Higher Education Matters

 

Read my full speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:53):  This bill to increase safeguards and help ensure quality in higher education is important and the government should be praised for introducing it. But this bill can't be considered in isolation. It must be seen against the background of the mess that the Turnbull government is making in higher education.

Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, as you know, higher education matters. It's an important export for us. In 2016 education export earnings were $21.8 billion—that's a record. That was growth of 17 per cent year on year. Even more importantly, we need high quality universities so that Australian students get the skills that they'll need for the jobs of the future. Those two facts alone—the importance of education as an export industry and the importance of education to domestic students, Australian kids and Australian mature-aged students—must be remembered when we consider higher education policy in this place.

I want to mention some of the driving factors for our success and for universities' success in the higher education sector in Australia. Universities Australia puts our export success down to Australia's excellent reputation for high quality university education, our proximity to Asia and a lower Australian dollar.

Those are the reasons that they say drove the 17 per cent growth in export earnings last year compared to the year before. Obviously, we cannot rely on the last of those three things all of the time. We cannot rely on always having a low or lower Australian dollar. We certainly can rely on our proximity to Asia, and we have to do everything we can to exploit that benefit. But when it comes to the first of those three factors—high-quality higher education—the last thing that we should do is put downward pressure on quality. It's one of the reasons this bill is important.

Taking steps to ensuring that we have quality in one area in higher education doesn't make up for what this government is recklessly doing to our important higher education sector. The Turnbull government wants to put prices up for uni degrees. The Turnbull government wants to push debt up for households with students and graduates. The Turnbull government wants to start taking money out of the pockets of people who earn less. The Turnbull government wants to cut funding for higher education so that students will pay more to get less. Today is a national day of protest. On university campuses across the country people are protesting this government's attacks on higher education. I commend everyone who is standing up for a good, high quality higher education system with secure jobs, a great student experience and, most importantly, a capacity to provide opportunities for learning that changes lives.

I want to say a few things about this bill. I also want to talk about the political context and the higher education context in which it is being debated. Labor supports this bill. Labor recognises there is a genuine risk that our higher education system could be targeted by unscrupulous providers. Ensuring that Australia's world-class higher education system and students are properly protected is absolutely critical to the system's ongoing success. Labor fully supports a robust and rigorous higher education regulatory system. Labor welcomes the additional focus on the greater scrutiny placed on the background of organisations who wish to operate in this country's higher education system. The reforms proposed in this bill rightly acknowledge there has been a surge in applications from vocational education providers to become higher education providers.

Labor also supports greater protection for students, particularly those accessing the FEE-HELP system. Students who take on debts for study need to do so with confidence. Labor therefore welcomes the changes the government proposes to the arrangements for using HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP. It's troubling that there is evidence that students have fallen victim to unscrupulous marketing activities. It's even more troubling that there is evidence to suggest that many providers have had tax file numbers passed on for the Australian Taxation Office. It's a very good thing that this bill seeks to ensure that this cannot happen. It's also important that this parliament seeks to protect Australia's higher education system from some of the poor practices we've seen in the vocational education sector.

Labor supports the bill. The Turnbull government does need to ensure it continues to properly consult with the sector in relation to the bill. It also needs to ensure that it is providing the higher education regulator, TEQSA, with adequate resources to do its job. Most importantly, this government needs to get serious about building upon our universities' existing high-quality teaching, learning and research, in order to serve both our export market and, more importantly, Australian students. The government needs to drop its attacks on higher education and instead work to make our higher education sector even better than it presently is.

As I said, the Turnbull government is seeking to cut funding for higher education so students will pay more to get less. The government has included in its package for higher education guaranteed public funding cuts to offset the fee hikes students will be paying. On top of that, it has included a 2½ per cent guaranteed cut to public funding. On top of that again, there are additional potential cuts of up to 7½ per cent. The locked-in cuts will mean job losses. The union and Universities Australia have each been clear about that. The unions expect job losses. In fact, the NTEU expects job losses of between 7,000 and 9,500 full-time equivalent positions nationally as a consequence of these locked-in cuts to public funding for higher education.

