is a good deal for students. It is not. It's bad for students, it's bad for universities, it's bad for our economy and overwhelmingly it is bad for women.

Last night we had an extraordinary budget handed down. Billions of dollars was put on the table. Who continues to miss out under this government? Women. Credit where credit's due: the Prime Minister had a paragraph in the budget about the impact on women—$250 million over five years. It's like they got to the end of the budget and went: 'Damn, there's a whole other—who did we forget here? Oh, women! We'd better write the word in there somewhere.'

Time and time and time again, it is women in this country who miss out under this government. This is the pink recession and yet nothing of substance has been put on the table to help them. In fact we're now going to see the situation get worse, because, while the majority of people who have lost their jobs or lost their hours or lost their income in the midst of this are women, this particular piece of legislation is going to make life even harder—harder for them and harder for the next generation of women coming through, and condemning young women across this country. Why bother studying hard at school if you can't even get into the course you want to get into because the government decides it's not good enough? The message that Scott Morrison is sending to young women today is: 'We don't value you. We don't really care. We know you're there, but we don't value you.' That's what his budget said last night, that's what this piece of legislation says and that is what Scott Morrison is doing. Seen but not heard: that's this government's response to young women in this country. It is not good enough.

The fact that this has been shepherded through the parliament by two so-called Independents is disgusting. I know the electorate of Mayo quite well. A lot of progressive voters in Mayo right now are shaking their heads and thinking: 'Who did we vote for? This wasn't what we were promised!' People are disappointed in the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, because she has let them down. She has let them down! She is cosying up to the Liberal government; she is flicking through the most fundamental, controversial changes to our education system we've seen in decades, locking out young women and their ability to study and get those skills and training they need to get a job. Voters in Mayo are disappointed and they're going to remain disappointed for a very long time. No wonder the member for Mayo is hiding from the media today. No wonder she refuses to take and answer those calls from journalists. It's because she knows she's done the wrong thing.

The new 'Liberal Alliance' in South Australia are showing their true colours—Liberal lite, now flag bearers of the coalition government—and South Australians are going to be pretty disappointed. They don't like being lied to, they don't like being tricked and they don't like being treated as mugs. And yet today, that's what Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff expect can happen—that people won't ask questions, that under the cover of the budget no-one will know what's going on. Well, people are smarter than that.

These reforms are devastating to our university sector. They're devastating for young people, devastating for young women, devastating for families and bad for our economy. They should be voted down. I'm so thankful that the opposition, Senator Lambie, Senator Patrick and all my Greens colleagues see sense, that setting young people up to fail like this in the middle of this terrible recession is not the right way to go; it's the exact opposite. I am disappointed that those on the other side continue their ideological attack on education, on young people and on women. That's why I'm voting no to this bill later today.

10:15 am

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak in opposition to this garbage fire of a bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, that the government's brought before the parliament. People have a right to be angry about the destructive nature of this legislation and the government's approach to what should be a key part of Australia's national capability, the university system. Senators have a right to be angry, people in the higher education sector have a right to be angry and Australian families have a right to be angry.

I listened to the quisling, craven contribution from Senator Griff and his capitulation to the government on this issue. I share with most Australians a profound sense of disappointment and anger, firstly, that the legislation was ever brought here and, secondly, with the decision by Senator Griff and the member for Mayo to wave this legislation through.

As we've gone through the coronavirus crisis, the people that we've turned to every evening on our televisions are scientists—public health experts and epidemiologists—all from our university sector, providing the advice publicly to the people, and privately to governments around the country, about how to deal with the public health crisis. But the government's response to the system that generates the expertise and the capability has been a series of savage cuts and then this legislation. The higher education sector is the biggest employer amongst our largest exporters. You would think, perhaps, that if academics wore high-vis to work the government might pay more attention. In the course of the pandemic, Universities Australia, the peak body—who, I have to say, have lacked a bit of courage themselves in their approach to this legislation—predicted that 21,000 jobs will be cut from higher education this year. Eleven thousand have already gone.

I want to reflect on what previous Liberal governments have done. The university sector was built following the Second World War. Previously, it was the preserve of the sons of Australian squatter families and other wealthy families to go to university, but in the postwar reconstruction there was a bipartisan consensus to build an effective university sector. There was a bloke called Robert Menzies, the former member for Kooyong. It was a bipartisan achievement. He said:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly—the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary?

It's from a small speech called 'The forgotten people' from 1942, which some of those opposite clutch when they're trying to remind themselves of what passes for what remains of the Liberal Party's moderate wing. I even picked up Quadrant magazine the other day. Robert Menzies, the former Prime Minister, said:

Our great function when we approach the problem of education is to equalise opportunity to see that every boy and girl has a chance to develop whatever faculties he or she may have, because this will be a tremendous contribution to the good life for the nation.

Under the Menzies government in the postwar reconstruction, UNE, Monash, Macquarie, La Trobe, the University of Newcastle and Flinders University all developed. The Whitlam government opened up education for everybody, and the Hawke-Keating governments, with Minister Dawkins, opened up the HECS funding model, which has provided so much income security for the system. This bill is a total repudiation of the Menzies and Whitlam legacy in higher education.

It used to be that the Liberals were for education. It used to be that they understood the Menzies tradition. You'd have to look pretty hard to find a moderate Liberal. They used to be called the 'wets'; now they couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Senator Birmingham, nowhere to be seen, has gone along with this total craven capitulation run by a group of aspirants from the IPA, whose experience of university was probably turning up as privileged, entitled young men, probably got talked over for the first time in their lives in a tutorial by a young woman who might have done that week's reading, when they're so used to just turning up and talking over everybody else.

This bill is a total repudiation of the equity principles that have underpinned the bipartisan consensus since World War II. The way that it manages underperforming students absolutely discriminates against those kids who are the first in their family to go to university. Those kids do have a stop-start beginning. Life is tougher for those kids who've got no experience of going to university in their family. Some of them fail in their first year. Some of them don't make it through, but they come back and they've got the resilience to keep going. I know some of them who failed in their first year, went away, did a bit of work, came back and are now professors making a great contribution to this country. But under your legislation the message to them is: 'Don't ever darken our door again.' That is a terrible thing to do to equity in this country.

It misunderstands the relationship between rural and city disadvantage. It has terrible effects on the University of Western Sydney, but the senators on that side of the chamber couldn't care less. It excludes people from high-status courses. It sends a price signal to them which says: 'Don't bother if you are a working-class kid worried about debt. Don't bother becoming a lawyer. Don't bother studying political science. Those courses are the preserve of the wealthy—people who are already privileged, who know people in their family who have gone through university.' That is a disgrace. I'm absolutely disappointed.

I watched the crossbenchers' consideration of this bill very closely. I've watched Senator Patrick and Senator Lambie apply a dose of healthy scepticism, and both of their contributions on this bill have been absolutely fantastic—particularly Senator Lambie. Her contribution earlier this week and last week showed exactly what working-class regional families think about this legislation. It should never have come before this parliament, and for the member for Mayo and for her colleague to support this legislation is a craven capitulation. The people of Mayo would be much better off with a Labor representative, but they may as well have had Georgina Downer or Jamie Briggs for all the good that it's done them. This capitulation is not only terrible for school leavers in South Australia and their families; it is a terrible result for universities right across Australia and what should be a jewel in the crown of Australia's industrial, economic and research capability: our university system.

10:24 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, but I'm first going to talk about submarines and ships—asking for indulgence; I will definitely link it back to the bill.

In 2012 in the Defence Capability Plan there was an item listed for the Future Submarine project for 12 submarines for greater than $10 billion. That was the sum that was indicated in the Defence Capability Plan. By 2015, in response to questions at estimates, that number had gone to $50 billion. In the 2016 Integrated Investment plan, the number rose again to $60 billion. In 2019, the number was $80 billion and in a JCPAA hearing not too long ago, Defence came out with a new number: $89 billion. If I stick with the 2015 number, we can see that the submarine project has gone up from $50 billion to $89 billion. If I go to the Future Frigate program, in 2016 that program was listed to cost $30 billion in the Integrated Investment plan. In 2017, it had gone to $35 billion—that was in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan—and in September this year, in response to a question on notice through the Senate, the number had gone to $45 billion.

So the submarine project has gone from $50 billion to $89 billion. Most people don't even understand that number, so I will say it slightly differently. The submarine project has increased by $39,000 million, and the Future Frigate program has gone from $30 billion to $45 billion. It's increased by $15,000 million. All up, $54,000 million—and have we heard a peep? Have we heard it mentioned much in this chamber? No.

I come back to this bill that we're talking about. There have been motions, there have been inquiries and there has been extensive media coverage. We are now debating this bill. We're going to vote for this bill. This bill is about $1,000 million—$1 billion. It's about the government saving $1 billion. I just wanted to point out the contrast with what's going on here. We have considerable focus on a situation where the government's trying to save a billion dollars, to the great harm of our students. Yet, when we look at the defence side of the ledger, they can go up $54 billion and no-one even notices.

One of the problems we have is that on that side of the chamber you don't know how to deal with that. You want that to remain silent. You have no competence to be able to deal with what is a major blow-out in defence projects, yet you're quite prepared to come in here and cut $1,000 million from education. I just want the chamber to understand that contrast. Total incompetence on defence and total incompetence on project management in defence, yet you will then steer to gain some semblance of budget control—in your thinking—to save a billion dollars. And this is for ships and submarines, I might point out, that won't be delivered until late into this decade—2035, if we're lucky, for the submarines. We've got rising tensions taking place in the South China Sea, our geopolitical situation is changing dramatically, and we won't have a future submarine until 2035. It's like buying a parachute after the plane has crashed.

We are seeing, in this bill, a lack of investment in our future. Education is our future. Post COVID-19, the very thing we should be doing is investing in our future. And our future comes from our children, from our students. That's where we ought to be investing our money. This bill takes us in the wrong direction. While those opposite are squandering money on the defence side, not even paying any attention, completely incompetent as to what to do about it, they are destroying the future through a lack of investment in education.

The effects of this bill—to be very clear—were well articulated by the University of Adelaide's submission. Contrary to what Senator Griff said—that universities are purportedly happy about this—if you read the submissions from the University of Adelaide, Flinders Uni and UniSA, they all had deep concerns about this bill. Adelaide University put it very succinctly—'a nine per cent increase in HECS-HELP charges, on average, for their students; a 15 per cent reduction in federal support; and a very significant cut to core funding for university research'. I almost don't have to say anything more. The analysis there is that this bill is bad for students, it's bad for universities, it's bad for research, it's bad for South Australia and it's bad for Australia.

