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Thursday, 8 October 2020
Page: 5324


Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (10:33): A strong university sector is critical to the national interest now more than ever, yet, again, we have another attack on Australia's university sector. This is a bill that flies in the face of our national interest and fair access to a university education. This Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020 is yet another failure, another failure from Mr Morrison's Liberal Party policy machine, a machine vested not in the national interest but in narrow ideological interests. It's approach is vested in an Americanised attempt to attack our education system. The Liberal Party simply wants to make it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university. It simply wants to attack the research fundamentals of our strong university sector.

A despicable deal has been done with Centre Alliance and Pauline Hanson to get this legislation through. It has no regard for the devastating outcome on universities and students. I say shame on Senator Griff and Senator Hanson. You have betrayed Australia's young people. You are responsible for all those young people missing out on a degree or paying more for their degree, and you are responsible for every university job lost. Senator Lambie and Senator Patrick, thank you for seeing sense in not supporting this bill. It was immensely pleasing to see your detailed examination of this legislation. You highlighted that you don't want to see a young Australian person from a poor background missing out on education and having a bright future. It's a shame that other members of the crossbench have not applied the same level of decency.

Amidst the economic fallout of a global pandemic, I would have thought that even this government would have a better set of priorities—upskilling Australians, drawing on TAFE and our university sector to rebuild our economy. Instead the government has attacked universities at a time when demand for education is growing. The increase in unemployment from the economic fallout of COVID-19 has seen an increase in demand for higher education. The government has talked about a so-called increase of 39,000 places. Those places are not locked into this legislation; they are on a wing and a prayer in terms of a promise to the sector. There is no funding for those extra places in this legislation. Universities have already been affected by the loss of international students and the decision by the Prime Minister to include them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy. That's seen over 10,000 university workers lose their jobs. Instead of bolstering the sector to aid access to education and economic recovery, the government has attacked the sector and rushed this legislation through under the cover of COVID-19. It is just the latest attempt to cut funding, increase student debt and reduce equity.

The impacts of this legislation are far too high a price to pay. The impacts of this legislation will leave a legacy that will fundamentally damage the most important principles and benefits of higher education in our nation. The government has, quite simply, bullied the higher education sector into accepting a package that is clearly against the interests of students, the economy, research and innovation, the universities themselves and the nation. This government has rushed this legislation because it is up to no good. You fought tooth and nail against an inquiry that you didn't want. We had to contend with the government using its numbers to ensure an unworkable time frame to examine the legislation. This was all at a time when year 12s are doing their exams and have been confronted with the most difficult year ever.

This government is so averse to scrutiny that it didn't release the modelling on the impact of its own legislation. You ducked responsibility to the parliament and to the higher education sector itself. It is unacceptable that the government has asked parliament to vote on legislation without doing the decent thing and highlighting and giving members of this place access to information about the real financial impact of this bill on universities and students. In the absence of detail from the government, I will provide the opportunity to give some numbers that senators and Australian students might find interesting under this legislation. Overall, the student contribution increases by seven per cent. Some might say that, in the current circumstances, that's fine. But let's look at the inequity of how that debt is distributed. Forty per cent of students will have their fees increased but the fees for some degree fees will increase by 113 per cent. Universities receive less—not more—to educate students in the very areas you say you want to prioritise: 32 per cent less to teach medical scientists, 17 per cent less to teach maths students and 16 per cent less to teach engineers. This is simply nuts.

The University of Sydney highlighted nationally that women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are heavily represented in fields that will have the highest student contributions under the proposed changes. The government says, and I'm sure I will hear this further from senators opposite, that the aim of this bill is to encourage price signalling to guide students into particular courses. Well, the simple fact of the matter is that if you want to guide students into maths and engineering you need to allow universities enough funding to increase the places for those fields of study. Time and time again, price signalling has been tried and failed. It doesn't work. There is no evidence—the committee saw no evidence—that price signalling works.

