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Second reading, Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. Very regrettably, this bill comprises a poor and, frankly, chaotic response to the Universities Accord interim report. It is more about the government being seen to be doing something rather than the Minister for Education, Mr Clare, undertaking cohesive, considered policy reform of the higher education sector, underpinned by evidence based policy and proper consultation.

The coalition does not support this bill because it removes a vital cost-of-living safeguard for Australian university students—the 50 per cent pass rule—which protects students who are failing their course from incurring massive student debt with nothing to show for it. This bill also represents bad policy because it includes a rushed and haphazard support-for-students policy which does not properly support students, whether it be on holding universities to account for deficient courses, ensuring that students complete their courses successfully or keeping students safe on campus. This policy is a totally inadequate response to the many ways the government needs to be stepping up and holding universities to account for every single aspect of their performance in order to put students first. That is the government’s No. 1 responsibility—to put students first—and this bill does not do this.

In opposing this bill, I want to make it clear that the opposition does support the extension of regional university centres, which was an important measure of the opposition when we were in government. The regional university centres are a very important part of our support for regional students and one of a raft of many different policies.

I want to turn, firstly, to the 50 per cent pass rule. Under the Job-ready Graduates program, the coalition introduced a provision which required students to maintain a pass rate of 50 per cent or above for units of study they undertake. Students who have a low completion rate and do not meet this requirement lose eligibility for Commonwealth assistance, a Commonwealth supported place, and they must either pay for their course upfront, transfer to another course or withdraw from their studies. The rule commenced on 1 January 2022. A low completion rate is when a student has a fail rate of more than 50 per cent of units of study after he or she has attempted eight or more units of study in a bachelor-level or higher course—or four or more units in a higher education course lower than a bachelor course.

The 50 per cent pass rule was introduced not as a punitive measure but to protect students from accruing massive HECS debts under circumstances where it’s highly likely they will not complete their course, safeguarding them from racking up a massive HECS debt without any university qualification to show for it. I will take the interjection from Senator Faruqi, because, as part of this 50 per cent rule, there are very important special circumstances exemptions. Where a student hits difficulties—whether it be illness, a death in the family, some other disadvantage caused by the course provider, financial difficulties, changes to employment or any other relevant circumstance, Senator Faruqi—students can go to their university and say: ‘These are my circumstances. The 50 per cent pass rule does not apply to me. But I am now on notice that I do need to make sure that I lift my pass rate to stay in my course, and I would obviously seek this exemption in relation to the rule.’

The 50 per cent pass rule is a rule that the universities hate because, of course, they lose students potentially and also revenue, and it was a measure that was not supported by and large in the interim report. One of the most disappointing aspects of the proposal to abolish the 50 per cent pass rule is that there is no evidence for it. We fought very hard for a Senate inquiry and for public hearings, which were initially opposed by the committee, and we had to bring it into the Senate to have that decision overturned so we could have public hearings. Mr Clare said, in his second reading speech for this bill in the other place:

More than 13,000 students at 27 universities have been hit by this in the past two years, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We actually know that there is not the data to support that conclusion. This comes from a Universities Australia survey that they asked not be made public because of its statistical unreliability. While they looked at the number of students affected, including those who were at risk of not passing all of their subjects, there is no data to show how many students lost their Commonwealth supported place. So it’s very, very disappointing that, when we sought that data from the minister, from the Department of Education, and we wanted the breakdown, to look at the 27 universities and what data each of them had given to Universities Australia, that information was denied, which is wrong. They are under an obligation to provide that information to the Senate committee.
I particularly want to focus on this, because Universities Australia, in its survey, very clearly advised that affected students included those who had been put on a restricted study plan or those who were at risk of being affected, so perhaps students who had failed 30 per cent of their units but had not yet hit the 50 per cent pass rule threshold. This is a very deceptive proposal being put forward, underpinned by very little evidence. The government’s attempts to claim that more than 13,000 students have been hit by this rule—effectively the minister was suggesting that these students have lost their Commonwealth supported place—have no credibility.