To suggest that the universities in South Australia are somehow in favour of this is ludicrous. This is a case of three steps backward and two steps forward if we look at the negotiations that have been carried out by Centre Alliance. They've attempted to put a bandaid on a broken bone and that doesn't work. At the Senate inquiry—which, I would point out, Senator Griff did not attend—the universities all agreed that the granting of regional status to their universities would be better but, overall, it would be a case of three steps backward and two steps forward. The negotiations by Centre Alliance have not addressed that issue.

The objectives of the bill are to increase the number of students who will go through STEM courses. But when you look at the numbers, when you add up the government contribution and the student contribution, the university now receives $28,958 for an engineering student. Under the new bill, they get $24,000. It's a reduction. It's the same with science. Engineering and science now both provide the university with less funding. It's the same with aquaculture, which is something we are trying to foster in terms of our economy. It makes no sense.

At hearing, the University of Adelaide vice-chancellor articulated a more perverse example of this bill's flawed approach. He said:

Maybe I could try a hypothetical on you. Let's suppose a university is one science student below its quota, its cap. Then adding one science student takes it up to its cap. A university could instead add 15 humanities students to take it up to the cap. Now the science student is going to net you $24,000 or $25,000. Fifteen humanities students will net you around $235,000. There's the potential for universities to be driven by that factor…

It will actually drive universities to the absolute opposite of the stated objective of the bill. People don't choose their courses based on a HECS fee; they choose them based on what it is that they think they want to do. They have looked around. At school, they have done work-experience placements. They have looked and said: 'This is what I want to do. This is what Mum and Dad did. Culturally, this is what I need to do.' No-one was suggesting the debt was a factor that would play in people's minds when they selected a course. Of course, that doesn't make the bill okay. At the end of the course, what's going to happen is they're going to be burdened with debt. Senator Griff to stood up and said that, for humanities and social studies students, the government is making a huge contribution. No, that's not the case. The government contribution for a social studies degree is $1,100 per annum, and the student has to pay $14,500. Again, if Senator Griff had turned up to the inquiry, he might have known that.

The real mechanism for controlling numbers into universities is, in actual fact, the ATAR. The bill should have focused on that. That's how universities control the number of students in each particular course category. It's something that they have direct control of because they can't control the other things. I can tell you I've just been through my daughter's choices for years 11 and 12. At no stage did we talk about HECS, but on the weekend she told me 'Dad, I can tell you every ATAR for every course at Sydney University.' She's memorised them. That's the lever the government could have played with if it really was concerned or driven to adjust the number of engineers coming out of universities and the number of scientists coming out. It could have funded them properly as well, but it didn't. It hasn't used the right mechanisms.

This bill cannot be salvaged. It is so broken, it cannot be salvaged. I want to spend the last couple of minutes just talking about the contribution of Senator Griff. He said, 'This bill is far from ideal.' We have a situation where a person could actually say, 'No, go back to the drawing board, reset the course, Minister Tehan. No resitting the exam on this one; it's so flawed, you've got to go back and redo the course.' Senator Griff could vote against this bill, which is 'far from ideal'—in his own words. This bill provides less funding for more places. Now, that can only mean one thing: that the quality of courses will go down. We are trying to be internationally competitive in Australia, yet the quality of our university degrees will fall as a result of this; there's no other choice. More courses, less money; more places, less money.

Senator Griff talked about better funding for regional universities through the 3.5 per cent increase, but that doesn't do anything to deal with the nine per cent cut to funding that the University of Adelaide talked about. And he says that it gives certainty. No-one in this place would ever think that the passage of a bill would give certainty, because, in two years time, when Senator Griff might not be here, the government of the day may pass another bill that changes things. The government had a particular regime in place which had more funding. To sell the idea that universities are going to less funding, but at least they're certain about the less funding, is just crazy; it doesn't make any sense.

Unfortunately, Centre Alliance has sold out students. Yesterday I listened to a girl named Keeleigh on David Bevan's morning show on the ABC in Adelaide, talking about how she was in year 12, had gone through all the prerequisites, had set herself up for a humanities related course and will now be lumbered with this. David Bevan said to her, 'Good luck', and I say to her, 'Good luck.' But I simply wish that Senator Griff had not put her in this position in the first place.

10:39 am

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) 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. That's quite the title, isn't it! As we know with bills from this government, the title of this bill is all about marketing and spin. It doesn't even come close to reflecting the reality of what this legislation will do—or, to be more frank, what this legislation won't do. The government has said that this legislation is necessary and that it will do certain things, but once we have a look at the practical implication of this very important legislation, it is very clear that it will not achieve what it is setting out to do.

The bill will not make uni graduates more job ready, nor will it support most regional and remote students, because there's always an asterisk on the end of what this government says it's going to do. There's always a caveat. What this bill says to students is that you can have a go if you can pay through the nose for your degree. You can have a go if your parents can afford to help you pay for your fees upfront. You can have a go but only if you study what we want you to study. You can have a go, but absolutely do not make a mistake or get it wrong in that first year. This isn't a bill to get uni graduates into a job. This is a bill which will cut funding, jack up fees and lock students out. At a time when youth unemployment is at a record high, especially in regional Queensland, this bill won't do what it says it will do. It will just make it harder and more expensive for students to go to uni.

Right now we know universities are hurting. This government is no friend to universities. Universities missed out on JobKeeper because the government changed the rules twice to keep them out of that scheme. As a result, we have seen job losses around the country at universities, including in regional Queensland, where we have seen more than 300 job losses from the Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. 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 losing their livelihoods or the community that depend on these jobs. Instead, he's bringing this legislation in here, trying to tell people in regional areas that this will help. Well, we know that it won't.

This bill is a slap in the face to students who want to study in regional centres across the country. Regional universities will be paid less to do more. Whether you're a student studying in Cairns, Townsville or Mackay, this government is offering a raw deal for kids, who might be the first one in their family to go to university. It really doesn't matter how many times government senators come in here and read from the talking points on this legislation, because what we know is this: under the package, nearly twice as many regional and remote students will be forced to pay the highest rate of student fees. Regional universities deliver a higher proportion of courses that will have their funding cut compared to non-regional universities. We know that. No amount of spin can undo that fact. These universities will get less to do more, with cuts to guaranteed funding of about $1 billion a year. The Commonwealth's contribution towards uni funding will drop from 58 per cent to 51 per cent, forcing students to carry 49 per cent of the load of their course fee. The bill won't do what it says it is going to do. It will not help regional students. It won't make young people more job ready. It will make studying more expensive.

When the so-called Job-ready Graduates Package was announced by Minister Tehan, there were a number of claims made which just do not stack up to scrutiny. It has quickly become apparent that the minister's assumptions were based on ideology rather than fact. Humanities graduates are just as in demand as maths and science graduates, and experts have found that price signals will not deter students from their preferred field of study. What the government's proposal does instead is saddle students with an increasing debt burden, with the average student paying seven per cent more for their degree at a time of economic crisis—unbelievable!

The government would have you believe that the reason they're doing this is that we need more skills in key areas, but the government—this government—are the reason that we have a skills crisis in regional Australia. The government have defunded TAFE and failed apprentices. This is their skills crisis, but now they're blaming students for choosing the wrong degrees. And they go one step further than this: they want to punish students who struggle in their first year. I draw the Senate's attention to these comments made by CQUniversity in their submission to the Senate inquiry on this bill:

Students lead complex lives. Within CQUniversity's student profile, most are working, and many are supporting partners and parents, and as such this aspect of the proposed legislation is potentially extremely limiting and inequitable for them.

That is what a regional university is saying about this proposal.

This is particularly prevalent—

they said—

for those students who come from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds, including low socioeconomic, regional, rural and remote and Indigenous students. Given one intent of the Job Ready Graduates package is to increase Indigenous student participation rates in Higher Education through the introduction of a demand-driven funding allocation, this amendment seems counterproductive and detrimental to their overall success.

That is what regional universities are saying about this proposal, but what are regional students saying? We don't hear a lot of their voices in speeches from government senators. Unlike members of the government, I've taken the time to listen to students and other young people who will be directly affected by this regressive proposal. If every senator did the same thing, they would not be supporting this bill.

Students in regional Queensland feel anxious, unsupported and left behind by these plans and they fear what the Liberal-National coalition has in store for them. Emily studies marine biology at JCU in Townsville. She hit the nail on the head when describing how this proposal would impact poorer students. She told me that Townsville students are already struggling under this economic crisis. They're struggling so much financially that they are relying on a food pantry at the university just to afford groceries. That is the situation that these regional students are in. Emily said, 'Not only is this government attacking higher education but they're cutting student income support, plunging many students back into poverty. Most regional students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and don't have that financial safety net. If they do have a tough semester, their parents can't support them into continuing that education.'

I listened to many students during this process to understand their stories and to tell their stories today, and I want to thank them for sharing their stories, but now I want to share my story. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I was lucky that I had a parent who told me that if I worked hard I could do what I wanted, achieve anything I wanted. I spoke publicly, in my first speech, about the struggles of growing up in the home that I grew up in. In that home I knew instinctively that I needed to work hard and study hard so I could secure my own future, so I could take care of my parents when I had the chance and so that if I ever had children I would be able to give them more than I had. I worked hard to get my chance but I still couldn't afford to go straight to university—that was beyond me—so I did a traineeship in the year after school and I saved my money. I applied for scholarships, anything that I could possibly get, so I could finally achieve this dream. I moved away from home so I could go to university and study what I wanted, which was arts and humanities. I didn't study the course because I didn't want to get a job—I wanted a job more than anything in the world; I wanted a career—but it was what I was good at, and I knew that the degree would actually make me job-ready for a huge range of industries. This idea that humanities and arts students aren't employable is absolute rubbish.

The first year of university was not easy. It was hard to adjust, but I found my feet. I studied. I worked hard. There were ups and downs. I went back at night to study during the GFC when I lost my job. Under this bill, thinking about the huge debt that I might have had to pay off, thinking about the possibility of losing access to support if I made a mistake in the first year, that would have made me think twice about studying. It wouldn't have made me think twice about studying another area; it would have made me think twice about studying altogether, and maybe I wouldn't have studied at university at all. I wouldn't have got that chance. Australia should be a country where kids are able to study—a traineeship, an apprenticeship, a university degree—no matter what they want to study or who their parents are: if their mum is a nurse, like mine, or a doctor or a teacher or a bus driver. It should not matter how much money your parents have, but under this bill it will.

