House of Representatives 10/02/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (13:05): Federal Labor is supportive of the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2021 which indexes approved research grants and provides funding for the 2024-25 financial year. Whilst these amendments are standard and uncontroversial, the government’s continued treatment of the Australian Research Council is anything but.

My electorate of Wills is home to a high number of researchers and academics. They continue to share their frustrations with me about the government’s interference with their sector. Delays to grant announcements are of particular concern. Last year the government deliberately delayed announcements about university research grants until Christmas Eve. This was less than a month before grants were scheduled to commence. Up to 5,000 researchers had no certainty when it came to their jobs and research projects.

Furthermore, political interference by successive ministers demonstrates the government’s concerted effort to politicise research in this country. In this round of grants the then acting education minister vetoed six humanities grants because they clearly didn’t suit the government’s agenda. You might ask: who was this acting education minister? It was none other than the member for Fadden, who is known for his fantastic oversight of other government programs such as robodebt! I’m sure if the member from Maribyrnong were here he would be nodding his head at the great job that the member for Fadden has done and the track record he has! He is just one of several Liberal government ministers who have vetoed Australian Research Council grants. Then Minister for Education Tehan intervened in 2020. Senator Birmingham personally vetoed $4.2 million of grants back in 2018. Of course, they are all following in the footsteps of Howard government ministers who did the same thing.

Unlike the Liberals, federal Labor have never vetoed Australian Research Council grants because we respect impartiality in the grants process. We know that proposals can take months and months of planning, and then, in the way that this government is doing it, can be denied with a flick of a pen. This is reprehensible interference. It’s not only harming our research sector but damaging our international reputation. How can we attract the best researchers, scientists, educators, students and other professionals when the system is anything but fair or transparent? How can we retain all of those people? It’s another example of a government that says they are committed to jobs—they talk about jobs a lot—but everything they do within their power actually jeopardises thousands of jobs. Don’t get me wrong, the grant processes should be rigorous, and that is why if elected a federal Labor government would be guided by a rigorous Australian Research Council peer review process in approving applications. We support academic freedom and believe that Australia should be a world leader in research.

Unfortunately, under this government 7,000 research jobs have been cut in the past two years. That’s 7,000 people without work as a direct causal effect of this government’s policies. How can this exodus of talent be of any surprise when surveys show more than half of our researchers consider moving overseas upon completing study? We need to be investing, not interfering, in academic institutions like universities. They are not just important social hubs but economic ones—driving innovation, fostering new businesses and industries, helping to educate and train people for their jobs. So many people in my electorate of Wills understand that the Morrison government has left our universities behind. When it did finally come to the table with JobKeeper, after a lot of advocacy by the federal Labor opposition, it deliberately left universities out. This has meant 40,000 jobs have been cut, 40,000 jobs that were not important enough for this government to save—academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security and many more. These are all real people—so many faces and names I know in my own community who worked in the sector, who have families and responsibilities. They are all now out of work.

And yet, even as education is our biggest service export, this government is only trying to make it harder for Australians seeking an education. Thousands of Australian students are now paying double for courses because of changes made by this government, who originally planned to cut university funding overall. Surprise, surprise, just like in its grant interference, these changes hit humanities and other disciplines that this government ideologically takes issue with. But, unlike this government, we will support universities. We will deliver up to 20,000 new university places under our Future Made in Australia Skills Plan. Sectors such as engineering, nursing, technology and education generally will all benefit as we help fix areas of skills shortages. Of these places, we will prioritise opportunities for marginalised and underrepresented groups.

I know how important this is. Education made such a difference to my sister and me. My parents worked hard and sacrificed much when they came to Australia. They did overtime in their jobs. Mum and dad were educated. Dad was a lawyer in Egypt. When he came to Australia, he couldn’t continue in that field. He ended up working at Australia Post. He gave up much of his career to put food on the table for us. He and my mum always insisted that we get a good education. We didn’t have a lot, growing up as children of migrant parents in public housing, but that lesson was always drummed into us: get a good education, because it opens up the door to opportunity for you, and this country will give you that opportunity. So I worked hard, doing the night shift at the local service station, working as a cleaner, doing all sorts of jobs, to get through university. But access to education meant that, with that hard work, I could have a successful career and give back, in public service, to the country that has given us so much—like so many other Australians who have been given opportunities through education.

