Federal Parliament - Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020

June 17, 2020

Dr ALYI rise to speak on the Education Legislation Amendment (2020 Measures No. 1) Bill 2020. But first I want to raise this: I don't believe this bill does much at all in the way of reform, as previous speakers have pointed out. It makes a few technical amendments, and there are a few things such as extending the unique student identifier and some schedules around the repayments of debts, but I echo the sentiments expressed by the member for Sydney. I agree with her that I am completely bewildered that, at a time when the university sector is facing an absolute crisis that could potentially see the closure of Australian universities and a diminishing of Australia's standing as a destination for world-class tertiary higher education—one of our largest exports—this is what the government has come up with, in terms of reform of the university sector. It is absolutely beguiling that this is what the government has put forward.

I also point out the fact that none—not a single one—of the members from the government side has taken the opportunity to stand here today and talk about higher education and universities, despite the fact they have some very, very well-respected people in their caucus—for example, the member for Curtin—who have worked at universities, and despite the fact that many senior Liberal politicians have benefited from the Australian university system and have multiple degrees. I didn't know, for example, that the Treasurer has four university degrees. Collectively, I think they have more degrees than a thermometer—that's a good joke, isn't it? There you go: ba-boom!

Quite seriously, I find it quite extraordinary that nobody from the government side is speaking on this bill, either to defend it or to stand up for universities and the valued place that they have in our country. But, at the same time, I'm not really surprised, because since the election of this government in 2013 universities and university students have been under constant attack with cuts, attempts at fee deregulation, policy chaos and uncertainty.

The 2017 MYEFO decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities and to recap undergraduate places, and their changes to the Higher Education Loan Program were both reckless and unfair. Some 200,000 students will miss out on the opportunity of a university place over the decade because of this government's cuts and capping of places. Not only will this devastate our economy and our society, but I want the House to think for a minute about the missed opportunity here for students who miss out on a place at university. And it's not going to be the students who go to wealthy schools, live in wealthy areas and have wealthy parents that are going to miss out; it's going to be the disadvantaged students—students in rural and regional areas; students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; and women, who, like me, sought to return to work and upgrade their qualifications by going back to university. They're the ones that are going to miss out on places.

This government has buckled down on its contempt, its cuts and its strangulation of universities by failing to extend JobKeeper to universities at this time. I stand here as somebody who comes from the university sector, and it has been devastating for me to see my colleagues at the various universities that I've worked at facing the prospect of losing their jobs and also the closure of university campuses, the cutting back of the course offerings that universities are able to provide to students and the absolute uncertainty and insecurity which university staff face.

What does it mean, that the government has resisted, time and time again, our calls to extend JobKeeper to universities? I want to be very clear here: it's not just the professors and the academics who are going to suffer and lose their jobs. In fact, if you are fortunate enough, like I was, to be a research professor, it's really your own research revenue that guarantees your tenure at a university. However, if you are—like many of my colleagues—employed on a casual basis or on a rolling one-year contract to deliver lectures and tutorials for different units at university, you face unemployment. But it is not just those people. It's the cleaners, it's the admin staff, it's the ground staff and it's the students. Like I said, it's the most disadvantaged students who are going to be cut first because these cuts and the failure of this government to boost and support the university sector through these unprecedented times means that those smaller universities are the ones that are going to go first: the universities that cater to the most disadvantaged domestic students. And I'm not talking here about universities that cater predominantly to international students because they're forced to take on that business model because of progressive cuts by this government. I'm talking about those smaller universities that serve communities and that serve regions. They also serve as a place of belonging for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and who, without those universities, would not have had the opportunity to go to university at all.

I stand here as a product of one of those smaller universities. I am a product of Edith Cowan University. And the only reason that I was able to go back to university, to build myself up and make a life for myself and my children, is because I had the opportunity to get a university degree through Edith Cowan University. I was able to go back as a mature age student, upgrade my qualifications and, then, not stop there but continue to upgrade my qualifications again and again. But I was given that opportunity through one of the smaller universities—the kinds of universities that will suffer exponentially under this government's cuts and their continued unwillingness to support one of the sectors that we should be incredibly proud of, and that we are incredibly proud of. Australia's higher education system is world-class. But that's at risk.

But this coalition's antagonism towards universities and towards research is nothing new. We had the unprecedented intervention by the then Minister for Education in 2018 where he vetoed 11 grants that had been recommended by the Australian Research Council, predominantly for research in arts and the humanities—in history, music and art history. I've been a recipient of three Australian Research Council grants, a Discovery grant and an Early Career Researcher grant, and, just before I was distracted by a parliamentary career, I got another ARC Discovery grant. I know what it takes to get one of those grants. I know what you have to do to get one of those grants. I know how long it takes to write a grant proposal. I know the kind of research backing and publication backing that you need to have in order to be successful in getting one of those grants. And I can tell you, Acting Deputy Speaker Andrews, it is no mean feat. It is quite celebrated at universities when one of their researchers gets an ARC grant, because they are difficult to get. The process, the criteria and the ways in which grant applications are assessed are by a panel of experts. It is a panel of peers who actually understand what the research is about and who know how to assess a grant application. And yet along comes the Minister for Education and, with the sweep of a pen, he vetoes proposals that were deemed to be quality research proposals by a panel of experts in the subject area of the research. Now, if the Minister for Education came to me and said that he was an expert in 19th century Russian literature, and that he had therefore deemed that a particular research proposal should be rejected: fair enough. But I doubt that he's an expert in those areas. This government's contempt for research, their antagonism towards the university sector and their abject failure to support one of Australia's greatest exports in education put at risk our world reputation in this space. In doing that, it risks our engagement with the world.

Education is one of the ways in which we engage with our region and with our world, through partnerships between universities and dual PhDs where a student can start a PhD at one university in, say, Toulouse and then finish it here in Australia. We're not just talking about students from China who come here for a business degree. We're talking about research. We're talking about collaboration. We're talking about soft power. We're talking about Australia's standing in the world and in our region. Education is one of the primary avenues for expanding that engagement and for increasing our soft power.

Parts of this bill refer to 'reform'. I would say there's no reform in this bill. This government likes to talk a lot about reform, but this bill just tinkers around the edges. It's a few technical changes here and there.

Mr Dick interjecting

Dr ALY: Yes, absolutely, as the member for Oxley says, it is 'window-dressing', much like a lot of the bills that I've stood up to speak about over the past two weeks. Tinkering around the edges, a few minor amendments here and there and—bang!—it's called reform. What kind of sorcery is this? It's not reform. It's not reform at all. If the government were serious about reform, they would devote investment into the university sector. They would talk about investing in our higher education, investing in the future of Australians, investing in the aspirations of young Australians in rural and regional areas—young Australians in areas in Cowan like Wanneroo, which has one of the lowest year 12 finishing rates—and investing in the people of Australia and the future of Australia in our region and in the world by investing in the university sector. This bill just doesn't cut it.