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
The legislation before the parliament today, the TEQSA charges and cost recovery bills, is legislation that the Labor Party does not support. The bills seek to establish a new charge to recover the costs of TEQSA's regulatory activities for higher education providers, moving TEQSA's operations from partial to full cost recovery. As we have seen in this chamber, there have been a concerning number of laws passed where the government leaves out
considerable detail, and, in this case, it has left out of the legislation considerable detail on how the cost-recovery framework will operate. This avoids the transparency that should be required of governments. It avoids proper transparency and accountability, and buries the detail of these charges in regulations.
In principle, Labor opposes this legislation because now is not the appropriate time to move to full cost recovery for higher education providers, providers who have been forced to bear the brunt of the COVID pandemic—most of them, and for the most part, without any government assistance at all.
Labor senators found during the most recent round of Senate estimates that the TEQSA has not done any modelling on the impacts this shift will have on individual providers. For small to medium providers who have been heavily impacted by lockdowns, the lack of international students has increased levies by up to 700 per cent, and this represents an existential threat to these providers—that is, a threat to their very existence and survival as businesses. This is not good enough. But it is just another in the laundry list of examples where Prime Minister Morrison and his government have attacked Australia's world-class higher education providers, providers in our nation that had been crying out for assistance—when they needed it the most. They have sought assistance from the government. They've received none. They've been abandoned. And now we see this legislation before us.
Prime Minister Morrison's budget had not a dollar extra for Australia's universities. Instead, our universities got a big cut. Real funding for higher education will fall by some 10 per cent over the next three years. This is not something our nation can afford. The budget papers confirmed that, because of the Job-ready Graduates Package, Commonwealth funding for universities will be lower, and student debt levels will rise.
All this is taking place after tens of thousands of Australian students started university this year facing fee hikes, with many having had their fees doubled and many of them offered places and accepting those places before the fee changes came in. This is manifestly unfair. All of this is at a time when our universities have faced revenue losses of around $3 billion—$3 billion in revenue—because of the loss of international students et cetera. The Australian economy has lost some $9 billion in decreased revenue from international students. These impacts are profound right across our education sector, yet the government has chosen not to help universities but to attack them yet again.
This government, the Morrison government, changed the JobKeeper rules three times so that they could make sure that universities could not get support. Right in the middle of the universities' crisis, the government cut support that was meant to keep Australia's world-class research alive. Then in the 2020 budget the government provided $1 billion to partly cover the impact of falling international student revenue. But this year the government cut that funding, despite the fact that the federal government has mismanaged the vaccine rollout. Our country still has no idea when international students will be able to safely return, no idea of when international students will be able to enrol at Australian institutions again nor, frankly, any idea of where our international standing will be relative to other jurisdictions which international students will have started to go to instead of Australia. As a result of all of this incompetence coming from this government, 17,000 Australians have lost their jobs—jobs that are needed to educate Australians in critical areas that we need in the future.
So why does this government feel that now is the time to levy further fees on our universities? We're talking about academics and tutors who have lost their jobs but many other workers too: admin staff and everyone who keeps a university and running. All of these Australians have bills to pay, mortgages, families et cetera. Why has Mr Morrison stood by? Why is he happy to see tens of thousands of livelihoods destroyed? If he really cared about keeping Australian jobs, he would be helping universities, not hurting them. Why does he not think that these Australian families deserve support? This budget provided no meaningful assistance for public universities; instead, it is seeing a 10 per cent real funding cut over the coming years. Emergency funding to keep researchers in their jobs was cut off while the crisis was and is very far from over. But, I guess, what else can Australians expect from this out-of-touch and in-crisis government? This is a government that thinks a university is good enough for their kids but not for yours—not for the hundreds of thousands of Australians who would like a place in Australian universities. This is a government happy to sign students in every electorate across the country into our lifetime of big debt.
During the last parliamentary sitting period, the budget papers confirmed for the first time what the government has refused to admit: this government, the Liberal government, is saving money by jacking up fees. Here on this side of the chamber, in the Labor Party, we do not want Australia to be like America, where Australian young people would have to have a lifetime of debt in order to get an education. This is not the future that Australians deserve. Currently in our nation we are talking about our children, our young people, graduating university with debts of around $60,000 just for a basic degree. All at the same time as they're trying to find work, save a deposit for a house or even start a family. Shame on this government.
[by video link] I speak to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021. I will state at the outset that the Greens will not be supporting these bills that impose yet another charge on higher education providers. Since the coalition have been in power, they have been on a relentless mission to attack the higher education sector. The bills establish a new charge to make registered higher education providers bear the costs of TEQSA risk monitoring and regulatory oversight activities. These include: concern management and resolution; stakeholder communications and engagement; risk assessment inquiries; business support; and guidance notes. These activities do not currently attract a charge and they should not attract a charge. TEQSA has an important oversight role when it comes to monitoring the higher education sector and should absolutely be fully funded to perform its vital functions, but this funding should continue to come from the Commonwealth.
