Senate debates

Thursday, 8 October 2020


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

9:33 am

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] The arts and the humanities are amazing, and anyone who studies them should be celebrated. We know that the future of employment in this country, the industries that are needed over the next 25 years, the challenges we face as a community are all better faced when people have the opportunity to study in the arts, in the humanities, gaining the skills that are available to people there. I say that proudly as somebody that studied the arts when I was at university myself.

It is also the case that many previous generations to my own have had the opportunity to study in these fields either at a dramatically reduced cost or, indeed, for free. There is an entire generation of so-called legislators in this place who went to university for free, who studied the arts and the humanities for free. There are no less than 16 government members that went to university for free. The education minister himself has no less than three arts degrees, so you would think in that context that any and all legislation that came before this place would be aimed at opening up opportunity for young people, for students across the country to study at university, and would encourage people to study in these incredibly vital fields where we have the opportunity to explore the deepest questions of our own human nature and collaborate with each other on some of the most challenging topics of our time. Particularly in this moment where so many young people are challenged as never before by the reality of the COVID recession, by the reality of the climate crisis and by the reality of the health crisis, you would imagine that any and all legislation put before this place would be aimed at making it easier for us as young people to get an education. Particularly now, more than ever, in 2020, getting a tertiary degree, studying in these fields, is the modern equivalent of exiting high school as it was for previous generations. Yet, when we look at this bill, when we open the lid and look at this proposal, we see the diametric opposite.

At the heart of this bill is a rank hypocrisy. It is the legislative embodiment of a pattern which is sweeping through our entire society at the moment, and that is the pattern of older, privileged folks denying to this generation, to my generation, the opportunities which they themselves enjoyed. An entire generation of parliamentarians who went to university for free are now moving to block that opportunity—not only to fail to pass on that opportunity but to make it more difficult for students to study in the arts and humanities. It is one of the most unfair and one of the most hypocritical pieces of legislation that we have seen in recent times.

We all know that the major parties in this place operate in a relatively fact-free environment—a fantasy land, if you like—where gas is a clean pathway to the renewable energy future and tax cuts for the rich magically trickle down and help everybody else. That's nothing new, but it is worth noting that there is not one speck of academic evidence from any part of the field that will tell you that making arts and humanities more difficult to study is the right thing to do at this present moment. In fact, the opposite is true. I had the opportunity to serve on the future of work and workers committee as one of my first tasks as an MP, and what we heard very clearly as a committee was that the next 25 years of work in this country will primarily evolve around the human-facing industries, those care industries in aged care and in the NDIS. These are the spaces and places where the trends of automation are least likely to take greatest effect, because of the vital need for there to be humans in those roles. These are all things that are better supported by access to the arts and humanities.

Let me say it again just so that we are very clear: this bill is a hypocritical act. It denies to my generation, to the young people of this country, the opportunities which were enjoyed by the previous generations. It is being perpetrated upon students by a government containing 16 members who themselves went to university for free and by a minister who himself benefited from arts and humanities work at university.

During the course of this campaign, as we have opposed this legislation, thousands of students have reached out to us as a party and shared with us, as Greens MPs, their frustration and anger at the double standard that is represented in this legislation. Whether it be on climate, whether it be on employment or whether it be in education, the simple ask of young people in Australia is that we not have put in our way barriers that were torn down for previous generations. That is what this bill does, and it is not okay. Increasing the cost of an arts and humanities degree by 113 per cent is not okay. It is not acceptable, particularly not at this moment in time. We have young people at universities all around the country struggling with mental health, in a context where the university sector has been critically underfunded for decades and where staff are facing chronic work insecurity, yet we as students are being asked to pay more to participate in this system. We have put ourselves forward to pursue our hopes and dreams, to work with each other, to do the best that we can, and the answer that this government has given us is: pay double and get on with it.

The sickening truth at the centre of this legislation is that it is being done for purely ideological reasons by a government that simply hates the arts and humanities, that has never appreciated the social sciences; in fact, it interprets these fields of study as directly oppositional to its cruel agendas. Whether it was Howard's attacks on the student union movement or the multibillion dollar cuts levelled against the higher education sector by the Labor government, for decades it has been bipartisan policy for both sides of politics to come together to either rip funding out of higher education, making it more difficult to access, or decrease the political power of students.

I am incredibly proud to sit virtually with my Greens colleagues today in opposing this legislation as a member of a political movement that proclaims clearly that university—that education—is a human right and a public good and should be free for all forever. I oppose this bill, along with my colleagues, and will vote against it with pride. I thank the chamber for its time.

9:44 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, 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. The bill is the coalition's latest attempt to deteriorate and attack our higher education system. They want to make it one characterised by high levels of private debt and unequal access. Labor cannot support this legislation. The government states the purpose of the reform is to provide additional university places and to redirect universities' enrolments to areas of study linked to jobs in demand in the labour market. But what this bill really does is strip another $1 billion of government funds out of the university sector and more than double the cost of many courses—in particular, arts and humanities—and make it more difficult for many students to go to university, all under the guise of reform.

The additional $1 billion announced last night doesn't even make up for what universities have lost this year, let alone the conservative and consistent cuts that we've seen over the seven years of this Liberal government. The fundamental effect of the bill is to make Australian students pay more for the cost of their education while the Commonwealth pays less. Under this legislation, the overall student contribution will increase by seven per cent, and 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased. Yes, 40 per cent of all students will have their fees increased, with some degrees rising by 113 per cent. I know it's hard to believe—yes, a 113 per cent increase. Those studying commerce, humanities, communications, economics and law will now pay more than a dentist or doctor for the cost of their degree.

The effect of this fee rise will be felt over decades to come. Doubling the size of students' university debt will influence their ability to save for a home, which will undermine their long-term economic security. Younger people are already worse off and will fare far worse from the COVID-19 Morrison recession. Instead of encouraging our younger generation to gain essential skills to drive our recovery, the Morrison government will make them pay more. How does that make sense? This is not a new attempt. Since taking office in 2013, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments have repeatedly tried to increase the share of higher education funding paid by students and reduce the Commonwealth's own contribution. Labor always has and always will oppose these cuts. We successfully opposed two previous attempts to do this in 2014 and in 2017. We'll endeavour to block this present bill's passage through parliament, although we know crossbench senators have taken 40 silver shillings and sold out Australian students.

What is ironic about this bill is that—

A government senator: Point of order, Madam Deputy President. I must rise on the reflection on crossbench colleagues. I think the reference to the silver coins being taken by them to induce how they vote is perhaps a rhetorical flourish that the senator might like to withdraw.

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

It's a point of debate. There was no-one named. It is a rhetorical flourish, as you said, so no offence. Please continue, Senator Polley.

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

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. You know when you get such an interjection that you're touching a nerve, because what I am saying is a reality of what this bill will do.

What is ironic about this bill is that the drop in funding, as I said, will be felt in the areas where we should be encouraging more students to go to university. That's what we should be doing, but this bill is designed to discourage people. In fact, although enrolment is being encouraged in many disciplines by dropping course costs for students, funding going to the university is also dropping. This means that universities will get less money to provide job-ready courses, say experts and commentators. So it's not just people on this side of the chamber; your own former minister for education, Ms Julie Bishop, has described this design as an unreasonable incentive for universities that will likely achieve the opposite of what the government supposedly intends.

What is highly concerning is that the government is trying to redirect support to regional universities, but the associated funding and implementation mechanisms are not specified. It remains unclear how the redirection of funds to regional universities would operate outside of the bill, and whether or not regional universities will be better off. On the contrary, expert analysis suggests that regional universities will be worse off due to the design of the new Commonwealth Grant Scheme arrangements, which are based on average teaching costs. In many regional areas, these costs are generally higher and often do not fit the one-size-fits-all approach, which the Liberal government loves to use—just like they did with the robodebt scheme.

