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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10212


Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (12:05): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. Like many people in this place, I am one of the lucky ones. I got my tertiary education for free in that small window between when Labor made education free and when we introduced a modest fee for it. I slipped in there and went to the conservatorium at a time when people where I lived didn't go to university. I was one of four daughters. I had three incredibly smart sisters who all left school at 15 or 17 and later got their university degrees part time at night over many years. They were all very successful people, but university just wasn't on the agenda when I was growing up. I was incredibly lucky.

When I was studying, even though I was working part-time jobs to pay my rent I knew that the bulk of the costs of my education were being paid for by people who were paying taxes. I knew that the generation before me was paying for my education, and my expectation was that I would pay for the next one. I would use that education to do well, I would work and pay my taxes, and the next generation would go to university on my tax dollar, just as I went to university on that of the generation before me. That was my expectation.

Like many people at that time who were working our way through uni—in fact, 72 per cent of students at Western Sydney worked their way through—I had some weird jobs. I worked from midnight to dawn at a chicken factory. When people buy a chicken they think it has always looked like it does in the shop. Well, chickens don't die like that. It was my job, from 10 pm to 6 am, to bend those chickens' legs back into the aesthetically pleasing shape you see in the shop. They weren't like that when they reached me on the line, but they were like that when they left. At six o'clock in the morning I would take off my white babushka, my white coat and my white gumboots and go to the conservatorium to get a good piano so I could practise for three hours before my first lecture. Then I would get a few hours of sleep and go back to the chicken factory at 10 o'clock. I did that for quite a while. There were a few other weird jobs as well. In spite of that, I am well aware that the bulk of my education was not paid for by me; it was paid for by the generation before me, and I thank them every day for that.

This bill cuts $3.8 billion from our tertiary education sector on top of the $3.7 billion cut to the Education Investment Fund. To me, this is intergenerational theft. This is a sign that this generation is not prepared to do the work for the next one—that we've taken what we got for free and at someone else's expense and we have refused to pass that on. I think that is an incredible shame. This bill reduces access to education.

In Western Sydney, where I live, it is particularly unfair and unwise. The educational attainment gap in Western Sydney is 31 per cent. Tertiary qualifications among 25- to 34-year-olds in Western Sydney run at 16.5 per cent—significantly lower than the broader community. This bill says that's okay. It is not. It's not okay that people in Western Sydney have an educational attainment gap of 31 per cent. Through the cuts, this bill also puts at risk the outreach programs and the partnerships that work to reduce that attainment gap. Western Sydney works incredibly hard to reduce that number to get young people into university through a range of paths. The $98.3 million cut that Western Sydney University will sustain over the next four years puts that at serious risk.

My electorate is incredibly diverse. It's a fabulous place. People literally cross the oceans to get to Parramatta to build a better life for their children. But whether they are born here or migrated here, they have an extraordinary commitment to educating their children. Fifty per cent of students at Western Sydney University are the first in their family to go to university. As I'm quoting that figure, I'm realising that that's a 2015 figure—50 per cent in 2015 were first in families. It's actually 60 per cent now, so it's grown in two years—a great indication of the work Western Sydney University does to go out into the community and bring people into the education stream.

They say that parents are the greatest indication of a child's education. Well, in Western Sydney, 60 per cent of university students are the first in their family. If you go to a graduation ceremony at Western Sydney University you can see that, because it's a bit like a football match. Someone goes up to get their certificate, and there's cheering and hollering and shouting from the crowd. They're fabulous, fabulous moments. Seventy point two per cent work their way through. One in four students come from a low socioeconomic background, and 37 per cent speak a language other than English at home. This is a university that we in this place should be supporting to the full extent. This is a university doing the hard lifting in Western Sydney, working to close that educational attainment gap, and it's an extraordinary place. It's a great place to visit.

So let's look at what impact these cuts will have. They do a range of things. For all the talk of innovation and jobs and growth, they actually make access to education much more difficult. It's a $3.8 billion cut, even though Australia already has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD, and our students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD. This will make the situation even worse. Students will be hit with higher fees, and they'll have to pay off larger debts sooner. They'll have to start paying back their loan while they're earning $42,000 instead of $54,869. The HELP repayments will hit students at a time when they're trying to save for a house or start a family, and $42,000 is only $6,000 more than the minimum wage. By the time you take transfer payments and marginal tax rates into account, we'll see a situation where a person earning $51,000 will have less disposable income than someone earning $32,000.

The government doesn't like to talk about it, but that will also flow through to those who have received VET FEE-HELP or VET student loans for TAFE and vocational education or training. It also attempts to introduce fees for enabling courses. Enabling courses are all those ways that universities have of assisting people who perhaps didn't go to high school or are older. They may have workplace qualifications but not university entrance qualifications. They are ways for universities to take people into the possibility of a university education. Because they don't give qualifications, they've been free. But, under this bill, there'll be charges of up to $3,200 for these courses. Again, that alone would put these courses out of reach of many, many people in Western Sydney and put a hold on one of the great attempts to close that education gap.