As a federal MP, I want to make that a reality for every Australian, including those from regional, remote and outer suburban areas, First Nations Australians and people who are first in their family to attend university, often from a migrant or culturally diverse background. Federal Labor will work with universities to determine how our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund can support meaningful projects that create jobs and opportunities. Unlike the Liberal government, we will support researchers, academics, students, support staff and everyone else who is passionate about making Australia a world leader in higher education. We will continue Labor’s legacy of supporting a world-class education system, one that attracts the best and the brightest, with access for all Australians, to give them that door of opportunity that they can open and fulfill their potential.

House of Representatives 26/08/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (13:36): Our first big night out with friends; that first camping trip; that first overseas trip; that first day of uni, or of TAFE or of starting your first job; those rites of passage such as 16th, 18th and 21st birthdays; the last days of school, year 12 graduations and schoolies; or simply just catching up with friends—all those moments that, dare I say it, older Australians look back on fondly—are, for a generation of young Australians, moments missed and lost. Dreams have been put on hold, sacrificed to keep all of us in the broader community safe.

Too rarely has the impact of COVID-19 on young people been properly recognised. Young people are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 but they have felt the full impacts of this pandemic nonetheless. Young people were the first to lose their jobs. They have endured the biggest disruptions to their education in modern history, not to mention the overwhelming mental health impacts of lockdowns. Young workers are also the least likely group to have received financial support for their lost work.

But I am continually amazed by the perseverance and optimism of young people. They have come in droves to get vaccinated as soon as they have become eligible, doing their bit to increase our vaccination rates and to get us out of lockdowns. So I want to thank all young people in my electorate and around Australia for doing their bit—for getting vaccinated and for all their sacrifices that have kept us all safe.

House of Representatives 25/05/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (18:32): I also rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021. As previous speakers have highlighted, this extends the FEE-HELP loan and reduces student debt levels. That’s always a good move, certainly, and that’s why Labor support this bill, but we should not let this distract us from the coalition’s long list of failures with respect to universities and the tertiary sector and their long list of failures with respect to students which have occurred time and time again during their period in government.

The COVID crisis, of course, has impacted all Australian universities. In my own electorate of Wills, the impact has been quite severe. There are thousands of university students who live in my electorate. There are hundreds of academics and university workers from various university campuses, like RMIT and the University of Melbourne, who live in my electorate. This past year, they’ve told me about their struggles—the job losses, the redundancies, the casual contracts not renewed. Students have told me they can’t study what they want to study, because they don’t want to be stuck with a lifetime of debt.

But in many senses these stories, as important as they are, have been white noise to this coalition government. They just don’t care. If they did, then they wouldn’t have abandoned universities during the global pandemic; they wouldn’t have abandoned students during the global pandemic. Instead of investing in our universities at this most critical time, instead of investing in our young people and their education, the coalition government cut university funding by around $1 billion a year. They just don’t care. It is pretty obvious they don’t care.

The university sector was the first hit when international borders closed in March last year. The university sector was crying out for help, and what did the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, do? He deliberately excluded public universities from JobKeeper. It was deliberate; he knew what he was doing. In fact, he changed the rules three times to exclude them. The result: 17,000 university jobs lost on this government’s watch and hundreds of courses cut on this government’s watch. Every course cut is lost knowledge and lost opportunity. And the pain isn’t over: we expect another 21,000 job losses in the coming years. We’re talking about academics, tutors, administrative staff, library staff, catering staff, grounds staff, cleaners and security.

I touched on this a bit earlier, but what makes this so bad and what makes it worse is that these decisions in fact are ideological. Let me explain. For degrees that this government doesn’t like students studying, such as the arts, law, accounting, commerce, communications and the humanities, this government’s policies and decisions have actually made it more expensive to study those degrees. This is despite the majority of the government members actually graduating with degrees in humanities. It is good enough for them to get their degree when those educational opportunities are provided—largely by Labor governments over the decades—but, when they are here in this place making the decisions, they shut it down and make it more difficult for young Australians to get the same degrees.

