Wed, 30 Sep 2020

The Nationals are demanding major changes to the government's controversial new higher education fee plan, declaring it would disadvantage regional communities and students as it stands.

The Nationals party room on Monday discussed the JobReady Graduates Package draft legislation - which has now been released - and agreed to press for it to be altered.

The party wants social work, behavioural science and mental health disciplines taken out of the humanities funding category and realigned with allied health studies.

The Nationals Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education, Andrew Gee, who has driven the push, said given what country Australia had been through with bushfires, floods, drought and the pandemic "it is critical that regional communities have easy access to mental health services and support", and the proposed classification would work against this.

The Nationals revolt, an embarrassment for Education Minister Dan Tehan, is another example of the minor Coalition partner asserting itself, and follows its recent win when it prevented a government appeal against a court judgement relating to the Gillard government's suspension of live cattle exports.

Labor's education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek told the ABC: "I'm gobsmacked by the fact that two ministers who share a department can't get the legislation right before they release an exposure draft. I mean, these are two parties that are in coalition."

The government package reduces student fees for courses in areas the government identifies as potentially job-rich and increases them for the humanities and certain other courses. It has received wide criticism.

Gee outlined the Nationals demands in a statement, thus upping the ante for the government.

He said they followed roundtables he had initiated with country universities and other stakeholders.

The party wants the grandfathering for students enrolled before January 1 next year to be indefinite, rather than only until January 1 2024.

"The Nationals have agreed that this change will ensure that part-time and online students, many of whom take over three years to complete their studies due to balancing work and family commitments, will not be disadvantaged. Many of these students reside in country areas," Gee said.

Arguing for the removal of key courses from the humanities list, Gee said the currently proposed listing would put a number of social work, behavioural science and mental health disciplines in the most expensive cluster for students.

"We believe this would only serve to further to increase the maldistribution of mental health workers in country Australia. It also has the potential to impact women and mature students looking to upskill and move into higher paid jobs," he said.

Regional university roundtables "revealed this to be a glaring and potentially detrimental design flaw".

"2019 Graduate Outcomes data shows that demand for mental health support, such as social work is 10% higher in regional and remote communities - we need more country graduates to meet this demand. Country people deserve the same access to mental health support as those in the cities.

"It's a fundamental issue of equality. That is why The Nationals believe that social work, behavioural science and mental health disciplines should be removed from the humanities funding cluster and be realigned with allied health studies," Gee said.

"The Nationals will be seeking a change to the current JobReady Graduates Package funding clusters. We intend to fix this design deficiency."

The party also wants changes to the Tertiary Access Payment (TAP). This is a planned $5000 payment for regional students who relocate to study.

Gee said there was concern its current design "will encourage country kids to leave their communities and move to the cities to study. This could result in a loss of enrolments for country universities which are already operating in thin and lean markets."

Gee said he looked forward to working with Coalition colleagues "to ensure that all of the measures agreed to by The Nationals are incorporated into the legislation".

Author: Michelle Grattan - Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra The Conversation

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