Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (18:40): I too would like to make a contribution in this cognate debate. I want to make it clear from the outset, as the other speakers and the member for Werriwa has, that we will be supporting the passage of these bills, but we do so with a degree of caution. That's why we want to refer the bills to a senate committee for inquiry. In essence, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 seeks to impose an annual charge for higher education providers, including universities, to access the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP schemes. These charges will be imposed on higher education providers as a tax. The second bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018, seeks to introduce a small application fee for higher education providers that apply for FEE-HELP status.
As I've said, we have certainly offered our support for the passage of these bills, because we understand the policy needed and the requirement to assist the funding of the Higher Education Loan Program, the Commonwealth's program that provides income-contingent loans for Australian citizens studying vocational and higher education programs in this country. The income protection loans have been one of the key foundations for Architecture Australia's fair and accessible higher education system. On this side, we understand that. Labor certainly understands the issue of the fundamental role of income-contingent HELP loan scheme plays in our higher education system. After all, it is Labor that has always stood in this House to protect its integrity. It is Labor that first introduced the concept of HECS in 1989. We understand what is necessary to provide appropriate incentives to support young people, in particular, in their quest for higher and tertiary education.
Universities Australia highlights the integral role played by the HELP scheme when they noted that it:
…underwrote the growth of a mass higher education system in Australia and it continues to support expansion of access and opportunity.
I think they're pretty right about that.
In conjunction with Labor's demand-driven funding, the HELP system has seen historic growth in higher education participation over the past decade, transforming higher education in this country. There is a reason behind all that. It is because we believe that an investment in education is in fact an investment in the future prosperity of this country. I emphasise that, while we won't be frustrating the passage of these bills, we do want to have the bills referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for further inquiry. We want an assurance by this government that the charges proposed in these bills will not flow back to students through higher education fees or higher charges for services provided by the respective academic institutions. Our concerns are how fees will be set and the proposed administration of the fees by the Department of Education and Training. With respect, given the department's poor record when it comes to the administration of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, we want to be assured that there is certainly a proper and well-thought-out process to administer the new charges, including what safeguards and quality assurance measures will be put in place.
In a time of significant economic transition such as we are presently going through, we should be investing more in our people. We don't want to make it harder for them to gain a university qualification. As a matter of fact, we want to have more people being able to access vocational and tertiary education. Australian students—as you probably would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker—are at the moment paying the sixth-highest rate of fees in the OECD for the privilege of their education. With respect to many on the other side, if they had had their way in the last couple of budgets, we would have seen $100,000 university degrees being initiated in this country. We don't want to put tertiary education beyond the means of young people, beyond the means of people in low socioeconomic areas or beyond the means of people who are committed to making a change and improving their lives and those of their families.
On most occasions when I've been able to speak in this place, I've discussed my electorate. My electorate is very vibrant. It's very colourful. In fact, it's the most diverse and multicultural community in the country. In addition to that—and my electorate is very much made up of migrants—one of the largest shares of all refugees who come to this country is in my community. So I know what it's like to talk to people who come to this country with the hope for better lives for themselves and their families. I know what their ambitions are like. People who are coming, particularly those who are coming with refugee backgrounds, come full of hope, dreams and great aspirations for their children.
That's one of the primary reasons why, at a school level, my P&Cs are essentially full. Parents will always participate with schools to ensure that their kids do well because they want their children to do well at school because this is their ticket, as they see it, into a university education. I think it probably should be broader than that, but in their mind they see that their children getting a university education will lift them out of poverty and will give them a better life than their mum and dad enjoyed, particularly those who came here directly as refugees.
So the aspirational value of trying to attract young people—particularly, in my case, from low socioeconomic backgrounds—into tertiary education is very, very strong. We don't want to do anything through these bills that acts as a disincentive in the way that the fees and charges are processed by the department and that could find its way back to putting a higher impost on those families for having their kids receive the benefit of a university education in this country. With the changes that this government has already brought about, apart from the cuts to higher education, we all know that people are now forced to start paying their HECS debts at $45,000 per annum, which is only $9,000 above the minimum wage in this country. As I say, we want to see a greater participation in higher education.