Instead of redirecting enrolments to a certain field of study, this bill means that some students will be paying $14,500 per year for their education, and, frankly, this is more than the combined government contribution and student contribution by more than $1,000 already. The difference between the lowest fees paid by students and the highest fees will grow by a magnitude of four. The policy rationale here is just not supported by any evidence at all. Higher-paying professions will have lower fees; lowing-paying professions will have higher fees. A graduate could pay twice as much for their degree and earn much less than another graduate with a lower student debt. It is nothing more than an egregious, ideological agenda that has no basis in the reality of employability and job readiness for graduates across their fields of study.

On top of clear evidence that price signalling doesn't work, universities, in evidence to the Senate committee, have admitted that the fee schedule is likely to motivate perverse enrolment and spending outcomes. A number of universities told the committee they would jump immediately to the maximum student contributions, because of the package's funding cuts. This can only be code for taking that $14,500 you may be charging a commerce, law, economics or humanities student, and taking some of the money that that student will owe in student debt as well as the Commonwealth graduate contribution, and shifting that money to the fields of study where income for those places has been capped. So, far from being useful price signalling, this will result in perverse enrolment outcomes across our university sector.

Universities admitted that while the new student debt component would be higher than the total 2020 income per student, there was no requirement that these funds be spent on these same students, just as I said. Universities can move income from both student fees and the government subsidy to other faculties where student debt has in fact decreased and, indeed, the government contribution has also decreased. It is quite usual for universities to pool their funding and do this, but never before have we seen such perverse incentives for universities to maximise enrolment in fields of study where they can charge a profitable fee so that they can cross-subsidise other parts of the university. It's clear that international students have been used in this way for some time in accessing our quality education system, but we must look at equity in our own system. We must look at employability and we must look at fairness.

Put yourself in the shoes of an arts student. I've spoken to a number of year 12 students who accepted offers for places at ANU or UWA before this bill came to light, before they could see what their fee structure would be, and have heard through the recordings of Senate hearings that they're likely to be paying top dollar, $14½ thousand. They've had no opportunity to respond to price signalling. If those opposite believe in price signalling, why are they rushing this legislation? Students have had to enrol in these subjects before universities made clear what fees they will be charging. People have picked their courses and are looking at studying hard and forging careers in fields that are in demand. They will be getting an enormous debt, up to $14½ thousand a year, only to find, as they begin their careers and try to save for a home deposit, that the money they have in student debt has actually been used to cross-subsidise students in another faculty. Humanities, commerce and communications students: you'll be paying more for your degree than doctors and dentists, despite the fact that your graduate incomes won't be as high. This is despite the fact that you're still highly employable and much needed in our economy. It is fundamentally outrageous.

Year 12s have gone through enough this year. This government paints a bleak picture of university life. Every member of the Morrison government went to university, and some would say they've done alright off the back of their qualifications. I find it absolutely galling that this government is trying to make it harder for disadvantaged kids to chase the career of their dreams. It is a staggering misunderstanding of the aspirations of young Australians and of the bright future that the mums and dads of our nation envisage for their young people.

Perversely, this bill manages to construct a funding arrangement whereby for the areas of study where this government wants to see more enrolments universities will be paid less per student, but in the areas where the government wishes to discourage enrolment, off the back of these increased student fees, universities will have a greater income.

In their submission to the Senate committee, Innovative Research Universities said:

Total revenue for most disciplines the Government wishes to grow such as engineering, nursing and agriculture will decrease, but revenue in other disciplines the Government considers less important such as law, business and humanities, will be increased.

Total revenue per student in engineering and science will decrease by $4,798.

Total revenue per student in nursing will decrease by $1,729.

Total revenue per student in agriculture will decrease by $3,444.

That is patently ridiculous. What on earth are you people on the other side doing? It is utterly, utterly nuts.

I make a plea to this place, and in particular to the crossbench, to those who have indicated their support for this bill: please let's not let the government succeed in decreasing funding for the public provision of our world-class universities. It is a disgrace to be jacking up fees unfairly and distributing debt in this way. It disregards the aspirations of Australians seeking better opportunities through our nation's higher education system.