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Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Page: 3107


Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (12:49): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (2016 Measures No. 1) Bill 2016. As we have heard, this bill proposes two new schedules to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 and related acts. The first of these changes relates to providing more support for Indigenous students and the second assists with information management. As stated by members on this side, we have made it clear that these bills are supported by the opposition. While supporting these measures, many speakers on this side have highlighted the fact that Labor continues to call on the government to do much more when it comes to education and invest much more at all levels of education. We have indeed seen some harsh cuts over the past three years. We should be seeing a greater investment, not cuts, when it comes to education.

The first schedule in this bill relates to greater support for Indigenous students. The Indigenous Student Success Program aims to address the current inequality between the higher education outcomes of Indigenous students and the higher education outcomes of students in general. Whilst over the last decade we have seen an encouraging increase in the number of Indigenous students participating in higher education, in fact there has been a 70 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous students in higher education award courses. This compares favourably to the 43 per cent growth experienced for all domestic undergraduate students. It is, however, quite disappointing that less than half—only 48 per cent—of Indigenous students who commenced their studies in 2005 had completed those studies 10 years on. This stands in stark contrast to non-Indigenous students who have a completion rate of 74 per cent. So we do have to do more to make sure that we can encourage Indigenous students into universities, provide more support and make sure they are retained in the universities and graduate. We need to create the conditions for universities to capitalise on improvements to Indigenous students' participation in higher education. We can do that by providing that whole of support to ensure they can graduate and to ensure they can succeed in their higher education studies.

This bill creates, in the Higher Education Support Act, the facility to enable assistance for Indigenous students through grants to certain higher education providers. It makes consequential amendments to other legislation to ensure that scholarships provided for under these changes will be treated in the same way as scholarships provide for under the Higher Education Support Act, particularly in relation to the calculation of income for social security purposes and eligibility for other forms of student assistance.

The amendments in schedule 1 are in response to the 2012 Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The recommendation from the review to amalgamate three Indigenous student funding sources would create greater flexibility with funding and the environment for administrators to increase their focus on addressing current problems, such as the retention and completion rates. This measure consolidates existing funding from three sources into the new Indigenous Student Success Program, which will be administered under the Higher Education Support Act. The three funding sources are the Indigenous support program, which is currently administered under the other grants guidelines, the Commonwealth scholarships program and also the tutorial assistance offered under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

The changes this bill brings to the first schedule relating to grants available for universities to support their Indigenous students is, I understand, supported by the sector. The sector highlighted that often the red tape involved in manoeuvring across three separate funding pools was an impediment and a challenge to the delivery of good service due to the fact that it was not very flexible and it had become somewhat of a burden administratively. The proposal will assist universities in better responding, in terms of having all those three pools into one. It will make it a lot more easier.

The second schedule is essentially about information management and amends various pieces of legislation to allow the Department of Education and Training to access tax file numbers of VET FEE-HELP debtors in order to streamline some of the data exchanged between the department and the Australian Taxation Office. As our speakers have said, of course we support any changes like that that do allow greater information management.

Whilst we are touching upon issues relating to VET FEE-HELP, I know some speakers on this side have highlighted what an absolute bungle it has been by the government—it really has been. We have seen over the last three years that they do not really seem to have much understanding or concern about technical and vocational education, or, indeed, about TAFE. With VET FEE-HELP, from one bungle to the next we have seen them basically do nothing. We have seen a whole range of dodgy providers run rampant. Students were being ripped off. We saw people being saddled with massive debts and huge amounts of distress because of the fact that the government failed to act on this. This crisis was continually in the media. We saw it on the front page over and over again and we kept asking the government what they were going to do about it, but they did not seem to act at all. It certainly has been blown out and the government has been too focused on their internal matters to focus on issues like this in education.

So when we are touching on any matters relating to vocational education and training I think we do have to look at what has been a complete debacle with this government across a whole range of training measures, but certainly with VET FEE-HELP. Funding for education is a really core Labor value. When it comes to education, Labor has always been the party of greater investment and focus on education. We have always looked at improving educational outcomes through a whole range of measures, because we understand how accessing a good education is life-changing.

There are many measures we are incredibly proud of, particularly the Building the Education Revolution. In my electorate I still see firsthand what an incredible difference it makes in the lives of so many students. More than 90 schools benefited from the over $100 million investment in that. Indeed, it is a very proud Labor legacy we have right throughout the country. It is built on so many Labor legacies in relation to educational opportunities.

Labor has opened the doors of our universities to thousands more Australians. Today there are 750,000 undergraduate students at Australian universities and one in four of them is there because of Labor. Compared with 2007, we have more than 36,000 extra students from low-income families in our universities. Labor has put 190,000 more students on campuses. We have boosted Indigenous student numbers by 26 per cent and regional students by 30 per cent. It is a great record, especially for my electorate of Richmond on the far North Coast of New South Wales. My focus in terms of education is making sure those regional students can access university.

Labor has a very proud record of making sure that regional and rural students can have the same access to educational outcomes as those within the cities, because we have always seen such a great divide. In contrast to all of that—the funding, the investment and the focus that Labor has had upon, particularly, higher education—we have the really harsh plan by the Turnbull Liberal-National government when it comes to higher education. Their plan is for $100,000 university degrees. I quite often hear families tell me of their disillusionment and anger with the government in regard to that particular plan, because it means they just cannot go to university. They just cannot access it.

