Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Higher Education Support Amendment

4 September 2023

I rise in support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. I commend the minister for commissioning the important work of the Australian University Accord. This work, being led by Professor Mary O'Kane and is tasked with looking at the higher education wholistically to set Australia up for the future with the skills and knowledge we need to continue to grow our economy and capitalise on the changing nature of work.

The transition to a green economy will require a range of new tertiary skills and trades. We're also witnessing the emergence of artificial intelligence and the world is making progress towards quantum computering. All these changes will require new skills and knowledge sets and we need to ensure our higher education system is equipping future generations with the skills and wherewithal to capitalise on opportunities. In Warringah, in the next five years, some 90 per cent of jobs will demand tertiary education yet we are seeing a decrease in completion of bachelor degrees to the lowest level since 2014 and a worsening skilled worker shortage looms. I know businesses in Warringah and around the country are already feeling the shortage of skilled workers and I have advocated previously for more aggressive policies to support innovation in this country.

To meet Australia's needs and create the future we want for our society, our education system needs to be equitable, especially for marginalised groups. 36 per cent of my electorate of Warringah have a bachelor degree. 10 per cent more than the national average. I acknowledge that, because there is opportunity and access. We need to ensure that higher education is more accessible regardless of socioeconomic or geographic location. It's a national shame, as stated by the current Minister for the Government Services, that an Indigenous teenager is more likely to go to jail than university, or finish, even finish High School. It really highlights the inequities we still have in the country.

This interim report is important. The Universities Accord's interim report recommends initial tweaks to Australia's higher education system to align with national needs. This bill addresses two of the five recommendations from the University Accord Interim Report, specifically to cease the 50 per cent pass rule which disproportionately disadvantages students from equity backgrounds and really was acting as a deterrent for young people completing and getting into their tertiary studies and expanding eligibility to all First Nations students including those in metropolitan areas like Warringah, not just those in regional communities, because it is important we up the percentage of completion when it comes to tertiary education. These two provisions are important to restore equality and enhance accessibility of higher education. The 50% pass rule means that - meant - we are hopefully getting rid of it - any student who fails to pass at least 50 per cent of their subject in the year of study would be denied the ability to study further. It's just - these kind of one-size-rules like that, just don't work. They don't take into account the circumstances students might find themselves in and need to address. It is an incredibly punitive measure that disadvantages those that can least afford it. It expels people from university without the opportunity to course correct and puts no incentive on the universities to assist students through those early years which might be difficult. I strongly opposed it when implemented under the previous government, and so I strongly support the repeal of that provision.

The second provision introduced aims to increase the access of Indigenous students to higher education. In light of the debate and the Closing The Gap outcomes, it is incredibly important for this amendment to pass. The practical impact is to extend the guaranteed funding for students in remote and regional areas to also students in metropolitan areas. It will assist in reaching the ambitious Closing The Gap report target of 70 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young adults with a tertiary education by 2031. Access to higher education has many positive flow on effects on broader First Nations communities as well as individuals, embedding generational accessibility to tertiary education.

There are recommendations from the report that aren't included in the bill. So I  call the government to implement the additional recommendations of the interim report including those addressing safety on campuses, particularly for women, and particularly in this place where we have had a debate, we have seen where we don't have safe enough practices what the outcome is. It is incredibly important that universities very urgently engage with this problem. I previously spoken about the scourge of sexual harassment and violence on university campuses and in workplaces around the country, and the need to urgently intervene with targeted programs to improve safety on campus.

It is incredibly important to remember that tertiary education at university level is where these young people are starting their independent adult journey and the statistics of the occurrence of sexual harassment, violence, or assaults on university campuses is just unacceptable. These statistics are devastating. Some 85,000 students have experienced sexual assault on campuses since 2017. 85,000. I mean, as a parent, that is just staggering. These are our children that we sent to universities in the hope that they will learn and develop the skills to be the leaders of tomorrow and so many of them are having such a negative experience. So I welcome the government's commitment to address the issue and willingness to engage with those with lived experiences such as the STOP campaign and Fair Agenda. But I should note that it took young people coming into this place and meeting with so many of us, raising it on social media to pressure the minister to meet with them, to include them in this process. They still report to me a process though where universities are not facilitating the programs they're trying to put forward, not making rooms available, putting obstacles in the way of these very good programs that are student led, for students, to keep them safe.

I urge universities to engage proactively in the process and take action on the ground now. Don't wait. It is already gone on for too long. Facilitate prevention programs and recovery programs for those already impacted. The interim report also recommends providing funding certainty through extension of the higher education continuing guarantee to 2024 and 2025. We need to look at funding for the sector to ensure that it is sustainable and adequately supported by government to ensure that we don't end up with a US style education debt burden for future generations.

The recent Intergenerational Report shows this generation has a huge burden on its shoulders. We will be the generation retired when they will be expected to carry the load and they will be burdened by massive student debts. I recently wrote to the Minister for Education expressing my concern about the sudden spike in HECS debt due to the high rate of inflation this year. HECS debts were indexed to 7.1 per cent. That is a huge increase in burden for many people and I fear numbers like that will both add to the anxiety for those who have already accumulated debts and deter others from entering university. I believe that indexation should be linked either to the wage price index as it is in the United Kingdom, or to the lower CPI, or the official cash rate. We must ensure that we are not burdening students with unrealistic interest rate hikes on their HECS debts. That way we will ensure that student debts rise incrementally rather than astronomically if inflation gets out of hand once again. The students with debts should not be paying the price for poor government control from the past government in allowing inflation that really gets out of hand.

In conclusion, I welcome the initial moves and commit to the full implementation of the remaining recommendations of the interim report. I look forward to the outcomes of the final report and trust that it will address two key areas - the long-term funding arrangements for universities and indexation, and the balance of funding allocated by government to humanities degrees as opposed to STEM. As somebody who has studied humanities degrees, I strongly opposed and objected to the previous government's attempts to disadvantage some students over others. We need all areas of tertiary education to advance a society and to be able to develop young people with the skills to think, and to come up with solutions. Picking areas that you want to support over others is not the way to guarantee a strong and productive Australia of the future.

The interim report begins with a mission statement for higher education. Higher education's mission is to create a better future possible for Australia. Let's work with the sector and future students to ensure that mission is achieved. We need to ensure we hear the voices of young people a lot more in this place. We need to make sure the Education Minister is hearing the voices of young people, because the decisions being made by government are going to impact the future of those young people and we have a number of big challenges ahead, but we also have amazing opportunities. As a parent of a number of students at university myself I know what an important opportunity this is and it is a privilege to be able to study for qualifications for jobs. We need to ensure it is a safe environment. That should be the absolute first and absolute necessity that the university sector needs to be a safe sector. And it should be forward thinking. It needs to adjust the future challenges. I look forward to future discussions with the minister to ensure we keep progressing this area.