Senate debates

Thursday, 5 August 2021


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

12:44 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I firstly thank members who spoke on these two bills during the second reading debate. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 creates a new annual charge that will be levied on all registered higher education providers to recover the cost of TEQSA's sector-wide regulatory oversight activity. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021 amends the TEQSA Act to enable the annual charge to be collected from providers.

During the debate today, and on other days, those opposite have referred to cuts to higher education funding, which is simply not true. We are providing record funding to Australian universities: $20.4 billion in 2021. This is up 17 per cent from the $17.3 billion that was provided in 2019. This includes an additional $1 billion boost to support university research, which is flowing to universities this year. Under our Job-ready Graduates Package, more Australians are studying at our universities than ever: 802,000 this year, compared with 763,000 last year—a five per cent increase. Commencements of new students are up seven per cent. Importantly, more Australians are studying the courses that are more likely to get them a job. Commencements are up 14 per cent in science, 13 per cent in IT, 10 per cent in engineering, 14 per cent in agriculture, 11 per cent in education and eight per cent in health.

Thanks to our record investments and reforms, Australian universities are in a better-than-expected financial position. There are a number of indications that 2020 outcomes were better than anticipated 12 months ago. Universities Australia estimate total revenue reductions in 2020 compared with 2019 to have been about $1.8 billion, or about five per cent of the total 2019 revenues, which is slightly below the lower bounds of UA's 2020 estimated range of possible revenue reductions. The media has universities indicating better-than-expected results. For 2020, universities are reporting surpluses. For instance, Monash University reported a surplus of $259 million; the University of Melbourne, $178 million; the University of Queensland, $83 million; the University of Western Australia, $58 million; the University of Adelaide, $41 million; Flinders University, $35 million; Edith Cowan University, $24 million; the University of Southern Queensland, $13 million; and Western Sydney University, $13 million.

Our boost to research funding ceases in 2021-22, which accounts for the decrease in higher education funding as shown in Budget Paper No. 1. This was not a bring-forward; it was a new one-off stimulus. The figures in the budget papers include the Higher Education Loan Program—HELP—outlays and show that the government's overall funding to universities in 2021 is $20.4 billion, which is an increase of 37 per cent since 2013.

TEQSA is currently consulting stakeholders on its future cost-recovery arrangements. Following consideration of stakeholder feedback and the passage of these bills, the calculation method for the annual charge will be set by regulation. I thank all members for their contribution on this debate, and I commend the bills to the Senate.

12:48 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Can you ascertain this for me, please, Acting Deputy President: I spoke to the bills substantively, but can I speak to the second reading amendment separately?

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Pratt, you have the call.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much. I want to acknowledge the Labor Party's support for the Greens' amendment to the motion for the second reading of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (Charges) Bill 2021 and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2021, because I support the fact that the Greens are putting pressure on the Morrison government in order to stave off the relentless attacks that they have made on the higher education sector. I support the sentiment that within this government there has been a significant pattern of defunding the higher education sector and shifting the costs of providing higher education away from the Commonwealth. A significant burden of the changes the government made has fallen on students, to the detriment of not only students but, indeed, many industries across Australia. I have a simple and significant example of that from conversations at the state government's recent skills summit in Western Australia. I was talking to employers who were desperately looking for engineers and technicians for the mining industry, who were also worryingly concerned about the decision of the University of Western Australia to abandon the anthropology courses it currently provides.

Universities are making rational decisions to change their composite of courses based on the Commonwealth's new funding system, so universities like UWA have made a decision to cease offering anthropology courses. I know this government likes to denigrate arts and humanities courses and sees them not as a priority; hence the massive fee increases, which they indicated should provide a 'price signal' to students to steer away from those courses. Well, it not only steers those students away from those courses; it steers away universities from even offering those courses. So in that context, we now have the University of Western Australia abandoning its anthropology course, and there are many students protesting about that.

