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Jacqui Lambie has made clear she will vote against the Coalition’s controversial higher education reforms, but the government appears to be angling for Centre Alliance’s vote. By Rick Morton.

Jacqui Lambie’s stand on education

Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Jacqui Lambie never went to university but says that “most days” she wishes she had.

“I didn’t get to go to uni, I went to the army instead,” she says. “It would have actually helped me out, I reckon. But that’s the way life is.”

After weeks of meetings with university students in her state, the Tasmanian senator published a powerful argument on Wednesday against the Coalition’s proposed higher education reforms. It grew, she tells The Saturday Paper, from this kernel of her own experience.

Lambie’s rejection of the draft legislation – which would see the cost of some university degrees double for students while overall Commonwealth funding per place falls – was a thorough repudiation made through the delicate prism of class and opportunity.

“This is just another discouragement, just another brick put in their way and I’m not doing that to them,” she says, referring to low-income students. “I salute them.”

Her lengthy statement, tweeted on Wednesday evening, surprised many onlookers who’d assumed the senator had stitched up a deal with the Coalition. Far from it; she was scathing.

“This bill makes university life harder for poor kids and poor parents,” Lambie wrote. “And not only does it not have the same impact on wealthy families, it even gives them sweetheart little discounts.”

Her equality concerns arise from a new addition to the bill, which would provide greater savings on fees for students who can pay up front.

Lambie is adamant there is nothing the government can do to change her vote, but her rebuke is not the end for the higher education reforms. The Coalition’s last chance to pass the legislation now rests with South Australian senator Stirling Griff and his Centre Alliance colleague Rebekha Sharkie.

Both Griff and Sharkie have expressed concerns about the low rate of funding growth for all three South Australian public universities under the current proposal, but Education Minister Dan Tehan appears to have prepared for this.

As the bill currently stands, South Australia’s universities, all classified as low-growth metropolitan institutions, would receive funding increases of only 1 per cent each year. Regional universities, by comparison, will receive 3.5 per cent each year.

However, during a telling exchange in mid-September, the first assistant secretary of the Department of Education, Skills and Services, Dom English, told a senate committee hearing that the minister had been provided with costings for the reforms “across a range of different scenarios”.

“We have looked at South Australian universities from a number of different angles, against the current model as well as alternatives, but that’s all we’ve done to date,” English told the committee on September 17.

Independent senator Rex Patrick, formerly of Centre Alliance, who does not support the bill, forced English to give more detail.

“Have you provided advice to the minister on costings on budget implications for South Australian universities to be placed in the regional categories, such as 3 per cent [sic] instead of 1 per cent?” Patrick asked. “It’s a very specific question.”

“Yes,” English replied.

Classifying South Australia’s universities as “regional” in order to win over Centre Alliance would have consequences for the government, most trivially in an additional cost to the budget that it does not want to incur. More substantially, though, such a deal would outrage other low-growth metropolitan universities, especially members of the powerful Group of Eight universities.

Minister Tehan reiterated in a statement that the government’s position is that the bill “will provide more university places for Australian students, make it cheaper to study in areas of expected job growth and provide more funding and support to regional students and universities”.

“I want to thank the senate crossbench for their good faith negotiations,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to work with the crossbench to secure the passage of the legislation.”

The government, it is clear, has not given up yet.

 

North-west Tasmania, where Jacqui Lambie was born, raised and still keeps her local office, is the lowest-performing region in the worst-performing state or territory on the measure of higher education.

At the most recent census, just 16 per cent of people aged 15 and over in Tasmania had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In the state’s north-west, that falls to 9.5 per cent. The national average is 22 per cent.

Several of Lambie’s staffers, including a policy adviser, grew up in the north-west and did it tough on the trek to university.

“I’m hearing all the same stories about how they had to move away, and it really sucked how the rich kids didn’t have to work two jobs and try and do study at the same time,” Lambie says. “In the meantime, they were living on noodles. That has always stuck in my head. That really, really bothers me.”

Still, Lambie says she didn’t hear much “bitching” about the higher education reforms when Tehan first revealed the draft legislation in August. But by the afternoon of September 2, when the senators were supposed to vote on the bill, the situation exploded.

