21 October 2020

 I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (Up-Front Payments Tuition Protection) Bill 2020 and the Higher Education (Up-front Payments Tuition Protection Levy) Bill 2020. As my colleagues have said, Labor will not be opposing the bills before the House. It took a while, a good 10 months, but the government has finally got there. Last year my colleague the member for Sydney and shadow minister for education and training wrote to the education minister asking him to consider the changes that have subsequently appeared in the current legislation. Labor originally voiced our concerns that the exclusion of domestic upfront fee-paying students from the Tuition Protection Scheme would create a complex situation where different students have different rights and protections. So it is good to see that the government has come around to this fact and tightened up the loose ends. It's quite remarkable how tidy the government can be with practical legislation like this that actually addresses a problem but how hasty they can be when it comes to ideological legislation designed to destroy the higher education sector in this country.

Labor welcomes this practical legislation that allows similar arrangements for students and processes for decision-making, student placement and loan recrediting. While reform like this, on the fringes of a sector, is not to be sneezed at, we have to look at this reform in the greater context of the government's failure to address the needs of the higher education system and its persistent cuts and attacks against students, researchers and all workers across the higher education sector. I had hoped to speak last month on the government's Job-ready Graduates Package and associated legislation, but the government gagged debate in the House of Representatives to shuffle these retrograde reforms through. Again, they can be very quick with ideologically based legislation, but they have waited nearly a year to deal with practical matters such as we are dealing with today.

Labor opposed that appalling package. We sought for it to go to a Senate inquiry so the sector that provides our largest services export industry might actually be consulted. Instead, this $37 billion-a-year industry got a six-day farce masking as a consultation. The higher education industry knows that this government ignores the terrible truth: this government does not understand the immense ramifications of its awful legislation.

We've heard recently of the hastily stitched-up deal between the government, the member for Mayo and Centre Alliance to ram those reforms through the parliament. The decision by these members has been widely condemned on all sides and represents another backwards step for the higher education sector. Frankly, such blinkered deals that single out particular unis and particular places to the detriment of others are a detriment to the whole national higher education system and are clearly not in the national interest. In reality it's just the latest in a long line of attacks from the government against universities, their communities, their workers and their students.

Once again Labor is in a position where we have to defend the university sector. We should haven't to defend the higher education sector. Every single student attending campuses in person or online across the country, every researcher and research assistant, every cleaner and every maintenance worker at a uni has now been put in a place where they have to be defended, because it's clear that after more than seven years this government refuses to support the higher education sector and does not care for anyone who works there.

The people of Australia should know exactly what this Liberal-National government thinks of the university sector in this country. They have made $2.2 billion worth of cuts in the last seven years. They deliberately excluded the entire university sector from the JobKeeper scheme, designed to help working people through the economic crisis—the Morrison recession—that we are now living through. We will continue to live through the Morrison recession for some time to come—deliberately. The Liberals and Nationals went out of their way to ensure the 130,000 people employed by universities and the 14,000 people unis employ in the regions are left behind. It was a deliberate move. They did it on purpose. It is cruel.

What exactly is the result of this mean and cruel decision by the Liberal and National government? The Liberals have a thing about universities. They think it is only academics and researchers that work there who may not agree with them and students that attend, and so because of this they devalue these very important jobs. But who else works at universities? There are library workers, cleaners, security guards, parking officers—arguably the hardest workers on campus. They put up with a lot. There are catering staff, cooks, food servers, coffee makers, bookshop and other retail workers, bookkeepers, administrative assistants, student support workers, medical workers—nurses, doctors—maintenance workers, carpenters, air conditioner maintenance workers, electricians, tradies. All these workers are rejected, left behind by this Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, education minister, Dan Tehan, and this Liberal-National government during the COVID crisis. Why are these tradies and workers left behind by this government? Simply put, it's because they got a job at a university. Tradies work at universities. Having worked at a university for over a decade myself, I would say that tradies are the backbone of the extraordinary workforce that keeps these remarkable institutions going, but this nasty and mean government does not care about them.

In fact, my brother-in-law Matthew King works at the Australian National University, or he used to. With his permission, I will tell you his story today. Matthew worked for 26 years as an electrician and a heating ventilation and air conditioning worker in the university sector. He worked for 17 years at ANU in the Research School of Biology designing and maintaining electrical and refrigeration equipment for use in research in plant science. Plant science is the very science behind Australia's agriculture industry. That's the kind of work tradies at universities do: valuable trades work supporting Australia's premier research university.

