Senate debates

Monday, 19 June 2023


Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and Other Measures) Bill 2023; Second Reading

5:39 pm

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

Before I was interrupted, I was talking about the struggles that so many students face—living in poverty, with totally inadequate student and youth allowance, and then ending up at the end of their degrees with this massive burden of debt around their necks—and about how the Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and Other Measures) Bill 2023 is going to give some support to students but the cost is that it's actually going to increase the amount of debt that they've got and how this is just not doing our future generations any favours at all.

I have just met, for example, with the president and vice-president of the Australian Medical Students Association, and they had three concerns that they wanted to raise with me. One was the medical students cost-of-living crisis. The second was medical students in the rental crisis. The impact of the cost of living on those living in poverty is really hitting all students hard. For medical students, the consequences included people having to drop out of their studies and people not being supported because they have to live on a totally inadequate youth allowance and are living in poverty and cannot afford to live. The reality of the workload of doing a medical degree is that you just have not got the time to do any part-time work, which means it's incredibly inequitable. It means that the only people that can afford to really devote themselves to their studies are those who either have been working for a long time themselves to build up the reserves so that they can continue to afford their studies or have got a very well-off family behind them that can afford to support them. This means that working-class kids, people that you'd really want to be doing a medical degree, just can't afford to do it, and they drop out.

In fact, the Medical Students Association were telling me that, for one of the people that I met with, they had seen if they could organise their study load so that they could afford to fit in part-time work, and it was basically, 'No, you need to be at uni from 8 am to 5 pm every day, so there's no time for you to do part-time work.' What was suggested to the person was that they might like to take a year off from their studies to go and work and build up some income so that they could then come back—that is, delaying their studies for yet another year and probably, because they were building up that amount of money, living in poverty for another year.

We've got to be able to do more. Although this bill is going to give support to students, it's not the direction that we need to be going in. Basically, we need to be making different budget choices. As I said earlier and as our spokesperson for education, Senator Faruqi, will be putting in the second reading amendment, we feel that we should be wiping all student debt rather than adding to student debt. The cost of wiping all student debt is estimated to be $60 billion over 10 years, which sounds like a pretty substantial amount of money—nothing to sneeze at. But what I want to point out is how affordable that would actually be if we had a government that was willing to raise the revenue, to consider that supporting students and other people to not live in poverty was worth it, and to make some budget choices in order to support people rather than giving tax breaks to the big end of town.

So we have $60 billion, on the one hand, to wipe student debt. On the other hand, how much revenue could we raise if we had a government that was serious about it? The obvious one, of course, is to scrap the stage 3 tax cuts. The stage 3 tax cuts, over 10 years, are going to cost the budget bottom line over $300 billion. That's five times the amount of revenue that would be needed to wipe out all student debt. Then you could add in the fossil fuel subsidies. We're currently subsidising the burning of coal, gas and oil, which is creating the climate crisis. We are subsidising that fossil fuel use by over $100 billion. Get rid of all of those subsidies. There we go. We've now got $400 billion that could be raised over the next decade.

We've had a lot of talk about housing and how to increase affordable housing and make rents more affordable. Instead of having negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts, you could actually be putting money into building more affordable housing. If you scrapped negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts for second, or more, properties that would save over $100 billion over the next 10 years. You could institute a billionaires tax; our proposed billionaires tax would be a six per cent tax on all of Australia's billionaires—the 122 billionaires. That's not very many people, but if you tax their wealth by six per cent annually that would raise $48 billion over the decade.

How about a super profits tax, incorporating actually getting a decent amount of money out of the petroleum resource rent tax? A 40 per cent super profits tax on corporations with more than $100 million in turnover in Australia would yield $430 billion over the decade—$430 billion! That puts the cost of wiping student debt almost into small change. These are the sorts of choices that could be made. We can afford to wipe student debt and we can afford to have income support payments above the poverty line. We can afford to put dental into Medicare. We could do all of these things if we were making different choices.

And there are a few extra things that the Greens propose. There's a coal export levy; that would raise $21.7 billion over the next 10 years. There's cracking down on tax avoidance—that would raise $4½ billion over the decade. If we add all of these up, basically, we would have a budget with over $1 trillion—a thousand million dollars—over the next 10 years to make different choices. That's the direction to create a fairer society. To create a society where no-one is left behind, these are the sorts of choices that this government should be making.

