I couldn’t do any better than begin by echoing the sentiments that the member for Solomon gave just there about the transformational power of higher education and the need to extend that opportunity to as many people as possible in our country, particularly those people who, in the past, haven’t had the access to higher education that they should have had, people from First Nations backgrounds and from socioeconomic disadvantaged backgrounds. We know that higher education transforms lives, and, in fact, this bill sets out to do some of the work we need to do to make it accessible to more people. I, like so many other people in this place, have the advantage of a higher education degree; in fact, I’m fortunate enough to have two. I know personally how important access to higher education is for setting you up later in life. It is important on a personal level, but, as I was just explaining and as the member for Solomon was explaining, it is also important for our communities and country.
We know that in the decades to come more and more jobs will require a university qualification. The transformations we are seeing across our country, across our economy and across industries; and the investments in new green energy and new technology mean there will be a number of new jobs with new skills required. What we want is for those jobs to be filled and to be available to all. We want them to be jobs that young people in my community, in the north-east of Melbourne, are able to access and that young people in the member for Solomon’s electorate, in the northern parts of this country, are also able to access. We want to open up university education so that these jobs of the future that are going power our country forward are accessible to all, setting our country up for the best possible future and setting up young people in my community and communities around the country for the best possible future. That’s what this government is focused on and that’s what this bill is focused on.
We are fortunate in my electorate of Jagajaga to have a wonderful university, La Trobe University, located right on our doorstep. At that university they do a very good job of trying to be as inclusive as possible, of trying to draw a broad demographic of students and support those students through their higher education journey. We as a government are aiming to support more and more universities to do that and to do it better. I know that La Trobe is a destination of choice for many young people in my community to access higher education. I’m fortunate enough to visit it frequently. Most recently, I went and saw some students training in allied health, learning how to give remote consultations, helping people with speech difficulties—a really important skill that is vital to so many in our community and something that we need more and more people to be working in. La Trobe also does great work when it comes to developing a food hub and agribusiness—again, crucial industries for the future of our country—working together with organisations like the CSIRO, building the industries and the job opportunities of the future. I know that it, as a university, is seen by local students as an excellent, accessible option that sets them up for their lives and careers. It is a university that will benefit from these reforms, and I hope that others around the country will as well.
The bill before us is based on the work of the Australian Universities Accord Panel and the interim report they produced. Unlike previous approaches, our government’s approach is to want to do things that actually make a difference. In planning these changes, we brought together a group of experts to do the hard work, to come together and put the experience they have together to inform us on how best to shape our university sector into the future. That panel has found that 36 per cent of the current Australian workforce have a university qualification today, but its estimates were that that could jump to 55 per cent by the middle of this century. That gives us, as a government, and as a country, an idea of the skills challenge that we are facing in the years and the decades to come.
As a result of that work, the report that the panel gave us put forward five priority actions, all of which our government has committed to implement. In those five priority actions, we are extending access to tertiary education in regional and suburban locations, ceasing the ridiculous 50 per cent pass rule put in place by the previous government, ensuring all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place, providing funding certainty through the extension of the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025 and, through National Cabinet, engaging with state and territory governments and universities to improve university governance. That last part is very important. We want universities that are run well, that have good governance in place.
I am also really pleased about an important piece of work that our government has also announced, a working group that will be providing advice on making universities safe places for both staff and students. We know that there is still a lot of work to be done on making universities safe places for staff and students. That has been raised time and time again by students. Universities have taken some action to address sexual assault and harassment on campuses to date, but it is very clear that that hasn’t done the job yet. The complete job is not done, and this needs to change. Our government believes that education should be not just accessible but it should also be safe and fair. That is a really important part of that reform.
I mentioned earlier that one of the recommendations of the panel, and a recommendation that this bill addresses, is taking away the 50 per cent pass rule put in place by the previous government. That rule was introduced by the previous coalition government as part of its Job-ready Graduates Package. It was a harsh rule. It was introduced to try to dissuade students from continuing in courses that they were ‘not academically suited for’. The government pulled together a list of what it considered ‘job ready’ or ‘national priority’ subjects and lowered student contributions to attract students to those subjects. Other subjects were set at prices at neutral or increased levels to deter them. We’ve seen that the changes have had little impact on what subjects students are choosing to study, but what they are doing is making it very unfair. They do mean that if you’ve got more money you’ve got more choice, and if you don’t have the money you’re being deterred from getting an education that you might need or deserve to get based on what a previous government deemed worthy or unworthy. The 50 per cent pass rule disproportionately disadvantaged students from poor backgrounds and the regions. Those students are more likely to be in difficult circumstances and to have unexpected things happen that may interrupt their ability to study and pass exams. These people are the people who can least afford to be slugged with higher fees. This was not a well-thought-through reform. It has not had a positive impact on our higher education system, and our government is doing the sensible thing in taking this away.
