Speech: Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2024-2025 – Consideration in Detail

Mr CLARE (Blaxland—Minister for Education) (19:29): I thank all members who participated in this debate on education. The member for Fowler told the story of her mother saying that we have the best education system in the world. I’d say we have the best education system in the world but not for everyone. We are a country where your chances in life still depend upon how wealthy your parents are, where you live or the colour of your skin, and you can see that in the education data that hits my desk every day.

In this job, as I have done every day for two years and continue to do as long as I’ve got the privilege of being the education minister, I work to try to make sure that we build a better and fairer education system, particularly for people who live in the member for Fowler’s electorate and mine—we’re next-door neighbours—and in electorates like Spence. I work on how we can make our early education system better and fairer, and we have a Productivity Commission report that’s about to arrive here to help inform that discussion. I work on how we can make our school education system better and fairer, properly fund our schools and make sure funding goes to the kids who need it the most. Those negotiations are happening with the states at the moment as well. And I work on how we build a better and fairer higher education system too.

That was very much the focus of the education portion of this year’s budget, the first stage of our response to the Universities Accord. In that response we said that we are going to set ourselves a target that, as a nation, by 2050 we’ll have 80 per cent of our workforce with a tertiary qualification. That’s 80 per cent of the workforce—everyone from 15 to 65—who have either a TAFE qualification or a university degree. To put that in perspective, it’s about 60 per cent now, so we are moving from a workforce 60 per cent of whom have post-school qualifications to a workforce where that figure is 80 per cent. To do that, the advice from the accord team is that we really have to make sure that more young people from our outer suburbs and our regions and from disadvantaged backgrounds like those in the electorates that we represent get a crack at going to TAFE or university and succeed when they get there. That, at its core, is what the accord is about and what our response in the budget this year is about.

HECS is a big part of it—reducing the cost of HECS. It reduces the total HECS debt by about $3 billion for more than three million Australians. For the average Aussie with a HECS debt of about 26 grand, it will reduce their HECS debt by about $1,200. I think the member for Bradfield asked: why hasn’t this taken place already? Legislation will be introduced in the next few months. It will be backdated to take effect from the middle of last year, so it will wipe out those debts when that legislation is passed, as I’m sure it will be.

A number of members asked me questions about paid prac—about providing financial support, for the first time, for nursing students, teaching students and social work students. Why them? That’s where the accord said that we should focus first. Will it help attract more people to the courses? I hope so, because that financial support is a real incentive. Will it help more people to finish the course? That’s what the accord team tells us should happen, because at the moment some people are delaying finishing their courses because they can’t afford to do the prac because they would have to give up their part-time job.

There are other things in the budget, around fee free courses and uncapping places for them to give people a springboard from school to university. We think that that will potentially double the number of people doing those free university preparation courses over the next 15 years. Again, that’ll help a lot more people that currently don’t get a crack at university to get a crack.

There will be outer suburban university hubs. We have them in the regions now. For the first time, we’re going to put them in the suburbs. The member for Spence asked me about those. Applications for those 14 hubs are open now. They close at the end of July. I’d encourage all members listening or staff looking at the transcripts to talk to their universities, TAFEs and councils and encourage them to put applications in for those, because I think they play a key role in helping people who otherwise would think that uni’s not for them—that it’s for someone else somewhere else—to do university closer to home.

Finally, the member for Bradfield asked about antisemitism in our universities. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to get a small extension of time here to make some important points. There is a place for peaceful protest in this country, but there is no place for hate, there is no place for intolerance, there is no place for intimidation and there is certainly no place for the poison of antisemitism or any type of racism, whether it exists in our universities or anywhere else in this country. In the lifetime of our grandparents, we have all seen the evil that antisemitism leads to. At the moment, a lot of Jewish students feel unwelcome at university. More than that, they are being made to feel unwelcome at university. That’s what they have told me. That’s what they have made clear to me. In turn, I have made it clear to universities that there is nothing more important than the safety of their students or the safety of their staff at campus.

Universities have codes of conduct, and it is important that they are enforced. That includes the power to cancel an academic award conferred by the university or suspend or expel students who breach these codes. Universities are taking disciplinary action, and we’re also now seeing universities take action to wind up encampments on their grounds. There is also a role here for the federal regulator of universities. That is TEQSA. They have written to all universities outlining their responsibilities and have stood up a regulatory response team to proactively monitor the actions that universities take.

Finally, on the issue of hate speech and how it relates to universities, the Attorney-General has indicated his intention to bring forward legislation to create new criminal offences and strengthen existing laws against hate speech. The Universities Accord, which recommended changes to HECS, to paid prac, to fee-free courses and to outer-suburban university study hubs, also recommended a review or a study of racism in our universities and its impact on staff and students. So in the budget we’ve agreed to do that. We’ve announced a study into antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and the experience of Indigenous people at our universities. That work will be led by the Race Discrimination Commissioner. Just like the work that Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, did, the work that exposed the sexual violence occurring in our universities and led to the decision of government to establish a national student ombudsman, I’m confident that this work will help to make our universities safer places for all students and staff.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.