Liberal Uni Changes

September 02, 2020

I speak today on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. There's so much wrong with this bill that I don't know where to start, but how about I commence with the Orwellian title, the bit that says 'supporting regional and remote students'? There is nothing in this bill that will support regional and remote students, nothing at all. The National Party members of the coalition should hang their heads in shame for betraying the bush. Maybe that's why it wasn't mentioned by the previous speaker, because this bill makes it harder and more expensive for all students to go to uni whether they live in a region or a remote part of Australia or not. Under this policy nearly twice as many regional and remote students will have to pay the highest rate of student fees. The Treasurer takes the gold while bush kids get the shaft.

Regional universities will be much worse off. Regional universities, like the University of New England, in Armidale, deliver a greater proportion of courses that will have funding cut than non-regional universities. So much for the National Party standing up for their regional communities. They are patting themselves on the back for their lobbying efforts when they really just folded faster than superman can on washing day, in greenlighting this policy. It's the bush communities, the regional communities, that will suffer more than others.

What this bill will actually do and what the government says of it are two very different things. The government says the purpose of this policy is to provide additional university places and to redirect university enrolments to areas of study linked to jobs that are in demand in the labour market. This, perhaps, seems like a reasonably sound basis for a policy, on the face of it, if only this legislation actually did that. The effect of the bill, however, is to increase the student fee load and cut funding provided by the Commonwealth. Treasurer Frydenberg gets the saving while young Australians actually pay more. How is that fair, particularly in these times of a COVID pandemic? Basically, overall our universities will receive less funding to teach students and the university sector will be facing a funding cut of around $1 billion a year. That cut is on top of the $16 billion projected revenue drop from international students being locked out of the country and the $2.2 billion in cuts already made to university funding by the Liberal and National Party government.

Students will be paying more for their degrees. On average, students will be paying seven per cent more for their degrees. Students studying humanities will see their fees jump from $27,216 up to $58,000 for a four-year degree. Forty per cent of students will be paying more than double for the same qualification. Their fees will be increasing by $14,500 per year. We're not talking about medical degrees here. The degrees that will double in price are degrees in the humanities, commerce and communications—degrees that this government thinks produces graduates that are less employable. I am pretty sure that there are actually quite a few graduates of those disciplines occupying the government benches in the current parliament.

The minister claimed, in a media release on Sunday, that degree holders with the lowest full-time employment rates after three years included humanities and communications graduates. In fact, if the minister had done his own homework he would know that recent research shows that people with humanities degrees have the same employment rates as science or maths graduates. But rather than admit that he got it wrong, the minister reportedly blamed his senior media adviser—and still didn't provide the correct data.

Even worse than misreading this data, Minister Tehan's policy will actually do the opposite of what he promises. The government wants to encourage enrolments in maths, science and engineering. That is a noble and strategic aim, but what the bill actually does is reduce the money that universities will receive to provide these courses. Consequently, there will be a disincentive for the universities to provide more places in these courses or to provide these courses at all.

The government claims that this policy will create 39,000 new places over three years, but even if it does that would be woefully inadequate in terms of meeting demand. There is nothing in the policy to account for the expected increased demand due to the recession or for the increased enrolments due to the so-called 'Costello babies' now reaching university age.

This policy is a mess. It's a dog's breakfast. It will cut billions from the university sector, a sector hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but even before that the Liberals had been cutting and neglecting this crucial and important sector. This is a sector that is a foundation of the Australian economy. It is our fourth-largest export industry. The Liberals in their 2017 MYEFO cut $2.2 billion from universities and re-capped undergraduate places, so 200,000 students miss out on the opportunity of university places because of that cap. We know that, if the Liberals had their way, students would already be paying $100,000 for their degrees. They've forced students to pay off their HELP debts earlier, when they earn as little as $46,000, which is only $9,000 more than the minimum wage. This year, international students have been locked out, and that has caused a massive hit to our universities' coffers. Those full-fee-paying foreign students actually help to fund the degrees of other, Australian students.

For months, Labor has been asking the federal government to step in, help universities and save jobs. Instead, they've ignored the member for Sydney and done nothing—less than zero, in fact. So far, thousands of jobs have been lost across the country, and there are more to come. More are being announced regularly. Campuses have been closed. Not only have the government done nothing to help universities; the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. Three times he has changed the rules to ensure that universities are ineligible.

