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Question: Vice Chancellor Salaries

01 June 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I seek leave to make a brief explanation before addressing a question without notice to the minister representing the Minister for Education on the topic of vice-chancellors' salaries.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: The Minister for Regional Development will be relieved they are off the hook. Australian vice-chancellors are some of the highest paid vice-chancellors in the world. That is certainly the case here in South Australia. The Australian Financial Review reported last week that 11 vice-chancellors in Australia received over $1 million salaries while making huge cuts internally, slashing staff numbers and putting infrastructure projects on ice as closed borders threatened the international student market.

These $1 million salaries include the vice-chancellors of our local universities, the University of South Australia, Flinders University and Adelaide University. The Financial Review claims that Australia's vice-chancellors are paid considerably more than their peers in Britain and Canada. My question to the minister is: does the government agree that these salaries are excessive, and will the Malinauskas government commit to capping vice-chancellor salaries?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Attorney-General, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector): I thank the member for his question. His longstanding interest, I think, is evidenced by legislation put before this place previously on this particular issue. I will refer those matters to the minister responsible in the other place and be sure to bring the honourable member a response back as soon as possible.



In reply to the Hon. R.A. SIMMS (6th September 2022)


The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Attorney-General, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector): The Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science has advised:

The statutes for all three South Australian public universities outline that the councils of the respective universities are responsible for determining the terms, conditions and salary of a Vice-Chancellor. The salaries of Vice-Chancellors are therefore a matter to be determined by the councils of each respective university.

Vice Chancellors' Salary Cap Bill

25 August 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: Obtained leave and introduced a bill for an act to amend the Flinders University Act 1966, the University of Adelaide Act 1971 and the University of South Australia Act 1990. Read a first time.

Second Reading

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill is seeking to cap the salaries of vice-chancellors in our state universities. It is a really timely bill because our universities are in crisis and it is important that those in leadership positions are seen to actually lead when it comes to their own salaries. Over the course of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic saw South Australians hard hit, with an estimated 40,000 job losses across our state. Our three universities saw over 350 staff members lose their jobs, and this is on top of the 157 staff at the University of Adelaide who took so-called voluntary separation packages.

In 2021, we look set to repeat this trend, with the University of Adelaide forecasting that they intend to axe a further 130 jobs in the wake of their decision to merge five faculties into three as part of what they refer to as a rationalisation process.

There is nothing rational about this decision. This is not merely a statistic or an abstract number. This is 130 individuals, all of whom will be put out of work. It is 130 families that will lose a source of income during one of the most uncertain times in our history. The human impact of this decision cannot be underestimated.

This decision is particularly galling when one considers it is being made by someone who is being paid just under $1 million a year. By contrast, the South Australian Premier, the Hon. Steven Marshall, will be paid less than half that. What this bill seeks to do is to tie the salaries of our vice-chancellors to that of the Premier. It is unacceptable that during a time of extreme financial uncertainty for so many, South Australian university bosses continue to rake in exorbitant salaries while presiding over the dismissal of hundreds of employees, ongoing rationalisation of staff, ongoing casualisation of staff.

How can we justify paying an employee of a publicly funded institution a salary of well in excess of $1 million? Indeed, those are the salaries that are being paid to the vice-chancellors at Flinders University and the University of South Australia. While our universities continue to take a hatchet to people's livelihoods, it is only fair that these top executives start to actually feel the pinch where it hurts, start to see a reduction in their own salaries.

Conversely, we have seen this crazy situation where the more these vice-chancellors are being paid, the less quality that seems to be offered in our state's institutions. We have seen the quality of our universities decline over the last few decades. With rising class sizes, fewer assessment markers and an amalgamation of roles and departments, all of this has meant that staff are completely overworked. Indeed, having worked in the university sector myself previously prior to coming into this place, I can attest to the fact that staff in our state's universities face significant pressure.

Our federal government has done nothing to ease these concerns, and instead what it has done has made degrees more expensive for students. I want to put on record my outrage at the decision of the federal Liberal government to hike up the HECS fees for students who dare to study the humanities. Anybody would think that the Liberals do not want people to learn about history or the arts. I cannot imagine why they would be afraid of teaching young people such things. It is an appalling, short-sighted decision that the federal Liberals have taken in hiking up HECS fees in that way.

That has been really a bipartisan project started by the Labor Party when they implemented HECS back in the 1990s. Since then, we have seen the HECS scheme become a user pays, pays, pays system. We have seen and lack of investment in universities. As a result, these institutions have become reliant on international students, who are treated as cash cows and who are basically forced through fee-paying places to bankroll our university system. This is not an acceptable way for our universities to be run.

