Parliamentary speeches

TEQSA Amendment Bill - second reading speech

February 13, 2019

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2018. This bill proposes a range of minor and technical changes to the operation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, TEQSA. These are to give effect to aspects of the government response to the 2016 Review of the impact of the TEQSA Act on the higher education sector that require legislative endorsement. I note that this review is the first substantive review of the agency, although, of course, the Lee Dow-Braithwaite review initiated and responded to some sectoral concerns about the scope of the activities of the agency.

Labor will not be opposing this bill and are supportive of the measures contained within it. I will be proposing a second reading amendment which goes to some other aspects related to the bill and the government's higher education policy. It was Labor that created the national regulatory system in higher education back in 2011, which was an important part of our response to the Bradley review. I'm sure my friend the member for Lingiari well remembers that and appreciates its significance. Labor in government recognised then, as we do now, that if we want to expand and strengthen higher education in Australia then we need a national approach to regulation that is fit for purpose today and tomorrow. While this system develops and evolves, Labor continue to recognise that there will be a need for periodic review of the operation of this agency to ensure that its structure is fit for purpose as the sector continues to develop.

The changes proposed in the review and incorporated into this bill before the House now are really under three broad headings. The changes include simplifying the Higher Education Standards Framework, and changes to the operations, functions and skill base of the Higher Education Standards Panel within the agency—this is to broaden the skill base and also require contemporary experience in higher education across both universities and non-universities. It also includes a range of measures that are updates to rules around disclosure of information, largely to ensure consistency with other provisions.

The proposals in this bill come from a review initiated by the government, as required by the substantive act. This was more than three years ago. It is difficult to see why the government have hastened so slowly. It really speaks volumes about their chaotic approach to governing and their neglect of this critical sector under three ministers. It has taken them well over three years since the review was completed to present this legislation to the parliament. To members opposite, this is clearly not the priority it should be, as it is to this side of the House. I say again that these changes are supported by Labor and by the sector, although I do note that some minor concerns have been expressed, particularly by Universities Australia. I make clear that we are paying careful attention to them as we consider the ongoing operation of the agency. These concerns, as I said, are minor and technical.

More generally, the sector has made clear its deep frustration with the government, for good reason. It is little wonder the higher education sector has had enough of this government. Since they've come to office, they have done nothing but undermine Australia's world-class higher education system. Instead of fostering our universities and all that goes on within them, all we've seen are cuts and chaos. But, worse than that, we've seen no plan—no plan for this vital export sector; no plan for this critical enabler; no plan at all. Billions of dollars have been cut. Undergraduate places have shamefully been capped. They've made students pay back their HELP debt sooner and millions of dollars have been slashed from university research funding, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Consequently, 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 the Government has damaged the quality of Australia’s world-class higher education system, having cut billions from universities by effectively capping undergraduate places, and slashing research funding".

Labor knows that, if we are to fully realise the potential of all Australians—young Australians and those who are older—and seize the opportunities presented to us as a nation by the Asian Century, we need to invest deeply in higher education and research. That is a bigger challenge than that contained within the provisions of this bill, but the deputy leader, the shadow minister for education, and all of us in the Labor team are up for this challenge.

As the world becomes more technologically advanced, we need to ensure that we are at the forefront of these changes and that our education system remains responsive. Part of this challenge is, of course, having an adaptive and appropriate regulatory system, but obviously it goes much beyond that. Unlike most of the major economies in our region that are investing in universities, science and research, this government have been doing precisely the opposite: ripping money out of our universities, starving them for funds and starving our brightest Australian researchers of opportunities and the confidence to pursue careers in higher education. This is short-changing their potential and it is short-changing all of us as a nation. We know, on this side of the House, that this is going to do long-term damage to our economy as well as to our society. It's going to impact very, very significantly on the aspirations of thousands of Australians who will miss out on university places because of these cuts. As I said, it will impact on the capacity of others who have entered higher education to continue to flourish, develop their skills and pursue research excellence in the university sector. The last Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook demonstrated just how chaotic the government has become and the serious consequences of that for this sector. They have left so many regional universities in a dire state with the cuts.

Let's remember, they were forced to rip hundreds of millions of dollars from university research in order to allocate additional places to some regional universities. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul and it is absolute errant nonsense. If members opposite really wanted to ensure that Australians, particularly those in regional and outer-metropolitan areas, have the opportunity of a university education, they should follow Labor's lead and return to a demand-driven system. Labor knows that we need to boost participation in higher education in order to meet the needs of our future economy as well as to respond to the trend towards inequality, which members opposite seem determined to accelerate. Let's remember that this is not just rhetoric on our part. That is what we have done, when it comes to higher education, since the government of Gough Whitlam, since reforms carried out under the Hawke and Keating governments, particularly on this point of the demand-driven system that boosted opportunities in universities—and in life—for so many first-in-family students under the governance of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

That's why we have committed, again, to uncapping undergraduate places—a huge $10 billion commitment—over the next decade. We have expressed our values clearly through the depth of our financial commitment to supporting the aspirations of young Australians, particularly those who are first in family. We have also made sure that we are underpinning a vision for Australia's economy with an approach that is all about inclusive growth, not the narrow, blind, ideological insistence on trickle-down economics that is failing Australia and failing too many Australians today.

We also want to do more to ensure that students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds get the opportunity of a university education. We will support them not just through words said in this place but through a real investment, our $174 million equity and pathways funding program. We know that, fundamental to our vision of the Australian economy of the future and a fairer Australian society for the future, is our appreciation that nine out of 10 jobs created by 2021 will require either a degree or a VET qualification.

We recognise that it is imperative to boost participation in universities as well as TAFE and apprenticeships. According to the Mitchell Institute, if the government doesn't lift its caps on university places, around 235,000 students will miss out on a place by 2031. This is absolutely shocking and an indictment of a government that has been asleep at the wheel under Minister Pyne, Minister Birmingham and now Minister Tehan. The numbers are even worse when it comes to vocational education. Quite frankly, it is a recipe for disaster.

In finishing my contribution to this debate, let me emphasise that Labor has a better and positive plan across all education sectors. We will support the measures contained in this bill today, but beyond that we will do so much more. We will properly fund our universities, with three-year funding agreements guaranteed, so they can plan with certainty. We will uncap university places so that 200,000 more Australians will get the opportunity of a university education in the next decade or so. We will invest in university research and infrastructure with our $300 million university future fund.

We will introduce—and this is absolutely vital at the other end of the education spectrum—universal places for three- and four-year-olds in early childhood education, a fundamental building block to an equal society, as well as equal participation in higher education down the track. I'm particularly proud that we will invest $14 billion extra in our public schools, those schools that educate two in three, or 2½ million, Australian kids.

We will waive up-front fees for 100,000 students to attend TAFE and invest $100 million in modernising TAFE facilities around the country. We will go further than this, when it comes to skills, by ensuring that one in every 10 jobs on Commonwealth priority projects are filled by Australian apprentices. We will provide 10,000 pre-apprenticeships for young people who want to learn a trade and will provide 20,000 adult apprenticeships.

It's very clear when you look at this plan—and at the gulf, the void, on the other side of the House—that Labor is the only party Australians can trust when it comes to education.