Fees will more than double for people studying humanities, jumping from $27,216 to $58,000 for a four-year degree. That’s a massive jump, especially when you consider that, when HECS was first introduced in 1989, students paid $1,800 a year. Even with inflation over the last 30 years, this doesn’t even come close to what they will have to pay now. The average student is now graduating with between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt—a number that just keeps going up and up and up. This keeps students from wanting to or being able to go to university. It is a disincentive. Yet the government just don’t care. They don’t care. They do nothing about this. There is nothing in the budget for universities, no plan and no vision—just cuts. We are talking about cuts in a place where they actually should be investing. All of the economic evidence tells us that investment in education, particularly in higher education, actually leads to growth of the economy. You create a base of knowledge for workers—innovative workers, educated workers—who can actually contribute with those educational outcomes to business and entrepreneurship and in all sectors of the economy. It grows the economy. That’s investment in the economy, not just spending.

Last time Labor were in government we had the vision and we did the work. After years of neglect by the previous Howard government, Labor, when it won power, boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion by 2013. Under Labor, 220,000 more Australians got the opportunity for a university education. This included many who had had to overcome disadvantage. During that period, financially disadvantaged student enrolments increased by 66 per cent, Indigenous undergraduate student enrolments increased by 105 per cent, enrolments of undergraduate students with a disability were up by 123 per cent and enrolments of students from regional and remote areas were up by 50 per cent because of our policies.

We are ready to do the work again to invest in our universities and our education systems because valuing education is actually about that quintessential value, the fair go, giving everyone the equality of opportunity to get a good education. When you value education, it’s about preparing people for the jobs of the future, for the emerging industries, for advanced manufacturing and for other sectors of the economy as we go forward hopefully into this post-COVID economic reconstruction. Valuing education actually makes us a stronger, smarter country. One of the great Labor traditions is giving everyone possible that fair go—a fair go for all—and that’s very much part of our commitment to investment in education for all the reasons that I’ve described—the economic reasons, yes, but also the importance to society of people getting that opportunity to get an education. Whether it’s a liberal arts degree, a law degree, accounting, commerce or science, you value-add when people get that education and they can make a contribution when, because of their education, they bring their ideas to life.

There is untapped human potential residing within all members of our society, and education opens up the door to opportunity. It gives people the opportunity to succeed in life based on their merit, based on their hard work. It opens up that door to opportunity, and making that ideal of equality of opportunity a reality is what we’re about. I just don’t see any of that commitment on the other side. I see lots of talking points and I hear lots of spin and obfuscation about what they actually do, which is to cut funding for education. They oppose the fundamental idea of giving people that fair go. They can’t claim otherwise when they’re cutting university funding by $1 billion a year. How else can you explain this government’s ideological position on giving people a fair go by giving them the opportunity for a good education?

More important than that is that no matter who you are, whatever your background—whether you’re an Australian in remote or regional parts of this country, whether you’re disadvantaged, whether you have a disability, whether you come from a new and emerging migrant background, whatever your gender, whatever your ethnicity, whatever your faith, whatever your cultural background—you should be given these opportunities like every other Australian should be given these opportunities. You should be able to get a good education in Australia. It’s of critical importance. That’s what I got. I got it as a migrant kid growing up in public housing because of Labor governments and their policies. I got an opportunity to get a good education and to go to university because of Labor governments, because of our commitment to that equality of opportunity.

Bob Hawke, one of the great prime ministers of this country, was also the member for Wills. I’m very proud and privileged also to represent the people of Wills, as Bob did for all of those years. I used to catch up with him, mainly after I got elected although I also saw him a couple of times before I was elected. I asked him once, ‘Bob, what is the policy area that you are most proud of, but is probably not talked about much in discussions about the legacy of your government or in your biographies?’ He said, ‘Peter, when I started as Prime Minister in 1983, about a third of students finished high school.’ They used to call it matriculation. He said, ‘Because of the policies that my government put in place, by the end of my time as Prime Minister, it was almost 80 per cent.’ I said: ‘Bob, I was one of those kids. I did year 12 in 1990. If it wasn’t for you and your government, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities to go to university. Given my socioeconomic circumstances, my migrant background, I still got a chance to do something with a good education.’ That’s what investing in education means to us, because it gives people the chance, the opportunity for them to shine based on their potential and to reach their full potential. But if it is too expensive, if it’s out of the reach of people because they can’t afford to take on that debt, then we are failing our citizens before we even begin.

