Higher Education - 12/05/2021

12 May 2021

I rise this evening to speak on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. Labor will support this bill, as it makes commonsense administrative changes to the operation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Study Assistance Scheme, or Abstudy, and the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, or AIC. The two schemes were introduced to provide financial assistance to students and their families, improving equality of access to education and study.

In 2020 the Abstudy scheme provided financial assistance to around 27,000 students at school, university and TAFE. It helps to reduce financial barriers for First Nations people to tertiary education and training, and access to education is a key target of Closing the Gap. In 2019-20 the AIC scheme assisted around 13,000 students, enabling children living in rural and remote areas to have access to continuing and appropriate education. The provisions in this bill align the tax file number regime under the Student Assistance Act 1973 with the collection and use of tax file numbers under social security laws.

Currently, all claimants of the two schemes, including primary school children, are required to provide a tax file number to Services Australia. This bill removes this anomaly and puts in place tax file number provisions that are consistent with social security law. Only the parents will now need to submit a tax file number when applying for the AIC scheme. That makes a lot of sense. The provisions will also clarify the information management arrangements for the isolated children scheme, aligning them with existing Abstudy provisions.

While the contents of the bill are uncontroversial, it does highlight failures by the Morrison government, including its coalition partner, the Nationals, to provide high-quality education for students in regional and remote areas. For students accessing Abstudy and the AIC scheme, the legislative changes are inconsequential, and real reform is needed to ensure the fast-tracking of benefits to families. This is a government that goes on and on about red tape, but it sees the mantra extending only to business and to wealthier Australians. For these students and their families, reducing the red tape of these schemes and actually delivering better education outcomes for them should be a priority. Updating the administrative processes of these schemes does not require legislative change, just political will.

University is transformative for anyone who attends. We should be ensuring that anyone with the ability and the will can attend university, if they want to, without barriers. That is why the Labor Party, during World War II, introduced support for Australians to undertake study and training.

Under the Whitlam government, Abstudy was reformed into a means tested payment scheme, and the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme was established to assist students in the bush. Despite 27,000 students accessing Abstudy, we know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are significantly underrepresented in higher education. They are underrepresented in universities, comprising 1.3 per cent of the domestic higher education student population compared with 3.3 per cent of the total Australian population. Research from the University of Newcastle also shows that many high-achieving Indigenous students are not going to university, despite the fact that their non-Indigenous counterparts with similar academic scores are going to university. This is not good enough. It shows how much work there is to be done.

For this, we need a well-funded and strong university system that can provide support for First Nations students to access university and excel while they are there. Following COVID-19, it is clear to me that our universities are not in a strong position to do this. The budget last night was a further indication of the disdain that the Morrison government holds for the Australian university sector, which it abandoned throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

As the member for Canberra, I represent a university town. The Australian National University, the University of Canberra, UNSW, the Australian Catholic University and Charles Sturt University mean that Canberra is a true centre of excellence for Australian research and learning. Students and academics from across Australia and around the world come here to contribute to this academic ecosystem, and I am proud to represent them all. The pandemic has been an incredible challenge for all of Canberra's universities, with almost no support from the Morrison government for the university sector, including the absurd decision to prevent universities from accessing JobKeeper. Our universities have faced major budget cuts and job losses. Major projects have been put on hold. Important research has been abandoned. Students have been forced to study remotely or withdraw altogether.

The border closures have posed an incredible challenge with international students unable to return to Australia to study. The impact for these students is immense and the economic impact on our universities cannot be understated. This is an existential threat for our universities across Australia, who are struggling to adjust to the reality of restricted budgets. As Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of the ANU has said:

… a wholesale border closure for another couple of years … will have profound effects on the higher education sector, to the point where it's hard for me to actually imagine.

