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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12485

Ms RYAN (LalorOpposition Whip) (18:16): I join my Labor colleagues tonight—and I would note that we are once again bereft of speakers from the other side—in cautious support of the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018. The bill proposes to impose an annual charge on all higher education providers whose students are entitled to HECS-HELP assistance, with the revenue raised to go to the Higher Education Loans Program. The projected impact of the is a budget saving of $14.1 million over the forward estimates, and we don't see that as an extraordinary amount of money in this case.

But I would like to take the opportunity, as my colleagues have, to talk more broadly about higher education in this country and this government's record while it has this bill before us, and seeks our support for, this bill. It has been at odds with us for five years over higher education. Sometimes those debates have been very heated because, on this side of the chamber, we desperately want to see that, as a country, we invest in our people. Investing in our people is an investment in our economy. But we're not happy to see investment in just some people; we want to see access to a quality education for all Australians. That's why the debates have been so bitterly argued.

As someone who stands here as the first generation in my family to attend university, I completely understand the transformational change that has made in my life, in the lives of some of my siblings and in the lives of those of us who were fortunate enough to pursue a university education. It has changed the lives of the next generation in my family. It has built aspiration into that next generation. My parents managed to make us aspirational by insisting that the first option for us was a university education and by aspiring to that. Of course, in the case of me and my siblings who attended university, they were assisted by a Labor government that allowed access to a free university education. Two of my older siblings accessed education through the scholarship program. There are eight children in my family, and I'm No. 7, so there is 10 years between myself and an older sister who accessed it through a scholarship, whereas I was fortunate to be of that generation who could sit in a classroom and say, 'I would like to go to university,' and it would be at no cost to myself or to my family. I would like to think I've repaid that debt to the Commonwealth. I'd like think that I've made a contribution in public education over 27 years and in this place. I also note that I wouldn't be in this place if I hadn't had that opportunity.

This government seems intent on narrowing that opportunity to a certain set of people that come with a cheque book and can afford it. We fought them on changes introduced once they were elected in 2013. We fought them over the notion of increased fees for students. At some points in that debate it was estimated that fees could have gone as high as $100,000 for a degree. We won that debate. The government lost that war on young people. I proudly stand here as a Labor member who fought hard both for my electorate and for attending university—which brings me to my electorate. Under the previous Labor government, my electorate saw increased numbers of students accessing university, and those numbers have slipped over the past five years in terms of percentages per capita. I find that to be absolutely reprehensible, because we know that, for our economy, we need young people to be as highly skilled as we can allow.

We know that nine in 10 jobs will need a TAFE or university qualification. We know, therefore, that we need to increase participation in both TAFE and university, yet this government attacks our university sector with funding cuts, including the 2017 MYEFO cut of $2.2 billion, which effectively put a cap on undergraduate places. This is where the rubber hits the road in an electorate like mine. The cuts in those undergraduate places bear poisoned fruit in my electorate. In the electorate of Lalor the population of the City of Wyndham, which is most of the electorate, has ticked over 250,000 in the last 12 months. That means we are more populous than the City of Greater Geelong. There has been a demographic change in our area as well, which has brought in families from all around the world—families, I might say, who are highly aspirational for their children.

As I stand here and speak on this bill, I'm reminded of a conversation I had at a year 12 graduation not two weeks ago, where a parent told me that his two daughters, one of whom was graduating that night, were both aspiring to attend a university outside of Australia. I pondered at that point what that meant and thought about all the other children and young people I know that are seeking to attend universities offshore. It reminds me that the globe is getting smaller and smaller in these terms, and people are willing for their children to travel to seek out an education. It brought home to me just how important it is that we have a world-class university system here for our children to access, and how important it is not to be in a situation where we are cutting research dollars from our world-class universities to create places in regional universities—robbing Peter to pay Paul—when in fact what is required here is investment across the board. What is required here for any young person who has both the talent and the work ethic to reach university is the capacity to get there.

