Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022

The opposition, as you’re aware, Deputy Speaker Chesters, is supportive of this particular bill, the Education Legislation Amendment (2022 Measures No. 1) Bill 2022, especially given that it delivers measures announced by the coalition in the 2021-22 MYEFO budget update. The measures extend the FEE-HELP loan fee exemption for students and enable eligible students studying microcredentials to defer their tuition fees to FEE-HELP.

Other measures in the bill include strengthening the unique student identifier requirements, aligning Commonwealth assistance eligibility requirements for New Zealand citizens, and minor and technical amendments. The bill will also make minor and technical amendments to section 26A of the TEQSA Act, which deals with the compliance with the tuition protection requirements as a condition of registration.

As to the VET FEE-HELP loan exemption, this measure within the bill extends that loan fee from 1 January 2022 to 31 December 2022, encouraging students who have access to FEE-HELP who have been financially impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to commence or continue their study in 2022. This is expected to assist approximately 30,000 undergraduate students—a really important measure. The FEE-HELP eligibility for microcredentials also allows students undertaking microcredentials delivered as part of the Australian government’s microcredentials pilot to be eligible for FEE-HELP.

There have been changes to the New Zealand citizen requirement too. As the previous speaker discussed, there is a requirement for students to provide their unique student identifier to be eligible for help or assistance and to study as a Commonwealth-supported student. There are also minor and technical amendments to the HESA Act and to the TEQSA Act contained in this bill. There is the removal of the 10 per cent HECS-HELP discount for upfront payments of student contribution amounts. I would note at this point that the current HECS debt in Australia sits at $52.7 billion.

The last budget of the coalition government committed almost $20 billion towards higher education as part of our record $115.1 billion in total government funding for universities between 2019 and 2024. There was $95.2 billion in teaching and learning, and $19.8 billion in research. In the 2021 budget we funded an additional 30,000 places as part of 100,000 more places over the decade. We have a very strong commitment to rural and regional education and saw this very directly in so many ways. I make no apology for focusing on rural and regional,
given they are the people I represent.

I look back to some of the issues that we on this side had to deal with during our time. I remember when Labor was in government and the then minister for education excluded inner regional students from access to youth allowance, which had a massive impact in my region and right around more of the inner regional areas around Australia. This was a really serious issue for young students who could not get access to and could not afford to go to university and follow their dreams. It was something that we fought very hard on.

While in government, we also committed to regional education through the regional university centres to help students in regional areas access higher education in situ, essentially where they were living or could get to, which is another really important issue in Western Australia. We had three of these, the Great Southern University Centre, the Geraldton University Centre and the Pilbara University Centre as well. I officially opened the one in Albany and saw firsthand how important this is to these young people in the region who were looking to improve their skills and improve their opportunities in life, not just in education. We increased this funding over time and also included funding for additional supported places for students being supported by the centres. That was a really important part of what we were delivering into the regional and more remote parts of Australia. They are doing just a fabulous job. Talking to the students there, I listened to their stories about the opportunities that they had that they never thought they would have, especially to be able to stay in Albany and follow their educational opportunities. This is very important given the disparity between the opportunities for higher education that young people face in rural and regional areas.

The Rural Clinical School is also a very important part of trying to not only give young people from our region the opportunity to become a GP or something similar but also to bring people from Perth or from a city area to spend time in a regional community as part of their study. Hopefully, more of them would come back and live and work. We have a shortage of rural doctors and this was part of our approach to get more clinical representation in the regions. I have met so many of those students.

Equally, the tertiary access payment we introduced from 1 January was made available for students who live in rural and regional Australia to help them with the costs of moving to study. They were payments of $3,000 to $5,000, depending on where the family home was situated. Inner regional areas were $3,000, and outer regional —places like Scott River and Warner Glen in my part of the world—that was really important. It’s the small things that matter when you get two parents with kids who want to go to higher education working their hearts out so their kids can get the opportunity. I remember back to the fight over youth allowance when I met a mum in a supermarket who said to me: ‘I have to decide which one of my children can go, and I have five.’ If there was ever some wind beneath my wings to fight hard for rural and regional people that certainly caused it.

Tertiary access payments also helped to overcome the financial barriers that young students from regional and more remote areas face. There is an additional cost to living away from home. We’ve done several inquiries in this space. It can be anything from $20,000 up, over and above, plus these young people have to live away from their families and the people who support them while they’re doing that. The research and evidence shows that if you live in a rural or regional area you’re 50 per cent less likely to have a university degree by the age of 35 than if you live in the city, because people in the city have direct access. This really is an important opportunity that we keep giving young people who live in regional areas.

I worked hard to get a university department of rural health into ECU, Edith Cowan University, in Bunbury, in my electorate. We are so short of allied health workers, not only the GPs I referred to through the rural clinical school but also allied health workers. I fought hard for this one because it is so important for our region. We have a very fast growing region. It is very, very attractive to people who are retiring and who choose our part of the world to spend their years in retirement. But that increases the demand not only for GPs and specialists but also for allied health workers. We really need to train more of those people in situ so they stay with us. So many of the people I meet love what they do. They love looking after our more senior citizens or even just being in the health system. For them be able to have this training at ECU in Bunbury is fantastic for the South West. I was so pleased to be able to get this over the line. Edith Cowan will prove to be a very sound partner in this program, and it will be the 22nd university to provide increased rural and regional and remote training across Australia under this program. When you see the shortages in regional and remote areas, you know how important this program is. It helps to support universities to deliver teaching and training to an equivalent or higher, and that is what I think ECU will do. They will deliver the higher standard that I’m sure they are aiming than that which is achieved in metropolitan settings.

Most importantly, we know that health professionals who graduate from rural placements are more likely to stay in the regions, and we really do need them to stay with us. We need them to stay committed to what they’ve trained do, which is provide such essential health and care for citizens of all ages, particularly those people who are of a mature age who are choosing to retire and spend the later years of their life in the South West of WA. We are seriously short of GPs. Unfortunately, the changes that were made by Labor, straight after the election, to the allocation of overseas trained doctors have seen doctors become targets of outer metropolitan areas, attracting them back into those areas. It has become far more competitive for us in trying to retain our GPs. It’s an ongoing issue for us to keep fighting for, but I’m really hoping that ECU will able to help with the broader medical profession and that, through the rural clinical schools and other measures, we will see more GPs from our region go away to study and come back when it suits them with their families to live and work in what is a fabulous part of Australia, which is rural and regional.