The impact of this crisis on regional universities will be devastating. The bill will make it near impossible for many people in my home state of Tasmania to go onto university and to study without having to obtain a mortgage. Tasmania is already experiencing a skills shortage and a brain drain. The ability to think critically and creatively and to understand how the world operates, skills often learned in a humanities degree, are what employers will be looking for into the future. We cannot discount these skills and we should not discount these skills. We should not discourage people from going to university to study the courses they're passionate about by burdening them with a huge debt. Regardless, humanity graduates are just as likely as science graduates to receive a job in their chosen field in Tasmania. With no real jobs plan in place by this government, they should not—as I said on a number of occasions—discourage young people or people who have been forced to go back to university from increasing their skills or gaining the skills that they need to go into the workforce.

We saw with the government's budget on Tuesday evening that they've done nothing for older workers—nothing at all. Older workers who are losing their jobs because of the Morrison recession and the COVID-19 effects have been attacked by this very bill as well, because it will discourage older Australians from going back to university or from going to university for the first time.

The government claims an additional 39,000 places will be created in the first three years of this scheme, accumulating to 100,000 over 10 years. However, there is nothing in the government's bill that guarantees any increase in student places. This is the reality. The only thing this bill does is assure that universities will receive less funding for the places they currently provide. There is nothing in the reforms for increased demands due to the recession and closed international borders. In effect, universities will be getting less and will be expected to do more. Even if the government's claims are to be accepted, the additional places that are being proposed are not enough to meet the projected increases in student demand.

As well as this, the pricing model that underpins this bill is weak. The report that the government is basing this legislation on was conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, and it cautioned against making judgements regarding the adequacy of funding from these results. This report was commissioned by this government. Their own Deloitte Access Economics report has warned them that the path they're going down is wrong. This modelling made unrealistic assumptions and did not consult with faculties or STEM members. How could you introduce such a bill without consultation with those people who are on the front line? There is a close relationship between the ability to conduct research and the quality of undergraduate teaching. By undermining this relationship, the Morrison government will have the opposite effect to that which they supposedly are working towards. This bill will impede our economic recovery. The government has actively denied the parliament and the public adequate time and information to fully debate and interrogate this bill. It is clear to Labor that the government is attempting to avoid further evidence of the bill's unfairness, irrationality and poor design coming to light.

This bill comes at a particularly difficult time for year 12 students, who have just completed their final year of study in extremely uncertain times and under extremely uncertain conditions. They have watched the jobs market collapse and they will be worse off for it, with subdued employment for some time to come. They have also seen apprenticeship opportunities vanish around the economy.

Universities are already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This sector is particularly hard hit because of the loss of full-fee-paying international students. The consequences of the decline in international student fee revenue has been estimated to result in a loss of income available to support research by up to $7.6 billion over the next five years. That will mean a reduction in the research workforce of 11 per cent—up to 6,000 jobs. Yet there's no plan for this in Frydenberg's budget. Experts have warned that, without the same level of discretionary funding available for the next few years, there is likely to be a significant loss of research momentum in Australian universities. As for university staff—and we've seen it already in Tasmania—the federal government has gone out of its way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper payments. It has changed the rules three times to ensure university staff don't qualify. There have already been 12,000 job losses; we cannot afford to lose any more.

Now isn't the time to withdraw further support from our education system and to impose a flawed policy which stakeholders, experts and even previous Liberal Party members do not endorse. We're relying on our brilliant universities and their research to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but they can't rely on the Morrison government to protect their jobs. We are in the deepest and darkest recession in almost a century and the decisions made by the Morrison government are taking it further and making it worse for all Australians.

We need to incentivise our young people to retrain and reskill. We need to incentivise, retrain and reskill older Australian workers—of such importance for my home state of Tasmania. Therefore I'll be voting, as other Labor senators will be, against this very flawed bill and the attack on our universities, and particularly my university in Tasmania.

9:57 am

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, as a member of a party which has a proud tradition of supporting higher education in this country. When Sir Robert Gordon Menzies became Prime Minister in 1936, there were only six universities in Australia. There were 14,236 higher education students out of a total population of seven million. When Sir Robert Gordon Menzies retired from the position of Prime Minister, this country had 16 universities and there were 91,272 higher education students. We went from 14,000 to 91,000 students and from six to 16 universities—an incredibly proud tradition that the Liberal Party has in supporting higher education in this country. Higher education in this country did not start with Gough Whitlam, whatever those opposite would like to tell us.

In terms of what a university should be, again I go back to the words of the founder of my party, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies. In a speech he gave in 1939, on his first day as Prime Minister, he talked about the importance of the university: 'What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?' He put forward seven answers in response:

The university must be a place of pure culture and learning, a training school for the professions, a liaison between the academician and the 'good practical man', the home of research, a trainer of character, a training ground for leaders, and a custodian of the unfettered search for truth.

That last phrase, 'the unfettered search for truth', is one that has stuck with me over quite some period of time. When I look at universities today, I call upon all of our universities to reflect on that Menzies statement that includes an aspiration to 'an unfettered search for truth', because our universities should not be fettered by codes of conduct which do not promote freedom of speech, but trample on it. Our universities should be unfettered by practices of banning speakers from campuses just because they're unpopular and just because certain radicals on the campuses do not wish to permit them to speak. Our universities should be unfettered from fetters imposed by foreign countries and jurisdictions upon what they can teach and how they teach it. Our universities need to aspire to an unfettered search for truth.

The second introductory point I'd like to make in relation to this legislation is with respect to the contribution by Senator Jordon Steele-John. I always listen carefully to the good senator from Western Australia. I'm a great admirer of his passion and his ability to put his thoughts into words, but there is no such thing as free education. There is no such thing as free health care. Nothing is free in this world. Someone has to pay. There is no such thing as a free lunch. The first question is: how are we going to pay for it? Who pays what and when? Those are the only questions. Nothing is free in this world, and it is wrong to state to the contrary that something can, in some way, be free and no-one bears the cost. That's a utopian vision which does not reflect reality.

At this time of record budget deficits to help every person in this country, we need to reflect on the fact that every single dollar is absolutely vital and of so much value as we move through this pandemic and rebuild the economy of this country while providing hundreds of thousands of Australians with unemployment benefits. In that context it is entirely reasonable that the government should look at the range of tertiary courses offered, specific units of study within those tertiary courses, and make a practical assessment as to where the government should best direct resources and whether students who desire to study certain courses should meet a greater proportion of the cost of those courses. That is entirely appropriate and practical in this day and age.

I will touch on this concept of free education. I understand my friend Senator Rennick talked about how he had a number of part-time jobs when he studied at university. He picked fruit and vegetables and was also a glassie at the Royal Exchange Hotel, which my friend Senator Murray Watt no doubt attended on many occasions. In that context, he contributed to the cost of his education, but Senator Rennick is part of the generation that I belong to as a 50-year-old. HECS was introduced when we were part way through our courses. I had no problem contributing to the cost of my higher education—absolutely no problem at all. I can remember having a discussion with a friend who went into carpentry and building. He said to me, 'Paul, why should I have to pay? Why should I have to pay so you can go to university and then graduate and earn big bucks? You should have to actually pay for your course. You should have to pay for that. Why should I have to pay for that?' I always thought that was an extremely reasonable proposition, because there is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as free education. Someone has to pay, and the only question is: how do we calibrate that in a modern society?

I'd like to turn to a few particular comments in relation to this bill that have been raised, and actually present some facts. Firstly, the coalition government already provides more than $18 billion—that's 'billion' with a B—a year to fund our universities. And this will grow—it's not decreasing, it's actually growing—to $20 billion by 2024, so from $18 billion a year today to $20 billion in 2024. So I think this debate needs to be put in context. I wonder what those opposite would say if we increased it to $21 billion. I think they would complain even more.

Another point I'd like to make is, whilst some fields of study will see increases in student contribution amounts for specific units, approximately 60 per cent of students will see either a reduction or no change in their student contribution. Senator Polley, who spoke before me in this debate, wanted to focus on the 40 per cent. What about the 60 per cent?

