24 February 2020

I'm very pleased today to rise in this place to speak on the Student Identifiers Amendment (Higher Education) Bill 2019. Labor will support this bill, but I also support the amendments moved by the member for Sydney. They're very sensible and factually correct amendments that note the ongoing failure of the Liberal-National government to support higher education. They also note the slashing of funding to universities by this government and also the retrograde funding cuts for science and research made by the Liberal-National government.

Many of us here are passionate about the value of our higher education system and the benefits it brings to Australia economically, socially and of course personally for every individual, but only the Labor Party supports the higher education sector with policy and practice when in government. After seven long years of this Liberal-National government, all the sector has seen, very sadly, is cuts, cuts and only ever more cuts. Labor understands the prosperity that comes from keeping our higher education system strong. It lifts the nation up, it opens doors for individuals and gives opportunities to those who may not have had them before. A university education transforms the lives of individuals and is one of the best investments any government can make. In one generation it can close the disadvantage gap and have flow-on effects for entire communities. As the member for Sydney said earlier in this place today, education is the greatest opportunity to achieve equity and equality.

In government, we continued that great Labor tradition by ensuring that a university education never remains out of reach of anyone. In order to achieve this goal, Labor invested in Australia's universities. After many years of neglect under the Howard government, Labor boosted investment in universities from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. We also opened up the system with demand-driven funding in 2012 which has seen an additional 190,000 Australians able to get a place in universities. Now this Liberal-National government has cut $2.2 billion out of the sector, which is an effective cap on places. That means that 200,000 people who could have gone on to further education in this country no longer can. That's an opportunity that has been denied to many people in my electorate: once they could have gone to university, but, thanks to this Liberal government, they are no longer able to.

This bill speaks to the importance of the sector as a whole by modernising and making sure that universities, governments and appropriate agencies have the tools required to continually provide the best support possible to students in this country. The bill amends the Student Identifiers Act to enable the extension of the Unique Student Identifier from vocational education and training to higher education students. The Unique Student Identifier is a secure online record of a student's nationally recognised training. The national system was developed to track student outcomes and pathways through the education system, and to facilitate assessment of overseas students and communications between relevant state and federal departments.

Critically, the Gillard Labor government developed a business case for a unique student identifier within the vocational education and training system, but, sadly, that legislation lapsed at the 2013 election. It must be noted that the Abbott government, in 2014, did pass the Student Identifiers Act, but that did not extend to the higher education sector, which is what we are seeking to do today. Since 2014 there has been radio silence on this very sensible reform that will help students and policymakers alike.

As has been noted before, the higher education system still uses the Commonwealth higher education student support numbers, and this bill will enable a single student identifier that will record a student's entire tertiary education by decommissioning the old CHESSNs and expanding the student identifiers to higher education. It proposes that from 2021 new domestic and onshore overseas higher education students can apply for a student identifier. If we extend this identifier from vocational education and training to higher education then universities and governments will better understand how Australians use post-secondary training as well as pathways between vocational education and other higher education institutions. This is useful as it will more clearly inform future policy development and program delivery through new, up-to-date evidence based data.

It will be important to ensure that, as a national universal student identifier is extended to school students, we continue to maximise the new data that is gained while at the same time protecting the privacy of students at home and abroad. That is why Labor is happy to support this bill; however, as usual, it is clear that something like this should have happened a lot sooner. Seven years in power and this government has failed, until now, to adopt what is quite a simple reform. It is abundantly clear to the Australian public and everyone involved in the higher education and VET sectors that this Liberal-National government has no plan, has no agenda other than chasing weird ideological pursuits and is distracted always by its own internal bickering. The coalition government have failed once again to see the real importance of the higher education sector. They should have extended this scheme to the sector years ago. This government can't even do the simple things quickly—it's taken seven years!

Two years ago, in 2018, the government's own Gonski review, the Report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools, said:

The absence of a national, persistent USI is a barrier to creating national education data sets that would assist in developing a comprehensive understanding of the impact of policy or partnership efforts. Without the USI, the numerous existing data sets are disconnected and analysis of these can only provide limited insight. This has particular implications for areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy, where there are calls to increase the relative priority of specific skills and subjects but the impact of previous and future policy changes are uncertain.

This is from their own report, and here we are, two years later, and finally this unmotivated government is getting around to this simple, uncontroversial change that could help the nation understand how the education system is working. Perhaps they could even think about developing policy to improve it. The truth is that the Liberal-National party simply don't care enough for good policy in this country and they never pass up a chance to cut university funding and funding to the vocational education and training system in this nation.

Labor is committed to developing policy based on evidence. At the last election, Labor committed to establishing a national evidence institute to evaluate what works and what doesn't work in Australian schools. This institute would commission new research, help educators stay up to date, save money, lift standards and help schools that are already doing excellent work to share their successes and their knowledge with other schools. Practical, helpful education policy: it's an idea that this current government might want to look at themselves and perhaps seek to implement for the good of the nation.

It's a policy we developed because, on this side of the House, Labor understand the needs of the education sector and we understand the importance of building a policy around solid evidence and facts. It's time we gave students in this country the best education possible and put an end to the ideological battles that have been waged in the sector. Strange and paranoid red-herring arguments about freedom of speech on uni campuses have distracted this government from doing the important things—simple things like this student identifier bill. Instead, they chase their tails on ridiculous arguments that just seek to denigrate people who work at universities and people who study at them. Labor supports education policy based on credible research, not strange conspiracy theories. Data collection through a national universal student indicator scheme would improve outcomes for all students—and not just students, of course.

A strong higher education sector has fantastic benefits for the economic health of a nation. Australia's economic growth has been the slowest it has been since the global financial crisis. Wages are stagnant, household debt has skyrocketed, almost two million Australians are looking for work or more work, and the unemployment rate is higher than it should be. Business investment is at its lowest level since the 1990s recession. Productivity and living standards are going backwards. A decline in educational outcomes and a skills crisis are contributing to these dire circumstances. We see it every day. Put simply, investing in and maintaining our world-class universities is good for all of us. The value that university education has added to Australia's productive capacity is estimated at $140 billion in gross domestic product.

It is a sector under extreme pressure, with the outbreak of COVID-19 affecting international students. As we all know in this place, the internationalisation of Australian education is a great success story and one that has enriched our society as well as our campuses. International education is a $33 billion export industry, one of Australia's largest. The international education industry also supports over 130,000 jobs in this country. We mustn't forget that the international education industry also supports science and research in our public universities. As science and research has been cut by this government year upon year upon year, universities have but one choice: to turn to their international student market to ensure they can get the funding from those students to support science and research. If this government would care to think about the benefits of science and research and perhaps start funding it instead of cutting it all the time, they would find our universities under less pressure to continually seek to grow on a massive scale the international education sector.

It is a sector we want to grow, but, in times like this, when we see the outbreak of COVID-19, we can see how easily it can be damaged by something that is beyond everybody's control. I must say, when this crisis with COVID-19 is over, all Australians—certainly those of us in this parliament—will warmly welcome back to these shores Chinese students and other students from across Asia, because we know the participation they bring to the university education system in this country is gravely important not only for other students on campus but also for the entire education system itself.

As I said at the start, Labor supports this bill. I also support the amendment moved by the member for Sydney. I urge the government to do more to support this important sector that is facing so many challenges on so many different fronts.