The Australian parliament has passed controversial changes to higher education fees and subsidies, concluding a six-year overhaul of university funding.
The Job-ready Graduates legislation was approved in just over half an hour after parliament reconvened on 19 October.
The House agreed to an amendment reinstating a 10% discount on student contribution amounts for students who paid their fees upfront. It has previously agreed amendments including a change to subsidies for some psychology courses and tweaks to the “special circumstances” maintaining students’ eligibility for government benefits if they failed more than half their subjects.
Education minister Dan Tehan said that the legislation would boost university places for domestic students, bolster support for those from regional areas and cut fees in areas of expected job demand.
As a result of these fee changes, course costs for agriculture and maths will decrease by 59% in 2021, while there will be a 42% cost decrease in teaching, English, nursing and languages.
In June, Mr Tehan said that the intention was to create cheaper degrees if students studied “in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities”.
Fees for humanities and communications subjects will rise by 113% from A$6,804 to A$14,500, and the government has lowered its contribution to A$1,100.
“From next year, up to 30,000 more Australians will get the opportunity to benefit from a higher education”.
– Daniel Tehan
Mr Tehan said: “From next year, up to 30,000 more Australians will get the opportunity to benefit from a higher education. The bill also provides more money and more certainty for universities.”
Critics warn that the new legislation will increase institutions’ regulatory workload, force students to pay more and penalise marginalised students who struggle with their courses.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said: “It isn’t rich kids who will be discouraged from going to universities. It is those young people out there today who might be the first in their family to finish school, who are thinking about whether they will take up that opportunity.
“They’re smart enough because they get the marks to get into university [but] for a working-class young person out there in the suburbs and the regional cities, a A$58,000 debt at the end of that process is a real penalty.”
The changes were passed in the Senate by just a single vote. They were opposed by Labor, the Greens and some crossbench members, and supported by the government with the backing of One Nation and Centre Alliance.
Universities were split on the legislation, as certain elements of the package were appealing to certain institutions. Regional universities have largely endorsed the package because it contains a funding increase of 3.5%, enabling them to offer extra student places.
“The reforms passed by in the Senate by just a single vote.”
The prevailing view was that a fight with the government would lead to a delay in much-needed funding certainty.
Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said: “What we need is some sort of stability and funding and policy certainty and the passage of the bill would equate with that.”
The major exception was the University of Sydney, whose vice-chancellor said that the changes would be “bad for future students and bad for the nation”.