The Labor government like to talk about how they don't want anyone to be left behind. I tell them: you are leaving plenty of people behind at the moment, and doing little things like adding to student debt by having these startup loans. Those aren't going to help much; we will still have so many people who are left behind. You can make different choices. It is possible to support people and to build a just and sustainable society—to build an Australia where everybody actually does get a fair go to achieve their potential. That's what we, the Greens, are calling on the government to do: to make different choices and to create that better Australia.

5:47 pm

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

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I now speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and Other Measures) Bill 2023. This bill does three things. Schedule 1 creates an entirely new form of HECS called STARTUP-HELP, or Startup Year help. Schedule 2 increases the funding cap in the Australian Research Council Act. And schedule 3 adds Avondale University as a provider under the Higher Education Support Act.

Schedules 2 and 3 are relatively uncontroversial and should be passed before the next financial year. Deceptively, though, Labor has tied those time-sensitive measures with the controversial program in schedule 1 so that it can be whisked through. Deceit—yet another example of government deceit. Let's consider schedule 1. Let's cut through the deceit!

This bill started off with the announcement of an initial consultation paper and a student survey to seek the views of current students and recent graduates on the proposed design. It sounds like a great start, and yet the government has not published the outcomes of the survey and it has not published the submissions to the consultation paper it started. We only know about some submissions—in fact, only those submissions whose submitters published them themselves! Of these, many expressed concern about the lack of detail around four things: the criteria for inclusion of eligible programs; how students would be selected; how the allocation of 2,000 places would be distributed; and what the funding could be spent on. Those are pretty critical things and the government wants to hide them.

Given these concerns, it would make sense to have an initial pilot program. Many submissions appeared to agree with this and it was even suggested in the consultation paper. Yet, no, the government has decided that it won't do this, instead pushing straight ahead with the full implementation of an expensive and undefined, untested program, and the creation of an entirely new category of debt. The program doesn't make sense. As even the Australian Technology Network group of universities suggested, if you want to encourage startups, give the money directly to students, not to universities.

That was the government's election promise—to provide grants for startups. Instead we have this Startup Year program, where money will be going to universities. If someone has a startup idea, under this program the government won't give that person money to invest in their idea, to develop research, to produce prototypes or to get market research. Instead, the government will give money to universities, and the student will get left with a HECS debt afterwards. Reading about this program, readers might think that the intention isn't to actually support startup businesses. People might think the intention is to support universities with yet another new cash cow and to funnel extra money towards them through an entirely new type of debt.

Schedule 2 of the bill provides updated funding caps. The minister explained these new funding caps as innocent indexation adjustments. Looking at the table provided in the explanatory memorandum, we have to ask: what the hell is the basis for the indexation rate? It certainly doesn't seem to be the CPI, the consumer price index. For 2022-23, the increase is two per cent. For 2023-24, the increase is 4.8 per cent. That is 1½ times higher. For 2024-25, the increase is—wait for it—7.5 per cent. For 2025-26, the increase is 2.46 per cent.

If these increases were in line with CPI indexation, we would expect the larger indexation to apply in 2022-23—but no. Instead, the 7.46 per cent indexation won't come into effect until 2024-25 after two years of additional indexation has already been applied. So you're compounding the interest. Anyone familiar with how compound interest works will recognise that pushing the larger increase further down the line actually results in a larger increase to the funding. These increases amount to a significant additional 17 per cent or $137 million of taxpayer money going into the Australian Research Council's budget over the forward estimates. It's hard to consider these amounts as innocent indexation adjustments given their size and the deceptive way they've been applied. There's that word again; it shrouds this government—deceit.

I note that Senator Henderson intends to move amendments that in effect split the bill and set up a pilot program. Senator Henderson's amendments would carve out the Startup Year program from the funding and Avondale University matters which must be dealt with before July. They would establish a proper pilot program. This is appropriate. Let's deal with the time-sensitive matters now and then have a proper debate about this back-of-the-envelope idea from Labor for state sanctioned startups.

To properly encourage startups in this country, we need to fix the broken taxation system and make sure energy is as cheap as humanly possible. The government is crippling startups by making it difficult to start up. Shovelling money instead towards universities and building a HECS debt will do nothing to encourage business in this country. It's a transfer of wealth from students to universities. We won't let the Albanese government hold us to ransom, bundling up necessary amendments with radical programs. If not amended and if it remains dishonest and deceitful, One Nation will oppose this bill.