Professor Schmidt has called on the government to find safe ways to quarantine students to Australia at scale with appropriate safeguards in place. Professor Schmidt said:

We need to really work to find systems that do not cause public health issues for the nation, but really enable our students to get on with their lives

Considering all this, the Morrison government's decision to further gut university funding by 9.3 per cent in last night's budget is truly breathtaking. It is an unbelievable decision by this government who do not value higher education and do not understand the massive economic benefits of a highly educated workforce and world-class research being done here in Australia. Last night, the Morrison government's budget confirmed that over $1 billion in cuts will be made to Australian universities, gutting funding from research and finally confirming that the increase in university fees previously announced is to compensate for cuts to Commonwealth funding. This government attacks not only our universities but also the students who go there. They are loading up our students with a lifetime of debt, increasing the barriers to university for poorer students for whom university could be transformative. We know that it is poorer students who are more debt averse, so it is clear that the government has chosen to abandon students of low-income families who want to go to university.

Last year, Scott Morrison passed a bill that makes it even harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. Around 40 per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 per year, including students of law, commerce, accountancy, economics and communications; doubling fees for some students in humanities. That is more than the fees for people doing medicine and dentistry degrees. Fees for law, commerce, business and communication degrees will increase by thousands of dollars per year. It is making students go into American style debt ,which will have lasting consequences throughout their life, including when saving for a home.

What's more, there's no evidence that studying these degrees will make you less job-ready than studying any other. The employment prospects of humanities students is extremely healthy. In fact, according to research from Victoria University, people with humanities degrees have higher employment rates than science or maths graduates. Think about the year 12s graduating last year or this year and what they've been through as they have completed their high school studies. The last thing they need is for the university sector to be gutted. It should be something we are investing in at this time, more than ever.

Labor believe that education and jobs go hand in hand and, by locking young Australians out of uni, Scott Morrison is locking them out of jobs. We want every Australian to get a great education, no matter where they live, to have the training they need to get a job and to get ahead and stay ahead, whether that's at uni or TAFE. But this government abandoned unis when COVID-19 hit. As of January 2021, more than 17,000 people had lost their jobs in Australian universities since the beginning of the pandemic. Universities Australia forecasts further cuts this year. I guess this government doesn't see some jobs as important as others. So far these losses equate to 13 per cent of the pre-COVID university workforce.

Job losses have been tragic for universities such as the Australian National University. ANU has announced 465 job losses, with 415 people already out of work due to this government's abandonment of the national university. ANU is the only national university, which means this parliament is responsible for it. All the other universities receive support from their state or territory parliaments, but for ANU this parliament is it's source of funding. The Morrison government should have done more for ANU during the pandemic, as well as all the other universities in my electorate and around this country. I commend the work of the National Tertiary Education Union and its secretary Cathy Day at ANU for standing up for their members and workers at ANU. But the Morrison government has put the ANU in an impossible position by providing no support. Job cuts are incredibly difficult for institutions and for communities like Canberra, and for my constituents who have lost their jobs I am so sorry that their federal government didn't protect their jobs by providing JobKeeper to universities.

One of the other groups that this government did nothing for through the pandemic is students. They missed out on JobKeeper if they were employed in casual employment, as most of them were, and they also missed out on the increase to JobSeeker. We provide youth allowance to students who are eligible. It is my deep belief that, by enabling students to study, this is an investment in the future of this country. I believe that all social security payments are an investment in our citizens and people having dignity and a decent standard of living, but this government clearly doesn't see it that way. Not only are they placing these enormous debts on young people who want to go and study at our universities; they are making it impossible because young people cannot meet the living costs. Think about moving to an expensive city like Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane and just trying to get by if you don't have parental support—or even if you do. It is a huge sacrifice and it is very hard for students. We see rates of dropout from university in Australia that are incredibly high, and they shouldn't be this high. It's my guess that the reason is that people simply cannot sustain trying to work enough to meet their rent and bills while they are trying to study.

We should be investing in these young people, particularly in First Nations people, who want to be going to university in this country. We should be investing in all Australian citizens having a decent standard of living. But particularly in this way we're not just hitting these young people with an enormous debt that might prevent them from saving for a home, making it difficult for them when they are starting a family; they also simply cannot make that decision to move to an expensive place to study at university if they cannot work full time in multiple jobs at the same time in an increasingly hostile job market.

So, while we'll pass this bill, as I say, there is so much more that this government could do to support our university sector. It's an absolutely critical time at the moment when it should be doing that, as we are in a global pandemic. And it could be better supporting our young people. They are facing an incredibly difficult future at the moment under this government that refuses to back them.