Higher Education - 23/10/2019

23 October 2019



Labor will not oppose these bills, the Education Legislation Amendment (Tuition Protection and Other Measures) Bill 2019, the VET Student Loans (VSL Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2019 and the Higher Education Support (HELP Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2019, because they work to protect students. Labor has always sought to protect students working hard to get a high-level qualification, because higher education, whether in the university system or in the TAFE system, is an expensive undertaking.

Australian governments have long sought to support students to undertake higher education through the provision of a world-leading student loan system—either VSL or HELP—because we know that it is good for our economy, good for business and life-changing for students who gain further education after high school. Anything we can do to ensure students can complete their qualification, even if their training provider disbands, is a good thing to do. These bills seek to introduce a tuition protection scheme for students who use student loans to pay for vocational education and training and higher education courses at public and private providers, including TAFEs, in cases of provider or course closure. Unfortunately, as has become typical with this government, though, these bills are a bit sloppy and there remain concerns on how the bills will operate.

As outlined by my Labor colleagues, including the shadow assistant minister for skills, the sector is concerned that the legislation will not operate as it needs to. Fee-paying students aren't covered by this legislation, and Labor believes that these students should be able to obtain the same protection as those who have a government loan. The sector is concerned that some of the costs of the levy associated with these bills will be passed on to students. TAFEs are also concerned that they will be left to pick up the pieces when students come to them with poor training from a since-closed institution. The process for dealing with these scenarios needs to be worked out, as Labor is not confident that the bills cover this as they currently stand. As the Senate is best placed to ensure that the bills deliver on what the government hopes to achieve, Labor will refer the bills to committee to assess these valid issues raised by the higher education and TAFE sector.

However, these bills remind us yet again that the government has systematically decimated the skills and training sector over the six years that they have been in charge. Much like the ABC bill currently before the House, the government is simply tinkering about the edges when there are real issues that need to be addressed. Rather than delivering the funding and reform required by the higher education sector in Australia, and especially the TAFE system, we see these inconsequential changes—good, but not good enough. The government continues to distract from the bigger issues at stake with amendments here and there. These bills, while important, are an example of this government's lack of agenda and lack of ambition for Australia and its people.

The government speaks ad nauseam about skills, jobs and jobs growth, and yet they decimate the very system that will empower Australians to get jobs. The Liberals have slashed $3 billion from TAFE and training. That $3 billion in cuts means Australia now faces a crisis in skills and vocational training. There's a national shortage of tradies. Despite this, Scott Morrison has cut funding to TAFE and training. He's let apprentice and trainee numbers fall off a cliff, and now he's trying to blame young people for not choosing a trade. Under the Liberals, there are 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees, and a shortage of workers in critical services including plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing and motor mechanics. The number of Australians doing an apprenticeship or traineeship is lower today than it was a decade ago. There are more people dropping out of apprenticeships and traineeships than finishing them.

If Scott Morrison doesn't care about the young people aspiring to be tradespeople who aren't able to get an apprenticeship, surely he can stand up for his quiet Australians who want their house fixed up, their toilet unblocked, their car serviced or their hair done. In Scott Morrison's economy, there's nearly a 10 per cent increase in the number of occupations facing skills shortages. The Australian Industry Group says 75 per cent of businesses surveyed are struggling to find the qualified workers they need. However, while businesses are crying out for more trained staff, there are about 1.9 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We should be training Australians to do the jobs our businesses need qualified workers for, but how can we when our training providers are threadbare and turning away students?

It's not just a problem with the TAFE system. With funding attached to students, the Liberals capped the number of places at our universities. In doing so, they have cut funding to universities and cut the dreams of Australian students and future employees into pieces. Since the election of the government in 2013, universities and students have been under constant attack with cuts, attempts at fee deregulation, policy chaos and uncertainty. Our universities should be focusing on doing the best research and providing the best training and learning. Instead, they have been fighting governments for decades to retain the funding that they have. Again, the government goes on and on about building the Australian economy. Guess what—research and education does just this. It contributes significantly to the Australian economy through innovation and through the provision of education services to a large cohort of international students, in addition to the economic benefits of educating Australians.

