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Adelaide University Bill

31 October 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:08): I rise to indicate on behalf of the Greens that we will not be supporting this bill. We will, however, be working very hard during the committee stage to try to get better outcomes for staff and students, as we have done during this entire process. I will be moving 23 amendments and I will use my second reading contribution to talk to some of those amendments and detail their rationale for the chamber.

It is appropriate that we are meeting today on Halloween because last week we saw the horror of the Labor Party doing a deal with One Nation, and this week we are seeing the potential for a Frankenstein's monster as the government seeks to rush through this legislation without appropriate safeguards for a new university.

I bring to this chamber my experience in having worked in the university sector. Indeed, I have an association with all three of our universities. I hold a bachelor's degree from Flinders University, a graduate certificate from the University of South Australia, and I have worked at both Adelaide University and Flinders University, and I have seen all the different elements or applied the different lenses of what it is to be in our university sector.

I was a student activist during the noughties and a student president at Flinders Uni. I later went back to Flinders and worked as a casual academic, doing some casual teaching work, and later I have worked on professional staff, on casual contracts and on longer term contracts. I have seen the effect that the corporate university model has on staff and on students.

We have an opportunity with this reform to actually remake this new university and to make it something better, to make it a leader when it comes to governance. I am really disappointed that that opportunity has not been embraced by the crossbench in their negotiations with the government—not all of the crossbench; I recognise that the Hon. Frank Pangallo did not sign up to that deal. It is disappointing that the opportunity to make this new institution something better was not embraced by One Nation and the Hon. Connie Bonaros in their negotiations with government.

I really do want to acknowledge the leadership of the NTEU in the way they have engaged with this issue. I was proud to have been a member of the NTEU in the past. I am not currently a member of that union, but I have been previously. They offer a really good service to their members and they have played a very important role in highlighting the concerns of staff and highlighting the potential implications of this proposal for staff. The Greens share the concerns of the union and the anxieties that staff have around this proposal, and they have certainly been in our thoughts during this time.

I might use this opportunity to refresh some of the arguments the Greens touched on in our minority report. The legislation has come to the parliament today after a committee process. It is a matter of public record that that committee would not have been established if not for the leadership of the Greens, if not for the leadership of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the leadership of the Liberal Party, because the government made it very clear that they wanted to rush forward this legislation without appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. It was the Hon. Frank Pangallo, the Greens and the Liberals that put the brakes on that and ensured there was appropriate parliamentary scrutiny, and I think that process was really worthwhile.

Of course, we may not have needed to have a parliamentary inquiry if the Labor Party had met the commitment it took to the last state election, that is, to establish an independent commission of inquiry. It is a regrettable outcome that this process has been politicised by the government. It was really disappointing to see the two vice-chancellors lining up with the Premier and announcing their plan without having brought that direct to members of parliament. There was no approach to reach out to the Greens from the vice-chancellors of those two universities, and this proposal was presented to the parliament as a fait accompli.

Basically, the message we got from the government was that any delay is denial, that you have to sign on the bottom line and make it happen, do not ask any questions. That is not the way we do business in this place and that is certainly not the role of the upper house. There needs to be appropriate scrutiny of these sorts of proposals. It should have come from an independent commission of inquiry that could have considered this fundamental question of whether or not this is the right direction for our state. That should have been the threshold question and an independent person could have asked that and then made some proposals for the parliament to consider.

Alas, that was not the process that was adopted. Instead, sadly, some members of the university community, some university staff, found out about this plan via an article in The Advertiser. That is not the way that people should be advised of key decisions that impact on their jobs and livelihoods. That is not a respectful way to approach university staff or students.

One of the key issues that the Greens have been concerned about throughout has been the secrecy that has underpinned this proposal. It has been very concerning to us that cabinet did not review the business case before putting money on the table to support this merger plan. Today, we had discussion in question time about the need for the government to step up and support teachers, yet they were willing to commit nearly half a billion dollars sight unseen on this merger plan. They say they cannot afford to meet the needs of teachers at the moment but they were very happy to put half a billion dollars on the table without even reading the business case. When does that ever happen?

It is not an appropriate approach to take and that is why the Greens have been advocating consistently to say that business case should be put out into the public realm so that the community can consider it and form a view. That is why tomorrow in this chamber I will be moving a motion calling on the universities to do just that, to make those business cases public.