Federation Chamber 22/02/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (16:09): It’s almost a year since O-week celebrations were cancelled, semester 1 was postponed and classes moved online for university students across the country, but for many students it’s also marked a year since they have been stuck overseas and had to continue their learning from overseas. There are hundreds of thousands of students who are overseas right now, unable to come back into the country and are still paying their fees and studying their degrees offshore, online. Our onshore education sector contributed $37 billion and supported over 247,000 Australian jobs in 2018-19. It is our fourth-largest export sector, right behind iron ore, coal and gas, yet, despite this, the government has paid little attention or, arguably, has ignored international students.

In October 2019, almost 51,000 new and returning international students arrived in Australia. In October 2020, this figure had fallen by 99.7 per cent to just 130 students. The government has failed to bring back Aussies stuck overseas, due to quarantine systems or not setting up federal quarantine. This failure means we can’t even get on the job of welcoming others back safely to Australia, like international students. That’s had a devastating impact on our university sector. We’re looking at $19 billion worth of losses by 2023. That means uni job losses and it means subject cuts. The government knows this, but still thousands of students studying remotely are an afterthought for his government.










Federal Labor is deeply disappointed that the Greek Studies program at LaTrobe University will end after 38 years.

This decision to cut funding to lanaguage program is a direct result of cuts by the Morrison Government to properly support universities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Facing financial pressure, La Trobe University has flagged cutting dozens of liberal arts and language subjects including Greek Studies, Hindi and Indonesian. The University has already cut jobs and they expect to cut more jobs.

The Morrison Government’s failure means that institutions like La Trobe are being forced to gut their courses, cut jobs and leave students with fewer choices.

Language forms a crucial part of culture and identity.

By cutting funding to the Greek language program the Morrison Government is sending a message that they don’t value the Greek language.

Our multicultural nation is made stronger when second and third generation Australians have the full opportunity to remain strongly connected to their language and culture.

La Trobe’s Greek Studies program is key to this because it is the only comprehensive program that enables students to study Greek language and culture at a tertiary level, from beginners’ level to PhD.

Australia has one of the largest Greek diaspora communities in the world and any understanding of modern Australia must include an understanding of all the cultures that have shaped it. If this program is discontinued, students, no matter their background, will be denied that opportunity and as a society we will be poorer for it.

We call on La Trobe University to reconsider this decision and to continue its Greeks Studies program.

We call on the Morrison Government to reverse these unfair cuts to our universities.





Watch my recent speech in Parliament about Labor’s plan to invest in and make childcare more affordable for Australian families.



SUBJECTS: Federal Budget, Higher Education Bill, Vice-Presidential Debate 

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Time now for my political panel at the end of a very big budget week, Liberal MP, Dave Sharma, and Labor MP Peter Khalil. And Dave, I want to start with you today because Anthony Albanese will announce a childcare package tonight to improve female employment. Of course it helps mums and dads there’s no doubt about it, but women clearly are the ones that do most of the child rearing in this country still. Why didn’t the government do more in this space? And I don’t want you to just reel off numbers of what you’re already doing. It’s a really specific question. Do you think the government should be doing more to help women participate in the workforce? 

DAVE SHARMA, MP: I think the government should be doing more to help everyone participate in the workforce, Patricia. This is the biggest economic crisis to hit Australia since the great depression is the biggest economic crisis to hit the world. And we need to be focused on all Australians at this time. And this is what this budget is about. Getting Australians back into work, encouraging businesses to hire again, encouraging businesses to invest, getting cash into businesses, giving households more income, all these things matter. Our childcare subsidy we’re spending about $9.2 billion on this this year. It means that over 70% of working parents pay less than $5 an hour on average for childcare. I think the focus here has to be on a macro one about getting all of Australia back to work, getting the economy moving, and we don’t want anyone left behind. Absolutely. If sectors are being left behind, that’s something we’ll need to revisit in MEFO or later in the year. But I think the focus now, rightly, for the budget is the macro picture. 

