House of Representatives

Education Legislation Amendment (2019 Measures No. 1) Bill 2019

Second Reading Speech


I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that, under the Coalition Government, Australia's higher education system is failing kids, workers and businesses, as demonstrated by:

falling entrance marks for teaching degrees;
the Government leaving behind our regions;
a skills crisis where 150,000 apprentices and trainees have been lost and more than $3 billion has been cut from TAFE and training; and
restricted access to university, with 200,000 Australians locked out of university, especially in the suburbs and the regions".

Labor won't be opposing the content of this bill. It provides some sensible measures that make it a bit easier for students to take up aviation courses, making sure that those students are not saddled with unreasonable debts. It is very expensive to undertake an aviation course; the funding previously did not reflect that. We support the government's decision to allow students to receive better support for aviation courses.

We also support the measure that will allow student teachers' HELP debts to be reduced or even completely waived if they move to a very remote school. We won't oppose measures that are aimed at addressing the critical shortage of teachers in our remote communities. I'd like to particularly draw attention to the fact that this bill also covers teachers going into early childhood settings, going into kindergartens or early childhood education and care settings. We are very supportive of that. We really want kids who are growing up in remote communities to get the very best start in life, and having qualified teachers, including in early childhood education and care settings, is a really important part of that.

Aside from describing these measures that we are supportive of, I think it's important to say that, more broadly, this government has really let down young Australians when it comes to education. The consequences are serious for young people who are not getting the best education, which they really deserve. It's also very important for us as a nation to continue to invest in high-quality education. We've seen productivity go backwards in this country in recent years. The best and most important investment we can make in continuing to improve productivity in our country, given how quickly our world is changing and how quickly the world of work is changing, is in our young people. Invest in people throughout their working lives to make sure that they have an education that helps them get a job, do that job well and continue to improve in their work. We've seen so many examples in recent times of a government that's letting us down when it comes to this type of investment.

We are still very concerned, of course, that there is no guarantee that funding for preschool will continue beyond 2020. Certainly it was Labor's intention, had we won office, not just to confirm that preschool funding for four-year-olds would be universally available permanently but also to extend that to universal funding for three-year-olds, to make sure that they had access to preschool. Countries around the world are investing more in early childhood education and care, because we know that when we give kids a great start in life it follows them through their lives. It means that they are more successful when they start school and it means they are more successful in the workforce. It's a great advantage for those children, but it's also a great advantage for us as a nation. It's a really important way that we can reduce the disparities in our nation and make sure that we continue to be a wealthy, successful nation globally.

We've seen this government's determination to stick with its $14 billion of cuts for public schools. We've had different iterations of school funding from this government. We had, when Joe Hockey was the Treasurer and under Prime Minister Abbott, an effort to cut $30 billion from schools. That was softened a little bit under Prime Minister Abbott to a $22 billion dollar cut from schools. When Scott Morrison became the Prime Minister we saw that the cut was reduced to hitting only public schools. Of course Labor supported the restoration of funding to Catholic and independent schools. We had been standing side-by-side with them in their fight for fair funding. But how can it possibly be okay that these cuts now fall entirely on public schools? Our public schools right around the nation will miss out on more than $14 billion in funding because of the decisions that this government has made.

When it comes to universities, 200,000 young people will miss out now because of the recapping of university places. We've seen the slashing of funding for research in universities and, most recently, we've been talking about a skills crisis. The Prime Minister has been saying that he wants young people to study a trade; I agree. I would be so happy if my kids came home and told me they wanted to study a trade. My dad was a plumber. He liked to tell me that plumbers had saved more lives in the 20th century than doctors.

Mr Irons: Electrician.

Ms PLIBERSEK: Electrician, as the member opposite is saying. They're all great jobs. But to really give parents, teachers, career advisers and young people themselves the confidence to pursue vocational education, we need to invest in vocational education. After billions of dollars of cuts and close to a billion-dollar underspend, which I revealed yesterday, it's no wonder that people, when they are making a decision about what they're going to study and are looking at TAFE campuses around the country - with their facilities running down, campuses closing, being sold off by state governments and courses being cancelled - think twice about TAFE in that environment of uncertainty with fees going up because of the decisions of some state governments.

What you can say for certain is that education policy under those opposite in recent years has been letting down our young people and it's been letting down our businesses. We see skills shortages right across the economy. Businesses are struggling to find the skilled staff they need. They're telling us that; I'm not saying that. Businesses are telling us that they're finding it hard to find the skilled staff they need. Three-quarters of businesses have told us in one survey that they can't find the qualified staff they need. At the same time, we've got close to two million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. So we've got skills shortages, we've got unemployed Australians, we've got extraordinarily high numbers of people here on temporary skilled migration visas or other temporary work visas and we're cutting funding, not even spending the funding that's still allocated to fix that mismatch. It is so wrong that, in Australia today, skills shortages and high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, can coexist. We should never let those things coexist. We should be training Australians for the jobs that businesses tell us they need trained staff for. This, of course, is set in a time, in a context, with a background of very uncertain economic circumstances. Australia's economic growth is the slowest it's been since the global financial crisis. When Labor was in government we at one stage had the fastest- or the second-fastest-growing economy in the world. For quite some time we were the fastest or second-fastest growing economy in the world. When those opposite came to government, Australia was the eighth-fastest-growing economy in the world. We're now 20th on that list. Under those opposite, we've fallen from the eighth-fastest-growing economy in the world to the 20th-fastest-growing economy in the world.

