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

4:57 pm

Photo of Alan TudgeAlan Tudge (Aston, Liberal Party, Minister for Education and Youth) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to sum up to on these bills, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021. One of the reasons that we have a highly regarded tertiary education system in Australia is because we have very good regulators. With that regulation though, comes some costs. These bills are aimed at recovering those costs in the now becoming-normal arrangements that we are putting in place across the Commonwealth.

I should stress that these had been mooted, and in fact it was a budget decision, as previous speakers have said, going way back to 2018-19, and we're legislating now for it to come into effect next year. Then, when it does, there will be a transition period over three years. It's in keeping with our general principles of cost recovery. There's a transition period starting from next year. We obviously have consulted in relation to this, and the sector has known it has been a long time coming.

I would say in relation to this—and in doing so address some of the points which particularly those opposite have raised, which I note are opposing this bill which is disappointing—that at the moment all of our regulatory costs have been deferred. They have not just been deferred actually; they were not charged during last year. Indeed, a budget decision was to extend that all the way through the remainder of this calendar year, and obviously we'll keep a very close eye on it.

Why did we do that? We did that because of the impact of COVID on the higher education sector—on our universities and our private higher education providers. This provided them some relief during that period, particularly, as many have noted, when international students—who are a significant source of revenue for more of them—weren't arriving into the country.

I did want to also address a couple of other points, particularly those which the shadow minister, the member for Sydney, raised and which others from the opposition benches also raised. The main point which they were making was twofold, the first being that this is not the right time to be doing this and the second being that we have not supported the higher education industry. Let me address each of those.

They say, 'This is not the right time to do it.' Well, I've been through that. It was raised in 2018-19. It comes into play in 2022. And there will be a staggered introduction. We've waived the fees up until that particular point in time, and obviously we keep a close eye on what's going on.

Have we actually supported the sector throughout the COVID pandemic period? The answer is yes. Obviously, the tertiary sector has been impacted by the fact that international students have not been able to arrive into the country since our borders were closed early in calendar year 2020. For our public universities, international students are a significant source of their revenue—about 25 per cent—and, for some of the private higher education providers, it can be as high as 90 per cent of their revenue. So we're aware of that and have actually put in place many measures already to support them. We provided, for example, the public universities an extra billion dollars in research revenue in last year's budget and an extra half a billion dollars in additional Commonwealth supported places for domestic students, in full-time courses as well as short courses. So, all up, that's an additional $1.5 billion that the Commonwealth placed into the public universities.

In the most recent budget, we also had a particular package for the private higher education providers, noting that some of them are particularly reliant upon international students and international students for shorter courses—six-month courses, rather than necessarily two-, three- or four-year courses. That's a $53 million package provided for them, to help them deal with the pandemic. That will be rolled out over the next six months or so. It includes 5,000 additional short-course placements for the private higher education providers.

Again, we'll implement these measures and will be keeping a close eye on the private higher education providers, with the ambition, obviously, that international students will be able to return at some stage next year. As people would understand, we've made an assumption in the budget that that will be in the second half of next year.

A key point that the shadow minister raised—and she has raised this repeatedly, and I want to address it squarely—is that we should have provided JobSeeker to the public universities. That's been a key point of attack on the government from the member for Sydney and those opposite. I simply want to point out to the member for Sydney some basic maths. I know she's not very good at maths. She's not very good at geography—she confuses Africa as being a country rather than a continent. But she should know that, to be eligible for JobSeeker, you had to have at least a 30 per cent decline in your revenue, and, if you're a larger organisation with a billion dollars of revenue or more, you had to have a 50 per cent decline in your revenue. Not a single public university—many of whom were above a billion dollars worth of revenue—would have got anywhere close to that figure. So this point that the member for Sydney continuously raises is a false point, and surely she should be aware of it. In fact, if anything, I look at the figures and I know that international student numbers are down, but, for the public universities, they're down about 13 per cent at the moment. Now, international students make up 25 per cent of public universities' revenue, so 13 per cent down on the 25 per cent. That does not get you anywhere near a 30 per cent decline in revenue, let alone a 50 per cent decline in revenue. Surely that basic mathematics should be understood by those opposite, particularly the shadow education minister. So it is just a false argument which she has continuously made to make out that we are not supporting the public universities.

I will also point out—and maybe the member for Sydney is not aware of this—that many of the universities continue to report budget surpluses; not all of them, and I understand that. For example: Monash University reported its biggest-ever budget surplus in 2020 of $267 million; Melbourne University, $178 million; Flinders, $35 million; University of Southern Queensland, $12 million; Western Sydney University, $13 million. I appreciate that some have reported deficits in 2020 and I understand that, but that is on top of aggregated budget surpluses of $16 billion over the last nine years from our public universities.

I know that some of them are feeling the squeeze. We understand that. We have provided that additional assistance to those public universities. As I have publicly said and say so continuously, we keep a close eye on their finances. We are working closely with them. We are doing so in terms of potentially getting some pilots up of international students later this year and there is certainly an assumption made in the budget that we will have larger scale numbers of international students back next year.

Getting back to this particular bill, it is a reasonable bill. It has been talked about for many years. We are passing the legislation now knowing it will be implemented from next year. It will be phased in and, in the meantime, all of those charges and fees have actually been waived during this pandemic period. I commend the bill.


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