Regional universities have been particularly hard hit. The impact on these communities is going to be devastating. Universities in regional communities support 14,000 jobs, including not just the academics, the tutors, the admin staff and the library staff but the catering staff, the ground staff, the cleaners and the security staff—and on it goes. They are big employers in cities like Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Wollongong, Armidale, Bathurst, Newcastle, Ballarat, Bendigo, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Launceston and Burnie, to name a few. All of those workers have families, and they're just trying to get through this challenging year and put food on the table and a roof over their heads. But the Morrison government hasn't lifted a finger to help them.

The universities themselves are doing remarkable work during this very difficult time. Look at their researchers working around the clock to find a vaccine—a big shout-out to the University of Queensland especially. They have some promising trials occurring right now. Universities may end up saving humanity, but they can't rely on this Morrison government to protect their jobs.

This bill will also have greater impact on two other groups: women and First Nations people. Many of the degrees which will incur the fee increases have larger enrolments of female students and First Nations students. Twice the number of First Nations students will be enrolled in the highest-fee-paying courses, and the average female student's contributions will increase by 10 per cent. The First Nations students' contributions will increase by 15 per cent. That will cost those students $9,550 a year.

This bill also includes provision for students to lose access to government support if they fail more than half their subjects. This is a punitive measure that is not going to help students to be job ready. This policy, coupled with the funding cut, will see reduced support for students who are struggling—perhaps only temporarily struggling—and just need a helping hand. Even worse, the policy would create an incentive for universities to lower standards so fewer students fail. This is another ill-thought-out policy that won't achieve its stated aim.

This bill has been criticised by experts in the university sector as well as industry groups. Bronwyn Evans, the CEO of Engineers Australia, says:

… the … Government's announced changes … may … lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

The Australian Council of Deans of Science says: 'Cost is not a critical driver for students to study STEM, and it will not serve to generate more STEM-capable graduates if the funding changes undermine the capacity of universities to produce them. The funds that will come to university science to produce graduates will shrink by 16 per cent under the Job-ready Graduates proposal—less from each student and less from the government.' Julie Bishop, the Chancellor of ANU and a former Liberal minister, says:

My concern is that under these new arrangements, there is a greater incentive for universities to take in a higher number of law, commerce and humanities students than there is to take in students in engineering and maths … that appears to be contrary to the government’s policy intentions.

That message from Julie Bishop could not be clearer.

It's remarkable that a government minister, Minister Tehan, could get this policy so wrong, but not when you realise the policy assumptions that Minister Tehan has relied upon. Flaw No. 1: the experts say students will not choose their study discipline through price signals. Flaw No. 2: the pricing model used to calculate average university teaching costs is weak, and the authors of the research caution against using their finding for that purpose. Flaw No. 3: the job demand modelling is based on labour market forecasting done before the COVID crisis, which is highly likely to skew those figures. So this policy now before the chamber is a putrid, stinking mess—and a dangerous one at that.

The students in year 12 right now are the ones who will be most disadvantaged by this policy. The seniors of 2020 need a helping hand. They have had such a tough, uncertain year already. No other year 12 cohort has had to endure a final year of schooling quite like the one they have endured—online classes and less face-to-face time with their mates and teachers. They've had their sports and cultural activities curtailed, many have had their formals cancelled, and perhaps there will even be no schoolies in Queensland for most of them. Now the Prime Minister is going to make it harder and more expensive for many of them to go to university. I know how excited I was at the end of my schooling—the promise of learning in an environment that fostered ideas and promised a future paved with opportunity and a new career. I understand the importance of education both from my time as a student—and from being the parent of students—and from my time as a teacher.

Labor has always valued education. It is a great transformational social policy area. Lives are changed, lives are saved and lives are improved. When in government, Labor ensured that a university education was never out of reach for our best and brightest. Labor invested in universities, boosting university investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. From 2012 we opened up the system with demand-driven funding so that an additional 195,000 Australians were able to go to university, and we ensured that structural disadvantage did not preclude a university education. An extra 220,000 Australians were given the opportunity of a university education under Labor policies.

We know that if you lock someone out of an education you can lock them out of employment. This government doesn't seem to understand that. Investing in Australian universities is good for all of us, but this policy before the chamber is a complete mess—a great steaming mess. No amendment can fix this. The minister needs to rip it up, do some homework and start again. I cannot support this bill. No person who believes in education could.