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Extra SA uni places under deal to pass contentious funding changes


Horse trading by South Australia’s Centre Alliance MPs is set to deliver the Federal Government’s controversial changes to university fees, with the party negotiating an extra 12,000 student places in South Australian universities over four years.

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The Government needed Senator Stirling Griff’s vote to pass the university package, with his lower house colleague Rebekha Sharkie revealing today that Centre Alliance had negotiated extra university places for South Australia in return for the minor party’s support.

She said the Government’s reforms were “by no means perfect”, but they would now deliver growth for the SA institutions.

The Coalition’s reforms, due to be debated in the Senate today, are designed to funnel university students into “job-ready” degrees, with fees for science and engineering courses to be cut and the cost of law and humanities units increased.

The Government argues the shake-up will create tens of thousands of places and leave universities no worse off – a claim contested by many in the university sector.

Sharkie said today’s deal would put South Australian universities on par with regional institutions in other states, which are set to experience an increase in Commonwealth-funded places.

She told InDaily she had a guarantee from the Federal Government that, in return for her party’s support for the legislation, South Australian universities would receive a growth in funding to allow an extra 12,000 students to access to local places over four years.

“That is iron-clad – in writing,” she said.

Griff, whose vote is set to carry the Bill, said until his party’s negotiations, South Australian universities’ growth rate would have been stuck at CPI.

Sharkie also supported the Bill’s key aim to “incentivise students to study in fields where we have serious skills shortages”.

She said she also expected an “imminent” announcement from the Government to address concern about funding for university research.

Local university vice-chancellors provided some support for Centre Alliance’s move.

University of Adelaide interim vice-chancellor Mike Brooks said that under the status quo, “universities face the prospect of continuous decline over the coming years”.

“The new legislation contains some serious deficiencies, however the amendments that Ms Sharkie and Senator Griff have secured are a step in the right direction,” he said in a statement distributed by Centre Alliance.

Flinders VC Colin Stirling said the increase in funded places meant the university would be able to meet growing demand for access to its program, while UniSA’s David Lloyd said the changes meant the university was “best placed now to grow participation and attainment in higher education in our state”.

However, Labor and other crossbench MPs reacted with fury to Centre Alliance’s deal.

Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie says the changes – which would more than double the cost of humanities degrees while cutting fees in maths, science and other areas – would hit poor people hardest.

She’s described the bill as a “dog’s breakfast” and taken aim at the government over being unable to prove its claim the package would lead to 100,000 new university places by 2030.

South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young and independent Rex Patrick – who quit Centre Alliance earlier this year – had urged Griff to reject the laws.

Hanson-Young said the deal was “an absolute disgrace”.

“Rebekah Sharkie and Stirling Griff have done a cosy double deal with the government,” she said.

“It’s going to leave thousands, hundreds of thousands of young people with massive amounts of debt. In South Australia, we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the country. Young people have no choice but to further their studies because there’s no bloody jobs. And what we’ve got is two South Australians who today are going to make it harder for students to get to university in the first place and harder to ever finish.”

The University of Adelaide had previously argued the bill will deliver its students a nine per cent increase in HECS-HELP charges and reduce the university’s funding by 15 per cent.

“Any changes (the Centre Alliance) negotiate to the bill will be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone,” Patrick said.

Labor argues the bill cuts $1 billion from government university funding, makes degrees more expensive and prices people out of disciplines the Coalition does not like.

Meanwhile, Sharkie claims she has also negotiated $15 million of a $250 million package of works for Hahndorf, with $50 million from the State Government and $200 million to be contained in today’s federal budget.

However, the full details of the Hahndorf plan have not yet been revealed by the state or federal governments.

The member for Mayo said the funding she negotiated would go towards fixing the Hahndorf interchange with the South Eastern Freeway at Verdun, which currently is restricted to one-way. Only vehicles travelling from the direction of the city can exit at Hahndorf, while vehicles can only enter the freeway from Hahndorf in the direction of the city.

Sharkie said a two-way interchange would remove heavy vehicles from the streets of Hahndorf and Littlehampton while encouraging more tourism in the hills.

She told InDaily the deal was struck well before and separate to the negotiations on the higher education changes.

The balance of the spending in Hahndorf remains a mystery, with Sharkie seeking an urgent briefing from state Infrastructure Minister Corey Wingard.

A State Government traffic study for the tourist town was due to have been completed this year.

Wingard said today that the study outlined a number of options, with the key aim of removing traffic, including trucks, from the main street of Hahndorf, and details would be discussed with the Federal Government.

“So that’s the gist of the planning study that’s been done and there is a couple of options that have been worked through,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Labor’s Tom Koutsantonis said it was unclear how the state and federal governments had come up with the $250 million price tag.

“There’s no detail, no plan, no start date and it should be treated with the scepticism it deserves,” he said.

“We have infrastructure projects like the completion of the North South interconnector that are a much higher priority.”

The plan is part of a nation-wide program of infrastructure works, designed to help Australia recover from the pandemic economic slowdown.

– with AAP

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