Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP opposes the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020

1 September, 2020


The purpose of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 is to implement the government's job-ready graduates program and make other amendments to the higher education support package in Australia. The measures contained in this bill seek to directly intervene in the Australian education market to incentivise students to study the degrees that this government and minister believe will be the jobs of the future.

This legislation restructures the higher education support scheme to allocate more funds to degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths at the expense of arts, commerce, communications and law degrees. Whilst in the past I have called for the government to do more to support STEM students and I continue to do so, it should not be at the expense of humanities and other subjects.

I'd like to acknowledge the workers of the university sector, who are struggling at this time. The government supported university staff are ineligible for JobKeeper, and many are losing their jobs. I continue to call on the government to develop a tailored package for this sector that is seeing many, many jobs being lost.

The minister announced this legislation in June, and an exposure draft was provided to the public on 12 August and open for just five days of consultation. This is not good governance, and this is not proper consultation. Each of the university peak bodies made submissions in the consultation phase highlighting the weakness of this approach. Despite a variety of views from the university sector with regard to the merit of this legislation—I should note that they're especially tailored around the locations of universities and in particular whether they are regional universities set to benefit from the legislation—they are united in their calls for further consultation through the referral of this bill to the Senate committee on employment and education. I strongly support this referral, and that has been a call heard loudly from the electorate as well.

There are a number of areas where this legislation could be improved to make it more equitable, and I would urge the government to, rather than rushing and doing the job badly, do it well. In particular, there's one area that does beg the question of why it's included because it really has nothing to do with job-ready graduate packages—that is, the student progression provisions; the 50 per cent completion rule. That has brought quite a bit of concern to many students. The bill removes the eligibility for all student loans and prohibits universities from enrolling a student as a Commonwealth supported student if in a bachelor or higher qualification the student has undertaken eight or more units and not successfully completed at least 50 per cent of them and in any other case where the student has undertaken four or more units and not successfully completed at least 50 per cent of them. While I agree that there is an issue with non-completion of degrees and bad debts being incurred by the government, this provision is too narrow and punitive and should be removed, and that is supported by the university sector. It does not allow for any discretion or consideration of the circumstances which may have led to a student having such difficulty in completing or passing their subjects.

The bulk of the feedback from my electorate concerns the impacts of this legislation on the humanities and students studying those degrees that will be disadvantaged. The government is directly intervening in the market to push new students towards courses in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM subjects—by redirecting funding so that a greater share goes to what are alleged to be job-ready courses while arts and law degrees, for example, become more expensive. In my meeting with the minister and his staff, he pointed me to the evidence that the sectors with the highest rates of job growth were professional, scientific and technical services; health and social assistance; and education and training. However, the data presented said little of the skills required to support the jobs in those industries. Many in those industries have said they also require graduates with arts, commerce and STEM backgrounds. There's an artificial manipulation here of the jobs market. I support the focus on STEM, but it should not be at the expense of arts, commerce and law degrees.

What you seek to achieve from tertiary education and university study is so important. It is about critical thinking, innovation, communication and creativity. These are essential components of the future of our economy and our society. These skills are fostered by degrees that will now be more expensive for students and potentially out of reach. People who have these skills will be essential to making the STEM economy a reality in Australia. The courses that have seen the greatest funding cuts have the breadth that enables young students to explore the full range of possibilities for future employment before narrowing down into a career choice.

As well, universities are not job factories. There is a role for encouraging diversity of thought, conduct of research and reflection on history. That will now be discouraged as a result of this policy. The changes will have a greater impact on the decisions of people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as price signals make a greater difference to this cohort. This is disincentivising students from studying the arts. It will decrease the diversity of students in those degrees, leading to a weaker outcome for Australian universities, our people and, ultimately, Australian society.

