18 October 2023
The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:14): I rise to speak in relation to the report. In so doing, I want to recognise the work of all members of the committee: the Hon. Reggie Martin, the Hon. Jing Lee, the Hon. Connie Bonaros and my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks, who represented the Greens on the committee for the first half of the process while I was on leave. I really appreciate the work that the Hon. Tammy Franks did on the committee in terms of raising issues on behalf of the Greens.
I think it is worth noting that this committee would not have occurred if not for the work of the Greens and the work of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the Liberal opposition. When it became clear that the two universities wanted to merge, the Greens came out—with the support of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the Liberal opposition—and said that we wanted there to be a parliamentary inquiry.
At that time, the government said no. They said, 'Any delay is denial of this proposal. We can't possibly have the parliament cast a ruler over this, because that's going to delay the whole process and it has to be done at breakneck speed.' Luckily, they relented and we did manage to get a parliamentary inquiry established. I want to recognise the work of the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the work of the opposition in making that happen.
It was disappointing, though, that what we got was a committee process that was less than ideal because it was operating under a very tight time frame. The proposal that the Greens had put forward, which was supported by the Hon. Frank Pangallo and the opposition, had a much longer reporting time frame and I think would have provided more of an opportunity to ventilate the key issues. That said, we welcome the fact that there was some level of parliamentary scrutiny.
I think it would have been optimum for there to be a commission of inquiry into this proposal—an independent commissioner who could have given a recommendation on whether or not this was indeed in the public interest. Instead, what we saw was a politicised process where you had the two vice-chancellors lining up with the government to advocate for this reform. I think that has been regrettable, because it has undermined some of the public confidence in this proposal.
You will note the majority recommendations, and the Hon. Reggie Martin has spoken to those. The Greens dissent from those recommendations. We have submitted our own minority report and I will talk to a few of those elements. In particular, it is worth noting that we reserve our position on any bill that comes before the parliament. Although I note that, as a result of the One Nation/one university/one SA-Best deal that was announced in the media earlier, our position may not be that relevant to the government, because it seems that some of my colleagues have signed along the dotted line before the bill had even been introduced into this place.
Just to talk to some of the elements of the inquiry and the issues that the Greens have thought are pertinent, one of the key elements for us that has been of concern is the business case. I have a motion before this chamber that we are going to deal with subsequently, so I will not speak on that at length other than to say that the Greens have always been of the view that the full business case should be publicly released and that the universities should disclose any of the external consultants that have worked on this project.
We know that there has been, rightly so, controversy in the public realm about the role of consultants. The public has a right to know who has worked on this proposal, and the Greens are calling for that. We are also calling for the government to review its processes around how it works with external parties in the future. If we are going to be talking about putting public money on the table, then surely commercial-in-confidence should not be used as a shield to prevent the public from getting access to key information. That is something that I think needs to be looked at, and it is an important principle for our democracy.
Another key issue for the Greens, and it is one that was raised through a number of the submissions that came before the committee, was that of governance. What we do not want to see in any new university is a continuation of the status quo. There is a real opportunity here to see more staff and more students playing a role in university decision-making.
We would really like to see a majority of elected members on the university council being staff and students and we would really like to see more diversity on the council. Rather than just having fossil fuel barons, former Liberal Party politicians on university councils, it would be great to see more diversity: people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, First Nations people, people who have experience in the university sector and bring real expertise, rather than just corporate appointments. That is an issue for the Greens.
We would also like to see the minutes and agendas of university councils being made publicly available and their meetings happening in public. These are public institutions; they are not secret societies that should be able to close the door and shield themselves from public view. These are institutions that get significant investment in terms of public money and the community has a right to know what goes on within these institutions.
Another issue that we are concerned about is the remuneration of vice-chancellors. The two vice-chancellors in South Australia at the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia receive over a million dollars a year each. It is concerning when one considers the pay that is given to the Prime Minister or the Premier, for instance. Indeed, I refer to the comments of the Hon. Chris Schact, former Labor minister and a big proponent of the merger, who advised the committee:
I think a million dollars for a vice-chancellor of any university, when the Prime Minister of Australia gets half a million, is a bit ridiculous.
We agree, and that is why we have been arguing for a cap. I did note some of the evidence around rankings and I was concerned that there was contradictory evidence provided to the committee around rankings. Some academics were concerned that the rankings for the institution may dip considerably in the short term and the impact of this on the potential to recruit new students—in particular, international students—is unknown.
The Greens are also concerned about the jobs and employment conditions. The long-term impact of any merger on jobs in the university sector is still unknown, but we note the submission of SA Unions where they called on any new university to prohibit short-term casual contracts and to also look at some of these gig economy style arrangements that put workers in the university sector often at a real disadvantage in terms of their rights. We would like to look at that as part of the new university. I also want to make sure that there is actually a student union as part of any new university and that it gets a legislated minimum return from the student services and amenities fee.
One of the big issues for us, too, has been this question about Flinders University. I welcome the fact that Flinders University students are going to have access to a scholarship fund—that is a good outcome—however, it is not really enough, particularly when all of these other issues have not been addressed.
Might I say, I am concerned that Flinders will not have the potential to apply for research funds. We do not want to see a situation where there is a Hunger Games scenario that is developing between this new institution and Flinders, where they are competing for a narrow pool of money among themselves and where one of our universities is placed at a disadvantage.
Whilst it is true to say that there were some benefits identified with a merger, there are some significant risks as well, and there are some opportunities that come with that. It is really important and I would urge members of this chamber to consider all amendments that come forward—and the Greens intend to move a range of amendments—to see if we can address some of the concerns that were expressed at the committee level, but also to ensure that if we do establish a new university that it models best practice governance, that it better protects the rights of students and of workers; otherwise, why on earth would we go down this path?
As I say, I was surprised to hear news in the media this morning about a deal being brokered with two crossbench members given the fact that the bill has not actually been formally introduced into this chamber and given the fact that no members have had an opportunity to file amendments, nor have any members had an opportunity to consider the amendments. It was disappointing to see members of this house of review give the government a blank cheque. That said, the Greens will keep on pushing to improve this bill and we reserve our right on the legislation.