BILLS: Tertiary Education

09 August 2021

BILLS: Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2021, Education Services for Overseas Students (TPS Levies) Amendment Bill 2021, Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment (Cost Recovery and Other Measures) Bill 2021, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Amendment Bill 2021 - Second Reading.

I am pleased to join with my colleagues, particularly with the member for Sydney, in speaking on this bill. And I thank the member for Moreton, who moved the amendment in support of Australia's university workers, students and institutions. Labor supports these bills, which aim to streamline cost recovery arrangements for education providers who provide services to international students. The Education Services for Overseas Students (Registration Charges) Amendment Bill 2021 repeals and replaces current charging provisions with a new framework. We're disappointed to see that much of this framework will be set through regulation, but that just continues this government's track record of avoiding any sense of transparency and accountability. The three related bills make minor and consequential amendments arising from the registration charges bill, and so we support the legislation.

While we've opposed parts of the broader shift to expanded cost recovery for higher education providers, this legislation is expected to reduce charges on international education providers and to prevent providers from being double charged for the same regulatory activities. It's worth noting, though, that this reduction in charges will only partly offset the hiked-up fees that providers are facing because of government actions this week in the Senate. It's funny how many times I find myself saying these kinds of things when it comes to this government. Sure, they're giving a little on this side but they're taking again on the other. They're saying one thing but they mean another. They're telling the Australian people one thing but they're doing something else entirely. And that's absolutely the case when it comes to higher education.

Higher education has a proud history in this country. The licence plates on my car have a little by-line on the bottom, 'Victoria—the Education State'. We're proud of our education system in Australia, and that's due to the efforts of Labor governments over the past century investing so significantly and to the passion of academics over so many years. We've grown over decades to be the higher ed powerhouse of the world. For a long time in my electorate, right here in Cooper, we've been proud to have so many international students call our community home—students who are studying at La Trobe University, RMIT, Melbourne uni, you name it. They've come here to study at our world-class universities. It's something we're proud of, both right here in my community and as a country.

Our universities are massive employers. La Trobe University is the largest employer in my electorate. Thousands of my constituents are contributing to the education of our next generation. They're proud to work in universities. They're teaching our kids and they're helping them plan their futures. They're making sure that learning resources are accessible. Workers at the university are keeping these kids fed on campus and keeping the surrounds clean. They're contributing to the functioning of these enormous institutions that are so vital to our social, cultural and economic wellbeing as a community. They're proud of their jobs and we're proud of them. It's with them in mind that I speak here today in support of assistance for our universities, for the workers in them and for the students.

It is undeniable that the government has abandoned them. This Morrison government has abandoned our universities, the workers and the students. This is a trend that started before the pandemic, but it has now snowballed into something else entirely. There is no mincing words on this. Our universities are in a dire position, and the blame can only flow in one direction: the Morrison government. They have refused to support our universities every step of the way. The universities have been crying out for assistance for a year and a half now, to no avail. When the pandemic started, the flow of international students stopped entirely, as we know, and universities moved to online delivery models. They were posed with so many challenges but, my goodness, they worked hard to overcome them!

How do you carry out medical research when you're at home? How can you train a nurse or a vet—even an engineer or a teacher—from home without the practical experience they need? They were faced with challenges beyond the pale. University staff, whether they were tutors, lecturers or support and admin staff, stepped up to the task and they made it happen. But, as COVID drew on, the situation became dire. The numbers were crunched—by university qualified accountants, might I add!—and support was surely needed in the absence of such a significant portion of their students.

I distinctly remember the relief that was felt when JobKeeper was announced. We immediately reached out to the universities, who employ so many of our constituents, asking if they were eligible—and for all intents and purposes they were. The relief was something I can't put into words; you could hear it over the phone as we spoke to them, and I certainly felt it myself.

