Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022; Second Reading
It's a delight to be asked to provide a contribution to the debate on the Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022 on behalf of the opposition, and to put our position on the record. At the outset, it's good to go through a bit of background and context for this legislation. The purpose of this bill is to give effect to six measures that were introduced by the former coalition government, and also a new measure by the government to cease the 10 per cent discount for the upfront payment of student contributions.
Six of the elements of this bill were included in legislation introduced by the former coalition government that lapsed at the end of the previous parliament. The measures include the extension of the FEE-HELP loan exemption, to apply until the end of the year 2022, with retrospective effect from 1 January. FEE-HELP is the Commonwealth loan program available to domestic full-fee paying students to pay their tuition fees. It usually has a 20 per cent loan fee applied to undergraduate students. The students that access FEE-HELP generally study with private higher education providers, which is an interesting fact. The coalition waived the FEE-HELP loan fee as a COVID-19 relief measure from 1 April 2020 through to 31 December 2021. This measure provides a further exemption of the loan fee to 31 December 2022. This measure encourages students accessing FEE-HELP who have been financially impacted by the effects of the pandemic to commence or continue their studies. This measure is expected to assist approximately 30,000 students, which is certainly no small number.
The second measure contained in the six measures I have already referenced was to support the development of microcredential courses by extending FEE-HELP eligibility for students accessing these. This element of the bill supports those wishing to undertake what is known as a microcredential unit of study by allowing them to access the same FEE-HELP for this unit. The larger microcredential pilot program, which was introduced by the coalition government, encourages universities to develop and deliver new microcredential programs supporting the national priority to build a highly skilled workforce through more flexible and industry-focused models of higher education.
Microcredential courses, for those wondering, are standalone single-unit certification courses. They're not formal degrees and they're not qualifications per se, but they still have an assessment component and provide additional or complimentary learning to upskill the workforce. This is very important given the dynamic nature of workforce needs and the time capacity of students and those entering into studies. The feedback from industry, students and providers has shown that short courses are an important study option, providing flexibility and fast-tracked higher education qualifications.
The former government provided $32½ million to the higher education sector to develop these courses to domestic and international students. Scaling up industry-focused microcredentials was one of the seven recommendations of the University-Industry Collaboration in Teaching and Learning review. The review findings complimented the coalition's support for the delivery of innovative higher education models, research commercialisation and reform of the Australian Qualifications Framework. This specific change supports students—typically those that are full-fee paying and engaging in one of those courses—to access FEE-HELP, which provides them with a loan, for want of a better term, so they can access these courses and upskill or reskill to a new profession.
Complementary to this change, the bill clarifies the status of enabling courses in the context of the lifetime student learning entitlement. The student learning entitlement is a lifetime limit on the amount of Commonwealth support a student can receive through a Commonwealth supported place, or a CSP. It is currently at seven years. An enabling course is a course to assist students who are new to academic study to pursue a higher education—for example, essay writing. This change is extremely important to ensure that students are fully equipped with these essential skills to succeed in their higher education studies without it impacting on their course attainment for PhD or master's qualifications.
The bill also makes some technical changes requiring students to provide their USI to their higher education provider on or at the time of a place offer to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. From 1 January 2021, as part of the government's commitments to extend the USI to higher education, students have been required to have a USI to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance. This measure is a technical change requiring that students also provide their USI to their higher education provider to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance.
Higher education providers are required to report students' USIs to the secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Without an explicit requirement for students to give their USIs to their providers, their providers have had difficulties complying with their reporting requirements. This has in turn impacted the broader policy aim for the USI to be used as a student identifier across the tertiary education sector. This measure addresses the issue by clearly linking the provision of a valid USI to the student's provider with their eligibility for Commonwealth assistance.
A further change is to clarify the requirements for New Zealand citizens who want to access HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP. This measure will introduce a requirement for New Zealand citizens to be resident in Australia for the duration of a unit of study to be eligible for HECS-HELP assistance and FEE-HELP assistance for that specific unit. This measure will ensure consistency across the citizenship and residency requirements for non-Australian citizens accessing Commonwealth assistance.
Under the existing framework New Zealand students have been able to undertake study outside of Australia while accessing FEE-HELP, contrary to the policy intention of citizenship and residency requirements for non-Australian citizens for Commonwealth assistance. Current students will not be affected by this measure. This measure will affect only students seeking Commonwealth assistance in relation to a unit of study with a census date on or after 1 January 2023.