That contribution is now at an end, as Matthew was made redundant by ANU as part of the staff downsizing in response to the COVID-triggered financial crisis, and because, as a tradie at a university, this Liberal-National government decided that he was not worthy of JobKeeper. Matthew King is nearly 62. Undoubtedly he is unlikely to ever work in his trade again. That is shameful. He's not the only tradie who has lost his job because of this government—3,000 jobs in universities have been lost. Universities Australia predict a further 21,000 job losses over the coming years. These are the workers this Liberal-National government have left behind. They're real people with lives. They're real people with families and mortgages, just like everyone else. But somehow they are worth less because they work at a university. How does it come to this? How does this happen? It happens because of a Liberal-National ideological, pathological, unreasonable objection to the whole university sector.

It's people like Matthew King and his family who pay the price. So I pay tribute to Matthew—a true gentleman and family member, as I mentioned. He's represented workers, like himself at ANU, on the council of the university, and he's part of the National Tertiary Education Union. He has been forced to retire by this government and, of course, I wish him and Julie the very best and thank them for all their support, but it shouldn't have been that way. He should have been able to choose when he retired, rather than being forced to retire as part of the ANU package that was forced upon them by a government that devalues the work of all those in the university sector, including the tradies. They're the very tradies that they trump to be their very people and who they say they protect. They're the tradies they say they relied on to win the election. They're the tradies they quite clearly betray because they work in a certain sector.

It's been clear since this government came to power that they are unable and clearly unwilling to understand the sector's real needs. They refuse to listen. The sector has called for funding reform, but mostly the sector just needs to be properly funded. There are significant flow-on effects from continually defunding the university sector, and that issue speaks to the wider Australian economy and the value of our education sector as both an import and export market for Australia's key trading partners. I recently read a piece in The Australianexplaining the critical need to further diversify our economy out of raw mineral extraction, which is extraordinarily important to the economy. We need to look at other areas of diversification.

We cannot snap our fingers and find replacements for the huge markets we have, but we must make an effort. Instead, we have a government that appears blind to the challenge of diversifying Australia's trading economy. Take, for example, our languishing economic partnership and relationship with India. India's share of Australia's merchandise exports has fallen below two per cent. That's the lowest level in 17 years. How would we improve this? Imagine there was a road map. Well, it turns out there is. In 2018 the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese completed an impressive 500-page report that found no single market across the next 20 years offered Australia more opportunities than India. That report offered many opportunities in areas such as agriculture, energy, resources, tourism, health care, financial services, infrastructure, science, sport and, critically, education. The Prime Minister announced in-principle support for Varghese's recommendations. Two years later the government has delivered remarkably little and has failed the industry Varghese identified as the cornerstone of the future Indian-Australian economic relationship—higher education. Hawke and Howard, as prime ministers of this country, fought for the development of export industries, such as iron ore and LNG; this government has gone out of its way to cut down the higher education industry that could underpin a game-changing relationship with India. Blocking Australian workers at universities from accessing JobKeeper and failing to help international students trapped in Australia during the pandemic will reverberate for years to come. If we don't fix this now, it's not clear if this government will ever be serious about building stronger economic relationships with India and the nations of South-East Asia, particularly Indonesia and Vietnam.

In every recent discussion about higher education it's clear that students are always the most vulnerable and most impacted by this government. No matter the issue, they are the last to be consulted and considered. The sector is due to face an overall cut in funding of over almost $1 billion a year, dropping funding per student by nearly six per cent. We're $1 trillion in debt—that's a million million dollars—and you also cut funding to the university sector of $1 billion a year.

Under the reforms of this government, while some students may pay less many will pay more. Crucially, every single student will receive less government funding to aid in their education that will be of benefit to the nation. So this cut to the place of every single student could be added to the legacy of this Liberal government's $2.2 billion cuts already made to university funding on top of the $16 billion of projected revenue drop due to the loss of international students because of COVID restrictions. This is an unacceptable situation. It doesn't bode well for the future of higher education in this country. It doesn't bode well for the future of students that wish to study at universities. It certainly doesn't bode well for the future of research and science in this country. Universities are under significant pressure already from a range of factors and the government now adds to this with their retrograde steps.

The recent packages put forward by the government have some of the largest structural changes in core funding for university research in 20 years, but there is no plan by the government to cover base research costs. It's a difficult situation for unis where, if they're successful in attaining external research grant funding, which the government wants and which we all want, they must cover the financial gap in delivering that research. This gap is widely known and understood as part of the funding system and has been acknowledged for many years as a significant problem, but under measures by this government it is still the case that, the more successful a university is in gaining these, the greater the financial burden is in completing the associated research. One might think there might be less research done if universities are unable to pay for the maintenance that people like Matthew King used to do, in plant science at ANU, to repair all the scientific based fridges and air conditioning systems that keep experiments going, to help an agriculture industry that, quite frankly, couldn't have got going in this country without science, and couldn't have kept going. If we think about the work that was done in Western Australia to keep sheep alive, to combat the Denmark wasting disease of the thirties, without the work of the University of Western Australia, agriculture in Western Australia might not exist. It's very real. It's a very well-known problem.