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Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Page: 3103


Mr HILL (Bruce) (12:35): I am pleased to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016, not to oppose but it but indeed to support it. That is a good thing and worth remarking on, because I know people in the gallery and elsewhere in Australia often have the erroneous impression that we disagree about everything. That is not the case, although you might not believe that from watching question time, which misses the fact that on many issues there is strong support across the chamber.

This bill, as we have heard, has two elements, two schedules, the first being changes to arrangements regarding assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to participate in and, as the member for Durack pointed out, graduate from university. The second I would characterise, having tried to read the amendments last night, as—and no offence to the drafters!—mind-numbingly boring but very, very sensible technical amendments to facilitate better data sharing between government agencies in relation to all HELP debtors.

While this is worthy enough, I do want to remark that it is not exactly substantial education reform, is it? I suppose the House should be grateful that these two elements or schedules have been combined into a single bill, which is a nice change from some of the habits we have seen in the past few weeks of splitting things into multiple bills to fill time in the House and distract from the fact that the government really appears to have no agenda. At least today we are not—although it is early in the day, and who knows what will come later—fixing grammar and punctuation and rearranging clauses and calling that deregulation. But I will make some brief comments in turn about each of the schedules and areas. As has been noted by the member for Griffith, this bill provides an important opportunity also to reflect on the broader context in relation to education policy and on what is not in the bill and what is lacking.

In relation to the first schedule, the objective of the provisions to combine the three existing programs is fine. Who could argue, really, with the stated goal of allowing universities and institutions to better decide, as suits their circumstances and students, how best to support their students to study, succeed and complete their qualifications? And I do not mean just to enrol, but to study. I saw this firsthand in my previous life, when I was a public servant who sometimes drafted such pieces of legislation. One of the most privileged tasks I had in my time in the Victorian Public Service was as the senior executive responsible for oversight of Indigenous policy coordination across the Victorian government and for managing the Commonwealth-state liaison. In that time I actually worked for a Liberal-Nationals coalition government and minister, and it was an area where we did have broadly bipartisan agreement and worked around the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs framework and economic strategy. In talking to elders across the state and to communities and in diving into the policy, it became absolutely clear that education is the key to solving long-term disadvantage and economic opportunity. From all the work and research and conversations, we realised that the single most important thing we could do in the long term for Indigenous people was to help them succeed in education and lay the foundations for a prosperous life.

The early results in Victoria in relation to early childhood and school completion rates in the past few years were encouraging. Indeed, participation in higher education has improved across the country. That needs to flow through. As we know, targeted support is absolutely critical at every level, but it is fair to say that it is not necessarily received by every student. We need to be careful not to put some kind of welfare disadvantage frame over every individual Indigenous student, because of course many students come from the kinds of backgrounds and have the kind of intellect and aspiration to sail through university and succeed. But the evidence is clear that the systemic disadvantage—the intergenerational disadvantage—requires this kind of support for the foreseeable future.

In the last decade we have seen a 70 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students awarded higher education courses, but that compares with a 43 per cent increase across all domestic undergraduate students, and it is a fantastic thing that that rate of entry into the higher education system is improving and increasing faster than the broader population. But, as the data says and the explanatory memorandum makes clear, completion rates are a problem, and only 48 per cent of Indigenous students, compared to 74 per cent of other domestic students, completed their studies between 2005 and 2014.

While on completion rates, I have heard in the minister's second reading speech, the explanatory memorandum and the previous comments of the member for Durack 'if only the government had paid attention to completion rates more broadly across the board'. The evidence is clear that attrition rates have become worse in the last few years. Indeed, this was a key point of difference between the government's policy and Labor's policy at the last election—and it is still up there on the website—that quality and encouraging and supporting students not just to sort of churn in and enter the system but to complete their qualifications is critical. Enrolment at university is not an end in itself.

The Department of Education figures show that 23 per cent of people who started a degree as full-time students in 2006 had not completed it after eight years. I should just do a true confession moment and say that I was one of those students who meandered their way through a chemistry degree and a law degree. I did kind of get to nine years and think: 'Oh, God, they are about to throw me out. They gave me 10.' So having a time limit was a great motivator to complete those last few subjects and exit university.

With the Commonwealth investing $14 billion plus of taxpayers' funding in universities every year, it is important that we reflect on the data that is coming out and see what we need to do to improve completion rates. A Shorten Labor government's commitment at the election was to have quite an ambitious goal to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates by 2020, and to work with the university sector to introduce more incentives into the demand-driven system to achieve that improvement.

You cannot go past the topic of completion rates without remarking on the disgraceful failure of the government in relation to the VET system and completion rates. It is a scandal, as everyone knows. Billions of dollars was wasted in rorts. In fact we debated that legislation in the last sitting week, I believe, and it has just sailed through a Senate inquiry—I would not say 'sailed through'; many flaws have been picked up, given the rush. But billions of dollars have been wasted on dodgy private providers, leaving vulnerable students across the country, and certainly in my electorate, with a mountain of debt for effectively no meaningful qualification.