The two proposed bills represent a really worrying continuation in this government's larger pattern of defunding the higher education sector and then shifting the costs of providing higher education away from the Commonwealth. Education is a public good and it should be fully publicly funded. Universities and other higher education providers are still reeling from not just round after round of funding cuts but also the huge impact the pandemic has had on the sector. The government refused to help the struggling higher education sector, deliberately changing the JobKeeper rules three times to exclude universities and denying them any further form of substantial support. This has led to tens of thousands of university staff losing their jobs. On top of that, the government pushed through with their so-called job-ready graduates legislation, which has condemned students, young people, to decades of debt. It has also condemned universities to less funding. It has condemned researchers to go without. It has condemned us to exactly the opposite of what we need at the moment, which is to fully fund our universities and to look after and care for our young people, academic staff and researchers.
Shifting the costs of TEQSA's monitoring and regulatory functions to higher education providers is not only wrong in principle; it will also overburden a sector already in strife on so many fronts. This is part of an ongoing pattern of the Commonwealth shirking its responsibility to fund the delivery and administration of higher education. This is clearly the kind of self-defeating public policy that we should all be voting against.
Shifting more costs to higher education providers has another worrying consequence: the charges will impact on the quality of education that students receive. This has been raised time and again by student groups who have provided submissions on other costs and charges bills. As the University of Sydney stated in their submission on the charges and cost-recovery proposals:
Every dollar that Australia's public universities and other not-for-profit higher education providers must spend on regulation and compliance is a dollar that they cannot invest directly in their core education or research activities.
It is our collective responsibility to fight back against every bit of funding taken away from higher education. And we should not stop at that but also build a movement for free TAFE and university. That would make higher education accessible to all without the heavy burden of years of debt.
If the Liberals have their way, universities will be funded only to the extent they are able to contribute to the profit driven economy that benefits the elite, the billionaires and the corporations and contributes to obscene accumulation of wealth by the few. Although the Liberals being hell-bent on bleeding the higher education sector to death does not surprise me, it saddens me to say that both the Liberal and Labor parties have treated universities and TAFEs as piggy banks that can be used on a whim to draw funds away. Pro-market, neo-liberal policies have treated universities and TAFEs as corporations and not as the social institutions they are that contribute immensely to our society. It is clearly impossible to defend public education without a fundamental break from this problematic view.
It is a nice surprise today to see that Labor will not be supporting these bills that impose yet another levy on a sector that is already reeling from the pandemic and many other funding cuts. The Greens want to make university and TAFE fully funded and free for all. We have a vision for universities and TAFEs to be spaces of learning and creativity that serve a central role in communities across the country as forces of good.
I will be asking my colleague, Senator Nick McKim, to move a second reading amendment calling on the Morrison government to fully publicly fund higher education, because what we should be looking at is how we can guarantee lifelong learning to all Australians in these challenging times, and that means free higher education for all, increasing funding per student so staff can provide the best learning and teaching environment, supporting students by guaranteeing livable income for each and every one, and providing job security to academics, researchers and staff. Yet, sadly, here we are with the Liberals cutting much needed funds from universities at a time of such uncertainty where we are just emerging—I would say we are not even emerging at this point; I'm in New South Wales and people are suffering—from the global pandemic and millions of others across Australia are suffering as well. The nature of work is changing and the future of many jobs is precarious at best, and at this time to cut further funding from higher education is truly disgraceful. The Greens will oppose these bills, and, as I said earlier, my colleague Senator McKim will be moving a second reading amendment which highlights this worrying pattern of defunding higher education and reaffirming it as a public good which should be publicly funded.
I too rise to speak on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Treasury Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021. These bills represent a minor but nonetheless important change to the system which regulates education providers. They give effect to the government's decision to implement increased cost recovery for TEQSA, announced in the 2018-19 budget. Understandably, we've delayed the introduction of increased cost recovery on several occasions due to external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But, at the moment, our TEQSA cost recovery levels are very low at around 15 per cent of the total costs, which are borne ultimately by the taxpayer. The taxpayer bears the burden of funding the vast majority of these regulatory activities—those activities which enable providers to operate in the Australian marketplace, and they deliver value to students. Recovering a greater level of the true costs will involve increasing TEQSA's application based fees. This increase will be enabled by new fees determination to be issued by TEQSA. It will also mean introducing a new annual charge on higher education providers to recover the costs of risk monitoring and regulatory oversight activities. The new annual charge will be the subject of these bills.
With the passage of these bills the regulator will seek stakeholder feedback on draft cost-recovery implementation statement consistent with existing Commonwealth practices—very important. Any costs with these will be phased in over a period of three years to help mitigate, importantly, the impact to providers.