This government seems to be intent on making it more and more difficult for our young people. They have changed the amount at which young people are asked to begin to repay their HECS debts. It is now at a level of $45,000 a year, which is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. On top of that, they have cut penalty rates, which lots of young people in my electorate rely upon to attend university. That brings me to another action from this government: the delayed application processes and payments of youth allowance. I have had students in my electorate wait a complete semester before receiving one payment. I don't have to paint too big a picture here for you to understand that that means that young people in my electorate, having worked hard and gained entry to the university, are walking away from university education because of cost-of-living issues. It doesn't take much to understand that there may be parents in my electorate, with both parents working and possibly not on much above the minimum wage, who find themselves with an 18-plus-year-old who can't access their youth allowance. It's not that they're not entitled; they are absolutely entitled. But from December, when they finish their exams, through to February, when they start university, they are possibly working part time. The other side of that is that they think that there will be an income there for them and that they will have support through Youth Allowance, but that support fails to come. That means kids are walking away from university. I can't put it more plainly than that. In an area like ours, it is incredibly important that every level of support be put in place to ensure that the young people in my electorate can access these things.

When this government was elected, the member for Warringah, the then Prime Minister, told the university sector that they were in for a period of benign neglect. In contrast, they have now seen themselves losing 10,000 undergraduate places this year alone under this government's changes. The Mitchell Institute suggests that the current policies of this government would see 235,000 students miss out by 2031. I know which areas of Australia those students are going to come from. Your IQ is not defined by your postcode, but it appears that university entrance can be, unless governments create policies that ensure equity of access; ensure that those students, our brightest and best, will be supported while they study; and ensure that there is not some kind of economic selection process that is being gone through to determine who will get the benefit. When the government were introducing the original cuts and suggesting students could pay up to $100,000 for a degree, they told us many times: 'That's fine. Those students who get a university education will earn an enormous amount of money at the other end.' So why would we want to narrow the economic factors here to prevent students from my electorate being the big winners in the education stakes?

Labor will ensure, if we win government, that over the next decade approximately $10 billion in additional funding will go to universities. This will see around 200,000 more students get the opportunity of a university education. I can't stress enough how important that is for the young people that I represent. This includes our commitment of $300 million, which will go to funding much-needed infrastructure to upgrade our research and teaching facilities, and $174 million in equity and pathways funding to provide mentors and pathways for students from areas with low university graduate rates. That would include the electorate of Lalor, which I represent. Our children are as talented as any set of children across this nation. Those who are fortunate enough to make it to university have incredible results. I've had young people working for me across the last five years—home-grown, home-educated kids—doing honours and JDs. They have been studying and working incredibly hard. We have the talent, but there are hurdles in the way. The Labor government will remove some of those hurdles.

There's a fantastic not-for-profit that operates in the western suburbs of Melbourne called Western Chances. It was founded by Terry Bracks, wife of former Premier Steve Bracks, to tackle exactly this issue—to put in place scholarships and support that will support students from secondary school all the way through to the completion of their studies. That has been operating in the western suburbs for a long time. It is time consuming for teachers to fill out the paperwork to suggest a child, but I have seen some fabulous stories from Western Chances when we've put the right supports in place and removed some of the hurdles.

I invite any member of this House to come to a Western Chances's graduation evening to meet some of their graduates. They are now forming an alumni. Western Chances are supporting young people from the western suburbs not only at senior secondary college and in their transition to university but also through university. Western Chances offers further support in employment. It's amazing to see their work on the ground. It's opening doors for many students in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

I applaud the member for Sydney, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, on announcing that the money in HEPPP will be now open to not-for-profit organisations. This will allow not just universities to seek out appropriate students and put in supports but generous minded individuals in the community and in the not-for-profit sector who are already doing this work to leverage off their existing structures to help more students in the western suburbs of Melbourne, particularly in the outer west area that I represent.

I support these bills cautiously. I urge those opposite to review the position they are taking on higher education and to come back to this House with some better policies and better funding structures to ensure that students in my electorate are given access to the quality education that they deserve.