Federal Parliament - Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021

May 25, 2021

Dr ALYThe Morrison government giveth and the Morrison government taketh away. We've just voted on the TEQSA bills, which would see this government slam higher education institutions with a new fee structure at a time when they are already suffering huge job losses, are unable to cater to international students and are already brought to their knees. I spoke on those bills, and I will speak on this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Extending the Student Loan Fee Exemption) Bill 2021, because I will always speak about the sector of which I was part for many years of my life and because I will always stand up to hold this government to account on its record on higher education.

Labor supports this bill because it is good legislation. It's about extending the FEE-HELP loan exemption that was first announced in April 2020, which Labor supported. The bill will extend the exemption until at least the end of this calendar year, as the previous speaker, the member for Stirling, said. Hopefully, when we revisit it, if it's needed, the government will continue to respond in appropriate ways.

As I said, the government giveth and the government taketh away. I will talk about the government's record on higher education, but I want to start by telling you a story that, to me, really illustrates the importance of education and the kinds of changes that it can make to an individual's life. A couple of years ago I was out doorknocking in my electorate. I knocked on a door, and this young fellow answered. I said to him: 'Hi, I'm Anne Aly. I'm the member for Cowan. I represent you in federal parliament. Are your parents home?' He said, 'No, my parents aren't home. I'm here alone.' I said, 'Okay, what do you do?' He said, 'I'm in year 12.' I said, 'What are you going to do when you finish?' He said, 'I've got no idea what I want to do with my life.' I looked at him and said, 'Have you ever thought of studying a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security?' He looked at me like I had three heads and was this crazy, mad woman who'd just rocked up on his door and said, 'No. I didn't even know you could do a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security.' I said, 'Well, you can, because I wrote the degree.' So I left him with a bit of information about the degree and where he could go, and I gave him my number, in case he ever wanted to call me an have a chat about it. About six months ago I got an email from his mum. She said in her email: 'You came knocking on my door. I wasn't home, but you spoke to my son. You left some information for him and you convinced him to do a degree in counterterrorism, intelligence and security.' She said, 'I'm pleased to say that his older brother, who had left school and had been going from job to job to job, not really knowing what he wanted to do, joined him. They are both now in their second year of that degree and are loving it, and they would love to come and meet you.' Of course I said, 'Yes, I would love to meet them!' So they came over, and we had a little meeting in my office over a cup of coffee. I was like: 'What assignment are you working on now? Who's your lecturer here and who's your lecturer there? What are you thinking of doing as a minor? Which area are you thinking you might go into?' It was such a heartening thing to see that a chance encounter with a young person who had absolutely what they were going to do, who could see a pathway forward in his life, both he and his brother could see a pathway forward in their lives, to something that they could do, to something meaningful that they could do that gave them meaning, gave them opportunity and gave them optimism for the future. That is the power of education, and that is why we are so lucky to be in a country where our higher education sector is one of the best in the world. Our universities are some of the best in the world. Our university lecturers, our professors, our tutors and our admin staff are some of the best in the world—some of the most hardworking in the world and some of the most dedicated in the world. Sadly, many of them have been forced out of their jobs because this government was too slow and didn't do enough in supporting higher education institutions through the COVID pandemic. Education is Australia's fourth largest export; imagine that, a country where our education is one of our largest exports. Higher education institutions and universities rely on international students and rely on being in face-to-face situations for their interaction with our young people. Jobs were lost.

Let's take a look at some of the key facts of this government's record on higher education, because I believe it would be completely remiss of me to talk about this bill without putting it in the context of a protracted campaign from this government and a history from this government of what can only be described as attacks on the higher education sector. You do not need to take my word for it. Go and talk to the universities. Talk to the university vice-chancellors, talk to the lecturers, talk to the professors and talk to the students. They will tell you just what the impact of this government's consistent cuts and attacks on higher education has been. Talk to the researchers. The researchers are just beside themselves that they have a minister—the previous minister—who intervenes in the ARC process to veto, at his whim, research projects that have been through a very vigorous ARC process, as if he is the one who is an expert on the research project. He's not the expert on the research projects; the college of experts who are appointed to assess Australian Research Council grants are the experts, not the minister.

