Higher Education Tuition Payments

09 November 2020

I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020 and the Higher Education (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2020.

I would like to begin by thanking the shadow minister for education, the member for Sydney, who last year wrote to the Minister for Education to voice our concern that the exclusion of domestic upfront-fee-paying students from the tuition protection scheme would create a complex situation where different students have different rights and different protections. It is pleasing to see the government has listened and introduced legislation to address the problem.

Labor welcomes this practical legislation, but it is important that the House recognise this legislation does nothing to address this government's diabolical funding cuts and attacks on our higher education system, on the workers and the researchers and, importantly, on the students. Recently, this government made changes to the cost of university study. This year, 2020, has been a nightmare year for young Australians. Students have had to study remotely. They have missed out on key milestones, from formals to schoolies and gap years. Many young Australians have spent much of the year unable to see their friends and classmates, so the last thing they need is to be saddled with a lifetime of debt if they continue their studies. Yet the Morrison government is embracing policy that would result in 40 per cent of students paying double the amount for their degree, an added extra cost of $14,500 a year. This makes no sense. It's unfair and it is ill thought through. I have spoken to many young people in my electorate about the impact these changes will have on their lives and their education. One young woman who attended a recent forum I ran with the member for Sydney on these changes was Lily Watterson. Lily is a bright, articulate, passionate young woman who is currently a student at Surf Coast Secondary College in Torquay. Lily hopes to study for an arts degree next year. She said:

I live regionally, so I definitely can't commute to uni every day and having this added pressure of the fees more than doubling is just crazy.

There's no way I can afford to move to Melbourne and support myself. I've got a single parent so it's not like I'm going to be getting my rent paid every week.

And Lily is not alone. I'm worried for so many young people in my community who won't be able to go to university because of changes this government has made.

It's not just high school students; current university students are also being impacted. Ana Machado Colling is another intelligent young woman who attended the forum. She has already done a Bachelor of Arts and hopes to go on to do a masters. This is what she told me: 'A lot of us have found ourselves unemployed during COVID, and study has become a strong alternative for us. For a masters degree to cost something like $80,000 is just unbelievable. It will go over my HECS-HELP, which means I'll have to pay upfront. I don't understand how that's feasible for someone living out of home, paying rent and studying full time.' Over and over, when I speak to young people in my electorate like Lily and Ana, they're concerned about the changes. They're so downhearted. They're altering their plansplans they've had for yearsbecause of the threat these changes present. They're being denied the opportunities I and many others in this chamber have had, largely due to these changes. Thanks to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, this was an opportunity that we all had for the power of education, and many of us had free education. It was a great thing. Now things have changed.

I myself am a proud graduate of the humanities. I studied drama and literature as an undergraduate and went on to study communications at a postgraduate level, as well as teaching. I am very grateful for that education; it taught me so much about the world around me, and I use my degrees every day. I also believe the humanities are more important than ever. The big problems we face right nowdeclining trust in our political system and our institutions like this parliament, inaction on climate change, income inequality and injusticeare social problems, problems of collective action, and it is the humanities which equip us to deal with social problems, to analyse and to question the status quo. As Robert French, the Chancellor of the University of Western Australia and former Chief Justice of the High Court, has said:

Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

Studying the humanities helps teach us to reflect, to inspire, to create, to move people, and to understand and change the world around us. Studying the humanities helps young people get jobs. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have higher employment rates than science or maths graduates. Australia is in the midst of a once-in-a-100-years recession. I cannot think of a worse time for the government to be making it harder for young Australians to study the humanities. I urge the government to rethink this petty attack on humanities and instead to think about creating jobs and opportunity for the next generation.

One of the aspects of the government's recent changes to higher education that I find particularly appalling is the significant impact it will have on regional areas like my electorate. The government has said it wants to help more young people in regional areas, but its policies are instead leaving regional, rural and remote universities, their staff and their students worse off. This is because regional universities deliver a greater proportion of courses that will have a funding cut compared with non-regional universities. Under the government's policy, nearly twice as many regional and remote students will have to pay the highest rate of student fees.

I'm proud to represent regional Victoria. Parents in my communities of Corangamite want their children to have the opportunity to go to university. They know that getting a great education is a ticket to a great job and a lifetime of opportunity for their kids. They do not want to see children in our communities priced out of an education.

But it's not just about kids, it's about jobs. Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia. They support jobs in my electorate at Deakin University. But funding cuts in regional universities will mean fewer jobs in our regions for academics, for support staff, for administrators and for service providers. This process has already begun in my region, with Deakin University cutting over 300 jobs. Unfortunately, these workers were ineligible for JobKeeper. The question must be asked: why is the Morrison government discriminating against these workers and leaving them adrift to join the unemployment queue? They've been left behind by the Morrison government, and these workers know it.

The coronavirus has exposed the flawed financial model that many if not all of our universities have embraced. They had pursued the international student market as a way of raising revenue, but, with the advent of COVID, having all the eggs in one basket no longer works. I'm not criticising universities. They've been forced into this precarious situation because the federal government does not, at its core, believe in funding universitiesquite shameful, really. In contrast, Labor's record on education in regional areas is strong. Labor's policies in government saw enrolments of students from regional and remote areas increase by 50 per cent, and I want this to continue.

The government's approach to higher education is cruel. It cuts billions from the sector while doing nothing to help young people get into high-priority courses and jobs. It will make thousands of students pay more than double for the same qualifications, and it will continue the Liberals' track record of years of neglect and cuts to our higher education sector. The young people in my community that I've had the chance to meet and talk to are passionate, clever and articulate. They want to study at university, they want to get good jobs and they want to contribute to our community. I feel for them so much, not just because of the big challenges they've faced this year but because the Morrison government is making it harder for them to achieve in the future. As a mother of two daughters aged 17 and 18, I have seen firsthand just how tough this year has been for the younger generation. For those young people in my community who might be following along with this debate, I want them to know: I hear you, I stand with you, and Labor will fight for you.

The Morrison government's approach to higher education is a world-class blueprint for inequality: increase fees to limit access, fill the gap with a loans scheme so that people with less financial stability feel less able to repay, and put the highest price tags on courses linked to socially influential careersthis is the holy trinity of shutting down aspiration. We don't want it in Corangamite, and we don't want it in Australia.