12 May 2021

I rise to make my contribution to the debate on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Student Assistance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. The pandemic has devastated many sectors in Australia, higher education chief amongst them. But the situation in our tertiary sector needn't have been as bad as it has been. This sector is reeling not only because of the pandemic but also as a result of the government's failure both currently and historically. Job losses are in the thousands and increased fees make a university education harder to acquire. This will be the legacy of the government.

Higher education should have a bright future in Australia. Australia is a world leader in education, and that reputation should not be taken lightly. Australian students and our educational institutions deserve our support, but this government is choosing not to act. The risk from the government's negligence and inaction is real and measurable. As the Victoria University found in its April 2020 report, Australian investment in education: higher education, despite increases over the past decade, funding for domestic students has plateaued and participation rates for domestic students in higher education are decreasing for the first time in over 10 years. The OECD data shows that Australia spends less as a total on education than Austria, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Botswana, Libya, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Senegal and many other countries. This government either doesn't understand or doesn't care about the important socioeconomic role that higher education plays now and will play into the future. Instead, it passes a bill that makes it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university.

Last night's budget confirms that the government is saving money by increasing university fees and student debt. Fees for law, commerce, business and communications will increase by thousands of dollars per year, and fees for humanities degrees will double. Many young Australians will be graduating with debts of up to $60,000 for a basic degree. The government pleads that these courses are not job relevant, but statistics say otherwise, with humanities graduates more likely to get a job than some of their counterparts in the STEM subjects. Students who want to pursue a degree in the humanities are frowned upon by this government. On the one hand it say it wants to benefit all students, but then, on the other, it takes away aspiration. It is yet another attack on arts and humanities in Australia that this government so silently but gleefully engages in. Forcing students to take on American-style debt will not help them into the future.

But Labor knows that a good education and good jobs go hand in hand. By locking young Australians out of uni, the government is locking them out of jobs, and it doesn't help that now, particularly in regional and remote Australia, there is a wide gap between regional and urban areas in access to education and study. This gap will stagnate and widen with the changes to university fees. It's already very difficult for those in regional and remote areas, and especially difficult for Indigenous students, who are more likely to enrol in courses affected by these changes. A Senate inquiry into the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students found that 52 per cent of Indigenous students were enrolled in humanities based disciplines. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will graduate with higher HECS debts and will move into the workforce with a higher financial burden than their non-Indigenous counterparts. This bill is designed to support the Indigenous students who are facing this incredibly unfair financial burden. It also enables students who live in rural and regional areas to access continuing and appropriate education. However, it's not enough. The higher education sector needs more support, and it needs it now.

Since the beginning of the pandemic more than 17,000 people have lost their jobs at Australian universities. Thirteen per cent of the pre-COVID university workforce is now out of a job. There have been 300 job losses from Central Queensland University, 145 from Charles Sturt University, 210 from the University of New England and 400 from Deakin University. These are small numbers compared to the job losses in our cities and suburbs. Universities Australia forecasts further losses this year.

The impact of the job losses on regional communities is particularly devastating. Universities support 14,000 jobs in country Australia. They can often be the largest employers in regional towns. Academics, tutors, administration staff and many other workers have lost their jobs—and it is crucial to point out here that, with fewer teachers, a student's education also suffers. These people have families. They need to put food on the table and pay their bills. This year's budget shows that the Liberals don't care about these families. In last year's budget the Prime Minister withheld JobKeeper from universities, amounting to an estimated $9 billion in support lost for the families. This budget hurts university workers; it doesn't help them. These families deserve support.

Having lived in Western Sydney my entire life, I know the impact a well-funded tertiary institution can have on a region. When Gough Whitlam was first elected as the member for Werriwa in 1952, there wasn't a high school, let alone a university, in the electorate. University participation rates in Sydney's south-western suburbs were the lowest in Australia. Gough was not just instrumental in ensuring that tertiary education was a right of all Australians but also an active champion for the establishment of a university in Western Sydney. In just over three decades, Western Sydney University's impact on the region has been immense, becoming one of the driving forces in the transformation. No doubt this true for many regional universities, cities and towns.

From the beginning of the pandemic Labor urged the federal government to act to help universities and save jobs. The sector forecast these job losses from early 2020—so it wasn't a surprise. It is unfortunate that the government chose to do nothing. Our fourth-largest expert industry, built under Prime Ministers Whitlam, Hawke, and Keating, should have been supported by this government. The government's disregard for higher education became even more clear when they declared higher education institutions not eligible for JobKeeper. It was not just the barring of JobKeeper that was the main region for the job losses in the sector; it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

The pandemic has exposed chronic under-resourcing by consecutive coalition governments. Many Australian students are working to support themselves during COVID-19 while also studying and paying tuition fees. Many have also had their income significantly reduced or their jobs were lost altogether. As higher fees make higher education less accessible, there is a limited opportunity for students who want to study and contribute to our society and economy—a limitation that is based solely on their financial standing. Access to higher education should never be subject to one's financial circumstances. Supporting higher education for students has been key to our economic success over several decades. It is also key to our long-term future if we want a smart and a dynamic economy.

In Werriwa I see the impact that higher education can have. Western Sydney University has, in just 30 short years, become a driving force of transformation in Sydney and contributed to advancements across Australia. I have previously, on many occasions, spoken in this place about the fantastic job that WSU does—and particularly during the pandemic, where it supported its international students and other students. However, WSU has now succumbed to involuntary redundancies. Just over 150 staff are now out of a job, as the university's continuing struggle with the pandemic has meant that these jobs needed to go.

So there are higher fees and fewer staff. It seems that this government doesn't want people to be educated, especially in areas that are already disadvantaged. We know that, if universities were supported, these people would still be in a job and students would be receiving a much higher standard of education than what they are now facing, and the stress on the teachers would be much less. These institutions are working hard to keep their digital doors open, but it pales in comparison to the efforts that this government has made to ensure equity in education and the long-term survival of one of our largest industries.

Australia was built on the idea of a fair go. If you've got raw talent and skills, we'll harness them and ensure you become the best possible person you can be. We're not a country that hinders your choice of career or education because of your financial or economic background. We have the power to protect university enrolments as well as ease the burden for university students in all regions of the country. By protecting enrolments and assisting universities now, we have exponential benefits for future generations.

But the support for students and higher education institutions across Australia is not happening, and we know who is responsible. More needs to be done to support institutions that mould our society and create platforms for economic growth and success. My colleagues and I will make sure that the higher education sector receives what it fundamentally needs and what it wholeheartedly deserves—investment in our social and economic future. We need these things to happen. There needs to be real structural change and reform if we are to improve equality of access to education Australia-wide.