Firstly, with regards to the charges bill, this bill will enable a new annual charge to be collected from registered higher education providers to recover the costs of TEQSA's risk monitoring, compliance monitoring and investigations, compliant management, stakeholder engagement and other regulatory oversight activities. These costs are not currently covered and are borne by the taxpayer. The annual charge will be phased in over three years, commencing on 1 January 2022. Twenty per cent of the related costs will be recovered in 2022, 50 per cent in 2023, and 100 per cent by the time we get to 2024. The amount of the annual charge will be prescribed by the regulations setting out the formula for charge, to be made by the Governor-General through the Executive Council.
Now to the cost recovery bill. This bill will amend the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency Act 2021 to enable TEQSA to levy the annual charge created by the charges bill. The amendments will require a higher education provider to pay the annual charge as and when it falls due, including any penalties for late payment. Failure by a higher education provider to pay the charge will constitute a breach of its conditions of registration.
As I said at the outset, in the grand scheme of things, the changes that are made in this bill are relatively minor, but they are reasonable changes to the regulatory framework around education. I'm proud to be a part of a government that is interested in making sure that we deal with the minor things just as we focus on dealing with major impacts. We have a strong record on education at all levels. Every Australian, I'm proud to say—and we all should be proud—has equality of access to education, whatever the level, whether their age or their ability, and our plan for education delivers for everybody, for every Australian.
Our guaranteed funding commitment invests $315 billion in schools over the next decade to 2029. This increases average funding per student by 60 per cent over the decade. We have replaced Labor's multiple secret funding deals with a single needs based national model of schools funding. Australian government funding for schools is now based on students' needs. This is very important. Our agreement is fair and, importantly, it provides certainty.
No matter where a student goes to school, they will get the funding and support that they need for the very best possible education. We are ensuring that our record funding commitment gets better results for Australian students, parents and teachers. We're backing the implementation of NAPLAN to ensure parents and teachers get transparency on student progress. We're improving teacher quality by testing trainee teachers to ensure that they are in the top 30 per cent for literacy and numeracy before they can teach.
Our government is also committed to a national centre of excellence and research for teaching. We have also secured the agreement of states and territories to work with us to improve results—and we have to see improved results. We have a lot of work to do in this regard. There is some serious work to do on the curriculum, and I've been quite vocal about that in recent months, but I'm confident that we will get there.
The Morrison government is also backing parents who choose the school that best meets the needs of their child, including Catholic and independent schools. We back choice as a government as far as parents considering where they'll send their children for their education. In total, an extra $4.8 billion of funding will be available to non-government schools over the next decade. Parents need to be able to decide on what is best for their own children, and we're empowering them to do that.
This extra funding is not at the expense of government schools. From 2017 to 2029, Australian government funding for government schools will increase by 72.1 per cent per student on average, and non-government schools will increase by 53 per cent per student on average. Secure, long-term funding is being provided for all students based on need. We've also committed to the National School Chaplaincy Program on a permanent basis. We hear from schools and school communities across the country just how important and vital this service is in providing that support to students. There will be a particular new focus on an antibullying program through that. This means that school chaplains can provide pastoral care, run programs such as breakfast clubs and coordinate volunteer activities for over 3,000 schools. School chaplains will also be trained to combat cyberbullying so that they can better identify and support students who may be victims. This is important work, and we certainly value the role that chaplains play. We know the positive impact that they have on kids, and we're backing them as they do that important work.
After school I went on to complete a trade in electronic servicing. I know how valuable that was for me. That skill of troubleshooting a problem is a skill that I apply even here in this job today. That skill of going back to the very root of an issue is something I've been able to carry right through my entire career. There is no doubt that all of us bring into this place experiences that we had and learned and gained from right at the very beginning of our career. I'm quite passionate about apprenticeships and about seeing them continue to be a great pathway for students as they embark on their careers. This is why I'm proud to be part of this government, which is committed to seeing 100,000 new apprenticeships and traineeships, with a 50 per cent wage subsidy for businesses who employ them. This is fantastic. This is in addition to the 180,000 existing apprenticeships and traineeships that are already being protected.
The new JobTrainer fund will create up to 320,000 free or low-cost training places for school leavers and jobseekers. We're supporting young Australians into work as well. The JobMaker hiring credit will encourage businesses to hire young Australians. This credit will be payable for up to 12 months and immediately available to employers who hire those aged 16 to 35 who are on Jobseeker. It will be paid at a rate of $200 a week for those under 30 and $100 per week for those aged between 30 and 35. New hires must work for at least 20 hours per week to be eligible. Treasury estimates that this will support 450,000 jobs for young people. Further, the Youth Jobs PaTH program, a great program, supports 15- to 24-year-old jobseekers who move from welfare to work, providing them with the necessary experience to be able to progress through their careers. More than 110,000 young people have participated in at least one element of the Youth Jobs PaTH program, with 68,000—importantly—taking up a job placement.
