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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5320

Senator THORPE (Victoria) (10:12): I'd like to begin by informing the chamber that this is not my first speech. I rise to speak in this long debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. The Greens oppose this bill. 'Nothing is for free,' says Senator Scarr. In that case, maybe we should talk about the stolen land and resources from this country's First People or the free money to your Liberal Party donors in this budget.

It saddens me that in my first week here in the Senate I'm witnessing firsthand the unfair and out-of-touch agenda of this government. This bill, along with this week's federal budget, shows how this government does not care about setting up a smarter, safer, healthier future for this country. They especially don't care about our country's young people. These young people are facing a pandemic, an economic crisis and a climate emergency. Young people in this country just want to have a chance—a chance to get an education if that's how they choose to contribute to their community. Young people just want a chance not to be tied down to decades of debt. Many of my fellow senators in this place and members in the House benefited from free uni education—not just cheap education but free education. It's hypocritical that they are the same people that will apply this bill happily to the next generation of young people and deny the young people of this country the same opportunity. The government, with this package, is pulling up the drawbridge so no-one else gets to come in.

Education is about opportunity. It's about having the chance to get new skills, get qualified and get on the path to a secure and rewarding job. Education is about being able to have an opportunity to go to one of our universities—some of the best in the world—without worrying about being crushed by huge debt that follows you around for decades. Education is the great equaliser. That's why this government wants to make it harder for people to get one.

This package will more than double fees for those students who want to contribute to our society by studying humanities and social sciences. This budget will also slash up to $900 million in funding for teaching and learning; this includes funding for STEM and nursing courses. That's how out of touch this government really is. It will slash nursing, social sciences and science funding in the middle of a global public health crisis. It's shameful.

This bill will punish struggling students; they are already struggling. According to our modelling, for some students it could take up to 20 years to pay off a three-year humanities degree—maybe even longer, because that assumes graduates will go straight into full-time work that pays them a good wage and allows them to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. It doesn't account for any years taken off any full-time work for parental leave, to care for a loved one or for any other personal reason. It also doesn't take into account further study that someone might need to do just to get a foot in the door.

The government's claim that it will support regional universities with this plan just doesn't stack up. The government's plan will force regional universities to teach more students with less money and force those students to go into huge debt just to get their degree. The consequences for regional communities will be felt hard and for a lifetime.

I'm concerned that this bill will deepen inequality for Indigenous students in particular. This bill puts up more barriers for our people to go to university, to get a job and to earn a good wage that can support themselves, their families and their communities. Indigenous students are more likely to be loaded up with high HECS debts, because they often choose to study social sciences and community development as a way to give back to their communities. We should be prioritising and rewarding their hard work, not putting up more walls and building more barriers for our young people to get an education in any field they choose.

Education is not just about being a cog in a machine; it's about being able to contribute fully to the society you live in. No person in this place or anywhere should ever make it harder for anyone to go to university—particularly Indigenous young people, who have been locked out of opportunities in their own country for centuries. I've seen so many photos of Indigenous graduates on Twitter—many of them the first in their families to go to university. I encourage all senators to search for the hashtag #BlackfullaGradPics. You'll see photos of our young people graduating as nurses, doctors, social workers, social scientists, surgeons, journalists, therapists, scientists and teachers. All of them make their families, their friends and their ancestors and elders proud, graduating while wearing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. As we approach graduation season all around the country, we will see even more Indigenous community development workers, counsellors, lawyers and engineers, and I can't wait to share in their happiness. In fact, I can't wait to welcome some of them into this chamber as fellow senators. Everyone here should be making it easier for Indigenous young people—all young people—to get an excellent education at our excellent public universities, and for free. This package does not do that—far from it.

Just yesterday we heard Senator Griff say in this chamber that, in an ideal world, there would be more university funding. I remind my colleague and all senators in this place that more funding for universities is not something that exists only in the imagination; it's something that every single senator in this chamber has the power to make happen today. But this bill is not it. No-one should ever come to this place thinking that it's beyond their power to create a better and more educated Australia. In no place should we be making it harder for anyone who wants to study at university to do so.

We've got a big challenge on our hands: recovering from this coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis it has brought. The higher education sector has been hit so hard. We've heard this throughout this debate. In my home state of Victoria, the higher education sector is hurting. So many jobs have already been lost, and more losses are likely to follow. There's a big demand for places in higher education because people want to get new skills and get ready for a changed job market. But the package in this bill does not create anywhere near enough new places. We're also going to need to be smart. We need to grow and expand how much public money goes into research. Australia needs to be focused on actively getting ourselves out of this recession, not digging ourselves deeper into a hole. This bill guts research funding by rejecting the long-held notion that base funding—that is, student fees plus Commonwealth contributions—should provide for teaching, scholarship and base research capability.

This bill is a dud. It's unfair, and it's going to hit young people especially hard. This package shifts costs of higher education from the government onto students. As my Greens colleagues have reiterated through this debate, universities should be well funded, high quality and free for all students. Education is a human right and a public good, and this government has an obligation to ensure everyone has access to high-quality, well-funded, free, lifelong education. Higher education in this country has been hit incredibly hard by the COVID crisis. These new laws will only make things worse. The government should invest in our universities and TAFEs, not starve them of funds.