Education Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021

May 13, 2021

I rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Bill 2021, and to point out that Labor supports this bill. It is largely administrative in nature, as mentioned by the member for Forde. It's making some small changes that will fix some recognised issues. These small changes are welcome, and I repeat that Labor does not oppose these minor measures.

However, this bill is typical of the attitude that the Morrison government have brought to education. They tinker around the edges without doing anything necessary to achieve lasting beneficial change for students. Fundamentally, the Liberal and National parties see education as entrenching privilege, rather than as the transformative opportunity that education is. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that this government is still not willing to support the education sector, as we saw in that brutal budget for universities on Tuesday night. More than 10 pieces of education legislation have been introduced by the Morrison government, but their main achievements have been to make students pay more overall for their education as well as managing to lock thousands out of university degrees.

The Morrison budget this week almost completely overlooked the education sector. Our universities educate more than one million Australians and employ more than 100,000 Australians, but, rather than support an industry that has been our third-largest export sector, they are cutting funding at a time when universities need it the most. Page 170 of Budget Paper No. 1 clearly says that university funding will decrease by 9.3 per cent in real terms from 2021-22 to 2024-25. That's $1 ripped out of every $10 for our Australian universities. Think of all the damage that will do to our communities, particularly those bush communities that rely so much on their universities.

Last year, in the face of international students being locked out of studying in Australia, the government provided extra funding for research. It would have made a lot of sense for that extra funding to be continued, particularly when the budget revealed that borders are likely to remain shut until mid-2022.

But the latest Morrison-Frydenberg budget had nothing for universities. The ANU vice-chancellor, Brian Schmidt, is quoted in the papers today as saying:

I am worried that we are going to lose huge capacity in the research sector that will take decades to recover.

Professor Duncan Ivison, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sydney is reported as saying:

My biggest concern is just the long-term viability of research endeavours as a sector because once it goes it's very hard to get back. You can't just turn research on and off like a tap.

Our researchers have never been more important than they were last year during the pandemic. Researchers at the University of Queensland continue their important work in the fight against COVID-19. I particularly mention the work that they're doing on rockets. The space industry will be another important sector for us. I was there last week as part of a committee, and we saw some incredible work. The University of Queensland is currently calling for volunteers who have recovered from COVID-19 to help unravel why people respond so differently to the virus. Without important research like this, continuing our fight against this deadly virus, these things will take longer and they'll be harder to carry out.

Now, we all know that quarantine is clearly a federal responsibility. It says so in our Constitution. The Morrison government has failed in its responsibility to set up successful quarantine locations in Australia for arrivals during this pandemic. There are over 9,000 Australians stuck in India right now who have been threatened with jail if they even try to come to the place they call home: Australia. There are tens of thousands more Australians in other parts of the world wanting to come home but unable to do so. The Prime Minister did say everyone would be home by Christmas, but I must admit I thought it was last Christmas, not a Christmas in the future to be determined. This has been a failure on part of the Morrison government.

For the international education sector, Australia's third-biggest export industry, the failure to set up safe quarantine facilities has been a disaster. International students are an incredibly successful diplomatic achievement for Australia. They go home talking about the country that educated them. Sending students out into the world and back to their home countries is something that every trade minister would be aware of, particularly with our great trading partner China. They go with a greater understanding of Australia and its people, and that all came through the international student sector. Professor Michael Wesley, the deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne is reported in the Financial Review today as saying that the federal government should be responsible for getting international students back in the country, as it has responsibility for university funding and policy. He said:

We have clear evidence that students are diverting to the UK and Canada, in particular, but also that demand for US-based education is going up.

These are our competitors taking our third-biggest export industry. The situation is so dire that it is reported today that New South Wales has vowed to defy Canberra and allow significant cohorts of foreign students to return almost immediately. It was reported that the New South Wales Treasurer is seeking to minimise the damage coronavirus is inflicting on the state's $14.6 billion international education industry by quarantining international students in purpose-built student accommodation. The state is stepping into the space created by the federal government, despite the constitutional responsibilities clearly resting with the Prime Minister.

New research from the Mitchell Institute reported this morning has found that a third academic year of no international students would cost Australia about $20 billion a year. I'm sure the idea of that trade loss would make the member for Brand weep. That is half of the prepandemic value of the sector. This isn't just a problem for universities. The economic value of international students is far wider than the university sector. They obviously contribute in many other ways, in terms of accommodation and the part-time work that they do. Most of the economic value of international students comes from students spending in the wider economy and from their parents coming to do tourism with them. They go to Cairns and places in other parts of Australia where they might not necessarily be studying but where they spend those travel dollars, making us stronger.

The Morrison budget does nothing to help young Australians improve their educational outcomes and options. The Morrison government has already made it harder and more expensive overall for Australians to go to university. I don't want Australia to become more like the United States of America, where kids are educated but end up with a lifetime of crippling debt.

For a basic degree, young Australians will end up with a debt of around $60,000. How can they ever save a deposit for a house with that debt before they even have a job? Forty per cent of students have had their uni fees more than doubled. Students at university right now are paying more than double what they would have paid but for the Morrison government hiking fees last year. The Morrison government is ramping up student debt and ripping away the lifelong dreams of Australian students.

Already, more than 17,000 jobs at universities have been lost because of the Morrison government changing the rules three times to stop universities accessing JobKeeper. They're groundkeepers, academics, cleaners librarians et cetera. There are all sorts of people in university communities. These jobs keep universities up and running, and now they're gone. Regional universities in particular have been devastated, including campuses being closed in Central Queensland.

I can't understand why the Prime Minister did not support workers at these universities. I don't know what happened to him when he was studying that he has had such a deep hatred of universities since he's been Treasurer and Prime Minister. I don't know what happened to him, but I really think he should see a counsellor rather than taking revenge on universities, our third biggest export industry. He was obviously comfortable to see thousands of livelihoods destroyed when he could have prevented these job losses. The Morrison government's record on education is abysmal, and budget 2021 did nothing to improve that record. In fact, it made it worse.