This government talks about innovation, but at the same time they're talking up innovation and talking about commercialisation and talking about research, they're attacking the humanities. Let many tell you what the future is for the humanities. It's not what this government thinks. People aren't going to be studying sociology so they can navel gaze. They're not going to be studying anthropology so they can watch videos of cats on YouTube.

The future of the humanities can be encapsulated in two words: artificial intelligence. The artificial part is going to come from sciences and technology—from the technical aspects—but the intelligence part of it is going to come from the humanities, because the intelligence part of it is about understanding human behaviour. That's sociology. That's anthropology. That's social psychology. That's media and culture. That's behavioural studies. That's all of those things—all of those humanities subjects about which the government has said to young people, 'If you what to study them, you are going to have to pay more.' That is what this government has said to them: 'We're going to incentivise the sciences by making you pay more for a humanities degree, if that's your passion and that's what you want to pursue.' There is no foresight, no vision and no thinking that, actually, the humanities play a huge roll in the future of technology and innovation, because it puts the intelligence in artificial intelligence. That's what that part of artificial intelligence is.

Before the COVID pandemic, international education was our fourth-largest export industry. It contributed $37.9 billion in export earnings to the economy. So can put aside all of those things that you might think are 'touchy-feely' about the value of education—the things about opportunity and aspiration and giving people hope and giving people a pathway into their lives. If you want to put that all aside you can, but the economic facts are that it is a $37.9 billion export industry with 250,000 jobs across the Australian economy.

Before COVID, universities employed 130,000 full-time-equivalent workers in academic and professional roles. Let me tell you about those academic roles. You can't teach without having research. You can't. You cannot impart knowledge about a subject without having a good body of knowledge from which to draw, and that body of knowledge only develops with good, high-quality research. If you cut research funding, you immediately impact on the quality of teaching. It's a simple equation. You need research in order to be able to teach. You absolutely need it, whether it's research in pedagogy and teaching and learning or whether it's content research. When I was a professor and I used to lecture to my students, I would use my research findings to give them new insights into the topic that we were talking about. Whether that topic was international security, terrorism, the history of terrorism, or terrorist profiling, I used my research in order to ensure that my students, when they graduated, had the best knowledge and could apply it in different work settings. Without research, you don't have quality teaching. That is an absolute fact. If you cut research, you compromise the quality of education.

Universities were really hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were at least 17,300 job losses in 2020 because they weren't able to get JobKeeper, and I know many people who lost their jobs. Some of those who do tutorials or are casual lecturers at university are only on rolling contracts. I myself was on a one-year rolling contract for many years before I was made permanent and had some tenure at a university. That's just what you face when you enter into an academic career. Many of them lost their jobs. The sector is set to lose $3.8 million in revenue across 2020 and 2021, and the economy has lost $9 billion because of decreased international student revenue.

This government abandoned our universities during the pandemic. There is no other word for it. There is no other way to describe it. While we welcome measures like the higher education support amendment and the extension of the student loan fee exemption, we will stand up to measures like the TEQSA measure that was voted on earlier today, which wants to hit universities and higher education institutions with a new fee at a time when they are hurting most. The job-ready graduate reforms, which the member for Stirling spoke about, will mean that the government pays less to cover the cost of many university courses, and that will effectively result in a hiking up of fees. I've had people in my electorate contact me. They're matured-age students who decided to go back to university during COVID. They'd never had the opportunity earlier. They enrolled in a university degree and are now facing double the cost that they initially enrolled with and have had to withdraw from their courses. Universities will receive less money to teach some courses, including science, engineering and teaching.

The 2021 budget, put forward last week, has nothing for our universities, and it's not just me saying that. Our university vice-chancellors, including the vice-chancellor of the ANU, have said that this budget is absolutely bleak for universities. It offers them nothing at all. Instead, the government comes in here and votes for a bill that is going to hit them with another fee. The very least that we on this side can do is support this bill, which will at least give some students the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption, which might get them through to the end of this year.

So, while we support this bill, I think it's really appropriate that we look at it in the context of a range of other measures—or the lack of measures, so to speak, on this government's record in higher education. The universities are hurting. You only have to listen to them to know that. This bill will go some way to helping relieve some students with their loan fee exemptions, but there's so much more that can be done. If this government truly believed in the value of higher education, they would do more.