01 September 2020

 I'd like to acknowledge that I'm speaking on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

What a friendless bill this is. It is so friendless that even the coalition's partner the Nationals don't even really like it. This is a dangerous bill. It's dangerous because it will mean that Australia and Australians will be far the worse for it. It is dangerous because it has the potential to see this country go backwards. It's dangerous because it will stymy the potential that we know Australia harbours, that we harbour in the minds and the future growth of our youth. It's dangerous because it tells some of our brightest and most ambitious young folk that they are not valued, that their talents are not wanted and that their potential is not worth the time or the trouble to invest in. What kind of government would say and do that to our future?

Despite the hubris and the marketing speak of the minister, this is a bill that will make it harder and more expensive to go to university. This is a bill that gives universities fewer resources and then asks them to do more with less. This is a bill that does not begin to expand places nearly enough to meet the huge growth in demand we've already seen from students who want to go to university or TAFE. This is a bill that says it's promoting science and engineering when in fact it actually does the exact opposite, and it is a bill that says social sciences or humanities have no value. It's a disgraceful and dangerous bill. Perhaps if the member for Wannon had undertaken a degree in social sciences, he might have actually helped draft a bill that assisted kids to go to university. You'd think that a government would want that. As it currently stands, the bill will make it harder and more expensive for our kids to go to university. As the National Tertiary Education Union said, it's a headline-grabbing assortment of student fee hikes and student fee discounts that has cunningly hidden the government's most important decision—to make real cuts to university funding and real increases to the average fees paid by Australian students.

I'd like to acknowledge my colleague the member for Sydney for her incredible work on this. She is the real deal. She knows what it takes to be the smart country, to unlock potential and to make kids feel valued for who they are and for what strengths they have. Labor's position on this is loud and clear: we do not support this bill. We do not love this bill. Deputy Speaker, let me count the ways and take you to the depths and breadths of the problems with this bill.

Firstly, many students will pay more, some much more than others. This Liberal government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support people in a pandemic. Thanks to the union movement and thanks to Labor, they were forced into a position where they had to agree to a package to help those affected by the crisis. But, of course, they left many people out, and we've had a lot to say about that. The fact is that this government does not like supporting everyday people. We know how they feel about Medicare. They think if you're sick, you should pay for your own health care. If you're unemployed, bad luck—it's your fault. If you're young, you don't deserve help. If you're old—well, we know what they think about that. And if you want a good education, you can pay for it yourself.

Only last week, I think it was, the Treasurer confirmed this when he wistfully invoked the memories of Thatcher and Reagan, confirming that he and his government don't believe in society. They think there are only individuals out there, on their own, with their bootstraps. So it's no surprise to see that the central purpose of this legislation is to push the cost of education onto students, onto individuals. As I said, it's in the Liberal Party's DNA to make individuals bear a larger share of the cost of their education and for the government to bear as little as possible.

On average under this legislation, students will pay seven per cent more for their degrees. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14,500 a year—doubling the cost for thousands. Some students will see increases of 113 per cent. That means people studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degrees than doctors and dentists. Year 12 students have persevered through incredible uncertainty this year. The last thing we should be doing right now is making it harder and more expensive for kids to get into university or saying to them, 'Your strengths, your potential, are not valued.' We are in the depths of recession. Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in recent months alone. True to the Liberal government, they say, 'Bad luck'. As the member for Sydney said earlier, how dare you limit the potential of some of our kids. In a country like Australia, every child should have the opportunity to go to university to fulfil their own potential.

The second main problem with this bill is that it is a pea and thimble trick. Universities will get less to do more. If you actually believed the minister, you would think this bill was flooding the higher ed sector with money, but the effect of this bill, as I said, is to actually increase the student fee burden but at the same time reduce the Commonwealth funding to the sector—and not by a small amount, either. It will cut $1 billion from universities. The average funding per student paid to universities will drop by 5.8 per cent. By reducing expenditure in the higher-cost disciplines, the government is expecting universities to deliver high-quality teaching and student support with even less funding. These cuts are on top of the $16 billion projected revenue drop due to the loss of international students and the $2.2 billion cuts already made to university funding by the government. La Trobe University in my electorate has been hit hard: hundreds of jobs lost and no access to JobKeeper. As we know, the government specifically changed the rules in universities to access JobKeeper.

But wait; there's more. The third major problem is that it has built in perverse incentives. It's completely unclear what on earth the member for Wannon was trying to achieve here, but the incentives in their legislation work against the stated aims of the government's own policy. Either they think the Australian people are stupid or they themselves are not really very bright. In areas where the government want greater enrolment, they are paying universities less per student. To be clear, while promising to support the study of maths, science and engineering, this legislation reduces the money that universities will receive to provide those courses. It provides a disincentive for universities to enrol extra students in these disciplines and a perverse incentive to enrol students in other areas which will deliver more funding. I ask you: go figure, Deputy Speaker.

A fourth issue with this bill is: what's wrong with studying humanities? What's wrong with studying commerce or social sciences? I think this is the part of the legislation that infuriates me the most. It's an attack on humanities degrees with the assumption built in that graduates of these degrees amount to nothing or add no value. In fact the job prospects of humanities students are very healthy. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. Humanities degrees are the ones that teach students how to critically study the world. As Robert French, Chancellor of UWA and former High Court Chief Justice, said:

"Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

I'm not talking about the more obscure courses. The mainstream of humanities allows teachers and universities to transmit our history and our society to students."

What's wrong with having more experts in the humanities? What's wrong with having more experts in child welfare? What's wrong with having experts in family and domestic violence, in helping disadvantaged youth in drug and alcohol recovery, or in international relations? What's wrong with having more authors and more people shaping our cultural growth? And what's wrong with having success stories like that told by the previous speaker, the wonderful member for Macquarie, about the young woman, Ellie, who is so successful in doing research improving lives? We need more critical thinkers, especially when we have people like the member for Hughes peddling dangerous myths, when my inbox is swamped with people sucked in by crazy conspiracy theories and when international diplomatic expertise is vitally important. Surely we need more people to study humanities, not fewer.

This bill is reckless. It makes it more expensive to go to university. It cuts university funding. It doesn't even set out to do what it's supposed to do. It locks kids out of their full potential, and it will send Australia backwards. This bill is a dangerous bill, and, no, we do not support it.