The bill no longer includes the legislative changes for the HELP for Rural Doctors and Nurse Practitioners initiative that provides a debt reduction for rural doctors and nurse practitioners who reside and practise in regional, rural or remote Australia. We have been assured by the government that these legislative changes will be included in a separate bill—the Higher Education Support Act Amendment (Measures No. 1) Bill 2022—which will be introduced. We are grateful to the government for continuing to support this important measure which will encourage initial employment and increase retention of doctors and nurse practitioners in those communities across Australia that I've already mentioned.
Last but not least, the bill gives effect to the government's election commitment to end the 10 per cent Higher Education Contribution Scheme-Higher Education Loan Program, HECS-HELP, discount for upfront payment of student contribution amounts from 1 January 2023. The bill removes the 10 per cent discount for students who pay all or part of their student contribution amount upfront, with a minimum $500 payment. This discount has a long history. It was initially introduced by the Hawke Labor government and has been amended over the years to its current iteration. It was a measure that helped students bring forward their payments, should they wish to do so, and reduce the debt burden they would face once they concluded their studies and reached the required salary level, which I'm advised in this financial year is $48,361. Contrary to the rhetoric that is often floated around this issue, this measure was not designed to benefit rich kids. Students from all walks of life and of different ages and courses benefited from this measure.
In concluding I would like to reflect on the coalition's strong record in backing the higher education sector. The last budget of the coalition government committed almost $20 billion towards higher education. This was part of our record $115 billion in total of government funding for universities between 2019 and 2024, with $95.2 billion of that going to teaching and learning and $19.8 billion of that total being allocated to research. In the 2020-21 budget we funded an additional 30,000 places as part of 100,000 more places over the decade. We also provided $32½ million over four years to develop and pilot microcredentials, as I referenced in an earlier part of this speech. We put an additional $1 billion into university research during the pandemic, and in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 budgets we committed $277.9 million for higher education providers to offer short course places in 2020-21 and $298½ million for national priority and innovative places from 2021 through to 2024. Based on data provided by universities in October 2021, around 12,586 short course places were estimated to have been delivered in the year 2021.
We also had a strong commitment to regional education, with funding delivered for regional university centres to help students in regional and remote areas access higher education. Our $242.7 million Trailblazer Universities Program is helping to support Australia's best minds to produce cutting-edge research that can be used to deliver real-world outcomes. The coalition will continue to back measures that strengthen and grow our higher education sector, ensuring that all Australians, should they wish to do so, can access a world-class higher education, whether they live in the cities, the regions or the remote parts of our country. The former coalition government is very proud of our commitment to this sector and what it has provided to those who are beneficiaries of it and the future they can derive no matter where they live.
I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill. The Greens support this bill, which extends the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption to 31 December 2022. It extends FEE-HELP to students who participate in microcredential pilot courses, clarifies that enabling courses will not count towards a student's lifetime limit of Commonwealth support, provides that New Zealand citizens are eligible for HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP if they are resident in Australia for the duration of the unit and makes other minor amendments to the Higher Education Support Act. Importantly, the bill also removes the 10 per cent HECS-HELP discount for students who pay their student fees upfront.
Let me be clear about our position on student fees: they should not exist. Education is a basic right; it is not a privilege. From early childhood through to school, TAFE and university, education should be fee-free, no matter who you are or what stage of life you are in. People who have gone through higher education are struggling under thousands and thousands of dollars of debt, and students have to keep signing up for more debt as they go through uni. For so many of them, the Liberals' disastrous job-ready graduates bill only burdened them with more and more student debt. As I stated during the debate on the job-ready graduates bill, when the 10 per cent discount was brought back by the coalition with the help of One Nation, this measure is actually unfair. It only benefits the wealthy who can afford to pay their fees upfront. A vast majority of people cannot, and it provides nothing for the many students who simply cannot afford to make upfront payments on their student fees and are forced to accumulate a higher and higher debt. This is why education has to be universal and free. That's fair, that's consistent and that's equitable for all. So we commend the government for scrapping the discount. Removing the 10 per cent discount is supported by the National Union of Students as well as the National Tertiary Education Union.
But there is so much more that the government needs to do in higher education. Higher education is a right, higher education institutions are a public good, higher education must be built on the principles of democracy and equity, and we have moved a fair way away from that in this country.