Those students enrolled in teaching, nursing clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. We know there is a great need for clinical psychologists at this point in time. I've sat in estimates and heard from the Department of Veterans' Affairs about how our veterans need access to psychological support, and we know that, in the aftermath of the bushfires and of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are going to need a lot of support. We need more teachers. We need more nurses. We need more English teachers, especially assisting those new Australians to learn English so that they can get better jobs. We need all of those students in those courses, and it's absolutely fit and proper that they should pay less, because our community needs people with those specialties who can do those courses.

Students who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less for their degree. We need more maths teachers. We need more farmers educated in best farming practices who can work on our farms and increase productivity. And it's fit and proper that they should pay 59 per cent less for their degree. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degree. Again, these are decisions which are informed by what is actually happening in the labour market today.

This will certainly not be the most profound thing said in this chamber, but Australia does not need more lawyers. There are plenty of lawyers out there, I can tell you, and there are more people studying law today than there are actual jobs for them. There are more people studying law than there are people practising law. It is fit and proper that this government should give a message to people looking to undertake higher education as to where their best prospects lie. It is absolutely wrong that we should send a message to people that they should be entering into courses to study certain things when their employment prospects are less than if they were studying other courses. It's absolutely appropriate we send this message to them through the market.

I know young people who want to study law. I know young people who want to study other humanities subjects where the price may well rise under these reforms. I know those people are out there–and good luck to them, I absolutely support them. And even if they choose to do that, under our Higher Education Loan Program, the HELP system, no student needs to pay anything up-front, and student loans are only repaid when the student is earning over $46,000. So if you want to study law, study law. Good luck to you. Give me a call, and I'll talk to you about the practise of law and how I've seen it develop in the years since I graduated from university in 1991. Absolutely do it. But know the sort of profession you're getting into, how many people are actually practising in that profession today, how that impacts on your job prospects and how it could well be that you might find it easier to secure employment in another field where this country is desperate for more people to study—particularly fields such as teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English, language et cetera. So be informed. Be informed as to what your prospects are.

If you do choose to study any of the courses that are available to you from any of our wonderful universities, note that a person on the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings for all Australian employees, will pay only $8.80 to $10.20 per week. We're talking about $10.20 a week after you've studied your course, whatever it is, and you've reached that lowest repayment threshold. So you have to start repaying $8.80 to $10.20 per week. Is that too much to ask? Seriously—is that too much to ask? It's quite baffling how those opposite can be so outraged, and one has to query the degree to which this outrage is really confected. I must say I was sitting here yesterday in question time, listening to the questions coming from the opposition in response to the budget, and they really were particularly underwhelming. They couldn't lay a glove on the budget that was brought down on Tuesday night. And now we have this confected outrage—over what? It is over someone who goes to university, doesn't have to pay a cent whilst they're studying, doesn't have to pay any fee whilst they're studying and then, once they reach the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings for all Australian employees, pays only $8.80 to $10.20 per week.

There would be millions of people around this world who would love to have the opportunity to study in our universities and pay that amount—$8.80 to $10.20 per week—at 80 per cent of median earnings. They would love to have the opportunity to do that in our country and study at our wonderful universities. I commend this bill to the Senate.

10:12 am

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to begin by informing the chamber that this is not my first speech. I rise to speak in this long debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. The Greens oppose this bill. 'Nothing is for free,' says Senator Scarr. In that case, maybe we should talk about the stolen land and resources from this country's First People or the free money to your Liberal Party donors in this budget.

It saddens me that in my first week here in the Senate I'm witnessing firsthand the unfair and out-of-touch agenda of this government. This bill, along with this week's federal budget, shows how this government does not care about setting up a smarter, safer, healthier future for this country. They especially don't care about our country's young people. These young people are facing a pandemic, an economic crisis and a climate emergency. Young people in this country just want to have a chance—a chance to get an education if that's how they choose to contribute to their community. Young people just want a chance not to be tied down to decades of debt. Many of my fellow senators in this place and members in the House benefited from free uni education—not just cheap education but free education. It's hypocritical that they are the same people that will apply this bill happily to the next generation of young people and deny the young people of this country the same opportunity. The government, with this package, is pulling up the drawbridge so no-one else gets to come in.

Education is about opportunity. It's about having the chance to get new skills, get qualified and get on the path to a secure and rewarding job. Education is about being able to have an opportunity to go to one of our universities—some of the best in the world—without worrying about being crushed by huge debt that follows you around for decades. Education is the great equaliser. That's why this government wants to make it harder for people to get one.

This package will more than double fees for those students who want to contribute to our society by studying humanities and social sciences. This budget will also slash up to $900 million in funding for teaching and learning; this includes funding for STEM and nursing courses. That's how out of touch this government really is. It will slash nursing, social sciences and science funding in the middle of a global public health crisis. It's shameful.

This bill will punish struggling students; they are already struggling. According to our modelling, for some students it could take up to 20 years to pay off a three-year humanities degree—maybe even longer, because that assumes graduates will go straight into full-time work that pays them a good wage and allows them to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. It doesn't account for any years taken off any full-time work for parental leave, to care for a loved one or for any other personal reason. It also doesn't take into account further study that someone might need to do just to get a foot in the door.

The government's claim that it will support regional universities with this plan just doesn't stack up. The government's plan will force regional universities to teach more students with less money and force those students to go into huge debt just to get their degree. The consequences for regional communities will be felt hard and for a lifetime.

I'm concerned that this bill will deepen inequality for Indigenous students in particular. This bill puts up more barriers for our people to go to university, to get a job and to earn a good wage that can support themselves, their families and their communities. Indigenous students are more likely to be loaded up with high HECS debts, because they often choose to study social sciences and community development as a way to give back to their communities. We should be prioritising and rewarding their hard work, not putting up more walls and building more barriers for our young people to get an education in any field they choose.

Education is not just about being a cog in a machine; it's about being able to contribute fully to the society you live in. No person in this place or anywhere should ever make it harder for anyone to go to university—particularly Indigenous young people, who have been locked out of opportunities in their own country for centuries. I've seen so many photos of Indigenous graduates on Twitter—many of them the first in their families to go to university. I encourage all senators to search for the hashtag #BlackfullaGradPics. You'll see photos of our young people graduating as nurses, doctors, social workers, social scientists, surgeons, journalists, therapists, scientists and teachers. All of them make their families, their friends and their ancestors and elders proud, graduating while wearing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. As we approach graduation season all around the country, we will see even more Indigenous community development workers, counsellors, lawyers and engineers, and I can't wait to share in their happiness. In fact, I can't wait to welcome some of them into this chamber as fellow senators. Everyone here should be making it easier for Indigenous young people—all young people—to get an excellent education at our excellent public universities, and for free. This package does not do that—far from it.

Just yesterday we heard Senator Griff say in this chamber that, in an ideal world, there would be more university funding. I remind my colleague and all senators in this place that more funding for universities is not something that exists only in the imagination; it's something that every single senator in this chamber has the power to make happen today. But this bill is not it. No-one should ever come to this place thinking that it's beyond their power to create a better and more educated Australia. In no place should we be making it harder for anyone who wants to study at university to do so.

We've got a big challenge on our hands: recovering from this coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has brought. The higher education sector has been hit so hard. We've heard this throughout this debate. In my home state of Victoria, the higher education sector is hurting. So many jobs have already been lost, and more losses are likely to follow. There's a big demand for places in higher education because people want to get new skills and get ready for a changed job market. But the package in this bill does not create anywhere near enough new places. We're also going to need to be smart. We need to grow and expand how much public money goes into research. Australia needs to be focused on actively getting ourselves out of this recession, not digging ourselves deeper into a hole. This bill guts research funding by rejecting the long-held notion that base funding—that is, student fees plus Commonwealth contributions—should provide for teaching, scholarship and base research capability.

This bill is a dud. It's unfair, and it's going to hit young people especially hard. This package shifts costs of higher education from the government onto students. As my Greens colleagues have reiterated through this debate, universities should be well funded, high quality and free for all students. Education is a human right and a public good, and this government has an obligation to ensure everyone has access to high-quality, well-funded, free, lifelong education. Higher education in this country has been hit incredibly hard by the COVID crisis. These new laws will only make things worse. The government should invest in our universities and TAFEs, not starve them of funds.

