September 1, 2020

House of Representatives

Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020

I see the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 in two parts.

On the one hand, it implements several of the recommendations of the Napthine Review into rural, regional and remote tertiary education. These reforms are important and overdue. They’re evidence-based and they’re supported by the regional university sector. In fact, since the Napthine Review was released in October of last year, I’ve been advocating for the full implementation of its 33 recommended actions.

On the other hand, this bill involves what can only be described as a radical overhaul of the way we charge students for higher education. These second reforms are unexpected, were not prompted by a wholesale and detailed review of the sector, have caused significant angst amongst universities and university students and appear not to be based on clear evidence at all.

Since the Minister announced these changes in June, I have analysed them with deep concern and trepidation. Unfortunately, the bill before us does both of these things at once. The government has combined a good bill with a very problematic bill and asked us to vote on them as one. It feels like it’s rushed this.

I’ve consulted widely and listened carefully to the regional universities in my electorate, and they’ve told me of their very real concerns. They’ve also told me, though, that they need some certainty. And I’ve met with students from Indi who are worried by the increase to student contributions in the humanities subject categories but ultimately welcome the measures that address some of the issues that have historically held regional students back from participation in higher education.

As such, I have honestly anguished over my position on this bill, but I’ve determined that I cannot in good conscience vote against a bill that involves significant new measures to support regional universities and regional students. Full of imperfections as this bill is, I cannot vote against the implementation of the Napthine Review recommendations that I have so strongly advocated.

Today, I’d like to explain my position and call on all members of the upper house to refer this bill to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee before considering its passage.

There are five measures in the job-ready package that together represent a significant investment in improving access to higher education for regional Australians.

First, the tertiary access payment. This has been re-badged by the government, but while the name is different the point is the same: over four years $160 million will be invested into scholarships to help kids who move out of home for uni. This is important, because we know that, compared to their city cousins, students in rural and regional areas are less likely to apply for uni, less likely to accept a place if offered and less likely to complete a degree.

Cost is a huge part of the reason. It costs money to move from a place like Corryong, Myrtleford, Wodonga or Ballarat to Melbourne for uni. The Napthine Review found that moving can as much as double the cost of a degree, adding $25,000 to $30,000 to support a student out of home, and found that cost is the most common reason for regional students deferring university.

Second, as a result of this bill, any Indigenous student from regional Australia will be guaranteed a Commonwealth-supported place when they enrol in university. Importantly, this is nowhere near the Napthine recommendation, which called for places for all people in regional Australia to be uncapped. But this is obviously a significant step forward for Indigenous Australians and a measure I fully support.

Third, the bill increases access to the fares allowance which would help students return home in the uni break. Right now the waiting period is six months but this bill will take it down to three months, allowing students to return home in their mid-year break in their first year of study.

This is important, because 70 per cent of students from regional Australia who undertake tertiary study relocate to do so, and stress and loneliness is the most common reason for the higher drop-out rate that regional students face when they get there. Giving those students a little bit of extra support to come home in their first year might make the difference between being able to complete a degree and feeling despair and dropping out.

Fourth, the package involves a dedicated focus on regional and rural students as a specific equity group under the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program. This is the first time that HEPPP will look specifically at support for regional students. Moreover, it sets aside $7.1 million over four years to support outreach to regional schoolkids to consider, and to encourage them to look at, tertiary study. This is important, because we know the evidence tells us that schoolkids in regional areas don’t have access to the same career advice or mentoring as their city peers. The Napthine Review found that the career and educational aspirations of regional kids are hampered by a lack of resources to help them understand what a university education could bring, and how to prepare for it.

Finally, this package involves accelerated funding increases for regional universities. Funding under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme will increase 3.5 per cent a year for regional campuses, compared to 1.5 and 2.5 per cent in high- and low-growth metropolitan areas.

