17 June 2020 - House of Representatives
Mr DICK (Oxley) (12:09): I'm delighted to see that there are members of the government wanting to tune in to what I'm going to say about their cuts to TAFEs and universities. I only wish some of them would have the guts to actually stand up and speak on the legislation they have put before the House. But as they slink away, back to their offices, the lazy Liberals will once again not want to defend their appalling record with university funding and higher education allocations and their lack of commitment to vocational education and training.
I take every opportunity in this House to speak about the future of higher education funding, because I know, representing a growth corridor and some of the fastest-growing suburbs in Australia, in the south-west of Brisbane and Ipswich, how vital it is that our national parliament focuses on higher education expenditure. If we are to remain competitive, if we are to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to higher education, then this government needs to start listening to the alarm bells that are being rung across the sector and across the community.
The Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020 makes provision for fee-paying university students to have a 25 per cent loans fee waiver for six months, obviously due to the COVID crisis. As the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, has indicated, Labor welcomes the small amount of fee relief that the bill provides for that small proportion of full-fee-paying undergraduate students—that six-month waiver of loan fees. So, there's no question that Labor will be supporting this bill. But in the larger scheme of things, this bill makes very minor adjustments to a sector that requires a comprehensive, genuine and enduring reform package.
That's why today I am strongly supporting the second reading amendment, which I would ask all members of the House to consider and to indeed vote for. If those opposite, who claim to support the university sector, really believed the words they uttered they would ensure that due recognition be given to the cutting of billions of dollars from universities, as is indicated in the second reading amendment; the slashing of research funding; and, certainly in examples from my own community, students being locked out of tertiary education. We've clearly seen, due to the cutting of billions from TAFEs and training, a dramatic decline in the number of students undertaking vocational education. And I think the most important part of the second reading amendment is item (3), which is:
failing to develop a long-term policy for the Australian post-secondary education system.
The bill also gives the secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Employment the power to determine that certain students, due to having more than one Commonwealth higher education support student number, have exceeded the HELP loans limit and to allow these students to repay the resulting excess debt amounts through the taxation system. The bill also extends the Unique Student Identifier regime to all higher education students by requiring students commencing from 1 January 2021 and all students commencing from 1 January 2023 to have a USI in order to be eligible for the Commonwealth assistance. Finally, the bill includes a range of measures that are technical in nature.
But what the bill doesn't do is identify some of the systemic problems that we have identified and that the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, has highlighted today. The coalition government's diminishing of the quality of Australia's world-class higher and vocational education system should be condemned. As I've said, they've cut billions from universities by recapping undergraduate places and have slashed research funding. Since the coalition government came to power some seven years ago they've also cut TAFE and training budgets.
I know that in my home state of Queensland this has had some dire consequences, coupled with the fact that, unfortunately, between the years of 2012 and 2015, in the failed coalition government of the Newman experiment, which was a disaster for vocational education in Queensland, we saw everything from the potential shutting down of campuses to a number of TAFEs across the state being gutted by cuts in funding. But one of the saddest parts of that era, under the conservative government in Queensland, and which we're still rebuilding some five years later, was the frontline workers who were dismissed.
The Newman government came to power promising that no worker's job would be under a cloud or a threat, and yet one of the first actions they undertook was to sack TAFE teachers. I remember a number of local residents in my own community at the time, when I was serving as a Brisbane City counsellor, coming to me and saying: 'We cannot believe we've lost our jobs. All we want to do is help—particularly, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and people from diverse backgrounds—to get into TAFE and secure long-term employment.' Thankfully, a number of those state measures have been reversed, and I pay credit to the Palaszczuk government, and particularly to the Minister for Skills and Training Development, the Hon. Shannon Fentiman. She has made it her mission, as the minister for TAFE, to really inject the lifeblood back into our TAFE sector in Queensland. In my own electorate, just down the road from where I live, we have some fantastic TAFE facilities located in Inala. I've often visited those facilities and have remarked on the level of commitment by the educators there, and also their enthusiasm and energy, that students—many from non-English-speaking backgrounds—are benefiting from in our world-class TAFE system in Queensland.
