House of Representatives

Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020

I rise today to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020, with a particular focus on schedule 4, which forms part of the Higher Education Relief Package this government has introduced with the intent of supporting universities and other higher education providers throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the pandemic I was a keen advocate—I remain a keen advocate—for reforms in the higher education and VET sectors to ensure all Australians, and in particular rural and regional Australians, have affordable access to further study and skill development opportunities.

For years, higher education and VET students who have accessed FEE-HELP or VET student loans to defer their tuition fees have been subjected to a loan fee of 25 per cent or 20 per cent respectively. This is a straight-up student loan tax that is over and above the amount students borrow for their course and applies disproportionately to students for no discernible policy reason. Schedule 4 of this bill, which temporarily removes this FEE-HELP loan fee, is a step towards making higher education more affordable. And, frankly, it’s a step which could have been taken before the pandemic. I also note the similar temporary relief the government will provide to those taking out VET student loans to undertake a diploma or higher qualification with independent RTOs and public TAFE colleges.

Under these measures, prospective VET and VSL students who may be considering commencing or returning to study may in fact be incentivised to study in semester 2 this year. This is good. These types of incentives are needed in rural and regional Australia, even outside of the pandemic. I commend the government for doing this and I encourage them to continue to do this. People living in rural and regional Australia have much lower educational outcomes than our city cousins. We’re less likely to complete year 12, less likely to gain a qualification at certificate IV level or above, and less likely to apply for or accept a university offer. This is not because students from rural and regional Australia are less able; it’s because students from rural and regional Australia face so many more barriers.

The government’s own Napthine Review found that high school completion rates are 80 per cent in metropolitan areas and 65 per cent in rural areas. It found that people that grow up in regional Australia are 40 per cent less likely to get at least a certificate IV and 50 per cent less likely than their peers to gain a bachelor degree or above. In my electorate of Indi alone, I know that our rate is half the state average for completing bachelor degrees or higher. Even VET enrolments are increasing faster in metropolitan areas than in regional areas, and it’s this lack of training opportunities that is holding us back. The unemployment rate for those with a certificate III or above is 3.9 per cent compared to 7.9 per cent for those without one. And many of our young students are forced to move to metropolitan areas to study and subsequently face higher costs for relocation, but so often lack support to do so. Many students simply never reply because they know their family can’t afford to send them.

We have excellent regional universities that, with the right investment and development, could really transform our regions, but they too need support. We also know that there’s insufficient career advice guiding students towards courses that could make sense for them. Again, this was shown in the Napthine review, the government’s own review. This affects groups with extra disadvantage especially hard, like low SES students and students with disabilities, and pushes study and skill development opportunities further and further out of their reach.

This government has also fundamentally misunderstood how regional universities structure their operations and finances when compared to metropolitan universities, particularly the Group of Eight. The decision to exclude universities from the JobKeeper package left regional universities like those in my electorate, La Trobe and Charles Sturt, reeling. La Trobe is facing a revenue slump of $400 million to $520 million by the end of 2022. Regional universities and the entire university sector are facing more than 21,000 jobs lost, even under these measures, which is a drop in the ocean of what’s actually needed and has always been needed.

I can’t emphasise enough the vulnerability of the regional universities in this time of pandemic. One wonders if the government would have been better placed to understand the unique position, needs and ambitions of regional universities and skills development opportunities if it had acted on the recommendations of the Regions at the ready report to build a white paper that includes a clear national regional higher education strategy. Yet, this government has stalled on the release of the expert panel review of that report and its recommendations for well over a year now. We could have been halfway along the course.

It was only last week that I stood in this place and urged the government to support an amendment that would ensure regional Australia was included in its National Skills Commission, based on specific recommendations of the Joyce review. Including regional Australia explicitly in that bill would mean the government would have clear data and analysis on workforce development needs and opportunities in the regions. It’s only with that data and the accompanying analysis that it can know exactly how regional universities and vocational education providers operate. It would make sure that future emergency measures, like those contained in this bill, understood regional Australia. But, instead, sadly, the government voted that amendment down.

So, while welcome, the measures in this bill are piecemeal and too little too late. This relief was always needed in rural and regional Australia, not just in the middle of a pandemic. The irony is that this government has been told time and time again what it could be doing for rural and regional Australian education. I really encourage the government to move swiftly on the key recommendations of its own report, the Napthine review, which are no more urgent than now. That report urged the government to uncap places at regional universities and develop new, innovative VET offerings focussed on practical learning and technical skills. In his second reading speech, the member for Wannon said:

The bill gives effect to the government’s commitment to provide certainty to the higher education sector, so the sector can remain agile while meeting the needs of industry and contributing to the economy.

With respect, this measure, which will only last for one semester, does not exactly fortify our universities and provide a reliable level of certainty. Even the Higher Education Relief Package at large, which includes some regulatory relief for education providers, cost reductions, short online courses and a temporary funding guarantee under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, is not enough. Universities Australia have warned that Australian universities now face a projected revenue decline of between $3 billion and $4.6 billion.

The demand for thriving regional universities has never been greater. The Universities Admissions Centre in New South Wales have stated that 14,669 students have applied to start university in 2021, compared with 7,824 students at this time last year. That’s a phenomenal jump of 88 per cent. The Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre and the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre are also reporting rising demand, with some applicants wanting to start their courses as soon as August this year.

I will not stand in the way of this bill, but I want to remind the government that it must do more than suspend a disproportionately applied student tax that has no discernible policy rationale for six months. Reform in this sector should not be about relief; it should be about ambition, transformation, opportunity and optimism. I will continue to advocate in this place for this kind of future for higher education and for vocational skills and training. I shall do so, always and especially, for rural and regional Australia, and I call on the government to do the same.

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