This boost means there will be a faster increase to Commonwealth supported places at regional universities, which is good news for students and for cities like Albury Wodonga, which will benefit from a larger student population. Importantly, though, this was not recommended by the Napthine Review. The Napthine Review went much further, calling for uncapping of places at regional universities. That would mean that every student granted entry to a regional university would be guaranteed a government supported place. Instead, the government is maintaining its handbrake on the growth of regional universities.

This leads me to the many deficiencies I see in this legislation.

To state the obvious, Australia is in a deep recession. When people lose their jobs, demand for higher education goes up. At the same time, the baby boom of the early 2000s is reaching university age. Together these factors mean that over the coming years we will see a boom in demand for university places, and this package goes nowhere near far enough to cater for that. Yesterday the Innovative Research Universities group stated that the package ignores increased demand as a result of COVID-19, ignores increased demand from older students and ignores the general rising need for tertiary qualifications, and they called for an additional 10,000 places on top of what the government is proposing.

Just imagine for one moment if we put those places into regional cities—another 500 students in Albury-Wodonga and another 1000 at the University of New England in Armidale or Charles Sturt University in Wodonga. That would be transformational not just for those cities but for those students, too.

But my greater concern is the truly drastic changes to course fees that the government is trying to rush through. Under the bill before us, some degrees will double in cost; others will halve.

But regional students will be disproportionately impacted by higher course costs, because the courses that regional universities tend to offer are the ones facing increases under the subjects of this bill. Consider also the email I was sent by the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney—an email that was sent to all MPs yesterday. Vice-Chancellor Spence said: ‘The funding changes proposed in the bill are too significant and radical to rush. The proposed changes to university education and research funding have not been developed in accordance with the government’s own guidance on best practice consultation.’

He went on to say: ‘Parliament and all higher education stakeholders must have full details of the proposed new funding arrangements before judgements can be made on the package of changes the bill seeks to implement’.

The Innovative Research Universities group has contributed some considered good-faith alternative subject funding tables that still achieve the government’s budget and policy imperatives but spread the contribution across subject categories in a fairer way, and these should be considered.

This Minister rushed through changes to the childcare funding arrangements during COVID-19 with not enough consultation and not enough consideration for how the changes would affect smaller and regional childcare providers. The result of that rushed policy was substantial pain for many of us in regional Australia.

I’m extremely worried that with this rushed bill there will be problems experienced by us again. I’m worried that this legislation that we had just a week to review, which was substantially amended on the fly after the government publicly split in two over it and which key stakeholders have deep reservations over, is not how we should begin our task of rebuilding Australia.

I was alarmed to see that on Sunday the Minister himself was forced to clarify incorrect statistics he’d released on employment outcomes for humanities graduates that falsely implied their employment rates are far below science graduates. The statistics were from the 2020 graduate outcome survey, which came out on Sunday. The survey showed that, after one year, the employment rates of students in humanities, cultural and social sciences and communications are higher than the employment rates of students who studied science and maths. After three years, the employment rates are about the same.

The Minister’s press release contained exactly the opposite message, with statistics that were patently wrong. He said that students in the humanities and social science have the lowest employment outcomes and gave incorrect statistics to back up this claim.

I’m not trying to make a pedantic point here. What I’m trying to say in pointing this out is that the entire justification for the minister’s radical upheaval in the cost of subjects in these university degrees is that humanities and social science degrees don’t lead to jobs, but maths and science degrees do. If that’s not supported by the definitive empirical survey on the topic, what is the point then of this radical change? Where is the policy rationale?

I am supporting this legislation because it has the qualified support of the regional universities in Indi that I represent and because it contains many measures that I have long advocated.

But the clear and glaring deficiencies in the bill cannot be ignored. When regional MPs raised concerns that the original bill would exacerbate regional workforce shortages in mental health, psychology and social work, the government listened and changed the bill. That was sensible, and I applaud it. I have spent years pushing for better policy on rural health workforce in those areas in particular. So I was very pleased about that.

But I call on the Minister to listen again: the Senate must refer this legislation to the education and employment committee for review. The future of our nation depends on decisions such as these, and they must be carefully scrutinised.

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