Key crossbencher fears funding reforms will penalise women

Crucial MP keeping an open mind but has ‘lots of concerns’ about Australian fee and subsidy reshuffle

July 3, 2020
Source: Getty

Women and school students stand to lose from Australia’s proposed higher education funding reforms, according to a crossbench politician who could determine their fate.

Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie said that she was also worried about “perverse outcomes” from changes that would deliver less overall funding for the fields in which the government wants more graduates.

Ms Sharkie said that the bucket of money for engineering, science and mathematics – disciplines the government has highlighted as future employment growth areas – would be lower under the proposals. The impact of this would be exacerbated if arts enrolments plummeted after the government raised humanities fees by 113 per cent. “Universities tend to use their arts courses to cross-subsidise more expensive courses,” she explained.

Such problems would plague universities already grappling with the government’s “carve-out” of a key infrastructure fund last year, and a colossal revenue decline due to the pandemic’s disruption of international enrolments.

The government can expect little difficulty navigating its package through the House of Representatives, which it controls. But the Senate, which blocked previous reform proposals in 2014, 2015 and 2017, is a different matter.

While no draft bill has been released by the government, the Labor opposition’s public comments suggest that it is all but certain to oppose any legislation in parliament. The Greens “will strongly oppose the package and encourage the opposition and crossbench to do the same”, said education spokeswoman Mehreen Faruqi.

This means that to secure the bill’s passage, the government will need at least three of the five crossbench votes controlled by the Centre Alliance, One Nation and Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie.

Ms Lambie is not commenting on the proposals at this stage, while the two One Nation senators were noncommittal. A spokesman for party leader Pauline Hanson said the two were “collecting information so they can make an informed decision”, and expected a personal briefing from education minister Dan Tehan in early July.

Nevertheless, One Nation is considered likely to side with the government. If that happens, and Ms Lambie opposes the proposals, their fate will rest with the two Centre Alliance senators. And while Ms Sharkie sits in the House of Representatives, her Senate colleagues would be expected to take her advice as lead MP on education matters.

She said that she would keep an open mind until she had seen the draft legislation, expected in August. She anticipated an initial briefing from Mr Tehan’s staff in early July and has discussed the package with Ms Lambie.

“We don’t rush to a position and we use evidence-based policy,” she said. The Centre Alliance had secured changes to school reform proposals in 2017 and had rejected parts of that year’s ultimately unsuccessful higher education proposals as “just poor policy”.

Likewise, the party had “serious concerns” about many aspects of the current proposals, including the impacts on final-year school students, Ms Sharkie said. “[They] are suffering through a very challenging year 12 [and] are now beginning to fill out their tertiary admission forms with this uncertainty on their shoulders. They will be signing without knowing the costs,” she said.

Ms Sharkie was also concerned about the gender impact of a 21 per cent cut in fees for engineering and information technology courses, where men outnumber women by more than four to one, while fees for female-dominated society and culture courses would more than double. “The new system will have women paying to assist blokes in getting cheaper degrees,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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