Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022

November 08, 2022

Education is the cornerstone when it comes to building a better life. Equity in education is vital to make sure all Australians have the same opportunities. In an egalitarian nation, education should not be about the haves and the have-nots; education should be for everyone. It is the great transformational social policy. It is one of the reasons I became a teacher many years ago, with 11 years of teaching English, geography, history—yes, it is a noble profession—and that is why the Albanese government is removing the discount for people who can pay their HECS-HELP fees up front. This initiative amends provisions to remove the 10 per cent discount on upfront payments made by HECS-HELP students. This will ensure that all students pay the same amount for the same courses, regardless of their ability or their parents's ability to pay up front. This is a commitment that the government took to the last election and we are now delivering on our promise. It is a pretty simple electoral contract that we have: we make a promise, we take it to the election and then in government we carry it out.

This upfront discount was reintroduced by Prime Minister Morrison on 1 January 2021, not that long ago. It allowed students who have the financial capacity to pay up front for all part of their contribution to get that discount. I'm not sure how this is fair or equitable to differentiate the amount students pay for their course, based on how much money they or their parents have. So, in essence, this meant that someone who was fortunate enough to have the financial support from a parent, grandparent or family member, gets a financial head start compared to someone who doesn't. The removal of this unfair discount will promote equality so students will pay the same amount for the same degree—equal education for all.

With the removal of the discount set to take effect on 1 January next year, it's projected to save $144 million over the forward estimates. These savings will help to fund the extra 20,000 new university places that the Albanese government announced that it will make available. It was pleasing to hear Minister Clare state that these extra 20,000 university places have been allocated to support students who are currently underrepresented in our universities. I remind you about who those are: students from poorer families, students from regional Australia, First Nations students, Australians with a disability and students who are the first in their family to ever set foot in a university.

Could I give a bit of a shout-out to the people from my year 12 class from 40 years ago, in 1982. It doesn't seem that long ago, but it was 40 years ago. We're actually getting together at the end of this month to celebrate our class. I came from the little country town of St George, where not many people did go to university. If we can give that little bit of a boost to kids in the bush, I know it's something that many in the National Party would appreciate. I will repeat again that education is the cornerstone of building a better life. It certainly gave me many opportunities in life. I look forward to finding out what the people from St George State High School who graduated in 1982 are getting up to in their life when we catch up at the Aussie hotel later on this month. Education should be available to every Australian, no matter their financial position or their postcode.

Another important part of this amendment is the extension of FEE-HELP loan fee exemptions. The FEE-HELP loan fee was initially waived as a COVID-19 relief measure. That started in April 2020 and ceased on 31 December last year. The Albanese government understands that there are still plenty of students who weren't able to work to support their study, and this extension of the exemption until 31 December this year will help them out greatly. This extension is expected to help around 30,000 undergraduate students who access FEE-HELP to continue their studies. The loan fee exemption will be automatically applied for student loans submitted by a provider to the department after the passage of this legislation. Loans made for units of study with census dates between 1 January this year and the commencement of the measure will be adjusted accordingly. Whilst we, as a rule, are against retrospectivity, on this occasion it's a good thing.

Another major addition to this bill allows students undertaking microcredential courses, as part of the Australian government's microcredential pilot, to be eligible for FEE-HELP. Microcredentialing is a modern educational trend that's perfect for today, with short, sharp courses fast-skilling the workers that businesses need right now. With the current worker shortages in basically every industry, in every region, in every street and in every town in Australia right now, microcredential courses allow people who may work broadly in a particular industry to quickly attain new skills to meet demands or to get that promotion. It is also great for people looking to re-enter the workforce in a new industry to gain the relevant skills to do so.

What this bill will do is amend the provisions of the Higher Education Support Act that relate to FEE-HELP eligibility to allow these microcredentialing students to be eligible for FEE-HELP. The larger microcredential pilot program encourages universities to deliver and develop new courses to help build a more highly skilled workforce through more flexible and industry focused models of higher education.

We want to have a robust and skilled workforce of Australians ready to engage in work in new industries and industries of the future. This financial assistance through FEE-HELP will help us build it through microcredential courses.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 16:43 to 16:5 7

Mr PERRETT: Deputy Speaker Chesters, long time no see. An additional component of this amendment before the chamber is the better use of unique student identifiers, or USIs, within the tertiary education sector. Since 2021 higher education students have been required to have a USI to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance; however, there was not a requirement for students to provide their USI to their higher education provider or the secretary of the Department of Education, and this has meant that providers, who are required to report students' USIs to the department, have had difficulties complying with the reporting requirements, as they have experienced difficulties in actually collecting that data from their students. This of course has impacted the broader policy aim of the USI to be used as a student identifier right across the tertiary education sector.

This amendment addresses this issue directly by clearly linking the student's provision of a valid USI for eligibility to Commonwealth assistance with a requirement to provide this to the provider or the department. This may simply be a technical change, but it's a change that will make life much easier for the tertiary education sector, and it needs all the help it can get at the moment. This is a change requested by higher education providers and this change was drafted after feedback was received by the department. This is an excellent example of the Albanese government listening to and working with stakeholders to achieve good outcomes for everyone.

This amendment will also introduce consistency across the citizenship and residency requirements for New Zealand citizens accessing Commonwealth assistance. It will introduce the requirement for New Zealand citizens to be resident in Australia for the duration of the unit of study to be eligible for HECS-HELP assistance and FEE-HELP assistance for that unit. Right now, under existing arrangements, New Zealand students are able to undertake study outside of Australia while accessing our FEE-HELP scheme. This flies contrary to the policy intention, which is that New Zealand citizens who want to access Commonwealth assistance should be residents of Australia while studying.

As a government, we also understand that sometimes life throws up some challenging circumstances for everyone, and students aren't immune to the challenges of day-to-day life. That's why this amendment provides exclusions for residency requirements for the entirety of a study unit, where a student had intended to reside in Australia but, through something like COVID, where travel restrictions applied, they weren't resident—so we don't want to punish them, basically, for wanting to study in Australia. Current students will not be affected by this change, as this measure will apply only to students seeking Commonwealth assistance in relation to a unit of study with a census date on or after 1 January next year.

The bill also makes other amendments to the Higher Education Support Act to clarify and improve its operation. It clarifies arrangements about enabling courses. Enabling courses help prepare students for higher education study, like a bachelor's degree. The measures in this bill clarify that these enabling courses will not count towards a student's lifetime limit of Commonwealth support.

Another minor and technical change contained in the bill is to improve the operation of the Higher Education Support Act, clarifying provisions dealing with higher education providers' obligations to repay the Commonwealth in certain situations. There are also minor and technical amendments being made to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act, the TEQSA Act. These changes deal with the compliance with the tuition protection requirements as a condition of registration for certain registered higher education providers. The providers affected are those which are subject to part 5A of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act. As with the changes to the unique student identifier, TEQSA were consulted about this change and are supportive of the amendments before the chamber.

Returning to the core of this bill: it's about meeting the human right to have equity of access to education. It recognises the important personal, societal, economic and intellectual benefits of education and how this access helps change lives.

The removal of the 10 per cent discount for paying upfront levels the playing field for many Australians who simply can't afford to pay all or some of their tuition upfront. It just isn't right to, in essence, charge someone more for the same opportunities simply because they lack the financial resources to pay upfront or don't have wealthy-enough parents. Again, I want to thank education minister Clare for making sure the savings from this change will go to assist more First Nations people, people with a disability, students from poorer families and students from regional Australia—from country towns like St George—who will have the opportunity to access tertiary education. I recommend the bill to the House.