Higher Education Speech

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.