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

September 01, 2020

The Prime Minister speaks of giving hope but his actions aren't matching his words, and this legislation, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, is an example of that. This legislation takes away hope, takes away hope from young people, and it should not be passed by this parliament.

We're in the midst of a recession. Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in just the last few months. There are fewer job opportunities for people leaving school. They have little hope of planning a gap year for next year to expand their horizons, so study is the obvious route for them. And what does this Prime Minister want to do? He wants to jack up the cost of a university degree for those thousands of students. This legislation makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. It saves the government about a billion dollars, but students will pay more for degrees. Thousands of students will pay more than double for the same degree that other students are currently looking at. Forty per cent of students will have fees increased to $14,500 a year. That might not seem a lot if you're paying $30,000 at an elite private school for your year 12 education. But, for most families, that $14,500 is a killer. That's the difference between being able to say, 'Yes, we're pushing you to go to university' and 'Wow, that's a debt that's going to take a long time to repay.'

Right upfront, I want to deal with one of the misconceptions of this legislation. The government say that they want to encourage students to take certain degrees to be job ready. I'll deal with some of the nonsense of that statement shortly. But, to this issue of encouraging people to take certain courses, such as maths, science and engineering, among others: as always, what the Prime Minister delivers doesn't match the promise. This legislation actually reduces the money universities will receive to deliver those very same courses. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in those STEM disciplines. People studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degree than doctors and dentists. They'll also take maybe twice as long to repay the costs of those degrees. Yet there is no evidence that these degrees make students any less employable than other degrees. In fact, the most recent research shows that people with a humanities degree have the same employment rates as those with a science or maths degree—87 per cent, no matter which degree you're doing.

In this place, there are many of us with a communications degree. I didn't go and study communications because I thought I would use it to become a member of parliament. You don't know what your journey's going to be when you're an 18- or 19-year-old university student. Those degrees offer a pathway. Every member of the Prime Minister's cabinet went to university—many went for free—but they don't think anyone else's kids deserve the same opportunity.

I want to talk to you about the sorts of kids who are going to be scared off a university education if this bill passes, thanks to this Liberal government—the kids who, when they start their degree, don't know what they want to be when they grow up, but for whom it is a step in the journey of being an employable, contributing member of our society. I'm not going to give you the statistics; I'm going to give you just one person's story.

This is part of Ellie's story. She's given me permission to tell it. By the end of year 11 at her Blue Mountains public high school, Ellie was living out of home. She was bright, and she wanted to finish year 12 and go to university. She didn't really know what university would be like. No-one in her family had been to university. Getting through year 12 was a struggle, but she did it, supported by some wonderful teachers. With some special consideration, her marks resulted in an offer of an arts degree at the University of New South Wales. Even then, a decade ago, she was really uneasy about the debt that she'd be building up by doing this degree. People were saying to her: 'Well, what's an arts degree? What does it give you at the end? What job does it skill you for?' Ellie lived with me during her first year of university, and no doubt it was a struggle still. Meeting the deadlines for essays would bring on waves of self-doubt about whether she was capable of it. Friends not at uni would tell her that she could always quit. But my message to her was: of course it's hard—it's meant to be hard, and your brain is meant to work hard, but it will get easier. And it did.

Ellie's degree allowed her to explore all sorts of disciplines, from philosophy to languages, global development, psychology and international relations. She got to have a taste of all of those. She took a bit longer to finish her degree, because it took her a while to work out which discipline was for her. In the end, she thrived and discovered a love of how society works and of social justice issues. She was offered an honours year, and she completed that, learning even more the ability to explore, sort and make meaning of large volumes of information and ideas—exactly the sorts of skills we need in this information-rich age that we live in.
On finishing her degree, Ellie moved to Darwin and, after persistence, found herself working in a variety of government departments, including on the Territory government's response to the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, and she worked on policy around the foster child care system. She learned how policy is developed and how is it, or isn't, implemented. When she began her degree, if I'd said to her, 'Hey, Ellie, this is where you'll be; this is what you'll do,' she would not have believed me. I couldn't imagine where she would go, but I knew she would find herself on this journey and become a really valuable member of our public service. But she hasn't stopped there. She would not have imagined that she would now be living in Newcastle, working in the mental health sector and doing her PhD, doing research around the carers of people with mental illness. I asked Ellie just the other day if she would have pursued an arts degree at university a decade ago if she'd faced a $14,000-a-year bill for it, and she said, 'No way.' Her decision at the time was already a leap of faith.

