House debates

Tuesday, 25 May 2021


Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

4:32 pm

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'll say at the outset that I don't support this bill, Labor doesn't support this bill and this House should not support this bill. It doesn't matter how much fancy language the government dresses it up with, it's a bill that will whack higher education providers with new charges at the very worst possible time. There is no detail in the legislation about how much people are going to pay. There's no transparency or scrutiny. We heard from the previous speakers: 'Trust us; we're the government. We'll go and consult. We'll do a bit of stakeholder feedback.' Well, Labor has heard from stakeholders. The universities say that now is the worst time, and the independent higher education providers also say that now is the worst time, to whack the sector with higher fees and charges.

I'm not in principle opposed, I must say, to the idea of moving sectors, over time, to cost recovery—but not now. University budgets are being smashed. We've heard a lot from the government speakers throughout the debate about their job-ready graduates program—a three-word slogan. Well, this job-ready graduates program will see real funding for higher education fall by 10 per cent over the next three years. That's what Senate estimates was told. That's what the budget papers show. Under the government's program for universities, real funding will fall by 10 per cent over the next three years.

Student debts are rising. We've got tens of thousands of Australian students now facing fee hikes. Again, the answers they finally gave to the last round of Senate estimates admitted the truth. What they'd said when they introduced the bill was, 'Oh well, fees might rise for students by seven per cent over three years.' The truth is that on the government's own figures fees for university students will rise by 16 per cent over three years under their so-called reform program.

Now is the very worst time to be whacking universities with higher fees. They've already faced losses of $3 billion just in the last period because of international students and the borders being closed. The economy has lost $9 billion from international education already, with more to come. But the government is not helping universities; they have implemented this real cut to their funding and more charges. It is like the minister over there is a little bit jealous of member for Hume: 'the member for Hume has got a big stick. I will get out my slightly smaller stick and whack the sector'. We have seen from the government that 17,000 jobs have been lost already and they are just the jobs that show up in organisation charts that you can put a position next to; it is not the other thousands and thousands of casuals, sessional teachers, casual researchers and other support staff. There have been 17,000 jobs lost because the government refused to extend JobKeeper. In fact, they changed the rules three times to make sure that public universities in this country were one of the few sectors not eligible for JobKeeper—teachers, researchers, cleaners, support staff, administration staff, people with families, just like all other Australians except they happen to work for a public university, and the government was out to get universities.

The most immediate impact of the international student loss of revenue has been on research. We've had a weird funding model for too long in this country, where universities make a profit off teaching students to fund research. The government, I think, three years ago cut $2.2 billion, another little sneaky cut, in the mid-year financial update—another $2.2 billion the Prime Minister hacked out of universities. At that time, he and the Treasurer said, 'Don't whinge. Go and recruit more international students.' Well, they did that and now the government is saying, 'Well, you're a bit dependent on international students, aren't you?' The practical impact of this is that our research budgets across the nation have been slashed. We hear the government say, 'We gave them a billion dollars.' We didn't actually give them a billion dollars. What the government did was bring forward money that they were going to give them in later years and now its cutting that money. So at the very worst time, we've got the government cutting university funding, effectively cutting research funding, because they've already brought it forward in a national emergency when we need research to commit to the economic recovery, seeing international education fall over—our fourth-biggest export sector—and they are thinking: 'Here is another good idea; we could whack them with fees and charges.' You could wait a couple of years if you want to move to cost recovery, until the cash flows for the universities have recovered.

There is a lot of focus in this debate on universities and very little or none on independent higher education providers. It is no exaggeration to say many independent higher education providers are facing oblivion. They are looking a fiscal cliff in six or 12 months as the student pipeline dries up. If anyone understands the nature of these businesses and this sector, they go on a pipeline. As current students leave, there are no students coming to replace them. It is a myth that gets perpetuated and rolled out—sometimes from people on my side, sometimes from the government—that all higher education providers and non-university providers are somehow dodgy. They're not. Many of them are good reputable businesses giving quality courses often in niche markets or skills.


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