10:22 am

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to oppose the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. The Liberals and Nationals have broken one of the great institutions of Australia: our world-leading tertiary education system. Instead of fixing higher education, this bill exacerbates all the worst elements of the current system. As Alison Barnes, the President of the National Tertiary Education Union, has said, it 'does nothing to address the funding and jobs crisis that is smashing our universities'. Let's be clear about what's happening here. The government are punishing the university sector to appease the culture warriors in their own ranks. The Liberal-National policy bin fire was already threatening to destroy what's left of our universities. This bill now pours fuel on that fire.

The COVID related closure of our international borders has had a profound effect on universities' finances. COVID has put a $4.8 billion hole in their income. Over the next three years, they will lose $19 billion. It's smaller regional universities that are really struggling in the pandemic. According to the Libs and Nats, it's the fault of the universities themselves—always a scapegoat for their own incompetent and culture-war decisions. They have conveniently forgotten that the sector's dependence on international student income, which has grown 137 per cent in the last decade, was created entirely by the systematic cuts to public funding. We must never forget that it was the coalition which capped government funding for Australians getting university places, And it's the coalition which has tried time and time again to bring in American-sized debts for students to compensate for the deep cuts in funding. At the end of the day, what this bill is about is cutting funding to the sector and shifting the cost burden to the students of working families, making it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university while also making it harder for universities to deliver a quality education.

Worst of all, it punishes challenged students instead of trying to nurture their ambitions. This idea that we can penalise students by taking their funding fails logic. There is no evidence that supports this measure. It ignores the reality of how life works and will penalise students who need the most help to learn and to thrive. Award-winning Sydney University professor, Rae Cooper, told ABC Radio recently that in her first semester of university she failed dismally. She almost gave up, but then swapped majors and ended up being awarded a university medal. She said:

I was just bewildered and lost and I didn't know how to navigate the system.

Students studying law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce, communications and humanities will pay more for their degrees than students studying medicine and dentistry. This does not make sense unless we assume that the government would like the lawyers, accountants, economists and journalists of the next generation to come only from richer households—those households which feel secure enough to pay a great deal for the opportunity to study these disciplines. And, of course, our society will be greatly poorer for it. Again the NTEU president, Alison Barnes, has pointed out in her brilliant op ed in The Australian:

Countless studies indicate the employability of arts and humanities graduates will increase as employers seek out students who can critically engage with dynamic problems.

Even the Business Council's chief executive, Jennifer Westcott, normally a strident supporter of this government, has said:

We need our brightest kids studying the humanities.

This package will not result in a single extra student doing STEM subjects. This is because the poor design of this bill actually gives universities less money to teach STEM courses like engineering and science. Analysis by Richard Holden, an economist at the University of New South Wales, shows that universities will receive $4,758 less per student per year for engineering, $3,513 less for maths and $3,440 less for agriculture. So universities will actually not be able to deliver the same level of quality of teaching that these important subjects require. Agriculture—note that: where are the Nationals? I know where Labor is: standing up for people in universities.

When the minister announced this program in June he said that it was designed to boost the number of graduates in areas of expected employment growth. But then, in July, education department officials gave evidence to the Senate COVID inquiry that the government has no modelling about whether university funding changes will incentivise students to study science instead of humanities. This minister either hasn't done his homework or he is using it to cover and to perpetuate the coalition's culture war on this sector.

But it's not just the students who will be failing under this system; it's teachers and researchers too. Even before COVID-19, Commonwealth funding for universities was at an all-time low. And what do the consequences for our universities look like when we look at this?

They look insecure, with further mass casualisation and endemic wage theft, where mainly young university staff are denied even minimum wages because their work is deliberately misclassified. For example, Victoria is the only state reporting casual employment data for universities, which is compelled by law. It's data recently revealed 68.74 per cent of staff are employed as casuals or are on short-term contracts across the Victorian university sector. This has consequences for university workers, many of whom will have been in casual positions for many years and still have no job security. Shan Windscript, a PhD candidate and casual teacher at Melbourne University, recently described what it was like living on $300 a week: 'I certainly wouldn't call it a living wage.' She was working seven days a week. She said, 'It felt like a trap.' She wasn't getting super or receiving her entitlements like sick leave. COVID-19 will only make this situation worse.

A report released in July from the Rapid Research Information Forum and handed to the federal government estimated that 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the university sector were at risk by the end of year, with 7,000 estimated to be research-related academic positions. The bill does nothing to help that. This bill shifts the burden onto students, regardless of where they study or what they study, particularly if they're a Western Sydney student. Based on the estimates of the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at the University of Technology Sydney, the government's package will take half the funds currently allocated to supporting students from underprivileged backgrounds and give it to universities in regional and remote areas. It is not that they don't deserve it, but what about those people in Western Sydney? What about the economic hub of Western Sydney University that employs and engages and makes Western Sydney more liveable?

The Senate Standing Committees on Education and Employment's inquiry into this bill heard testimony that the University of Western Sydney could lose $6.9 million a year under the government's package. Why take it out on Western Sydney? This is just another example of how this government pits communities against each other. It's failure in the member for Lindsay is stark in this example—failed to stand up for Lindsay, failed to stand up for Western Sydney and lost $6.9 million from the economy of Western Sydney, supporting the underprivileged. As Verity Firth, the former minister of education in New South Wales, pointed out: Western Sydney University has played a key role in expanding access to higher education for working class and first-in-family students. There is no reason why funding that is aimed at equitable outcomes should not continue to support the role of Western Sydney University, which has played such an important part. And yet, based on the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion's research calculations, Western Sydney University is the biggest loser from this package. But it's not just Western Sydney that is missing out; no city or region will be left unscarred by the injury to our universities.

10:33 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

A strong university sector is critical to the national interest now more than ever, yet, again, we have another attack on Australia's university sector. This is a bill that flies in the face of our national interest and fair access to a university education. This Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 is yet another failure, another failure from Mr Morrison's Liberal Party policy machine, a machine vested not in the national interest but in narrow ideological interests. It's approach is vested in an Americanised attempt to attack our education system. The Liberal Party simply wants to make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. It simply wants to attack the research fundamentals of our strong university sector.

A despicable deal has been done with Centre Alliance and Pauline Hanson to get this legislation through. It has no regard for the devastating outcome on universities and students. I say shame on Senator Griff and Senator Hanson. You have betrayed Australia's young people. You are responsible for all those young people missing out on a degree or paying more for their degree, and you are responsible for every university job lost. Senator Lambie and Senator Patrick, thank you for seeing sense in not supporting this bill. It was immensely pleasing to see your detailed examination of this legislation. You highlighted that you don't want to see a young Australian person from a poor background missing out on education and having a bright future. It's a shame that other members of the crossbench have not applied the same level of decency.

Amidst the economic fallout of a global pandemic, I would have thought that even this government would have a better set of priorities—upskilling Australians, drawing on TAFE and our university sector to rebuild our economy. Instead the government has attacked universities at a time when demand for education is growing. The increase in unemployment from the economic fallout of COVID-19 has seen an increase in demand for higher education. The government has talked about a so-called increase of 39,000 places. Those places are not locked into this legislation; they are on a wing and a prayer in terms of a promise to the sector. There is no funding for those extra places in this legislation. Universities have already been affected by the loss of international students and the decision by the Prime Minister to include them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy. That's seen over 10,000 university workers lose their jobs. Instead of bolstering the sector to aid access to education and economic recovery, the government has attacked the sector and rushed this legislation through under the cover of COVID-19. It is just the latest attempt to cut funding, increase student debt and reduce equity.

The impacts of this legislation are far too high a price to pay. The impacts of this legislation will leave a legacy that will fundamentally damage the most important principles and benefits of higher education in our nation. The government has, quite simply, bullied the higher education sector into accepting a package that is clearly against the interests of students, the economy, research and innovation, the universities themselves and the nation. This government has rushed this legislation because it is up to no good. You fought tooth and nail against an inquiry that you didn't want. We had to contend with the government using its numbers to ensure an unworkable time frame to examine the legislation. This was all at a time when year 12s are doing their exams and have been confronted with the most difficult year ever.

