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Monday, 26 March 2018
Page: 2708

Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (16:51): I rise to speak against the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018 because it is a blatant attack on Australian students. This bill stands to undermine the fairness of our nation's student loan scheme. Once again, my colleagues and I stand in this House railing against the Turnbull government's unfair and inequitable policies, which rip funding away from the most vulnerable to pave the path for the big end of town.

This legislation stands against everything we know to be vital to encourage post-secondary education. It throws up yet another roadblock for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. It is a disincentive to the lifelong learning all progressive Australians know will be necessary to build the agile, smart workforce needed to futureproof our nation's industries and economy and to keep pace on the global stage—something the Prime Minister repeats over and over again as he ties our students' hands behind their backs. As it stands, the bill sets a new minimum repayment threshold of $45,000, which is just $9,000 above the minimum wage. It introduces a new combined loan limit, capping the amount students can borrow to cover their tuition fees. In these two points alone, there are two clear disincentives to post-secondary study. Those coming into the workforce on entry-level wages are often at a stage in life where they're trying to plan for a family or save for a home, and they are going to be slugged with extra financial imposts they can ill afford. Placing a limit on the amount students can borrow across their lifetime will really greatly hinder their ability to adopt the long-term theoretical, academic and practical skill development we know will be vital as technology changes what we do and, more importantly, how we live.

In typical fashion, this bill is all about saving the Turnbull government money, and a lot of it. The changes to programs including VET student loans, HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP will save the government $345.8 million in fiscal balance across four years. Changes to the Student Financial Supplement Scheme will claw the government back an additional $32.3 million in cash balance across four years. Of course, those two amounts alone will very neatly cover the Turnbull government's $65 billion tax breaks for big business. But what's the real cost to our country?

I am a proud alumnus of the University of Newcastle. I was born in the regional town of Heddon Greta, and I'm fortunate I came through my tertiary years at a time when education was truly accessible for all Australians. I started in 1989, the first year of HECS. I was happy to contribute to pay my bit, but now things aren't so rosy. Australian students in the year 2018 already make the sixth-highest contribution to their university fees in the OECD.

I know many families in my electorate—and there is profound socioeconomic disadvantage in some of these areas—where an erosion of the existing student supports will mean post-secondary education becomes nothing more than a pipedream. And, being first in family to go to university, I understand just how powerful that can be. These are areas where unemployment rates outstrip the national average, where youth joblessness is at crisis point, where people struggle to pay their electricity bills and where public transport is non-existent or so intermittent it might as well be useless. We know beyond doubt that higher debt is a massive disincentive for lower socioeconomic and disadvantaged students considering further education. They don't want that millstone around their neck.

We also know that, in this time of global economic transition, we need to invest in people. We need to build lifelong learners who embrace change and accept that growth and development are the only guarantee of future success. Why then are we making it harder for people to get post-secondary qualifications? Why are we making it more expensive to be smarter? It is just crazy economics. If we can for a moment take a break away from the Turnbull government's budget-centric view of managing our nation, there are many, many ways we could take a holistic approach towards encouraging post-secondary education.

Earlier this month, I met with Professor Caroline McMillen, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, and Leah Anderson, from the Tomaree Business Chamber, who also happens to be the Port Stephens Woman of the Year. We were discussing the barriers to post-secondary education faced by young people in Port Stephens. You may not have heard of Port Stephens, Deputy Speaker, but I imagine you have heard of Nelson Bay, which is the heart of this blue-water wonderland. It's an idyllic place for a beach getaway, but if you're a young person it can feel like the end of the earth. There is literally one road in and the same road out. There's only public transport via bus. The services are infrequent and the trip to Newcastle is long. Connectivity is a massive disincentive for students, jobseekers and even employees. There is a steady bleed of established professionals out of the area. It's blatantly obvious, then, that offering young people transport so that they can access training, education and even employment would make a massive difference to their lives, their futures and our economy.

As Deputy Chair of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, I have sat in on a great many hearings across our country, hearing from people in our regional and rural communities about the issues they face. Whilst each area is diverse and boasts its unique set of opportunities and challenges, many could be cut and pasted from one town to the other. The big issues include connectivity, whether it be physical connection through public transport or internet connection through our failed NBN. I note the shadow minister sits at the table. She has worked so tirelessly for people across the nation who are just screaming out for decent connectivity. Educational opportunities are also going begging, as is quality health care. These are the things that people want in regional and remote parts of Australia. We must get these fundamentals right from day dot if we're going to level the playing field and ensure more young Australians get on a pathway to success earlier in their lives, especially if we'd like them to take up places in regional and rural Australia. Australia must do everything it can to support its young people, and the Turnbull government must really end this war that they seem to be waging on our youth, making it so hard. Young people are the very future of this nation, at every level and in every way. We must facilitate, encourage and enable, not throw up roadblocks and disincentives at every turn.

