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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5322


Senator SHELDON (New South Wales) (10:22): I rise to oppose the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. The Liberals and Nationals have broken one of the great institutions of Australia: our world-leading tertiary education system. Instead of fixing higher education, this bill exacerbates all the worst elements of the current system. As Alison Barnes, the President of the National Tertiary Education Union, has said, it 'does nothing to address the funding and jobs crisis that is smashing our universities'. Let's be clear about what's happening here. The government are punishing the university sector to appease the culture warriors in their own ranks. The Liberal-National policy bin fire was already threatening to destroy what's left of our universities. This bill now pours fuel on that fire.

The COVID related closure of our international borders has had a profound effect on universities' finances. COVID has put a $4.8 billion hole in their income. Over the next three years, they will lose $19 billion. It's smaller regional universities that are really struggling in the pandemic. According to the Libs and Nats, it's the fault of the universities themselves—always a scapegoat for their own incompetent and culture-war decisions. They have conveniently forgotten that the sector's dependence on international student income, which has grown 137 per cent in the last decade, was created entirely by the systematic cuts to public funding. We must never forget that it was the coalition which capped government funding for Australians getting university places, And it's the coalition which has tried time and time again to bring in American-sized debts for students to compensate for the deep cuts in funding. At the end of the day, what this bill is about is cutting funding to the sector and shifting the cost burden to the students of working families, making it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university while also making it harder for universities to deliver a quality education.

Worst of all, it punishes challenged students instead of trying to nurture their ambitions. This idea that we can penalise students by taking their funding fails logic. There is no evidence that supports this measure. It ignores the reality of how life works and will penalise students who need the most help to learn and to thrive. Award-winning Sydney University professor, Rae Cooper, told ABC Radio recently that in her first semester of university she failed dismally. She almost gave up, but then swapped majors and ended up being awarded a university medal. She said:

I was just bewildered and lost and I didn't know how to navigate the system.

Students studying law, accounting, administration, economics, commerce, communications and humanities will pay more for their degrees than students studying medicine and dentistry. This does not make sense unless we assume that the government would like the lawyers, accountants, economists and journalists of the next generation to come only from richer households—those households which feel secure enough to pay a great deal for the opportunity to study these disciplines. And, of course, our society will be greatly poorer for it. Again the NTEU president, Alison Barnes, has pointed out in her brilliant op ed in The Australian:

Countless studies indicate the employability of arts and humanities graduates will increase as employers seek out students who can critically engage with dynamic problems.

Even the Business Council's chief executive, Jennifer Westcott, normally a strident supporter of this government, has said:

We need our brightest kids studying the humanities.

This package will not result in a single extra student doing STEM subjects. This is because the poor design of this bill actually gives universities less money to teach STEM courses like engineering and science. Analysis by Richard Holden, an economist at the University of New South Wales, shows that universities will receive $4,758 less per student per year for engineering, $3,513 less for maths and $3,440 less for agriculture. So universities will actually not be able to deliver the same level of quality of teaching that these important subjects require. Agriculture—note that: where are the Nationals? I know where Labor is: standing up for people in universities.

When the minister announced this program in June he said that it was designed to boost the number of graduates in areas of expected employment growth. But then, in July, education department officials gave evidence to the Senate COVID inquiry that the government has no modelling about whether university funding changes will incentivise students to study science instead of humanities. This minister either hasn't done his homework or he is using it to cover and to perpetuate the coalition's culture war on this sector.

But it's not just the students who will be failing under this system; it's teachers and researchers too. Even before COVID-19, Commonwealth funding for universities was at an all-time low. And what do the consequences for our universities look like when we look at this?

They look insecure, with further mass casualisation and endemic wage theft, where mainly young university staff are denied even minimum wages because their work is deliberately misclassified. For example, Victoria is the only state reporting casual employment data for universities, which is compelled by law. It's data recently revealed 68.74 per cent of staff are employed as casuals or are on short-term contracts across the Victorian university sector. This has consequences for university workers, many of whom will have been in casual positions for many years and still have no job security. Shan Windscript, a PhD candidate and casual teacher at Melbourne University, recently described what it was like living on $300 a week: 'I certainly wouldn't call it a living wage.' She was working seven days a week. She said, 'It felt like a trap.' She wasn't getting super or receiving her entitlements like sick leave. COVID-19 will only make this situation worse.

A report released in July from the Rapid Research Information Forum and handed to the federal government estimated that 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the university sector were at risk by the end of year, with 7,000 estimated to be research-related academic positions. The bill does nothing to help that. This bill shifts the burden onto students, regardless of where they study or what they study, particularly if they're a Western Sydney student. Based on the estimates of the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at the University of Technology Sydney, the government's package will take half the funds currently allocated to supporting students from underprivileged backgrounds and give it to universities in regional and remote areas. It is not that they don't deserve it, but what about those people in Western Sydney? What about the economic hub of Western Sydney University that employs and engages and makes Western Sydney more liveable?

The Senate Standing Committees on Education and Employment's inquiry into this bill heard testimony that the University of Western Sydney could lose $6.9 million a year under the government's package. Why take it out on Western Sydney? This is just another example of how this government pits communities against each other. It's failure in the member for Lindsay is stark in this example—failed to stand up for Lindsay, failed to stand up for Western Sydney and lost $6.9 million from the economy of Western Sydney, supporting the underprivileged. As Verity Firth, the former minister of education in New South Wales, pointed out: Western Sydney University has played a key role in expanding access to higher education for working class and first-in-family students. There is no reason why funding that is aimed at equitable outcomes should not continue to support the role of Western Sydney University, which has played such an important part. And yet, based on the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion's research calculations, Western Sydney University is the biggest loser from this package. But it's not just Western Sydney that is missing out; no city or region will be left unscarred by the injury to our universities.