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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5314


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (09:44): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. The bill is the coalition's latest attempt to deteriorate and attack our higher education system. They want to make it one characterised by high levels of private debt and unequal access. Labor cannot support this legislation. The government states the purpose of the reform is to provide additional university places and to redirect universities' enrolments to areas of study linked to jobs in demand in the labour market. But what this bill really does is strip another $1 billion of government funds out of the university sector and more than double the cost of many courses—in particular, arts and humanities—and make it more difficult for many students to go to university, all under the guise of reform.

The additional $1 billion announced last night doesn't even make up for what universities have lost this year, let alone the conservative and consistent cuts that we've seen over the seven years of this Liberal government. The fundamental effect of the bill is to make Australian students pay more for the cost of their education while the Commonwealth pays less. Under this legislation, the overall student contribution will increase by seven per cent, and 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased. Yes, 40 per cent of all students will have their fees increased, with some degrees rising by 113 per cent. I know it's hard to believe—yes, a 113 per cent increase. Those studying commerce, humanities, communications, economics and law will now pay more than a dentist or doctor for the cost of their degree.

The effect of this fee rise will be felt over decades to come. Doubling the size of students' university debt will influence their ability to save for a home, which will undermine their long-term economic security. Younger people are already worse off and will fare far worse from the COVID-19 Morrison recession. Instead of encouraging our younger generation to gain essential skills to drive our recovery, the Morrison government will make them pay more. How does that make sense? This is not a new attempt. Since taking office in 2013, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments have repeatedly tried to increase the share of higher education funding paid by students and reduce the Commonwealth's own contribution. Labor always has and always will oppose these cuts. We successfully opposed two previous attempts to do this in 2014 and in 2017. We'll endeavour to block this present bill's passage through parliament, although we know crossbench senators have taken 40 silver shillings and sold out Australian students.

What is ironic about this bill is that—

A government senator: Point of order, Madam Deputy President. I must rise on the reflection on crossbench colleagues. I think the reference to the silver coins being taken by them to induce how they vote is perhaps a rhetorical flourish that the senator might like to withdraw.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: It's a point of debate. There was no-one named. It is a rhetorical flourish, as you said, so no offence. Please continue, Senator Polley.

Senator POLLEY: Thank you, Madam Deputy President. You know when you get such an interjection that you're touching a nerve, because what I am saying is a reality of what this bill will do.

What is ironic about this bill is that the drop in funding, as I said, will be felt in the areas where we should be encouraging more students to go to university. That's what we should be doing, but this bill is designed to discourage people. In fact, although enrolment is being encouraged in many disciplines by dropping course costs for students, funding going to the university is also dropping. This means that universities will get less money to provide job-ready courses, say experts and commentators. So it's not just people on this side of the chamber; your own former minister for education, Ms Julie Bishop, has described this design as an unreasonable incentive for universities that will likely achieve the opposite of what the government supposedly intends.

What is highly concerning is that the government is trying to redirect support to regional universities, but the associated funding and implementation mechanisms are not specified. It remains unclear how the redirection of funds to regional universities would operate outside of the bill, and whether or not regional universities will be better off. On the contrary, expert analysis suggests that regional universities will be worse off due to the design of the new Commonwealth Grant Scheme arrangements, which are based on average teaching costs. In many regional areas, these costs are generally higher and often do not fit the one-size-fits-all approach, which the Liberal government loves to use—just like they did with the robodebt scheme.

The impact of this crisis on regional universities will be devastating. The bill will make it near impossible for many people in my home state of Tasmania to go onto university and to study without having to obtain a mortgage. Tasmania is already experiencing a skills shortage and a brain drain. The ability to think critically and creatively and to understand how the world operates, skills often learned in a humanities degree, are what employers will be looking for into the future. We cannot discount these skills and we should not discount these skills. We should not discourage people from going to university to study the courses they're passionate about by burdening them with a huge debt. Regardless, humanity graduates are just as likely as science graduates to receive a job in their chosen field in Tasmania. With no real jobs plan in place by this government, they should not—as I said on a number of occasions—discourage young people or people who have been forced to go back to university from increasing their skills or gaining the skills that they need to go into the workforce.

We saw with the government's budget on Tuesday evening that they've done nothing for older workers—nothing at all. Older workers who are losing their jobs because of the Morrison recession and the COVID-19 effects have been attacked by this very bill as well, because it will discourage older Australians from going back to university or from going to university for the first time.

The government claims an additional 39,000 places will be created in the first three years of this scheme, accumulating to 100,000 over 10 years. However, there is nothing in the government's bill that guarantees any increase in student places. This is the reality. The only thing this bill does is assure that universities will receive less funding for the places they currently provide. There is nothing in the reforms for increased demands due to the recession and closed international borders. In effect, universities will be getting less and will be expected to do more. Even if the government's claims are to be accepted, the additional places that are being proposed are not enough to meet the projected increases in student demand.

As well as this, the pricing model that underpins this bill is weak. The report that the government is basing this legislation on was conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, and it cautioned against making judgements regarding the adequacy of funding from these results. This report was commissioned by this government. Their own Deloitte Access Economics report has warned them that the path they're going down is wrong. This modelling made unrealistic assumptions and did not consult with faculties or STEM members. How could you introduce such a bill without consultation with those people who are on the front line? There is a close relationship between the ability to conduct research and the quality of undergraduate teaching. By undermining this relationship, the Morrison government will have the opposite effect to that which they supposedly are working towards. This bill will impede our economic recovery. The government has actively denied the parliament and the public adequate time and information to fully debate and interrogate this bill. It is clear to Labor that the government is attempting to avoid further evidence of the bill's unfairness, irrationality and poor design coming to light.

This bill comes at a particularly difficult time for year 12 students, who have just completed their final year of study in extremely uncertain times and under extremely uncertain conditions. They have watched the jobs market collapse and they will be worse off for it, with subdued employment for some time to come. They have also seen apprenticeship opportunities vanish around the economy.

Universities are already reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This sector is particularly hard hit because of the loss of full-fee-paying international students. The consequences of the decline in international student fee revenue has been estimated to result in a loss of income available to support research by up to $7.6 billion over the next five years. That will mean a reduction in the research workforce of 11 per cent—up to 6,000 jobs. Yet there's no plan for this in Frydenberg's budget. Experts have warned that, without the same level of discretionary funding available for the next few years, there is likely to be a significant loss of research momentum in Australian universities. As for university staff—and we've seen it already in Tasmania—the federal government has gone out of its way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper payments. It has changed the rules three times to ensure university staff don't qualify. There have already been 12,000 job losses; we cannot afford to lose any more.

Now isn't the time to withdraw further support from our education system and to impose a flawed policy which stakeholders, experts and even previous Liberal Party members do not endorse. We're relying on our brilliant universities and their research to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but they can't rely on the Morrison government to protect their jobs. We are in the deepest and darkest recession in almost a century and the decisions made by the Morrison government are taking it further and making it worse for all Australians.

We need to incentivise our young people to retrain and reskill. We need to incentivise, retrain and reskill older Australian workers—of such importance for my home state of Tasmania. Therefore I'll be voting, as other Labor senators will be, against this very flawed bill and the attack on our universities, and particularly my university in Tasmania.