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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12479

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:52): I rise to contribute to the cognate debate on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. These bills introduce a range of small cost recovery measures proposed in the 2017-18 budget. There will be a small annual charge for higher education providers and universities to support the cost of administering the Higher Education Loan Program. The bills also amend the Higher Education Support Act to introduce an application fee for higher education providers to offer FEE-HELP loans to Australian students. I also note that the new charges will have to comply with the Australian Government Cost Recovery Guidelines. The government has revised the impact of these charges from $30 million in the 2017-18 budget to $14.1 million over the forward estimates. These are modest charges and go towards the administrative cost of Australia's world-famous income-contingent loan scheme, HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program.

Labor will not oppose these bills, because on balance these charges will have a very small impact on the higher education sector, especially in the context of our very positive policies for higher education. But we won't tolerate a situation where these costs, modest though they are, might be passed onto students. We will continue to monitor the operation of the scheme and, if needed, seek future amendments, changes to regulations or assurances from the higher education sector. Even though, overall, this is a small extra impost, we believe that it should be absorbed by the higher education sector, and not flow on to students and thus undermine equity of participation in our higher education system.

I also want to acknowledge that a great deal of the anxiety that's been expressed by the university sector in relation to these bills, but much more broadly as well, is in relation to the track record of five years of cuts, chaos and dysfunction from this government. Since the Liberals have come to office, universities have undergone a sustained period of attack with cuts and chaos. Only last week we saw the Minister for Education announce a cut of $134.8 million from the Research Support Program to fund unexplained projects in regional university campuses—unexplained projects that can only look like pork-barrelling without more information than we've been given. A majority of this funding is going towards repairing the damage caused by previous Liberal cuts.

So you come in and you cut the funding. There's chaos in the regional university campuses, in particular. We freeze student numbers, worsening the situation there. And then to repair the localised chaos, we take money from research and put it into these regional campuses. It is really not the way to run a higher education system. If the government were serious about regional education it would follow Labor's policy. I do acknowledge that in this period of cuts and uncertainty the sector sees the charges in these bills as unfortunate. I want to assure them that under Labor the university sector will have certainty of funding and a respectful and consultative approach.

So many people in the university sector remind me of the promise from the member for Warringah before the 2013 election that universities under a Liberal government would experience a period of benign neglect. I think they'd be praying for benign neglect given what they've, in fact, gone through over the last five years. There has been not benign neglect but malicious intent in a lot of the university changes that we've seen. There have been repeated attempts to cut funding from the university sector. There have been repeated attacks on students, trying to get them to pay more for a university education, restricting access to a university education. It was Labor that led the charge against these cuts in this parliament. The first Liberal education minister of this government, Minister Pyne, tried twice to cut funding. Then last year Minister Birmingham also tried to cut funding from our universities.

There were some cuts that we were able to stop and there were some, because they didn't require legislation, that we were not able to stop. We couldn't stop the $2.2 billion in cuts made just before Christmas last year, because the minister was using existing powers in the Higher Education Support Act to reduce funding. This decision means that the government have effectively recapped undergraduate places in our universities and forced students to pay their debts off sooner by lowering the HELP repayment threshold to $45,000. I described this decision then as 'reckless and unfair', and it still is. It has locked thousands of students out of the opportunity of a university education and put enormous pressure on other young people having to repay their debts sooner—often at the same time as they're trying to start a family and buy a house, and when they have many other expenses.

Changes like this disproportionately affect women. The ACTU have undertaken analysis that shows that 60 per cent of Australians with a HELP debt and a taxable income are women. So twice as many women are affected as men.

We've also learnt from Universities Australia that the cap on places meant that around 10,000 places were not funded this year, in 2018, and we expect that number to continue to increase year upon year. The Mitchell Institute's recent tertiary participation analysis says that because of the government's caps on university places around 235,000 students could miss out on a university place by 2031. At a time of year like this, when so many students are anxiously awaiting their results, having studied hard in year 11 and year 12 hoping to get a place in university, it really does tug the heartstrings to think that over the next decade or so almost a quarter of a million young people who would otherwise have a place in university will miss out if the policies of this government continue. Kids who are prepared to study and work hard, and invest their time and money, through the HELP repayment scheme, in getting a university education, which better equips them for the world of work, will miss out because of policy decisions of this government.

The decline in TAFE and apprenticeships is in some ways even worse than this. We've seen an extraordinary failure by this government when it comes to vocational education and training. We know that nine out of 10 jobs created in the future will need a post-secondary school education, either TAFE or university, so we need to increase participation in both universities and our vocational education sector to make sure our young people are prepared for the world of work, which is changing so very quickly. We need to boost participation, not cut it. The Liberals' record in this area is abysmal. If we continue down this path, we will severely jeopardise our future economic growth, undermine the opportunity of individual Australians to meet their full potential and, very importantly, compromise our ability as a nation to compete with the rest of the world using the skills, knowledge, discovery and invention of our people. Consequently, I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that, over five years, the Government has cut billions in funding from Australia's universities and vocational education and training, making it harder for Australians to attain a university or TAFE qualification".

Labor has a strong and positive plan for universities. We have committed to return to the demand-driven funding system to lift the caps on undergraduate places. This will see around 200,000 more Australians get a place at university over the next 12 years. We want to see more students who are the first in their family to go to university. I know that around Australia right now there are bright and talented students, many of whom might want a university education, but their opportunity to get that education is not evenly distributed across our towns, cities, suburbs and country areas. It makes no sense to me at all that a young person from the Moreton Bay region in Queensland is about five times less likely to get a university education than someone who lives on the North Shore of Sydney. It is not because brains are unevenly distributed across our country; it is because opportunity is unevenly distributed across our country.

We'll change that. Labor, if elected, will invest $174 million over the next decade to support more students from outer suburbs and the country, Indigenous students, students with disabilities and more people who are the first in their family to go to university. Funding will encourage universities to collaborate with TAFEs and not-for-profit and community organisations in areas with low university attendance and graduation rates to deliver mentoring and outreach programs to increase students' desire for a university education and their success once they get to university. We will establish, too, a university future fund so we can upgrade and invest in new university research and teaching facilities, as well as deliver projects that will support our economy and jobs and communities right across Australia. These positive plans will see more than $10 billion in additional funding flow into our universities over the decade. Universities, students and workers in higher education will all be better off under a Labor government. Under our better and fairer funding approach, universities will be more than able to meet the small charges in this bill. I thank Labor senators for their work on the Education and Employment Legislation Committee's inquiry into this bill. I also thank universities, unions, student groups and other stakeholders for their submissions on the bill.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Goodenough ): Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Butler: Yes, I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment be agreed to. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.