Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017

I want to indicate to the House it's my attention to support the amendment moved by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on this bill and to oppose the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (A More Sustainable, Responsive and Transparent Higher Education System) Bill 2017. I'd like to first of all go through some of the detail of the bill and why I think it should be opposed and also address how that will impact in my own local area. This particular piece of legislation has been debated around not only this place for a while now but also in our communities. I can assure the parliament that it is very hard to find anybody on the grounds of my own university at Wollongong who has any affection for these particular so-called reforms that the government has encapsulated in this bill, the 'triple-whammy bill'.

First of all, it will reduce funding to universities so will be a direct cut in funding. Secondly, it will increasingly shift the cost on to students, seeing students have to pay more for their courses and pay back at an earlier pace. These combined effects are significant also because despite what my colleague, the member opposite, said before my contribution, while it is important to have more and more people with post-secondary skills and an education, this particular bill does nothing to increase participation and everything to discourage participation. It is, in particular, of great concern that despite the fact that this has been roundly rejected across communities, across the university sector and across student bodies directly affected by it, we continue to have it fed to us in this place, and so again we do today.

It is important to note that, in fact, Australia has the second-lowest level of public investment in universities in the OECD. And so what does this bill contribute? It contributes to making that position worse. Our students, despite the previous speakers claiming that we're extremely generous to them, already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD. This bill will only make that worse too. It is again an example across the education sector of this government saying we need to upskill the nation and then doing everything they can to either cut funding or shift costs in a way that will achieve exactly the opposite. We've seen it in schools with the cuts to the Gonski funding and with their bandaid proposal to say that they were doing something on school education. We've seen it in the TAFE sector; every time there is a budget or a MYEFO, they've cut funding to the skills sector. And we see it in the higher education sector as well. In fact, it is very important to point out that the money a government spends on education at all levels is an investment. If we want to talk about economic growth and if we want to talk about jobs and growth—which apparently was once the priority for those opposite—then we have to invest in our people, and cuts such as are before us in this bill are not the way to achieve that.

I want to particularly make the point, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition did, that there are proposals in this bill around sub-bachelor degree programs. As the deputy opposition leader indicated, we have some concerns around ensuring and taking action to ensure that the outcome of that is to not to cut at the heart of our TAFE sector. Diplomas and associate diplomas can appropriately be delivered in the university sector when they're specifically designed for the sorts of target areas that a university might be better delivering, but they are not intended to compete for little purpose against the TAFE sector, which already has a world-class reputation in delivering those sorts of qualifications. So I want to make the point that I think it is very, very important that we be careful what we do in that space.

Across the board in this particular bill, it's clear that the efficiency dividend—the 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend that the government is placing on grants for 2018-19—means that there is a funding cut at the heart of this bill. The increase in student contribution amounts—student fees—of 7.5 per cent over four years is a cost shift onto students, which can significantly decrease the capacity of students to consider undertaking tertiary education, and that is a serious issue. The change to the repayment threshold—lowering it to a $42,000 income, at which point you start to repay—is going to have significant impacts on young adults starting out in life. They're already dealing with the fact that they've finished their tertiary education with a debt that has to be repaid and they're going into a workforce that is increasingly irregular and unreliable. Many young people I talk to are working full time, but none of those jobs and hours they work are actually permanent, reliable income, so, whilst they may actually be earning a reasonable flow of income, the reality is that they don't have the security on which to build a life—security many of us took for granted when we first came out of our post-secondary training and education and were able to do things like start a family or get a mortgage. They're facing an intergenerational unfairness in terms of housing affordability, often paying rents that are so prohibitive that they can't save in order to get a deposit to get ahead in the housing market. If they could save to get a deposit, they'd be facing a market that increasingly shuts them out because of the cost of housing. These are the issues that they are already facing. Quite rightly, I think, they're looking at our generation, saying, 'Why is it that you continue to make decisions that make it even harder for us to get a start as young adults'? This bill, by decreasing the repayment level to $42,000, will affect that.

Across the board, I think that the government should understand that this bill and the proposals within it have been discussed and debated across the community. It doesn't matter how they try to put it together; it's not a proposal that is supported by the broader community, and it is certainly not supported by this side of this chamber, because we actually understand the challenges that people are facing in our communities when they look at getting a start as a young person in the community: making a family, buying a house, and doing all those things that they have a right to do. It's important for our communities that they be able to do that. They're not doing it, and this will add to that difficulty.

In the time that's left to me, I want to particularly talk about how the bill will affect my own region. Obviously, I have a world-class university, the University of Wollongong, in my area. The implication of this legislation is that my university, the University of Wollongong, will have a funding cut of $45.7 million over the next four years. Of course, that's part of a $617.8 million cut across New South Wales. That is a direct hit to the bottom line of the university, which plays out in reduced quality, a reduced range of offerings for students and increased costs being put onto the students.

The students at my university have had many rallies and protests about their serious concerns about the implications of this bill for them. It is the case that we have persistently high youth unemployment in my area, and I will not stop campaigning and lobbying in support of post-secondary education in my area. At the end of the day, that is the thing that will give young people a fighting chance in an employment market that is rapidly changing and in which they need the foundation of a post-secondary education for them to be competitive in it. I will continue to fight for my TAFEs and my university and for the students who need them to be there in our community.

I'm particularly concerned to see some of the proposals by the government around the Higher Education Partnerships and Participation Program. This is a program that particularly supports disadvantaged Australians to get a university education. I'd like to point out that I met, in a number of universities across the country, Indigenous students who found access into higher education through this program. There has already been nearly $200 million cut from it, and I have really serious concerns about how we're going to continue to make sure that students from all walks of life, those who have the capacity and interest, are able to participate in a university education.

Finally, I want to contrast the approach of the government with what Labor did when we were in government. It is important to note that we took very seriously the significance of investing in education, and also in investing in higher education. It's very clear that the focus of both the Rudd and Gillard governments was to invest in higher education. We lifted funding in it when we came to government: in 2007 it was about $8 billion; by 2013, we had lifted that to $14 billion. That's a significant increase after the Howard years, when universities were under the pump and saw their funding consistently slashed.

In my area, through things like the higher education infrastructure investment that we put in place, there was $135 million invested in my university: $25.1 million was invested in the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre; $42.8 million was invested in the Australian Institute of Innovative Materials; $35 million was invested in the SMART Infrastructure Facility, which is the Simulation, Modelling, Analysis, Research and Teaching Infrastructure Facility; and $31 million was invested in the Early Start facility, which is about driving transformation and outcomes for children, particularly those from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds. That's $135 million, and the deputy leader visited it only recently with me and saw the wonderful work that they are doing there.

In the Rudd and Gillard years, Labor governments invested $135 million in my university, and we are now seeing world-class research in critically important areas to our economy and society. It is seeing significant employment boosts in my area. It is seeing the university enabled, in partnership with my local businesses and councils, to help transform our region at a time when we're under real pressure to make sure we have a future for manufacturing and steel. My university is working with local manufacturer and working with BlueScope to ensure that research and development can partner with them to give them a future.

This university is driving so much of that agenda in my local area, because Labor governments invested in it. I couldn't name anything from the Howard years that was anywhere near a match to the investment in my university by a Labor government, and I can't name anything that's happened under the Abbott and Turnbull governments that would even come close to reflecting the investment by Labor governments in my university and in the people in my region. This bill before us today is only an addition to the gallery of shame of Liberal governments in the higher education sector. It should be rejected, and I support the amendment that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition has moved. I will continue to fight on behalf of my university and my community and the students who rely on it. (Time expired)