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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12488


Ms STANLEY (Werriwa) (18:31): With a hefty dose of caution I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and related bill. This is a government that is always looking for savings wherever it can find them. It's a government that will take cost-cutting to a knife's edge before it impacts on those who are trying to get a university education in Australia.

My electorate of Werriwa has access to three world-class universities: Western Sydney University, the University of Wollongong and the University of New South Wales, which is based at Liverpool Hospital. More universities still have signed an expression of interest for the aerotropolis at the new Badgerys Creek airport. The electorate of Werriwa is also the most vulnerable electorate in Australia when it comes to fluctuating cost-of-living pressures. Therefore, I worry that, if universities even mention the prospects of sharing the tax burden through student fee increases, bright young people from my electorate may see a university education as beyond their reach, and that is something we can't do. We must encourage our youngest to go to university.

I am proud to say that it was Labor that created Australia's world-renowned income-contingent loan scheme—HELP, the Higher Education Loan Program. For those students who might otherwise be deterred by the cost of a university education, this loan program says clearly, 'You don't have to pay back the loan to the government until you're reaping the benefits of an increased earning capacity.'

Labor believes it's fair that students make a contribution to the cost of their higher education, but students should never have to pay these fees upfront. In principle, universities paying to have loans administered seems reasonable; however, we must ensure that these costs do not touch students, making going to university even more unaffordable. Students in Australia already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD. This is why Labor will be referring these bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry.

Equality in access to tertiary education has been utterly transformational in my family. My generation was the first in my family to attend university and benefit from the opportunities that higher education can provide. My sister, Kathy Mee, of whom I am very proud, attended the University of Sydney. Kathy recalls that, when she first attended Sydney, there were very few students in that first economics class that came from as far away as Liverpool. Certainly most of them didn't come from west of the GPO. The opportunities that the university has given my sister have been extraordinary to watch. She has a PhD and she is also a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. These opportunities would not have been provided in any other way.

My sons, too, have all attended university. So, in just two generations, the wealth of opportunities provided by university education have been incredible to observe. My sons work as secondary school teachers and graphic designers. Access to tertiary education has been my boys' pathways to opportunity and prosperity. It makes me nervous when the government starts putting legislation like this forward, because I know how fragile the possibility of going to university is for some Australians. A university education has meant that my eldest son has been able to join the housing market and just recently buy a house. That's probably something he wouldn't have done if he continued his previous job, working very hard—no less hard than what he currently works—but in retail, considering that penalty rates have now been cut.

It is with the utmost caution that we on this side of the House provide our support to the bill. We know that this is a government that seems to cut, trim and hollow out until only a skeleton is left, and a skeleton of a higher education system has no option but to pass on increased cost burdens to those who access it. These charges must not flow back to the students. They really mustn't. We do not want to see higher fees and higher charges for those trying to access a university education within Australia.

The decision to recap undergraduate places will devastate participation rates in higher education. Recent data from the Mitchell Institute tells us that, because of this government's decisions, up to 235,000 Australians could miss out on a university education by 2031. That's only 12 years away. Labor want to see more participation in higher education in Australia. We want to boost the number of students accessing the benefit that a university degree brings. I note what the member for Lalor said about IQ and your postcode. She is absolutely correct. It doesn't matter where you live, but quite often your ability to afford to go to university does matter, so it is very important that we make these things accessible to everyone.

It's not fair that students from the North Shore of Sydney are five times more likely to go to university than those in the Moreton Bay region of Queensland. Labor wants to change this. We have already announced $174 million in equity and pathways funding that will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates. Such funding measures are critical. The value of personal mentoring for students who have little family precedence for navigating university systems is critical, because if you can see it, you know you can do it. Labor knows how much it means to have someone who has done it all before walking beside a first-time student. The funding for this scheme comes on top of Labor's $10 billion commitment to return to the demand driven funding system from 2020, which will see around 200,000 more Australians over 12 years access a university education. What's more, it is Labor that will pour $300 million into a universities futures fund that will be dedicated to updating the teaching and research facilities at our major universities. These are the policies of our party, and we value higher education.

The choice on university funding at the next election is crystal clear. A Labor government will proactively fund Australian universities, giving students who have the ability and the gumption for hard work every opportunity to access a university education. Who knows—if we give everybody that opportunity, we may find the things that are needed to look at our future and cure cancer and all the other things that are currently eluding us. We don't want to slam the door on university to anybody in our country who wants to go.

In closing, Labor's commitment to higher education is relevant here because, just like where there's smoke, there's fire. Where there have been little snips, there are funding cuts looming overhead, and where there are funding cuts, there will be lost opportunities for bright young Australians all over the country to access the benefits of a university education and, furthermore, lost opportunities for the rest of us, missing out on the benefits of that university education when coming back to the workforce. Asking universities to contribute towards the cost of loan provision is an appropriate measure, but it is critical we ensure that this taxation measure is not passed onto the students. Universities must shoulder the burden of the tax. Whilst we support this bill in principle, it must be submitted for further inquiry. Labor will continue to fight for affordable university education, and putting this bill under the microscope is no exception.