This is the sort of student that this government wants to deny an opportunity—an opportunity to explore their potential. They're saying to people, 'You have to be rich to get a university degree in certain humanities subjects,' or in commerce, or in business, for goodness sake! This cannot be denied to all those students who have potential, who haven't yet had the opportunity to reach that potential. Those opposite talk about aspiration. How dare they say that a student like Ellie shouldn't aspire? They say that she should know her place—that she should not have the same future that they want for their children.

So where are we now? Let's think about the timing of this legislation. It is so unfair that the government is raising this matter as year 12 students are facing what we all look at as the toughest year any year 12 has had in their schooling and as they're preparing for their final exams. They've had a year of uncertainty. Many of us have been parents of year 12 students and we know what it's like in a regular year, let alone a pandemic. While there's a world of uncertainty for them, here the Morrison government is throwing uncertainty and trepidation into their future university aspirations. The bottom line is that this law would shift the cost of education further to students, and the Commonwealth would be contributing less.

In spite of this, we know that it's not that people don't want to go to uni—they do. Right now the demand for university places has surged. In New South Wales, twice as many people have applied for university this year as last year, and yet the cap remains, and there are not going to be enough extra places to meet this increase in demand. Where they've promised new places, the government have provided no new funding.

In fact, there's an extra kick in this for aspiring university students living in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. The electorate of Macquarie has been classed as a low-growth area. What does that mean? That means we get a lower allocation of university places. It must suit the political leanings of those opposite to make these sorts of decisions, to make sure that many people in large swathes of Western Sydney, which is the fastest-growing area in New South Wales and probably in Australia, will have even fewer options to go to university. Under these reforms, the whole package of reform that this bill sits within, there is less support for low-SES students—that is, disadvantaged students. While those opposite might crow about some benefits in some regional areas, those benefits are taken away from Western Sydney. Western Sydney is paying the price for this government refusing to put more money into the system.

For months now we have been calling out the government's approach to universities. It has constantly tried to take funding away and limit the ability of universities to offer the sorts of education we want our children to have. JobKeeper is a classic example of that, and the Prime Minister has done nothing to stop job losses. He has failed to provide JobKeeper for universities, even changing the rules three times to make sure that universities are not eligible for JobKeeper. And we're not just talking academics, we're talking tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners and security—all of these people who work within the confines of a university campus who are now desperately trying to make ends meet. We know that the job losses are already more than 3,000, with thousands more to come. University Australia is forecasting 21,000 job losses in coming years, and yet the Prime Minister talks about giving people hope. By this very action, by this legislation, hope is what's being taken away.

Interestingly, when I started my communications degree, like most people, I didn't think about where it would go, but if I were going back in time now, having to think not just about the journey but about the price that I would pay for that journey, I don't know if I would have made that choice either. I was ambivalent. I picked a degree and said, 'I will see what it's like.' One of the things we're taking away from our young people is the opportunity to make a mistake, to pick the wrong degree and to then be able to start on something else. Everything I've seen about young people shows we just need to get them to take that first step. I just don't know how those opposite can live with themselves knowing that they are removing that sort of hope from so many people. Really, all I think about is how dare they do this. How dare they do it to young people and their families. It's parents and teachers who, right now, are trying to keep an even keel for students at this time. How dare they dictate to young people what their future studies should be. How dare they tell young people by their actions that they should study this but not that.

How dare they say to young people that learning for its own sake is not enough and everybody should value learning. We talk about that going through school: that we should learn to love learning. To value some learning above others, when all learning, whether it's university or TAFE, has value, is an absolute disgrace. And how dare they deny the Ellies of today the chance to be ambitious. How dare they take away hope, but that's exactly what this legislation does.