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Speech on Higher Education Support Amendment

On Wednesday 9 August 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the Higher Education Support Amendment 2023. You can watch the full speech here or read the transcript below.



After a long-overdue 12-month review looking into our troubled university sector, the Australian Universities Accord Panel has handed down an interim report, with five recommendations for urgent action, and it's great that the government will act on these. The first recommendation is to create new regional study hubs. The second is to improve governance at universities—totally urgent in my view—by working with the states and territories through the National Cabinet. It's good to be reminded that National Cabinet can do things to influence and incentivise state and territory governments, although the government claims it can't necessarily do that in relation to other issues, like rent caps. The third recommendation is to extend a grant program for another two years and require universities to spend the remaining funding on supporting underprivileged students. These three recommendations don't require legislative change.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023 was introduced to legislate the last two recommendations, the first of which is to scrap the 50 per cent rule, which saw students lose government funding if they failed more than half of their subjects. This heinous rule was originally introduced by the Morrison government as part of the Job-ready Graduates Package, which also hiked fees for humanities, arts and other courses unfavoured by the coalition. The bill also inserts a new requirement that universities must have a policy aimed at supporting students to successfully complete their units of study. The last of the five recommendations of the accord interim report is to ensure that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at university by extending funding to metropolitan First Nations students, rather than only regional First Nations students. We welcome this.

Overall, this is a positive bill, and we support those recommendations. However, it goes nowhere near far enough to address the fundamental systemic problems with Australia's tertiary education sector. We're missing an opportunity here to retune, to act on many urgent issues in Australian universities. There are serious issues around students' experience and rights, and they're just not addressed by this bill.

Student debt—we need to wipe student debt, or at least abolish indexation and raise the minimum repayment income to the median wage. Stipends for PhD students—a constituent of mine, in Ryan, spoke to me about this just last week; they need to be raised to at least the minimum wage. The age of independence and student social security payments—the independence age needs to be changed from 22 to 18, and student social security payments must be raised above the poverty line, to at least $88 a day. Mandatory placements—students need to be paid for these. Fee hikes—the fee hikes introduced as part of the Job-ready Graduates Package need to be reversed. Housing—all international students, indeed all students, must have access to safe and affordable housing. And safety—students must be kept safe from sexual assault. There are also very serious issues, again not addressed by this bill, around the governance of our universities and the appallingly poor treatment of the academic staff as well as students. The support of students and staff, rather than just administration, should be a core priority of government and universities. Without that, they cannot possibly deliver the quality education and research we need for a thriving future in Australia.

In February this year, I had the great privilege of addressing an NTEU rally and strike at the University of Queensland, speaking alongside my wonderful friend and colleague Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Deputy Leader of the Greens, who for many years has been a staunch advocate for the rights of students and university workers. Like me, she has deep lived experience within the university system. The University of Queensland is a huge institution and employer in my electorate of Ryan. It's been a big part of my life since 1974, when I first started my studies there. I've tutored and lectured, and I'm still an adjunct professor there. My husband has been a head of department and professor. My kids have been students and are now both professors. We've lived it from the inside, as it were. In 1974, I was one of the first incredibly fortunate Gough Whitlam era uni students, the grateful beneficiary, as were many others in this place, of fee-free university. Wow, there has been a lot of change over those nearly 50 years, but I'm afraid it's been retrograde change. 

What was different in 1974? That was the first year of free university that lasted until the end of my degree. We had a very diverse cohort as, finally, tertiary education was accessible. There were healthy student-teacher ratios, properly paid and better-respected staff with career advancement opportunities, including tenure. We know what has happened since then. Now we have both struggling students and struggling teachers. I strongly supported the NTEU in their strike action for better conditions. They were suffering under the abominably poor governance and conduct of the Australian university sector. Most other workplaces could certainly not get away with the poor employment conditions, poor conditions for casual staff, inadequate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment targets, inadequate salary increases, unsustainable academic workloads, forced redundancies, outsourcing, poor progression for casuals, problems around long-service leave and reproductive health and wellbeing leave, and simplification of casual rates—which basically means staff have to negotiate with managers how much prep time they should be paid for, and it is likely to result in less pay for casual staff as there'll no longer be a minimum. 