“I thought, ‘Okay, there is obviously a problem with the bill,’ ” Lambie says. “But I needed more time. I thought, ‘It needs to go to an inquiry. Jesus, I’m not going to be able to fix this in a week.’ ”

Over the course of the next month, Lambie began an education of her own, speaking with students and academics from the only university in her state, the University of Tasmania, as well as its vice-chancellor, Rufus Black.

“If you give yourself more time, more shit comes out in the woodwork,” she says. “When the Coalition is trying to ram something down your bloody throat, the bells are going off.”

On Thursday morning, after her public recrimination of the reforms, Lambie met with more students from UTAS.

“My god, they are so angry,” she says. “Their mental health is suffering because they can’t go back onto the campus, they are telling me there have been cuts to resources for nursing.

“According to them, all Rufus Black wants is a business model, not putting the students first. They are so angry … One of the young ladies just broke down and said, ‘I just can’t handle this anymore.’ ” 

 

A dive in international student numbers, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has hammered Australia’s universities. Almost all of them have made or announced swingeing cuts to their budgets now and over the next two years.

The National Tertiary Education Union has been keeping a list of confirmed job cuts – announced or made – since March. By the end of September, that figure was more than 12,400. So far, the largest losses are at Victorian universities.

Meanwhile, Guardian Australia reported on Wednesday that Macquarie University plans to axe specialist degrees in mathematics and science, while Monash University has announced it will close the Centre for Theatre and Performance and abandon 103 individual subjects. Other institutions are considering moving all lectures online and ending face-to-face instruction entirely. It is estimated Australia’s universities have already lost about $5 billion this year.

These losses animate Senator Lambie, particularly over how it will affect students.

“These kids are already going to pay for this Covid-19 for the rest of their life and they want them to start paying basically for breakfast,” she says.

“And yet I’ve got big business out there that don’t pay their tax, you know? So, go and pick on someone else, you leave those bloody students alone.

“I’ve already got enough of those disadvantaged kids out there, who are stuck in these housing commissions, and trying to break that cycle is very, very difficult.”

Lambie says she has been speaking to Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff since the bill was introduced to the parliament. But the position of the Centre Alliance group is difficult to divine, even for their peers in the chamber.

On June 20, Griff told The Weekend Australian that his party supported the intent of the reforms and noted it was a “positive first step”. The same day, however, Rebekha Sharkie tweeted what some have interpreted as her disapproval of the bill.

“I will be forever grateful to Flinders for my arts degree,” she said. “It took me ten years to complete while working and raising three children. I would not have had my career or the privilege of sitting in the [house of representatives] without it.”

Any bid by the Centre Alliance pair to secure more funding for South Australia’s universities would not be enough to offset structural problems in the bill.

The best-case scenario, failing other major amendments, would be a 10.5 per cent escalation in growth funding over three years. Universities Australia says the total higher education package will result in a 17 per cent reduction, on average, in the Commonwealth subsidy per place.

“The South Australian vice-chancellors all agreed that the granting of regional status to their universities would be better, but overall would be a case of three steps backwards, two steps forward,” Senator Patrick said in his dissenting report following the senate committee hearing on the legislation.

That committee, chaired by LNP senator James McGrath, recommended the bill become law with a review after two years. Labor, the Greens and Patrick each issued dissenting reports.

“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,” Patrick wrote.

“This bill cannot be salvaged.”

Patrick, also from South Australia, has been a strong voice in the debate and has declined further lobbying attempts from the federal government.

While opponents of the bill have expressed concern that Jacqui Lambie may still be wrangled by the Coalition, she is having none of it.

“Once I’ve come out and made a statement like that, I’m done. I’ve made up my mind,” she says.

Absent any announcement from Centre Alliance, the future of the bill will likely be decided when it is voted on next week.

“It’s currently listed for Tuesday and the one thing about [leader of the government in the senate] Mathias Cormann is he won’t let something onto the order of business unless he knows he is going to win,” one senator told The Saturday Paper.

“So come Tuesday morning, if it is listed then they almost certainly have Centre Alliance locked in.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Teaching raids".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.