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

1:13 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I don't support this legislation in essence because it will add significantly to the cost pressures already being faced by our tertiary institutions. Let's not forget that every extra dollar that universities have to contribute to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency will be $1 fewer that they will have to spend on research, on facilities, on teaching staff and on the other costs that they have. Ultimately, as costs go up for our universities, the fees go up, so I don't support this legislation and I'll be voting against it. Regrettably, this move by the government to increase the cost for universities is just another sign, another piece of evidence, that governments don't value our tertiary sector. They don't understand the practical and inherent value of knowledge, research and education, despite all of the evidence showing absolutely clearly that the better educated we are as a country and the better educated the community is then the smarter, richer, happier and healthier the members of the community are. So it's not a saving at all to be cutting funding to our tertiary sector or to be adding to the costs of their existing budgets. It's a false economy because we would actually be better off—and, in fact, the country would be richer and the government coffers would be fuller—if we had as many tertiary educated people as possible, who are, as I say, smarter, richer, happier and healthier.

I'm obviously a big fan of the tertiary sector and I'm very proud to say I align myself tightly with the National Tertiary Education Union. I believe they are a very powerful voice for the tertiary sector and we should be paying attention to what they have to say. To that end, I'm going to do something a little unorthodox for me; I'm going to spend a few minutes reading into the Hansard record the NTEU's response to the recent federal budget, written by Terri MacDonald, the director of policy and research at the NTEU, and published just five days ago in their online Sentry magazine:

With over 17,000 job losses and a $1.8 billion revenue fall, higher education was one of the worst hit sectors in the Australian economy by the pandemic. The sector had optimistically hoped that the Government would finally acknowledge the crisis and at least partly offer emergency assistance. But the 2021-22 Budget is a major disappointment.

NTEU's Budget submission called for public funding to be increased to 1% of GDP (in line with the OECD average) which would boost government funding of the sector and allow the abolishment of tuition fees for domestic student (alleviating the problem of compounding unpaid HELP debt) as well as improving research funding. We also put forward a proposal for regulatory reform which would mean that universities could work to individualised goals and objectives that include workforce planning and resourcing guarantees.

Federally, the reforms would also create independent body determined university funding, which would operate at arms-length from government thus depoliticising higher education funding. None of this is impossible; indeed, many other countries already have higher education that is fee-free for students and with far better government funding.

It goes on:

The Morrison Government's response to the COVID-19 crisis has not been to reimagine what a world leading tertiary sector could look like; indeed, they haven't even acknowledged the vital role that our public universities and TAFEs could play in revitalising our economy, leading innovation and in rebuilding our communities as we move beyond the pandemic.

The 2020-21 Budget—

that should be the 2021-22 budget—

is a major disappointment, but not only because the outlook is short term and new funding primarily targeted at for profit, private providers. Nor is it because it fails to assist Australia's 4th largest export industry during a time of unprecedented revenue and job losses. The greatest disappointment is that this is a Budget that has no vision for the sector, and instead sets our public universities and TAFEs up for even greater financial stress which could threaten the future of quality education and research.

Under the Budget, universities will see a decline of 8.3% in real terms between this financial year and next year, and a decrease of 9.3% in real terms from 2021-22 to 2024-25. Vocational education will also take a hit, with total funding to drop 10.8% next year and another 24.2% between 2021-22 and 2024-25. In fact, almost every line item under higher education investment in the Budget fails to keep pace with inflation—the exception being the increases in unpaid student HELP debts.

I'm almost finished. It goes on:

The Budget's forward estimates show how deep the cuts from last year's JobReady Graduates package changes are, with Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding (used to support teaching of domestic student places) falling from $7.34 billion this year to $7.31 billion next year, before plummeting in 2022-23 and 2023-24 to $7.12 billion and $7.14 billion respectively. It starts to recover in 2024-25 with just under $7.3 billion in CGS funding—but this is almost 4% less than what it is for the current financial year. Worst of all, the reductions in higher education funding—especially in relation to the CGS funding—will coincide with the sudden increase in the university entry age population as a result of the Costello 'baby boom', with around 14% more Australian-born people expected by 2024-25.

In a sector with already reduced funding per student, this will see providers teaching even more students for less.

Instead of taking the opportunity to put in place a higher education system that will meet our future innovation, workforce and research (the $1 billion additional 'emergency COVID funding' for research last year has not been continued) needs, the Government has stuck with the same structural system that was in place in 2019 (and was showing cracks then) but with even less funding per student.

Even worse, the financial crash in the higher education sector will now be exacerbated by a future shortfall in domestic funding, at a time when student enrolments are likely to surge.

In reality, this Budget sets our public universities and TAFEs up for even more financial stress, and their reliance on other avenues of funding—primarily through international student fee income—will only be driven further.

This is assuming that the borders reopen and the students can get here. It goes on:

This is despite the Government building into the Budget the assumption that it will be at least another year or two before they even consider opening our international borders.

I'll leave out the last paragraph of that opinion piece by the NTEU. I laboured through reading that document because I think it's a very significant summary of the challenges being faced by the tertiary sector as a result of the 2021-22 budget, in the shadow of COVID, and, in particular, the reduction of student numbers—obviously, now, but also for the foreseeable future.

I come back to my opening point. We shouldn't be adding to the pressures the tertiary sector is under. In fact, what the government should be doing is looking at how it can increase gross funding for the tertiary sector, not adding to the cost of them doing business, so to speak. That would demonstrate a clear understanding by government that the tertiary sector matters and that education and knowledge have very significant practical and inherent value. We should be investing in it and we can afford to invest in it.

I'll make this point for probably the hundredth or even thousandth time in this place: we are one of the richest, most fortunate countries in the world. If there is one country that can afford to fund tertiary education properly then it's this country. The only reason we are not funding the tertiary sector properly is because of the priorities of this government—and of previous governments, I would add, because there have been cuts over the whole 10 years I've been a member of this place. We can afford to do so much better, and it's a false economy to be cutting funding or adding to the cost pressures and diminishing our tertiary sector. The country is all the poorer for it. If we want to set ourselves up for a bright future, we need to be investing in education—at all levels, from early childhood education to primary and high school and college, and at tertiary level, including vocational training. That's what we should be doing. That's what a clever government would do. But, regrettably, we are doing the opposite.

I will echo the comment made by a number of speakers a number of times over the years. Too many people in this place got a free university degree—I got a free university degree—yet we are so quick to take a different approach to our children and their children. What was good enough for us is good enough for them. As a country, we can actually afford to have fee-free first degrees for Australian citizens. We did it before. We can afford to do it again. That's the sort of future we should be talking about, not adding to the cost to universities by making them pay more for the quality and standards agency.

This is a misguided bill. I hope the opposition will vote against it; I certainly will.


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