Australian legislation: prospects of inquiry rise despite knockback

Senate vote suggests government has a fight on its hands with proposed funding changes

September 1, 2020
Australian Old Parliament House and New Parliament House, Canberra
Source: iStock

Australia’s parliament has rejected a Greens attempt to have university funding reforms subjected to an inquiry, with a tied Senate vote scuttling the move.

But three crucial crossbenchers voted in favour of the inquiry, raising the likelihood that the legislation will ultimately be referred to the senate’s education and employment committee when the legislation reaches parliament’s upper house.

The referral motion was supported by the Labor Party, the Greens and crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick. Their votes combined would be enough to defeat the legislation when it reaches the senate, which could happen as early as 2 September.

A staffer with Greens education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi, who moved the motion, said the result suggested that the government would need to consent to an inquiry in order to have its legislation passed – something it had appeared reluctant to do.

“It was an indication from the crossbench that they want an inquiry,” Dr Faruqi’s representative said. “We’re hoping that the government looks at those numbers and sees that an inquiry is necessary.”

Earlier, a crossbench MP in the lower house said an inquiry was warranted. Victorian independent Helen Haines said she would support the legislation because it contained “significant new measures” to benefit universities and students in regional areas.

“On the other hand, this bill involves what can only be described as a radical overhaul of the way we charge students for higher education. [These measures] are unexpected, were not prompted by a wholesale and detailed review of the sector, have caused significant angst amongst universities and university students and appear not to be based on clear evidence at all,” she said.

Debate on the legislation has resumed in the House of Representatives. The real test will be in the Senate where the government does not have a majority and has failed to force through several previous reforms.

While its prospects are considered better this time, some sector representatives and politicians are pinning their hopes on an inquiry to push for amendments.

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) group said rejecting the bill was “not an option”, because the current funding system could not accommodate increasing demand for university places because of population growth and the “added hit” of the pandemic. But IRU executive director Conor King said changes were “vital” before the legislation’s passage.

Speaking in support of the legislation, government MP Katie Allen told parliament that the reforms would create an extra 100,000 university places by 2030. Mr King said this would be “a useful step but will fall short of meeting the likely demand”.

The IRU also released a new analysis suggesting that the changes, as currently proposed, would raise average charges for Indigenous students by 15 per cent. Female students would pay 10 per cent more on average, the modelling found.

Regional and remote students would pay an average of 5 per cent more “even though the government wants to increase university attainment in these areas”, the IRU said. “Because different groups of students are more likely to study certain disciplines, the impact of the proposed rates varies.”

Opposition MP Matt Thistlethwaite also called for the bill to go to a Senate inquiry, while saying that Labor would oppose it.

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