Federal Parliament - Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020

October 20, 2020

Dr ALYI rise to speak on these two bills, the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020 and the Higher Education (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2020, which we aren't opposing. And why would we oppose them, when the Shadow Minister actually wrote to the Minister for Education asking for these very changes? As members before me have noted, these bills basically mean that domestic students would not be excluded from the tuition protection scheme. It's taken about a year since the shadow minister first raised this issue with the minister, but it's good to see that these changes are finally being adopted.

Labor will always put quality education at the core of what we do in giving opportunities to young people, and, indeed, to anybody who is seeking to further themselves through higher education. If you have a look at Labor's record, particularly on universities and higher education, the last Labor government opened up universities. We had almost 200,000 additional people in higher education. We boosted investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. It was during those years, as well, that I was employed in the higher education sector at various universities throughout that time.

Under these policies, we saw a new kind of diversity enter into our universities. Because of Labor's policies, because of our investment in higher education and in universities, we saw the number of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds go up by 55 per cent, we saw Indigenous student numbers jump by 89 per cent, we saw enrolments by students with a disability more than double and we saw enrolments by students in country and rural areas grow by 48 per cent. These are the kinds of goals that Labor strives for when we're in government. This is the kind of investment that we believe creates a better country and a better future for our young people.

But, Deputy Speaker, who am I to speak? I stand before you, a mere woman with four humanities degrees. Yes, Deputy Speaker, I am a humanities graduate. I suppose that as a humanities graduate I should be grateful that I have a job. I suppose that as a woman and a humanities graduate I should be grateful that I'm allowed to drive on the roads that all those non-humanities graduate people designed and built for me to drive on. I suppose that as a woman and a humanities graduate I should be grateful that my husband let me go to university and let me complete my PhD in between baking cookies and changing nappies. I suppose that as a humanities graduate I should be grateful for the sheer luck that has allowed me to be employed ever since I graduated from university. Blessed be! I should just be grateful for a whole lot of stuff as a humanities graduate, because this government would have you believe that a humanities degree is worthless. That's what this government would have you believe, yet many members of the government have benefited from access to university to pursue whatever it was they wanted—to pursue a humanities degree or a degree in any area they wanted—unencumbered by any kind of government policy, by any kind of ideological war on what they wanted to study.

I, like many members in this House, engage quite regularly with the high-school students in the electorate of Cowan and, indeed, beyond the electorate of Cowan as well. It's one of the joys of this vocation that we get to go and meet with young people, that we get invited to different schools to address the year 11s, the year 12s and the year 10s. It's certainly the part of this role that I enjoy the most. When I'm sitting with these young people and I'm talking to them about their futures and their careers, I ask them: 'What do you want to do?' Inevitably there are some who say, 'I don't know.' They might be in year 11 or even in year 12—some are in year 10—saying they've no idea what it is they want to do. I know that they advice that I give them is not much different to the advice that anybody else in here gives them. That is: do what you love and do what you're good at. That's what I did. I started out studying economics, discovered how boring that was and ended up studying my first degree in the arts, in English and comparative literature. I followed that up with a degree in linguistics, then a master of education and then, of course, a PhD. So it makes sense to me that if you pursue your passion, if you do what you love and you do what you're good at, you're going to succeed. That's probably the best bit of advice that I can give to any young person.

Last week, the government introduced legislation into this House that's going to make it a lot harder for young people. Already I've had several young people in my electorate contact me, young people who had their hopes pinned on studying a degree in communication, in law, in social work or in sociology, who have said that now they're going to have to revisit their plans, the dreams that they had hoped they could achieve, because it is simply untenable for them to attend university and pay the fees that are now going to be charged under this government's legislation. Even if you accept the rationale for this, the fact is that under this legislation the government's aim of pushing young people to do degrees that they have no passion in and probably aren't even interested in or are good at is not going to work. Time and time again, we've heard the experts tell us that it's not going to work, because, under this legislation, students are going to pay seven per cent more, on average, for their degree. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased to $14½ thousand a year, doubling the cost for thousands of people. That is in areas such as the humanities, commerce and communications. People studying those degrees are going to pay more for their degree than somebody studying medicine or dentistry. I just don't think that's fair. It's not that I don't think that's fair because I happen to have degrees in those areas. I don't think it's fair because I hear members on the government side talk a lot about choice—individual choice and opportunity and aspiration, and these are noble things. These are noble values to have. When you come into this place you want to contribute to a society and to a country where your kids and your grandkids have it better than you. That's what everybody wants. They want their kids to have more choice than them. They want their kids to have better choices than they did. So I find it incredibly unfathomable that this government would introduce legislation that increases the cost of some degrees, thereby decreasing choice for young people, particularly because many members on that side had that choice, had that opportunity—it was given to them.

Why would you want to take away something from the next generation that was given to you? Do we not come to this place to make it better for the next generation? Correct me if I'm wrong, because I'm confused. That's why I came here. I came here to make Australia better for the next generation. I came here to make sure that the next generation had more choices than I did or that my parents did. I came here to make sure that, when I leave this place, I will know that I've done everything that I can to ensure that the young people that I face in my electorate every day have it easier. So I just cannot for the life of me fathom why a government would make it more difficult, harder, and more expensive for young people to get an education, to go to university, and then stand here and talk about choice, opportunity and aspiration. If you truly believe in choice, opportunity and aspiration, then you don't cut university places, you don't make it harder for people to pursue their dreams and you don't break down dreams. That's what you're doing.

The shadow minister spoke at length about young people taking on a $58,000 debt for a university degree. She's absolutely right when she says that a $58,000 university degree is a disincentive for a lot of young people to go to university. But I also want to talk about mature age students and what a disincentive it is for them as well, because I was one of those mature age students. I want to talk about women returning to work. Perhaps they have taken a break from work because they've been rearing children. Perhaps, like me, they never had an opportunity, because they got married young, because they had children young, because they spent their 20s rearing children and it wasn't until they were in their late 20s or 30s that they decided there was an opportunity for them to go back to university and study something and make something of themselves in that regard.

I want to talk about men and women who want to retrain. Perhaps COVID has forced them to look at their lives and see that they've been in a job that they haven't really enjoyed. Perhaps it's given them pause to think and perhaps it's given them the courage to finally pursue a passion by going back to university. When I went back to university, many of my classmates were mature age students. Many of them were women returning to the workforce or seeking to return to the workforce. Many of them were men and women who were seeking to retrain. When I taught counterterrorism, intelligence and security at university, many of my students were mature-age students. Many of them were former service men and women who came to do a degree to retrain and get back out there into the workforce. Why would you take that opportunity away from them? Why would you do that?

University isn't just about getting a job. Education isn't just about getting a job. Yes, you do it and you hope that it leads you to the vocation you want. You hope that, if you study something you love, with the passion that you have for it, it's going to be your career and that's where you're going to work, because you love it so much. But university doesn't always lead to a job, and the purpose of university is not always to get a job. There are a whole range of other benefits that come with a university degree. There's personal development. There's critical thinking skills and teamwork skills. There's discipline. There's self-learning and self-paced learning. There are a whole range of other skills that are applicable in any workforce and in any workplace.

If we continue to see university only as a means of getting a job, and if we continue to value university only as a means of getting a job, then we are never going to come to a position in this country where we value knowledge for its own sake. We are never going to come to a position where we can go back to a proud tradition of having some of the best universities in the world and the best education system in the world. So, while I support this bill, I reiterate that we have to see this in the context of this government's persistent battle against the universities.