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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5327

Senator HUGHES (New South Wales) (10:48): I am speaking to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. Australia is facing its biggest jobs crisis since the Great Depression, and our higher education sector must respond and play a critical role in supporting Australia's economic recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities across all sectors of Australia's economy, and higher education is no exception. However, there is good news for this rapidly changing sector and for the students it serves. While the Morrison government is providing record-high funding for the university sector, the system must adapt to be able to support Australians through this period, and it must be done in a way that supports the increasingly agile and innovative digital economy. We know that demand for higher education increases during economic slowdowns and that students seek newer, more relevant job skills to help them enter or re-enter the workforce. The coalition government's job-ready graduates reforms will support increased demand from school leavers and provide more option for upskilling and reskilling workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The job-ready package will create an impressive 39,000 new university places in 2023, and 100,000 places by 2030. It will also provide additional support for students in regional and remote Australia. The coalition government already provides more than $18 billion a year to fund our universities. This will grow to $20 billion annually by 2024. The Morrison government investment will produce job-ready graduates that reflect Australia's expected economic, industry and employment growth, which is why there is an increased focus on areas of industry and community priority as well as work-relevant qualifications. These changes are good news.

The new arrangements will encourage prospective students to consider adding new skills sought by employers as well as their own preferences. In addition, higher education providers will work more closely with industry to ensure graduates have the job-ready skills and experience that they need to move into a new and more innovative and more challenging labour market. The Commonwealth Grant Scheme, funding clusters and student contribution bands are being simplified to make government funding for universities clearer, simpler and more sustainable. Overall, Australian taxpayers will continue to pay more than half of the costs of Commonwealth supported places, with funding prioritised to the areas of high public benefit and those most needed by the labour market. That means Commonwealth supported students studying courses in key growth areas, including science, nursing, teaching, engineering and IT, will see significant reductions in their student costs. In fact, around 60 per cent of students will see either a reduction or no change in their student contribution. The changes are based at a unit level, not a degree level. This means that by choosing electives that respond to employer needs in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT students can reduce the cost of their overall degree and, at the same time, they will be enhancing their skills by responding to the needs of the new job market.

Students enrolled in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 42 per cent less for their degree. Students who study agriculture and maths will pay 59 per cent less. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering will pay 18 per cent less for their degree. Additionally, these reforms align the total combined funding for higher education units with the cost of teaching them. The new higher education funding model is based on universities' self-reported data on the actual cost of delivery of teaching in universities. Current students who are already studying in a Commonwealth supported place will be grandfathered in, looked after so they pay either the new lower or the same rates. From 1 January 2021, current students who enrol in units where the student contribution has decreased will have these amounts applied. Current students who enrol in units where the student contribution has increased will have grandfathering arrangements applied. This means their student contribution and the Commonwealth Grant Scheme amounts remain as they are under the current arrangements. Current year 12 students looking to enrol in a course of study in 2021 should be assured that they will continue to have access to the course of their choice under Australia's world-leading higher education funding model.

Under our Higher Education Loan Program, the HELP system, no student needs to pay anything upfront, and student loans are only repaid when the student is earning over $46,620. A person on the lowest repayment threshold, which starts at 80 per cent of the median earnings of all Australian employees, will pay only $8.80 to $10.20 per week. Access to HELP is not determined by age, income or background. It means that eligible students can participate in higher education without the barrier of upfront fees. Prospective students should also remember that an investment in higher education is one of the best investments they can make. Higher education graduates have a substantial advantage in the labour market, with lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings than school leavers and vocational education graduates.

The Job-ready Graduates Package includes a $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, designed to strengthen industry and university partnerships and prepare job-ready graduates. The bill extends Commonwealth support to more work experience and industry units of study. This will incentivise universities to include more work-integrated learning options in their courses and encourage students to gain more work experience from what they learn.

Then there are the regional, rural and remote students. In addition to providing more student places at Australian universities overall, the government will provide more than $400 million over the next four years to increase opportunities for regional and remote students to attend university and to lift investment in regional university campuses. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas will have a guaranteed Commonwealth supported place upon admission to the university of their choice, a key Napthine review recommendation. For the first time, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program will support regional, remote and Indigenous students, in addition to low-SES students, to access and complete higher education. The bill amends the Social Security Act to reduce from six to three the number of months a student living away from home must be receiving eligible student support payments before being eligible to receive fare allowance for a return journey home. This is another important Napthine review recommendation. Regional communities will benefit from strengthened and newly established regional university centres, enhanced research opportunities and growth through additional funding to regional campuses.

