Second Reading: University Funding

01 September 2020

An address to the Parliament on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this really important debate about university funding and university education more broadly and, at its core, the opportunities that we make available to our people, particularly our young people. Tomorrow, late morning, we will learn what a lot of Australians already know and will have confirmed, that Australia is in the deepest and most damaging recession of any of our lifetimes. We will learn when we get the national accounts tomorrow that Australia is in a diabolical recession. That should make all of us pause and reflect not just on what that means for all of our people—especially our young people—but also on what we want Australia, the best nation on earth, to look like after this nightmare has ended, what we want to be able to say about what we did here and what we want to be able to say about this generation of political representatives and the opportunities that they've made available to generations that follow us.

Recessions rob people of opportunities—one of the reasons why we are in such a serious state as a nation. As the economy goes backwards at a faster rate than it ever has since these records were first kept we have one million unemployed Australians already, and the government expects another 400,000 Australians to join them between now and Christmas. These are pretty confronting numbers. They remind us, as we are reminded daily, that recessions rob people of opportunities.

Recessions also have a disproportionate impact on different parts of our country, people of different ages, people of different genders, people from vulnerable backgrounds, people who need a little bit of help to hitch their wagon to the tremendous engine of opportunity that higher education can provide. That is really what this legislation is about. Our job, our responsibility, our obligation, our calling is to make it easier for more people to grab the opportunities of a nation like ours, especially when those opportunities are so difficult to come by. This recession has accelerated some of the things we were most worried about in our economy, our society and our communities even before most of us had heard of COVID-19. It has accelerated the inequality and social and economic immobility—some of those issues that we were already quite concerned about. The circumstances we find ourselves in make those problems much, much worse.

I have talked before about how our responsibility needs to be to avoid sacrificing a generation of Australians to this recession. We can't have a lost generation. We can't look back on this time and conclude that we did nothing when it came to losing a generation, sacrificing a generation and discarding a generation, to the worst impacts of this recession that we're going through right now. We need to be absolutely certain that our objective here is to leave nobody behind during the recession and to hold nobody back in the recovery. That is our task. In order to do that, when it comes to education, our young people in particular—not that it is just young people who access a university education—are probably the most vulnerable people and most impacted by what is going on here. We need to make it easier for them to access opportunity, not harder. That means making it easier for them to access a university education, not harder—and that goes to what those opposite are proposing in this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020.

The member for Sydney, the member for Newcastle and other speakers, in their high-quality contributions tonight, have pointed out that we will oppose this bill because it makes it more expensive for more Australians to go to university. It makes students pay more for their degrees. It means thousands of students will pay more than double for the same qualification. It cuts billions from the sector while doing nothing to help young people get into high-priority courses and jobs. Unfortunately, this effort to diminish higher education, to diminish our universities and to make it harder for our people to access the opportunities which we were all able to access, which were within our reach will make it harder for a number of reasons. But I think the most damaging conclusion—the most damaging impulse, the most damaging instinct—that those opposite have drawn from this crisis that we confront together as a nation is that this is an opportunity for them, an excuse for them, to indulge some of their longstanding ideological obsessions. And, unfortunately, universities and university students are caught in the crosshairs of the government's ideological obsessions.

Sometimes it feels like those opposite are trying to continue and prolong the experience that they might have had in student politics on campus or something like that. It seems like too many of them are here to prosecute some kind of vendetta against the higher education system, the university system and university students that have come after them. So many of them were able to access the opportunities which are so crucial to making your way in the world of work, but they want to deny those opportunities for so many people—including, disproportionately, the types of students which are represented on this side of the House and certainly in my community.

One of the things that I'm proudest of is the efforts of the Labor side of the parliament throughout history in making higher education more available and more accessible to people from communities like the one that I represent. This bill takes that effort backwards rather than forwards. It is part of a bigger ideological play. We know this because it's not just universities those opposite are going after; they're also using this as an excuse to go after superannuation, for harsher industrial relations and to go after pensions. All of these things are of a piece. What they speak to is a government that isn't sitting down during the course of this crisis and working out what is the best version of this nation after the recession subsides. They're sitting around and working out: 'How do we indulge some of these ideological obsessions? How do we, in the hope that too many people are distracted by the near-term pressures of the first recession in almost three decades, sneak through changes on uni, pension, super or industrial relations'—the list goes on and on. I think that's a shameful conclusion for them to draw. The country is counting on them.

When we consider what the economy looks like, what our society looks like and what our nation looks like after this crisis, it can't be a harsher version of Australia. It can't be a version of Australia where opportunities are harder for people to grasp. It can't be an Australia where there's a small group of people who find it easy to access opportunity and to get ahead, and more and more Australians who find it harder and harder and harder. This is not the vision of Australia that we on this side of the House will sign up to as we contemplate the recovery from this recession.

If we are to recover strongly we need to make sure that more people can access those opportunities and that more and more people have a stake in our national economic success, when that success returns. We have a lot to be proud of in this country, but one of the things we should be proudest of is how we provide those opportunities. We shouldn't be the type of society where your bank balance determines the type of education or the type of opportunities that you can access.

So we won't be supporting this bill. We have made that very clear; the member for Sydney and others have made that point with characteristic eloquence. We can't sign up to things that make it harder for people to get by and get ahead. We can't sign up to something which uses this recession, the first recession in three decades, the deepest and most damaging recession in our lifetime, as an excuse to make university life harder for people to access in this country.