HOST: Yeah, I get your vibe of everyone, but it’s not everyone. We know young people were targeted by your budget. So obviously that’s very specific and the treasurer kept telling us that he knew women were being hurt more. So, if they’re being affected more, you got to do more to help them, don’t you? 

SHARMA: Women, as a share of the population took a larger hit at the start of this crisis because some of the sectors, they’re employed in. But then we’ve seen, of the 1.3 million people who lost their jobs or had their hours reduced to zero and of the 760,000 odd of those who’ve come back to work since, that 60% of those have been women. So, I think although women were quick out of the workforce, if you like or quick to have their hours reduced, they’re coming back quickly. None of this has said to forget, I’d guess I’d say Patricia, we need to keep an eye on all this sort of stuff. And if more things need to be done to help different sectors, be it young people, elderly people, females, Indigenous Australians, we’re always going to be mindful of that because we want to get all of Australia back to work again, We want to get unemployment back to a level, where it was before this crisis. And we want people to feel prosperous and secure again. 

HOST: Peter Khalil, The Australian newspaper is reporting that Labor is going to commit $6 billion to childcare. Now I’m sure you won’t be able to confirm the figure, but if Labor is, and I know it will be a centrepiece tonight in Anthony Albanese’s speech going to commit more. I want to pick up that point that was just made, by Dave Sharma. The government actually has already reformed childcare. It does spend quite a lot on childcare. And if you look at the out of pocket expenses, they can be quite low for some people. Why do you think it needs more investment? 

PETER KHALIL MP: Because Patricia, it has everything to do with women’s participation in the workforce, frankly. You touched on this about the weaknesses of this budget. Yes, they spent a lot of money, more than any budget we can remember. But when you start to scratch the surface, when you start to look at the fine print and the detail, you see cracks that form and they get bigger and bigger, to the point where they are a chasm. You’ve had a discussion about women being left out of this budget. It’s not just childcare. It’s the whole caring economy, where women have more employment in. Whether it’s aged care, whether it’s healthcare services, early childhood education, generally women have been left out. And then the other disturbing factor is that you’re seeing as well in the JobSeeker numbers, women over 45, particularly, becoming more of a larger percentage of those who are on JobSeeker, getting into the unemployment space.  Women, over 45 or over 50, who are big numbers startlingly of homeless in Australia. So they’ve completely forgotten about that. And there are big gaps now, and it’s not just women. It’s also the arts sector, it’s also refugees and asylum seekers. It’s also the funding freeze on the ABC, for example. There are a lot of areas where they’re just left out. People are being left behind.  Our criticism is, you can spend a lot of money because it’s a big pandemic but it’s the why you spend it and how you spend it. Social housing is the other big one, which is a huge missed opportunity. Because it creates jobs in the economy, in the construction sector really quickly, it provides dignity for people and a level playing field, for almost a million Australians who are going to need a baseline of social and affordable housing to get through this post pandemic phase. 

HOST: I just want to talk before I let you go on that significant bill that’s passed the Senate, on university funding with you, Dave Sharma. The governments now just legislated humanities degrees to be more expensive than the other set of degrees, maths, nursing, and others. You and I both know how important the humanities are. You’ve studied the humanities. You said, this is not a set and forget thing. Do we have to monitor the implications on women, on others who need the humanities to see how your new funding system will work? 

SHARMA: I’d say Patricia, people are focused here on one part of this bill. The larger purpose of this Bill was to encourage more people to study things like science, technology, engineering, mathematics in areas where we know there is growing demand for jobs and growing demand for industries. It’s not designed to discourage people from studying the arts or doing humanities subjects. Those will remain important parts of any Australian’s education and a formative part, but this is really about an allocation of priorities and trying to make sure that the university sector is producing graduates in the industries where there’s the greatest demand for work. That’s going to be key to keeping unemployment down, but I still think humanities will play an important role- 

HOST: They’ll just be more expensive. 

SHARMA: When the Labor government introduced HECS under Paul Keating, university became more expensive. 

KHALIL: This is nothing like HECS. 