This government is so averse to scrutiny that it didn't release the modelling on the impact of its own legislation. You ducked responsibility to the parliament and to the higher education sector itself. It is unacceptable that the government has asked parliament to vote on legislation without doing the decent thing and highlighting and giving members of this place access to information about the real financial impact of this bill on universities and students. In the absence of detail from the government, I will provide the opportunity to give some numbers that senators and Australian students might find interesting under this legislation. Overall, the student contribution increases by seven per cent. Some might say that, in the current circumstances, that's fine. But let's look at the inequity of how that debt is distributed. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased but the fees for some degree fees will increase by 113 per cent. Universities receive less—not more—to educate students in the very areas you say you want to prioritise: 32 per cent less to teach medical scientists, 17 per cent less to teach maths students and 16 per cent less to teach engineers. This is simply nuts.

The University of Sydney highlighted nationally that women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are heavily represented in fields that will have the highest student contributions under the proposed changes. The government says, and I'm sure I will hear this further from senators opposite, that the aim of this bill is to encourage price signalling to guide students into particular courses. Well, the simple fact of the matter is that if you want to guide students into maths and engineering you need to allow universities enough funding to increase the places for those fields of study. Time and time again, price signalling has been tried and failed. It doesn't work. There is no evidence—the committee saw no evidence—that price signalling works.

Instead of redirecting enrolments to a certain field of study, this bill means that some students will be paying $14,500 per year for their education, and, frankly, this is more than the combined government contribution and student contribution by more than $1,000 already. The difference between the lowest fees paid by students and the highest fees will grow by a magnitude of four. The policy rationale here is just not supported by any evidence at all. Higher-paying professions will have lower fees; lowing-paying professions will have higher fees. A graduate could pay twice as much for their degree and earn much less than another graduate with a lower student debt. It is nothing more than an egregious, ideological agenda that has no basis in the reality of employability and job readiness for graduates across their fields of study.

On top of clear evidence that price signalling doesn't work, universities, in evidence to the Senate committee, have admitted that the fee schedule is likely to motivate perverse enrolment and spending outcomes. A number of universities told the committee they would jump immediately to the maximum student contributions, because of the package's funding cuts. This can only be code for taking that $14,500 you may be charging a commerce, law, economics or humanities student, and taking some of the money that that student will owe in student debt as well as the Commonwealth graduate contribution, and shifting that money to the fields of study where income for those places has been capped. So, far from being useful price signalling, this will result in perverse enrolment outcomes across our university sector.

Universities admitted that while the new student debt component would be higher than the total 2020 income per student, there was no requirement that these funds be spent on these same students, just as I said. Universities can move income from both student fees and the government subsidy to other faculties where student debt has in fact decreased and, indeed, the government contribution has also decreased. It is quite usual for universities to pool their funding and do this, but never before have we seen such perverse incentives for universities to maximise enrolment in fields of study where they can charge a profitable fee so that they can cross-subsidise other parts of the university. It's clear that international students have been used in this way for some time in accessing our quality education system, but we must look at equity in our own system. We must look at employability and we must look at fairness.

Put yourself in the shoes of an arts student. I've spoken to a number of year 12 students who accepted offers for places at ANU or UWA before this bill came to light, before they could see what their fee structure would be, and have heard through the recordings of Senate hearings that they're likely to be paying top dollar, $14½ thousand. They've had no opportunity to respond to price signalling. If those opposite believe in price signalling, why are they rushing this legislation? Students have had to enrol in these subjects before universities made clear what fees they will be charging. People have picked their courses and are looking at studying hard and forging careers in fields that are in demand. They will be getting an enormous debt, up to $14½ thousand a year, only to find, as they begin their careers and try to save for a home deposit, that the money they have in student debt has actually been used to cross-subsidise students in another faculty. Humanities, commerce and communications students: you'll be paying more for your degree than doctors and dentists, despite the fact that your graduate incomes won't be as high. This is despite the fact that you're still highly employable and much needed in our economy. It is fundamentally outrageous.

Year 12s have gone through enough this year. This government paints a bleak picture of university life. Every member of the Morrison government went to university, and some would say they've done alright off the back of their qualifications. I find it absolutely galling that this government is trying to make it harder for disadvantaged kids to chase the career of their dreams. It is a staggering misunderstanding of the aspirations of young Australians and of the bright future that the mums and dads of our nation envisage for their young people.

Perversely, this bill manages to construct a funding arrangement whereby for the areas of study where this government wants to see more enrolments universities will be paid less per student, but in the areas where the government wishes to discourage enrolment, off the back of these increased student fees, universities will have a greater income.

In their submission to the Senate committee, Innovative Research Universities said:

Total revenue for most disciplines the Government wishes to grow such as engineering, nursing and agriculture will decrease, but revenue in other disciplines the Government considers less important such as law, business and humanities, will be increased.

        That is patently ridiculous. What on earth are you people on the other side doing? It is utterly, utterly nuts.

        I make a plea to this place, and in particular to the crossbench, to those who have indicated their support for this bill: please let's not let the government succeed in decreasing funding for the public provision of our world-class universities. It is a disgrace to be jacking up fees unfairly and distributing debt in this way. It disregards the aspirations of Australians seeking better opportunities through our nation's higher education system.

        10:48 am

        Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I am speaking to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. Australia is facing its biggest jobs crisis since the Great Depression, and our higher education sector must respond and play a critical role in supporting Australia's economic recovery.

        The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities across all sectors of Australia's economy, and higher education is no exception. However, there is good news for this rapidly changing sector and for the students it serves. While the Morrison government is providing record-high funding for the university sector, the system must adapt to be able to support Australians through this period, and it must be done in a way that supports the increasingly agile and innovative digital economy. We know that demand for higher education increases during economic slowdowns and that students seek newer, more relevant job skills to help them enter or re-enter the workforce. The coalition government's job-ready graduates reforms will support increased demand from school leavers and provide more option for upskilling and reskilling workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The job-ready package will create an impressive 39,000 new university places in 2023, and 100,000 places by 2030. It will also provide additional support for students in regional and remote Australia. The coalition government already provides more than $18 billion a year to fund our universities. This will grow to $20 billion annually by 2024. The Morrison government investment will produce job-ready graduates that reflect Australia's expected economic, industry and employment growth, which is why there is an increased focus on areas of industry and community priority as well as work-relevant qualifications. These changes are good news.

        The new arrangements will encourage prospective students to consider adding new skills sought by employers as well as their own preferences. In addition, higher education providers will work more closely with industry to ensure graduates have the job-ready skills and experience that they need to move into a new and more innovative and more challenging labour market. The Commonwealth Grant Scheme, funding clusters and student contribution bands are being simplified to make government funding for universities clearer, simpler and more sustainable. Overall, Australian taxpayers will continue to pay more than half of the costs of Commonwealth supported places, with funding prioritised to the areas of high public benefit and those most needed by the labour market. That means Commonwealth supported students studying courses in key growth areas, including science, nursing, teaching, engineering and IT, will see significant reductions in their student costs. In fact, around 60 per cent of students will see either a reduction or no change in their student contribution. The changes are based at a unit level, not a degree level. This means that by choosing electives that respond to employer needs in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT students can reduce the cost of their overall degree and, at the same time, they will be enhancing their skills by responding to the needs of the new job market.

        Students enrolled in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. Students who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degree. Additionally, these reforms align the total combined funding for higher education units with the cost of teaching them. The new higher education funding model is based on universities' self-reported data on the actual cost of delivery of teaching in universities. Current students who are already studying in a Commonwealth supported place will be grandfathered in, looked after so they pay either the new lower or the same rates. From 1 January 2021, current students who enrol in units where the student contribution has decreased will have these amounts applied. Current students who enrol in units where the student contribution has increased will have grandfathering arrangements applied. This means their student contribution and the Commonwealth Grant Scheme amounts remain as they are under the current arrangements. Current year 12 students looking to enrol in a course of study in 2021 should be assured that they will continue to have access to the course of their choice under Australia's world-leading higher education funding model.