We're also backing those heading to university under the Job-ready Graduates Package of reforms to higher education. The government's university funding of $18 billion in 2020 will grow to $20 billion by 2024. It's a package that will create up to 30,000 new university places and 50,000 new short course places by 2021, and provide additional support for students in regional and remote Australia. Further, in 2021 an additional $1 billion has been allocated to support the vital research activities of Australia's universities. The record funding in education is something I'm very proud of as a coalition senator here in this place, seeing the budget and seeing what the government has committed in this area. A commitment to education is the only way that we're going to be able to provide the very best opportunities for not only individuals but also, importantly, the nation collectively. If we are going to compete on a global scale, we need to have the very best opportunities for education. That's what this government is committed to doing, and it's providing that.
An additional $1 billion has been allocated to support vital research activities in universities. We can be proud of the quality of the research that's occurring in our universities. I've spent time over the recess seeing some of the work that's being done in our universities in Western Australia, through the cooperative research centres, in battery technology and new forms of energy such as hydrogen. Fantastic opportunities exist. As Australians, we can be very proud of the groundbreaking research that is being undertaken in our universities across this cooperative setting where we've got industry working together with the research institutions. This cooperative model is ensuring that we're able to get that research in action. We're able to see progress through to action and investment on the ground. We've got opportunities to delve into new areas of development, to move into new possibilities for the energy space and for batteries and the new opportunities that will create.
I'm very proud to see record levels of funding in education, and our achievements here are very clear. We'll always need to do more, and we accept that. We always work collaboratively with the sector to work out how we can do more and how we can do better as a nation. We all take up that challenge. I know that the university sector and all sectors of education are rising to that challenge and working cooperatively across governments to ensure that we're providing the very best opportunity for people to get ahead, particularly young people. Every day we're listening and we're prepared to make the reforms that will deliver better outcomes. We're working very hard. We're listening every day to the feedback, and we're responding to that. We're prepared to make the reforms, the necessary reforms, that will deliver on better outcomes.
These bills that we're discussing here today, these bills that are before the Senate, are very important. They are part of our plan. They are minor in the changes that they're making, but they are nonetheless important. It's important that these stakeholders and the providers of education are the ones that are actually bearing the costs of the delivery of these regulations and ensuring that cost recovery is there and the charges are made and, importantly, those that have been sent a bill are required to pay it. This bill ensures we have the capacity to do that. That's why I commend these bills to the Senate. Thank you.
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.
I move the second reading amendment standing in the name of Senator Faruqi:
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate is of the opinion that:
(a) the Morrison Government is on a relentless mission to decimate the higher education sector;
(b) these two bills represent a worrying continuation in the Government's larger pattern of defunding the higher education sector and shifting the costs of providing higher education away from the Commonwealth; and
(c) education is a public good, which should be publicly funded".
For the assistance of colleagues, this amendment was circulated during the last sitting.
Let's be clear in the chamber today: the only thing the Morrison government is cutting are the taxes of hardworking Australians. Our legislated stage 3 personal income tax cuts put more money into the pockets of hardworking Australians. 'Each-way Albo' has been forced to execute something of a policy bellyflop rather than a backflip—
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will gladly reflect on the policy bellyflop that the Leader of the Opposition has executed in rolling the shadow Treasurer in the other place, with the Labor Party now adopting a fifth position when it comes to this government's income tax cuts. Why do I focus on the relevance of these income tax cuts? The relevance is that this government believes that services delivered in the Australian community should, where appropriate, be funded closest to the source of the cost being incurred. We're not going to take tax money off the tradies out there in suburban Australia, who are building houses as quickly as they can on the back of this government's HomeBuilder stimulus, and funnel it instead into the university sector.
Despite the hysteria from those opposite and on the crossbench the claims of incredible austerity and desperate times in the university sector are not supported by the statistics we see in the media. Here are some cold, hard facts. In 2020, arguably one of the most economically dire periods for this nation and indeed the world, Monash University reported an operating surplus of $259 million. And they're not a stand-out performer. The University of Melbourne reported an operating surplus of $178 million. Indeed, it spreads further. The University of Queensland reported an operating surplus of $83 million. In my home state of Western Australia, the University of Western Australia reported an operating surplus of $58 million. South Australia was right up there: the University of Adelaide reported an operating surplus of $41 million and Flinders University reported an operating surplus of $35 million. And so it goes.
This government is unashamedly on the side of hardworking Australians rather than having those taxpayer funded institutions pocketing millions of dollars when it comes to cost recovery and taxation arrangements. You might think that that's somehow blindingly obvious, but apparently to those opposite this is an unprecedented crisis for the sector. We've heard complaints today that they were denied access to JobKeeper. That's not a new narrative but it is simply not supported by the data. Because even if we were to consider universities entitled to the charitable threshold of a 15 per cent revenue reduction, when you report an operating surplus of $259 million, it stands to reason that you should not be—and were not—given a penny.
What do these bills before the chamber actually do? Well, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency bills give effect to the government's decision to increase the cost recovery for TEQSA, which was announced in the 2018-19 budget. As my colleague Senator O'Sullivan rightly pointed out, we delayed the onset of these increased cost-recovery arrangements on several occasions due to external factors, not least of all, COVID-19.