5:53 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank senators for their contributions to this debate. The Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and Other Measures) Bill 2023 will support the development of the skills needed to drive the businesses and technologies of the future. It will extend up to 2,000 startup, income-contingent HELP loans each year to eligible students participating in higher education based accelerator programs. These programs under this new loan type will build skills in entrepreneurship and connect students with the support, mentorship and facilities that they need to develop their startup ideas. It will commence with a pilot program and then be rolled out to universities that are approved through an application process. The success of the free programs currently offered by universities, of which the opposition have spoken, proves the point that structured courses that confer a qualification are not only sensible but in demand.

Universities have been vocal in their support for this kind of structure around the development of entrepreneurial skills. That appears to have been lost on some of those opposite. Senator O'Sullivan read from the Universities Australia submission as part of the government's consultation process. He neglected to refer to the evidence given by Universities Australia at the Senate committee hearing on this bill after the input from the consultation had been actioned by the government. At that hearing Universities Australia said that it supports and applauds the government's initiative in the establishment of the startup year. Universities Australia described the consultation process with government as first class. When asked by Senator O'Sullivan as to whether there was a value proposition for students and universities, the response from Universities Australia was, 'Absolutely.'

In the same hearing the Australian Technology Network said, 'We fundamentally think this is a great program.' The University of Technology said in its submission to the inquiry that the bill will help the next generation of young Australian entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life, and that it commends the government for exploring innovative and long-term solutions to fund and support startups. And yet the opposition have flagged that they'll oppose this bill and have tried to remove the Startup Year program from it. They say their opposition is because of a lack of detail or some uncertainty about the program. The opposition have had the benefit of briefings, the Senate committee inquiry and even the provision of draft guidelines and the program handbook well ahead of schedule to assist in their understanding of the program.

I now table the draft guidelines and handbook, noting that they will be amended further following the passage of this bill. The opposition have chosen to ignore much of the evidence from the Senate committee hearing and report. To offer paltry amendments while also opposing the bill is 'no-alition' politics at its most basic. I encourage the opposition to support this initiative in upskilling our brightest young innovators. In response to a request from the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, I table an addendum to the exploratory memorandum as well.

The bill also amends the Higher Education Support Act to list Avondale University as a table B provider, following its recent registration as an Australian university by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. The bill also mends the Australian Research Council Act 2001 to apply current indexation to funding for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 financial years and insert a new funding cut for the 2025-26 financial year, resulting in an additional appropriation to the ARC of just over $1 billion. As I referred to, this bill was considered by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which recommended passing the bill. In response to the dissenting recommendation by coalition senators, the Australian government is providing targeted cost-of-living relief that does not add to inflation, addressing supply-side problems and investing in future growth. We're making our nation's finances more sustainable. These include the government's energy package, legislation to reduce childcare costs and reductions to the costs of medicines on the PBS.

The government also intends to move an amendment in the committee stage which will align the Higher Education Support Act with the government's recently announced pathway to Australian citizenship for New Zealand citizens. The new pathway will allow eligible New Zealand citizens seeking Australian citizenship to access HELP loans whilst they do so. It fixes a long-existing gap in the HELP system where New Zealand students missed out on HELP loans for a portion of their Australian citizenship pathway. The amendment I will move is to ensure that eligible New Zealand citizens on the existing pathway to Australian citizenship will be treated the same as those embarking on the government's new pathway. As a matter of fairness, it will allow them to access HELP loans in the same way. This is a modest but important amendment, and one which deserves the support of the chamber.

The measures in this bill deliver on our election commitment and further the government's dedication to supporting our higher education sector. I commend the bill to the chamber.

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I have moved a second reading amendment on sheet 1938. The government has just tabled the guidelines. I take it in good faith that the guidelines have been tabled. I have to say I am very disappointed—

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Henderson, you don't have the call to debate that, but if the document that's been tabled has changed your position on the amendment then it would assist the chamber to indicate that.

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I haven't sighted the document, but assuming the guidelines have been tabled then the opposition will withdraw the amendment. I seek leave to withdraw my amendment.

Leave granted.

6:01 pm

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

I move the Greens' amendment on sheet 1948:

At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate notes that this bill does nothing to mitigate the student debt crisis at a time when student debts are increasing at an out-of-control pace, and calls on the Government to:

(a) recognise that education is a public good which should be free and universal;

(b) make university and TAFE fee-free; and

(c) wipe all student debt".

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the amendment moved by Senator Faruqi on sheet 1948 be agreed to.