Australia was that country under Labor. That's why I got the chance to go to university, to step out of the cycle, to build a life for myself. But under this Liberal-National government I would not have stood a chance. It wasn't my fault, and it wasn't my mum's fault that she chose safety over financial security. Kids should not be punished for coming from a family where they need to work harder to get that chance and they should not be deterred, but under this bill this is exactly what will happen: kids from single-parent families will be deterred from studying. I wouldn't have got my chance.

Ultimately, whether this bill passes or fails will hinge on how the crossbench votes. Sadly, we have seen One Nation sell out young people in regional centres like Rockhampton and Mackay by agreeing to support this bill. It is unsurprising but it is still incredibly disappointing. The crossbench should vote against this bill. I applaud Senator Lambie for publicly coming out against this bill. My message to Centre Alliance and any other senators who are planning on supporting this legislation is to listen to what young people are saying and oppose this bill. Grow a spine and do the right thing. Don't fall for this marketing and spin.

10:52 am

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

As a kid, you're asked what you want to do when you grow up. Your answer is based on what you see around you. If your mum and dad work in an office all day, you might say you want to be a lawyer or a scientist. You might assume, even as a kid, that you'll go and get a higher education. But if none of the adults in your life went to university, you just don't know how to picture yourself there. You haven't got the living, breathing example of the sort of person that goes and gets themselves a degree, so you don't see it as something you'll probably do. For me, I never thought I'd make it to uni. I always saw university as being for someone else. The sorts of people who went to uni in my eyes were the ones on TV. They were the politicians making decisions a world away. They were the journalists asking them thorny questions and delivering every bit of daily news with a deep voice and a steady pace. They were the scientists making breakthroughs and people who wore suits in the cities.

It isn't like that for everyone. When you live in Sydney or Melbourne and your parents both went to uni and they're professionals who work in white-collar jobs on computers in air conditioned offices, you grow up seeing every day what's available to you. You don't question it; it just happens. But that's not what it's like on the north-west coast of Tasmania, certainly not in my day, and that's not how I saw myself. For me, I went to TAFE. I studied at the same place as my mum. My dad drove trucks. And when I was a teenager, I lived in public housing. I dropped out of year 11 and I joined the Army. Don't get me wrong: I'm proud of that. I'll always be proud of that. I'm proud of where my experiences and my community got me, and it was a good life. And I'm so proud of all the decent people on the north-west coast living in the rural and regional areas of Tasmania who quietly do so much to make our state and our country a better place to live. But I know what opportunity means to many in those rural and regional areas of Tasmania, and I know what it means to sustain it or to suffocate it. I know how hard it can be for people who live there to make their way into a place like this. It's still too hard; we aren't living in the land of opportunity yet, and it seems to get further and further away.

I carry the weight of what I'm up here for and the people who live where I'm from. They know I'm here, and to them I might as well be in a foreign country. They see me rubbing shoulders with you guys and they see me on TV, mixing it up with the kinds of people who are supposed to be on the TV news. I hope that when they see me they think: 'Well, if she's got there, I can get there too. I can do it better than Lambie can!' And they'd probably be right!

Senator McKim interjecting

If they were! It would be better than sending McKim too! If there were more of those guys up here the country would be a lot better off, I can tell you! But I can feel them watching me now. Every decision I make in this place, I feel them watching me. I want to be a good example for the kids, for our kids of the future. Many of them I'll never meet, and those parents wonder if their children really can be whatever they want to be when they grow up—if that opportunity will exist for their children.

More and more, there are kids in the rural and regional areas of Tasmania who want to work in politics when they grow up. They want to be politicians—God, forbid, knows why! They want to be on TV. They know they have things to say that the country needs to hear. I know those kids and their parents see what I do—maybe not on every bill and maybe not on every vote. But they have skin in the game, even if they don't know it; they're trusting me to stand here and make the right choices.

That's how I come at this bill. That's what's on my mind when I look at what the government is trying to do, because I know that the members of the Morrison government have no idea what it's like to fight tooth and nail to get the opportunities you deserve—not to have everything passed to you on a silver platter by mummy and daddy. That's the reality of most Australians. Those government members have no idea what it's like to be the first one in your family to make it to uni or to find yourself moving in social circles in this place. They have no idea what it's like to make your way around people who talk with an accent that's different to yours and who use words that your parents wouldn't understand. They have no idea how scary it is to enter into that.

That's what I'm thinking about when it comes to this bill. And I'll be damned if I'll vote to tell those kids in those rural and regional areas of Tasmania that they deserve to have their opportunities suffocated in a way they'll never even know. I'm not doing it. I'll never do that. I don't care what those opposite offer—they can offer me a billion bucks for Tasmania, but I won't sell out our kids in Tasmania. I will never do that, nor will I ever sell out any other Australian kid when it comes to their education. I will never, ever, ever do that! I'm not going to be the one who gets here and tells them to bugger off because I'm right, I've got mine. I refuse to be the vote that tells poor kids out there, or those sitting on that fine line—no matter how gifted and no matter how determined you are—'You might as well dream a little cheaper, because you're never going to make it. Because you can't afford it.' I won't take that from them—I won't be a part of that.

No one vote can stop a bill; it takes 38 of us up here to do that. And no vote can pass a bill either; it takes 39 to do that. Senator Griff isn't passing this bill by himself; he is one of 39. He just happens to be the 39th—and, trust me, as a crossbencher, I've been there before. It's not fair to lay the fault of this bill at the feet of Senator Griff. His decision to support this disappoints me, sure, but he didn't decide the other 38 votes who will line up next to him. He didn't do that! Everybody who votes for this bill is responsible for it passing. Any person sitting in favour of it can change their mind and beat it. It's not Senator Griff passing this bill, it's a majority of the Senate. Senator Griff's decision is just more heartbreaking, because 36 votes on that side are being told how to vote. That's right—at least Senator Griff has the opportunity to make his own mind up! The others just do as they're told—democracy at work, huh? Yeah—it's great, isn't it?

They're told where to sit, they're told how high to jump and that's pretty much how it works when the bells ring. Those backbenchers get 200,000 bucks a year just to be told, 'Shut up, do as you're told and take the vote where I tell you to.' That's how it works. That's what they get paid for. God forbid! It's embarrassing, isn't it? But that's democracy, apparently.

I can live with the way I'm voting. I'll hold my head up high and if I lose votes for it, I'll lose them with pride. If I lose my seat, I'll lose it with pride. I didn't get into politics to hinder the futures of people or our kids—I'm here to help. If the price of staying in politics is betraying the people I'm here for, I'll leave with grace. My future isn't worth more than theirs. My goals, hopes and dreams aren't more important than those of our kids. I'm here for them. We're all supposed to be here for them. We're supposed to be here so they have a decent future, and we lay it out in front of them.

This will become law, and I'll go back to them and say: 'Hey guys, I really tried. I did what I could, but I fell short.' I will say to them: 'If I had a degree, maybe I may have won the day—maybe that would have made me a little bit smarter on my feet. Who knows?' I will say: 'If you're sick of people who've never known the kind of life that I've seen or you've seen deciding what's on the menu for people like you, beat them at their own game. If the tools it takes to win are only available to the well-off, they'll keep winning and we'll keep losing and the divide between the rich and poor will keep getting greater.' That's where this country is going.

It's worth unpacking what this bill is supposed to do. It's supposed to create more places at university. If you ask them for evidence that it will create more places then the room goes quiet. And even if it's making more places, it's giving no more money to universities to teach them. It's supposed to rely on funding with the cost of teaching. Sounds good to me, but the only bit of evidence they're relying on to set the cost of teaching is evidence nobody thinks is even close to reality. Then again, what's worth more: real life experience or an education? I guess if you had both it would make you a better person. It's supposed to be a bill that encourages people to study in areas where job prospects are the highest and discourage people from studying things where job prospects are the lowest. But it's cutting funding for engineering and science, and it's making it more expensive to study business. You don't think our economic future is going to need engineers, scientists or small businesses? It makes no sense.

If this were a good bill, it wouldn't have to rely on evaporating evidence to win over support. If this were a good bill, the evidence would be there for all to see. Instead, it's set to pass courtesy of a sweetheart deal for South Australia. Here is the rub: the bill is built to be budget neutral; it's about saving money. But sweetheart deals don't come for free. They just mean that more money is going to have to come from somewhere else and someone's going to have to pay the price. The question you need to ask yourself is where else is it going to come from—other states, other students? Who's going to lose so you can get this win?

I'm pleased to hear that Senator Griff has the support of the vice-chancellors of South Australian universities. It's important that they're supportive. I can see how that might help persuade someone to support this bill. It doesn't persuade me much though. I don't take advice on how to help poor kids from the three blokes making one million bucks a year, I can assure you of that much. I sure as hell won't listen to the vice-chancellor, having heard from the rest of the University of Tasmania, who were right up against their own vice-chancellor and who said, 'Do not take that deal.' I've seen it for what it was; I've seen what the majority wanted. That's how it works. I heard the rest of the Australian universities and the rest of the kids.

I come from a place in Tasmania with the lowest graduation rates in the country. If there's anybody who knows anything about what it means to be locked out of university, it's me. I live and breathe the north-west coast; it's in my bones. I'll tell you this right now: the north-west coast isn't patting you on the back for this and neither are the bloody kids down there. They're never going to thank you for taking away their dreams, their futures and making their lives even more miserable.

I'm thinking about them when I decide how to vote; I don't know what we're debating or what we're doing today. They will be looking at courses a few years from now, wondering how it got so expensive, how we let it get so bad and how we let them down. I didn't let them down; it was the people on the other side. They won't remember your name. They won't remember this bill. They will treat the world we're creating for them today as the world as it is—one where rich kids get the course of their dreams and the poor kids get the scraps.

Nothing changes. It will be one where rich kids get discounts and poor kids get debts, where, if you can't afford to study full-time, you fail, you lose, you're out, you're finished, you're gone. Get on the damn dole queue. University is not for you unless you can buy your way into it; that's where we're going now. You want to go to university? Good. Go eat noodles and get two or three jobs, while the rich kids get everything from mummy and daddy. It's a great example to set for Australia. I cannot see anything more un-Australian, to be honest. It makes me feel really sick that it's actually come to this. Is this what we want—a country with such a divide between the rich and the poor, with very few of the ones in the middle left? We haven't got to the middle of next year with COVID yet.