The cold, hard reality is that the university sector can afford the gradually phased increase in cost recovery that these bills represent. Let's not forget, we're starting from the incredibly low threshold of 15 per cent of TEQSA's costs being recovered from the sector, with the taxpayer, therefore, bearing the burden of funding the other 85 per cent of TEQSA's activities. Those pennies have to be earned here. They don't rain down from the imaginary money tree that those opposite love to shake. We've seen it again with their proposal that they're going to give $300 to every Australian who chooses to do the right thing, to act in the national interest, to protect the vulnerable in the community and get vaccinated. We won't stand for it on this side of the House. That's why these bills will increase the cost recovery of TEQSA gradually to 90 per cent of the regulatory costs, and some 75 per cent of funding that body overall.
It is incumbent upon a responsible government like the Morrison government to find ways to reduce costs to the taxpayer. It's that prudent approach that allows us to proceed with things like stage 3 income tax cuts, which will mean more of the money that hardworking Australians earn stays in their pockets. What does cost recovery for TEQSA mean? It means increasing the application based fees to recover the true cost of those activities from the sector. That increase to the application based fee will be enabled by determination issued by TEQSA. Far from cries that that somehow is negligence on the part of the government, I would contend that it is, in fact, the most prudent approach, where TEQSA works closely with the sector to develop a cost-recovery model that achieves the outcomes that we seek to yield for the taxpayer without undue distortion to the sector.
Increasing that new annual charge on higher-education providers in terms of risk monitoring and regulatory oversight is a new annual charge. However, as I say, that's also based on the draft cost-recovery implementation statement, which is consistent with the Australian government's cost-recovery guidelines. That's not negligence; that is prudence. And it is exactly the behaviour that Australians have come to expect of a responsible government.
No constituent sector, body or organisation has ever welcomed the introduction of a government charge. So it stands to reason that the higher education providers have criticised this new charge, which is being phased in, as we've heard. But what we're not hearing is that it's estimated the vast majority of providers will pay an annual charge of between $25,000 and $35,000 a year once fully phased in, in 2024. When universities are running on an operating budget each year of billions of dollars, the impost of a $25,000 to $35,000 fee to reduce the burden on the taxpayer—those hardworking Australians who have to fork out to provide the services that we all enjoy—is not the end of the sector. It is not a drastic cut. It is not austerity. It is, in fact, responsible government.
The charges bill, which, as I just mentioned, will levy registered higher education providers to recover the costs of the risk monitoring, compliance monitoring and investigations aspects of TEQSA's work, is not unique. Many other statutory authorities and government agencies levy the sectors that they operate in to reduce the cost of that compliance and oversight activity on people who derive no benefit whatsoever from the sector. Arguably, just as a senator mentioned earlier, investment in higher education is a public good. But there are many Australians who do not benefit from a tertiary education and who should therefore not be expected to fork out every year their hard-earned pennies to pay for this organisation. The amendments, which do require this annual fee to be paid as and when it falls due, also attract penalties for late payment. Failure by a higher education provider to pay the charge will constitute a breach of its conditions of registration. That puts these organisations—put on a pedestal by some, but held to account by this government—on a level playing field with everyone else that interacts with the Australian government. And make no mistake about it, this is a government that is committed to supporting higher education.
We have provided substantial financial support to higher education providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Notwithstanding the JobKeeper debate, these are organisations that did benefit from government stimulus spending, that have faced some challenges with our closed international border and that were rightly supported by this government through that period. However, on the back of that recovery—and we know that Australia's economic recovery has been stronger than anywhere else in the developed world economies and that we are a nation that has seen more people in work, as recently as in July, than at the onset of the pandemic—the claims of tens of thousands of job losses and breadlines because of austerity in the higher education sector simply are not borne out by the statistics that we see in this place. So this government, as a responsible government, will reduce the accreditation fees for small higher education providers, with a sliding scale of reductions that allows providers with a student load of less than 500 full-time equivalent to receive a maximum reduction of some 70 per cent. I think that's in keeping with the fact that this is a government that consistently supports the little people. But, where there is capacity to pay, as $259 million surpluses clearly demonstrate, we will burden—we will reduce the burden on smaller Australia, those aspirational Australians who have to fork out for all of this, and instead charge those that can afford to pay.
Along with all this other additional expenditure, along with reducing the burden on Australians, this is a government that will make additional investment in research and short courses because we consider that these measures have already provided and continue to provide significant coherent, targeted and time limited support to the Australian economy as we deal with the pandemic. That's why I support these bills as the actions that a responsible government takes, and I commend them to the Senate.
Senator Small made some Freudian slips in his remarks about the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021. He said that the Labor Party puts the tertiary institutions on a pedestal. He said that some of these organisations will have to face the burden, and then of course had to correct himself to say that the organisations will relieve the burden. He told you everything about the way in which this government approaches higher education. The Labor Party will oppose these bills, which go well beyond the question of funding. These bills raise questions beyond the mere questions of raising additional fees for registration. These are issues that are raised not just about the recovery of the cost of TEQSA.
TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, regulates higher education. In February this year the government passed the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Provider Category Standards and Other Measures) Bill 2020, a bill that provides additional powers for TEQSA to set those standards. I raised a number of concerns about those new powers and now, when we look at the measures that have been taken over the last two months, we can see why people have expressed concerns. TEQSA sets standards and has oversight of the minimum arrangements for higher education institutions that must be satisfied in this country. Whether they meet these standards determines whether they can call themselves a university in this country. If you change TEQSA, you can change the higher education system. This government is clearly intent on changing that system. The recent announcement by TEQSA suggests that this regulatory agency is taking its cue from the government. The government's intentions are evident from the composition of the Higher Education Standards Panel, which advises TEQSA. TEQSA's willingness to fall into line can be guessed at by its announcement last month elevating Avondale University College to the status of a university. I'll have more to say about that in a moment.
First, I want to look at the Higher Education Standards Panel. Membership of the panel matters because it determines how the standards in this country are interpreted. If you look at the members of the panel, a pattern emerges. They include Mr David Perry, the Vice-President Academic of Alphacrucis College; Ms Adrienne Nieuwenhuis, the Director of the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Australia; and Ms Kadi Taylor, the Head of Strategic Engagement and Government Relations at Navitas. Navitas, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a global company that operates several non-university higher education providers in Australia. Alphacrucis College in Sydney is another one of those non-university providers, although it aspires to having itself recognised as a university. Its vision statement on its website proclaims its goal to be 'a global Christian university, transforming neighbourhoods and nations'. So the membership of the standards panel now includes three representatives of private providers, a representative of the Australian Technology Network and a representative of the Regional Universities Network but no representative of Australia's most research-intensive universities—the Group of Eight.
I'm wondering how this relates to the government's intentions, which it says are to defend and advance research in Australia. How does this relate to the government's plans for TEQSA as set out in these bills? TEQSA's functions are guided by the 2015 higher education threshold standards framework and the provider category standards legislation, which was introduced last year in conjunction with the various cuts to university funding. These sought to define higher education standards in this country. The government claimed that the legislation, which was passed in February in the Senate, was based on recommendations of the review of the higher education provider category standards by Professor Peter Coaldrake, who is now the director of TEQSA.
The minister's recent statements, however, indicate that he is moving in a contrary direction to the government's own legislation. Under the new legislative criteria, from 1 January 2030, to be a registered Australian university a higher education institution must conduct research that leads to the creation of new knowledge in at least three—or 30 per cent—of the broad fields in which it delivers courses of study. It was pointed out at the time that some existing institutions might not meet that standard—the implication being that universities, defined as institutions conducting research, teaching and learning, and civic engagement, may no longer be recognised. The distinction between universities and private institutions—Alphacrucis College, for example—would begin to be blurred. It would be a creeping privatisation of the higher education system. That's where the minister seems to be headed not only with his appointment to the standards panel but also with his joint announcement with TEQSA on the creation of Avondale University College.
What do we know about Avondale? Avondale has expanded beyond its origins as a Seventh-day Adventist Bible college. Does it conduct sufficient high-quality research to justify its new status? I presume so, or why would Professor Coaldrake sign off on it?
The creation of a new university is a rare event, and the public is entitled to know more about TEQSA's reasons for its decisions. Avondale has not yet been through a round of assessment under the Excellence in Research for Australia; that's the metric that's applied by the Australian Research Council. According to its website, Avondale offers PhD and masters of philosophy degrees. Research specialisations are in education, arts, nursing, ministry and theology. This tells us that some research has been done but it doesn't tell us how much. Given the unease in this sector about long-term implications of change to provider standards, TEQSA should set out explicitly the reasons for granting Avondale university status. So I'm looking forward to Professor Coldrake's detailed answers as to how TEQSA reached its conclusions without undertaking a detailed ERA review, not only with regard to the breadth of the research being undertaken but with regard to its quality. Australia has not been overwhelmed with stories of Avondale's cutting-edge contributions to new knowledge yet its new status implies it is already operating at a level comparable to our universities.
The government is presiding over the unravelling of the system. This goes beyond any arguments about the merits of having specialised institutions such as research-only institutions or teaching-only institutions. While the government remains on its present path, we are likely to lose significant parts of the university system that we now have without gaining either excellence in research at universities or excellence in teaching at universities. This is all because of an ideological agenda to undermine a high-quality university system based on public provision.
The government has been wary of declaring its agenda explicitly, but the minister started to come clean in a speech to the Universities Australia conference in May. He acknowledged that the loss of international students during the pandemic had disrupted universities' revenues. He then went on to announce his priorities for higher education. He spoke about 'commercialisation' of research, he spoke about 'student experience' and he spoke about 'freedom of speech'. This government talks a lot about commercialising research without showing much understanding of how research actually operates.