With the following week came an announcement from the Treasurer: universities were no longer deemed eligible for JobKeeper. The thousands of employees at the universities in and around my electorate were not going to be supported by the government through the toughest time most of us had seen. Don't be fooled; this wasn't an oversight. The government deliberately changed the rules to exclude university workers as if their work weren't as important as that of the rest of the workforce that was experiencing the tough times. In fact, they changed the JobKeeper rules three separate times to make sure the workers weren't supported. It was a complete and utter disgrace. As a result, universities have announced over 18,000 job losses and redundancies since the pandemic began.

Here in my electorate of Cooper, hundreds of university workers have lost their jobs. But this figure tells only part of the story. Many casual workers have lost their hours and their jobs, and many staff haven't had their short-term contracts renewed. Recent data from the ABS shows there are 30,000 fewer Australians working in higher ed than there were at the start of last year. This is a sector that is now being systematically hollowed out by a government that just doesn't care.

The impact on the workers is one part of the equation, but the massive impact on the students is another. As a result of these job cuts, university students are seeing their once sought after university degrees reduced to something that barely resembles a prior qualification. Teaching hours are massively reduced. The quality of resources cannot be anywhere near the standards teaching staff want and need them to be. Options for study have declined dramatically. At La Trobe University, the all-important history department is at really severe risk.

Not only that, the actual cost of degrees is skyrocketing. This year's budget papers confirm that, because of the government's so-called job-ready graduates scheme, funding will fall and student debt levels will rise. I know that this semester tens of thousands of Australian students have started university facing fee hikes, with many having had their fees doubled. Those studying a Bachelor of Arts have had their fees increased by more than 113 per cent. For a four-year degree, students will be paying around $60,000. Law and commerce students have had their fees increased by nearly 28 per cent. You're paying inflated fees for a degree that, in most cases, may not be near the quality of the degree you signed up for in the first place. Boy, oh, boy! Young people have a lot to thank this government for!

I know that, across the board, young people in my electorate are furious with this government. This is a government that has allowed the scourge of insecure work to take hold, affecting the vast majority of young people. Now, because of insecure work, they're excluded by the government from wage subsidies. For many of them, this means they're now out of a job. Many will turn to education and training as a pathway to getting a new job, but this government, as well as attacking universities, has underresourced and underfunded TAFE. So where will our young people turn? Will they turn to the jobs program this government can't seem to get right, or to emerging industries? I know that, here in Cooper, the government certainly isn't investing in those. They're not acting on climate change. They're not acting on housing affordability. They're abandoning young people in this country. They just don't care.

So young people and academics, in their wisdom, are trying to appeal to the Morrison government's own interests. We know that this government doesn't care about young people, workers or education, but you'd think that, at the very least, it could see the economic benefits of a successful university sector. International education was a $40 billion export industry. It's estimated that, by the end of the year, that number will be down to $22 billion. In my electorate we see the flow-on economic effects that universities bring, with all of those students shopping and renting here, and the incomes of all of the workers being spent in the local economy. It's huge, and it's vital to the survival of so many businesses.

We on this side of the House know that, while this is a crucial part of the picture, the value of universities isn't purely economic. Because our universities are hollowed out, we and our society lose vital knowledge. We lose the experts, the researchers and the historians, and, with them, our students and our young people lose the opportunity to learn from them and to take this knowledge and apply it to the jobs of the future. This loss is monumental. It's hard to put figures into words. I know La Trobe University's history department is under threat. This is how catastrophic a loss this is—losing historians and the teaching of our history, because this uncaring, irresponsible Morrison government can't find it within itself to support the university sector. It's just a disgrace.

I say to the workers and students at La Trobe and at universities across the country: we are on your side. We are standing with you. We will fight tooth and nail against the government's cuts to the university sector, and we will continue to fight for proper support for you. University workers deserve to be recognised as the vital workers they are. Students deserve the quality education that Australia has become so renowned for, and Australians deserve an education system that is up to scratch and a government that is up to the task of delivering it. The Morrison government doesn't even come close.