SHARMA: We moved to a model of universal university education, where more and more Australians want to study at university. We moved under the Keating government to a system where the beneficiaries of that education, the students themselves need to make a contribution. I don’t disagree with that premise and I’d be surprised if anyone on the Labor side does either. 

HOST: Peter Khalil, it was actually Labor that made us pay for degrees, right? 

KHALIL: This is conflation. Sorry, I’ve got to really disagree with the way Dave has actually conflated the HECs system with the changes they’ve made. They are chalk and cheese. With the HECs system we’re talking about an even distribution where there’s a contribution by all students as well, and they pay it back through the tax system. And it didn’t specify about the degree per se. What they’re doing here basically by making humanity degrees more expensive, it’s a kind of a social engineering Patricia, because, and Dave kind of alluded to it, where you say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get this right technical training in courses that will fill the jobs’. Well a liberal arts education is more than just about vocational training or technical training. It is about critical reasoning, it’s about critical thinking. It’s about the application of those skills throughout many sectors in our economy and our society and what makes our society work. Taking that away as an option for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and also ethnic backgrounds, frankly. 

HOST: Let’s leave it there. One-word answer or two words who won the Vice Presidential debate? Dave Sharma? 

SHARMA: I think democracy. 

HOST: That is, Dave Sharma! Peter Khalil? 

KHALIL: I’m going to call, Kamala Harris. She was fantastic. But it was good to see both candidates having a reasoned- 

HOST: I did say two, because you’ve got a name and a surname usually. I’ll give you one more chance, Dave Sharma. Kamala Harris, do you think she got ahead? 

SHARMA: Look, I think she put it in a very effective and compelling performance. No doubt about it. She showed her background as a prosecutor and as a governor. I think the tone of the debate was a welcome improvement on the last one as well. 

HOST: That’s a very good point. Thank you very much Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP Peter Khalil. 



Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) speech.


Peter Khalil: Labor opposes the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, as it is fundamentally going to make it harder and more expensive for young Australians to go to university. While the bill is promising more places, they will be achieved with no extra Commonwealth funding but by reducing the average funding for each student going to university. The cost burden of these extra places will instead be borne by the students themselves. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased. Some increases are up to 113 per cent. On average under this legislation, students will pay seven per cent more for their degree.

All this is during a time when providing young people with the opportunity of a higher education is more important than ever, especially with the impacts of COVID-19. We’re in the depths of a recession, and youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by more than 90,000 in recent months alone. This is a significant missed opportunity to invest in our young people. Instead, this government is choosing not to invest in them and not to support them to succeed in their chosen careers.

I can’t fathom why this is. Is it ideologically motivated? It can’t be anything but that, because what the government are really proposing here is that the costs for degrees that they don’t like—and I’ll come to that in a moment—go up. I can only presume it is for ideological reasons that the costs of humanities degrees are going up. Students studying law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce, communications and the humanities will be paying more for their degrees than people doing medicine or dentistry degrees. These costs will more than double for people studying humanities, jumping from some $27,216 to $58,000 for a four-year degree.

This is not just about covering costs for more job-ready degrees, which is the government’s argument. It actually fundamentally diminishes and undermines the essential, critical importance of humanities to civil society, to our society. I graduated with a law/arts degree, and I know that many of my colleagues in the chamber would have got arts degrees, law degrees or economics degrees. I was afforded that opportunity for a good education despite my particular socioeconomic circumstances. But, under a cost structure that undermines humanities degrees, the question has to be asked: would I or millions of other Australians who are not particularly wealthy—whether they’re new migrants, as we were, or working class, as we were, or in regional or rural areas—be able to get a degree that gives them a knowledge base and the critical reasoning skills that you get out of a humanities degree, which would allow them to work towards senior and leadership roles in the law, politics, industry and the corporate sectors? It’s a legitimate question. Is the government deliberately limiting access to this type of education and to these types of skills only to wealthy Australians who can afford what is now going to become the luxury of an arts degree?

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with trying to meet skills shortages by making some courses more available and more affordable, but it should not be done at the expense of the humanities. Of course science and engineering degrees are important. We’ve heard from Bronwyn Evans, the CEO of Engineers Australia, who’s said:

… the … Government’s announced changes … may … lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

…   …   …

An increase in university fees risks increasing structural inequality for women and people from low socioeconomic status … backgrounds who choose to study humanities, law and other courses that will now leave them in even more debt.

