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Thursday, 12 November 2020
Page: 12


Ms MURPHY (Dunkley) (10:29): This chamber, this parliament, is full of people whose lives have been enhanced by university degrees. It's full of people whose opportunities for work and for civic engagement have been enhanced by university degrees. Some people in this place are the first person in their families to ever attend university. My husband is not only the only person in his family to finish high school; he is the first person to attend university and is now a professor at Monash University. My father was a public school teacher and then the head of the School of Education at Charles Sturt University, dedicated to teaching teachers to teach. There are members of this chamber who have worked at universities.

There are many, many people in this chamber whose work opportunities were enhanced because they studied degrees such as law degrees; they studied accounting, they studied administration, they studied economics—which I'll return to, but one might think that is a pretty important area of study when we're going through the largest recession in 100 years in this country—and they studied commerce. People in this chamber studied communications and, I suspect, marketing. And many, many people in this chamber studied humanities. We got the benefit of studying those subjects, which led to the diverse range of jobs and life experiences that we bring to this place and that enhance our ability to represent our communities. But, unfortunately, this government wants to pull up the drawbridge behind all of us and make it that much harder for people in our electorates to study those subjects, to reap those benefits and to have those opportunities in life.

It might not seem like a lot to some of the members on the government benches to leave university with a degree and a debt of about $58,000. But I can tell you that, in my community, that makes going to university almost inconceivable. It doesn't matter that it doesn't have to be repaid immediately. It doesn't matter that their HECS scheme will mean it has to be repaid. What matters is that we are asking young people to leave university with nearly $60,000 worth of debt hanging over them, and we are doing so in an economy that is going to be struggling to recover from this recession for years to come. It is absolutely galling that members of this government—the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the front bench, which is full of people with university degrees—come into this chamber day after day and talk about the economic impacts of the COVID recession and what they're doing to help people find jobs and to help productivity increase and the economy increase—and at the same time they have done, one might think, everything they can to make it harder for universities to get through the pandemic and to make it harder for people who come from a background where $58,000 debt is inconceivable to get the benefits those members got when they went to university.

And it's easy enough to disparage an arts degree, isn't it: 'That's basket weaving.' Do you know what people study when they study arts degrees, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker? They study philosophy, they study critical thinking and they study history—and we know what happens if you don't learn from your history. They study economics. Like me, they study psychology. They study social work. People that study humanities learn to think, learn to be critical and learn to be innovative. When we're talking about the future of work and being skills-ready, it is absolutely important and laudable that we get more people studying STEM. They wouldn't be a person in this chamber that isn't behind that. But when we talk about the future of work and STEM, and automation and the impact of technology, the jobs that aren't able to be automated will require people to be able to think innovatively, to be critical and to be imaginative. We will need people to work in the care economy and to have the skills to be able to look after others, and to think about better ways to look after others. And, while this government might not want people to be in universities thinking critically about policies, coming up with innovative ideas or applying ethics and philosophy to the decisions that are made in policy, that is an absolutely critical role for a civilised, forward-thinking, educated community.

As I've said in speeches before, we are looking at driverless cars in our near future, as inconceivable as that might be to those of us who grew up with the Jetsons and thought it was a fairy tale. We're looking at driverless cars. Of course, it's scientists and engineers and digital specialists who are designing them. But do you know who is working out how to make driverless cars make the decisions that we make, subconsciously or unconsciously, about whether to drive up a kerb and hit a tree or keep driving and hit a person? It is ethicists, philosophers, thinkers—people who are in the humanities sections of universities. That's why the government's Job-ready Graduates Package is fundamentally flawed. As members have said before me, it's also flawed because we're looking at a university sector where there is a perverse incentive for universities, who have had billions and billions cut out of their funding, to now offer more places to those cheaper degrees than the ones the government thinks it wants people to study.

The member for Higgins asserted that it is absolutely false that universities have been cut out of JobKeeper. I know that the member worked at a university, but if she were to go and talk to someone she would find that they are absolutely flabbergasted to hear that they were cut out of JobKeeper deliberately. Every time it seemed that universities would meet the thresholds to qualify for JobKeeper, what did this government do? It changed the thresholds. They've been cut out. Twelve-and-a-half thousand jobs across the university sector have been lost.

