Ms LE (Fowler) (10:03): My beloved mother, who recently passed, told me that, when she was asked, in refugee camps, where she would like to be resettled, she chose Australia because she had heard it had the best education system in the world. So, once we were resettled, our focus was to do exceptionally well at school, with the aspiration to enter university. Many refugee and migrant families like mine, where our parents’ generation didn’t get the chance for higher education because of conflicts in their birth countries, place all their hopes in the future of their children and their accessibility to higher education.

I cannot emphasise how critical this is for my community of Fowler, where 14.9 per cent of my students are currently studying at university, according to the 2021 census. One constituent recently shared her university journey with me. Like me, she is a child of a refugee who escaped war-torn Vietnam. Neither of her parents finished primary education in their birth country. Her parents spoke little to no English but only hoped that she could further her education for a better future.

With enough determination, she was admitted to university to study a dual law degree, a prestigious course that would enable her to enter her dream career field. However, this was not an easy journey. Her family was not well off and this was an expensive degree, so she had to work extremely hard for it. Eventually, she was awarded a few scholarships, which helped alleviate some of the financial burden. She finished her degrees a few years ago but now has approximately $64,000 of HECS debt with the current indexation. Her first graduate job paid $50,000 inclusive of superannuation. At that time, she did not feel like her hard work was commensurate to the debt she is now in.

I share this constituent’s story because it presents multiple issues with pursuing higher education: access, low-socioeconomic factors that can impact an educational trajectory and the stress of a HECS debt that follows. There is a lot of work for the government to do, to get the higher education system to be at its optimum for Australia. It is a privilege to go on to higher education in Australia and to pursue your passion, because not everyone has equal access to higher education, due to cultural, social and economic factors that hinder their rights.

I acknowledge the Minister for Education for introducing this bill, as part of reforming higher education, to prepare the Australian Universities Accordinterim report. This report reveals key findings on the future of higher education for Australia and is an important initiative. It predicts that 90 per cent of jobs created over the next five years will require post-secondary education and a 50 per cent higher qualification. This means that our country must be well equipped to cater to this rising demand. Higher education is a vital part, alongside the trades industry, of making Australia’s future a prosperous one.

One of the priority actions that came out of theinterim report was for universities to establish hubs in regional and outer metropolitan areas, to target disadvantaged students. With just 15 per cent of my constituents currently holding a university degree as the highest level of education, compared to the rest of Australia at 26 per cent, this concept of a university hub in an area like south-west Sydney is an exciting project.

I acknowledge the recent launch of the Western Sydney University’s Fairfield clinic, this weekend, in my neighbouring electorate of McMahon. The concept is for a technology enabled space, to give students and the broader community an environment to study in and cultivate their knowledge. My understanding is that the hub is to also include an academic program for high achievers and pathway programs for school leavers. I hope this will provide further accessibility for students who are unable to access the critical resources for universities at home. I know that with the rising costs of living students may be finding it harder to travel, to pay for train tickets or fuel to get to their classes.

It’s important to have a university presence, to promote itself for future generations, but I must remind the minister and the government that it must also be fit for purpose for all students. If a student attending Western Sydney University is struggling with their studies, what will this hub be able to do and what support will be given to secure their university journey? Will students in courses that require specialised software, such as digital design or media, be able to access these programs so that they don’t have to pay out of pocket to use them? Will students be able to have face-to-face engagements with educators, support workers and other critical services to ensure they are still part of the university community and not working in isolation from the main campus?

I hope this will not essentially be just a centre with tables and computers and that substantial support will be provided in these proposed spaces. It’s my understanding that this project is due to be completed in 2024, and I look forward to visiting it when it’s completed. I will hold the government to account, to ensure this critical infrastructure is developed and is fit for purpose.

The bill also incorporates priority action 2, which recommends ceasing the 50 per cent pass requirement of a student’s first eight units of their bachelor’s degree to continue as a Commonwealth supported student and to be eligible for FEE-HELP assistance. In lieu, the focus will be directed towards increasing reporting on student progress. The goal of this is to eliminate disproportionate disadvantages of students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. I support and welcome this change.

A 50 per cent mark may be perceived as the bare minimum to pass a course, but the reality is that there may be numerous factors that can prevent a student from reaching this mark. For example, I had a constituent share that during his time at university he juggled part-time work at McDonald’s but was often assigned night-to-breakfast shifts, which made it hard for him to prioritise study as he was constantly fatigued. This resulted in him failing a first-year core course of his bachelor degree. He eventually quit his part-time job to salvage his degree. Students should not have to choose between earning money to get by day to day and furthering their education. We live in a society now where a 50 per cent mark shouldn’t stop students from achieving their aspirations.

We as a government need to ensure that the higher education system can provide adequate support to students. I understand that part 2 of the bill seeks to address this by requiring higher education providers to have a policy which deals with support for students to assist them to successfully complete their units of study for courses that they are enrolled in. A higher education provider is required to comply with their support for students policy and report to the minister about their compliance, and failing to do so will attract a civil penalty of 60 penalty units. By making it mandatory for higher education providers to have a support for students policy, this will ensure disadvantaged students’ interests are at the forefront and they aren’t left behind in their studies.

However, I would like to draw attention to a critical point raised in the interim report. It states:

New ideas must be explored to prevent excessive debt and rising student cost of living pressures from discouraging people of all ages from pursuing higher education and completing their qualifications.

I remind the government that at present students are still battling their HECS debt and the indexation that follows, which currently sits at 7.1 per cent, the highest it has been; for the last 10 years it has never exceeded four per cent. The interim report notes that this is important, as excessive debt can deter prospective students from pursuing higher education when they can earn immediate money working other jobs. This is especially crippling for students who are from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and are unable to pay their HECS debt as it continues to grow with an excessive indexation rate.

If we are encouraging students to obtain higher education for the good of Australia’s future and to support their aspirations, we must take a step back and consider the financial inequities of higher education. The reality in my electorate is that students are disadvantaged and often concurrently studying and working to make ends meet, like the story of a constituent I shared earlier. With the interim report suggesting that new ideas be explored, we must do something regarding the HECS-HELP indexation, as we are essentially charging students interest rates to be able to study—money which they don’t have.

Recently, I called on the government to temporarily revert the indexation rate to the previous year’s rate of 3.9 per cent for at least three years so that students can have an opportunity to gain stable employment and save to pay their HECS. This option should still be on the cards if we are to provide better equity and opportunity to students. While we cannot revert to the Whitlam era days of completely removing university fees, we should still consider measures to encourage students to obtain higher education for the good of Australia’s future and to support their aspirations. We must take a step back and consider the financial inequities they may face currently. The reality in my electorate is that students are disadvantaged.

I understand that the government is committed to extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025, consistent with the recommendation of priority action 4. Higher education providers should be required to direct funding from this guarantee to achieve greater equity outcomes. Specifically, the funding should be allocated to create policies that provide support for students’ outcomes, scholarships and equity related services. After all, if the government is prepared to spend $368 billion in building eight nuclear submarines, then surely the education of future generations of this country should have the same value consideration. How are we to be a clever country if we don’t invest in our young people? We keep on saying they are our future. If so, then the government should put their money where their mouth is.

I acknowledge that the minister is taking steps to address the inequity in our educational system and is looking at ways to give underrepresented students fair and equitable access. I would urge him and the government to start with HECS debt indexation, which would have immediate an impact for students currently studying and those planning to do so in the future.