But you know what really, really annoys me about the Liberal and National parties more than anything? This will hit the most vulnerable first. If it's not our veterans, our aged or those totally permanently incapacitated soldiers out there, it's the students. You will go after those who are the most vulnerable and you sure as hell go after those who don't give you political donations. This is killing the country. This is not the way forward. It's time you put the country first and put your ideology in a suitcase, because it's enough.

11:06 am

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand proudly with the Labor Party in opposing the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I do so because this bill ushers in probably the most radical overhaul of higher education we've seen in the last 20 years. It does nothing of what it actually claims to do. It will not make graduates better prepared for jobs. In fact, with a six per cent reduction in government support in funding, it will make funding of universities places actually produce poorer-quality higher education. It reduces public funding for science. It reduces public funding for so many areas—engineering and other fields—that we assert are central to the future directions of the country. This bill will increase, not decrease, the obstacles faced by regional universities, because it simply does not take into account the higher-than-average teaching costs in those regions.

This bill is another step towards the Americanisation of our higher education system. It's been done in an unseemly rush. It's ill conceived and it's extremely poorly drafted. It probably has the highest level of ministerial discretion of any higher education bill I've had to deal with in my time in this chamber.

The system is inherently inequitable. It will reinforce inequality and reinforce privilege and the patterns of power and wealth this this country. Instead of opening the doors for opportunities, it will undermine the capacities of poorer and less privileged people in our country to participate. It's about extending the levels of debt, particularly at a time when people are forming families, trying to buy houses and trying to set up their lives. With many people facing debts of $45,000 for an undergraduate degree plus of course another $60,000 for the postgraduate degrees that many jobs now require, there will be debts of $100,000 being accumulated by many of our young people setting up jobs—for instance, in the Australian Public Service. We are seeing circumstances which actually reduce the capacity of people, and we are moving further and further away from the principles that underpin the way in which the Higher Education Contribution Scheme was originally established.

This bill changes the funding of student places, which means that we now have to have more places with less money. There can only be one consequence of that: lower quality. There will be larger class sizes, bigger lectures, more casualisation of our university staffing arrangements and less ability to provide the wherewithal for a quality education. The bill will also undermine the research capability of our public universities. It is a capability which is essential to our long-term national prosperity and our ability to build a more productive, more innovative and more complex economy. It is a capability upon which our universities' reputations depend, the basis on which they attract international students. Their international rankings depend on their research rankings, and this bill will undermine those. The bill breaks the nexus between teaching and research.

What have the university vice-chancellors got in return? Of course, they've been dealing with a government that treats them like a bully treats a victim. They think that by trying to be nice to the bully the bully will leave them alone. The evidence, of course, is to the contrary. This is another example of where hope exceeds experience.

On the question of research, the government has now come forward with a proposition: 'We'll provide you with emergency funding of $1 billion'—for one year. How many research projects last for one year? What happens in the second year? How many staff are employed beyond the one year? There's no answer to those questions, because it's emergency funding for one year. It includes a number of research infrastructure projects. It's not what it's made out to be; it's not about rebuilding the research capacity of our universities. It's in fact probably about one-seventh of what's actually needed and probably about half of what's been lost in this one year alone. This is a bill that takes a billion dollars a year out of the university system. I suppose that's what you mean by 'stability' and 'certainty': you know you're going to have reductions of that size.

Is it any wonder that the 'Scotty from marketing' team is able to promote this so completely with the media the way it is at the moment? It is so often presented in a totally distorted manner, and it's part of a broad pattern of hostility towards universities, which we've seen, for instance, in the longstanding assault upon the research and development capabilities of this country. How many times have we seen attempts to amend research and development laws and to cut research and development be made through this time? Of course, those have failed in this chamber. This bill, however, produces amendments to the higher education act which commit higher reductions than even the Birmingham bill and higher reductions than the Pyne bill. This minister has been able to secure, through these private arrangements he's entered into, more dramatic changes, more transformational changes to the universities than his two predecessors. It's openly speculated in the press, and the point was made in the Senate inquiry, that he's now open to any portfolio he wants in the forthcoming reshuffle. It will be an interesting point as to whether or not any of the concessions that have been made are actually in the bill, because the minister may not be there come December, and much of this bill relies upon ministerial discretion. It may well be that the promises made don't ever have to be honoured because there'll be a new minister on the scene. These are the assumptions that are being made.

Of course, we see in other bills that are being presented—like the sister bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020—that there will be changes to the way in which research is calculated in universities. We may in fact see fewer universities in this country being classified as universities, because of those changes, and other devices will be brought to bear, including what may be interpreted as another form of intimidation. Universities are constantly told, 'You're not following our version of what freedom of speech is about.' If it's not freedom of speech, they're told, 'Well, of course, you're subject to foreign interference,' despite the fact that there have been no publicly declared breaches of any of the extraordinary regulations in the defence export control acts or any of the associated provisions. We have our academics pilloried across the front pages of our newspapers like some sort of giant 'wanted' poster. They are alleged to be some sort of collaborator with a foreign power. Our vice-chancellors are told that they're too China friendly. Various devices have been imposed to suggest that the universities should be more compliant. Universities are told they have to get a good relationship with the government and, if they don't get a good relationship with the government, their funding will be cut. Of course, if you try to get a good relationship with this government, your funding will still be cut, and we see that very much in this bill.

What we see is that this government has a profound, deep and abiding hostility to the university system. It has a bizarre notion that somehow or other universities are hostile to it. It's a nonsense. The university system in this country represents all the strengths and all the weaknesses of the country at large. Universities are not the great centres of radical thought that some people on the opposition benches suggest. For instance, in the current parliament, the member for Curtin is a former vice-chancellor, the member for Higgins is a former medical academic, the member for Reid is a former lecturer at Western Sydney University, our own President is a former political science academic at the University of Melbourne and Senator McKenzie was a lecturer in education at Monash University. Of course, in past times there have been many others. Former education minister Dr David Kemp was a lecturer in political science, again at the University of Melbourne, and a professor of politics at Monash. There have been other former senators who went off to be ambassadors and the like. The universities of this country have produced a whole range of people of conservative backgrounds, as they have produced people of Labor backgrounds and many other shades of opinion. It's a terrible, terrible mistake to make an assumption that the universities are hostile to conservative thinking in this country and that they have to be tamed, controlled and dominated. It's anathema to the very principles of democratic thinking, but this is the presumption that exists within this government.

This produces results such as this bill, which is about punishment, retribution and demonstrating an attitude towards the university system that we've got to reduce their expenditure and undermine their public support as measured by that expenditure. So much of what is in this package is not actually in this bill, because it relies upon government discretion. A point that various committees—and you, Madam Acting Deputy President Fierravanti-Wells—have made on numerous occasions is that an increasing problem with the legislation of this parliament is that the legislative principles, the policy principles, are not contained in the bills themselves but are left to delegated legislation and to ministerial discretion, and are not subject to parliamentary accountability.

There's a persistent theme here within this government, and throughout various governments, that has been demonstrated through the various education ministers we've seen in recent times. This bill is a culmination of that thinking; it is profound hostility, prejudice and dishonesty dressed up as support for the regions, when it in fact undermines the regions. It suggests we are going to have more student places which are in fact underfunded, a cut to our research program of catastrophic proportions and a one-year emergency relief package which gives no security, no certainty and no defence for our long-term national interests. This is a package of measures that clearly demonstrates the government doesn't understand, appreciate or value higher education. It doesn't understand the importance of the university system to the future welfare of this nation.

11:21 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Yesterday my colleague Senator Faruqi had to withdraw her blunt assessment of this bill, so I'm going to translate. Rather than offending the Senate and telling it how it is, what I'll say is that this bill is something that sounds like 'ship' and rhymes with 'chit'. This bill is a pile of doo-doo. This bill smells like a toilet and it's really crappy. Shame on the government for bringing it on, and shame on Centre Alliance and One Nation for supporting it.

In short, this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, is going to more than double student fees in the humanities and social sciences. It's going to slash up to $900 million in funding for teaching and learning. It's going to punish struggling students. It gives the finger to young people. This is tragic. Education doesn't just benefit individuals; as a country, we are better off when our citizens and community members have easy access to education. Education is a right for everyone, at all stages of life.

The Greens believe education should be free, from early childhood to tertiary degrees, because it benefits society, the economy and individuals. We should be doing everything we can, particularly as we recover from this pandemic, to encourage and support people to undertake university degrees and TAFE courses and to build their skills, their knowledge and their understanding of the world. Having an educated society means we've got workers with the skills to tackle the climate emergency, to create the clean green energy revolution that we desperately need. It means we've got the social workers, the doctors, the nurses, the epidemiologists and the other specialists to help us get through this pandemic. Having an educated society means we can flourish with the creative thinkers, the problem solvers, the artists—those who can help us learn from and reflect on where we've come and where we're going. They can chart our course into the future. These are the skills that the humanities and the arts develop.

Higher education has enormous benefits. We need to invest in it, not slash it, as this bill does, at a time when we need to reset our economy post COVID. This Liberal Party bill is going in entirely the wrong direction. As I said, on average it's going to more than double students' fees, it's going to slash up to $900 million in funding and it's going to punish struggling students. Average course fees are expected to rise by over seven per cent over the next year alone, and some of the estimates that we've seen say it could take over 20 years to pay off a three-year arts degree. That's assuming, of course, that graduates will be able to access consistent and reasonably paid work, even though we are in the midst of a pandemic and recession.

The slashing of $900 million in funding for teaching and learning means that students are going to have to make up a lot of that gap through fee hikes and that the universities, which are already cutting their teaching staff to the bone, will have to make up for the rest. Consider that in the context of last night's budget, where we had the government giving $99 billion in handouts and tax cuts to businesses, with no guarantee that we'll have anything to show for it at the end of it other than businesses buying a lot of stuff—most of it probably completely imported—bigger shareholder profits and incentives for young people to be employed in short-term, insecure part-time work. That's our long-suffering young people being shafted yet again.

We're meant to be applauding the government for saying, 'We're going to give a billion dollars in funding to universities for teaching and research.' This only just covers what's being slashed from universities in this bill. And there's the underlying issue, too, of the number of places that the Liberal Party is willing to fund at university. Put simply, there just aren't enough. Large numbers of young people want to go to university, and that's a good thing. At the same time, people at every stage of life, having got through this pandemic, may be taking this opportunity to retrain and upskill, and this package does not account for that.