We also need to know what external consultants, if any, were engaged in developing this proposal. It was very concerning to me to read the revelations of InDaily regarding potential conflicts of interest and the involvement of Deloitte in this plan. Any consultants engaged with this university merger proposal should be named and the community has a right to that information.

In my opening remarks I talked a little bit about governance and one of the key issues I think, and it has been a fundamental problem in our universities over many years, has been the lack of diverse voices on university councils. We have an over-representation of people who come from the business community; we have an over-representation of people who have links to fossil fuel companies; and we have an over-representation of people who have been former ministers of governments, in particular might I say the Liberal Party.

It is appropriate that we have members on university council who actually bring skills and expertise relevant to the higher education sector. There is the old saying that it is the cobbler who makes the shoes but it is only the wearer who knows how it fits. Really, you need to have staff and students in the room for those decisions.

I mentioned before that I used to be a member of the university council when I was a student representative at Flinders University back in 2004 or 2005. At that time, there was more representation of students on those councils. We know it was a sad day when the former Labor state government reduced the number of students on those university councils. I recognise your leadership, Acting President, in standing up against that at the time because that was a backward step and one that has robbed students and staff of vital power at the decision-making table. That is something the Greens are seeking to remedy through our amendments today.

Another issue that has been of considerable concern to us has been the remuneration of vice-chancellors. I have talked about this at length. Indeed, members will know I have a bill before parliament to cap the salaries of vice-chancellors in line with that of the Premier. In our view, it is obscene that a vice-chancellor can be earning over $1 million a year in the middle of an economic crisis. That is why we are moving an amendment that will require the vice-chancellor's salary to be set by the Remuneration Tribunal. That is the rule that applies to politicians, and that is the rule that applies to other key public officers.

These are public institutions getting public money, so why should that rule not apply to them? It is obscene that we see vice-chancellors earning over $1 million a year, particularly after the difficult years of COVID when staff saw a reduction in their pay and when staff were being laid off. I think it is really rich to see them raking in those huge salaries. We have an opportunity to fix that with this bill.

Another issue that we are concerned about is the student experience. We need to ensure that there is a student association in this new university bill and they need to get the lion's share of the student services and amenities fee. That is vitally important. We need to see support for low socio-economic students across the board, not just those who seek to go to this new university. We do not want to see students who are going to Flinders University being disadvantaged.

I might make some general comments about the impact on rankings, because I know that is one of the key issues that has been the basis of this proposal. At the committee level, we got some contradictory evidence around university rankings, and this idea that we are going to see a boost in the rankings does seem to be highly contested. Indeed, there was some evidence that we might see a reduction in rankings in the short term. The Greens are concerned that that might impact on the potential for this new university to recruit students.

I should say, of course, that it is our view, and we remain concerned, that international students are being used as cash cows in our university system and that we do not have enough resourcing of our universities. University should be free. It should be accessible to everybody. Your access to university should be determined by your brains, not your bank balance.

That is a simple proposition, but it is one that has been undermined by the Liberal Party, in particular in Canberra over the bleak Howard years, but also by the lack of leadership by the federal Labor Party under Gillard, under Rudd, under Gillard-Rudd again, and there still has not been the leadership under this new government either. That is key for us in terms of addressing the needs of the sector.

We should be moving away from this corporate university model, one that actually treats students like consumers rather than students who have a right to have a say in the direction of the institution and who are there to build their skills and capacity and to reflect on life and to make a positive contribution. Should that not be what universities are about, rather than being about just trying to make money?

I will talk a little bit about the amendments that the Greens will be seeking to advance today. I want to flesh those out in a bit more detail, and in doing so it might save us a bit of time in the committee stage. The first amendment that I will be moving will require the university to be an exemplary employer. This draws on some of the evidence presented to the committee. We will talk about making the new university an exemplary employer that offers secure and meaningful employment to staff. That is one of the key objectives for this new university.

I cannot fathom why anyone in this place would oppose that. In particular, it is difficult to comprehend why the Labor Party, the party of the worker, would oppose such a simple inclusion in the act, but let's see what happens. I will call a division and we will see how they vote, whether they stand with staff of the university sector and advocate to improve their conditions or whether they fall into line with the university chiefs. We will see.

