Thursday, 18 February 2021
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020. Labor will be supporting this bill before the Senate today. This legislation makes a number of sensible changes based on the recommendations of Professor Coaldrake's independent Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards. Labor welcomes efforts to simplify provider categories and make the threshold standards for universities simpler and clearer to use. We should also welcome the strengthening of research requirements for our universities. We should always be pushing to improve our world-class research efforts. I can tell the chamber that in Victoria, for example, there are actually more researchers per square metre than in Boston. Everyone always thinks that Boston is the research capital of the world, but it's actually Melbourne, around the Melbourne university precinct.
Labor does, however, hold some concerns over the practical effect this bill may have on the education sector, and we call on the government to ensure that these changes will not jeopardise the reputation of our world-class university system. With this bill, the minister has also partly ignored Professor Coaldrake's expert recommendations. This bill expands the role of TEQSA, the higher education regulator, but provides no additional resources. Further, while Professor Coaldrake recommended that the term 'institute of higher education' be used for non-university providers, the government is instead proposing the term 'university college'. Labor shares concerns raised by the university sector that the use of the term 'university' could create confusion and allow private providers to present themselves as universities without being subject to the same strict standards for teaching and research and that this would represent a risk to vulnerable students. Universities Australia told the Senate committee on the matter:
As we have said, we would prefer the university college category not be used to describe things that did not conduct both research and teaching.
The NTEU further said that a different term should be used instead of 'university college', citing their concerns about the way that research quality is specified. There was a minority report written by Labor senators on the committee, and in that minority report we recommended that any reference to 'university college' should not be included in the regulations and should be replaced with 'institute of higher education', as was the full intention of recommendation 1 of the Coaldrake review. We encourage the government to ensure relevant regulations reflect this.
Much of this bill concentrates on research standards. Excellence in Research for Australia remains the best means of judging performance against standards. It is the responsibility of the Australian Research Council to ensure that ERA is not diminished by gaming or rorting. It is the ARC's responsibility to ensure that ERA remains fit-for-purpose, and that should be the focus for the current ARC review into ERA.
Given the limited research funding that is available, it is important that the national interest is pursued by ensuring excellence-in-research effort in the development of key national priorities and industries. While the government has promised short-term relief to the crisis through its $1 billion research fund for 2020-21, there is no long-term strategy to deal with our universities' funding crisis. Spreading limited research funding too thin and lowering our research standards will only endanger Australia's international reputation.
Labor does support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020. We know the Liberals, this current federal government, really have underfunded Australia's world-class university sector. At the end of last year there was a deal done in this chamber with Centre Alliance which hiked up fees for thousands of students, many of whom will be now paying more than double. I myself was the recipient of quite a classical education and I think it is incredibly important to maintain that Socratic method, to maintain critical thinking, in our universities and in the students we produce in this country. That kind of learning is very important in order to have a civil society and to ensure that our civilisation, our Western liberal democracy, is maintained.
When I look at the cabinet of this government, every single member of that cabinet went to university. We want to ensure that all children can have the same opportunity to go to university. The proportion of people in this parliament who have received a tertiary education would be far higher than the average in the community, and I think we all deserve, and all children deserve, that opportunity. Under the job-ready graduates legislation, students will have their fees increased to $14,500 per year, doubling the cost for thousands of young people. That means people studying the humanities, commerce and communications will pay more for their degrees than doctors and dentists.
We're in the depths of a recession, as we know. Senator Hughes, Senator Carr and Senator Ciccone, who are all here, are Victorian senators. Our state just came out of a lockdown last night. When you walk in the CBD of Melbourne, what you know is that it has been pretty badly hit and that, as a country, while there is economic recovery, there are a lot of people who are still suffering. Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, rising by 90,000 people in recent months alone. The demand for university places has surged. In New South Wales, twice as many people have applied for university this year than last year. Job prospects are weak, so the choice for many people will be between waiting in the dole queue and getting an education. Year 12 students have persevered through incredible uncertainty in the last year. In fact, in Victoria, a lot of children attended very little school at a physical school last year. So the last thing we should be doing now is making it harder and more expensive for children to get an education and get into university.
We on this side have been urging the federal government to finally step in and help universities to save jobs. Since then more than 17,000 university staff have lost their jobs around the country, with thousands more to come. University Australia forecast 21,000 job losses in coming years. What we need to do and what this government need to do is step up to ensure that these job losses cease and are as minimal as they can make them. They've done nothing to stop these job losses. In our fourth-largest export industry, the Prime Minister has shown very little interest in the thousands of university staff losing their livelihoods or the communities that depend on their jobs. The federal government has actually excluded public universities from JobKeeper. The rules have been changed to ensure that those employed at universities don't qualify for JobKeeper.
When I think about regional universities, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is going to be devastating upon them, and is in fact already so. Universities support 14,000 jobs in regional Australia. We're talking about the academics, tutors, admin staff, library staff, catering staff, ground staff, cleaners, security—all of these people in regional towns depend on regional universities for their jobs. All of those people, remember, have families. They're all trying to make ends meet. We're relying on our brilliant universities and their researchers to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but this government has done very little to protect their jobs.
Our record on universities is good. The last Labor government opened up additional universities, giving an additional 190,000 people a higher education. That is what we should still want. That is what this government should want. We boosted investment from $8 billion in 2007 to $14 billion in 2013. Under these policies we saw a new diversity in universities. Because of Labor's policies, the number of students from poorer backgrounds was up by 55 per cent, Indigenous student numbers had jumped by 89 per cent, enrolments by students with a disability had more than doubled and enrolments by students from country areas had grown by 48 per cent. These are the kinds of goals that should be driving any government's education policy, and they're the aspirations that will continue to define Labor's policies at the next election. We support the bill.