BILLS; Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018; Second Reading

March 26, 2018

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (17:55): I, too, would like to speak on the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018. From the outset, I make it clear that Labor will be opposing this bill, and I also note the cacophony of voices opposite—all those rallying to support this piece of legislation! I just looked at the speaking list, and I noticed that of all those opposite they have only two members willing to come along and speak in support of the legislation.

This is an unfair piece of legislation and one that attacks students. It undermines the fairness and accessibility of Australia's higher education system. The bill is another example of the government's relentless attack on our universities, which are, no doubt, integral to the future of our nation. The bill also gives effect to a policy measure announced in the government's Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. This is very, very short sighted. It is a package of $2.2 billion of cuts for universities—measures that represent the government's fourth attempt since coming into office to cut universities and make students pay more. Nevertheless, we heard the Turnbull government—and the Minister for Education and Training, in particular—boasting that these cuts will put our higher education system on a more sustainable and responsible path for the future.

This is the same style of rhetoric that we heard when the government tried to introduce their original package of cuts in the 2017 budget. That was $3.8 billion of cuts to universities and an increase in student fees. Those measures were not passed by the Senate and they were not passed for a very, very good reason: they were bad policy. It seems nothing has changed. These were the biggest cuts to the sector proposed since the Howard government's horror 1996 budget. These cuts were accompanied by a number of poorly designed policies and thought bubbles, and that continues today. None of the ideas that the government have proposed were really about reform that would produce or promote enhancement of the sector, and the same can be said about those legislative measures proposed by the bill we are debating today.

Real reform actually requires vision for the future, rather than a government solely driven to cut and diminish the significant role that universities play and, to that extent, that students who attend universities play in our future. This is solely about cost-cutting, and there's no doubt there's a reason that underpins that. Of course, you can't expect those opposite to change their spots and to take a different view of higher education. After all, they are the same bunch that came into this place intent on taking $17 billion from our schools, $637 million from our TAFE colleges and now $2.2 billion from our universities. The targets of the cuts are our higher education institutions—institutions which are, I submit, absolutely vital for our nation's future. But the justifications of these cuts and whether they're issues about pension or a whole raft of other things all fall back to that signature policy of this government: handing out $65 billion of tax cuts to millionaires and big business—effectively, the tax cuts to the top end of town. That justifies what these measures are all about.

Far be it from me to give the government advice, but I will chance my hand on this occasion. If you can't afford it, simply don't do it, but never, ever do it at the expense of future generations. That's precisely what is occurring here today. The unfairness of these cuts is plain and clear. This is a government that keeps proving that it can't be trusted when it comes to the most important investment in our nation's history. An investment in education is an investment in our future. It's an investment in the nation's future. Arguably, it's probably the most important investment decision governments can make, because a lot turns on this. While the measures in this bill are significantly narrower than the scope of the bill in 2017, the point I want to make is that it has the same underlying objectives.

For the purpose of discussion, I'll be focusing my time on talking about the proposed changes in the HELP scheme as opposed to some of the other, technical amendments that are also incorporated in this bill. The income-contingent loan has been a keystone or foundation of the architecture of Australia's fair and accessible higher education system. We on this side of the House understand the role that income-contingent HELP loans play. After all, it was a Labor government that introduced the concept in HECS in 1989. Universities Australia, I think, actually highlighted the integral role played by the HELP scheme when they noted that the scheme underwrote the growth of mass higher education in Australia, and it continues to support the expansion of opportunity. I think that's pretty right.

In conjunction with Labor's demand-driven funding, the HELP scheme has seen historic growth in higher education participation over decades. The transformation of higher education in this country has very much been a key aspect that's flowed from this scheme. As Margaret Gardner, Chair of Universities Australia, demonstrates, there's been a significant boost in the participation of underrepresented and disadvantaged students.

To put that in some perspective, I'd like to share with the House some statistics released by Universities Australia. Universities in Australia now educate 55 per cent more Australians from the poorest one-fifth of households, 48 per cent more students from regional and remote communities, 89 per cent more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and 105 per cent more students with a disability. I think they're outcomes that we should all be particularly proud of. Obviously those opposite have probably hung their heads in shame about this, because they're not participating in this debate—or only two of those opposite are. But this is something where we've shown we can actually transform higher education in this country and make it more accessible. As I say, that's something the House should be proud of, not condemning.

Labor opposes the government's move to lower the HELP repayment threshold to $42,000, because we recognise that it is unfair. As a matter of fact, we actually think the current proposal of a threshold of $45,000 is also unfair. As the Australian Council of Trade Unions indicated, the proposed threshold of $45,000 is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage today.

Illustrating the ramifications of the proposed payment threshold on individual earnings of $45,000 per annum, the ACTU observed that this would leave an individual with a take-home pay of $37,928 once income tax and the Medicare levy is deducted. We believe that the current repayment threshold strikes the appropriate balance. We cannot expect students to repay more than their current debts at the same time as starting a career, setting up and saving for a house—particularly in Sydney and Melbourne and probably Brisbane—and, in many instances, starting a family.

We know that higher education debt is a genuine barrier to low socioeconomic and disadvantaged students. Equity practitioners in higher education encapsulate the heart of this problem, saying that this measure would disproportionately affect people of low socioeconomic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This measure will no doubt have an impact on the community I happen to represent. It's a community I'm certainly very proud of. It's very colourful; it's very vibrant—much like the community of my colleague the member for Werriwa. But our communities are not rich communities.

The average household income in my community is just a tad over $60,000. We're not a rich community. As a matter of fact, my community's made up heavily of migrants and current refugees. So changing the income rate for all HELP thresholds from average weekly earnings to CPI is also a measure that will be hard-felt by many individuals in low socioeconomic backgrounds, certainly in communities like mine and, no doubt, those communities in regional Australia purportedly being represented by some of those opposite.

As the Southern Cross Postgraduate Association has noted, it will place an additional hardship on low socioeconomic HELP debtholders at a time that combines with a stagnant wage growth and a rising cost of living. The proposed lifetime borrowing limit also has an impact of eroding the underlying objectives of universal access enshrined in the HELP scheme and the importance of lifelong learning, including the ability of workers to upskill. This will prove critical, given the considerable uncertainty of a future workforce in this country. We are all looking to the future and what that might hold, what the future industries might be, and workers will be undergoing upskilling and training. But this will be putting university education beyond the grasp of many in that situation.

At a time when we have significant economic transition we should be investing in our people, not making it harder for them to get a university qualification. Australian students already make the sixth-highest contribution to their university fees in the OECD. As Catriona Jackson, the deputy chief of Universities Australia, has emphasised, when contemplating change to the magnitude of this, there should be a first principle in the legislator's mind: do no harm. This government, quite frankly, has done the exact opposite when it comes to education and, in this case, higher education.

The changes to the HELP scheme are simply budget driven, and it's all about supporting the government's $65 billion tax cut to the big end of town. These measures are not fair, they're not good for universities and they're not good for students. On that basis, they cannot be good for the future prosperity of this nation. In the words of Margaret Gardner, I call on the government not to slam the door of opportunity shut, once more, to Australia's bright minds. Our nation cannot afford it, societally or economically. We must restore our nation's investment in Australian students and, in doing so, our investment in Australia's future.