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
I rise to defend the sector that I spent much of my working life in, starting out as a research assistant on a project to remove landmines and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan and moving on to become a senior lecturer, then a course coordinator and eventually a researcher and professor. I've pretty much done it all at universities, including writing new units and courses, getting accreditation for new courses, and dealing with the processes for accreditation and quality assurance at universities. I stand here to reiterate the stance of the member for Sydney and shadow minister on this: Labor does not support this bill.
This bill, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, seeks to establish a new charge to recover the cost of TEQSA's regulatory activities. The previous member really encapsulated what those opposite think about this bill. They see it only as a cost-recovery exercise. What they don't see is the other impacts this so-called cost-recovery exercise would have, after the horror year for high school students who want to go to university, after the horror year for universities, after the horror budget for universities—as the vice-chancellor of the ANU described it—and after a long and protracted campaign by this government to decimate the higher education sector and bring it to its knees.
We oppose this bill not because of its cost-recovery element but because now is not an appropriate time to recover costs and hit a sector that is already suffering and hurting—not just from COVID but from this government's ideological battle against higher education. The sector has experienced job losses of 17,000, and there was nothing in JobKeeper or JobSeeker for those who worked at universities as casual lecturers. I know those people. They were my colleagues. I had to watch them lose their jobs and have nothing. The budget that was handed down last week means that real funding for higher education will fall by 10 per cent over the next three years. We've got cuts to fundamental research.
The government like to talk about innovation and commercialisation. What they need to understand is that commercialisation and innovation doesn't happen without applied research. Applied research doesn't happen without fundamental research, and what's happened to fundamental research lately at universities? You've got people walking out of the science labs, hanging up their lab coats—as the member for Sydney, the shadow minister, said—and walking out, because there are no jobs. Australia is suffering a brain drain. It will continue to suffer a brain drain.
I have witnessed researchers with years of experience and some really fantastic cutting-edge research who just cannot get a break here in Australia. The research settings and the lack of research funding here in Australia has meant that they have gone overseas to commercialise their research and to continue their research in partnership with universities overseas where they do have a significant amount of funding, because their governments recognise the value of research funding and recognise the value of higher education. They know that innovation starts with the fundamental research that's being undertaken in universities.
But with all of that—perhaps the biggest thing—is that you've got young people who have a dream. We all had dreams when we were young. Now they're looking at $60,000 of debt by the time they leave university, all given to them by a government whose members benefited from a free education. I don't know what you'd say about that, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, but I think that's just deplorable.
We've got a government here that's just racked up $1 trillion of debt in a big spending budget. They threw around the chocolate and the candy. But it's not that they're not giving anything to higher education; it's not even that the budget didn't even include anything for higher education and research. It's now that they want to take away from them, that they want to start cost recovery at a time where they have brought universities, higher education institutions, to their knees.
Now is not the time to talk about cost recovery. If you only see this measure in terms of economics—in terms of cost recovery—without putting it in the context of a decimated university sector with lower student numbers, with students who can't afford to go to university because the fees are higher, with fewer resources, with less funding for research, with fewer staff and with huge job losses then you are looking at the wrong place; you are looking at this through the wrong lens. So I along with the shadow minister and Labor do not support this bill. Now is not the time. This government needs to demonstrate to the university sector, to young people, to researchers and to innovators out there that they care about what they do and that they want real reform to the sector, not just a cost-recovery exercise.