Senate debates

Thursday, 18 February 2021


Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

10:27 am

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

As with so many of these smaller pieces of legislation before the Senate, Labor comes to this debate not with a deep hostility to the bill before us, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020, but a sense of disappointment about the coalition government's approach to higher education and the university sector in total and a deep sense of the inadequacy of the opportunity provided by this bill to do some of the things that it should have done.

So many of this government's approaches to issues are driven by the bigotry and prejudice of dominant members of its backbench to particular sectors of society. We saw that last night in the passage of a bill that abolished the Family Court of Australia, which has been a mainstay of modern Australia's approach to family law, to treating men and women equally and to looking after the interests of children. More broadly in the area of higher education, because of the prejudice of some, the scepticism of others and the ignorance of the bulk of the coalition backbench, we see that hostility borne out in a legislative agenda that is hostile to the university sector. You only have to listen to the bellowing out during question time, the scepticism towards experts, the hostility to expert advice and research, and the weird muttering about cultural Marxism.

I've hung around with a lot of Marxists in my life. I've never really known what a cultural Marxist is, but apparently it's a bad thing. It's part of the sneering of those opposite about the university sector as if it is some kind of privileged elite, instead of what it actually is, which is people who have worked hard all of their lives to get the qualifications that are necessary, to have done the actual research based upon the evidence, to have engaged in a battle of ideas, to deliver research that matters, whether it's in agriculture, science, business, commerce, law or, indeed, foreign relations or defence—a whole range of matters that are vital to the future of our country and the communities that we seek to represent in this place, and vital to our national interest.

Of course, universities also do teaching. That matters to domestic graduates and, as my colleague Senator Davey pointed out, that matters in particular in a regional context. She is right to say that, if you learn in a regional university, you are much more likely than other school leavers to continue to work in the community that you got your higher education in. Universities are of immense economic, cultural, research and teaching and learning benefit to the communities that they are in, none more so than those universities that exist in our regional centres.

Senator Davey is also correct to point to the vital role of agricultural research in our publicly funded universities. It is a shame, of course, that, under successive governments over the last 30 years, the amount of publicly funded agricultural research in Australia has declined significantly and that the uptake of the private sector of privately funded agricultural research and product development research has not filled that gap. What that means is that, in agriculture, we've got much more short-term research focused on the interests of business, rather than the long-term public research that is required to deliver a long-term benefit for Australian farmers and Australian agriculture more broadly and to anticipate the kinds of threats and the kinds of challenges that our agricultural sector faces.

The government's legacy in higher education is a disgrace. It will be regional universities that will be the hardest hit. This bill does nothing to develop a stronger policy platform in universities. Regional universities support 14,000 jobs. They are critical to the future development of regional Australia, and they are already reeling from the impact of government cuts. Charles Sturt University has an $80 million revenue decline, a nearly $50 million projected budget deficit and up to 110 full-time equivalent jobs gone in June, second round in September; an estimated $73 million worth of extra debt under the fee changes that this minister has presided over, and 63 per cent of that additional debt will be paid by female students; 48 courses cut, seven revitalised and 61 modified—not modified to make them better; modified to make them worse.

At the Wagga Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University, there have been cuts to psychology, business, IT and creative industries. Psychology courses have been moved to different campuses or gone online. The Wagga Wagga campus has a proud tradition of theatre. Their community has had to come together to save theatre at Charles Sturt University and, in particular, the CSU Riverina Playhouse. Dr Dominique Sweeney said: 'Creative arts have been slowly wiped out in Wagga over the last 15 years. It feels like we're getting closer to losing it altogether. But we're an integral part of the community. We're not a waste of money.' The response of the local member, Mr McCormack, who as I understand it is still the Deputy Prime Minister, said: 'I would not expect any institution or business to offer services or goods which are not financially viable. In this case, taxpayers' money should not be wasted to support a course which is not adequately patronaged.' Until today I wasn't aware that 'patronaged' was a word.