If we don't invest in basic curiosity-driven research, there will be nothing to commercialise. This minister's reference to the 'student experience' was in a section in his speech that was, on the face of it, a call for a return to face-to-face learning on campuses. Face-to-face learning has taken a bit of a hit during the pandemic, for obvious reasons, but the minister's real motive in drawing attention to the experience of domestic students was to take another swipe at vice-chancellors, vice-chancellors who have reminded him there has been no permanent guaranteed funding for research, and there is a funding crisis created by the loss of international students. The universities were being told that no help will be forthcoming in the immediate crisis. The bills before us, which add to the cost burden, are another reminder. The bills will increase the funding crisis facing universities by making TEQSA rely on collecting fees for its activities.
Finally, we have the minister's comments on freedom of speech. The minister and his allies—the right-wing think tanks and culture warriors of the media—talk a lot about the supposed threat to freedom of speech on Australian campuses. This threat is confected, as the former Chief Justice Robert French found when he reviewed the matter. This has not deterred the minister from complaining that universities are too slow to implement policies to uphold free speech and academic freedom which are now a legal requirement yet he does not see the contradiction between this attitude and the way he allocates research grants. The Australian Research Council is being used to smear the reputations of highly reputable, highly decorated academics in this country. I will have more to say on that matter in another speech.
So far as this bill before us is concerned, we can see that this is obviously the wrong time to move towards full cost recovery for TEQSA. Mr Tudge conceded in his speech that higher education has been one of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic. Now we have another blow to the sector.
The bills establish new charges for cost recovery for TEQSA's activity, and it's another move characteristic of this government. The amount and the means of paying the charges will be left to regulation. Transparency and accountability have been shunted aside yet again. When the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation Committee wrote to the minister asking why it's considered necessary to leave key aspects of the new charges to delegated legislation, he replied in a now-familiar manner. The charges, he said, were purely administrative in nature. That's not the view of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, of which I'm a member. Significant matters relating to collection and administration of new charges should be set down in primary legislation, and we can't see that that will happen.
What we have here is that the costs are being borne by the lowest-risk institutions: the large public universities, the same institutions that were hardest hit by the loss of international students. In 2020, universities lost $3 billion in revenue, and they had to lay off 17,000 staff. Higher revenue losses can be expected this year. Yet we've been told in debating these bills that we should be allowing full cost recovery for TEQSA. Some of these institutions are being asked for up to a 700 per cent increase in the cost recovery mechanisms being proposed by these bills. These are charges that do nothing to solve the real problems facing our universities. In fact, what we see with these measures is a government that is determined to make things worse. It is fundamentally a government that has no grasp of the real problems facing our tertiary sector and no solutions for how to deal with those problems.
I rise to speak on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021, and I will start off by expressing my concern, which clearly is shared by Senator Carr, that again the government brings to this chamber half-law for us to consider. They don't put into the bill some of the substantial, or at least important, elements of the laws that are being passed, and that's one of the bases upon which I will not be supporting this bill. Do the job properly, departments. Bring your legislation to your minister with the regulations attached. Ministers, see that your departments do the proper job. Refer your departments to section 1 of the Constitution, which says that it is the parliament that makes the laws. It's parliamentarians, in full visibility of the public, who make the laws, not faceless people in offices into which no-one can peer to look at what they're doing. That is not the way this system is supposed to work. The government needs to up its game on this, and the parliament and the Senate need to stand firm. Every time bills which are half-laws come to this chamber, they ought to be rejected.
Of course, the other problem with this bill is the fact that it raises charges which will ultimately be passed on to students. So here we have a government again slogging students, people who are struggling and trying to get ahead and get educated so they can go off and contribute to our economy and to our society. And what do you want to do? You want to increase the charges.
I get that you have to manage money, but why don't you start with the submarine project, a project that went from $50 billion to $90 billion and to which we've now added another $10 billion because we won't get our submarines in time before the Collins class would otherwise retire? They're due to retire starting in 2026 and we're not going to get our future submarine until 2035, so we've had to pay an additional $10 billion to fill the gap. You have these enormously risky projects that are draining the budget. How did we get into this situation? Go back to 2003 and read the Kinnaird review, which says: 'Buy off the shelf. Build it here in Australia—that's fine—but buy products that you know work.' If you didn't know about the Kinnaird review, go to the 2008 Mortimer review, because that'll tell you the same thing. But what happens every single time is that we have admirals, air marshals and generals who don't have project experience and who don't understand project risk making recommendations to cabinets full of ministers who have even less idea about project risk, project management and the cost blowouts that occur when you take on extremely risky projects.
So that's $50 billion. If you want to find some money for education, sort that project out. But you can't. No-one on the other side of the chamber will look at me while I'm talking about this, because you don't know how to do that. You're incompetent and incapable of doing that. It's the same thing for the Future Frigate project. It went from $35 billion to $45 billion—another blowout that could be paying for education services. Of course, we want trades people and people with engineering degrees to go and work to complete those projects, and they're going to struggle because they're going to get slugged by this new bill.
