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Second reading, Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and other Measures) Bill 2023

Several months ago, I visited the UTS Startups hub, an exceptional example of a university accelerator course working as it should without imposing a massive debt trap on students. The UTS Startups hub is one of some 120 accelerator or incubator courses being offered by Australian universities, most at no or very little cost to students. At the UTS Startups hub last year, more than 800 students enrolled at no cost—student entrepreneurs seeking to create a business, develop a new idea or progress in innovation. Some 570 jobs were created. Like so many universities, UTS sees great value in investing in student entrepreneurs and provides around $3.5 million a year for its wide range of startup activities, and this is well and truly paying off. In some five years, the UTS Startups hub has created companies worth, in total, more than $500 million.

I regret to say that the Education Legislation Amendment (Startup Year and Other Measures) Bill 2023 is half-baked policy. It is a solution in search of a problem. Why on earth would students take on a massive startup year loan for an accelerator or incubator course when there are more than 100 from which to choose being offered currently by many universities, principally free of charge? I say to Australian students: if this legislation passes today, don’t risk taking out a startup year loan. Have a look at the incubator and accelerator courses that are on offer and even some of the TAFE courses, such as the Certificate IV in Entrepreneurship and New Business qualification offered by New South Wales TAFE, which is roughly half the cost of a startup HELP loan.

As I said, this is half-baked policy, a Labor election commitment—in truth, a thought bubble—from the industry minister, Mr Husic. It is embarrassingly clear that the government has not done its homework, and we should not be surprised. Labor is tone-deaf to its cost-of-living crisis, which is imposing such a significant burden on so many students. So many students are struggling to put food on the table or pay the rent. Labor is tone-deaf to the more than three million Australians who have a HECS debt which has just increased by a massive 7.1 per cent as a result of Labor’s sky-high HECS indexation. This is compounded by a broken HECS payment system, which indexes loans without taking into account repayments made during the financial year. This loans scheme should be stopped before it starts. Startup Year would cripple students with a debt of up to $23,600 for full-fee-paying university courses.

What’s so ridiculous about this whole scheme is that these courses don’t even exist currently. The guidelines that underpin the operation of the Startup Year program were only released publicly last week—we have been calling for these guidelines for months, as have the universities—and this is a program that’s meant to start in less than two weeks. It’s an absolute mess. That’s why I will be moving, at the end of my contribution, a second reading amendment that the bill not proceed until the guidelines are tabled. I also say it’s very regrettable that the universities were not consulted on the draft guidelines. They were not given that opportunity. This is extremely arrogant of the Albanese government. The government is asking universities to deliver these courses, and it does not pay the universities the courtesy of consulting them on how these courses will be delivered.

Last year, the government ran a consultation on the proposed Startup Year program, and the university sector was absolutely scathing in its criticism. There were a broad range of concerns, deep concerns—that this is a scheme unfit for purpose; this is a scheme which offers no discernible value to students; the whole design of Startup Year is flawed; the risk to students is too high; students would be reluctant to take on more debt more consultation was needed, such as a working group, before the bill was passed; and there should be a proper pilot, a genuine pilot, before the scheme is rolled out in full. There was also broad concern that the Startup Year loans program discriminates against regional students and regional universities without existing accelerator programs.

In fact, these submissions were so scathing that the government tried to keep them secret until the Senate ordered, initiated by the opposition, that the submissions be made public, though I do note our disappointment that the Greens backed the government’s public interest immunity claim to keep three of those consultations secret. That was most regrettable, particularly for a government which, before the election, crowed so intensively about the importance of being transparent, and we now see this government failing this basic obligation time and time again.
This bill demonstrates that the Albanese government has not put the interests of students first. We are supporting the provisions in relation to Avondale University as a table B provider, the provisions in relation to the Australian Research Council and the amendment in relation to providing New Zealand citizens who apply for PR, up until 1 July, the opportunity to access HECS. But we will be seeking to vote down the Startup Year provisions because these pose such a significant risk to students. As I say, it’s very regrettable that the interests of students have not been put first and foremost by this government.

If we are not successful in voting down the Startup Year provisions, the opposition will be seeking to pass a number of substantive amendments. They are that the bill should include intellectual property rights protection for students, which it currently does not do; and that, as far as reasonably practicable, at least 25 per cent of students who receive startup assistance should be enrolled in a regional university. We’ve seen no regard for the needs of regional students in this bill. We also are seeking for the Secretary of the Department of Education to be given the power to refund those students who enrol in a Startup Year course where the higher education provider fails to deliver a course which meets its objectives. We want these very, very important safeguards for students.

We’re also seeking that the government run a proper pilot of the Startup Year program at least at one university or perhaps at two universities, that this pilot be subject to an independent review and that the results of the review be tabled in each house of the parliament. We are very concerned that the government’s current proposal—after the university sector called for a pilot to be run before this is rolled out, with the full 2,000 places—is to roll out 1,000 places, which we don’t believe gives students enough protection and isn’t a genuine pilot based on proper criteria to really test the efficacy of this scheme. So, as I say, this is bad policy. Some universities have spoken out and continue to speak out very strongly against this loan scheme.

I want to place on record my disappointment—and this was made very clear in the Senate inquiry into the bill, which was conducted a couple of months ago—that some of the peak higher education bodies such as Universities Australia, the Group of Eight and the Australian Technology Network have not been more robust in speaking out about the risks to students in taking on this full-fee-paying student loan. Just imagine the lunacy of saying to a student, ‘Go and take on $23,600, or one course at $11,800, for a full-fee-paying course at such a high risk.’ It would be subject to indexation next year and every year beyond that, on top of the current debt that so many students are carrying, rather than looking at one of the 120 courses which are currently on offer, many of which are available to students at little or no cost. It is an absolute nonsense.

In speaking about the importance of backing our young student entrepreneurs, I want to celebrate the incredible work of the coalition when we were in government in backing entrepreneurs, including young Australian entrepreneurs. We introduced programs such as the Entrepreneurs Infrastructure Program, worth nearly $500 million, to support the commercialisation of goods and job creation and lift the capability of small businesses. We condemn the government’s decision to cut some $200 million from this program in the October 2022 budget. This was delivering for all businesses wanting to be entrepreneurs; this was delivering right across this nation. It was a very regrettable decision by the Albanese government.

I also celebrate the $2.2 billion University Research Commercialisation Action Plan, which was a very significant initiative of the former coalition government. I am pleased that this is being supported by the Albanese government and has support across the parliament. This includes some incredibly important initiatives including the $243 million Trailblazer Universities Program, which brings together industry, government and the six universities that have won these grants to develop wonderful new trailblazer programs for the future. The commercialisation package also includes a $1.6 billion investment for Australia’s Economic Accelerator, which is a new stage-gated competitive funding program to help university projects, in partnership with industry and government, to bridge the so-called valley of death on the road to commercialisation.
There is the opportunity right now to go back to the drawing board and, at the very least, run a proper pilot so that this very flawed and defective scheme can be independently assessed using proper criteria by an independent process, with the results reported back to the parliament. At a time when so many students are on their knees, battling Labor’s cost-of-living crisis and with escalating student debt with no relief in sight, the best the government can do is put forward this half-baked loan scheme, which will plunge students into even further debt for no discernible benefit.

I move an amendment to the motion for the second reading:

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