One of the worst aspects of this bill is that it's going to punish students who fail more than half their subjects by cutting off their access to HECS. There's already just so much inequality built into our education system. We know that people from privileged, wealthier backgrounds are able to draw upon resources and that they face far fewer challenges in being able to access education. They're less likely to need to take up a part-time job, which cuts into their time for sleep and for wellbeing. The current experiences of my two kids give me a small insight into what's currently wrong with our tertiary education sector and into how this government is failing young people. My kids are privileged, and they have a family to fall back on to support them during tough times. But the experiences of so many more of our young people are far more dire.

My eldest son, John, is doing a PhD in linguistics. He's pretty well placed because he has a scholarship and he has part-time work in linguistics to support himself. Sadly, he caught COVID three months ago and he's still unwell, so he's had to take leave from his PhD and, of course, not teach his classes. He had to move back home so that I could help look after him, which is why I'm here in Melbourne rather than in Canberra this week. His work is casual work, so there's no job security and no sick pay. If he didn't have me to fall back on he would be in a really desperate situation. He'd be unwell, unable to pay the rent and desperately worried about what the future holds. It's already been really tough for him to cope with having COVID and post-viral symptoms for three months now. I can only imagine what his state of mind would be if he had the extra burden of thinking about what the future was going to hold—just surviving to contend with. And there are many, many people in worse situations who do not have family to fall back on. This is the state of our tertiary system today.

Our younger kid, Leon, is doing an arts degree. They've worked in the hospitality and arts sectors to support themselves through their degree. Of course, there has not been much work in those fields over the last six months and no JobKeeper payments for Leon either, because all their work was casual and they hadn't been working with the same employer for over 12 months. They've been very appreciative of receiving the COVID supplement on top of their student allowance, but that's now been slashed. So they're now worrying about how they're going to be able to afford to pay the rent once the cuts kick in, because casual work in arts and hospitality doesn't look like it's about to come back in a hurry, given COVID. They know that if things really get tough, yes, I would step in with some rent assistance. They'd be able to fall back upon the bank of mum.

But I think of all the young people who don't have that security, who in the current economic circumstances are going to find themselves couch surfing or worse. Last night's budget gives tax cuts to millionaires and $99 billion worth of handouts to big business, and it hasn't helped those young people one jot. People who are doing an arts degree, like Leon, are now looking at a massive increase in their student debt. You could forgive them for thinking, 'What's the point?' or throwing in the towel, feeling really morose about what their future holds. We have a mental health pandemic in this country, and it is of no surprise. Actions like this bill are just making it worse. This is also, of course, in the context of the other massive cuts and the slashing and burning that the universities have had to do to keep afloat with the loss of international students. Under our corporatised, privatised university system, rather than supporting universities the government is just happy to see them wither away, to become a shell of their former selves.

What's more, far from supporting STEM, this government is actively presiding over a system which has seen our once great research and teaching in this area contract massively. I've got an indication of just how bad things are from a friend who is a maths lecturer at one of our leading universities. At his university there have been 355 voluntary departures. He says that so far they have saved about $50 million—$200 million is the cost saving target—by all sorts of savings, including a round of targeted redundancies. The government is promoting STEM—the usual smoke and mirrors—but maths and stats will be losing six out of about 30 academic staff, having already lost that many over the last couple of years to retirement and resignation. He says: 'The level of staff losses probably depends on how close people were to retirement. Most are pretty happy to get out. The package was pretty attractive. Stats is okay, but maths is somewhat decimated. The rest of us are wondering what the workloads are going be like going forward, and we'll need to use some of the research focused staff to do large class teaching. They won't enjoy it, and the students won't enjoy it.' This is what he means by 'large class teaching': COVID has dramatically accelerated the move to online, and he's going to be teaching a class of 900 next year—900 students online. He said, 'I did a class of 450 last semester and got a good teaching score, so I'm sure 900 will work, but it relies on recorded lectures, interactive Q&A sessions and sufficient marking support. It wasn't imposed on me—I agreed to do it—but it has become an absolute necessity with all of the departures.' I guess the main take out is the government's failure to support higher ed has led to a heap of 50-something STEM people escaping the sector, which acts directly against any support for STEM and acts directly on the quality of the university education that our young people are able to get.

The National Tertiary Education Union summed up this bill when they said:

Should this Bill be passed, the direct result will be the under-resourcing of commonwealth supported students by public universities already under substantial financial pressures due to the COVID-19 crisis, with sector losses currently projected to be around $16b over the next 3 years and 21,000 full time equivalent (FTE) job losses.

This is just tragic. The most galling part about this whole system is the hypocrisy. The Liberal Party is stacked with ministers who got their university education for free, including the Prime Minister. But now they're in power, they're just pulling the ladder up after them. As I said, the Greens believe that university should be free. I also benefited from free education at uni. Why should my generation and all of those government ministers benefit from it but leave the young people of the day high and dry? We could afford it then and we can afford it now. Again, there's spending of $99 billion in last night's budget. We can afford free education. It is a matter of choice. I want you to know what free education felt like. Free tertiary education meant that I felt the world was open to me. I didn't know what I wanted to know when I was 18. Who does? I did a science degree because I felt I could put off to a later stage making a decision about what my career was going to end up being. That meant I could study whatever I wanted. Free tertiary education was freedom. It was hope. It gave me a sense of launching off into a life full of potential—rather than a life full of debt.

Put simply, this bill is the Liberal Party's attempt to destroy the university sector under the cover of funding. It will cut university funding when they're already desperately underfunded. It will hurt Australians who need to access education. It will hurt our society. It will leave us poorer and dumber when we are facing the joint challenges of a pandemic, a climate emergency and the inequality crisis. This bill should not be passed. It will be a disaster for our future. Thank you.

11:36 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I support the government's changes to university funding. Firstly, we agree with the government's general thrust. Secondly, we want to go further and ensure responsibility among students and reduce the taxpayer load. Thirdly, we want to restore accountability and academic freedom in universities, to make our universities better so that our future students will emerge better.

So let's get to the government's thrust. The Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 reduces fees for courses that meet needs for future jobs and more practical jobs like engineering, nursing and teaching. We support that. It will make these courses more affordable. It raises fees through humanities courses—and I will explain later why that is so effective. Humanities graduates are not getting jobs right now. The government's thrust focuses taxpayer funds on needed skills, and that is good for our country.

The second point I want to discuss is that we need to go further to ensure responsibility among students and to reduce taxpayer load. The current HECS debt is $65 billion and growing rapidly. That's the outstanding HECS debt. With Australia's national debt now pushing $1 trillion, the repaid HECS money could be used productively. We believe that we need to reinstate the 10 per cent discount for fees paid up-front. People who can afford university do not need the concessional interest rate and, as things stand, do not start repaying debt until they are earning an annual income of $46,620. Financially it is better value for the government and for taxpayers—and we do represent taxpayers—to have a loan paid up-front at a discount than paid out over 10-plus years. On average, it takes about 10 years for a student to repay a HECS debt. We need to reduce the threshold for repaying HECS debts, based on data and fairness to students and fairness to taxpayers. Remember them? They are the people who are paying our salaries, the people who run this country. We need to limit student entitlement to seven years full-time equivalent and stop people on fee-free university education with little or no chance of a job. Students cannot continue to live off the taxpayer forever. We've got to get job-ready graduates. We have a duty to protect taxpayers, our nation and our community, as well as protecting students.

The third area is restoring accountability and academic freedom in universities. Universities monitor students' academic progress. Students who repeatedly fail—for example, they do not pass more than half of the subjects—should stop getting FEE-HELP. This removes a fee-free career for university students who keep failing. We also need students to be aware of what they are getting from taxpayers' money, and we need job-ready graduates.

I can give you some examples of universities suppressing free speech. Dr Peter Ridd was sacked from his position at James Cook University for being critical of poor quality reef science. He was fulfilling his duty as a scientist to challenge his colleagues and he was sacked. The recent Senate inquiry in Queensland vindicated him when academics admitted facts and data that revealed the Queensland state Labor government does not have the facts to support its recent reef regulations. Peter Ridd was correct. The late Professor Bob Carter, well known globally as a fine scientist and paleoclimatologist, was prevented and hindered from speaking by James Cook University. Just recently, here at the ANU, Dr Howard Brady, a noted geologist who understands climate extremely well, was invited by staff at the ANU to make a presentation on why the study of climate science has gone wrong. After the notice was sent out, ANU prohibited him from delivering that seminar. But here's a welcome sign from ANU: professors and staff at ANU were so disgusted with the ANU's response that they joined together, and Dr Brady will now be conducting his seminar later this month. They've given him immense publicity internationally. He's received support from University of Sydney staff, from the ANU staff, from other universities within Australia and from overseas universities, including Princeton.

The former High Court Chief Justice Robert French recommended in his government commissioned review of free speech at Australian universities that academic freedoms be protected so data and research can be put forward. That's a scientist's responsibility. Justice French recommended that, as part of academic freedom, academics should be allowed to 'make lawful public comment on any issue in their personal capacities'. Universities allow, indeed encourage, far-left Marxists, anarchists, socialists and communists to speak freely on university campuses yet do nothing to stop these same fascists shutting down lecturers with whom they disagree. In not protecting free speech of all voices, universities are complicit in the suppression of free speech.

I went to the University of Queensland, where I was awarded a master's in business administration. I'm very proud to say that the dean of that university just recently, a few years ago, welcomed students with a note saying, 'There are no safe spaces at the University of Chicago.' Basically, he was saying: 'Suck it up. Discuss and debate freely.' That's what universities were about. That's what they need to get back to being about. Recently, I was listening to a regional university vice-chancellor, who suddenly admitted to me that the capital city unis have fouled their nests because of their craving for political correctness and their fear of upsetting people. The media reported Professor Ridd as saying he supported 'any moves to improve the disastrous situation at the moment where academic freedom of speech effectively does not exist'. He also said:

At present universities are applying their vague codes of conduct on top of academic freedom of speech—this means academics have to be 'respectful' and 'collegiate'.

'Any robust debate,' he points out, 'is likely to seem disrespectful to somebody,' so that is a way of shutting down debate. That's how universities that fear, or are too gutless to ensure, academic freedom suppress academic freedom and free speech.

We need practical graduates. My three years underground as a coalface miner after graduation were priceless for me. I left university and then realised I had better go and learn something, so I worked underground at the coalface for three to four years. We also need to remember, in addition to practical experience, that universities are not for everyone and should not be for everyone. We need to rekindle trades, rekindle the TAFE, rekindle apprenticeships. Senator Hanson has been leading the way in Australia in rekindling apprenticeships, and the government took her policy two years ago and implemented it.