The potential cuts of an additional 7½ per cent—cuts that arise in relation to yet unknown and unannounced performance measures for most of the period—are making planning very difficult for universities. This also means universities are going to be even more prone to putting staff onto casual contracts or short-term contracts, and that's a real problem. We are not opposed to performance-based funding, of course, but you've got to go about it the right way.

Cutting the guaranteed amount of public funding to create a performance based scheme is the wrong way to go about it, and announcing a scheme without working out the detail of the performance measures leaves a lot of uncertainty in the sector. Between the cuts to offset fee increases and the efficiency dividend—the 2.5 per cent cut—there are big cuts to public funding. In fact, the budget papers indicated that there would be savings—cuts—of $3.8 billion in fiscal terms as a consequence of this package. That is almost $4 billion in cuts to the public funding of higher education in this country. It's a massive cut in public funding to universities. The fee increases will offset some of that—and, of course, universities will seek to increase their international student intake—but the cuts will still mean less revenue to universities. Students will be asked to pay more; at the same time, universities will get less to fund higher education. Questions have to be asked about how this will affect quality.

I visited Monash's Peninsula campus and spoke with some excellent allied health and nursing academics. They are doing great work but they are worried about the government's funding cuts. Will students in nursing programs get less individual attention? Will physiotherapy students have less access to the type of equipment they will encounter when they are in the workforce? What will the potential impacts on quality mean for employers? Will they be expected to take graduates who are less prepared for their profession?

Australia already has low public investment in tertiary education by OECD standards as a proportion of GDP. We have higher levels of individual contributions—fee income as a proportion of the overall income that universities receive—compared with other OECD counterparts. Last year, writing about the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, Ken Henry pointed out the need to ensure that Australians are endowed with capabilities that are relevant for success in this century. He said that this calls for a renewed focus on our national endowments, such as high quality education systems, policy frameworks that promote economic security and working conditions that promote human dignity. He pointed out that the white paper had identified a need for new foundational investments, including public investments in Australian schools, universities and vocational training centres.

I respectfully agree with Mr Henry. That is one reason why I find it so bewildering that, five years after the white paper, the government wants to take the opposite approach. The Turnbull government wants to cut funding to universities—public funding and overall funding. I also find it bewildering that right now, in the economic context in which we are operating, the Turnbull government wants to put up prices for university degrees. They want to push up debt for households with students and graduates—which is, of course, the natural consequence of that. When I visited the University of Western Sydney they told me they believed that students from low socio-economic backgrounds and 'first in family' students were sensitive to price. It is all very well to claim that students won't be sensitive to price, but that is not the experience that universities have. The University of Tasmania told me similar things. When I visited the University of Tasmania, they told me that their Burnie campus had a 'first in family' cohort of over 90 per cent of their students. You can't tell me that someone from a poor family who has never had anyone from their family go to university is not going to be worried about the amount of debt they are going to have to take on in order to get a university degree.

I came from a family like that when I was growing up. My dad was working in the mail room at Australia Post and my mum worked in her father's business when I was a little kid. I did not know anyone who had been to university—other than my GP. If you asked my parents 10 years later, when I was thinking about going to university, whether I should take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt—how could you not think about the consequences of that? How could you not think about what that would mean? Hiking up fees by 7.5 per cent will mean bigger debts for students and graduates. That means more pressure on households, not just at the time they decide to go university but for many years after. It is a massive problem, particularly as incomes are stagnating.

The recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey said that we have had a slight decline in average household income since 2012. Things are grim. This year we have seen a wage price index lower than CPI. Wages growth is at record lows. Graduate incomes are down. They are less than they were for people who graduated at any other time in the last 15 years, and they have been dropping across this period. In the last 15 years home ownership for under-40s has dropped from 36 per cent to 25 per cent.

