Federation Chamber: Higher Education Support Amendment (Australia’s Economic Accelerator) Bill 2022 – Second Reading

Mr CLARE (BlaxlandMinister for Education) (17:53): I will start by thanking the member for Menzies for his very kind comments in contributing to this debate. There is often not enough kindness in this place. This might be a case of a mutual admiration society. Don’t lose it is what I would say. I have been in this place now for 15 years. There’s a lot of good people sitting around the chamber, not all on one side of the chamber. The member for Gippsland and I are good friends who collaborate on many things, including some things we are going to do next week to raise awareness about the risk of skin cancer. But, member for Menzies, I hope you don’t mind me saying publicly what I have said privately, that I very much admired the comments you made on a difficult night, on election night for the Victorian elections last year. I thought to myself, ‘Now there is a member of parliament to admire.’ I very much look forward to seeing your contribution to this place and the work you do to represent the people of Menzies, including some of my family in Victoria.

I feel very much like the dog that caught the car, because it really is an enormous privilege to be the Minister for Education. I know, through my own life, as someone who was the first in my family to go to university, the first in my family to finish high school, the first in my family to finish year 10—my mum didn’t even go to high school—what the power of education is. We are a different country today from the country that existed when my mum and dad grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s. They grew up never expecting to finish school, let alone go to university. Back then, only about two or three per cent of young Aussies would have a university degree. Today it’s almost 50 per cent—so different. The days of universities just being an enclave for elites, or this exclusive club where very few people get to go, are gone. But we still have challenges here.

While 40-odd per cent of Australians have a uni degree, it’s only 20 per cent from the bush and it’s only 20 per cent from my electorate. It’s about seven per cent for Indigenous Australians. It’s the same with preschools; it’s the same with school. If you’re born from a poor family or from regional Australia or are an Indigenous Australian, you’re less likely to go to preschool, you’re less likely to finish school and you’re less likely to get a university degree.

It’s not just an issue of fairness here for the individual; it’s the consequences that has for us as a nation, because, as you rightly point out, there are intergenerational impacts. In a world like the one we live in, where most of the jobs that people will go into when they finish school require a TAFE qualification or a university qualification, if you don’t finish school you’re already disadvantaged. For communities like mine—and, I’m sure, others represented here—there is the risk that you further entrench disadvantage.

So what we do here collectively—not just what I do in my job but what we do as a nation and what state education ministers and state governments do, because they do a lot of the heavy lifting here—has an enormous impact on the world that we become. Think about that. Fifty years ago, three per cent had a uni degree; today it’s about 45 per cent. That’s nation-changing stuff, and I don’t want us to be a country where in 10 or 20 years time we still have to accept the fact that your chances in life depend on who your parents are, how wealthy they are, what suburb you live in, what part of the country you live in or the colour of your skin. We are today.

Just for the information of colleagues—because I know you’re interested in this—there are three big pieces of work that I’ve kicked off for this year. One is the Universities Accord, which is the first big review of higher education in 15 years, and that’s started its work; there’s the work I touched on in the parliament in question time today, which is the development of the next National School Reform Agreement; and then there’s a big piece of work that will kick off soon, which the Productivity Commission will do, on what a new early education system might look like. I want you to think about a common thread that can run through all of those. That common thread is about how we change the problem that I just described, where your chances in life depend on how wealthy your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. If we can fix that with those big reviews that take place this year, then we’ll have done some good. This legislation does some good too. I know colleagues have mentioned that it was initiated by the former government. That is absolutely right. This is a great example, I think, of the two parties working together. It’s also a good example of government and universities working together as well and, most importantly, it’s a good example of universities and businesses working together.

Our universities are fantastic. They punch above their weight when it comes to research. We probably don’t do as well as we could when it comes to translating that and commercialising that research, and that’s the endeavour we embark upon here today. Just as the minister thanked me for our support in bringing this back to the parliament, I want to thank him for the work that he did as minister in bringing this forward too. There are things we’re going to disagree on in education, just as there are going to be things in every part of what is competitive democratic politics. But I think it’s great that here’s an area where we’ve got agreement. I’m very glad that I can stand here today and commend the bill to the House.