        Under our Higher Education Loan Program, the HELP system, no student needs to pay anything upfront, and student loans are only repaid when the student is earning over $46,620. A person on the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings of all Australian employees, will pay only $8.80 to $10.20 per week. Access to HELP is not determined by age, income or background. It means that eligible students can participate in higher education without the barrier of upfront fees. Prospective students should also remember that an investment in higher education is one of the best investments they can make. Higher education graduates have a substantial advantage in the labour market, with lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings than school leavers and vocational education graduates.

        The Job-ready Graduates Package includes a $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, designed to strengthen industry and university partnerships and prepare job-ready graduates. The bill extends Commonwealth support to more work experience and industry units of study. This will incentivise universities to include more work-integrated learning options in their courses and encourage students to gain more work experience from what they learn.

        Then there are the regional, rural and remote students. In addition to providing more student places at Australian universities overall, the government will provide more than $400 million over the next four years to increase opportunities for regional and remote students to attend university and to lift investment in regional university campuses. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas will have a guaranteed Commonwealth supported place upon admission to the university of their choice, a key Napthine review recommendation. For the first time, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program will support regional, remote and Indigenous students, in addition to low-SES students, to access and complete higher education. The bill amends the Social Security Act to reduce from six to three the number of months a student living away from home must be receiving eligible student support payments before being eligible to receive fare allowance for a return journey home. This is another important Napthine review recommendation. Regional communities will benefit from strengthened and newly established regional university centres, enhanced research opportunities and growth through additional funding to regional campuses.

        The tertiary access payment, or TAP, is a one-off $5,000 payment for school leavers from outer regional and remote areas who relocate more than 90 minutes from their home to enrol in higher-level tertiary education. The new TAP will be available from 2021. This will be distributed to universities as a scholarship, and the number of scholarships allocated to a university will be based on its historical enrolment of students. The TAP will also be accessible, through Services Australia, to students studying at non-university higher education providers and VET providers.

        Under the package, the Commonwealth contribution to university funding, coupled with the students' contribution, will be aligned with the cost of delivering the course. There will be a funding floor for higher education courses. Funding certainty is vital for universities in how they plan for future enrolments and research activities. This bill includes a floor for future Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding, and that means table A universities will not receive less than the maximum basic grant amount for higher education courses they received in a previous year, commencing in 2025. The legislation includes the necessary mechanisms for the government to implement a transition fund for table A universities so that they maintain their revenue over the grant years as the reforms in the Job-ready Graduates Package are introduced.

        Student decisions about higher education reflect a range of factors. Price is an important consideration for some students, though it's not the only consideration. For example, in 2009 the number of eligible applications to tertiary admission centres from students applying to study science was 13,795. That year, with much fanfare, the former Labor government reduced the student contribution for maths and sciences. By 2012, the number of applications to tertiary admissions centres and direct applications from students applying to study science increased to 26,373. In 2013, however, the Labor government very quietly increased the price by 78 per cent, and applications plateaued.

        Younger students make choices based on the advice of their parents, careers advisers and university open days, and by talking with their friends. Older students are more price-sensitive and consider the return on their investment and future career opportunities. The Job-ready Graduates Package is seeking to align our funding with the national interest by encouraging students to consider their employment prospects on graduation among those factors. Graduating with a good future in growing parts of our economy is a win-win. University graduates with vocational degrees are the most likely to be in full employment, according to new data.

        The government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 will make it cheaper to study in areas of expected future growth. We're creating additional university places for Australian students and making it cheaper to study teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages, agriculture, maths, science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering. The coalition government is encouraging students to tailor their studies to learn skills that will be in demand in areas of future jobs growth. That means breaking down the traditional degree silos by enabling students to choose units of study across disciplines and introducing a price signal to students by making degrees cheaper in areas of expected job growth. We want our students to receive an education that sets them up for future success.

        As I said, under the package all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas will have a guaranteed supported place upon admission to a non-designated bachelor or bachelor honours course of study at the public university of their choice. Health is one of the fastest growing disciplines that Indigenous students choose to study at university. Between 2014 and 2018, Indigenous enrolments in health grew from 1,666 to 2,343—a 41 per cent increase. The popularity of STEM courses among Indigenous university students has also grown in recent years.

        The Job-ready Graduates Package aims to provide more opportunities for women and men to gain the qualifications they will require for the jobs of the future. Allied health and teaching are professions with substantial female workforces. It is these subjects that will see significant reductions in student contributions, meaning less HECS-HELP to repay once graduates are working. Women who elect to enrol in courses for the jobs of the future—STEM, health, education—will be more employable on graduation, meaning they will have a higher earning potential immediately. Over the past decade, there has been growth in the number of females with STEM qualifications. We want to ensure that this trend continues, and the Job-ready Graduates Package will support the ongoing growth of women with STEM qualifications and careers.

        The Job-ready Graduates Package creates an additional 100,000 opportunities over the next decade for students to pursue university. It puts $400 million into supporting rural and regional higher education. It is unapologetically aligned to the employment needs of the country coming out of the COVID pandemic. Teaching, health, engineering, agriculture and IT degrees are all discounted significantly to encourage students and—just to remind this place—around 60 per cent of students will be better off, or the same, under these reforms.

        Strengthening student protections in public universities also aligns quality and accountability in Australia's tertiary sector. Every student studying in Australia can be confident that, wherever they choose to study, they will be assessed as being academically suited to that study, their academic progress and engagement will be monitored throughout the course and they will be prevented from incurring debt for study for which they are not suited. These initiatives have been well-received by university chancellors across the nation. They will support our students to prepare to contribute to our strengthening economy as Australia moves forward post-COVID.

        11:03 am

        Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        Anybody who had listened through the course of this debate would think, first, that all Australians should and must go to university if they are to have a good and meaningful life. Then there would be people who would come away from this debate thinking that Australia has no ability to assist people from poorer families to get to university—that there's no loan scheme that allows people of lesser means to access university. You'd be forgiven for coming away from this debate thinking that life isn't worth living unless you get free education. Well, what a load of utter rubbish all of that has been.

        Let's do some fact checking, shall we? University is not essential to earning a good living. University is not essential to having a good life. Trades, for instance, can offer you much more money, if that's what motivates you. They can offer you real chances to build serious businesses and to contribute massively to this nation, to your economy and to your family's financial independence. Many people are much better suited to a hands-on type of learning and working.

        Let's do some more fact checking. There's absolutely nothing to stop a smart, motivated person in this country accessing education at university simply due to cost. That might be uncomfortable for some people in this room, but it is the truth. What we call the HELP scheme—it has been known as HECS in my time—allows for affordable loans that don't need to be repaid until that person is working and earning a pretty good living. That's fair. And it means that a kid of modest means—like me and, indeed, many people on the coalition side of this chamber—has been able to go to university despite the fact that they're nothing fancy.

        There's something that seems to be getting lost in this debate—the idea that university is something that mum and dad always pay for, or the idea that you shouldn't be doing anything else but studying while you're learning. My experience of university was that working part-time while I studied was not only something that helped me pay my way but a big part of the experience of learning to be an adult. Working four jobs while I was at university taught me to prioritise my spending, to manage my time, to communicate with my employers about my commitments and manage them well, and how to chat to people from all walks of life and appreciate their different strengths and interests. I can tell you that the time I spent selling linen in a shop, bookkeeping for small businesses, waitressing in a steakhouse and in an Italian restaurant and tutoring schoolkids was good for me. I learned skills that I draw on every day in this place and drew on in my career before this. Indeed, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that I learned a lot more from that than I did from many of my university classes.

        The phrase 'free education' gets bandied around a lot in this place both by Labor and those in the Greens Party. But you know what? That is nothing more than a bold-faced lie. Everything you get for free has got to be taken from somebody else, particularly under the redistributionist worldview of those in the Greens. It's particularly hypocritical, though, when we hear this from Labor, because they didn't indulge their free-education fantasy when they were in government during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. If they really believed that that was the right thing to do, then why didn't they do it when they had the chance? The answer is that actions speak louder than words. It is nothing more than a slogan designed to mislead young people in particular—a lie on which they never plan to deliver. The Greens might just be silly enough to genuinely believe in it, but, with their usual approach of 'Free everything for everyone', they've got no idea of how to pay for it. That's the kind of reckless indulgence that is only available to minor parties who know they will never have to come good on their talk. Talk is cheap. But let's hope it stays that way, because our nation would be an economic basket case quick as a flash if the Greens and their unicorn fantasy policies were ever the order of the day.