The tertiary access payment, or TAP, is a one-off $5,000 payment for school leavers from outer regional and remote areas who relocate more than 90 minutes from their home to enrol in higher-level tertiary education. The new TAP will be available from 2021. This will be distributed to universities as a scholarship, and the number of scholarships allocated to a university will be based on its historical enrolment of students. The TAP will also be accessible, through Services Australia, to students studying at non-university higher education providers and VET providers.

Under the package, the Commonwealth contribution to university funding, coupled with the students' contribution, will be aligned with the cost of delivering the course. There will be a funding floor for higher education courses. Funding certainty is vital for universities in how they plan for future enrolments and research activities. This bill includes a floor for future Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding, and that means table A universities will not receive less than the maximum basic grant amount for higher education courses they received in a previous year, commencing in 2025. The legislation includes the necessary mechanisms for the government to implement a transition fund for table A universities so that they maintain their revenue over the grant years as the reforms in the Job-ready Graduates Package are introduced.

Student decisions about higher education reflect a range of factors. Price is an important consideration for some students, though it's not the only consideration. For example, in 2009 the number of eligible applications to tertiary admission centres from students applying to study science was 13,795. That year, with much fanfare, the former Labor government reduced the student contribution for maths and sciences. By 2012, the number of applications to tertiary admissions centres and direct applications from students applying to study science increased to 26,373. In 2013, however, the Labor government very quietly increased the price by 78 per cent, and applications plateaued.

Younger students make choices based on the advice of their parents, careers advisers and university open days, and by talking with their friends. Older students are more price-sensitive and consider the return on their investment and future career opportunities. The Job-ready Graduates Package is seeking to align our funding with the national interest by encouraging students to consider their employment prospects on graduation among those factors. Graduating with a good future in growing parts of our economy is a win-win. University graduates with vocational degrees are the most likely to be in full employment, according to new data.

The government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 will make it cheaper to study in areas of expected future growth. We're creating additional university places for Australian students and making it cheaper to study teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages, agriculture, maths, science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering. The coalition government is encouraging students to tailor their studies to learn skills that will be in demand in areas of future jobs growth. That means breaking down the traditional degree silos by enabling students to choose units of study across disciplines and introducing a price signal to students by making degrees cheaper in areas of expected job growth. We want our students to receive an education that sets them up for future success.

As I said, under the package all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from regional and remote areas will have a guaranteed supported place upon admission to a non-designated bachelor or bachelor honours course of study at the public university of their choice. Health is one of the fastest growing disciplines that Indigenous students choose to study at university. Between 2014 and 2018, Indigenous enrolments in health grew from 1,666 to 2,343—a 41 per cent increase. The popularity of STEM courses among Indigenous university students has also grown in recent years.

The Job-ready Graduates Package aims to provide more opportunities for women and men to gain the qualifications they will require for the jobs of the future. Allied health and teaching are professions with substantial female workforces. It is these subjects that will see significant reductions in student contributions, meaning less HECS-HELP to repay once graduates are working. Women who elect to enrol in courses for the jobs of the future—STEM, health, education—will be more employable on graduation, meaning they will have a higher earning potential immediately. Over the past decade, there has been growth in the number of females with STEM qualifications. We want to ensure that this trend continues, and the Job-ready Graduates Package will support the ongoing growth of women with STEM qualifications and careers.

The Job-ready Graduates Package creates an additional 100,000 opportunities over the next decade for students to pursue university. It puts $400 million into supporting rural and regional higher education. It is unapologetically aligned to the employment needs of the country coming out of the COVID pandemic. Teaching, health, engineering, agriculture and IT degrees are all discounted significantly to encourage students and—just to remind this place—around 60 per cent of students will be better off, or the same, under these reforms.

Strengthening student protections in public universities also aligns quality and accountability in Australia's tertiary sector. Every student studying in Australia can be confident that, wherever they choose to study, they will be assessed as being academically suited to that study, their academic progress and engagement will be monitored throughout the course and they will be prevented from incurring debt for study for which they are not suited. These initiatives have been well-received by university chancellors across the nation. They will support our students to prepare to contribute to our strengthening economy as Australia moves forward post-COVID.