Standing up for Canberra

Cuts will devastate Canberra universities

Just prior to question time I had the opportunity to go to my alma mater, the Australian National University. I was there to take part in the national day of protest that is taking place in every campus right across Australia to protest the attacks that this government has made on the higher education sector.

These attacks have been sustained, they have been ongoing since the last government, and we saw them reach a heady height in 2014. But today was about the latest round of cuts taking place across our university campuses throughout Australia. Today we protested against the $3.8 billion of cuts to universities right throughout Australia, including $14 million at the Australian National University and $15 million at the University of Canberra over the next four years. The cuts are going to be taking place in universities right throughout Australia. There is not one university that is going to be immune from the Turnbull government's cuts.

But it is not just about cuts to funding; it is also about the other changes that this government has made. These changes, billed as 'reforms', are nothing but attacks on students, universities and our future. Higher education is one of the keys to a prosperous nation, a prosperous future. The attacks this government is making are attacks on the prosperity of this nation in the future. We were talking about these attacks at today's national day of protest at the Australian National University, which is in my electorate.

As I said, there are cuts to the ANU, the University of Canberra and every campus right across Australia.

We are also seeing an attack on students living in the regions, which should be of significant concern to those in the National Party. But have we heard boo from the National Party in regard to the attack on regional students and their funding at the higher education level? No. We are also seeing cuts to Indigenous students' access to university. We are seeing an attack on those low- and middle-income families who are trying to gain a university education. Many of them are trying to be the first in their family to gain a university education. I was the first member of my family to be educated at university. My sisters and I were the first generation in my family—on both my father's side and my mother's side—to be educated at the tertiary level. That was thanks to the changes the Whitlam government introduced—free education—and also to my mother's tenacity and her commitment to
seeing her girls educated beyond just the age of 15. But that's a whole different story.

Today the discussion at this national protest at the ANU and at every campus across Australia also focused on the fact that university students' fees are being hiked—they are going up thanks to this government—and also that university students are going to have to pay back their loan for their fees earlier. Does that make for a clever country? In a country that will need to compete, we will need people to be educated at the tertiary level and the postgraduate level to achieve the ambitions that we have as a nation to be able to compete in a global economy in a globalised world. We need a clever country to do that. And what's this government doing? Through these cuts to the universities and to students—including regional students, Indigenous students, women and low- and middle-income earners—it is essentially making the country less competitive in the future. And it's condemning students—particularly low- and middle-income earners, women, Indigenous students and regional students—to a debt sentence in terms of their higher education. This government is chasing the American dream when it comes to university fees. University fees are potentially $100,000 per degree. Is that what we want for our nation?

So I was at my alma mater, protesting these cuts and speaking to students and those from the academic staff who are very concerned about what this government's plans are for higher education. While I was there, one of the women who was there, who was doing the introduction before I spoke, mentioned the fact I was a former ANU student When I was at the ANU in the early 80s, which is a long, long time ago, only about five per cent of Australians went to university. I was a rare beast, a public schoolkid at university and living at a college there. I was a rare beast. In those days, as I said, about five per cent of Australians went to university. Thanks to the range of changes and reforms that Labor made over the course of the eighties, we saw significant changes in the accessibility of higher education and also the numbers and the percentage of Australians who were getting involved in tertiary education. So it rose from about five per cent in the early eighties to about 30 or 40 per cent, which I think it is now.

What this government is doing with these cuts to the higher education sector is essentially taking us back to those early days, when in my view too few Australians were participating in higher education and too few Australians had the opportunity to access the transformative powers of education. For me it broke intergenerational poverty. It broke three generations of disadvantage, of single mothers cleaning houses, theatres and hospitals. That's what tertiary education did for my sisters and me, in opening up a range of opportunities, and I want those opportunities to be provided to Australians throughout the country, in little country towns in remote parts of Australia, for Indigenous students, for Aboriginal students, for Torres Strait Islander students, for women, for students from low-income backgrounds and for students who have been brought up through the hardworking tenacity of their single mothers. I want them to have access to higher education, as I had that opportunity, because it transformed my life and the lives of my sisters.