Wages are stagnant. People are feeling it in their family budgets. We know that household debt has skyrocketed, living standards are going backwards, business investment is at its lowest level since the 1990s recession, productivity is not keeping up and we have dampened consumer and business confidence. When you combine all of these things, when you set underspending or cuts in education or failure in education against this backdrop, you see how critical it is for our economy, for our people, to get education properly on the move.

What's the plan to fix the failure that we see in our education system? What's the plan to stop our results in reading, writing, maths, science and computing from continuing to fall? What's the plan to attract more of our best and brightest into teaching? What's the plan to address the skills crises that we see right across the economy, the shortages that we see in every community around Australia? What's the plan to get young people who are unemployed or underemployed into the workforce? What's the plan to invest in our universities and make sure they're driving research and discovery and contributing to our national wealth? What's the plan from those opposite? There isn't one. So, while I say that the measures in this bill are inoffensive - they're fine - where is the plan to lift education standards in this country?

At a recent conference, the minister responsible for TAFE and training, Minister Cash, said, 'This government is about jobs, jobs, jobs.' Well, people are going to need all three of those jobs to make ends meet as we continue to see the lowest wages growth on record. We see more people than ever before working multiple jobs, including four or more jobs. I'm really concerned that our economy is heading to a time when people are working multiple, unskilled or low-skilled jobs just to make ends meet, and even with those four or more jobs they won't be able to have a decent standard of living for themselves and their family. Part of the reason we have to invest in skills is that we want people to get the skills they need as they leave school. We know that nine out of 10 jobs that will be created in coming years will need either a university or a TAFE qualification to do them. We know that at the moment there are more than five people competing for every entry-level job. We need to upskill people so that they can take on those more complex jobs that the modern economy is producing. We also need to continue to upskill and reskill people throughout their working lives. One of the reasons is that Australia should never become a low-wage, low-skills economy. By investing in TAFE and training and universities and schools we're not just investing in individuals and giving them the opportunity to make a decent living for themselves and their families. What we're guaranteeing is that our workforce will see increased productivity, they'll be better at their work, they'll be more innovative and they'll be discovering and inventing new ways of working, in a way that benefits us all. That's why we invest, as a community, in educating each of us, because the personal benefit is important, but the collective benefit for our economy is vital.

Instead of this investment, what we've seen from those opposite is cuts - $3 billion, as I said, has already been cut from TAFE and training. But yesterday I also described the underspend that we've seen, year after year, in the TAFE and training area. In the financial year 2014-15, there was a $138 million underspend; in financial year 2015-16, a $247 million underspend; in financial year 2016-17, a $118 million underspend; in financial year 2017-18, a $202 million underspend; and in financial year 2018-19, a $214 million underspend. That is a total of $919 million less spent on vocational education, apprenticeships and traineeships than those opposite had promised. We opposed the cuts. We thought the cuts were terrible. We made our case against the cuts.

But, on top of those cuts, we've seen those opposite underspend by close to $1 billion and then heard the minister say, in Senate estimates: 'Oh, it's demand-driven. If there's an underspend, it just means there's not demand in the economy.' How can we say there's no demand in the economy when we've got youth unemployment at close to one in four in some communities - certainly, one in five in many communities - and we've got skills shortages across our economy that are holding back our businesses? How can the minister possibly say there is no demand for this funding when those two things coexist: unemployment and skill shortages? What we know is that this government has failed to support our TAFE and training system, failed to make it attractive and failed to give people confidence that it's a good option for them. In doing that, they've let down Australians and they've let down Australian businesses. The sorts of programs that have been underfunded include apprentice incentives for business, support to help people finish apprenticeships and a fund designed to train Australians in areas of need. How can these programs have been underspent on when the need is so obviously there?

I think that, if the Prime Minister is serious about his claim that, as he says, he wants 'to really lift the status of vocational education in Australia', what he needs to do is to make sure that the programs that currently exist are actually meeting the needs of people who are seeking training and of employers, and he needs to restore some of the billions of dollars cut from this sector so that it is no longer treated as the poor cousin of our universities.

I was very proud to work with my friend former senator Doug Cameron in the lead-up to the last election to make sure that we were properly funding our TAFEs - two-thirds of Commonwealth funding going to public TAFE - and that we had a very substantial program for rebuilding our TAFE campuses, making sure that Commonwealth funded projects had at least one in 10 of their employees as apprentices. These are the sorts of measures that would actually make a difference in Australia.

