The Transformative Powers of a Quality Public Education

My sisters and I are living proof of the transformative powers of a quality public education and the transformative powers of a tertiary education. Like so many Australians, and so many in this chamber, I am the first in my family to go to university. It was thanks to the changes that the Whitlam government introduced in the seventies that I was allowed that transformative opportunity. 

My sisters and I are living proof of the power of education and of the way it transforms lives. It broke our cycle of disadvantage. It broke an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage. My great-grandmother, a cleaner in the western district of Victoria, had 13 kids and brought them up on her own in a house with dirt floors and paper walls. She had a very early death as a result of being a cleaner. Can you imagine the western district in the early part of the last century and having to do everything by hand? Her hands would have been red raw after doing the washing just for her own family, let alone for the wealthy properties around the western district. That was my great-grandmother's life. She had to leave school at 12 because she was from a poor background.

My grandmother was also a cleaner. She had three cleaning jobs, in Melbourne. She brought up seven kids on her own in a Housing Commission house in Preston with an abattoir down at the end of the street. Once a month, the cattle would wander down my mum's street, heading to the abattoir. Her house was in Stoke Street, Preston, but a very different Stoke Street to what exists today. It is very much gentrified now but it was pretty rugged in the thirties, forties and fifties when my mum was growing up in Housing Commission house with a single mum who had seven kids and was on her own. Her mother was a woman working three jobs just to keep food on the table. I've said many times in this chamber that the abiding fear that my grandmother had was that the state would take her children away because of her poverty. That was her abiding fear, which is why she worked those three jobs day in and day out to keep food on the table. My grandmother had to leave school at 13 because of the circumstances of my great-grandmother.

Then there's my mother, who was dragged kicking and screaming from school at 15. She wanted to matriculate but didn't get the opportunity due to the circumstances into which she was born. She was denied the opportunity of education but was desperate to have the opportunity. When my father left us, when I was 11, with just $30 in the bank and a pretty bleak future, we were all staring down the possibility of not one, not two, not three but four generations of poverty and disadvantage as a result of a lack of access to education. But my mother was determined that her daughters were going to be educated and to at least finish high school and, hopefully, go to university. As I said, thanks to the Whitlam government, I was the first in my family to be educated. It broke that cycle of disadvantage. It broke that cycle of poverty.

My sisters also had the opportunity to be educated. I proudly say that my middle sister is Australia's first female master of wine. She is a wine consultant who has worked throughout the world. Her tertiary education has opened up so many opportunities. She has worked in South America, Europe and Asia, and it is all thanks to the choice and opportunities—and the wine!—that have been provided to her from tertiary education.

My baby sister, my little sister, is an internationally renowned neurologist and an expert in dementia and stroke. Can you imagine what my grandmother would be thinking now if she saw these three women? Here am I, with the great honour of being the member for Canberra, representing my community in this great chamber in this parliament. Imagine what my grandmother would be thinking. There she was, scrubbing her hands red-raw all those years ago just to put food on the table for the 13 kids, denied every opportunity, denied choice, denied a life that so many others had, because she didn't have access to education. I cannot rave enough about the transformative powers of education. It has changed my sisters' lives—Meg and Amy—and my life. Without a tertiary education, we would not have the choice, the opportunities and the rich and wonderful experiences we have had as a result of tertiary education.

I want that opportunity and that choice for every Australian. I want every Australian—should they choose—to have access to tertiary education and the opportunity to have those cycles of disadvantage and poverty broken, particularly for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities and people like me. With my dad having left us $11.30 in the bank every second night during my teens, we would eat out at family's and friends' places because mum couldn't afford to put food on the table every night of the week.

I want people from low-income backgrounds and also women to have the access to opportunity and choice that is offered through tertiary education. I want every Australian to be able to aspire to a university education and have the opportunity for a university education.

That is why I was recently at my alma mater, the Australian National University, to protest against the government cuts in this area and the fact that the Australian National University and the University of Canberra are looking at cuts of $52.5 million over the next four years.

