Speech to Parliament - Higher Education (Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2021-2022 - Consideration in Detail)

By David Smith MP

16 June 2021

Address to the Federation Chamber, BILLS - Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2021-2022 - Consideration in Detail

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Subject: Morrison government's cuts to higher education

I would like to frame some questions to the minister as part of this consideration in detail in relation to the higher education sector.

Despite earlier speakers' views, my conversations with stakeholders and advocates in this sector affirm the view that this government has abandoned our university sector.

Because of the decision to prevent universities getting JobKeeper and not providing appropriate support to the sector, despite the catastrophic consequence of COVID for revenue, at least 17,000 jobs at universities have been lost. Hundreds of those jobs have been lost here in Canberra across the Australian National University and the University of Canberra. We're talking about world-leading researchers, lecturers and tutors who have lost their jobs and many more that go to the everyday functioning of universities.

Last year, the government did provide extra funding for research due to the shortfall in international student revenue. However, months later, the borders are still closed, with no end in sight, because of this government's failure to manage quarantine facilities, and there's no further additional funding for universities. Instead, what do we have? I will quote from page 170 of Budget Paper No. 1:

"Expenses under the higher education sub-function are expected to decrease by 8.3 per cent in real terms from 2020-21 to 2021-22, and decrease by 9.3 per cent in real terms from 2021-22 to 2024-25."

That means that, over the next four years, your government is ripping one dollar from every $10 out of the universities. Your government has made it harder and more expensive for Australians to go to university.

The cut to university funding is mainly from research, but affects teaching as well. You can't gut our research funding, trash our academics, and then expect them to lead the world in commercialising their research. The government says:

'We want more young Australians studying STEM subjects. We want more people going into science as a career.'

Because of this government, universities will receive:

  • 32 per cent less to teach medical students,
  • 17 per cent less to teach maths students,
  • 16 less to teach engineering students,
  • 15 per cent less to teach clinical psychology students,
  • 10 per cent less to teach agriculture students, and
  • eight per cent less to teach nurses.

How do you come up with a mess like that while saying that you want to encourage people into these disciplines? When you cut the money that supports engineering and science courses, either you are going to get lower quality courses or you are going to have universities changing their offerings to students. You will get fewer scientists and fewer engineers from a failure to support these departments and faculties.

You can't stem the brain-drain if you don't invest in STEM teaching and research. And we are talking about our kids graduating from university with debts of around $60,000 for a basic degree.

Further, as a consequence of the mismanagement of the vaccine rollout and quarantine, we still have no idea when international students will be able to safely return. The contribution of international students makes the university sector one of our top exports but they also play a critical role in our local economy. I've heard directly from the business chamber here and local businesses about labour and skill shortages that are directly affecting their bottom line.

The budget really shows such a bad contrast between what the government says it wants and what it does in practice.

On average, under this budget, students will pay seven per cent more for their degrees—over a billion dollars more over the next four years—and 40 per cent of students will have had their fees more than doubled.

Minister, because of the Prime Minister's decisions, universities are being forced to abolish and merge courses and cut faculties across the country in areas such as neuroscience, engineering, maths and Asian languages. These are areas that will be essential to Australia in coming years and decades. If we are to be serious about productivity in this country, these are areas that were highlighted by the Finkel brief to the COVID committee.

My questions to you, Minister, are as follows. We don't want Australia to be like America, where kids have to get a lifetime of debt to get an education. Why does your government keep making decisions that take us down that path? Why does your government ignore the advice of our own COVID committee and not invest in science and research through our higher education sector?