He went on to say, 'Psychology degrees and others besides will still be offered online, which will mean students looking to study these degrees will stay in Wagga and look to seek employment here when they complete their degree.' What a mean-spirited, shallow response. The richness of country communities is in no small part due to a capacity—sometimes leveraging off the university system, sometimes leveraging off people in our high schools and sometimes leveraging off the endeavours of local creative arts people—to bring life to country towns. Here we have a federal government delivering cuts that have taken this away.

In Dubbo, the Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood and Primary) and the Bachelor of Educational Studies have been cut. In Port Macquarie, exercise science and the Bachelor of Human Services have been axed. In Orange there have been cuts to science, and postgraduate sustainable agriculture and courses have been axed. A report on the roundtable meeting with regional universities says, 'Increasing the cost of studying social work, behavioural studies and psychology may have adverse impacts on the rural and regional mental health workforce, and the community.' Mr Gee, in response, said he would take all the issues back to the Nationals party room to get the viewpoint of other country MPs on what their position should be. What a stimulating discussion that must have been, if it ever in fact happened.

Southern Cross University is in the electorate of Mr Hogan. In fact, I notice Mr Hogan was the only MP who wasn't on the list of who was for or against nuclear power. He often goes missing when the hard questions are asked, Mr Hogan. We saw Senator McGrath there—a long-term proponent of expensive nuclear power stations in coastal areas in Queensland. He's always blowing hard on these issues, particularly when there's a preselection coming up in Queensland.

Southern Cross University had a $58 million shortfall. Over 25 per cent of students in 2019 were international. There has been no action from the Commonwealth government to deal with this. Job losses across the Lismore, Coffs Harbour and Gold Coast campuses are inevitable. All of these are in tourism-dependent economies, which have been hardest hit by the coronavirus. Staff have voted to forgo a pay rise to try and sustain the financial position of the university. The academic calendar has been changed to a six-period calendar, creating an intensification of work for staff. They are putting an effort into that university to try to sustain as many courses as possible and have closed the Liverpool Football Academy in Lismore. Southern Cross University has the lowest enrolment cap of any university.

The University of New England, in the area where I grew up, had a $25 million shortfall. Last year, UNE announced a plan to cut costs with job cuts for 218 people, which was absolutely devastating for the country community of Armidale. Have we heard much from the member for New England? Not much. He is one of the characters who are most vocal in their hostility to science and the university sector. In response to the cuts, he said: 'You can't give as much to everyone as you'd like on every issue. If you go down that path, you'll run out of access to credit and there'll be no money to give to universities at all.' I mean, what mumbo jumbo. It makes more sense than many of the things that the member for New England says, I suppose, but indeed it is a very low bar to get over.

Regional universities should be the future of regional economies. Last year, a survey by the Regional Universities Network revealed that regionally headquartered universities are a driving force in those communities. The University of New England, Charles Sturt and Southern Cross are all members of that group. A study by Nous, who we hear quite a bit about from time to time, and the Centre of Policy Studies into the economic impact on the network showed that universities contributed $2.4 billion to real GDP in regional Australia and created 11,300 jobs.

Scenario modelling has demonstrated that the greater the investment in regional universities, the greater the benefits to regional Australia—

said Professor Helen Bartlett, the network chair. I suppose some of these characters on the coalition's backbench would be hostile to her views as an expert as well! She said: 'The Job-ready Graduates legislation'—which made its way through this parliament—'will have a positive impact in the regions through funding for more places and regional research.' If more students are denied places in our universities because of the actions of this government, if more jobs are lost, if more courses are cut, if our approach to the university sector continues in the direction that this government has set us on, it will do irreparable damage not just to regional communities but to the national interests.

Finally, I might say, nowhere more emblematic is the government's failure in this area than in its treatment of students from overseas. I will never forget the food queues that I saw of foreign students who we should have been looking after. It was a solemn contract really, between Australia and the parents of those young people who've come here for undergraduate or post-graduate study. A solemn contract is, 'We will look after your kids.' I don't know how it is possible for anyone to conceive of their own kids studying in a foreign university being forced into food queues to sustain themselves. But the enormous damage that has been done by the last minister for education, the new minister for education, the Prime Minister and this government to the reputation of Australia's higher education sector and its capacity to do its job on behalf of all Australia will be long-lasting and very difficult to reverse in what I hope is a future Albanese Labor government.


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