 

But people under 40 have twice as much housing debt as people of the same age 15 years ago, and they are facing much higher prices for child care. At the time these dynamics are happening—stagnating incomes, low graduate wages, high household debt, high house prices and high childcare prices—why on earth would the government want to saddle people with much more student debt? It is irresponsible. How will households with this higher debt react? What is going to be the effect on household consumption? It is really important for economic growth that we have strong household consumption. What are people going to do when they are 35, with two kids, massive student debt, massive housing debt, hard-to-afford child care and incomes that are stagnating? Why is the government not thinking ahead about how these fee hikes are going to affect people?

And the worst part about these fee hikes—the worst part about the government's utter lack of consideration of the future impact of these fee hikes—is that there is no good reason for them. There is no good reason for these fee hikes. They are just coming from the government's ideological position that students should make a greater private contribution to the cost of higher education, even though they already make a higher contribution by OECD standards. The government have an ideological position; they want to rebalance the proportion of the costs paid by private individuals compared to costs borne by public funding.

I feel like I have been having this argument for decades, probably because I have. I remember being a student and having Liberal students argue we needed to increase the proportion paid by private individual contribution. So they have this ideological position. And you do not have to take my word. You can just read Minister Birmingham's speech from when he announced this package and he said they believed there should be an adjustment to the costs borne by private individuals compared to the proportion borne by public funding.

The express purpose of this package is to serve that ideological view of the Liberals. The express purpose of this package is to make students pay more but get less. It is not as though they are saying: 'All right, students, increase your contribution and we will match that with an increased contribution from public moneys and that that will help to build an amazing new set of quality frameworks for universities, and it will help to continue to improve university quality teaching, learning and research.' None of that is happening. They are saying: 'You lot pay more, because we reckon ideologically you are not paying enough. At the same time, we will cut university funding in a commensurate way, and on top of that we will cut it again, by another 2.5 per cent and on top of that we will reduce it again by another 7.5 per cent and make that contingent on yet unannounced perform measures.' This is ideological nonsense. It is reckless and irresponsible.

The Turnbull government also wants to start taking money out of the pockets of people who earn less. If they get their way, they will start demanding a contribution from people earning $42,000 a year. So much for the extra tax you pay after you get a higher education being justified by the private benefit you supposedly get from it! If you say to people, 'Once you earn $42,000 a year, you're getting so much private benefit from your higher education that you should pay some additional money to the government,' then that is actually telling them that the university education that they are getting is justifying that additional payment, even though they are earning less than half the male average full-time income. It is not even much more than the national minimum wage. So much for this additional contribution being justified by the vast private benefit that people are supposedly getting from having gone to university—42 grand a year; that is what they want to drop it to. 'Once you hit 42 grand a year, you're doing so well and you've got it so good that you should pay extra tax to the government.' That is what they are really saying to people. It is utterly ridiculous. They do not know this—because they did not bother checking—but this will fall disproportionately on women, because women are more likely to work part time and are more likely to work in the lower paid professions.

As I said, they did not bother to find out the extent to which women would be especially affected. The Australian Association of Social Workers pointed this out in a submission they made recently. They said:

Michael Brennan, the Deputy Secretary of Treasury's Fiscal Group has admitted that they did not undertake the modelling of budget impacts that was requested by the Office for Women. If they had undertaken this modelling, they would have quantified the combined effect that this measure, the changes to Family Tax Benefit and the increase on the Medicare levy will have on female-headed households. Instead, the National Foundation for Australian Women has conducted its own analysis and concluded that this budget is "particularly harsh for women".

 

So it took a not-for-profit non-government organisation to do the analysis that the Treasury should have done under the direction of the government to have a look at the distributional impacts of this particular package and the way it was going to operate with other measures in the budget. The government did not do it. Why did they not do it? I do not know. I do not know why then Prime Minister Abbott decided to axe the women's budget statement when he came to government. Former Prime Minister Howard had women's budget statements. Former Labor governments had women's budget statements. But this government saw fit to axe them, and they still have not reinstated them because, frankly, they do not really care about these issues.