We also need to stop political correctness at TAFE and get it back on track. We're very pleased to see that the government is undertaking a major shake-up of university fees in a bid to steer students towards fields where there are skills shortages and jobs for the future, and it's better for students after graduation. University graduates have been slamming universities for meaningless degrees that have left students with dismal career prospects and crippling debt. While a university degree leads some students to a bright future, for others it currently leaves them with nothing but debt and disappointment.

I want to take a break here because I want to answer some comments from Senator Murray Watt. His comments disrespect university students and universities, and his fabrications require me to respond. He said:

Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts … since they entered this parliament, line up with the LNP to pass legislation …

Let's see who lines up with the LNP. Let's, indeed, have a good look at this. On climate policies, Liberal and Labor are similar. They believe the nonsense. On energy policies, Liberal and Labor both believe in the Renewable Energy Target. Both believe in stealing farmers' property rights—as they have both done. Liberal and Labor both believe in gold-plating the networks. Liberal and Labour both believe in the National Electricity Market that has turned into a national electricity racket. One Nation opposes all of those. On water, the Turnbull-Howard Water Act 2007 is supported by Labor. Now some Liberals are waking up and some Nats are waking up. One Nation opposes the Water Act 2007 and the destruction it's caused across the Murray-Darling Basin. With electricity prices, as I've just said, Labor and Liberal support the Renewable Energy Target. They support subsidies to the intermittent, unreliable energy sources of wind and solar. They support privatisation. They support the National Electricity Market, which is a national electricity racket. Both are anticoal in their actions. The only difference between Liberal and Labor is that Liberals are positive in their talk, but not their actions. Labor and Liberal have been killing our fishing industry. With foreign ownership, Liberal and Labor have sold out the Port of Darwin and other companies and water rights in our country. There is record debt, state and federal, and Labor and Liberal join on this. With infrastructure, there is a lack of infrastructure and neglect. With taxes, foreign multinationals are tax free. Labor and Liberal have enabled that over the last six decades. I could go on, but you can get the point that Liberal and Labor are actually closer than One Nation and Labor or One Nation and the LNP.

The second point Senator Watt talked about was, in his words:

… One Nation candidates out there masquerading as the people who are standing up for battlers in our community.

Let's go through some of the candidates: Michael Blaxland at Gympie, Sharon Lohse at Maryborough and Sharon Bell. Here's a good example: Sharon Bell. She's a real fighter. She's a working class girl who's come up and is now working in the construction industry. She is fighting the member for Bundamba, who was parachuted in from a union position in Melbourne. He was parachuted into Queensland outside the Bundamba electorate, and then, two months before the recent by-election, he moved into Bundamba. And he's doing nothing. What did the Labor Party do? They got rid of Jo-Ann Millar, a first-class, true Labor member of parliament, and replaced her with this blow-in, parachuted-in person from Melbourne. Then I could talk about Deb Lawson; Christine Keys, who wants to restore solid education; Wade Rothery, a coalminer in Keppel; Torin O'Brien; and Stephen Andrew, an electrician who has such a good rapport with the people in his electorate of Mirani—he is member of parliament. These are the types of people that One Nation is very, very proud to say stand with us. And they are fed up with the tired, old parties, both Liberal and Labor, and so are an increasing number of voters. That's why these candidates are standing up—because they're sick and tired of the Liberal-Nationals and sick and tired of Labor. They have been abandoned by both the tired, old parties. Labor and the LNP actually make battlers.

Senator Watt talked about us standing up for battlers. That's correct. And the reason we have to do that is because the Labour Party is creating battlers. It's taking the middle class and making them poor. It's making them poor and making life tougher for the poor. Look at your energy policies. Look at your agriculture policies. People are coming to One Nation because people need someone in this parliament who stands up for them and someone in state parliament who stands up for them. Senator Watt said:

Senator Hanson and her party … come down to Canberra and they vote with the Liberal and National parties …

It's not us who have the policies that are the same. It's not us; it's you guys. Let's have a look at what Senator Watt said. We've seen—

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He raised pensions. Senator Hanson and I have advocated for an increase to pensions. We're advocating and have got solid policies for decreasing the cost of living. That's more important because to a pensioner the cost of energy is a highly regressive tax and burden. Then Senator Watt raised apprenticeships. Senator Hanson introduced the apprenticeship scheme into this parliament, and the government has taken it—

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

Senator Roberts, I have been listening carefully and you certainly started off talking about the higher ed bill, but I think I've given you enough time to respond to other senators in this place. I remind you that the bill before us is the higher education bill.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm simply responding clearly to everything that Senator Watt has said, because his comments misrepresent the facts.

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

Senator Roberts, the bill before us is the higher education bill. That's the bill that you need to be responding to. There are other opportunities to respond to other senators.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly. In response, I want to comment that this bill with One Nation's amendments, which the government has agreed to, protects students, protects taxpayers, protects universities, protects Australians and protects Australia. Education is vital to the future of our country. Education is vital as a source of foreign income. While Labor is off with the rainbow coloured unicorns on this and many other topics, we are very, very proud to speak for the battlers and to support the battlers. Students must be equipped educationally for a career in and beyond the COVID-19 economy with a focus on digital technologies, robotics, automation, science and health services—real jobs. (Time expired)

11:51 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. This bill continues this government's war on higher education and universities. So much for the clever country! I and my father were, in fact, first in family. I know that sounds strange to people, but we actually started our higher education on the same day. My father dropped me off at university on our first morning and then he went off to his new institution. I can't tell you what a difference higher education made to my father's life. He became a teacher, something he had wanted to do for his whole life. But, growing up as he did in a very low-income family, he never had the opportunity—or even the dream—to go to higher education until he was able to access free university education, until he was able to access free higher education. And until the day he retired he absolutely loved his work. He gave so much to the schools that he taught in. In fact, not long ago I bumped into one of his former students, who said to me what a difference my father made and how much he enjoyed being in his classes. So higher education does make a real difference to people's lives.

Coming from a low-income family myself, I would not have gone to university if it was not for the fact that I could get—I was one of the lucky ones—a free education. I doubt I'd be standing in this place if I had not had access to that system, so I'm very passionate about free university education. I know what a difference it makes not only to individuals but to the community. I'd argue that the lives of my father's students were affected by the fact that he went and got a higher education and became a teacher.

I'm very, very concerned about the effect this bill will have on students, on the quality of education, on educational opportunities and on the community. This bill does not take into account the precarious situation that we are transitioning to in a post-COVID world. We must invest in students and our education system, not make it harder to access education, not make it less sustainable, and we should not be increasing student debts.

We already know that younger people are facing a much more precarious future. They are already carrying a heavier burden into the future given the world we are currently in. This package will more than double students' fees in the humanities and social sciences and slash up to $900 million in vital funding for teaching and learning. This includes STEM and nursing courses. This will punish struggling students.

The government's claims to support regional universities with this plan don't stack up. It will force regional universities to teach more students with much less money and force students to go into huge debts to get their degrees. The consequences for regional communities will be more job losses, less local investment and fewer options for students.

The package doesn't create anywhere near enough new places to satisfy the emerging demand for education to retrain during and following the COVID-19 recession. The bill guts research funding by rejecting the long-held notion that base funding, student fees and Commonwealth contributions should provide for teaching, scholarship and base research capability. The government will come in here and crow that last night they put $1.5 billion into research. That nowhere near covers the gap, which is estimated to be around $6 billion. Again I say: so much for the clever country!

Universities should be well funded, high quality and fee free for all students. I passionately, as I said, believe in the power of higher education to improve people's lives—not only the individual but our whole community. This package shifts costs of higher education much more strongly from government to students. Higher education in Australia has been hit incredibly hard, as we know, by the COVID crisis. These new laws will make things worse. The government should invest in our universities and TAFEs, not starve them of funds.

I want to look at some of the key aspects of this bill: changes to student fees, increasing the length of time to pay off HECS debts, and other challenges that students are currently facing. In many cases, this will make it harder and more expensive for young people to access higher education.

There's a reduction in fees for STEM, teaching and nursing. The Greens welcome a reduction in fees for these types of courses. Education should be affordable, and these course fees have meant that for some students higher education is out of reach. However, the bill also more than doubles the price—raising fees by 113 per cent—of humanities courses other than English and other languages and, fortunately, social work, which was previously going to increase. When the government realised what a foolish thing it was to increase course fees for social work and how much we need social workers, they took it, as I understand, off that list of the higher fees.

The government is making a judgement here. The government's saying: 'These courses aren't valuable. You might not get work.' Well, tell that to all those people working in those areas. How important they are to our community! How important they are to individuals! How important social work, for example, is to our community!

This will undoubtedly decrease the number of students who seek humanities courses, and that would be detrimental to individuals, workplaces and the community. A Deloitte report in 2018 on the value of humanities found that the value of humanities was to:

… (1) employers, through having a more productive, innovative and multidisciplinary workforce; (2) the broader community, through better informed citizens and a better understanding of our place in the world; (3) graduates, through increasing their lifetime earnings by increasing wages and job prospects; and (4) our society, through the contributions of Humanities research to improved social outcomes.

There's a 28 per cent rise for law and business. Average course fees are expected to rise by more than seven per cent over the next year.

Students are already expected to live far below the poverty line. Youth Allowance is one of the lowest payments, and they are disproportionately affected by insecure, casual work.

It's important to note that the government is failing these students and their future. We must ensure that students are able to live above the poverty line and don't have to sacrifice study to maintain insecure work. Many students I've heard from are trying to work full time and try to maintain a full study course. The length of time to pay off the HECS debt could take up to 20 years to pay off a three-year arts degree, according to our modelling. That's conservative, as it assumes that graduates will be able to access full-time, consistent work from the moment they graduate. It doesn't account for the years taken off for parental leave and other reasons and doesn't account for further study or the fact that graduates are increasingly in part-time and insecure work for much longer, certainly, than when I came out of university. This means that a generation that is already finding it challenging to find work and obtain homeownership is getting further and further behind. Homeownership is getting further out of reach, and they face additional and long-term debt, tipping the hand against them more.

Affordable and accessible education is essential for a community to thrive. We need, particularly in these challenging economic times, to make educational opportunities easier to access. Government needs to invest in a skilled, adaptable and trained workforce. We don't disagree with that, but government needs to make sure that we are meeting people's needs, that it is affordable and that the community and young people want to take it up. We shouldn't saddle students with more debt.