The thing that this government cannot understand and cannot ever get over is the fact that a tertiary education is not just about vocational or job-ready technical training. It’s not just a sausage factory; it’s also about knowledge and critical thinking. A vibrant, robust, civil society is made up of far more than technical expertise. Robert French, the former High Court Chief Justice and now Chancellor of UWA, has said:

Humanities is the vehicle through which we understand our society, our history, our culture.

I continue to quote:

I’m not talking about the more obscure courses. The mainstream of humanities allows teachers and universities to transmit our history and our society to students.

The humanities are vital for the work of our political leaders, leaders of corporations, leaders of public authorities. I’m very happy for an emphasis on science, engineering and maths; we should also emphasise humanities.

It’s not an either-or. This government seems to think you have to set them up against each other.

We oppose this bill for a number of reasons. One of the ones I want to emphasise is that we should not, in any way, as a Commonwealth be denying or limiting the access to those skills, to that education and to that skill set that you get from a humanities degree. We should not be denying that or limiting that to people from a particular socioeconomic background, whether they be disadvantaged, starting out as new migrants or of a particular ethnic background. By extension, this bill from the government seems to go in that direction. It undermines the importance of a liberal arts focus on history, civics, social sciences, arts and culture, critical thinking and reasoning, as I described, which are more important to humanity and societies than ever before, especially as we enter this era of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and big data analytics. Those skills you get out of a humanities degree are more important than ever—more important for leadership, more important for analysis and more important for navigating and problem-solving for the future.

We know that authoritarian governments are harnessing AI and STEM for their own purposes. We need a democratic counterpoint to what is happening in those states, which means that the humanities, the arts and the social sciences are more important than ever. We should be expanding access to those skills not limiting access to those skills. Dan Woodman, President of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, said in his media release:

Some of the fastest growing job areas for university graduates are new, many of which require exactly the skills and experiences that the study of HASS subjects can provide. Content Specialists, Customer Officers, Data Scientists, and Sustainability Analysts are in high demand. These jobs did not exist five years ago, and a strong humanities or social science degree provides a foundation for working in these and the new, related fields that will inevitably emerge in the coming years.

This is the short-sightedness of this government and what they’re doing with this bill.

The other part of it that is ridiculous is that there is no evidence that humanities degrees make students less employable than other degrees. In fact, the job prospects of humanities students are very healthy and are in demand, as I’ve just pointed out. According to recent research, people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. Experts are saying that the price is unlikely—and this is part of the government’s thinking here: that they’ll put a pricepoint on this—to have any effect on student choice. But it’s going to have a dramatic effect on the funding of universities, and the funding of universities, particularly during this coronavirus crisis, is in dire straits. So many jobs have been lost. So much teaching and learning and research capability has been lost. It’s just going to make that much worse.

One of the great Labor traditions is ensuring that an education never remains out of reach of anyone wanting to obtain one, particularly a tertiary education. Not everyone can get a university agree—absolutely. That’s why we support TAFE and want to put funding into TAFE and vocational training. But, if people want to access a university agree, they should be able to obtain one. We in Labor put our money where our mouth is, unlike the Liberals. After years of neglect under the previous Howard government, Labor boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion by 2013, and Labor policies when we were last in government saw an extra 220,000 Australians get the benefit of a university education.

I was one of those young people who got the benefit of previous Labor governments, the Hawke-Keating governments—and, one could argue, the Whitlam government—giving more people access to university. I got access to an education, and a quality education, despite my socioeconomic background. That’s part of our DNA. That’s what real equality of opportunity is about: it’s giving people access to a quality education so that they can fulfil their potential.

We have also focused on making sure that people who are disadvantaged get that opportunity, overcoming those structural disadvantages, making sure that enrolments for financially disadvantaged students increased, and they did, by 66 per cent; that Indigenous undergraduate student enrolments increased, and they did, by 105 per cent; that enrolments of undergraduate students with a disability went up, and they did, by 125 per cent; and that enrolments of students from regional and remote areas went up, and they did, by 50 per cent. This is in contrast with this government, this Liberal-National government, that just doesn’t get it. They don’t believe in it. They don’t understand it, or they’re blind to it.