Of course, for New Zealanders and permanent residents, there's a nasty in this bill. For the majority of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents studying in Australia, fees will jump significantly, as they'll no longer be able to access Commonwealth supported places. For a lot of the New Zealanders in my electorate who are working very hard to provide the best possible opportunities for their children, this is a serious blow. It simply beggars belief that many of those families would be able to afford the full rates to educate their children. It's not good for that person or for Australia to have large numbers of people who are cut out of university because of an inability to pay.

I want to talk particularly about my fabulous university and the role it plays in Western Sydney. For me, it's one of the great universities. It's incredibly innovative. It built a wonderful building across the road from my office. I had to put up with all the jackhammers for ages, but, once it topped out, it was fine. It's the most extraordinary place, where people gather. It has full IT support. Every wall is a moving whiteboard. It's an extraordinary place for new ways of thinking and for people to assemble to solve problems. The university has been working really hard on stimulating innovation in Western Sydney. It has a start-up incubator called Launch Pad and a small-to-medium tech enterprise accelerator, and neither of those would be able to continue—both would be at serious risk—under what is a $98 million cut to the university. These nice add-ons that the university provides, which solve problems in the community, reach out into the communities and take the skills of universities out into the community, are the things that get cut first as the universities get their budgets cut and pull back to the courses that they deliver. That would be an incredible shame, because it's a great program and we're already seeing the benefits of it.

They have 400 knowledge jobs created at Penrith—again, something outside the standard course structure and something that would be incredibly at risk under these budget cuts. It puts an end, really, to Western Sydney's ability to partner with industry and government in proven job creation programs like, for example, Western Sydney University's co-investment with the Commonwealth in the $30 million Werrington Park Corporate Centre in 2013. Part of the Suburban Jobs Program, this facility brings more than 400 high-value jobs to Penrith in outer Western Sydney, something incredibly important for the region, good for the local economy and good for families that benefit from these really high-skilled jobs.

We also have strategies within Western Sydney University to prepare the labour market for digital disruption, and these would be at risk. Western Sydney University, for example, initiates tests and invests in courses that support the changing labour market paradigms. Starting these courses has high transactional costs initially. It takes a while for these things to take off. For example, the university has recently developed courses in fields such as digital cultures, data visualisation, innovation and change, enterprise innovation and markets, leadership and entrepreneurship, social web analytics, robotics and automated manufacturing—all courses with high start-up costs and high transactional costs that will not generate the kinds of returns that would make them self-sustaining for quite some time. Universities in all places need to be in these spaces.

When I go out into my community in Western Sydney, one of the things I really notice that is perhaps our biggest difficulty at the moment is people with great ideas or great capacity being able to find others with whom to partner and finding fertile ground for ideas to land. You will have a great entrepreneur there, a person with a great idea there and a person with a great need over there, and there are very few places where those people will actually see each other. There's no mirror in Western Sydney that allows a person with a great idea to look and say, 'Well, there's me, and there's my community around me.' So we waste an incredible capacity by not having those linkages.

I know that, even in the last four or five years, the work that Western Sydney University has done in reaching out to the community to build those connections, not just between the university and others but within the community itself, is quite phenomenal. I have mentioned some of those programs, but there is also that extraordinary building they built across the road which is designed for that. It's designed to become a thought hub, a place where a community can think, where it can share its ideas, where it can recognise its skills deficits and where the university can step in, as they have in many of those new courses, and provide structured training in some of the new job areas. That's where our universities need to be.

Now is not the time to try and force universities to pull back to their core activity. Now is not the time for that. It's the time to grow it. It's the time for our best minds within universities and in the community to get together and find ways to position us for 20 years ahead. How a university does that when it's facing these kind of cuts I just don't know, and I know that my university will find it increasingly difficult to do that.

We've had great work by all of our universities in the last few years in trying to position their education programs for the new requirements of work and the new requirements of business, and they are profoundly different from the requirements of even five years ago. They will be profoundly different again in five years time, and that's the space that we need our universities to be in. We need universities working with local business and with local thought leaders and local innovators to work out exactly what we need for the future and deliver it.

These cuts will send us backwards. They will send my families backwards. They will send the economy backwards. They will send the community backwards. There couldn't be a worse time to do it. For all the talk about innovation—being an innovation country, being an innovation leader—and for all the talk of this government about jobs and growth, this is probably one of the most anti-jobs and anti-growth acts that this government could do, because the jobs of the future will come from these kinds of programs and these budget cuts put them at risk.