Every fee hike and funding cut in the Job-ready Graduates Package needs to be scrapped, and they need to be scrapped urgently. Labor's excuse that further changes will only happen after the accord process is not good enough.
There is no need for further evidence when it comes to the Job-ready Graduates Package. Labor committee members themselves said, in their report on the inquiry into the bill, that the Job-ready Graduates Package attacked 'the core research purpose of universities'; that it would 'result in inequitable levels of student debt, especially for women'; that it would 'have a significantly worse impact on women and First Nations people'; that it would undermine the quality of university teaching; and that it was so deeply flawed it could not be repaired with amendments.
You are in government now. Scrap it!
Students, academics, staff and universities are being harmed by the funding cuts and fee hikes of the job-ready graduates bill—and that's happening right now, under the government's watch, and will continue, unless the government takes the necessary first step to make higher education in this country fairer and gets rid of the Liberals' fee hikes and funding cuts. And I urge them to have the courage to do this—not after the accord, but right now.
I rise to speak to the Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022, because it is a terrific continuation of the agenda of the previous government, recognising the challenges around higher education. I'll come to the purposes of the bill shortly, but I just want to start by making some comments around the coalition's program on higher education that we were working on.
In its last budget, the coalition government committed almost $20 billion towards higher education. This is part of our record $115.1 billion in total government funding for universities between 2019 and 2024—$95.2 billion in teaching and learning, and $19.8 billion in research. And, in the 2020-21 budget, we funded an additional 30,000 places, part of 100,000 more university places over the decade.
We also have a strong commitment to regional education, so we delivered funding for regional university centres to help students in regional and remote areas access higher education. Our $242.7 million Trailblazer Universities Program is helping support Australia's best minds to produce cutting-edge research that can be used to deliver real-world outcomes. We also provided $32.5 million over four years to develop and pilot microcredentials.
That element of supporting regional universities and regional places is critical. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the business and law school annual lecture at James Cook University. This lecture was given by—well, I'll call him a young man, given he is about my age—a young man who graduated from high school in Charters Towers. He completed his schooling with no real decision about what he wanted to study, and so he put down a range of university options from education right through to law. He said that, when his father called out that he had got into university, when it came out in the papers that morning, he had to ask his father, 'Which course?' because he just wasn't sure. Anyway, he got into law, and he studied law in the old-fashioned way that a number of us here would remember—before computers; before laptops. He used the university library and the Dewey system, and researched, waiting for the best books to become available to complete his studies. And he was finally able to get into a residential college at James Cook University, which allowed him to live and study without riding his bike through the hot and humid weather of Townsville, and to complete that study successfully. This fellow has gone on to become a very well-respected lawyer and barrister in that state. He became a King's Counsel in Queensland, was the first Indigenous King's Counsel in Queensland and is now the first Indigenous Supreme Court judge. So Judge Lincoln Crowley is an impressive individual by any measure, but his ability to study locally and regionally gave him the opportunity to have a university education. It would have been a big challenge for his family if he had had to contemplate going further away to Brisbane or somewhere like that.
So this support for regional education and for regional universities, like James Cook University, Central Queensland University and Charles Darwin University, is important. These are all important institutions that allow our young people from regional parts of the country to have the same access to higher education that those young people who live in capital cities already have and enjoy, where they can live either at home or with family but are not going thousands of kilometres away in order to complete their studies. This is a terrifically important part of an education agenda in a nation as large as ours.
The six measures of this bill that was introduced by the coalition but which lapsed at the dissolution of parliament have been touched on, but I do want to extend a little more detail on them around the extension of the FEE-HELP loan exemptions which will apply until 31 December 2022, with that retrospective effect from 1 January 2022. That is very important because it is now so late in the year. It is important that retrospective element be applied to support the development of the microcredential courses by extending FEE-HELP eligibility for students accessing them. Strengthening the reporting requirements for unique student identifiers is another important of the administration element of this legislation. The legislation clarifies the status of enabling courses in the context of lifetime student learning entitlement, creates consistency for New Zealand citizens accessing Commonwealth assistance by requiring New Zealand citizens be resident in Australia for their eligible unit of study and makes minor and technical amendments to improve the operation of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Act 2011.