Between $500 and $900 million of government contributions is being cut from teaching and learning funding. Students will be forced to make up much of the cuts through these fee hikes. Universities are already cutting jobs and courses around the country. We are losing key people. We are losing their academic contributions, their contribution to debates in this country and their contribution to student learning. The package reduces the overall government contribution to a domestic Commonwealth supported place from 58 per cent to 52 per cent, and the student contribution is rising from 42 per cent to 48 per cent to pay for additional places.

Government says the package will produce 39,000 additional places by 2023 and 100,000 by 2030. There is already a pre-existing issue with student places: the Costello baby boom cohort will start looking for university places over the next few years. The package does not account for the inevitable influx of people choosing to study during an economic downturn, nor are there anywhere near enough places to meet demand, and the government has provided no evidence that price signals will funnel students into the courses they claim to be prioritising. This punishes everybody. It punishes students, the future and our community.

The bill will punish struggling students by removing their access to HECS if they fail more than half of their subjects. As a number of other people have mentioned in this debate, this is grossly unfair. I personally know a number of students who in their first year of university did badly. They went on to be outstanding students and went on to make outstanding contributions in their choice of work. Nine hundred million dollars for an industry-linked fund for investment in science, technology, engineering and mass education is to be paid for by cuts in teaching and the learning budget. You can't rob Peter to pay Paul.

This package creates a perverse incentive for universities to enrol more students in higher fee degrees. This is going to lead to perverse outcomes. This is bad legislation. We should be nurturing our universities to do the job that they're there to do, which is to educate and prepare students for their contributions to our community. We know we need to increase jobs—we know that. But this is also about making sure that we are preparing our students for their contributions to our community. All young people should be given an opportunity, whether it's in TAFE, in higher education at university or in apprenticeships. We should be making sure that all our young people have an opportunity to contribute, do what they want to do and make the contributions they want to make. We should not be picking winners, which is what this government is doing. This is bad legislation. It is going to detrimentally affect young people, students and our community. This has long-term consequences for our community. Make no mistake: this is bad legislation and should not be passed.

12:06 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to be able to contribute to the debate that we're having here today on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I have listened to most of the contributions and, I have to say, they've been of very high calibre, making very important points for the argument to vote against this bill.

This bill is a bad bill, and it's very disappointing that Senator Griff has decided to vote with the government on this bill. He has decided that this will be one of the lasting legacies he leaves in this Senate. Does he really want to vote for this bill to saddle huge debt on Australian kids—South Australian kids? Does he really want that to be part of his legacy of being in the Senate? I hope not. I hope he has a change of heart, because this piece of legislation, as so many people in the debate have already said, is a despicable piece of legislation. It's designed to make it harder and more expensive to get an education. We all know that. That's what this bill is about. I do not understand how the member for Mayo and Senator Griff don't get it. This is what this bill is about.

You have to wonder why this government is so intent on pushing this bill through. What the bill does is to shift the burden on to students, and it will impact young people from poorer backgrounds the hardest. Why on earth would any government want to make it harder for our young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, to get an education? Why on earth would they do it right in the middle of the deepest and darkest recession in almost a century? It doesn't seem to make any sense. But, of course, when you realise this isn't about increasing levels of educational attainment but, quite deliberately, about decreasing opportunities for our young people in the pursuit of cutting costs and making savings, it starts to become clearer what the endgame is here. This is about attacking universities and quite deliberately undercutting them, because the Liberals have an ideological objection to poor kids getting a degree. For the Liberals, universities should only be accessible to those who have the right school tie.

If this bill passes, students will pay seven per cent more for their studies—that's an average increase in fees. Around 40 per cent of students will see the cost of their education hiked up by as much as 113 per cent. For some, this will shift the cost burden onto them so much that they will be paying 93 per cent of the total cost of their course delivery. What a regressive, backward step from the days of free higher education. The many students studying in the field of humanities will see the cost of their degrees more than double. The fees these students will pay will jump to $58,000—up from just over $27,000—for a four-year degree.

It really is amazing that these students will be forced to pay more than their counterparts studying medicine and dentistry degrees. It makes no sense to me. In fact, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, Innes Willox, said of these changes:

A large financial burden is being shifted to these future workers who will fill important professional roles required by industry.

This bill doesn't even achieve the additional student places that the government claim it will. The government somehow expect additional places to appear despite the fact they are providing no extra funding; in fact, they are reducing the average funding per student. However, those opposite claim that 39,000 places will be added over three years. Even if that were achieved, it would fall substantially short of forward demand for places.

The bill provides no recognition of the increased demand for university places brought about by the Morrison recession. Indeed, it doesn't even take into account that well-understood increase in demand brought about by the baby boomers of the 2000s, the children of whom are now reaching university age—one of whom is my own daughter. It should come as no surprise to anyone in this place that applications for places at our universities have more than doubled this year, because of limited opportunities to work or travel. What is abundantly obvious with this so-called reform is that our universities will be expected to do more whilst getting substantially less. It's called a funding cut, plain and simple.

If this bill is successful in this place, the Australian university sector will experience an overall cut in government funding of around $1 billion a year. That's what this bill does; it cuts almost $1 billion in funding to unis. And who bears the cost? Who pays the price? Australian students, our young people and our nation. We all pay a price from cuts to education. This bill will see the average funding per student paid to universities drop by 5.8 per cent. For an engineering course, the fee per student will drop by around 16 per cent. If we look at a nursing degree, course funding is facing a cut of eight per cent. In education, the funding cut amounts to six per cent. In clinical psychology, we're talking about a real funding cut from government of 15 per cent towards the cost of delivery of a degree.

Of course, the cuts in this bill are on top of cuts this government has already made to university budgets. The Morrison Liberal government has already cut funding from our universities, as people here well know, to the tune of $2.2 billion. Then there is the loss in revenue that universities are facing due to the loss of international students, projected to be around $16 billion. Our universities simply can't cut any more, yet that is what is being asked of them by this government. It is our students, our young people, who will bear the brunt of the costs imposed on them by this government through this bill.

I want to draw attention to the impact of this bill on students in my home state of Tasmania. If the Morrison Liberal government gets its way with the passage of this bill through this place, Tasmanian students will face a funding cut 33 per cent greater than mainland students. We know this because compelling evidence was provided through the inquiry by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee into the bill. During the hearings the committee heard from Mr Mark Warburton, an expert who worked extensively on higher education funding policy for the federal government for around nine years. He pointed out that the University of Tasmania and its students would be more adversely affected by the bill than their mainland counterparts. Mr Warburton is an honorary senior fellow at the University of Melbourne's centre for the study of higher education and an analyst for Universities Australia. He described the University of Tasmania's stance on the government's cut as inexplicable during the Senate committee hearing. Mr Warburton told the committee:

… the package has clearly been rushed out to achieve savings that the government has been seeking since 2014, but has been unable to secure; it's more marketing than substance—

We're not surprised by that—

it's riddled with mistakes; and arguments enunciated for it do not withstand scrutiny.

The position of some stakeholders in the higher education sector is inexplicable. They've argued that the package should be supported to bring certainty to the sector. It will do the opposite. Regional universities will be subject to this uncertainty, and they bear a disproportionate share of it …

He continued: 'The University of Tasmania will be more adversely affected, potentially losing eight per cent, more than the national average of six per cent. This change will be permanent.' There you go.

The cut to the University of Tasmania, and therefore Tasmanian students who remain in Tasmania to study, will be worse than the cuts to universities and students across Australia, on average. Of course, this will be particularly bad, particularly hard felt by students from and students studying in the north and north-west of Tasmania, whether they be students in Launceston studying nursing, social work or psychology science or even students in Burnie studying humanities or education. All of them will be worse off. All of them will be paying higher fees. All of them will be deeper in debt. All of them will be discouraged from getting an education. In the other place, the Liberal member for Braddon, Mr Gavin Pearce, and the Liberal member for Bass, Mrs Bridget Archer, support these fee hikes and uni cuts. They support disadvantaging north and north-west Tasmanian students who come from their electorates. That's a shame.

It is essential for the future of young Tasmanians and our university that these cuts be blocked right here in the Senate. I would hope that all Tasmanian senators would vote in the interest of our state and vote to block this bill. Once again, it's regional, remote and disadvantaged students who will bear the brunt of the Liberals' ideological attack on universities, on students and, quite frankly, as we've heard in the many contributions here, on education.

What we have here is a total shemozzle of a bill that is thinly veiled as reform but is, in fact, quite clearly nothing more than a cut. Let's be clear: this bill is nothing more than a funding cut and a fee hike, and it couldn't come at a worse time. It is a cut that will only saddle our young people with more debt and fewer opportunities. I urge the Senate to once again reject the government's attempts to gut our universities. I ask senators to vote down this bill.

12:19 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, is an ideologically driven attack on universities. It's an ideologically driven attack on young people, who were shafted so badly in the government's budget last night. And it's legislation that looks like it will pass through this place because Centre Alliance has traded off young people's futures for some roadworks in the electorate of Mayo.

As I said, last night we had handed down to us a budget that continued this government's shafting of young people. It threw yet more millions into the billions that the Commonwealth government already uses in corporate welfare for the big fossil fuel polluters, stealing young people's futures from them by failing to take action in regard to the breakdown of our climate. It was a budget which did nothing to address the rigged housing market young people are facing, where far too many young people simply can't afford to rent a home and where their dreams of one day owning one—an opportunity that so many of us have been lucky enough to have—are evaporating in front of their very eyes. So young people are being completely shafted by this government, both in last night's budget and by this legislation today—this ideologically driven attack on universities, education and young people.

This package will more than double student fees in the humanities and social sciences. It will slash up to $900 million in vital funding for teaching and learning, including STEM and nursing courses, and punish struggling students. The government's claims that this package will support regional universities don't stack up. It will force regional universities, including the University of Tasmania, in my home state, to teach more students using less money. It will force their students to go into huge debt to get a degree. The consequences for regional communities will be more jobs lost, less local investment and fewer options for students.

Mark my words: young people today who are being forced to pay through the nose to gain a university degree are not blind to the fact that the overwhelming majority of decision-makers in this place, who are going to make the decision today to shaft young people and shaft universities, got the opportunity to get a university degree for free—a free degree. That's where this country should be. We should be offering free TAFE to upskill Australians and give them opportunities to get better jobs, and we should be offering free tertiary education, the way it used to be when most of us had the opportunity to go to university. But, no, now that we're across the moat we've pulled up the drawbridge behind us. And the bill is going to pass all because the government is splashing a bit of cash for roadworks in the electorate of the member for Mayo.