Completion rates were one of the clearest warning signs that something was amiss in the last two to three years. They were matters that Labor kept pointing out. At which point, we were told it was somehow all our fault and we designed the system badly. Absolutely, there were improvements that were needed in the system. But, at the end of the day, if you are in government, if you are sitting in the chair, it is what you do in 2015 and 2016 that matters, not what happened in 2012. And, indeed the starkest reminder, in a statistical sense, is that in 2014 the graduation rate in the largest 10 private providers across the country was five per cent. So $900 million of federal money was invested to produce a five per cent graduation rate in a vocational set of courses, which amounts to $215,000 for every graduate.

So the focus on completion rates is correct—it is laudable—but it is somewhat hypocritical given the government's complete failure in the vocational space and lack of attention in the broader higher education area. Again, as in the vocational area, they would be well advised to have a look at Labor's policy, talk to us and see what we could agree on together.

It is good that they are finally talking about completion rates. On that point of picking up Labor policy, I do have to note that the intent of combining these three programs arose in 2012 from a Labor commissioned review. In fact, it was the Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that recommended Commonwealth scholarships for Indigenous students be amalgamated and that overall these programs be reformed. They were recommendations 13 and 17, as the explanatory memorandum, the background section, notes.

Concluding my remarks on this schedule in the bill, I do have to note the last line in the explanatory memorandum: 'No savings were taken through this Budget measure.' That is a cause for celebration to be remarked upon—indeed, you may want to frame it as a collector's item—that this government proposed a budget measure in relation to higher education without taking a hack and cutting funding.

As we know—at least, as we on this side of the House believe—investing in education is the single most important thing that we can do to maintain Australia's prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. It will underpin innovation across the economy. The OECD continues to remind us that the best investment a nation in a situation like ours can make is in improving our human capital—that is, investing more into education and infrastructure, which is a topic for another day. Contrast this government's continued efforts to hack and cut the higher education sector with the investments that our neighbours, partners and competitors in the Asia or Indo-Pacific region are making, and we are really putting our future prosperity at risk. That is why, again, the government would be well advised to have a look at Labor's policy around the student funding guarantee to provide greater certainty for universities and remove the need for higher fees.

Schedule 2, relating to the VET and technical amendments, deals with administrative processes. It will see agencies efficiently exchange loan data. There is no argument with that—they are sensible technical amendments—but it must be disappointing for the government to have to keep talking about the VET FEE-HELP scheme again, because they introduced this bill before they introduced their last-minute fix-up four years on to the entire VET loan system only a week ago. Of course, if the government had acted more quickly, billions would have been saved. Instead, successive ministers—five, actually—in the vocational space failed. I think I did the math last time I spoke: on those averages, the current minister's tenure will end in about February. As we have said, we have no issue with the bill as drafted, but we are deeply concerned about the rest of the government's education agenda, or lack thereof.

I doorknocked 14,000 houses in my electorate during the election campaign. I had a street stall in three or four suburbs in various parts of my electorate only this Saturday. The public focus on education has not abated. It is indeed, in a social sense, the great equaliser. It has been the key over time to Australia's higher levels of social mobility, to our great egalitarian society, and people get that. As the member for Griffith outlined, the proud history of Labor—stemming from the Whitlam government's bold decision to open up higher education to everyone based on merit, not their ability to pay—is something that Labor will always be proud of. Our reforms and commitment to access to higher education continue. That is why we oppose the $100,000 degrees, full deregulation, the Americanisation of our university system, which would have left students with a lifetime of debt, which everyone, in their honest moments, knows would deter students from low-income families from entering higher education, maintaining our social mobility. As I have said, it is fundamentally unfair.

Indeed, there is still a lot of love for Gough out there. I was chatting to a local chap called Stavros at the Waverley Gardens Shopping Centre on the weekend. He remembered fondly—he is an older chap—that it was his generation who benefited from free education from the Whitlam government, and he believes that Labor should return to its roots and reintroduce free education. We had a robust conversation, as you tend to do with some people. We did agree in the end that it probably was not, fiscally, the right thing to do. There was a strong policy case for people who benefited throughout their lives and received higher incomes to reinvest some small percentage of that in their education. Nevertheless, the people keep us honest.

The final thing I would say in closing in relation to economic prosperity is that it is profoundly dumb for Australia, not just at a social level but at an economic level, to pursue this government's agenda of locking the poorest students out of the system—those from working-class families; those who, as the member for Griffith said, have come from families that have never had anyone enter or complete higher education.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this bill. We do think that this is a technical bill and that it will sail through, but as always with this government it is an opportunity, and a sad opportunity, to reflect on what is not being put forward to the parliament—important matters that may actually improve the education system as opposed to tweak around administrative arrangements, as necessary as they may be.