The other amendment that I will move will remove the requirement for the university to support and contribute to the realisation of South Australian economic development priorities. It is not the role of a university to realise the state's economic development priorities. That is not the role of a university. The role of a university is to make a contribution to the community, to educate the community and to be a key civic and community leader.

We are also going to be moving an amendment to require the fees for student services to be paid to a student representative body and we will be moving an amendment to require the university council to in all matters endeavour to advance the interests of the university educational and research outcomes for the university and have a primary focus on the student experience. It does worry me that there has not been enough discussion around students in this push for a university merger and the impact this may have on them, their experience in university and their access to a diverse range of courses and opportunities, and it is really important that that is put in the act.

The other key thing we are suggesting is that there be some changes to the composition of the council. We want to see an increase in student members and academic staff and that also will follow through to the transition council. We are going to be moving an amendment to ensure that the council will include two members who are culturally and linguistically diverse and we will also be moving amendments to ensure that a majority of the council are staff and students. We will also be pushing to have graduates from the previous universities involved.

We will be moving another amendment that requires council members to act in a way that the member thinks will benefit and promote the best interests of the university and educational and research outcomes for the university, again putting that primary focus on the university experience.

We will be moving an amendment that requires the council to have a code of conduct and a requirement for its members to comply with that. This is an important measure because we are bound by a code of conduct and most staff of the university are bound by a code of conduct. That should also apply to those on the university council. There are some misconduct provisions relating to what happens if people do not comply with that code.

We are also moving a number of important transparency-related amendments. One of those will require meetings to be held in public with public notice. We will be moving for the universities to publish their minutes and we will be moving for them to publish their agendas. These are public institutions and they receive public money. They should not be secret societies operating behind closed doors, operating under the guise of commercial-in-confidence and shutting the community out of their decisions, so we will be moving to get that information into the public realm.

We will be moving amendments relating to the vice-chancellors' pay, and I have touched on those, and we will be looking at the disclosure of any consultants that are providing advice to the council. We will also be moving to divest this new university of fossil fuels and its assets in the defence industry. We are very concerned about the potential for this new university to be playing a role in advancing the climate crisis and the ongoing militarisation that we are seeing, and the militarisation agenda for our state, so our amendment will nip that in the bud.

We will also be seeking some important disclosure through the annual report of information on the arrangements relating to staff. Under our proposal, the university would be required to report on the number of casual staff it employs and those that are ongoing and the nature of their contracts. This is important information because it would shine a light on the way in which our universities treat their staff. Again, what will the party of the workers do? I pose the question: what will the party of the workers do? Will they line up with the Liberals and oppose this amendment or will they actually advocate for this important principle to be established in the legislation to provide some transparency around arrangements relating to staff? Let's see. We will have an opportunity to test that proposition tomorrow.

Finishing with staff, I do want to just touch on some of the important figures that come out of the National Tertiary Education Union's submission that it made to the committee on the establishment of the new university. They did a survey of their staff and I think it is really important to look at some of the findings of that survey, because I think it should focus the mind of the Labor Party in terms of how they approach this bill and the opportunity that they have had presented to them that the Greens' amendment provides.

I want to look at the survey results that relate to consultation and stakeholder engagement. The NTEU asked the university staff as part of their survey how they had been engaged with this process. Ninety-five per cent of survey respondents indicated that they had not been appropriately consulted by the SA government: 95 per cent. Sixty-six per cent of University of Adelaide and 49 per cent of University of South Australia staff indicated that they had not been appropriately consulted by their respective employers before and during the feasibility project.

Indeed, the union makes the claim that these results show that the process to date is failing the stakeholders they are meant to empower and the prevailing governance institutions are failing their communities. They say that if the merger process is to succeed, staff, students, unions and community stakeholders must be front and centre of all decision-making moving forward and have active participation at every stage of the co-creation process.

We entirely agree and that is why we will be moving to ensure that staff and students play much more of an active role in the interim council that is setting up this new institution. Again, what will the Labor Party do? Will they listen to the staff and students or will they simply fall in behind the university chiefs, who we know regard staff and students as often being an inconvenience?

I think I have ventilated the concerns that the Greens have with this bill. I will make further contributions during the committee stage and I urge members to carefully consider the Greens' amendments. While we are not supportive of this bill, we are presenting members with an opportunity to achieve some better outcomes for students and staff. There are 23 amendments there. I urge members to take up that opportunity. With that, I conclude my remarks.