Tonight I want to talk about our universities, and specifically about HECS—or HELP, as it was formerly known. For people who entered universities in the nineties—and that includes me—and ever since then, our HECS has made university study possible. It has made going to university a reality, particularly for people who may otherwise have struggled to pay or who may not otherwise have considered university as an option. The data we have from the introduction of HECS in that time shows it has expanded the number of people in Australia who have received a university education and all the benefits that come with a university education.

HECS has made a difference, helping more people to go to universities. But we also know that, for many people today, HECS is not working as well as it perhaps should be, and that for many people today it can feel unfair.

I have heard this from my community, in particular from younger people who are currently studying or who have finished their studies in the past few years. I’ve also heard it from their parents and grandparents, who look at the situation for young people now and wonder what a HECS debt burden is going to mean for their future. People are telling me that paying off a HECS debt is arguably harder than it has been in the past.

We are seeing now that, while HECS is still helping people get to university and gain the qualifications they need for a better future and the qualifications that help all of us in our community, people are often left with a debt in the tens of thousands of dollars and are facing repayments in an environment where indexation can sometimes mean less of a net reduction in the debt.

When you consider that many of those with HECS debts are also often looking at paying them back at the same time they’re considering saving for a home deposit, or paying rent, or maybe trying to establish a family, it is understandable that young people today feel like paying off their HECS debt will take forever, in a way that, I think, didn’t feel quite as burdensome for previous generations of graduates.

I’m very grateful to all the locals who have shared with me their experiences of and their fears about the current situation with HECS, and what that might mean for future students and their willingness to go to university and to take on a level of debt. I’m confident that the Minister for Education has heard these concerns as well. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to catch up with him last weekend and to let him know about what people in my community are telling me about HECS. I know the minister is keen to ensure our tertiary education system is working as well as it can be, with fairness at its core.

It is timely to have this discussion about HECS because only last month the government and the minister released the final report into the Australian Universities Accord. This report was led by an expert panel appointed by the minister to work on a year-long review into higher education. The accord has considered the challenges that universities are facing and the short-, medium- and long-term opportunities that we need to take on these challenges, to make sure that Australia’s higher education sector thrives into the future.

The report examined HECS and found that some aspects of the system are due for a change, saying that higher student contribution amounts ‘have significantly and unfairly increased what students repay’. The accord panel expressed their concerns that, with the HECS system as it is, there is a real risk that some people will be deterred from going to university at all ‘at exactly the time we need growth in participation’, in the number of people going to university.

The accord report tells us that by the middle of this century 80 per cent of people will need to have some form of tertiary qualification so they can be prepared for the jobs that will see them through their working life. There is work to do. We currently sit at around 60 per cent. We need to move to that 80 per cent mark. And we need to make sure that, as we do that, we address the barriers that are impacting the participation of people from low socio-economic status backgrounds, people from regional and rural areas, people with disability and First Nations people.

I know the Minister for Education is giving the accord report a lot of thought. I know he is looking to the long term about how we make our university system fairer and how we set it up so that we are helping young people to get the qualifications they need to have the best possible future, and that we’re doing so in an environment where we understand that young people want to feel like they are being supported to get ahead and supported with their cost-of-living issues. I look forward to continuing to work with the minister and supporting him as he does this important reform.

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