Higher Education Support Bill - Tuesday 15 October 2019

15 October 2019

Today, as we debate the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support (Cost Recovery) Bill 2019, we see that we are essentially debating legislation designed to shift some of the modest costs of administering the Higher Education Loan Program to higher education providers themselves. Labor doesn't oppose this legislation due to the very small impact that it will have on the sector and, indeed, because the bills do not seek to pass these costs on to Australian students. But, while we are cautiously supportive, we will be monitoring the progression of these measures very closely and the ramifications that they could have on students, because you can't look at this particular legislation in isolation from the government's overall higher education and skills agenda—or lack of agenda, as I would frame it. This is a government that seems set on making life harder for those seeking an education in our nation. We shouldn't be a nation that will tolerate a situation where further costs are passed on to Australian students. This is not a value shared by those opposite. Since the election of the coalition to government in 2013, we've seen universities and students systematically and constantly under attack through the callous actions of this government. There were your initial attempts to create a system of full $100,000 degrees, and the government also forced students to begin paying off their HELP debts once they began earning just $45,000 a year.

I highlight to the chamber today that the $45,000 a year at which you start paying back this debt is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. When Australian students work hard for many years, often working multiple jobs to support themselves—and they do that to earn themselves a qualification and a skill in the field that they are interested in—it is galling that they're forced to start repaying their HELP loan for their degree just as they're starting out in a new industry and trying to establish themselves in what can be a very competitive workforce. And it should be of no surprise to those in this chamber that there are many Australians who find the idea of a HELP loan a disincentive to undertaking study at all.

It's not just Australians who deserve a good income from having a good education and from putting in that time. We need, as a nation, to support Australians getting these qualifications because we need their skills. The economy absolutely demands that. This kind of debt can be a significant barrier to study for students from lower income families, and paying that back while on a lower income can be seen to exacerbate that reality.

I was delighted during the 45th Parliament to serve as Labor's shadow assistant minister for universities. I know from that experience that, by and large, universities, peak bodies and other organisations have a strong commitment to supporting Australians in their education. They understand that Australia's economy should be a smart one, one that's well resourced, and that that resourcing of education is absolutely key to success. One of the things that Labor did in government back in 2008 was create the Education Investment Fund, a fund for the development of research infrastructure to provide refurbishment of TAFEs and universities. We've seen 71 projects worth $7 billion in new investment under that program, but this government has now tried three times to abolish this important fund. Again, you are seeking to hold the nation to ransom by saying, 'You can have your disaster mitigation, or you can have quality education infrastructure, but you can't have both,' expecting Australians to say: 'Oh, my goodness! We can't leave people without disaster relief.' Well, you would be the ones leaving them without disaster relief, because you will not prioritise the funding of that disaster relief without it being at the expense of infrastructure in our nation's education system. You should be completely called out on that fact.

This is just one of the many ways that you have been damaging our education system. The government tried to argue that universities are wealthy, asset-rich institutions and can make more provisions for their own needs. Well, from the universities that I have visited the demand for infrastructure is large and it's meeting real gaps for students' educational needs. We have in our nation also experienced, thanks to this government, a $2.2 billion cut out of our education system in a malicious attack. The government has re-capped undergraduate places, and this has locked thousands of students out of the opportunity of a university education.

So let me break this down into some numbers for you. Thousands of students in years 11 and 12 right now, working hard in school, deserve a spot that they have earned through the marks that they've got, but thousands of those students will not have an opportunity for higher education through university. Why? Because you capped university places back in 2000 and—I can't remember the year, but I know that over the course of the cap it is about 230,000 students nationwide that the system will not have grown by. That means there are 230,000 fewer places for Australian students by the time you go back not to a demand-driven system but just to allowing growth in the system according to population growth.

This is the wrong attitude. We need to be a country that is strong, that has a strong economy and that has decently paid jobs, and that is why we believe our top priority is an investment in education. You are severely limiting our capacity for economic growth with this agenda. We know that the opportunity to sustain growth in the long term across governments in our nation must be driven by investment in education and the capacity of our Australian citizens. Education is a nation-building exercise. When Labor brought in Australia's world renowned income-contingent-loan scheme in 1989, it was created because we believed, as we do now, that funding education is an investment into our nation's future prosperity. HECS was about expanding the number of university places so that we could be that kind of economy. But we can see now more than ever—not that those on the other side have ever tried to hide this—that the truth is that our people in our nation are not getting access to the education they deserve. This government is more concerned about the appearance of keeping the budget in surplus than about the future skilled workers of our great nation.

The kinds of trade-offs you're talking about—the nation-building capacity of access to higher education, of access to skills and TAFE, of quality infrastructure for our universities—are all stuff that we need to grow the economy. The idea that you can hold that to ransom and just cut it away because, you argue, if you don't cut it, you can't afford drought relief and disaster relief for our nation is patently absurd. We need to invest in education in our nation in order to be able to fund emergency responses, in order to be able to research how to respond to emergencies in our nation.

If participation rates in higher education and vocational training fall as the population increases, there will be fewer people of prime working age who can effectively participate in the labour market of the future, and this is my grave fear. We've had the Mitchell Institute state that, because of the Liberals' reckless cuts, up to 235,000 Australians are missing out on a university education. The long-term and rigorous gutting that the coalition have been putting our higher education sector through over their time in government is absolutely short-sighted and unfair. Labor believe in equal access to education. Every student who has the ability and who is prepared to work hard should have the opportunity to get a university or TAFE qualification. We currently have a skills shortage in Australia. It's key to my own shadow portfolio of manufacturing. It's across the board in the bricklaying, plumbing and electrical trades, with Australia having 150,000 fewer apprentices. We are growing more desperate for skilled workers, and that need will only grow into the future. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship today is lower than it was a decade ago. And you can see that. Manufacturers in Australia are talking about the quality of the skills of their staff and the issues they are now confronting with not having an appropriately skilled workforce. There are more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than there are people finishing them. And a report from the Australian Industry Group states that 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. So what are the government doing to help us train the workers of the future? What have they done? They've cut federal support for TAFE and training by some $3 billion. They're locking Australians out of TAFE and training and they're holding Australia back from the prosperity that it deserves.

We want every student in our nation who has the ability and is prepared to work hard to have the opportunity of a quality education. We want to boost participation, increase equity and create more pathways for students to access university and TAFE. Currently, I'm sad to say, a young person in Sydney's North Shore is five times more likely to get a university education than a young person living in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland is. In my own state of Western Australia, a young person from the inner suburbs of Perth is around three times more likely to have a degree than a young person from Mandurah is. The electorate of Canning, where Mandurah is located, is full of bright and talented students. We fundamentally believe that the intellect and effort of these students should be rewarded. Whether or not they go to university or TAFE should not be determined by where they live or by their bank balance. Just 14.7 per cent of young people living in Mandurah have a bachelor's degree—less than half the national average. That's not just young people but people aged 25 to 34. And I have to say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that that difference is not made up by them having TAFE or other trade qualifications. They are, in general terms, less qualified, and that is an absolute shame and completely unacceptable.

We must do more and we must do better. We should not let distance and income be such a large barrier to young Australians accessing education. We owe it to Australians to make sure they can access excellent TAFE and excellent universities. However, this government seems to be intent on destroying both. As I said in my opening remarks, we cautiously support this bill, but let's be clear: the university sector has suffered under this government, with devastating impacts on young Australians and the economy at large.