I rise to support the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018. I note that we are not opposing it, because of the relatively small impact that it will have on the sector, especially in the context of the policies that Labor would like to be able to bring in to properly fund the sector should we win office. I also note that we do have some concerns about how the charges and other aspects of the bill will operate over the longer term. We'll be watching that closely and making sure that the new scheme has no negative impact on students, that these costs aren't—as so many things are—passed through to the consumer, in this case the student, in the form of higher fees or higher charges for services and that ultimately they don't undermine the equity in our university system.
I note that Australian students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for a university education, and we know that, if the Liberals had had their way, they would have already introduced $100,000 university degree fees. It's no wonder that, when I talk to young people and they remark that my generation had the benefit of a free university education, they question the sort of money they could be asked to pay under those opposite. It is hard to imagine that those opposite wanted the full deregulation of student fees, but we were very pleased that they were forced to back down. I note that they kept $2.5 billion of cuts to universities from 2018 onwards, and they have already forced students to start repaying HELP debts when they earn as little as $45,000. That's only $9,000 a year above the minimum wage, so it really isn't giving students very much breathing space to be able to make up for the years of penury while they were studying and then the years of struggling to build those first stages of their career. So I think students already face some pretty big challenges in the pursuit of not only getting a better education for themselves but making an additional contribution to this society and to our economy.
I think it's really important in debating this bill that we look at the key differences between Labor's approach to higher education and the Liberals'. We believe that funding education is an investment in our children's future, in our nation's future, and not just a cost burden. I've been interested to read the work of Glenn Withers, a professor of economics at ANU. He points out that the economic evidence is that not only does higher education build the economy's skills and knowledge but it pays for itself many times over. On average, university training in Australia has paid a rate of return of around 14 to 15 per cent, according to analysis of 2006 and 2011 census data. University research has delivered an average rate of return of 25 per cent. They're the sorts of rates of return that, if you've been in business, you'll be envious of. The rates of return for tertiary education far surpass most commercial rates of return, which historically average around 10 per cent, and surpass any hurdle rate for investment, which is typically seven to eight per cent. That's what's sought in formal government investment analysis. So you've got to say that every taxpayer dollar invested in higher education is really working hard, and we're getting a great rate of return.
On this side of the House, we believe there should be an even greater participation in higher education in Australia. The decision by the government to effectively put a cap back on undergraduate places in universities is going to smash participation rates—a $2.1 billion cut. Across the country, the Mitchell Institute says it will lead to 235,000 Australians missing out on a university education—and that is just an extraordinary figure—over the next few years. That has a shocking impact on our economy and on our society. The impact will particularly be felt in electorates like mine on the outskirts of Sydney.
There is a desire for Western Sydney to be part of an innovation drive, with high-quality, high-skilled jobs. The population requires a skills uplift to be ready for those jobs, yet the Centre for Western Sydney has found that, among young people, the attainment of a bachelor degree is 40 per cent lower than elsewhere in Greater Sydney
—10 per cent, compared with nearly 17 per cent. So, we already have significantly fewer people even attempting university, which is not setting us up well for the skills that we need going forward. The freezing of funding to Western Sydney University is not going to help to reduce that gap. Western Sydney University is the key provider of education in the greater west, including the Hawkesbury campus at Richmond, in my electorate. It's in the interests of my community that we see more people go to university. We on this side of the House actively back participation—for a start, by lifting the caps the government has imposed.
There are a number of ways we think that the university system needs to be treated differently. Labor is committed to returning to the demand-driven funding system and to ensuring that there are three-year funding agreements. We also want to see more equity and pathway programs, and we've provided for much-needed funding for infrastructure. They are the areas we would like to see change. Labor's positive policies will see around $10 billion in additional funding flowing to universities over the decade.
I will now talk in a little more detail about where those different areas will be. Let's talk about participation. I want to see more kids from the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains getting a university degree. We've already announced that $174 million in equity and pathways funding will be available under Labor. That will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates so that more students are encouraged to go to university. In the Hawkesbury part of my electorate, particularly, we have a fabulous uptake of TAFE but we don't do so well on university. We need both of those things. We need young people and older people going to both those pathways so that we can bring together the skills mix that we need for the coming century.
It is still a reality that if you're a student on the North Shore of Sydney you are five times more likely to go to university than a student in, let's say, the Moreton Bay area of Queensland. You are also more likely to go to university than if you come from the Hawkesbury or Blue Mountains. We want to change that. The equity funding comes on top of Labor's nearly $10 billion commitment to return to the demand-driven funding system from 2020, which will see around 200,000 more Australians get the opportunity of a university education over the following decade.
Only last month or so Labor announced a new $300 million universities future fund that will go towards updating research and teaching facilities at our universities. We've also announced a specific commitment to the Hawkesbury campus in Western Sydney in my electorate of Macquarie. The Hawkesbury campus will receive
$20 million to transform it into a global food-security powerhouse, which really helps put the region at the cutting edge of research on hardier crops, nutrition and biosafety.
My part of Sydney is really not Sydney; it is peri-urban. We have fabulous agriculture, we have orchards, we have berries, and we have vegetables being grown on the floodplains of the Hawkesbury, so agriculture is really important to the Hawkesbury. The $20 million will establish a new world-class agri-technology centre on our campus. We currently have the most amazing glasshouse that there is in Australia. This funding will help the work being done at that facility. It is a 1,700-square-metre glasshouse, where crops are grown for research. It uses the latest climate control technology. It features things like diffused glass and smart glass coatings that adjust the spectrum, direction and intensity of light, helping researchers to produce the highest possible crop yields with minimal energy, nutrients and water. The investment in this facility, which will enable additional research, will really build on our tradition in the Hawkesbury as an agricultural centre.
The Hawkesbury Agricultural College became, 126 years ago, the first agricultural college in New South Wales, and we continue to have that tradition carried through. People outside the area might not realise that the local dairy, beef, lamb, vegetable and food producers are already key contributors to Sydney's food supply. As the issue of food security becomes more and more pressing, we will have an opportunity to play a really key role there. In a lot of ways, this has the potential to put the Hawkesbury on the map internationally. We know this kind of technology is in demand around the world, so the investment has a huge potential to be a job creator as our local know-how is exported across the globe. I look forward to seeing this project come to fruition if Labor wins the next election. It will be a very exciting time.
So the choice for me is pretty clear. On one side you have a government that really doesn't value investment in education, that does as little as possible, but asks students to do as much as possible.
There is no point in shaking your head at it, because that's just how the numbers add up. On this side, we have an absolute commitment to ensuring quality education at every level—from preschool and early education through to our schools—which would mean an additional $16.5 million funding for schools in my electorate of Macquarie over the first three years. Those are the sorts of commitments we have alongside this commitment to university funding. So the choice in university funding at the next election is clear. Labor will properly fund our universities and give students who have the ability and are willing to work hard the opportunity of a really valuable university education—valuable for them and valuable for us as an economy and a society.