We've seen cuts already in the school sector. Schools right across my electorate have been victims of the $17 billion in cuts. We've seen cuts in TAFE of more than $2.8 billion, with a further cut in this year's budget. What's the impact of those cuts in vocational education sector—a sector that provides great opportunity, particularly for low socio-economic people, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who don't necessarily see tertiary education as the option for them and want to go into a trade or a vocational career? This government, through its cuts, has denied not just access and opportunity through tertiary education but also the opportunities and choice that are provided by vocational education.

Since this government took office, the number of apprentices has dropped by more than 145,000. This is at a time when we need skills. We have a significant skill shortage in this nation in every sector and this government has had this impact on skills. That's what you get when you have cuts to TAFE, schools and now universities. The national day of protest that I attended at the Australian National University just recently was about the many fears of these students, including the shutting of the door to opportunity and choice, to a future that offers endless possibilities. They're very concerned about the fact that their fees are going up. They're concerned that it's going to make it more challenging for them to actually make ends meet. Many who have been to university have pulled beers somewhere. For me, it was cleaning houses here in Canberra and waitressing as well. I did a range of jobs. It's challenging enough just to make ends meet as a student—and here they are with the fees going up. They are also concerned that we're going to see a brain drain in this country because it's going to be too expensive to go to university here.

A few years ago, I met with students at another of my alma maters, the RMIT—the wonderful Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the oldest workers college in the world. I was down there meeting with students from the Labor club there, and these students, particularly engineers, were really concerned about the fact that it was going to become too expensive to get an education here in Australia. They were talking to me about the possibility of going to Europe—particularly to Germany, because of its expertise in engineering, and STEM more generally, but also because of the expertise and opportunities that are offered there for engineers. So they were weighing up whether they should stay in Australia and go on to do postgraduate education or whether they should go to Germany and get their education there, because they were very, very concerned about the costs here in Australia of doing that. The German option would be wonderful not only in terms of educational opportunity but also just in terms of the experience of living in another country and learning another language. My concern was that, in a country like ours, which is desperate for engineers—it has a significant shortage of engineers—here we were, basically sending them away to be educated elsewhere, and that then they were probably going to stay there, because of the opportunities in industry that we see that Germany provides. So we're not just seeing a brain drain in terms of students going off to other countries to be tertiary educated; we're also seeing a brain drain in terms of people actually staying in other countries and using the benefits of that education in those other nations— particularly in engineering, in which we have such a significant skill shortage here in this country.

We also spoke at the national day of protest about the fact that students actually have to start paying back their HECS debt earlier. That's also going to have a significant impact in terms of students weighing up whether they will do a university degree.

The government is also making changes in relation to enabling courses. The beauty about education now is that it offers so much flexibility. When I was going through, and when those opposite were going through, it was very rigid as to what you could study and when you had to study, in terms of when you had to complete the degree. Now you can pull in subjects from all over a university, and also from vocational education institutions, to create a very bespoke degree. What's available to students now is extraordinary. This has real benefits. Something that this side of the chamber has fought for, for so long, is the need to provide pathways for those students who may not have got the level to get into university but who still aspire to go to university and for those who have gone to TAFE and done a trade and then have worked out later, 'Okay; actually, I do want to go and become a lawyer now,' or, 'I do want to become an engineer now.'

A range of pathway options have been provided, so that students do have that flexibility to transition into a new career option, through these enabling courses. Now the government is making changes to these enabling courses so that, where they've traditionally been free, these courses are now going to cost students $3,200. These enabling courses are usually attended by students from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds, and we know, from speaking to these students, that the pathways that have been opened have been extraordinary—possibly, from a plumber to an engineer, from a hairdresser to a doctor or from an electrician to an accountant. That's what my father did. But he did it the hard way—it was not actually through an enabling course but through the hard grind of night school after doing his day job as an electrician.

Universities Australia has condemned these changes. Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said that:

the Australian community could see it made no sense to cut university funding at a time of rapid and dramatic economic change. This confirms that the Government's plan to impose a $2.8 billion cut on universities and students is way out of kilter with community sentiment

Voters don't want to see cuts to universities—which are key drivers of economic growth— I mean, this is what's so extraordinary; these are key drivers of economic growth— because they create new jobs, reskill Australians and secure $24 billion a year in export income.

Labor understands the importance, the transformative powers, of education—of tertiary education and of secondary education. We see investing in education as investing in our future and in our economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, those opposite don't.

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