        Madam Acting Deputy President Askew, you might not know that I used to be a sessional academic at a school of business and law in one of the major regional universities before I came to this place. It was a job I did part-time—there you go, part-time work again—while I was in full-time practice as a barrister. I really enjoyed teaching my students. It was a really fulfilling activity but I was regularly troubled by the concern that there were people enrolled in my classes who enrolled every year who never once submitted assessment, never once showed up, never once passed—of course, with that kind of record—and they got billed for it every time. It was a windfall for the university, which didn't have to apply any resources to educating these people. It was a bill to the Commonwealth which was, at least for the time being, paying for that person's non-education and it left a student with a bill, with no education—really—and with no plan to pay it. So, quite rightly, here, this government is putting this kind of practice to an end. It's simply common sense.

        I was also concerned about the job prospects of my students who found class, sometimes, a struggle. There were many who I thought were better suited to a less bookish way of learning, and there were more practical types whose strength in the practical was something to be celebrated and encouraged, because the fact is, not everyone is suited to the academic life. Not everyone gets the best out of university education. And while there's a real demand for people to be able to retrain at the moment, if we step back from the COVID crisis, I think there's a real conversation to be had about whether, as a nation, we are sending too many people to university, building them up with the expectation of careers in fields that simply aren't there. So this bill does something very good for students in that way because there is a reality that says we have, particularly COVID-related unemployment but, at the same time, we have skills shortages in some fields.

        This is about making sure people are getting all of the encouragement necessary to focus their education on the areas where there are jobs. Isn't that the promise that, as a country, we make to the people who go to university, the promise that what they are learning is something they will actually be able to use, that they'll have the dignity of a career in which they can work and earn a living and get ahead and rise to the top of their profession through hard work because we didn't delude them into believing they could have a career in a job that isn't there? I think it's just being honest. The fact is there has never been more spent on education, but we still have a real skills shortage, even as we are dealing with unemployment. So let's not build false hope in students by educating them in fields for which the jobs just aren't there, when we have real demand in great career areas that do lead to a meaningful job. This bill does great work in this sphere.

        By providing for cheaper education in areas where this nation has high skills demand, we are doing the right thing by students, because they won't finish university with a debt for an education that they can't repay because they've been educated in something for which there isn't a job. It's doing the right thing by students. We're putting them on a long-term path to success, not a long-term path to disappointment. It's good for our economy, because we're going to be able to meet those skills shortages so that businesses can snap up these talented, educated Australians and make the most of their talents to grow this nation's economy.

        And it's good for the taxpayer too, because it means that as more and more of those educated people go into real work they reach the point where they can start repaying their HELP debt so much sooner. And that's the right thing to do by the Australian taxpayer, particularly those Australian taxpayers who are not themselves university educated, who never got the benefit of the taxpayers subsidising their learning and yet are nevertheless expected to do it for others now that they are paying tax. Indeed, there are people who come to me from time to time who say: 'I learned on the job; I did a traineeship. I worked really hard and I still work really hard. I never got five years at university paid for by the taxpayer, either in full or subsidised by half, and yet I'm expected to pay for it for everyone else.' It's a pretty fair point. Why do we ask the construction workers, the labourers, the hairdressers and the shop assistants to subsidise the career prospects of our lawyers, our accountants, and our marine biologists and our women's studies arts graduates? We asked them to do that, but it's a lot to ask for people who never got that kind of help themselves.

        This bill makes modest increases in study areas where skills demand doesn't exist because we need fewer graduates in that area, and it makes it cheaper to study in areas where there is skills demand. When you step back and put it like that, you go, 'Well, this is just plain common sense.' The fact that we have spent so long in this chamber with people bleating at the injustice of it, carrying on as though this represents an enormous human rights violation—confected outrage of the most exaggerated sort—it makes me understand why so many Australians think this place is out of touch. Most Australians don't expect this. They don't expect free everything. Most Australians don't expect to be educated for free in an area of unicorn fantasy study for which there are no jobs and which others should be paying off, despite the fact they didn't get the same kind of education themselves. This is the kind of utter nonsense that explains to me precisely why Australians get frustrated with politicians.

        Let's do another quick fact check before I wrap up. There has been a lot of talk about student debt and, yes, we do ask students to make a contribution to their education. But let's not pretend that they don't also get support. Overall, Australian taxpayers will continue to pay more than half of the cost of Commonwealth supported places in universities, with funding prioritised to the areas of high public benefit and those areas most needed by the labour market. Quite frankly, to do anything else would be a dereliction of our duty to the taxpayer. It's right for people to invest in their own education, because they get some private benefit. But with that 50 per cent contribution from the Commonwealth, the public benefit that comes from having an educated society is also recognised. It is fair to students, to our economy and to the taxpayer; it is fair for all.

        11:18 am

        Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I also 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, particularly as a senator with an electorate office based in the Illawarra—of course, with a very successful university in the Illawarra. I will very much focus my comments on that regional space.

        The coalition government is providing record high funding for the university sector. But, having said that, I think it's time for the sector now to adapt and to play its part in supporting Australians through this very difficult period.

        Senator Stoker made a number of very important points, and I think it's important for Australians to understand that it is not necessarily a measure of one's success to have a university degree. There are many things that we ask Australians to do. Regrettably, in the 1980s, through some of the changes that were made by Labor and then Education Minister Dawkins, we saw many technical colleges simply become B-grade universities. As a consequence of that, in the passage of time, we devalued the importance of a trade. In effect, I think, we've seen the loss of a generation of young people who have not undertaken trades and who have been forced into circumstances in the belief that they had to have a university degree to succeed in life, and now we're facing skills shortages which are a direct consequence of those actions.

        Therefore, I think it is important to put into context that the Australian economy needs people to do all sorts of jobs. Some of those require university degrees, and some of them do not require university degrees. But, as far as those jobs that do require university degrees are concerned, I think it's very important to look at where we need people trained.

        This package is very important, because it does support regional universities. I'd like to make reference, if I may, to an article in The Australian Financial Review on 29 September by Robert Bolton. He starts his article by saying:

        New data on university research shows the fastest rate of growth is happening in regional and smaller universities, a finding University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Paul Wellings says should reprioritise budgetary thinking.

        Universities such as Curtin in Western Australia, Deakin in Victoria, Griffith in south-east Queensland and Newcastle and Wollongong in NSW are "snapping at the heels" of giants such as Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland in the growth rate of research citations.

        In a speech that the education minister gave on 30 September, he obviously refers to the importance of this bill, but he also underscores the support that the bill is receiving from entities such as the Regional Universities Network and the importance of investing in regional education also paying a dividend for regional communities. He quotes the Napthine review, which I'd also like to quote:

        Increasing the participation of RRR

        rural, regional and remote—

        students will directly and positively contribute to the economic and social development of RRR areas.

        I would also like to refer to a piece that Professor Wellings, who is also the Chair of the New South Wales Vice-Chancellors Committee, wrote on 30 June in The Australian. He says:

        Australia has been shaped by many forces over the years, so it's not remarkable that the structure of universities and the way they operate have constantly evolved to align with the needs of the country.

        History has shown that interventions into higher education policy by the Commonwealth Government have often been part of moves to safeguard the country's prosperity when a black swan swoops. The crucial role in coronavirus recovery that universities play at present can be likened to the aftermath of World War II.

        The Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme of the 1940s assisted thousands of returned servicemen and women to enter higher education, with a focus on medicine, dentistry, engineering, veterinary science, agriculture and science.

