Higher Education Support Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022 – Second Reading

Mr CLARE (BlaxlandMinister for Education) (16:27): I thank all members for their contributions to this debate. As I said when I introduced this bill, it will support students through fairer grandfathering provisions of the job-ready graduates scheme and support our rural and remote and very remote communities by encouraging doctors and nurse practitioners to provide services in those areas.

The grandfathering amendments in this bill will fix some of the unfair and, I believe, unintended outcomes of the former government’s job-ready graduates legislation while we prepare for a review of the entire scheme as part of the Universities Accord. The amendments make sure that honours course students who’ve already started but not finished their original course at the time of the job-ready graduates changes benefit from grandfathering measures. The amendments will also ensure that students whose courses were changed or cancelled by the universities are also grandfathered.

The bill also puts in place a scheme for eligible doctors and nurse practitioners to have their HELP debts reduced or wiped if they live and work in rural and remote and very remote areas of Australia. Eligible doctors and nurse practitioners will be able to apply to have their debts reduced or wiped if they live and work in those areas for a period of time based on the length of their degree. Doctors and nurse practitioners in rural and remote and very remote areas will also be able to apply for a waiver of indexation on their HELP debt whilst they live and work there.

Since its introduction the bill has received significant support. The Group of Eight and Universities Australia have both welcomed the measures in this bill. The Australian Technology Network of Universities described the measures for rural and remote communities as a game changer which will change lives. They estimate that the measures could save up to $70,000 for doctors and almost $20,000 for nurses in those areas. The Australian College of Nurse Practitioners said that they were delighted with those measures.

I’d particularly like to use this opportunity in summing up the debate to thank the member for Indi and the member for Mackellar for their contributions on this bill. I’ve had a good conversation with the member for Indi, who I know is a passionate advocate for mental health services in our rural and remote communities. Mental health is such an important issue, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, and support services are not always easy to access, particularly in regional and remote parts of Australia. The member for Indi has a proud record of advocating for solutions to this problem, and I look forward to working with her on this.

The member for Mackellar has foreshadowed an amendment to review the impact of these measures in three years time to help guide future initiatives. I think that a review is sensible, and the government will support that. I also note that an amendment is proposed by the shadow minister for education. As I’ve said, we have made a commitment to support a review and support the amendment proposed by the member for Mackellar. Notwithstanding that—and I’ve made this point to the shadow minister as well—I think there are some very good elements of the amendment that he is proposing, especially in the structure of a review when it’s put in place, and I’m very open to working with the shadow minister on that as the bill moves to the Senate.

This is a policy that we’ve continued from the former government, and I recognise the work that the shadow minister, the former minister of education, did in this area. Collectively, we want to make a difference here for rural and remote communities and for their access to health services. So this is an important measure to bring forward in this parliament. But it’s just one measure. We expect that it will support around 850 medical practitioners a year in those areas. That’s a good thing, but it’s not the whole solution. It’s only one step that we need to take to address access to health services in rural and remote parts of Australia. But, with the help of good people, like all members who’ve contributed to this debate, we can make a difference. This bill is an important step forward, and I commend it to the House.