Senate committee approves Australian fee and subsidy changes

Reform package hinges on two independent votes, after cross-party committee offered unconvincing endorsement

September 25, 2020
rubber stamp approved endorse waved through
Source: iStock

Australia’s fee and subsidy overhaul hinges on the votes of two crossbench parliamentarians, after a committee reviewing the proposals split along party political lines.

The Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee has recommended passage of the government’s “Job-Ready Graduates” bill, which would cut average subsidies for undergraduate courses and more than double tuition fees in some disciplines while reducing them in others.

“Overall…the bill will deliver policy and funding certainty for the sector, providing additional funding and expanding the places available for prospective Australian university students,” says the report from the six-person committee, which is chaired by the governing Liberal party.

But this was a minority view, once the views from two “participating members” had been factored in. Three senators from the opposition Labor Party condemned the bill as “an act of economic and cultural vandalism, and a denial of the aspirations of all Australians who seek opportunity through education”.

A second dissenting report, from the committee’s sole Greens member, warned that the bill would “damage higher education in Australia, possibly irreparably”.

Innovative Research Universities executive director Conor King said that the report had followed the “standard pattern”, with the government supporting the bill and Labor and The Greens opposed. The “point of interest” lay in a third dissenting report from the committee’s independent participating member, Rex Patrick, who lambasted the “Debt-ready Graduates” bill as “a crude and blunt instrument” that would undermine the interests of students and universities during a pandemic.

“This bill cannot be salvaged,” Mr Patrick said. “Anyone who thinks so is kidding themselves or being quite disingenuous. It’s not the case of [education] Minister [Dan] Tehan sitting the exam again. He’s got to go back and repeat the course.”

With Mr Patrick clearly opposed, the bill’s prospects now rest with fellow independents Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff. A vote from either will give the government the numbers it needs to pass the legislation.

Mr Griff’s Centre Alliance party says it has not decided whether it will support the bill, while Ms Lambie has kept her views to herself. Parliament next convenes on 6 October, when the federal budget will be delivered.

Mr Tehan welcomed the committee’s “endorsement”. “The committee heard evidence from vice-chancellors and university peak bodies that our legislation should pass to provide additional university places from next year and give universities flexibility and certainty.

“I look forward to the support of the Senate in passing the Job-ready Graduates legislation to give more Australians the opportunity to benefit from a university education.”

The National Tertiary Education Union said that it was “disappointed” in the report. President Alison Barnes said that the committee had “cherry picked” positive commentary and ignored opposition.

“The bill…reduces funding per student, reduces overall funding by a A$1 billion (£554 million) and will make many courses twice as expensive. It will make it more difficult for many students to attend university.

“The bill in no way addresses the catastrophic job losses – with over 11,000 jobs gone so far – nor the funding crisis that Australian universities are experiencing as a result of Covid-19. If anything, it will make the situation much worse.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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