Those people in the mining industries were telling me how critical anthropology is for their native title clearances, how it is key to resolving native title issues. Universities produce graduates who can work closely with First Nations communities to resolve Indigenous heritage issues and that is critically important. In courses like anthropology, students have received a massive fee hike; the charges have more than doubled. Students used to pay around six-and-a-bit thousand dollars and would get about the same from the Commonwealth. Now they get $1,600 or so in Commonwealth subsidies and have to pay the difference. They have to pay about 14½ thousand dollars per year in fees. That is what then leads to decisions by universities like UWA to abandon their anthropology courses. The mining industry and Indigenous communities rely on students with these qualifications to resolve complex and important issues that not only enable our country to be productive but also engender respect and integrity for Indigenous culture and heritage.

Do you know what else they went on to say? They said that, in effect, the lowering of the course price for engineering—where, yes, the government increased the contribution for courses like engineering but not as much as they cut out of the system overall—meant that students were paying less because the fees were capped. But in effect, because the government's contribution was also lower—it capped the overall funding for engineering places within institutions—universities couldn't raise extra revenue in order to fund those courses. They're expensive courses to run. What this has meant, in effect, is that, rather than a greater supply of engineers, we have seen universities cap the number of engineers that they are able to graduate and plan for. As a result, we are forecasting a shortage of engineers and engineering graduates, which are so critical to our economy. This is such a critical example of what is a worrying continuation of the government's larger pattern of defunding the higher education sector, shifting the costs of providing higher education away from the Commonwealth and onto students.

I put forward that telling example as a really important example of the problems that institutions are facing today. In this context, we see how ill-founded this legislation is, shifting the cost from the Commonwealth onto students, particularly with the COVID stresses that so many university campuses are faced with at the moment. We have seen a massive collapse in international student enrolments as a result of COVID travel restrictions, and rightly so. Again, this reinforces the fact that this is not the time to be moving the cost burden of providing higher education away from the government. Labor very much supports reasonable and practical measures to recover the costs of regulation. But, at this particular point in time, where we see the stresses that are experienced by higher education providers, who've lost some 17,000 members of their workforce, and by small education and training providers, who are affected by lockdowns, changes in class sizes and the move to providing coursework online—which creates a huge shift for them—I think it's unreasonable for the government to be shifting the cost burden onto those providers.

What we also see in this context is that this will inevitably mean a cost shift onto students. I note, significantly, that the government did a good thing in giving students a reprieve from the 20 per cent loading on debts for VET course at private institutions. That's a 20 per cent loading that, until this point in time, students have had to pay if they accessed private education and needed a loan for it. That is in effect a profit for the government. I know it's 20 per cent over the lifetime of paying it off, but, if you're going to pay it off fairly quickly, I would see it as being an unreasonable interest rate, given interest rates are so low at the moment. This is paused at the moment, which is a good thing, but this government has made no commitment to removing it altogether. What happens when a private institution has to pass the fee increases onto its students so that it can meet the costs of that regulation? Students will be paying interest on the costs of regulation, on the costs of the government regulating their course. That is manifestly unfair and unjust, and it should not be happening.

I call on the government, in the context of the cost burden they've so proactively moved onto students, to think about the 20 per cent loading currently in place for student debt, and I call on them to abandon it permanently. It is simply not compatible with the principle of cost recovery. What you are doing is not cost recovery; it is cost recovery plus. It will be cost recovery plus 20 per cent that's shifted onto the burden of student repayments. It is an appalling state of affairs that the government has been so thoughtless in subjecting the education sector in our nation and students right around the country to this.

The way that the government has shifted the cost burden onto students is nothing short of appalling. There are students at the University of Western Australia who enrolled in anthropology courses before that fee hike of more than 100 per cent took place. The fees doubled, but they thought, 'Yes, I'm really committed to doing an anthropology course,' only to find out that as a result of this government's changes their anthropology course is going to disappear altogether. The government has sucked the $14½ thousand for their enrolment this year out of those students' pockets. It has sucked it out of their pockets because universities now have to make decisions on the fly because they inherited this model of government funding after students had enrolled in their courses. For those reasons, the Labor Party is very happy to support the Greens motion.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to clarify that the second reading actually completed with the minister's contribution. The ruling I made earlier—I've had advice revised that Senator Pratt should not have been allowed to speak. I let you finish Senator Pratt, as I let you start, but the debate concluded with the minister's contribution.

1:02 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to respond.

Leave not granted.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate the Senate's understanding for the whips. The question is the second reading amendment moved by Senator Faruqi be agreed to.

1:14 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the bills be read a second time.