We know that the COVID-19 crisis has hit many, many Australian universities hard. In my own electorate of Wills, we have a very high student and academic population who work at nearby universities like RMIT and University of Melbourne. Universities outside of capital cities have also been hit hard, and some have been subjected to huge funding cuts and hundreds of job losses which have serious flow-on effects to the regional community they support. Instead of investing in our universities and our young people and opening up opportunities for them, this government and this bill seek to cut the university sector’s guaranteed funding by around a billion dollars a year. That would be the effect of what this government is trying to do. So universities will be receiving less money to do more.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected universities, and for months now Labor has been urging the federal government to step in and help universities, to save jobs. However, we’ve already seen 3,000 jobs lost and there’s a forecast of 21,000 job losses in coming years. And this government doesn’t even just sit on its hands; it goes the other way. It seeks to cut further and make it more difficult, and it’s done nothing that gives us an indication that it understands the importance of university education and universities to our society. It’s gone out of its way to actually exclude public universities from JobKeeper, changing the rules three times to ensure that they don’t qualify. It’s a disgrace.

Today, Curtin University in Perth announced they needed to cut employment costs by a whopping $41 million. Close to my electorate, the University of Melbourne has cut 450 jobs and there are projected losses of a billion dollars over three years. We’re not just talking about students; we’re talking about academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security—all of the people who make up university life and university work.

We know that we as a nation will require an additional 3.8 million university qualifications by 2025. These will be required across sectors and will be critical for our economic recovery and growth, and this government, with this bill, is not only wilfully blind to that; it’s going in a different direction. This so-called reform is a complete mess. It can’t be amended. It can’t be fixed. It leads to more-expensive degrees, no guarantee of more places and less money for universities. As always, this Prime Minister’s detail and announcement don’t match reality.


Peter Khalil: Over the last few weeks I have sought and received over 150 submissions from my constituents in Wills on the government’s newly released ‘Technology investment roadmap discussion paper’. All of these submissions will go towards a joint submission from Wills, a community submission, calling on the government to commit to an ambitious emissions reduction target and actual strong investment in cheap, clean renewable energy for Australia’s energy future. The government’s paper outlines what the Wills community already know—that renewable energy is the cheapest and cleanest form of energy for Australia. We also know that, when it comes to accepting the reality of climate change, facts matter little to this government.

I want to read to you some of the thoughts that we received, and I think you’ll hear a common message, Mr Deputy Speaker:

We need to get to net zero emissions as soon as possible, and Australia is well placed to lead the world in this. But the first step is to commit to that target.

Another submission said:

After yet another federal report on climate change, the evidence is clear renewable energy is critical in our fight against climate change. The community is frustrated with denial and no action. It is time to protect our future and that of generations to come

A final example:

Read the room, Liberal government. Make a national commitment to climate change action—enough of this ambulance at the bottom of the cliff tactic.

My constituents have also contacted me expressing their concern about the government’s announcement that they are ‘snapping back’ to their old childcare system, which means families will be back paying some of the highest childcare fees in the world. You know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that Australian families were already struggling with childcare fees prepandemic. Now that we’re in a recession, a lot of those families are doing it tough, with parents unemployed, underemployed, or on JobKeeper or jobseeker payments. These fees will put child care out of reach for many.

The subsidy wasn’t perfect in the first place. The shortfalls of the government’s relief packages have meant that many childcare centres have fallen through the cracks, including centres run by charities or local government. I’ve been hearing from many providers, educators and parents in my electorate, and I know the extreme stress they’re experiencing from the impact of COVID-19. A lot of centres in my electorate have struggled to remain viable with only 50 per cent of their previous revenue. I’ve made representations on behalf of many of these centres, including Hartnett House in Brunswick and other childcare centres that have fallen through the cracks.

The truth is that the free child care promise made by Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, and this government has been a disaster for many early learning services. The promise of free child care for all Australian workers during this crisis basically has been a failure in funding and proper delivery. The government has failed childcare centres and it has failed families.