        So let's look at the reform package. Basically, the package provides opportunities across three important objectives that will increase the number of graduates in areas where there will be employment growth and demand, such as teaching, nursing, agriculture, STEM and information technology. It will lift the educational attainments for students in regional Australia, and it will strengthen partnerships between universities and business to drive participation in workforce and increase productivity. We know that the reforms will provide the necessary funding to support additional university places—39,000 by 2023, and almost 100,000 places by 2030.

        The new funding model and the approach to the new funding model are more nuanced, to one that determines a share of costs that need to be met by the government and students in different fields. In the article that I referred to, the one by Professor Wellings, he points out the key features of the package that are cause for optimism, and I'd like to refer to some of the key ones. The HECS-HELP scheme remains unchanged. It provides certainty for the future. The income contingent loan scheme, which was delivered by the Hawke government in 1989 with the aims of expanding the higher education sector and promoting greater access to promote economic growth, demand and affordability, will not change. Let's not forget, despite all the hype by those opposite, students will be free to study what they want, and the universities will have the necessary flexibility to adjust the number of bachelor, sub-bachelor and post-graduate places within their funding allocations.

        The funding from the Commonwealth is aligned to the actual costs of teaching, as presented in the 2016 Deloitte Access Economics report, Cost of delivery of higher education. This, importantly, recognises and supports the activities that are conducted by universities and the benefits that they generate. We know the unemployment situation is dire and, as we have seen, universities are already providing short courses that address the national priorities of teaching, health, science and IT. There will be tremendous opportunities for growth in metro and urban areas on the fringes of Sydney, Melbourne and south-eastern Queensland in particular, and this will be due to the fact that more places will be provided for domestic students in areas where there will be employment prospects.

        As I have said, and as others have said, there are very strong regional and social inclusion elements, and the increased funding for the universities will provide for greater focus on regional, rural, low socioeconomic status and Indigenous students. There will be a three-year transition period for these reforms, and that will enable the universities to adapt and to prepare themselves for the necessary changes.

        I think it is important to also, at this point, stress—and I will do this in conclusion—that, at the moment, the university sector is facing headwinds from different areas. Now, let's be honest: some of those are of their own making. I have had the opportunity to speak to different people in the university sector, and I have stressed to them that, for some universities, the dependence that they have placed particularly on overseas students, and most especially on students from China, has now resulted in them facing financial difficulties. Clearly, not all universities followed the advice and the edict of their own business schools in practising diversification, which I would have thought was 'business practice 101'. And, yes, while the rivers of gold were flowing in relation to foreign students, and most especially from China, we now see that universities will have to cut their cloth according to a different design. At a time when the government is in circumstances where it has to bring into this place foreign relations legislation, which most particularly will address the activities of universities, it is a telling factor that universities have undertaken and have engaged in activities which have created a negative perspective as far as they're concerned by the Australian public.

        So I say to those universities: you have made mistakes—I think it's important for you to admit those mistakes—but the government is now putting in place a very good package. My very strong advice to those vice-chancellors in particular who have engaged in seeking to provide, I think, misinformation in relation to this package is that it's time for you to get on board and to accept that the circumstances have changed, that it's time for you to do things differently and that this is a good package and to support its passage.

        11:31 am

        Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

        I thank the Senate and those senators who have contributed on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. This bill implements the government's Job-Ready Graduates Package, which was announced by the Minister for Education on 19 June. The bill demonstrates our government's commitment to reforming Australia's higher education sector to drive growth and support into our regions and in areas of national need and to position universities to best achieve the objective of producing job-ready graduates that help Australian drive employment creation out of the COVID-19 crisis.

        The bill better aligns the funding of universities in supporting students for what it costs to teach those students. This allows the government to then support growth in the higher education sector and to support the creation and funding of an additional 100,000 university places by 2030. The bill also directs more public funding to students studying in areas of projected employment growth as well as areas of industry and community priority, meaning that there will be a significant decrease in fees for students studying in these areas. These funding changes will encourage students to pick the areas of study at university that are most likely to help them secure a job, grow our economy and ensure that universities are focused and have the capacity to produced job-ready graduates across all areas.

        Importantly, this bill will reduce the student contribution amounts for more than half of all commencing students. Students enrolling in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. Students who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less for their degrees. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, information technology and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degrees. Crucially, this all occurs in the ongoing framework of the HECS-HELP system that ensures no Australian student need face upfront fees in relation to their access to university. The bill includes grandfathering arrangements to ensure no student enrolled in a course prior to 1 January 2021 is worse off as a result of these reforms. These grandfathering arrangements will extend the amended Commonwealth contribution amounts in the bill, ensuring universities receive the same Commonwealth contribution for those grandfathered students.

        In response to feedback from the higher education sector, the bill will created the new disciplines of 'pathway', 'professional pathway social work' and 'professional pathway psychology' in Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. This change will result in an increase in the Commonwealth contribution and a reduction of the proposed student contribution amount for social work or psychology units that are undertaken as part of those qualifications that are part of the professional pathway. We look forward to working quickly and closely with the sector to settle on the most efficient and effective way to implement these arrangements. The bill also extends Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to more work experience and industry units of study, which will enable more students to gain critical workplace skills while they study.

        The bill also allows the government to establish its $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, which will provide universities with additional support to collaborate with Australian industry to design courses that best equip students with the job-ready skills and experience they need to succeed. The bill also improves flexibility for universities in how they provide places based on what they receive in Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding. This will enable public universities to better respond to student, industry, and community demand and ensure Australia's workforce has the right skills at the right time.

        The bill will also introduce a maximum basic grant amount floor for higher education courses. This will provide funding certainty for public providers by establishing that their funding for higher education courses for grant years 2021 to 2024 must not be less than the amount specified in the Commonwealth Grant Scheme guidelines and for 2025 and later grant years must not be less than the providers' maximum basic grant amount for those courses for the preceding grant year.

        The bill also implements some key recommendations made by Dr Denis Napthine in the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy. It will introduce demand driven funding for Commonwealth supported places for regional and remote Indigenous students. After the passage of the bill, all regional and remote Indigenous students who are admitted to a public university in a non-medical bachelor or bachelor honours course of study will be guaranteed a Commonwealth supported place. It improves access to fares allowance by reducing the number of months a student must be receiving eligible payments for fares allowance from six to three months for a trip home.

        The bill also enables the government's plans to introduce grant payments through the Indigenous, Regional and Low Socioeconomic Status Attainment Fund. This will allow for more support for regional, rural, Indigenous and low-SES students to access university, graduate and enjoy the benefits that higher education offers. The bill also strengthens and extends student protection and provider integrity measures under the Higher Education Support Act.

        Importantly, these amendments do not penalise students for circumstances beyond their control and include the ability to have units discounted due to special circumstances important and warranted. As such, new subsection 36-13(2) acknowledges the systems and processes that higher education providers have in place to identify, protect and provide support for vulnerable students who may be experiencing difficulty in their studies or who may not have the academic ability to undertake a specific higher education course. The bill also contains various technical and administrative changes.

        I flag that in the committee stage I'll move amendments to correct some minor technical issues in the bill: to amend the proposed completion rate provision in section 36-13 of the bill to specify circumstances where a higher education provider will be satisfied that it is impracticable for a student to complete the requirements of a unit of study; to extend until 30 June 2021 the loan fee exemption for all undergraduate students accessing FEE-HELP; to reintroduce from 1 January 2021 a 10 per cent discount for students who are eligible for HECS-HELP assistance and pay part of their student contribution per unit upfront; and to reintroduce the student learning entitlement, which will commence on 1 January 2022.

        I thank all senators for their contributions in debating these measures, especially those who have engaged in such constructive discussions with the government as we work to improve access to the higher education sector and graduate outcomes. Indeed, I thank many across the sector—the many stakeholders, including universities, students, employers, and industry groups—that have worked with Minister Tehan and the government to provide useful and constructive feedback on the bill and the government's Job-ready Graduates Package. I commend the bill to the Senate.

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

        The question is the second reading amendment moved by Senator Faruqi be agreed to.

        Question negatived.

        11:49 am

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

        The question now is that the bill be read a second time.

        11:51 am

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

        It being past 11:45, we will move on to other business.