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Speech: Uni Fee Hikes & Funding Cuts Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 6 Oct 2020

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (12:19): I rise to speak to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020. I want to be clear from the outset: the only correct cost of a student's degree is zero dollars. University staff, research and teaching should be protected. Our universities should be fully funded, and this bill achieves none of those aims. This bill is cruel. This bill is punitive. This bill is an irredeemable mess. This bill is shit. This bill is not worth the paper it is written on.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, can you withdraw that statement please?

Senator FARUQI: I withdraw.


Senator FARUQI: We will be moving a second reading amendment to give the government an opportunity to withdraw this terrible bill. It would take chapters to catalogue everything wrong with this legislation, but I'll sample its litany of problems today. This cruel bill hikes fees for students, massively shifting the cost of university education away from the government and onto students. We are not talking about a small tweak here; we are talking about more than doubling the fees for degrees like arts and commerce to more than $14,000 a year. Right now, the most common unit cost is the lowest cost. Under the Liberals' plan it will be the highest. The hypocrisy of these fee hikes is stunning when we know that 16 members of this government, including the Prime Minister, received a free education. Now they are forcing students to pay tens of thousands more.

The attack on the humanities that this package represents is particularly galling. One submission to the consultation rightly suggested that the government was legislating to ensure the irrelevance of the humanities. The Liberals salivate when they blather on with the corporate language of 'agility' and 'job readiness', but they wilfully ignore that the transferable skills needed to weather a recession and adapt to a changing labour market are those taught by humanities.

We know this legislation won't encourage students to study the so-called priority degrees. All the experts agree; even the minister's own department agrees. The modest fee cuts the government is tendering to a minority of students in exchange for destroying the quality of their education simply won't change the average high school graduate's plans. But I am gravely concerned that first-in-family and regional students who are less engaged with higher education will avoid Scott Morrison's astronomical fee rises and avoid the humanities and business, which have been a fantastic entry point to higher education for countless students. To see the arts return to an elite quasi-private pursuit would be a tragedy.

With the fee hikes come the cuts to teaching and learning that force universities to teach more students with less funding across the board. Billions are being cut over the years to come. That's how the government is creating its dubious new places—not through new funding but by cutting it and demanding unis take on more students. Make no mistake: this will destroy the quality of education in all courses, including, absurdly, the STEM subjects, like engineering, that the government claims to care about, which are expensive to deliver but have still suffered cuts. Overall, it means fewer teachers, less support and less choice of courses and degrees.

I feel in particular for the high schoolers watching on at the pointy end of an already terrible year. Many of them made course choices years ago and have watched their hopes of an education be dashed as the promise of decades spent in study debt is all but guaranteed by this government. Under this bill, high schoolers can't even rely on having a place waiting for them at uni. It's incredibly unlikely that the government's plan will create the places it claims to. But even if it does, the promised places are not enough to meet ordinary population growth, let alone the surge in demand during this recession. The result will be hardworking, deserving students missing out.

For those students who do get a place, this bill creates a grim future. Young people are already graduating from uni with a decade of debt repayments ahead of them. With youth unemployment skyrocketing, these fee increases will leave students in much deeper debt for much longer. Modelling we commissioned found that many students will be well into their 40s before they pay off the study debt that has dogged them through the start of their adult lives. The blokes who put this bill together, Scott, Dan and Josh, are probably proud of themselves—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: May I remind you to refer to those in the other place by their correct titles.

Senator FARUQI: The blokes who put this bill together: the Prime Minister, the Minister for Education and the Treasurer are probably proud of themselves for crafting fee hikes that disproportionately hurt women. On average, fees for women will rise by 10 per cent compared to six per cent for men. They shouldn't be allowed to run from the misogynist consequences of their policy. To make matters worse, the bill also disproportionately impacts First Nations students. IRU analysis has found that First Nations students' fees will increase by an average of 15 per cent—that's years and years more debt. For struggling students the government's cruel answer is to take away their HELP loan if they fail subjects. I will be moving an amendment to strip this cruelty from the package.

Altogether, those are plenty of reasons to scrap this bill. But it gets worse. Universities themselves have said this plan encourages them to enrol students in courses with the highest fees instead of the supposed national priorities. That absurdity also destroys the vital research presently cross-subsidised out of the Commonwealth Grant Scheme. Our researchers, who should be focused on securing a vaccine and helping us navigate through the pandemic, are instead worried about their jobs. A whole generation of young researchers working casual jobs are already being shown the door. Thousands of additional researchers are expected to lose work in the year ahead—and they won't come back.

This plan does nothing to protect university workers. The government has stood idly by as thousands of jobs have been lost already. They have rigged JobKeeper three times to exclude universities, voted down my disallowance motion in this chamber which would have scrapped the unfair rules and exacted the punishment they've long hoped to on a sector that they hold in utter contempt.

The impact of that contempt, which riddles this package, will be felt most by regional communities. Regional unis are at the heart of our communities. The great benefit of regional education is that students who study locally tend to work locally. The terrible consequence of this bill is that every dollar of extra debt for a regional student is a dollar not being spent in their communities when that spending is desperately needed at this time. You can guarantee the sweeteners promised for regional unis will disappear. Further Liberal cuts to education are a safer bet than the sun rising tomorrow. It's wishful thinking that they won't use the impending recession to eventually yank support from regional universities. In the meantime, as Charles Sturt University submitted, this bill will hurt the agricultural workforce. The university may need to concentrate enrolments in a smaller number courses leading to fewer opportunities for regional students and with flow on effects for the agricultural workforce.

