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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5317

Senator SCARR (Queensland) (09:57): I rise to speak in favour of this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, as a member of a party which has a proud tradition of supporting higher education in this country. When Sir Robert Gordon Menzies became Prime Minister in 1936, there were only six universities in Australia. There were 14,236 higher education students out of a total population of seven million. When Sir Robert Gordon Menzies retired from the position of Prime Minister, this country had 16 universities and there were 91,272 higher education students. We went from 14,000 to 91,000 students and from six to 16 universities—an incredibly proud tradition that the Liberal Party has in supporting higher education in this country. Higher education in this country did not start with Gough Whitlam, whatever those opposite would like to tell us.

In terms of what a university should be, again I go back to the words of the founder of my party, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies. In a speech he gave in 1939, on his first day as Prime Minister, he talked about the importance of the university: 'What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?' He put forward seven answers in response:

The university must be a place of pure culture and learning, a training school for the professions, a liaison between the academician and the 'good practical man', the home of research, a trainer of character, a training ground for leaders, and a custodian of the unfettered search for truth.

That last phrase, 'the unfettered search for truth', is one that has stuck with me over quite some period of time. When I look at universities today, I call upon all of our universities to reflect on that Menzies statement that includes an aspiration to 'an unfettered search for truth', because our universities should not be fettered by codes of conduct which do not promote freedom of speech, but trample on it. Our universities should be unfettered by practices of banning speakers from campuses just because they're unpopular and just because certain radicals on the campuses do not wish to permit them to speak. Our universities should be unfettered from fetters imposed by foreign countries and jurisdictions upon what they can teach and how they teach it. Our universities need to aspire to an unfettered search for truth.

The second introductory point I'd like to make in relation to this legislation is with respect to the contribution by Senator Jordon Steele-John. I always listen carefully to the good senator from Western Australia. I'm a great admirer of his passion and his ability to put his thoughts into words, but there is no such thing as free education. There is no such thing as free health care. Nothing is free in this world. Someone has to pay. There is no such thing as a free lunch. The first question is: how are we going to pay for it? Who pays what and when? Those are the only questions. Nothing is free in this world, and it is wrong to state to the contrary that something can, in some way, be free and no-one bears the cost. That's a utopian vision which does not reflect reality.

At this time of record budget deficits to help every person in this country, we need to reflect on the fact that every single dollar is absolutely vital and of so much value as we move through this pandemic and rebuild the economy of this country while providing hundreds of thousands of Australians with unemployment benefits. In that context it is entirely reasonable that the government should look at the range of tertiary courses offered, specific units of study within those tertiary courses, and make a practical assessment as to where the government should best direct resources and whether students who desire to study certain courses should meet a greater proportion of the cost of those courses. That is entirely appropriate and practical in this day and age.

I will touch on this concept of free education. I understand my friend Senator Rennick talked about how he had a number of part-time jobs when he studied at university. He picked fruit and vegetables and was also a glassie at the Royal Exchange Hotel, which my friend Senator Murray Watt no doubt attended on many occasions. In that context, he contributed to the cost of his education, but Senator Rennick is part of the generation that I belong to as a 50-year-old. HECS was introduced when we were part way through our courses. I had no problem contributing to the cost of my higher education—absolutely no problem at all. I can remember having a discussion with a friend who went into carpentry and building. He said to me, 'Paul, why should I have to pay? Why should I have to pay so you can go to university and then graduate and earn big bucks? You should have to actually pay for your course. You should have to pay for that. Why should I have to pay for that?' I always thought that was an extremely reasonable proposition, because there is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as free education. Someone has to pay, and the only question is: how do we calibrate that in a modern society?

I'd like to turn to a few particular comments in relation to this bill that have been raised, and actually present some facts. Firstly, the coalition government already provides more than $18 billion—that's 'billion' with a B—a year to fund our universities. And this will grow—it's not decreasing, it's actually growing—to $20 billion by 2024, so from $18 billion a year today to $20 billion in 2024. So I think this debate needs to be put in context. I wonder what those opposite would say if we increased it to $21 billion. I think they would complain even more.

Another point I'd like to make is, whilst some fields of study will see increases in student contribution amounts for specific units, approximately 60 per cent of students will see either a reduction or no change in their student contribution. Senator Polley, who spoke before me in this debate, wanted to focus on the 40 per cent. What about the 60 per cent?

Those students enrolled in teaching, nursing clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. We know there is a great need for clinical psychologists at this point in time. I've sat in estimates and heard from the Department of Veterans' Affairs about how our veterans need access to psychological support, and we know that, in the aftermath of the bushfires and of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are going to need a lot of support. We need more teachers. We need more nurses. We need more English teachers, especially assisting those new Australians to learn English so that they can get better jobs. We need all of those students in those courses, and it's absolutely fit and proper that they should pay less, because our community needs people with those specialties who can do those courses.

Students who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less for their degree. We need more maths teachers. We need more farmers educated in best farming practices who can work on our farms and increase productivity. And it's fit and proper that they should pay 59 per cent less for their degree. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degree. Again, these are decisions which are informed by what is actually happening in the labour market today.

This will certainly not be the most profound thing said in this chamber, but Australia does not need more lawyers. There are plenty of lawyers out there, I can tell you, and there are more people studying law today than there are actual jobs for them. There are more people studying law than there are people practising law. It is fit and proper that this government should give a message to people looking to undertake higher education as to where their best prospects lie. It is absolutely wrong that we should send a message to people that they should be entering into courses to study certain things when their employment prospects are less than if they were studying other courses. It's absolutely appropriate we send this message to them through the market.

I know young people who want to study law. I know young people who want to study other humanities subjects where the price may well rise under these reforms. I know those people are out there-and good luck to them, I absolutely support them. And even if they choose to do that, under our Higher Education Loan Program, the HELP system, no student needs to pay anything up-front, and student loans are only repaid when the student is earning over $46,000. So if you want to study law, study law. Good luck to you. Give me a call, and I'll talk to you about the practise of law and how I've seen it develop in the years since I graduated from university in 1991. Absolutely do it. But know the sort of profession you're getting into, how many people are actually practising in that profession today, how that impacts on your job prospects and how it could well be that you might find it easier to secure employment in another field where this country is desperate for more people to study—particularly fields such as teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English, language et cetera. So be informed. Be informed as to what your prospects are.

If you do choose to study any of the courses that are available to you from any of our wonderful universities, note that a person on the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings for all Australian employees, will pay only $8.80 to $10.20 per week. We're talking about $10.20 a week after you've studied your course, whatever it is, and you've reached that lowest repayment threshold. So you have to start repaying $8.80 to $10.20 per week. Is that too much to ask? Seriously—is that too much to ask? It's quite baffling how those opposite can be so outraged, and one has to query the degree to which this outrage is really confected. I must say I was sitting here yesterday in question time, listening to the questions coming from the opposition in response to the budget, and they really were particularly underwhelming. They couldn't lay a glove on the budget that was brought down on Tuesday night. And now we have this confected outrage—over what? It is over someone who goes to university, doesn't have to pay a cent whilst they're studying, doesn't have to pay any fee whilst they're studying and then, once they reach the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings for all Australian employees, pays only $8.80 to $10.20 per week.

There would be millions of people around this world who would love to have the opportunity to study in our universities and pay that amount—$8.80 to $10.20 per week—at 80 per cent of median earnings. They would love to have the opportunity to do that in our country and study at our wonderful universities. I commend this bill to the Senate.