I have visited a lot of universities since the package was announced. Every single one of them has expressed to me grave concern about the cuts, about the fee hikes, and about the reduction in the threshold at which people start to be asked to make a contribution for higher education—the point at which the government starts putting its hands into the pockets of working people. Universities across the country are very concerned about this. Student groups are very concerned about this and university staff unions are very concerned about this. And why wouldn't they be worried about these changes? We have not even scratched the surface of what this government have done to higher education. We have not even talked about last year's $152 million cut to the equity programs. We have not talked about this complete mess that they seem to be making with postgraduate Commonwealth-supported places—again, an announcement without a plan behind it. They have no idea what they are doing with this. They have not even talked about those things.

But we do know that when you take almost $4 billion out of public funding for higher education, when you hike up student fees, when you ask people to pay more to get less, when you increase the debt on people's households that households are expected to bear and when you start putting your hand in people's pockets—when the government are arranging only 42 grand a year for extra money to go into government coffers—that this is a pretty bad package. It is a pretty bad package for the impact it will have on Australian students, be they school leavers, be they people returning to higher education after being in the workforce or be they people at any point in their life trying to improve their skills. If that happens to students from any of those cohorts, these changes will have a terrible impact on them. It absolutely will.

Let's not mince words. We are going through a period of enormous economic change in this country. We are going through a period of time in which we need to diversify our economy and we are going through a period of time in which there is a lot of transitioning happening in our economy. That is a really sanitised way of saying that in some industries people will lose their jobs. When that happens, we need people to be able to get the skills that they will need to transition into new jobs. We will need them to have access to vocational education and to higher education. We need to have a situation where it does not become impossible or ridiculously onerous for people to go and get more education in this country, particularly given those transitions that need to occur.

For people at the front end of their working life, leaving school, we need them to be able to go and get skills for jobs that do not even exist yet, and that should not be the exclusive preserve of people who are comfortable. For kids who are growing up in poor households, kids who are growing up where they do not know anyone who has gone to university except for maybe their doctor, there should not be impediments. There should not be disincentives for these people if they have the academic merit and the drive to go to university. If they have the desire and the willingness to go to vocational education, we should not be putting up impediments for those people; we should be encouraging them.

The fact is that in the future jobs are going to need education. The skills you will need for the jobs of the future are going to involve education. The last thing we should be doing is exacerbating inequality by making it harder for people to have access to good quality education. As I said before, let's not forget about the impact of quality of education on our export market, and also on the future workforce from the perspective of the employers and from the community.

Of course it's important that individuals who get the benefit of education are ready to do those jobs, but it's important for all of us. I don't want to go to hospital and have medical professionals who had a lesser quality higher education treating me. I don't want you to do that either, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell. I don't want that for my family. I don't even want that for the families of the people sitting opposite us. I want high quality higher education. I don't want to drive on roads and bridges that have been designed by engineers who've not had the best possible quality higher education. None of us want that. Also, we need to remember: we need a future workforce that is going to be capable of doing work and paying taxes, because we're all going to need that when we're a bit older and when we're relying on that to have occurred.

As I said earlier, it is really important to remember just how significant this is as an export market for us. International education and international tourism are up at the very top in the rankings of our export markets. People always think of iron ore and they think of coal. They need to be thinking about international tourism and international education in those same terms. As I said when I started, of the income from exports last year, in 2016, billions of dollars were from education exports, with a 17 per cent growth on the year before. We can keep on that track of growing our international education exports and using them for the important export market that this is, but if we start to cut funding to universities and put pressure on them, then of course it is going to impact their ability to grow, to build, to improve quality and to improve research. We haven't talked about research either, but it's obviously very important, for our international standing, that our universities have world-class research as well. So it is for all those reasons, and for many more.

Export markets are not just about economics, of course. It is important, for our security and for our place in the region, that our students have opportunities to meet other people from within the region, and international education is a great way of making sure there are opportunities for that to occur. When students from India or China or anywhere else in the region come to Australia, they don't just get a great education here; they give us the opportunity to meet them, to get to know them, to break down cultural barriers and to have people-to-people contact. Those benefits are important from a security perspective, from a social and cultural perspective and from an economic perspective.