This whole thing is a policy disaster. The Liberals arrived at such an all-round useless bill by relying on useless labour market predictions that even their buddies and donors on the Business Council disagree with. This bill will see, for the first time, students paying different rates for units depending on what type of psychology degree they are a part of. This not only runs counter to the idea that students should be able to make unit-level decisions but is completely confusing. The new funding rates for units are based on bad, incomplete data from the Deloitte report that doesn't fully cover the university sector, or pass intellectual rigour as one expert put it. Relying on it is an exercise in diving to the lowest common denominator that saves the government money at the expense of diversity of teaching offerings and research. Let's not forget the made-up TEQSA integrity unit the minister slapped together when he was called out on the perverse incentives in this legislation. Let's be clear: even if the plan was good, this legislation sucks! The few carrots the minister has dangled for industry and student support in the package aren't implemented in the legislation, and vital details are desperately lacking or totally absent.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Polley ): Minister, a point of order?

Senator Reynolds: Senator Faruqi is regularly flouting the chair—in fact, it was the Deputy President's ruling on unparliamentary behaviour. I ask you to seek more appropriate language from the senator for this debate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Minister. Senator Faruqi, you were obviously reminded earlier, before I came into the chair. We would appreciate you keeping your comments in a parliamentary fashion.

Senator FARUQI: We have no guidelines for how this will work and no details at all of how the range of onerous new regulatory requirements co-opted from debt regulation will be enforced on universities.

Any one of these problems with the bill would justify voting against it. Taken together, they make Centre Alliance's decision to sell out students, young people and our universities for a reprehensible deal even more shocking. Rebekha Sharkie MP and Senator Stirling Griff, you've bought the government's spin hook, line and sinker. You should be ashamed of condemning generations of young students to decades of debt. You don't need to pass this unfair and unpredictable legislation in order to deliver new student places. It's really not a matter of accepting this messy bill, which punishes students and staff, or nothing. Minister Tehan's own conveniently timed announcement of millions of dollars for extra places has confirmed that it's not too late to do the right thing and block this bill. It's clear how far out of their depth Minister Tehan and the Prime Minister are. Instead of anything close to a vision for universities, we've got this jumble of competing priorities and a desperation to not invest in students or their education. They have neither the respect for higher education nor the command of the policy detail needed for reform.

Outrage is to be expected when the Liberals try to cut uni funding, as they have done time and again, but with the justified outrage this time came bafflement—an entire sector bewildered by the policy disaster that is this bill. Everyone, from the higher education unions to the business lobby to Julie Bishop, says this doesn't make any sense. The disciplines the government claims the bill will advantage, like physics and maths, were all out condemning this plan. The best defence the minister could manage was to tell the Herald that I, the only engineering PhD in parliament, should study a maths unit. That was mere hours before he was caught using dodgy figures in a press release in an attempt to talk this bill up. From the lack of detail in the original announcement to the mere six-day consultation period for the legislation and their opposition to a Senate inquiry into this once-in-a-generation legislation, the government has shown nothing but contempt for the university sector, the community and the parliament throughout this process.

Unlike the government, the Greens vision for post-school education could not be more clear. Uni and TAFE should be free for all students for life. We recognise that our collective future depends on the education and training happening in our public universities and TAFEs. We see that our ability to see this crisis through and the opportunity to rebuild as a more just society afterwards turn on ensuring that people can access that education and training without going into decades of debt. We know everyone has a right to education, whether they're leaving school, changing careers, retraining later in life or looking to gain new skills and knowledge. This is not a flight of fantasy; this is a matter of priorities. If the government closed the loopholes that let one in three major corporations pay no tax and stopped giving tax breaks to the super wealthy, which they are going to do in the budget today, we could make lifelong access to public education a reality for all students and reap the collective benefits. We can do this and ensure that staff have security of work with fair wages, so they can do their work teaching and researching side by side and with certainty. That's the vision the Greens will keep fighting for in this place and in the community.

It's only fair that students of today have the opportunity so many in this place, including many of the hypocrites sitting opposite, had. The Senate can and should reject this package. We should call on the government to come back with a plan to support staff and create new student places by adding funding, not cutting it. The Greens oppose this cruel attack on students, on staff and on universities. I move the Greens second reading amendment on sheet 1050:

Omit all words after "That", insert:

", the bill be withdrawn; and

(a) The Senate condemns the Morrison Government and Minister Tehan for attempting to ram legislation through the Parliament which would irreversibly damage Australia's higher education system and harm and disadvantage students, university staff and communities; and

(b) The Senate condemns the bill which will:

(i) hike fees, pushing students into decades of debt as they face rising unemployment and hurting women and First Nations students the most,

(ii) slash billions in funding from teaching, including from STEM subjects, which will mean bigger classes, fewer teachers and a worse education, particularly in regional areas,

(iii) force universities to do more with less,

(iv) fail to create anywhere near enough new places to educate school leavers and people who want to study during the recession,

(v) shift the overall costs of university education away from the Commonwealth and onto students,

(vi) fail to encourage students to do STEM courses,

(vii) punish struggling students by unfairly and unnecessarily forcing them out of Commonwealth Supported Places instead of helping them, and

(viii) fail to save a single university worker's job and worsen the research funding crisis; and

(c) The Senate calls on the Government to:

(i) fully-fund university education and research, and provide ongoing funding certainty into the future,

(ii) ensure job security and good conditions for all university staff, and

(iii) make university and TAFE fee-free for all.


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