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Question time: universities

Mehreen Faruqi 25 Aug 2020

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:18): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education. At least 16 members of the government, including the Prime Minister, went to uni while it was free, but your latest cruel, hypocritical plan will hurt students by hiking fees and cuts up to $900 million from teaching funding, including from STEM and nursing. The experts agree it's an unfixable mess. It won't create enough new places. It punishes struggling students. Your own department admitted it won't change student choices and it incentivises unis to enrol students in high-fee courses instead of STEM. The whole thing relies on useless job market predictions and bad data to punish students without saving uni jobs or fixing the research crisis. Youth wage growth is the flattest in history and unemployment is skyrocketing. Minister, how can you justify condemning students to decades of debt?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:19): I thank Senator Faruqi for her question, although I disagree with much of the information that she presented as fact in that question. I do think there are a couple of granules within all of that—that there are too many graduates coming out of universities at present who are not necessarily securing a well-paying job, particularly a job in the field of their studies. The reforms we are presenting in relation to higher education seek to address some of those problems to ensure that the way in which students are encouraged into university and supported through university results in the optimal chances of their securing a job—and indeed a job in the field of their training, study and, ideally, desires.

Contrary to what Senator Faruqi says, there are no cuts in Commonwealth funding or support. Indeed, funding for the Commonwealth Grants Scheme will continue to increase by CPI, and overall university funding will increase from $18 billion in 2020 to $19 billion by 2022. That will be some 10 per cent growth relative to the 2018 position. Minister Tehan published the draft legislation of our Job-ready Graduates Package for consultation and has now worked through that consultation phase and has presented a plan that will create more places for more students to attend university: an additional 39,000 places by 2023 and an additional 100,000 places by 2030. No existing student is going to see changes in relation to their fees, but universities will see their record funding continuing to grow whilst we create the right incentives to encourage students to study in areas that optimise the chances of their securing our economic needs of the future. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a supplementary question?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:21): Minister, you're actually forcing universities to enrol more students—thousands more—while cutting funding, and that is true, for their education by an average of 15 per cent. This means fewer teachers and bigger classes, a poorer quality of education across the board and particularly in regional unis, where the cost of delivery is higher. Minister, will you acknowledge that your plan is going to hurt the quality of uni education? And if you were still education minister, would you have brought forward this cruel plan?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): I do congratulate Minister Tehan on the reforms he's proposing—reforms that will see, for example, students who choose to study teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English or languages paying some 40 per cent less for their degrees in terms of the contribution that they make. I would have thought Senator Faruqi might welcome that. I would have thought there might be some acknowledgement of that. Students who study architecture or maths will pay around 60 per cent less in terms of the student contribution for their degree. Students who study science, health, architecture, environmental science—environmental science, Senator Faruqi!—or IT or engineering will pay around 20 per cent less in terms of contribution before their degree. This is about making sure that we equip Australia and young Australians for the future with skills that will help them to get a job and our economy to grow and recover in the post-COVID era.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Faruqi, a final supplementary question?

Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:23): Minister, your government has stood by while thousands of university workers have lost their jobs. The likes of Crown Casino have received more than $100 million in JobKeeper, but you have changed the rules three times to maliciously lock universities out. Now you're intent on cutting funding, hiking fees and punishing struggling students. Minister, what do you have against universities?

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:23): This is the quintessential problem that exists with the Australian Greens: you can say whatever you want in terms of outlining the facts, and they are just completely ignored. I outlined the growth in funding.

Senator Cormann interjecting—

Honourable senators interjecting—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It might be a shared problem with the Labor Party. That's why they're all on that side of the chamber, Senator Cormann! I outlined the fact that funding continues to grow, right into the future, and Senator Faruqi still stands up and talks about cuts in funding to Australian universities. She tries to draw an analogy with private sector businesses, who have seen their revenue collapse in their business operations, whereas what the Australian government has done for universities is provide guaranteed ongoing funding to those universities during this COVID-19 crisis. There's guaranteed funding that the Australian government continues to provide on behalf of taxpayers and students to universities. There's growing funding in the future— (Time expired)


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