This package doesn't create nearly enough new university places to satisfy what is an obvious and emerging demand for education during a pandemic and a recession. Seriously, anybody can see that in a recession during a pandemic, when job opportunities have dried up, of course more people are going to take the opportunity to upskill themselves; of course more people will want to enrol in a university to get a degree. We're seeing that happen as we stand here and debate this bill. But this legislation does not create the new places needed to satisfy that emerging demand.

It's worth pointing out that universities have been absolutely smashed during this pandemic. There have been massive job losses in our universities. The government rewrote the JobKeeper rules on multiple occasions just to make sure universities didn't qualify to access that essential lifeline for so many of their staff working in higher education. Why did the government do that? It's because they have an ideological hatred for our universities. They don't want a highly skilled community and they don't want highly educated Australians. That is the neoliberal ideology.

Another thing this package does is shift costs of higher education from governments directly to students. Again, this is the user-pays model, a central plank of the neoliberal ideology which not only underpins this legislation but also underpinned last night's budget, delivered by Treasurer Frydenberg. Cost-shifting from the government to the student is absolutely blatant neoliberal ideology. Universities in this country should be well funded, they should be high quality and they should be fee-free for all students. That should be our national vision for tertiary education in Australia, not cost-shifting from the government to students, not requiring a user-pays system, as this legislation does. We should collectively aspire to free universities and free TAFE so that Australians can upskill themselves and have the opportunities to become better educated.

We've seen, as I said, higher education in Australia be hit incredibly hard by the COVID crisis, and these new laws will only make things worse. We shouldn't be starving funds to our TAFEs. We shouldn't be starving funds to our universities. We should be increasing the funding. Don't think that we'll be letting the Labor Party off the hook here. I recall very well that when I was Minister for Education and Skills in Tasmania the then Labor government took the axe to university funding. I recall that very well. I recall senior figures in the University of Tasmania asking me, when I was the minister, 'Why do both major parties see tertiary education funding as an easy budget saving?' I said to them: 'It's because you're not well enough organised politically at a national level. If you want to see your funding retained into the future, you need to organise better at a national level and mount your arguments better not only directly to government but in the public conversation.'

Education is the pathway out of poverty. The Liberal-National Party, through its primary policy delivery mechanism of this year, last night's budget, has condemned millions of Australians to live in poverty with no pathway out. I acknowledge the Labor party would not support much of that, but the fact remains that millions of Australians are either unemployed or underemployed in casual, insecure, poorly paid and, in some cases, dangerous work in this country. This government, in last night's budget, has basically drawn a target of six per cent for the unemployment rate. I want to be clear: not having full employment in this country is a policy choice. It is a policy choice, and the government is choosing to allow millions of Australians to live in poverty with no realistic aspirations to one day have a job. Instead they are prioritising the $99 billion of corporate welfare that is in every single year of the budget delivered last night.

This legislation will more than double the price of humanities courses other than English, languages and social work. For those humanities courses other than English, languages and social work, fees will be raised by 113 per cent. There will be a 28 per cent price rise for law and business degrees. On average, course fees are expected to rise by more than seven per cent over the next year. And, of course, students are going to pay the overwhelming majority of this. They're going to be loaded up with HECS debts as a result. Our modelling shows that it could take up to 20 years to pay off a three-year arts degree, should this package pass, and that is a conservative estimate as it assumes graduates will be able to access full-time, consistent work from the moment they graduate. It doesn't account for the years taken off full-time for parental leave and other reasons, and doesn't account for further study. So this is a highly conservative estimate, that, on average, it could take 20 years to pay off a three-year arts degree.

This legislation cuts government contributions to teaching and learning by between $500 million and $900 million. And remember: as I said, last night's budget has $99 billion of corporate welfare embedded into every single one of the four out years that are covered by the budget papers. This package reduces the overall government contribution to a domestic Commonwealth supported place from 58 to 52 per cent, and the student contribution will rise from 42 per cent to 48 per cent.

The government says the package will produce 39,000 additional places by 2023, and 100,000 by 2030. Leaving aside this government's penchant for the absolutely heroic assumptions that underpin its budgets and its projections in regard to legislation like this, we need to understand that there was already a pre-existing issue with student places, because the Costello baby-boom cohort is going to start looking for university places over the next few years. So these kinds of demographic realities, these obvious increases in future demand, need to be factored in and need to be understood. As I said, the package does not account for the inevitable influx of people who choose to study during an economic downturn such as we are currently experiencing as we enter what will be a lengthy time in recession in this country. This package will not fund anywhere near enough places to meet demand, and the government has provided no evidence whatsoever that price signals will funnel students into the courses they claim to be prioritising.

This is terrible legislation. This is ideologically-driven legislation. It's legislation that none of us should be surprised has been put forward by a Liberal-National government. But what we can be—and, in my case, what I am—surprised about is that Centre Alliance and Senator Griff have indicated that they will be supporting this legislation. Clearly, they've done a deal to support this bill in exchange for some roadworks in the electorate of the member for Mayo. Well, our young people deserve better than that and our universities deserve better than that. I absolutely condemn this bill and I urge the Senate to vote against it.

12:34 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I welcome the opportunity to talk to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I want to start by acknowledging my colleague Senator Faruqi, who has done a fantastic job working with stakeholders right around the country to stop this legislation going through today, to stop these cuts to university funding and to stop this culture war that the government's trying to drive by picking winners in the courses being offered at Australian universities. I'd also like to acknowledge all the stakeholders around the country, many of whom got in touch with me and my colleagues months ago saying they were very concerned about what they were hearing in relation to negotiations on this bill.

Why would the government be doubling fees for students in humanities and social sciences and cutting fees for students in other courses? Clearly, the fees that students pay are price signals, and by using price signals the government is actually trying to pick winners. It's trying to direct which students study which courses. There's no doubt that these are changes to incentives, and what's behind that is purely and simply a culture war. I started my university higher education with an arts degree. My father started his higher education with an arts degree and so did my brother, who is now a professor at Murdoch University in Western Australia. My daughter is currently studying an arts degree.

What reason would the government have to try to double fees for humanities and social sciences—fee rises of nearly 113 per cent across humanities courses—unless it didn't want more students to study humanities? I can only begin to speculate as to why the government wouldn't want more students to study the humanities. Why is it trying to direct students into courses like engineering and science? Surely these are the decision that should be made by students, based on a whole range of other important decision-making criteria, rather than the cost of their degree. Let's put this on the table and be completely clear about it. These perverse changes to fees will more than double the cost of a degree in the humanities and social sciences for a young person in this country. They will slash up to $900 million from vital funding for teaching and learning across the country, including from STEM and nursing courses, and they'll continue to punish young Australians who choose to study humanities.

The government claims to support regional universities with this plan and it doesn't stack up. We've heard evidence in the Senate inquiry that, indeed, it will also punish regional universities like the University of Tasmania, which I proudly worked at for nearly a decade before I went into the Senate. It will force regional universities to teach more students with less funding and will force their students to go into more debt to get their degrees. The consequences for regional communities will be more jobs lost, less local investment and fewer options for students. The package doesn't create anywhere near enough new places to satisfy emerging demands for education to reskill and retrain, especially during this pandemic, this COVID crisis. The bill guts research funding by rejecting the long-held notion that base funding, which is student fees plus government contribution, should provide for teaching, scholarship and base research capability. The package shifts costs of higher education from governments to students, more of a trend that we've seen from this government in the last seven years.

The Greens have always said—and we've been out and proud—that universities should be well funded, high quality and fee free for all students. We went to the last election with a policy to make higher education free, a policy that was fully funded, including by making large corporations pay their fair share of tax. We should be doing everything we can, especially during a pandemic, to get young people into universities, higher education or TAFEs. It's not a time for governments to be picking winners and trying to decide what kind of society Australia should be in 10, 15 or 20 years time based on the courses that students—young Australians, including young Tasmanians—should be choosing now.

We know that higher education has been hit incredibly hard by this COVID crisis. We know how many of those working at the University of Tasmania have lost their jobs, and this is something we've seen day in and day out at other universities around the country as fee income has dried up, especially from overseas students. The government's provided no assistance to these workers. They haven't been able to qualify for JobKeeper as so many other Australians have. The Greens have continually tried to get JobKeeper extended to university workers, just as we have to other sectors who have missed out on these stimulus payments. These laws will only make things worse. We want to see proper investment in our education—our universities and our TAFEs. We don't want to see them starved of funds.

In the last four minutes that I've got left, I just want to say that, in relation to the budget that the government brought down last night, there have been a lot of references to the most important budget since the Second World War, but that's where the similarities stop. The budget following the Second World War reformed this nation for more than a decade. It transformed our society and our country at a time of crisis. The Chifley government brought in significant reform. What we saw last night from this government was a cash splash designed to shore up their electoral prospects, probably at the end of next year. Where was the reform? Where was the vision, apart from the vision for Mr Scott Morrison's own re-election? This is a time when we need to be investing in our communities, for better education and better health care, and in actually tackling the great crises of our time: inequality and the climate crisis.

What we saw last night was just more funding for fossil fuel companies and tax cuts for the wealthy. These are two key economic programs that most economists—in fact, most first-year economics students—will tell you won't work in a recession and in a time of significant uncertainty. Receiving tax cuts in a recession means most people have a higher marginal propensity to save than to spend and get that money circulated through the economy. They'll pay off their mortgage. The Greens have always argued that 'debt' is not a dirty word, as long as it is spent wisely. But investing a significant proportion of more than $200 billion in new debt into tax cuts won't set this nation up for the next decade.

The nearly $213 billion in investment incentives for corporations won't work in a time of recession either. One thing I know about companies, having worked for many of them over the years, is that they always look at maximising the present value of future cash flows. They don't like uncertainty and they don't like risk, and that's exactly the environment they find themselves in now. Why would they go into significant expansion of their capital expenditure in a recession with such an uncertain economic outlook? Some companies may bring forward some future capital expenditure plans, but most companies won't be going out there and suddenly spending just because they're getting a government incentive to do so.

So the bulk of the money that was spent in this budget is going to two economic policy paradigms that most economists, and most first-year economics students, will tell you will fail Australia. This was a time for significant reform, and the bill that we have before us now is cutting funding to universities and cutting investment in our young people and in retraining middle-aged and older Australians. Education is critical for the—

Debate interrupted.