Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020

7 October 2020

I rise to speak about the higher education reform package. In a perfect world, the package before us would dramatically raise funding for higher education. I want our universities and TAFEs to be the best in the world and I want them to teach our children to be talented, creative thinkers who can solve the problems that face our communities and our world. We're a long way from achieving that vision. As much as I would like to see more funding delivered into education, it is clear the government have no appetite for this. I understand their need to manage the financial impact of COVID-19, but this position is short-sighted. It helps our financial position today at the expense of tomorrow. Nonetheless, that is their position and they have made it clear that they are unwilling to shift. So the question is whether we should support this reform or stick to the status quo, whether this reform brings us closer to that vision of a world-class education system.

There are good things in the reform. First, it creates tens of thousands of additional places for students. Demand for these places will increase sharply in the next few years as workers left unemployed by the recession choose to upskill, and as the Costello baby boom moves through the system. Without this reform, many of those students will not secure places and will be forced into the worst job market in a generation. With the reform, there will be up to 30,000 new places. And changes to funding clusters mean some universities will be able to offer even more places in courses like commerce, humanities and law. The reform also ensures the Commonwealth places are used appropriately. Professor Andrew Norton has shown that six per cent of new students fail every course they take in the first semester and a quarter of those go on to fail every course in the second semester. Universities will be prompted to engage with students who have high fail rates and are accruing significant debts. They will have to work with students to understand their circumstances and ensure that continued study is in their interests. This is a sensible requirement, formalising a process that already exists in most universities.

Second, the reform restores indexations so universities can grow in the future. The Turnbull government froze university funding in 2017 in a move that was supposed to save $2 billion but actually saved a fraction of that—a lot of pain for absolutely no gain. Undoing that freeze may be the best part of this package, and we've been assured that this is a permanent change, giving universities ongoing certainty in their funding. The government is also offering faster growth in places for regional and high-growth metro campuses, and this is particularly important for regional universities. Most professionals who live and work in regional areas are the product of regional universities. More places at these universities will mean more professionals in these areas; more teachers, more nurses, more engineers, more scientists in regional Australia.

Third, the reform introduces a demand-driven funding system for Indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas. For some people here, demand-driven funding is the opposite of what they want for universities and there's merit to their views. But when it comes to Indigenous Australians, we should put aside our views on the broader system and agree this is very much a positive development. It means that any Indigenous Australian from a regional area would be able to attend university. There won't be any cap on places; that means an intelligent, motivated student misses out on their dream. That, very much, is a worthy call. And I hope in the future, we can expand that to all Indigenous Australians, regardless of whether they come from a regional or metropolitan area. So those aspects of the reforms are very much worthy but other aspects are less worthy.

Law, commerce and humanities students will have to bear almost the entire cost of their degrees. Many will graduate with $40,000 or $50,000 in debt. That's a hefty load for anyone but particularly for humanities students, whose careers tend to start a bit slower than those in other fields. Conversely, it will make life easier for those who choose to study other courses. The cost of an allied health degree will fall by 20 per cent. The cost of becoming a teacher or a nurse will fall by almost half, and the cost of studying agriculture will fall by more than half. These discounts will help to attract more of the best students into the fields that Australia needs them to study.

Personally, I would prefer to see an education system that doesn't saddle students with debt. But the cost of a university education has to be met by someone, and I think it is reasonable that students who enjoy the benefits of their degrees share in the costs. The government argues higher degree costs will provide an incentive for students to choose their degrees more carefully. Many people have been critical of this, arguing that school leavers tend to follow their passions. I think this criticism misses the point: mature-aged students make up more than half of all enrolments, and they attend university to improve their career prospects. They pay close attention to the financials and they will respond to price. The government is right when it says a different strategy is needed to influence the decisions of school leavers. But where is that strategy? Right now, hundreds of thousands of year 12 students are making decisions about their university applications. As far as I can tell, the government isn't doing anything to ensure those students are making careful, informed choices.

A final concern is that this legislation, as originally proposed, would not have provided loadings to South Australian universities. As the inquiry heard from the South Australian vice-chancellors, their universities would have received indexation but would not have qualified for high-growth metro or regional loadings. I don't believe it's appropriate for the federal government to have a policy that encourages the strongest students to potentially leave South Australia for another state because they can achieve a place. We already lose too many of our best and brightest, and I could not have supported a policy that permanently entrenched this. Centre Alliance has made these concerns very clear to the minister, and I'm glad to say he's listened to our concerns and acted on them. South Australian universities will receive an additional loading that ensures more places for South Australian students, and these places will be distributed to create greater equity. The vice-chancellors of all three South Australian universities have all welcomed these changes. The member for Mayo and I are happy to have once again secured a positive outcome for the state.

Like every controversial bill, this package has also had its myths. The shadow minister for education is one figure who has spread these myths, but she is not alone. The first myth is that the cost of degrees will double. This is untrue. Many degrees in areas of real need will be significantly cheaper. Some I've mentioned previously.

Another myth is that the package would deliver an Americanised system of higher education funding. That could not be further from the truth. Unlike the US, the package still has the Commonwealth funding more than half of costs associated with each course, and for the other half students will receive interest-free loans. Students don't have to make any repayment until their income reaches the threshold, and students with larger debts do not have to make larger payments. There are few countries in the world which support higher education students more than Australia, and this reform does not change that.

Another myth is that the reform cuts $1 billion from higher education. The shadow minister for education has repeatedly made this claim, and it is false. The only way the numbers support that claim is if you add up the costs and ignore the extra money put into this sector through the transition, equity and industry linkage funds. They are playing tricks with the numbers and are creating anxiety and worry to win political points. It is a dishonest way to conduct a policy debate and it undermines the public's confidence in all of us.

This package is far from ideal. We would prefer to vote for a package that provided universities with better long-term funding. The decision before us is whether this package is better than the status quo. Centre Alliance supports the creation of more places for students at a time when they are desperately needed. We support the measures that will help those who struggle the most—Indigenous students, students from regional areas and first-in-family students. We appreciate that the government has listened to our concerns about South Australian universities that were going to be adversely affected. They've also listened to our concerns about social work, youth work and psychology students; about students with special circumstances; and a formal review of the changes to ensure that they are working. We welcome the government's commitments and look forward to supporting the legislation when it comes to a vote.

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