But it shouldn't just be left to one government to deliver the heavy workload. It should be a national approach from a Commonwealth government which really invests in TAFE and vocational education and training. One of the saddest parts of what I want to put on record today is the number of apprentices in the Oxley electorate, which has collapsed since the government took power. There are 1,707 fewer apprentices in the Oxley electorate now as a result of this government's lack of investment in higher education and vocational education and training. That's a 47 per cent drop—that's a huge drop! As the member for Oxley I should be here celebrating and acknowledging an increase, and I think that any fair-minded person in this chamber would want to see the number of apprentices increasing. Do you know what? I'd just be happy if it stayed the same, if we just kept up with growth. But instead we've seen a fall of 1,707 apprentices.
In my earlier remarks, I said that I represent fast-growing suburbs, and it is fantastic to see infrastructure—led primarily by the state government—out through the Springfield and Springfield Lakes corridor under the leadership of the Springfield City Group, who are doing a fantastic job in providing some of that infrastructure. But they can't do it alone; they have to have a partnership with a Commonwealth government that's really interested in investing in training and infrastructure. I know, from visiting a whole range of businesses in that corridor—everything from manufacturing, food processing and new emerging microbusinesses all throughout the Wacol, Richlands and Carole Park industrial estates—how hard those businesses are working, particularly under difficult circumstances with COVID-19. But when I've met with them—and I was delighted to have the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, accompany me to a local business just before the COVID-19 crisis really kicked in—I've heard firsthand about what those businesses need. There's everything, including giving them their infrastructure needs to get their product around the south-east. The one thing that they kept telling us over and over—and continue to keep lobbying me on—is that they need support for trainees and apprentices.
A couple of weeks ago we heard the Prime Minister reveal at his Press Club speech that he had woken from his slumber and realised that we had a skills crisis in this country. You would think that, after seven years, this government would not take it lightly, but there we have it. We heard that this was a priority for the government. I don't know why it took them seven years to work that out.
We on this side of the chamber understand and have always understood that TAFE provides a critical role to the public by providing value through skills, apprenticeships and hard work, particularly through the passionate work of our hardworking TAFE teachers. Unless this government takes this seriously, we could potentially lose a generation of traineeships and employees. So my plea to the government today is this: start taking the sector of vocational education and training more seriously in this country. We know that we are desperate for more apprentices. We know that the businesses—and I speak from a lot of experience of engagement with businesses and the chambers of commerce in my area—are crying out for leadership in this area.
But this bill also, in the second reading amendment, describes the lack of funding for the university sector. I'm really pleased that I have a lot to do with the University of Southern Queensland in the Springfield area, and I pay tribute to the vice-chancellor there, Geraldine Mackenzie, who is an outstanding leader that I know a number of members on both sides of the House respect. She and the university have a vision that that campus, alongside the Ipswich and Toowoomba campuses, will become world leaders. They are doing fantastic work in the area of aerospace and a whole range of telecommunications and communications on that campus, but they are desperate for this government to ensure that more support is given to our university sector. This is even before we get into the issue of support for students who call our country home while they do their studies.
I spoke in the House twice last week about the appalling way the Morrison government has treated foreign students, particularly our international students, that are really struggling under COVID. I've met with church groups—in particular, the Riverlife Baptist Church located at Seventeen Mile Rocks in my electorate—who are filling the gap that the government should be filling. A number of these students who are either studying at university or are doing further education have just been completely cut off. They're unable to leave Australia and return home due to international restrictions or they've yet to complete their studies. They're, of course, unable to have any support through JobKeeper or jobseeker. The industries where they were working part time have collapsed and are not back on their feet, so they've been literally left in limbo. It's not because the government could do something about it; they have chosen, deliberately, not to do something about it. I stand here today to condemn the government for its lack of support for international students at our campuses across the community. It is not good enough. We as a nation have to remember that many are our neighbours that need our friendship and support.
The university sector is struggling thanks to this government who won't allow the universities to access JobKeeper. They are struggling, and we know a lot more has to happen. Today's bill is a very small step, but I'm here to tell the government that I will continue to hold them to account to make sure that our university and higher education system get a fair go under this government.