I do not quite understand why they keep cutting it, particularly when we know that an investment in education is an investment in the country's future. When we look at the economic growth we have had in this country it has of course been achieved by many necessary economic reforms and one of the cornerstones is the raising of workforce skills through education and training. That is a reality. There is a very clear linkage between increased funding for education and economic growth. The challenges ahead are very clear. If we want to ensure that we continue to be competitive globally and that we are a fair society with a high standard of living, we have to invest in education. It is that straightforward. Our future prosperity will depend upon that transition to an economy that is more diverse and upon embracing education in this increasingly technology-driven world.

It is estimated that by 2020 two out of every three jobs created in Australia will require a diploma or a higher education qualification. The Liberal-National policies continually fail to recognise this and would indeed see us falling behind other nations, committing us potentially to a lower standard of living. We know universities across Australia are facing very significant budget cuts under this current government. It is a concern for students, parents and teaching staff. For many areas right across the nation their harsh cuts are very concerning.

I know that in my area regional Australians do not want to see $100,000 university degrees. We do not want an American-style system where only the wealthiest can afford to go to university. As I have said, there is that strong linkage between our economic growth and our investment in education. We see that all the time. We see evidence right across the board, from Australian economists and the OECD, that investment in education builds a more prosperous nation over a long period of time.

I always find it quite remarkable when we hear the Prime Minister waffling on about pursuing economic growth. If we know that investment in education is one of the best ways to do that, why does he continue to make cuts across the education sector at all levels?

We do continue to see those funding cuts at all stages, and they are all equally detrimental. We see funding cuts in early childhood education, funding cuts in schools, funding cuts for the TAFE and vocational education sectors, and apprenticeships, and, indeed, as I have referred to, we see many funding cuts for universities.

In contrast to all this, look at some of Labor's proposals before the last election. We said we would invest an extra $13 billion over the decade in higher education, including a higher education funding guarantee so that, year after year, the money to support teaching extra students in universities would continue to increase. We wanted to see an extra 20,000 students graduating each year by 2020 and were supporting those students getting a really good quality education. We made a range of other announcements as well, ensuring we got more, not fewer, students into universities and ensuring that funding really guaranteed teaching standards in our universities, and making sure that university education was in fact available. We had a very comprehensive higher education plan, particularly focused on making sure that university was much more affordable to so many people.

In schools, Labor had a very clear set of goals that we wanted to pursue over the coming years, including increasing the number of students who are being taught coding in our schools, making sure that more of our teachers have science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications, and making sure that our young people are more connected to Asia through studying Asian languages and fostering positive relationships with Asian schools. We need to set very clear goals about targets for returning Australia to being one of the top-performing school systems in the world, and we need to have a government that understands that and invests in that. Labor understood this and we acted through our commitment to Gonski, unlike those on the government side, who have continuously attacked everything about Gonski and the needs-based funding our schools really need.

The Gonski school education funding had barely even started when the government began their $29 billion cuts throughout our schools. People on this side have talked about the impact of the Gonski funding and what it meant in terms of improving literacy and numeracy outcomes by focusing on some of those children who may have fallen behind, by making sure that kids who are gifted and talented get the opportunity to explore some of their talented outcomes, by making sure things like occupational therapy or speech therapy is available to those students who need it, by ensuring that we had that needs-based funding there. In regional and rural areas, the Gonski funding was an absolute game changer. The fact that the government has cut so much funding means that those students now just will not be able to access that greater individualised training that they were getting under the Gonski funding. We were making sure that schools got the resources that they needed, and that was so important. Indeed, throughout the election one of the most positive responses I had was in relation to Labor's 'Your Child. Our Future' plan, which would have benefited every child in my electorate of Richmond, with an additional $20 million set to flow to local schools—a huge amount that would have made a massive difference. Extra funding does make a massive difference. By committing to the Gonski reforms on time and in full, every student in every school in my electorate and right throughout the country would have been better off under a Labor government. That is the reality, and parents know that.

In contrast to that, what we saw from the government side, from the Liberal and National parties, were cuts of $29 billion in classrooms over the next decade—cuts which will continue to have negative impacts on the future of our students and the future of our nation. Properly funding our schools and our educational sectors at every stage of life is vitally important, and we will continue to hold this government to account and raise these issues. Its lack of funding and continuous funding cuts are hurting the future prospects of young Australians, hurting the future prospects of our economic growth, and they are hurting, in particular, those in regional and rural areas because they limit the opportunities that younger people have. Not only do they have cuts in the whole vocational educational sector, and cuts to apprenticeships, but their access to university is limited as well. These areas, as we know, have high rates of youth unemployment, and this government has done nothing to address that. When it comes to education, we do need to see a much greater investment, not less.

In conclusion, as I and other speakers have said, we do support the measures in this bill but ultimately we want to see a greater investment in education, because those in the opposition, in the Labor Party, understand that it is education that transforms lives and it is only education that will sustain future economic growth. Labor will always continue our commitment to do that. We are very proud of what we took to the last election and we are very proud of our history and our legacy in terms of our commitment to educational funding.