Universities Australia and the National Union of Students found that in 2012 two-thirds of Australian students lived below the Henderson poverty line and one in five students regularly skip meals. How can the Turnbull government, with any conscience, now lower the student loan repayment threshold? In many instances, these young people have worked in casual, low-paid positions to fund their education. Then, when they finally graduate and embark on their new career, they are immediately slugged with loan repayments. It just isn't fair. It wasn't fair when the government proposed an income threshold of $42,000, and it is not fair under the $45,000 threshold that this bill prescribes. This short-sighted approach from a government that trumpets its economic nous really is quite ludicrous.

Experts warn Australia risks being left behind if it doesn't boost participation in post-secondary education. Instead of accepting this truth and stepping up to re-examine and re-invigorate our current model in favour of something that truly reflects the current landscape, this government continues to cut and cut and cut. We need to build, build and build something new, something that is built to meet the needs of this era, something that is built to meet the needs of the future, something that spans the whole of the post-secondary sector. It needs to be dynamic, it needs to be responsive to a changing system and it needs to happen quickly. The systems in place are not well equipped for lifetime learning, and this bill's cap on loans further restricts that potential. It is yet another example of the Turnbull government's myopic focus on the budget. This government is more concerned about the numbers on a page year to year than the long-term economic prosperity of our nation and its people.

I have a long-held passion for encouraging industries in my electorate to diversify and adapt to economic and technological change. I've been inspired and educated by many in the lower Hunter who work every day towards these goals. I'm proud to be part of the Hunter Youth Transition Advisory Group, and I commend to you an organisation called Youth Express, which facilitates young people's transition from education to employment and builds bridges between students and industry. Similarly, Alesco Senior College, which has campuses in two towns in my electorate—Raymond Terrace and Nelson Bay—is doing great things for young people in my area. Alesco is passionate about filling voids, not reinventing the wheel. It creates a place for young people who, for a variety of reasons, have opted out before completing their secondary education. Alesco gives them another chance, another pathway, another choice.

The University of Newcastle has three fantastic enabling programs. There is one geared towards Indigenous students; one called Open Foundation, which builds a bridge to university for those who did not achieve a TER; and one called Newstep. These are exceptional programs that change lives and in turn change our economic and social fabric. The University of Newcastle is also actively exploring innovation hubs in collaboration with local industry. There is a highly successful hub at Williamtown, which benefits from synergies with the defence and aerospace industries. I know other businesses are keen to explore the potential for similar hubs in the Hunter. These are all great examples of ways that we can create educational opportunities for our young people and encourage post-secondary study, all while working with industry and really capturing true innovation.

The government could be encouraging these wonderful initiatives. It could be funding our schools and giving them the resources to allow them to more actively engage with our local government and business chamber representatives to learn where our economy is headed. Educators could learn where the new jobs are likely to be and create educational opportunities based on these scenarios. Instead, the Turnbull government has cut school funding by $17 billion. The government could be exploring initiatives such as satellite campuses for our tertiary institutions. Instead, people such as Professor Caroline McMillen are dealing with the fallout of the federal government's $2.2 billion in budget cuts. What of vocational education and training? What of it, indeed. Under this government, we have seen nearly $3 billion cut. That translates into 140,000 apprenticeships and trainees lost since the Liberals took the reins. That is 140,000 opportunities for people to better their skills and their lives.

I will vote against this government's proposed changes to Australia's student loan scheme. I stand with Labor. Under a Labor government real and meaningful reforms were delivered to students pursuing higher education. Labor believes a fair and accessible higher education scheme must include income contingent loans, and that is why when in 1989 we introduced HECS as one of many reforms, it was broadly welcomed. People knew it was a fair system. We lifted Australia's investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013.

In more recent times Labor's equity and participation measures, including demand driven funding and HECS-HELP, transformed our tertiary education system. History proved Labor's measures worked: 190,000 more Australians were able to go to university. Many were the first in their families, as I was, to achieve that level of education. Universities Australia research shows marked improvement in the participation rates of students from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. Between 2008 and 2016 the number of domestic undergraduate students with a disability rose by 106.5 per cent, Indigenous student numbers went up by almost 90 per cent, the number of students of low socioeconomic status increased by 55.3 per cent, and the number of students from regional and remote areas went up by 48.3 per cent. The world is changing quickly, and our policies must keep pace with those changes. We must look to the future and invest in our people if we are to help our young grow into smart, agile, lifelong learners who will innovate and adapt to survive this changing technological landscape. Without this investment right now, Australia will be left behind.