Senate inquiry report backs university fee reform amid strong dissent from committee members

Senate committee chair James McGrath said the federal government's bill struck an appropriate balance but other members have attacked the legislation, calling it "an act of economic and cultural vandalism".

The Quadrangle of the University of Sydney. A Senate commitee has recommended the passage of the federal government's bill on university fees.

The Quadrangle of the University of Sydney. A Senate commitee has recommended the passage of the federal government's bill on university fees. Source: AAP

A Senate committee has recommended the federal government bill on university fee changes be passed with a review to take place after two years.

The proposed reform includes plans to more than double the cost of some humanities degrees, while removing access to government-supported places for first-year students who fail more than half their subjects.

In scathing dissenting remarks, Senate committee members from Labor, the Greens and independent senator Rex Patrick said they did not support the report's final recommendations.

Committee chair and Liberal Senator James McGrath authored the committee's recommendation section of the report, writing "the bill will deliver policy and funding certainty for the sector".

A review after two years would allow for assessment of the implementation of the bill, Mr McGrath said.

"In the committee’s view, an appropriate balance has been struck between the legislation and delegated legislation underpinning implementation of the job-ready graduates package.

"The approach taken allows the design of the package to respond to changing needs and circumstances, while still enabling parliamentary oversight through scrutiny and disallowance."

Australian uni students rally against education cuts

He added that concerns had been heard about price signals, the impact on disadvantaged groups and the impact on university research, but said the committee was on balance "satisfied that the proposed changes are appropriate and would help to equip students with the skills and experience needed to succeed in a difficult labour market".

Over the 22-day inquiry period, the committee received 280 submissions.

Labor attacked the bill as "as an act of economic and cultural vandalism", saying it would de-emphasise the value of "excellent communication skills and creative minds".

Increasing student debt was also criticised by the committee's Labor senators Louise Pratt, Deborah O'Neill and Kim Carr.  

"If the jobs-ready graduates bill is passed, however, the government will finally have succeeded in substantially winding back the level of public provision for Australia’s world-class university sector. It would be an act of economic and cultural vandalism, and a denial of the aspirations of all Australians who seek increased opportunities through education."

On average, students will pay seven per cent more for their studies under the changes, with fees increasing by 113 per cent for humanities students.

The cost of degrees in science, maths, agriculture and health would be reduced to incentivise enrolment and aid the government's push for graduates in industries that it believes will provide the jobs of the future.

Mr McGrath wrote that although questions were raised over the accuracy of the modelling on increases in the number of university places prompted by the bill, the decision was made to endorse the data provided by the Education Department.

Senate committee member and Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said "the legislation is deeply flawed" and will not achieve the government's goals on encouraging more enrolment in courses such as science, engineering and mathematics.

"It will push students into decades of debt, and starve universities of much-needed funding. If passed, the legislation will damage higher education in Australia, possibly irreparably."

Senator Rex Patrick said he could not see any way the bill could be "salvaged".

"This bill is a crude and blunt instrument that will likely do much harm to the interests of students and universities at a time when the tertiary education sector is reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic," he wrote in his dissenting remarks.

"This bill cannot be salvaged. Anyone who thinks so is kidding themselves, or worse, being quite disingenuous.

"It’s not the case of Minister Tehan sitting the exam again, he’s got to go back and repeat the course."

The government is negotiating to gain the support of Senate crossbenchers to pass the bill in the upper house.

Published 26 September 2020 at 7:44am, updated 26 September 2020 at 7:47am
By Biwa Kwan
Source: SBS News