Because the biggest impact will be on our youth, you can't touch on this without taking into account the mental health situation and the dire impact that this could have. The mental health of young people has to be a key consideration of this government. These changes may further damage the health of our young people because this is creating uncertainty about their direction of study. The latest study to come out of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney predicts—and these are frightening statistics—that, over the next five years, the economic impact of COVID-19 will result in a 30 per cent increase in suicides by 15- to 24-year-olds. As a mother of teenagers, these statistics terrify me. As a lawmaker, they challenge me, and they should challenge everyone in this place. I've spoken with 24 youth ambassadors representing the schools across my electorate. Mental health is the No. 1 concern for all of them. Exam stress and HSC rankings already weigh on their minds. They have the fees for the degrees they've already chosen. They've already committed to their pathway of study. They are in the final stretch of their secondary education journey. They now have to face a potential increase, by over 110 per cent overnight, to their chosen course of study. This will dramatically increase the level of stress on these young people.

The university peak bodies are conflicted in their support for this legislation, because, on one hand, it locks in the indexation of funding which has been frozen since 2017, which they so desperately need, but, on the other hand, they will receive less funds overall per student accepted. In relation to more places, the changes proposed by the government are budget neutral, so the government are using the existing budget to fund more university places, which effectively reduces the government contribution to degrees from 58 per cent to 48 per cent per degree. Consequently, student contributions will need to increase proportionately, from 42 per cent to 52 per cent.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia's leading universities, have estimated that, in 2021, their per-student funding, through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, will decrease by five per cent, and total per-student funding, incorporating the student contribution amount, will reduce by six per cent. It would be naive for the government to not appreciate that this is going to have to come from somewhere. This is going to affect the quality of education for domestic students, it is at odds with the government's supposed post-COVID needs and it is drafted without the full appreciation of the likely consequences.

The current draft legislation asks that more is done, with less support, at a time when, collectively, the university sector is facing a significant revenue downgrade in 2021 and 2022 due to border closures and reduced numbers of international students. It seems at odds with what governments will require the universities to achieve for the nation post COVID. For example, in relation to the pressure on the universities, under the old system a science degree would have received $28,958 in combined student and government funding. In the new system the same degree received $24,200, creating a shortfall of $4,758 per student. STEM courses are also more expensive to provide and teach. They rely on more university resources than arts or law degrees but universities are expected to meet these costs. It's insufficient to meet expected demand for university places across the board at this time. The innovative research universities have called for a minimum of 10,000 additional places, on top of the increase captured by this legislation, to really meet demand in terms of jobs. They argue it does not cater for the increased demand due to the recession caused by COVID-19 and increased demand from older students and the new cohort of young people.

I encourage the government to refer this bill to the committee for further refinement. I thank the minister for the briefing and for understanding and getting more information as to the basis for the legislation, but I encourage the government to take up the following four actions. The implementation should be delayed by at least two years to accommodate the current cohort of year 11 and 12 students who have already chosen their subjects. To qualify for STEM courses, students need to have studied relevant prerequisites during high school, none of which are compulsory under the current curriculum. To gain entry to STEM courses students will be forced to take bridging courses, adding further financial burden, anxiety and uncertainty for school leavers. The existing fee structure for existing students wishing to pursue further study in their field should be grandfathered. They are already committed to their pathway.

Similar to the previous amendment, the legislation should not disincentivise students wishing to pursue further study in line with their current degree. There also needs to be an additional budget allocation to fund the Industry Linkage Fund and the Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund. The bill provides for demand-driven funding for eligible Indigenous people but the definition restricts Indigenous persons to those who live in regional and remote areas. In a situation where over a third of Indigenous persons do not live in regional or remote areas and a high priority needs to be given to reducing the gap in further educational attainment for all Indigenous persons, I would encourage and urge the minister to extend the definition of an eligible Indigenous person in the bill. It should be broadened to include all Indigenous persons. This would better align the bill with the government's recently announced approach to Closing the Gap and the revised further education target.

I personally have had the privilege to study both a bachelor of arts in media and communications and a law degree. The opportunity to study what I was interested in has enabled me to be here to represent the people of Warringah, so I cannot in all conscience endorse legislation that will make it more difficult for others to have the same opportunities that I have had. I don't support this legislation, and I strongly support the government to refer the legislation to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee.