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Wednesday, 10 June 2020
Page: 3772

Ms SHARKIE (Mayo) (10:56): It's estimated that, due to COVID-19, university sector revenue in Australia will be down between $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion this year, and $16 billion over the next four years. In my home state of South Australia, the University of Adelaide is estimating a $250 million budget shortfall over the next two years; the University of South Australia, $120 million; and Flinders University, down $54 million in this year alone. We simply cannot pretend that this won't have a significant impact on the quality of the tertiary education of our young people, or on our local economies. And to put this economic impact into perspective, 650 Australian businesses earn more than $50,000 of their annual revenue as a supplier or contractor to Flinders University alone. Imagine the economic impact on every business and contractor providing products and services to universities across Australia as a result of drastic cost-cutting measures being implemented across the industry to ensure the ongoing survival of universities.

Much has been said in the media about universities relying on revenue raised from international students; however, as the system stands now, there is no incentive for Australian universities to take on more domestic students. In the 2017-18 year, the federal government imposed caps on funding of domestic students, creating an upper ceiling on domestic student intake. The funding system is based on the number of domestic students who were enrolled in university education several years ago, but times have changed and we must look at this outdated cap system.

Since first being elected in 2016, I've been passionately advocating for more tertiary educational opportunities for young people from the regions like my electorate of Mayo. Roughly 22 per cent of South Australians live in the regions, yet regional students only account for 16 per cent of domestic students enrolling in South Australian universities, meaning our regions are underrepresented at university. Lifting the cap on regional student intake would give universities a much-needed revenue boost during such difficult financial times and create a more equitable representation of the regions at university. A lifting of the cap on Commonwealth university places for domestic students in rural, regional and remote areas would help to ensure the regions continue to have the skilled professional workforce they need to continue to drive local industries, such as agriculture. Those kids are the ones most likely to go back and live in regional Australia, whether they be doctors, whether they be nurses or whether they take their ag skills back home.

As a means of supporting Australia's universities further, stimulating the construction industry and creating much-needed jobs, I would also encourage the government to look at providing universities with low-interest loans for capital infrastructure projects. I know, for instance, Flinders University has budgeted to invest around $80 million this year in their capital works asset renewal and maintenance of infrastructure. However, due to COVID-19, and the resulting impact on the sector, Flinders has no option but to defer around half of this year's investment indefinitely, with a similar deferral each year until at least 2023, by which time $115 million would have been cut from capital spending in the local economy. Think about how many jobs that $115 million would equate to. Charles Darwin University recently received a $150 million concessional rate loan from the federal government's Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. South Australian universities have no access to such a fund, and yet the need is well and truly there. Minister Tehan recently announced a rollout of short online courses in order to help Australians upskill or retrain at heavily discounted rates. I congratulate the minister on such an initiative, as it offers universities a flexible avenue to generate alternative revenue streams while at the same time providing options for Australians who may have found themselves jobless due to COVID. However, I would ask the government to consider expanding the initiative to more available places for a longer period of time. Universities will be suffering financially from COVID for at least the next four years. We know our whole economy will. We need to ensure that some form of government support is there in that period in between.

Australia is a nation that's able to boast world-class universities. In fact, 15 of our Australian universities make the top 200 of world university rankings. It is imperative that we offer our universities the financial support they so desperately need in order to ensure we remain world-class players in university education and to further educational opportunities for young people. Particularly, young people from regional Australia must be a priority of the government.