Government gets votes needed to pass Australian funding reforms

Controversial legislation comes under fire for reduced support for students, especially in arts and humanities

October 6, 2020
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

The Job-Ready Graduates Bill, Australian education minister Dan Tehan’s sweeping university reform plan, has secured the party support it needs to pass the Senate, opening the path for major fee changes in the new academic year, which begins in early 2021.

The bill has been criticised by some academics, opposition lawmakers and unions for favouring industry-friendly fields, and for providing insufficient support for teaching. Its fate in the Senate had hinged on the Centre Alliance, a minor party that only confirmed its support on 6 October.

The milestone was reached as Australia announced an A$74 billion (£41 billion) stimulus plan during the national budget on 6 October. The federal budget contained some sweeteners for the university sector, such as A$1 billion for research, which was welcomed by the Australian Academy of Science. It also included funding to create 50,000 university short courses in areas including agriculture and education.

The Job-Ready Graduates bill will reduce tuition for those enrolled in science, mathematics and teaching courses, while doubling fees for arts, humanities and law, where the cost to students could grow as much as 113 per cent.

It may increase university places overall. However, public investment per student will be cut, resulting in a drop of A$1 billion of support for teaching. 

“The bill will strip A$1 billion of funding from universities, more than double the cost of many courses, in particular arts and humanities, and make it more difficult for many students to go to university,” said Alison Barnes, president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

Modelling by the NTEU showed a potential 20,000 job losses in 2020 without government support. Australian universities were hit hard by Covid travel bans, which cut off income from international students.

The NTEU had previously criticised the bill for “its idiosyncratic fee increases, cuts to funding per place, and complete unwillingness to acknowledge the teaching-research nexus, or indeed even the concept of teaching quality (over quantity)”.

Tanya Plibersek, the shadow education minister, called the move to approve the bill “cruel and inexplicable”. She added that a four-year degree would now cost about A$58,000 for some disciplines. This was at a time that high school seniors were facing “the year from hell” because of Covid, she said to Sky News.

Mehreen Faruqi, a senator and education spokesperson of the Australian Greens party, called the bill an “unfixable mess”.

“It condemns students to decades of debt, universities to even less funding, and the country to a bleak, anti-intellectual future,” she said.

Dr Faruqi, formerly an environmental engineer, said that first-in-the-family, First Nations and other disadvantaged students would be “particularly hard hit”.

Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance’s education spokesperson, defended the decision to support the legislation by saying a rebalancing towards filling skill shortages was needed.

She told Sky News that Australia had a “glut of law students leaving university” while the country was “importing engineering graduates”. 

“These legislative reforms are by no means perfect, but overall Centre Alliance recognises what the government is trying to achieve and what the university sector is calling for, which is funding certainty following the 2017 indexation cuts,” Ms Sharkie said. “Without change, many universities were at risk of significant job losses and campus closures going into next year.”

In negotiations with the government, Ms Sharkie had secured more funding and student places for South Australia, where her constituency is based.

In late September, Mr Tehan pledged A$326 million for creating 12,000 university spaces for Australians. 

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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