Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 August 2021


Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

12:36 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021.

Labor cannot support either of these bills. The bills, if passed, would enable the establishment of a new charge levied on higher education service providers aimed at recovering the cost of the regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. In doing so, these bills would alter the current arrangements for the agency in which only partial cost recovery is provided for, instead seeking to recover the full cost of the agency's regulatory activities.

Unfortunately, the devil in this case is not in the detail because these bills provide a distinct lack of detail on just how the proposed cost-recovery framework will operate. Sadly, this is increasingly becoming the standard practice of this government: provide a shell of a bill delegating powers to regulations, wait for the bill or bills to pass and then, and only then, reveal the specific set of rules, fees or enforcement mechanisms that will operate by regulation. This makes it difficult for the Senate, in particular, to do its important work, and raises serious questions about transparency and accountability in this parliament. And so it goes that, once again, we are unable to consider properly the specifics of these proposed changes.

Nonetheless, the government has not been able to convince stakeholders of the merits of these bills, nor is the opposition satisfied of their necessity. Labor opposes these bills in part because now is absolutely not the time to be levering additional costs and fees on a sector that has suffered significantly from pandemic-induced border closures and lockdowns. This is certainly not the time to be delivering additional costs on a sector that has not only seen many thousands of job losses, but has been forced to make difficult decisions that have impacted on staff, students and research. This sector has been absolutely left out in the cold by this government. It has been left high and dry when it comes to government support and assistance. Disturbingly, it was revealed during the most recent round of Senate estimates that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has not done or sought any modelling on the impacts that this shift will have on individual providers in the sector.

We are not talking about a small shift. This is not some sort of minor regulatory change that seeks to tinker around the edges. We know that, for example, for small and medium higher education providers—remember, these organisations have been significantly impacted and disrupted both by the lack of international students and the ever-receding horizon for a time frame for their return and, of course, by lockdowns—increasing regulatory levies and fees by up to 700 per cent represents a very real and present danger to their very existence. That figure, 700 per cent, is not a rounding error, in case you thought it was, Mr Acting Deputy President Brockman. It is a substantial and potentially devastating increase. A fee change, indeed, an increase, of this nature and its impact should have been modelled by the government or its agency in advance of seeking to bring about this change. The fact that this hasn't occurred is simply not good enough. Unfortunately, it is in no way surprising, because, sadly, we can add these bills to the seemingly endless list of examples of the Morrison government's seeking to undermine and attack this nation's world-leading higher education providers. These institutions have been repeatedly crying out for assistance and support for 18 months, but instead of the offer of a helping hand to bolster our nation's centres of knowledge, research and development, all we see from Mr Morrison and this government is kick after kick right in their time of need. They have been abandoned yet again by the Liberal Morrison government.

In this time of need you'd think that maybe, just maybe, the Australian government would deliver support in the budget for our universities, but did the budget have any extra dollars for our universities? No. Actually, they got a cut. In fact, real funding for higher education will fall by a staggering 10 per cent over the next three years. Just think about that. At a time when it couldn't be clearer that investing in higher education, research, development and building our nation's collective knowledge would provide the best pathway for success in this globalised and challenging world, this government, the Morrison Liberal government, seeks not to invest in the people and places that provide this essential service but, rather, to attack and gut them. It is astonishing, short-sighted and damaging to our nation's future and future potential. Not only that, but this year's budget papers have also confirmed that, due to Job-ready Graduates, funding provided by the Australian government to universities will be lower and student debt will rise. Remember that this is happening at the same time that many tens of thousands of students across Australia face fee increases at the start of this semester. And they are not small increases. For some students this hike amounts to a doubling of their course fee.