As a country we can’t thrive and we can’t get people ready for the jobs of the future if we are in fact penalising people who need support the most and preventing them from being able to take up those opportunities. In changing this we will be able to change our focus so that we are improving the success rates of at-risk students, not punishing them, not saying, ‘That’s it, you’re done,’ or ‘You have to pay more.’ We will work on how we help those people to be able to have the success they should have at university. We know that for all these students life isn’t one thing at one time. They are juggling a lot. This rule meant that those students were facing undue pressure, and it is important that we change that. The advice we have suggests that more than 8,000 students have been or are at risk of being affected by this rule, and clearly that is 8,000 too many. We are asking universities to have a plan for these students, requiring them to proactively identify students at risk of falling behind and to set out a plan to help them to succeed. This plan might be connecting those students to support or providing them with available financial assistance. It could be arranging crisis response or offering special circumstances arrangements, a much more sensible approach going forward and an approach that will see these students able to complete their degrees, rather than saddling them with unfair debts, higher costs and dissuading them from being part of our higher education system.
One of the other actions in the bill relates to priority action 3 from the panel report, which is extending demand-driven funding to metropolitan First Nations students, recognising that in some ways these First Nations students haven’t had the emphasis that should have been put on them in supporting them to get a university degree by ensuring that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at university. Currently, this particular measure only applies to First Nations students in regional and remote Australia. Going forward it will apply to all First Nations people undertaking higher education, including in metropolitan areas. The Department of Education estimates that this change could double the number of Indigenous students at university within a decade. This measure directly supports efforts achieving Closing the Gap outcome No. 6. Broadening this funding will have flow-on benefits for all First Nations communities across Australia by increasing the number of First Nations graduates in the workforce, so there are positives that come from creating more culturally safe and diverse workplaces by increasing the delivery of professional services and supporting other enterprises requiring university educated workforces. Again, this is good not just for these individuals who will benefit from this opportunity to have greater access to higher education but for our country and our communities. It is good for making sure that we have people who are qualified to do the jobs we need to make our communities run as strongly as they can.
It gives First Nations youth role models in communities, and it means that First Nations young people can look around and say: ‘That person did it, I can do it too. That can be my future. That’s the trajectory I can be on.’ This will help our country by developing the crucial knowledge and skills we need going forward and, more broadly, help us take an important step forward towards equality between First Nations people and our broader community and towards the reconciliation that we are working towards. Interestingly, the report told us that too few Australians are beginning and completing their qualifications in higher education at the moment. It is predicted that 90 per cent of the jobs created over the next five years will require a post-secondary education and 50 per cent will require a higher qualification. But at the same time completions and demand for places at universities are falling, and completion of a first bachelors degree is currently at its lowest level since 2014.
If we combine this with the skills shortages we already have in our country, you can see the sense of urgency and why our government is bringing these changes forward and why we are taking expert advice to fix the mess that we were left with in higher education. It is to make sure we are building the skilled workforce of the future and giving young people in our communities the opportunities that they should have. Again, the evidence shows us that students from underrepresented groups at university make up most of those people who were affected by that 50 per cent pass rule that I spoke about earlier, and First Nations students are around twice as likely to be affected as their non-First-Nations counterparts. Fixing these problems means we will have more students enrolled in higher education. It will mean we have a fairer system of higher education that does ensure that we get those levels of access and attainment that we need, and a system that better meets our national job and skill needs.
We also know this will be good for people’s wages because obtaining a university education is one of the biggest things you can do to increase your wage. The evidence shows us it leads to a 38 per cent increase in men’s wages and a 37 per cent increase in women’s wages. So, unlike those opposite—who when they were in government did not value our higher education system, did not look at these issues around equity and attainment and around making sure that we had a system that was set up to prepare students for the jobs of the future—our government is interested in making sure that we support individuals both for their growth and for the growth of our country. We do know that those opposite—in fact, at a number of points—actively attacked the higher education system in this country. When they refused to provide JobKeeper to public universities, it was a very pointed attack and it caused at that time a lot of difficulties for universities and, of course, for the staff there.
I’ll end where I started, which is by saying that many of us in this place benefited from a higher education. We need to extend that to as many people in our community as possible. That’s what this bill does. It’s what our government is doing—setting up a higher education system that is accessible, that is fair and that puts our country in a place where we are creating people who can do the jobs of the future.