What were also going to be a part of this bill were the legislative changes for the HELP for Rural Doctors and Nurse Practitioners initiative that provides a debt reduction for rural doctors and nurse practitioners who reside and practice in regional, rural or remote Australia. A critically important element is the identification of the MMS areas that this would be applicable to because, as everybody in this place knows, we are incredibly challenged by the number of general practitioners that we have in this nation. The Parliamentary Friends of General Practice—this fabulous bipartisan group, co-chaired by Dr Gordon Reid, Dr Sophie Scamps and I—had a breakfast earlier this week. The point was made by the incoming president that, when she graduated from medicine, 50 per cent of her class went on to become general practitioners. That number has now fallen to 13.5 per cent. That is a significant structural change in the way young people are making a decision about what sort of medicine they are going to practice.
The challenges facing general practice are felt in the cities, but, more concerningly, there is an exceptional shortage of general practitioners in rural, regional and remote Australia. This is affecting the longer-term health outcomes for people who live in those regions, ending up with shorter life expectancy and poorer health outcomes. We've got terrific services like Heart of Australia, which Dr Rolf Gomes leads, taking specialist cardiology services—both CT and MRI—into regional places. There are people who just can't afford to travel to the bigger centres for that kind of medical care, and this is resulting in shorter life expectancy and reduced quality of life. I applaud those specialists who travel to the regions to ensure that regional, rural and remote people don't go without.
The GP challenge is broad, so I look forward to the element that will come forward with support for general practitioners and nurses. It won't just be higher education support; it is also the sort of investment that encourages patients to access high-quality general practice care and that increases the amount for general practitioners who are offering that longer service and more complex patient care. It ensures that people who receive bulk-billing incentives and vulnerable people are all supported well. I'll have more to say on that when we come forward with that second part of these reforms—the Higher Education Support Act amendment measures which will be introduced later.
This is a bill that I recommend to the Senate. I think it has broad support across the Senate because it provides for a continuation of the development and focus on higher education that the coalition had started, and a greater focus on those elements of microcredential courses in particular, as well as the clarification of the lifetime student learning entitlements. I think that the consistency for New Zealand citizens as they access higher education here in Australia will be well received because the most constant complaint of anyone dealing with government is when they find that things are not consistent or that there are definitional challenges.
This is another way to continue constant improvement and ensure that legislation is clear and user-friendly. It helps with the outcome we're all searching for—which is to allow our young people the greatest opportunity to study, to go to higher education, to complete their work and to achieve their full potential, whatever that may be. Hopefully, they'll stay in the regional, rural and remote communities to support those places that they come from—that is a great thing to be able to do. It is the regional universities that provide that ability for young people who live in those remote places. There are some incredible programs going on—hub-and-spoke training programs that the more regional universities provide in terms of aged care and nursing support. They train people in their communities to be able to take on that higher education and to provide the services that are so desperately required in those places.
It is a complex framework, the education system in this country. It has to serve a relatively small population over vast distances, over the states and territories, to try to find a consistent model that allows our youth to have their greatest opportunity as they go forward.
I am the proud parent of three university students next year, and I think it is just terrific to see the myriad opportunities that are available to young people—much more so than when I went to university and we studied something for a career that we thought we would be in for the remainder of our lives. But there are now a broad range of opportunities and studies that allow a level of additional study or focus on specialty areas that provide an excellence that Australia has long been renowned for. I've just finished reading former senator Brett Mason's book, where he celebrates two great Australian academics, Oliphant and Florey, and the work that they did as Australians who went overseas, who progressed their areas of study in ways that were previously unthought of and who, in fact, were part of the solutions that solved the end of that great conflict, being penicillin and microwave radar. Australians do very well in this educational field, and these are just more amendments that will work towards greater simplification of the legislation.
I thank senators for their contributions to this debate. The bill will improve a quality of access to higher education and support the government's commitment to building a highly skilled workforce. Our election commitment to remove the 10 per cent HECS-HELP discount for upfront payments is projected to save $144 million over the forward estimates—a saving which will help fund the government's 20,000 new university places, which have been allocated to students who are underrepresented in our universities and which are also dedicated to those areas where we face skills challenges. It's another step forward for fairer access to higher education across the country.
The extension of the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption for a further 12 months will support full-fee-paying undergraduates and their providers as the sector recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also supports the development of innovative, flexible and industry focused higher education programs by extending FEE-HELP to the government's microcredential pilot. It improves the operation of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 by clarifying the treatment of enabling courses and unique student identifier requirements, and by aligning HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP citizenship and residency requirements for New Zealand citizens across a Commonwealth supported place.
Once again, I thank the senators for their contributions to this debate, and I commend the bill to the chamber.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.