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Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Page: 10102


Ms TEMPLEMAN (Macquarie) (18:04): From 1996 to 1999, Prime Minister John Howard and his education ministers consistently and systematically attacked the Australian higher education system. Two billion dollars was taken from the university system in that period alone. Clearly, cutting university funding is in the Liberals' DNA. The Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017 would bring about almost double those cuts, $3.8 billion, and, on top of that, $4 billion to go from the education infrastructure fund. The Group of Eight, representing Australia's top universities, describes it as 'the most brutal cuts by a federal government in more than 20 years'. And this comes at a time when the need for post-school education has never been as high.

Right from the start, I want to make clear that the TAFE and university sectors both require fair funding. Both have a vital and complementary role in skilling up the workforce for employment opportunities that lie ahead of us in the 21st century. Let's talk, though, about the impact of these government cuts to university education on students. When Labor were last in government, we lifted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013—$1 billion a year, every year, of improvement. What was even more significant than that money was that we opened the door to universities to an additional 190,000 Australians. Many of them were the first in their family to go to university.

But this government's decision to increase student fees delivers a blow to aspiring students just like them. In my electorate of Macquarie, students attend universities all over Sydney and beyond—Wollongong, Charles Sturt, Newcastle—but a large number, around 2,000 of them at any one time, attend Western Sydney University, and more than half of them are the first in their family to go to university. This university, Western Sydney University, is the uni that will lose the biggest amount of any university in New South Wales.

I just want you to imagine what it's like to be the first in your family to consider going to university. The current university fees are daunting enough, but this bill means that if you're thinking about university they're going to get worse. I have noticed in my time here that those opposite seem to lack a bit of imagination. It might be hard to imagine, if they were lucky enough to have a whole family of tertiary people around them and have an expectation that university was their path. I was lucky enough to have that expectation, but I see so many kids where that is not the case. So I'm going to ask you to imagine, just for once, Deputy Speaker, what it's like. I'd ask those on the other side to imagine what it's like.

It isn't easy being the first in your family, especially when people quiz you on just what job you'll do when you've got your arts degree or even your master's. And trying to explain what a master's is—that's a whole other conversation. It's hard to explain that the skills you learn, which I know these kids learn, are sometimes as much about the journey of processing huge amounts of information, researching things, taking on new ideas and turning them into a coherent argument. It's as much about that as the actual subject itself. Until you've done your degree, you don't even realise what you've learnt or where it might help you contribute to the world of work. So it can be hard trying to explain to your family that you're just not sure what your major will be, let alone what job you might ultimately do. I see the uncertainty of young people, really capable young people, who are not sure if university is for them, because no-one in their family has ever done it before. It doesn't take much to discourage or dampen that ambition, to deter them from pursuing it and to destroy their confidence in themselves. It's a really intimidating situation.

This government might think you can keep making it harder and harder for people to lift their educational standards, but future employers and our economy will pay a heavy price for this failure to invest in higher education. One of the most short-sighted and mean parts of this bill is around funding for enabling courses. The crushing of confidence is nowhere more apparent than in the decision to introduce fees for enabling courses. Enabling courses help students prepare for university study. These students are overwhelmingly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, until now, these courses have been free. Even then it's daunting. It's a taste of what might come, and that in itself is intimidating. It's a pathway for students to test and see whether they could thrive in a university environment and whether they're ready for a degree course.

Now the government is trying to make students pay $3,200 for these courses. The member for Dobell and I did some quick calculations, and we worked out a way that this might be able to be removed from this legislation. The cost of the marriage equality survey—that's $122 million—would pay for around 38,000 enabling courses. We think that would be a much better use of money. As it is, these young kids and older people who haven't been to university but who think that it might be a way forward for them to improve their professional standing and to give them a broader job opportunity are now facing a $3,200 bill.

The danger of the change, which will affect in my electorate, on average, about two dozen people who go to Western Sydney University at any one time, is that these people will simply be deterred from even considering entering university. Right now we should be encouraging people, young and older, to be exploring their education options so that they're equipped for the workforce. All this measure will do is marginalise a group of people, stifle their hope and stifle their opportunity. That may well be the aim of those opposite, although I hope not—to keep people in their place and not give them access to ambition.

I also want you to imagine what impact this bill has on people paying back their HELP debt. After years of subsistence as a student, followed by the time it takes to get a full-time job even with a degree, it can feel good to have a half-decent income, not just a mishmash of casual hospitality jobs that so many students use to support themselves through that study. But, before you've even had a chance to build your savings and get ahead, the repayment kicks in. At $54,869, as it stands now, there is a bit of a buffer, but under this bill you have to start paying back the loan you've accrued when you're earning $42,000. That's only $6,000 above the minimum wage. In Sydney, and in my electorate in particular, that doesn't go very far. When you do the numbers, an income of $51,000 with tax taken out and repayments made means you actually leave someone with $32,000 in disposable income. So, if you adjust those figures down, you are making life really, really difficult. It's another disincentive to people who look to university education to lift their job prospects and earning power that it will become an even longer slog to get your head above water financially.