UQ, like most other universities, has been behaving like the most venal of corporations. This has dire negative effects on both students and staff, and I'm afraid current legislation and regulatory frameworks do not address this broken system. UQ, to use it as an example, purports to be a revered institution. UQ ranks among the world's top universities. UQ says they have 'a strong focus on teaching excellence'. In fact, UQ's teachers have won for UQ more national teaching awards than any other Australian university. UQ needs to support its teachers. To do that, UQ and other universities need to model fair working conditions, to be in alignment with broader public expectations to provide high-quality education. This is clearly hampered when universities treat teachers like slaves and students like cash customers. 

Governments and universities need to support the aspirations of all students and the rights of their workers and, importantly, increase representation of First Nations people—and more broadly, act in accordance with the basic principles of social justice. These are just baseline requirements of any company or employer these days. You can do it, universities! It's about priorities. UQ and other universities continued to generate very healthy profits and returns during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they still do. We have vice-chancellors earning frankly ridiculously stratospheric salaries while students starve and teachers are treated like slaves.

In a harrowing report released that same week in February, we discovered that wage theft has shamefully become an endemic part of universities' business models. This report uncovered the staggering value of wages stolen in the university sector. An analysis of cases conservatively found that $83.4 million was owed to staff across the higher education sector. Further cases will almost certainly top $90 million—a shameful indictment. So what we need to demand on top of this bill is a major, urgent response from governments and universities. The NTEU has recovered many millions of dollars in stolen wages. Shamefully, some universities have chosen to pursue expensive litigation to fight the staff whose wages they have stolen.

That's how the teachers and researchers are being screwed over. Now, back to the students. If this government is serious about improving access to universities, it needs to stop ignoring the giant elephant in the room—student debt. Spiralling student debt is an absolute scourge, disproportionately disadvantaging First Nations students, women and young people. Yet, on 1 June 2023, this government indexed student debts at a staggering 7.1 per cent, up from 3.9 the year before. Based on Parliamentary Library estimates, in just two years of the Labor government, student debt could increase by an astronomical 15 per cent, rising faster than it can be paid off. The Greens attempted to stop this indexation increase, but Labor blocked that, ignoring desperate pleas for relief and causing untold long-term pain for people who are being locked out of the housing market, denied personal loans and rethinking dreams of further study.

Education should not be a debt sentence. The student loan system is broken. It's time to wipe all student debt and make TAFE and uni free. That's what the Greens are fighting for. There's so much more the government should be doing, like addressing mandatory unpaid placements, where students are required to work countless hours without pay or compensation. This is especially common in feminised fields, like nursing and teaching, thus further entrenching gender inequality. A teaching bachelor degree mandates four months of unpaid full-time hours to qualify; nursing, five months; and social work, more than six months, pushing students to their physical, emotional and economic limits. It's an absolute travesty that a Labor government is allowing this to go on. If this government was really serious about supporting students, it would take action to address student poverty, lower the age of independence from 22 to 18, and raise student social security payments above the poverty line, to at least $88 a day. Students are struggling to pay rent and to afford food and transport costs. This is an appalling situation in a wealthy country like ours.

It's about priorities. The government cannot argue that a healthy education system is unaffordable, when they're giving $313 billion in tax breaks to the wealthy and spending $368 billion on nuclear powered submarines. An education system that pushes students further into inequality is a broken one, and a welfare system that doesn't lift people above the poverty line to ensure that they're living in dignity is an utterly cruel one. So come on, government: legislate and regulate a new framework in which our universities operate as responsible employers and institutions, prioritising education not profit. Support the students and the teachers, who are the engine of our education system. If not, the stated vision for the future of our tertiary education system is mere marketing spin.

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