Why don't you go to Gerry Harvey and ask him for the $22½ million in JobKeeper that he took to make profit, pay higher dividends and pay executive bonuses? Right now he's spending that money on advertising for the Olympic Games. JobKeeper was for a good purpose. It was a wage subsidy for people who were trying to get through COVID-19. It was a good program, but it has been abused. Are you guys on the other side of the chamber going out there and saying, 'You know what? It has been used for a purpose it wasn't intended. We're going to take that taxpayers' money back, because then we can spend it on education'? No, you're not, and the irony of that is that the very people who are going to have to dig us out of the deficit created by JobKeeper abuse are the people you're going to slug with these new charges. It's disgraceful.
The Liberal Party is normally characterised as being the party of business people and good project managers. Well, you're falling way short in that regard. You've got no idea how to deal with some of these projects. Let me give you a hint. You see a naval officer, a general or an air marshal wander past, and they're good people. I would go to war with almost all of them—and I say that as a former serving member of the ADF—because they're highly competent at what they do. But they're not project managers. I wouldn't take a project manager and say, 'Go and be the commanding officer of a submarine.' So why would I take the commanding officer of a submarine and say, 'I'm going to make you a project manager today'? It doesn't make any sense.
So we end up with these hugely risky programs. It is completely out of control. Unfortunately, not only will it affect the bottom line, which you're trying to claw back with these much, much smaller measures—but you slug the little guy—it also endangers national security. I don't know if anyone on your side of the chamber has looked north of Australia for a little while, but there's tension brewing, and that tension will likely manifest itself not in 2035—if we're lucky enough to have our future submarines at that point in time—but much, much sooner.
The response we had last week was the defence minister announcing that we have a 1½-year delay in the Future Frigate program. We're going in the wrong direction. Actually, he then stood up to said, 'Don't worry. We're going to recover that schedule.' That is one of the most naive statements I've ever heard a defence minister make. I can tell you, after being in the project management space for many, many years—in fact, after watching Defence for the last 3½ decades and being a part of it—that they never recover schedule, and that's consistent with what happens in the commercial world. It's clear that Minister Dutton has now started drinking the department's Kool-Aid. If there's one thing I had hoped for, it is that Minister Dutton would look at things very objectively and not end up swallowing all of the rubbish that comes from Defence when they're defending some of their poor projects.
But the relevance to this bill is the fact that it is taking money from the people, from students, through tertiary education bodies to try and balance a budget that is so way out on the other side with things like defence projects and JobKeeper payments that have not been recovered that it's going to make almost no difference at all. Focus on the things that matter and stop trying to rip off students. Stop trying to put hurdles in the way of people who want to get educated. It doesn't even fit in with any of your standard marketing about a smart Australia, because what you are actually doing is dumbing things down and that's not good government.
I thank Senator Patrick for his very impassioned and interestingly linked contribution. I did not realise that our submarine procurement strategy was so integrally linked to TEQSA and agency cost recovery charges—but I see it clearly is after that contribution! I rise today to speak on the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021, and I will stick to the topic. Our higher education sector is a crucial industry for our economy. It services around 1.5 million students at any given time across the country, 31 per cent of whom are usually attracted from international communities. That was pre COVID. Pre COVID, the sector revenue was close to $40 billion. I do note, despite what I have heard from some contributions from across the chamber today, that media is reporting that not all universities are in the negative. We have seen some universities actually reporting better than expected results this year, which is a positive. It just goes to show how agile our university sector has been in responding to the COVID crisis.
In part, the attraction for international students to study in Australia is the consistency and quality of our higher education sector. It is also due to the establishment of TEQSA. TEQSA was established as a result of the Bradley review conducted in 2008 that examined the future direction of the sector, its fitness for purpose and options for reform. The agency that was established in 2011 now registers regulated entities as higher education providers and accredits their courses of study. It conducts compliance and quality assessments and reaccreditation of assessments and courses. It provides advice and makes recommendations to the Commonwealth minister responsible for education on matters relating to the quality and regulation of higher education providers. It cooperates with similar agencies in other countries and it collects, analyses and interprets information relating to quality assurance and the practice of quality improvement in our higher education sector. TEQSA is crucially focused on quality assurance and student outcomes. It ensures that our higher education providers meet minimum standards, promote best practice and improve the quality of our higher education sector.
But this work comes at a cost. Currently the majority of that cost—around 85 per cent—is borne by our taxpayers. Let us remember that not every Australian either has the opportunity or necessarily wants to attend a tertiary education provider. Certainly I'm very grateful for those who choose, instead of going to university, to undertake a trade and help keep our economy going and keep our houses serviced by electricians and other essential service providers. I'm very grateful for those people. I don't see why those people, through their taxes, should have to pay for the privileged few to attend our higher education providers over and above the vast quantities of money that our government provides. Over $20.4 billion from taxpayers in financial year 2021 is going to support our university sector. I thank taxpayers for that. But I do not see why our taxpayers should pay for every nut and bolt that goes through the university sector. That is why it is crucial that we have some cost recovery—