What about the current state of play for the sector as a whole? What we're seeing is that universities collectively are suffering a loss in revenue of some $3 billion. The impact that this is having on our economy as a whole has been quantified as being somewhere in the order of $9 billion lost due to the collapse in international student revenue. Faced with this dark, cold, harsh reality, one might be forgiven for thinking that our government would seek to help our universities, our researchers, our teachers and our students to ride through this rough time. You might think that, but sadly and unbelievably, it is not the case. Instead, the Morrison Liberal government has sought not to help our universities but to hinder them, to launch attack after attack, cut after cut, dagger after dagger. Perhaps the most obvious example would be the fact that the government proactively changed the JobKeeper rules on not one but three occasions in a very deliberate and targeted effort to guarantee that Australian universities could not access much-needed support to retain critical jobs in the sector.

Added to that, right in the middle of Australian universities' hour of need, Scott Morrison's Liberal government cut support meant to ensure this nation's world-leading research is kept alive. Labor acknowledges that the government did provide in the 2020 budget extremely modest support—$1 billion across the entire sector. This was meant to partly allay the impact of falling revenue from international students. However, this year the government decided to cut that funding, presumably on the basis that the pandemic is over and international students will return. Well, that hasn't happened, has it? Instead, thanks to the Prime Minister's botched vaccination rollout, we're no closer to knowing when our full international student cohort will be able to return.

What is the direct result of all of these deliberate attacks on this most pivotal of sectors right when it needs help the most? The answer is more than 17,000 Australians jobs lost. To really rub it in the government thinks, by prioritising these bills, that now is the time to levy yet further fees and charges on our universities and consequently on our students. It is extraordinary: 17,000 jobs have already been thrown on the scrap heap. How many more will it take for the government to be satisfied that its cuts to our nation's knowledge capacity are enough? These are academic jobs—tutors, teachers, lecturers and researchers—and the flow-on consequences are vast. We have seen administrative staff and many other vital support roles that keep universities going impacted too. These are all people with families and bills to pay, yet our Prime Minister has proactively sought to throw on the scrap heap these people's livelihoods and jobs.

If this government really cared about protecting Australian jobs, we would be debating in this place right now a bill to support this sector and every single Australian who works in it, not these bills that are designed to impose higher costs and rip more away from an already struggling yet essential component of this nation's economic fabric. What is it about our Australian universities and the people who work within them that Mr Morrison finds unworthy of providing the same support and protection that has been afforded other workers?

We've already seen that the budget provided no meaningful assistance for Australian public universities. It also provided a real cut in funding of over 10 per cent in the coming years. On top of that, the emergency funding meant to keep researchers in work was axed, despite the fact that this crisis is far from over. In fact, the impact of this crisis has been felt more harshly and for an ever-increasing length of time due to this Prime Minister and this government's ineptitude and failure when it comes to quarantine and the nation's vaccination rollout.

Students, workers and the entire sector dread what will come next from this government. After eight long years of attacks—first from Mr Abbott, then from Mr Turnbull and now relentlessly from Mr Morrison—this government thinks your ability to obtain a university degree should be dependent on your ability to pay. This Liberal government are happy to consign Australian students to a lifetime of debt. Indeed, this year's budget papers have confirmed for the first time—in writing, mind you—something the government has refused to admit in public—that is, this Morrison Liberal government is saving money by dramatically hiking fees on students and transferring responsibility for the nation's debt from the Commonwealth to Australian students.

The Australian people don't want this country to become like the USA. They don't want Australian kids to be saddled with a lifetime of debt to just get an education. Labor certainly don't want that either. That's why we've been calling for support for the sector—to support jobs, staff, students and Australia's amazing world-class higher education institutions. That's why we oppose these bills and every one like them. This government has sought to drive the knife into Australian universities and students over eight long years. Enough is enough.

We're now at the point where we're talking about our kids graduating from university with a debt of $60,000 just for a basic degree. This simply shouldn't be. How are young Australians supposed to save up a deposit for a home, let alone find a job and pay the bills with this lifetime of debt hanging over their heads? It's shameful and disgraceful that these bills will also only make it worse—worse for students, worse for staff, worse for academics, worse for researchers. This will further erode and undermine one of Australia's greatest success stories—our high-quality, world-leading Australian public universities and higher education providers—which we should be proud to support, proud to encourage, and grow not attack. It is for these reasons that Labor will oppose these bills and I urge the Senate to reject them.


No comments