I attended only recently something organised by my old alma mater: the University of Sydney's Widening Participation and Outreach program. It's a program that's designed to be directed at low socioeconomic communities—as I indicated, mine certainly is one of those—but also at regional and remote areas, and it is also directed at people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. It is trying to target those to be able to make a significant difference in their lives and in their futures by higher education.
I'm very proud that the University of Sydney has, once again, sought to direct part of that campaign at my community, and I'll certainly be doing the best I can to ensure its success because I have seen how it's changed lives. As a matter of fact, when we opened their campaign only recently in Cabramatta, a young boy—whose name, regrettably, on the spur of the moment, I can't recall—and his mum attended. She didn't speak a word of English, but she wanted her child to be well educated in this country. He has now completed his university degree in commerce and economics. He is doing very well. He's looking after his family. I thought, 'That's a great success story of how these programs can change lives and change futures.'
What we've seen from those opposite, quite frankly, has been a relentless attack on higher education. The Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments have delivered budgets that have recently cut $2.2 billion from our universities. Since the election of the Liberal government in 2013, universities and students have been under a constant attack, with issues of fee deregulation, policy chaos and general uncertainty. The 2017 MYEFO decision was basically a backdoor way to once again cut $2.2 billion from our universities to effectively recap undergraduate places and charges and end the Higher Education Loan Program. They were just reckless and unfair. Thousands of students under that sort of scenario will miss out on the opportunity of university places because of the government cuts and of cutting of places.
These cuts leave many students with uncertainty as to how they will be affected. Universities Australia's chair, Professor Margaret Gardner, was pretty correct when she described these cuts by this government as a 'double whammy' on students, lifting fees and eroding funds for courses, student learning and support.
I want to just talk a little more broadly about higher education in my community. Only last week a young woman came into my office. She has agreed for me to use her name. Her name is Hilda Shamoun and she lives in Wakeley. She came to my office because she was attending a course of a private provider. She was doing a Bachelor of Design. Ms Shamoun, as I said, contacted my office only last week because her education provider had informed her that not only will her degree no longer be available at the institution that she was enrolled in; the institution will also be closing down in two weeks time without making any necessary arrangements or providing any assistance for her to transfer to a similar course in another institution. They just basically said, 'We're really sorry about this, but we're going into administration. We're closing down.' That's just one young woman who just happens to live in my electorate. That's one young woman who has been running up FEE-HELP. She has been doing all that, yet where was the oversight to look at the running and administration of these courses? The organisation simply says, 'We're going to close our doors now,' and there's no residual support to help her find a place anywhere else.
More recently, I've had many, many discussions with Professor Barney Glover, the vice-chancellor and president at Western Sydney University. In terms of the cuts, Barney sums up very succinctly the ramifications of the government's reaction, through their budgetary actions, to universities by stating, 'The changes that the government is proposing constitute a significant risk to the sustainability, quality and competitiveness of Australian universities.' I think that just goes to show that this government has a track record and, when looking to see where the hollow logs are, they pick on universities, pick on TAFE and pick on schools—they pick on education. This is not a government that's committed to the future of this country; this is a government that's simply trying to rob Peter to pay Paul.
Just about everyone on this side of the chamber has given speeches highlighting the $17 billion cut from our schools, the $637 million cut from TAFE colleges and the $2.2 billion taken out of our universities. How can people seriously think that those opposite are committed to the future of this country, when we all know that an investment in education is an investment in the future prosperity of Australia?
Deputy Speaker Vasta, I know you are probably well aware of these arguments. Regrettably, this is a government that has not shown the commitment that is necessary for the future of this country. Hopefully, come early next year, we will see a government on the Treasury benches that is committed to the future of the country by reinvesting in education.