But guess what—Australia is but one player in the international education market. As the government forces down the quality of our institutions cut by cut by cut, the international students will go elsewhere—to the UK or the US, or even stay at home—because the quality of our institutions will no longer be considered reputable enough or value for money. You only have to look at the global university rankings to see the international universities rocketing up the charts as Australian institutions struggle to hold onto their positions. The government will tell you that university funding has increased, but a closer look at the data shows it isn't true. According to Universities Australia, most of the increase to university funding is due to HELP loans, and 80 per cent of these loans will be paid back by students.

Despite the growth in funding, Australian government total higher education spending as a percentage of GDP only increased from 0.9 per cent in 1989 to one per cent in 2017. Excluding HELP loans, higher education grants for teaching, learning and research have declined from 0.7 per cent in 1989 to 0.6 per cent in 2017. It is a damning reality that this government has cut funding to the tertiary sector. Australia's investment in tertiary education funding is below the international average. Australia's public investment in tertiary institutions as a share of GDP is amongst the lowest in the OECD—ranked 24 out of 34 countries. Australia's public investment was only 0.77 per cent of GDP in 2015 compared to 0.98 per cent of GDP for average OECD countries.

International student enrolments have more than doubled since 2001. This represents an average annual growth rate of 5.5 per cent over that period. In 2017, 27 per cent of students enrolled in Australian universities were from overseas, compared to 19 per cent in 2001. Australia has 6.6 per cent of the world's international students studying at the VET, or higher, education level. International education is Australia's third-largest export and the largest services export industry, generating $35.8 billion in export income in 2018. This is an incredible industry for Australia. We should be very proud of our universities and of our TAFEs. They are the envy of the world. But it is clear from these stats that the government is using the international education system here in this country as an excuse to halt funding to the sector. But their actions put the golden goose at risk. If we don't invest in the tertiary education system we will lose it, and our international customers will go elsewhere.

The 2017 MYEFO decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities included the recapping of undergraduate places, and the changes to the Higher Education Loan Program were reckless and unfair. Two hundred thousand students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place over the decade, due to the government's cuts and the capping of places. How do we become the high-skilled economy of the future that Australia should be, without giving 200,000 of our citizens the ability to become a member of the workforce of the future?

Of course, the demonisation of the poor spreads to every area of policymaking under the Liberals, including higher education. The Liberals have already forced students to start paying off HELP debts when they earn as little as $45,000, which is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. On this side, we know that debt is a barrier to study, particularly for students from low-income families, so our higher education loan scheme needs to be as well-targeted and fair as possible in order to ensure people don't choose to forgo education because of the loan that they will be taking on to do their study. We want to see greater participation in higher education in Australia. Labor knows that when you lock someone out of education you are locking them out of a job, out of the chance to get ahead and out of the opportunity to create a good life for themselves and for their family.

The Liberals' decision to recap undergraduate places is devastating participation rates in higher education. Two hundred thousand students won't get the opportunity of a higher education. It's simply not fair that students in more privileged areas, like the North Shore of Sydney, are five times more likely to go to uni than students in areas like the Moreton Bay region of Queensland. We want to change that. Labor wants to give the opportunity of a tertiary education to every student who has the ability and who is prepared to work hard. In contrast, the Liberals want to slam shut the door to university to more than 200,000 Australians. Unlike the Liberals and Nationals, we believe that education funding is an investment in our nation's future prosperity, not a cost burden.

A government without a plan for education and training has no plan for Australia's future. So I call on the government to do more than just tinker around the edges of education policy reform. I call on them to utilise the opportunities afforded by an increasing international student market to build a tertiary education system, both universities and TAFEs, that is truly world-leading. Yes, these bills will help students, but the government should be doing more. We are a wealthy nation. We have an incredible human potential. Let's go and harness it so its full potential will build prosperity for all Australians to go through TAFE or university. Thank you.