Universities were one of the first sectors to be hit by the pandemic. Universities, which have been relying on foreign students in part because of a lack of proper funding, lost their foreign students and were hit hard. They tried to explain time and time again to this government that it wouldn't just be their direct employees that would be hit; it would also hit the local economic ecosphere around universities—the cleaners, the maintenance people, the cafes that would have to be shut down. An economic ecosphere builds up around a university. We know that in my electorate of Dunkley. We know that with Monash University Peninsula campus; it is part of our ecosphere and we feel the cuts.

Before I finish, I want to pay tribute to two employees of Monash University Peninsula campus who, at the end of this year, will no longer be employees. Monash University, as we all know, has felt the financial impact of COVID-19. It has a funding shortfall of about $350 million because of that and has had to cut back. They didn't want to cut back in the areas of staffing—of course they didn't—but they've had to cut back in areas of student admin and engagement, research support and the library. Sadly, at Monash University, one of the decisions is that the office of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Major Campuses and Student Engagement) at Peninsula campus has been disestablished.

I know that Monash University will continue its commitment to the Peninsula campus, and the advisory committee I am privileged to be on will continue to operate. But one of the consequences is that we are losing Melinda Cafarella and Michael Watchorn. Melinda and Michael have made an outstanding contribution to not just Monash University but also our community over many years. We owe them our gratitude and thanks. Melinda commenced at the university in 2006 and Michael in 2012. Together they have coordinated eight open days, welcoming in excess of 25,000 prospective students and their families through the gates. They have welcomed and oriented in excess of 11,383 new students in 18 intakes. Michael has worked very hard with the region's industry partners, schools and local government—and state and federal governments, I might also say—on countless projects and committees. They've overseen the planning, build and official opening of the Monash Peninsula Activity and Recreation Centre, Gillies Hall and the new student hub. Gillies Hall is an amazing example of an economical and sustainable building. They have overseen a targeted regional marketing campaign for the campus, establishing a campus social media presence; hosted countless conferences for local organisations; and run hundreds of seminars, staff engagement events and workshops for internal and external stakeholders. Michael arranged for Monash University to host my first ever Dunkley students environment day last year, where students from high schools across my electorate came and talked about sustainability and what we can do to make a more sustainable community, state and country, and I thank him again for that. They have also overseen numerous capital development projects to improve the campus amenity and student experience. They will be missed, and, on behalf of our community, I thank them for their leadership, for connecting the campus with the community and for giving the campus a profile. I commit to doing all that I can to carry on their work.

Everyone, from both sides of this parliament, who gives a speech on universities talks about the importance of universities and research to our community, and I accept that everyone feels that genuinely. But it is not the words, in the end, that a government should be measured by. It's the impact; it's what actually happens. We know that, in the university sector, we have outstanding researchers, lecturers and administrators who were already working in highly casualised and insecure jobs. They were already working contract to contract. The idea of tenure has all but disappeared for many people. For some, that's fine. For some, a five-year contract is what they want, but, for many people working in the university sector, it's not what they want, and they certainly don't want rolling 12-month contracts. Just doorknocking across my electorate of Dunkley, I have come across many employees of universities, many of whom have been scientific researchers, whose biggest concern, which they've raised with me, is the insecurity of employment. Now, of course, they're faced with greater insecurity of employment because universities have been cut out of JobKeeper and because there have been over $2 billion worth of cuts before the extra billion dollars' worth of cuts with the job-ready legislation and because of the brutal impact of the lack of international students.

So, while measures in this legislation are welcome, and while this government has made announcements about further funding for research, that's really a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. This is a government that was able to bring in legislation for an integrity unit for university students, to make sure they didn't cheat at exams during the COVID pandemic, but wasn't able to bring in an integrity commission to oversee politicians and public servants, because apparently they were too busy during the pandemic. This is a government that, when it needs to pick a fight about anything, from freedom of speech to the way in which students behave, turns to the university sector to demonise it. This is a government that is suggesting that the range of degrees in humanities, law, economics and commerce aren't worthy degrees as to job preparedness. The figures that we quote about jobs that are lost and funding that has been cut aren't figures; they're people. I've spoken before about Nicole in my electorate whose son is doing first year law this year and whose daughter will start law next year. She's going to graduate with double the debt of her brother. It's not fair. It's not right. And the government has time to fix it. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Rob Mitchell ): Before I call the member for Curtin, I just want to remind members of standing order 62 and ask them just to be cognisant of that, particularly when people are speaking. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.