As the National Union of Students says, these changes leave young Australians far worse off than generations before them. They point out:

This generation is already faced with a severely insecure job market, low wages and a housing market that is in crisis.

Already they face the sixth-highest university fees in the OECD countries. Their fear is of a lifetime of serious debt. And let's not assume that the students are only interested in the impact on themselves. As the NUS says, higher education is Australia's third-largest export, and expenditure of 0.7 per cent of GDP returns around eight per cent in GDP. So it is a small investment for a big return, and that's just one part of the equation.

One of the other impacts of this bill, inevitably, is that it will likely dent the quality that Australian universities are able to provide, which puts at risk that international reputation. Just this month, eight Australian universities were listed in the top 100 for their ability to produce employable students, something we would all welcome. But the global rankings editorial director, Phil Baty, has said that these cuts to government funding could actually result in Australia's standing falling. He said:

It is good news that Australia's universities have held steady in this year's table but funding cuts proposed by the government could seriously harm the country's institutions in future editions of the rankings.

Mr Baty points out that the data shows Australia's leading institutions are already starting to fall behind peers in mainland China and Hong Kong, who, of course, not only are sources of students for our export dollars but also will compete for those export dollars. So really this bill is not great for the economy.

Another short-sighted decision in this bill is to cut the Education Infrastructure Fund—the extra $4 billion cut. This fund, established under Labor, has helped create innovative and modern learning and research spaces around the country. I know a bit about three of them. The Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges & Education in Darwin—ACIKE—is a collaboration between the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and Charles Darwin University. This fund allowed a building to be created, a space where Indigenous learning could happen. ACIKE aspires to international renown for excellence in teaching programs, community engagement and research endeavours all through this state-of-the-art learning hub. It is a real asset for Darwin and for higher education in Darwin.

Another facility funded by the EIF is the nanoscience lab—one of the most advanced research and teaching facilities globally in the field of nanoscience—at the University of Sydney. I know very little about nanoscience, but what I know is that to do the research you need an incredibly stable building. It can't move when the wind blows outside or when the trains run underneath. This centre houses high-level research in one of the most advanced buildings on this planet. It looks into areas of battery technology and the growing field of photonics, where you have laser lights directly interacting with traditional semiconductors, and all this cutting edge technology.

The third building that has been funded under the EIF that I know of and have familiarity with is what was originally called the Centre for Climate Change and Energy Research—now called the UWS Institute for the Environment—in Richmond on the Hawkesbury campus of Western Sydney University. Again, this is a place doing world-leading research. In fact, researchers from all over the world move to my electorate to do their research here. I had the privilege of taking the climate change shadow minister, Mark Butler, to this site just a few weeks ago to look at some of the incredible work they're doing on soil biology, genomics and plant and animal interactions.

One of the projects that they're doing is the 'eucalyptus free air CO2 enrichment experiment', otherwise known as EucFACE. This is a series of six metal structures in the Cumberland Plain. They surround patches of bush. They are nine storeys high, with 43-metre cranes hanging above them. In this open structure, which looks a bit like a cylinder with metal prongs sticking up, is native bush, and CO2 is pumped into it. It's pumped in at an elevated concentration similar to that which is predicted to occur in the next 35 years. It is billed as the most complex climate change experiment in the world, and the data that is constantly generated in the soil, in the canopy and everywhere in between is made available to researchers globally. None of this would have been possible without the Education Investment Fund. I can only imagine what new innovations we are going to miss out on because this government has effectively suffocated opportunities for universities to build these incredible spaces. Those are some of the immediate impacts.

When I look at my local university, Western Sydney University, I see we are going to lose jobs. Those jobs will be based on all the campuses—Penrith, Hawkesbury, Werrington, Parramatta. We're also going to potentially lose the opportunity to nurture SMEs, start-ups and entrepreneurs. This is something the university does out of its surplus funding—a whole $10 million surplus, not very much in the big scheme of things, but that surplus is going to disappear. I worry about the jobs we will lose, the innovation we will miss out on, the opportunities that the students at that university will not have—but, even more than that, the opportunities that will be lost to students who make the decision that they can't face a debt of the size that this bill will land on them. That's actually our economic future we are talking about. We are making a choice in this parliament. If those on the opposite side support this bill, it is an active decision to reduce the opportunity for higher education that students around this country have, and that is shameful.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Buchholz ): I thank the honourable member and I'm sure she was aided by 'the member for Port Adelaide' and not 'Mr Butler'. I just remind members to refer to other members by their correct titles. I give the call to the honourable member for Kingsford Smith.