Instead, what we have seen under those opposite is that Australia has lost more than 150,000 apprentices and trainees. So we've got skills shortages, we've got youth unemployment, and we've got 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees.

I've seen the difference that a great vocational education system can make. I have met people whose lives have been transformed by the opportunities that a TAFE education provides - a 43-year-old single mum who left school at 15 getting her first qualification and her entry into a job in early childhood education and care; or a refugee who is now a university law student because of the English language and tertiary preparation courses offered through TAFE. These things are life changing. We need to get our investment in TAFE right. We also need to get our investment in universities right.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman said:

Productivity isn't everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country's ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.

We and those opposite have very different ideas about how you improve productivity. One of the most effective ways that we can improve productivity is to continue to invest in the education of our workforce - in TAFE and in university. Our university sector has been a driver of so much economic growth in this country by educating students, obviously, but also by inventing and discovering things that will make Australia rich: new processes, new devices, new medicines, new medical breakthroughs, new scientific breakthroughs. It is such an important investment. In fact, both the OECD and Universities Australia have estimated that the real rate of return to the Australian economy from investing in tertiary education is more than 14 per cent. That represents the second-best return on investment in higher education of all the OECD nations. So we invest in education at a university level, but we get a return on that. In 2013 the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency found that every extra dollar invested in tertiary education would, on average, grow the economy by $26 within a decade. That's not a bad return, 26 bucks on one buck.

So many of us in this place are beneficiaries of the Whitlam government's opening-up of Australian universities to working-class people, and it's always Labor's intention and it's always our determination to ensure that that opportunity continues to be available based not on your parents' ability to pay but on your desire as a student to educate yourself, to work hard, to learn something and then to put it to good use for the community that you're part of. We want to make sure that a university education is never out of reach based on its cost.

After years of neglect under the previous Howard government, Labor almost doubled university spending during our time in office, from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We invested in magnificent new research facilities that upgraded our universities. Because of our policy under Julia Gillard, the uncapping of university places, we saw close to 220,000 extra students get the opportunity of a university education, including many, many who were the first in their family to get a university education. Financially disadvantaged student enrolments increased by 66 per cent, Indigenous undergraduate student enrolments increased by 105 per cent, enrolments of undergraduate students with a disability grew by 123 per cent and enrolments of students from regional and remote areas increased by 50 per cent. It shows how important it is, and what a difference it can make when we refuse to starve universities of the funding they need.

I want to follow up on the point about regional students: enrolments of students from regional and remote areas increased by 50 per cent when we were last in government. One of the things that I find most perplexing about those opposite, particularly the ones that sit at the bottom of the chamber 'U', the National Party members, is their preparedness to allow students from regional and remote areas to miss out on educational opportunities. Our needs based funding for schools would have benefited the electorates of National Party members much more than my electorate, for example. The needs based funding formula was great for remote, small, needy schools like those represented by National Party members. That's why the New South Wales Nationals MPs, part of the coalition government in New South Wales, were so keen on the original needs based funding formulae. I remember the former education minister in New South Wales, Adrian Piccoli, saying how good this funding was for regional and remote communities.

But it's not only schools. Those opposite, as well as starving small, regional, remote schools of funding, are underinvesting in regional universities. Just one tiny example: we had a plan for La Trobe University's Bendigo campus. If we'd been elected, you would have seen an extra thousand students, because of our uncapping of student places. It would have been great for the thousand students, who would have had the opportunity for an education that they're otherwise going to miss out on, but imagine what having an extra thousand students in Bendigo does for the local economy and jobs in the local area as well. Research has found that seven in 10 regional university graduates take up work outside of metropolitan areas once they've graduated, and those students reinvest more than $2 billion a year in those regional communities with university campuses. A Productivity Commission report tells us that rural, regional and remote students are significantly more likely to drop out, however, compared to their metropolitan peers. This is the point.

We need to open up opportunities for regional and remote students and then we need to support them on their journey through higher education. We need to take into account the difficulty of relocating and travelling significant distances or the loneliness and the difficulty of completing online study. We need to make sure those students have options available to them. The recent Napthine review is not bad. It told us that student places should be uncapped for regional and remote students. Yes - or you could go the whole way, back to an uncapped system where, if you're prepared to work hard and you have the ability, you can get a university education. We need to make sure that students right across Australia have the opportunity of getting a really good quality education. I'm never going to accept that a young person from Sydney's north shore is five times more likely to get a university education than someone from the Northern Territory. It's not because there are five times as many clever people there; this is about opportunity. Opportunity should be equally available to every single Australian.

I'll conclude with a few words on schools. Public schools educate 70 per cent of kids in rural, regional and remote areas. They educate the majority of kids in poorer families, children with a disability and Indigenous students - those for whom extra resources make the biggest difference. That is why it is so heartbreaking that, under the government's new school funding formula, all non-government schools will reach or exceed their fair funding level but nine in 10 public schools - 90 per cent - never will. No Australian can accept that kind of educational disparity for Australian children. I'll work my hardest to make sure we're in a position to change this.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Claydon ): Is the amendment seconded?