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


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.