Given the importance of university education to Australia, domestically, regionally and globally, it is no wonder that people are up in arms about what this government is trying to do to the university sector right now. It is absolutely no wonder that there is a national day of protest happening today, as we speak, even here in Canberra. If you were to go out to the University of Canberra or the Australian National University, you would see that people are protesting right now over what this government is doing to higher education. If you were to go to any state in the nation, you would find protests today, on this national day of protest, in relation to higher education. Students are protesting. Staff are protesting. It's not just because of the impact on their job security, because of the job losses that will follow or because of the fact that they'll be on shorter contracts or more precarious forms of work at university. These are people who value what they do, and they want to provide the best possible experience to their students. They are in teaching and learning because they believe in training, developing, teaching and educating the next generation of Australian people, and because they believe in being part of world-leading research that makes a real difference to our society.

I was talking to someone before. He was someone I met doing public health work at the Australian National University. This was someone who could have been earning a lot more in the private sector but who was dedicating his life to adding to the sum of knowledge that our country has in relation to public health. You couldn't really get much more important than that. There are so many people—tens of thousands of people—across this country who are doing the same: who are working are in universities not just because it is a pay cheque but because they believe in the vocation of being part of the higher education system. They believe in the vocation and the professionalism of teaching, of creating learning opportunities and of changing lives. No wonder they are up in arms about what this government is doing to higher education. No wonder they oppose the funding cuts. No wonder they oppose the fee hikes. No wonder they oppose the reduction in the payment threshold, which will see the government putting its hand into people's pockets a lot sooner and at a much lower annual pay rate.

No wonder they oppose these kinds of radical cuts that we are seeing from this Turnbull government. And no wonder there is a national day of protest happening today.

As I said earlier, the bill that we are considering here today is a good bill. It is crucial that there be strong regulations in place to ensure quality in the higher education sector, just as it is crucial that there be strong regulations in place to ensure quality in the vocational education sector. We must be very, very vigilant at all times to prevent unscrupulous, predatory behaviour, and that means we need to be very careful to ensure that those who enter the higher education sector in Australia are doing it for the right reasons and are treating people in the right way.

I will never forget being in Tasmania a couple of years ago and hearing people tell me stories of kids who had problems with literacy, kids who had not done particularly well at school, having predatory vocational education providers pull them aside at supermarkets or doorknock them and say: 'Look, if you sign up for this course, we'll give you a free iPad. Here's the iPad. You can have the iPad.' Kids were taking on courses that they were never going to be able to do, because the support was not there. They were never going to be able to finish them. And they were taking on, at the same time, massive debt. So they get an iPad. They go into debt for a course they are never going to complete, a qualification they are never going to get and learning that is not going to work for them, for their circumstances.

This sort of unscrupulous, predatory behaviour must not happen. It certainly must not happen in relation to higher education, just as it must not be allowed to happen in vocational education. So it is very sensible that the government is pursuing stronger regulation in higher education to mirror what's already happening in vocational education. It is very sensible that the government is looking at what can be done to improve the operation of TEQSA, which is the quality standards agency for the tertiary education sector. As I said earlier, this also needs to be coupled with making sure that TEQSA has the resources it needs to be able to adequately discharge its obligations and to do its job. But it's good that the regulation is being put in place. It is very sensible that there will be measures in this bill to assist students who are on the FEE-HELP arrangement.

Labor supports the bill, but it would be remiss of me, and would have been remiss of me, to speak in relation to this particular bill without saying: it's great that they're doing something about quality in the regulation space, but you just can't divorce that from the fact that the much bigger actions they're taking right now will have a massive impact on quality, because you can't cut almost $4 billion out of higher education without that impacting on quality. You just can't. It's foolish to believe that you can take the axe to higher education funding without impacting on quality.

I know the minister's got his lines that he's written—you know, the stuff he's been handing around the press gallery or his officers have handed around the press gallery about universities operating with surplus budgets, as though that's some sort of sin, as though it's wrong for a university to operate a surplus budget or as though that deserves some sort of punishment. If you operate a surplus budget then obviously you're getting too much money and you need to be cut! That is not the case.

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