Also, claims by the government that equity students, including those from disadvantaged or low-SES families, were impacted disproportionately were not borne out in the data that we did receive. For instance, at Curtin University, 1,213 students were affected, which includes students, of course, who were potentially facing the risk of losing their Commonwealth supported place, but only 311 were from equity cohorts—around 25 per cent, or three per cent of total students. So the evidence we have received does not support the government’s proposition. To make matters worse, the Senate inquiry established there are no requirements on universities to report the number of students who have lost their CSP. That should be remedied. Unfortunately, this is another example of policy on the run.

I also want to briefly mention the horrific cost-of-living pressures that so many students are facing as a result of Labor’s cost-of-living crisis. More than three million Australians had their student debt increased by 7.1 per cent on 1 June this year. So many students can barely pay the rent or the power bill, let alone stay in their course. The government has done nothing to support students who are in crisis. Last year the indexation rate was 3.9 per cent. Next year it’s forecast to be around six per cent. So there will be around a 16 per cent increase in student debt, and this measure was a vital measure to ensure that students did not continue to rack up student debt on courses or units of study that they were failing and did not leave university with nothing but massive debt. So I say shame on the government, because the suggestion that the support-for-students policy is an adequate replacement is totally wrong, and it is not borne out by the evidence. I do want to briefly turn to the support-for-students policy. This is an attempt to patch the glaring hole in student protections for accruing unnecessary HELP debts, which would result if the 50 per cent pass rule were abolished. At the time of the bill’s introduction, there were no details about this policy. This policy is an absolute shambles. We’ve just received the guidelines. These are regulations not encompassed in the bill, which, of course, could be changed or abolished on a whim without parliamentary oversight. The guidelines lack any substance, cohesion or accountability as to how the government and higher education providers will deliver the appropriate support to students to help them succeed in their studies.

In fact, Universities Australia is deeply concerned about this policy on the run. It says it won’t achieve the stated policy intent of providing support for students. It will place further reporting requirements on universities, which equates to more red tape and risks diverting resources away from the core aim of supporting students, which universities are already fully committed to doing. There has been no assessment about the regulatory gaps that this policy is seeking to fill. There has been no assessment about the implementation cost. There has been no assessment about whether the universities can even possibly hope to introduce this by 1 January. Universities Australia has said they are deeply concerned about the time line and that, to expect universities to overhaul their existing systems or in some cases to develop entirely new ones—which might require the procurement of new IT systems or the upgrade—is just completely unrealistic. In its statement it says, ‘It is our firm view that the guidelines, as they stand, will create additional regulatory burden for universities without driving better outcomes for students.’

It looks like there was some reference to support for students that need protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment. That looks like it was just tacked on the end. The really big issues in relation to protecting students on campus and the safety of students has not been properly addressed at all. That is a complete disgrace.

Less than two weeks ago the minister scrambled, realising that this is just a shambolic mass, and picked up the coalition’s proposal that I have prosecuted very strongly over a number of months, for an independent student ombudsman—someone who will independently hold the universities to account and give students the right for redress and the right for justice. That now seems to have been patched together. Apparently that’s going to be proposed to education ministers at the next education ministers meeting. But, again, that reflects the utterly incohesive policy in relation to student support. If the minister knows what he was doing, where is the student ombudsman proposal? Why wasn’t this part of the bill? Why don’t we receive comprehensive support for students? This is an example of the minister trying to be seen to be doing something as a result of the Universities Accord rather, as I said, than delivering cohesive and properly considered policy underpinned by evidence and proper consultation.

I also want to briefly raise concerns about the extension of demand driven funding for Indigenous students. Very disappointingly, the government has not addressed how universities are going to improve Indigenous completion rates. That is very concerning. Why have other equity cohorts not been included in the expansion of these uncapped places? As I said, principally, the minister and the government have got this fundamentally wrong, and this bill should be opposed.

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