Today at my alma mater I was also reminded of my former alma mater, the grand old Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the oldest workers college in the world and, in a way, probably the oldest TAFE in the world—the oldest school of vocational education in the world. I was also educated at that fine institution, which has made a significant contribution to vocational education in this country for more than 100 years. And this bill that we're talking about today does look at the vocational education environment. It strengthens the regulation of Australia's higher education system, the application standards of providers of higher education and the provision of the FEE-HELP loan program. These changes are necessary. We have heard from many speakers about what
has happened in this area for quite some time, and change is needed.

We've heard evidence about the number of students that have fallen victim to unscrupulous marketing activities from providers—bribes of iPads, trips overseas and all sorts of things. We have also heard evidence of the unscrupulous tactics employed by providers in obtaining access to tax file numbers from the Australian Taxation Office which led to $2.2 billion being lost through the VET FEE-HELP system. The fact that $2.2 billion was lost raises questions about the effectiveness of the existing regulatory arrangement and highlighted the need for change.

This bill amends key legislation governing higher and international education to strengthen regulatory control and student protections in these sectors. Amendments to the three separate acts underpinning Australia's higher education framework will bolster enforcement powers and the oversight capabilities of relevant regulatory authorities. This will allow them to intervene as necessary to ensure that the unscrupulous events we saw happen with the VET FEE-HELP system don't happen again in any part of our higher education sector.

It is important we support a strong and healthy higher education regulatory system, and Labor welcomes greater scrutiny of the background of organisations that apply to operate in our higher education system. It is vitally important. This is a major export industry, and we need regulations in place to ensure that our reputation is not tarnished. It's a major export industry for Australia, and I know it is for Canberra. Today I spoke about the export opportunities that are provided by our fine institutions here in Canberra—the Australian National University, the University of Canberra and the Canberra Institute of Technology—as well as by a number of private outfits that are, in a small way, exporting their services around the region and the world.

The protection of our world-class higher education system and of our students is absolutely critical to the success of this export industry. It's an enormous export industry and it is growing. Our biggest provider of vocational education in the ACT is the Canberra Institute of Technology, which trains 80 per cent of the territory's government funded vocational education students every year, with some courses offering pathways into university.

Canberra also has excellent smaller training providers, like the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. The AIE is a specialist video games and visual effects educator that was established by industry 20 years ago. It's a not-for-profit institution that re-invests surplus funds into providing first-class equipment, facilities and support for graduates. The AIE has won awards in the training sector. It has won the Small Training Provider of the Year—not once but twice—as well as the Small Registered Training Organisation of the Year and the ACT Training Excellence Award.

The AIE has been in contact with me and is concerned about the rapid changes in this sector, particularly in relation to the VET student loans system introduced in January this year. One of the key concerns is the upfront costs that students face and the limitations of loan caps. The AIE said in a letter to me that AIE courses are expensive due to the technological and professional requirements needed to provide our students with the standard of qualification that industry expects. The advanced diplomas have an added difficulty, in that students study for two years. However, none of these factors are incorporated into calculations of loan caps. As a result of the system, which provides a maximum loan of $10,000, students presently have to finance nearly 75 per cent of their studies upfront.

Allowing students to have the confidence to take on a debt to study is extremely important if we want the vocational education training system to grow and to provide quality education to students. But I hold concerns about the impact that the loan caps may have on certain training campuses and/or providers, as described by the AIE. The AIE have indicated that, unless the loan cap is extended or it's able to receive an exemption, they will be forced to reduce student numbers. They will have to lay off staff and they will have to provide less intensive, lower quality course content, which would be an extremely disappointing outcome for the AIE, which is an award-winning training provider in an innovative, growing and burgeoning industry.

It's perhaps to these escalating costs that the latest figures from the Productivity Commission for government funded vocational and educational training in the ACT can be attributed. The figures showed that the number of students in education and training programs had actually fallen from 45 per cent from 2011 to 2015 with the qualification completion rate estimated to be at 40 per cent, slightly higher than the national completion rate of 38 per cent. The increasing cost of higher education is a limiting factor for students and will ultimately hobble Australia's economic growth in the longer term and our economic success as fewer students complete higher education qualifications overall.

Labor knows that one of the best things we can do for our economy, for our nation, for our prosperity, for our society and for our future is to invest in our people. That's why we want early childhood learning, school, TAFE and universities for all Australians. Labor is committed to the full and proper funding of our education system. It is vitally important, as we go through a transition for the global economy and for the domestic economy, invest in the future.

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