Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021


Higher Education

7:25 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] It is hard to describe the current dire state of affairs for Australian universities without getting very angry at the Morrison government. Make no mistake: at every single turn throughout COVID-19 and, in fact, since their election, the Liberals and Nationals have failed and attacked our universities. Earlier this year, Universities Australia estimated the 2020 job losses at our universities at more than 17,000 jobs. This is a truly enormous number, no matter how you spin it. These people are the next generation of researchers, the next generation of educators and thinkers. Some of these educators have left higher education for ever. Universities will never get them back.

But, as bad as 2020 was, the situation has worsened in 2021. By the accounts of those in the sector, it isn't going to get any better in the next few years without a significant change in course. Just in the last few months, the University of Adelaide has been canvassing cuts of up to 130 jobs. Macquarie University will likely make another more than 80 academic staff redundant by the end of 2021, on top of the nearly 300 let go last year. The University of Western Australia is set to axe 300 to 400 staff as they restructure and respond to income loss, and is considering a proposal to completely abolish the departments of anthropology and sociology. La Trobe University has announced cuts of over 200 full-time equivalent positions, meaning over 500 La Trobe staff will have been made redundant in the last 18 months. It goes on and on and on. Everywhere you look, our public universities are shedding staff, cutting courses and, in some cases, shutting down entire departments. This is an incredibly grim picture and my heart goes out to every higher education worker in this country who is at the coalface of this vicious austerity agenda.

In years to come, when we reflect back on how things came to be so bad, we will almost certainly have to point to 2020 as the year that the coalition stuck the knife in. Last year was the culmination of seven years of misfired and failed attempts to undermine and defund our universities. Last year they got it done, with the so-called 'job-ready graduates' legislation. This year we're seeing the impacts of the double whammy of the pandemic and the new funding regime. In the double-speak of the coalition, apparently the JobReady Graduates package increased funding to universities and was a long-overdue, positive reform for the sector. What a load of nonsense! Universities across the country are continuing to shed staff, courses and departments. Students are paying more than ever before for their degrees, with the government contributing less and less of the cost. The next generation of would-be researchers and educators are looking at the state of our universities and deciding, 'not for me'—all because the Morrison government have completely abandoned the higher education sector and students. They have completely failed to recognise the value of public education for the whole of society. But we have not. We will continue to hold the Liberals accountable for their shameless defunding of our universities and perpetual attacks on this essential public institution.

We will also closely watch the Labor Party, who have so far not presented a clear, viable alternative to the Liberals' slash and burn agenda for universities. Of course we want to see the Liberals gone at the next election—and that will be good riddance. After the complete and utter disaster of the last eight years, we will be glad to see the back of them. Let me put the Labor Party on notice as well: if we do see a change of government, there is an absolute and undeniable expectation from the university sector, from staff and from students that you will turn this ship around. It will not be good enough to tinker around the edges and sit on your hands. That's why we need the Greens in shared power come the next election, so we can ensure that the next government guarantees well-funded, fee-free university education in this country. There is not a moment to waste.