The current structure of our universities as part of this corporate governance model treats vice-chancellors like they are CEOs of multinational corporations. CEOs are chosen for their ability to turn a profit and to make money. That should not be the focus of our universities. I ask members of this place: why are we treating our universities like corporations? Why are we putting profits ahead of students? Why are we paying our vice-chancellors such obscene salaries, particularly in the middle of this economic crisis?

This bill will change that. It is a simple bill. As I said, it will cap the salaries of our vice-chancellors and put them to be at the same level as the Premier. Australian vice-chancellors are some of the highest paid in the world, doubling and sometimes tripling the salaries of their US and UK counterparts. In times of economic downturn, reduced student enrolments and further federal cuts to higher education, we can no longer justify paying such extravagant salaries. Might I say that such salaries were never justified.

Higher education has been under continual attack from our federal government and there is no relief in sight. They have effectively forced our universities to shift their priorities away from learning and on to earning—and that is an outrage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the decaying structures that support modern universities in Australia, our universities are built on the exploitation of international students, and I note that students are facing spiralling classes and many are getting a less than satisfactory service as a result of learning online as part of COVID-19.

Staff and students deserve so much better. This bill is not going to solve all the problems faced within our university sector and, indeed, the payment of these vice-chancellors is a symptom of a much broader problem, that of the corporatisation of our universities, but reducing the salaries of our vice-chancellors will go some small way towards changing this system. There are other reforms that are required, too. We need more money from the federal government, and the Greens are going to continue to advocate for that, but we also need to reverse the changes that were made to the governance of our universities back in 2016, when we saw the previous Labor government strip staff and students from university councils.

We are seeing now what happens when you reduce the influence of staff and students on these committees. We have seen that at the University of Adelaide, where the merger plan has been given the green light, but we have seen that across the sector over many, many years. It is part of this model that runs our universities like corporate boards rather than institutions that should operate for the public good. We cannot continue to allow this corporate greed to run rampant in our institutions. These institutions of higher learning should be treated as such. They should operate in the public good.

We cannot continue to pay six and seven figure sums to lone individuals while they preside over the sacking of hundreds of staff in the middle of a global pandemic. That really is outrageous and it is a slap in the face to all of those staff who are losing their jobs, to all of those staff who face increased casualisation, and to all of those staff who face uncertainty the moment that these decisions are made by the millionaire class.

There is a great deal more work that we must do to reform our universities. We must continue to promote them as places of higher education, not simply degree factories and money makers. I hope that members on both sides of this chamber will support this bill because I believe that it will go some small way towards putting our universities back on track. There is significant community support for this. Indeed, there have been 1,300 signatures on a petition circulating online in support of the bill. It has had a lot of support from the NTEU and student groups, and I look forward to the Labor and Liberal parties and SA-Best and Advance SA coming on board so that we can achieve this reform.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.E. Hanson.




Cap Vice Chancellors' Salaries!

At a time when staff in our state’s university sector are facing so much uncertainty, it’s appalling that Vice Chancellors are continuing to receive exorbitant salaries.

In 2021, the University of South Australia’s Vice-Chancellor had a salary package of $1.2 million, Flinders University’s Vice-Chancellor was paid $1.22 million, and the University of Adelaide’s Vice-Chancellor was paid $1.17 million.

The Greens believe Vice Chancellor salaries must be capped to ensure they are more in line with community expectations. Uni bosses shouldn’t be paid like corporate CEOs. We will be introducing a Private Members Bill to cap VC salaries at the same level as the Premier.

Add your voice to the campaign to cap VC Salaries!

2,000 signatures

The Greens are campaigning to cap Vice Chancellors' salaries to ensure that they are more in line with community expectations. 

You can show your support by signing this petition.

Add signature

Question: International Students

13 May 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:56): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before addressing a question without notice to the minister representing the Premier on the topic of international students.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: Before the pandemic, international students were a big export earner for South Australia, bringing in more than $2 billion a year, creating jobs in our local economy and helping our accommodation, hospitality and tourism industries. Last November, South Australia was given approval to pilot bringing back 300 students but that trial has since stalled. The New South Wales government have announced their plan to bring international students back to university campuses this year, which is now under consideration of the federal government. My question to the Treasurer is: with our international borders expected to remain closed until mid-2022 and no additional funding for our universities, where is the state government's plan to bring international students back to the state up to?

The PRESIDENT: The Treasurer has the call. I heard most of the Hon. Mr Simms' question but there was some interjection happening on my left, and I would like to hear the Treasurer's answer.

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (14:57): Thank you, Mr President. I would like to hear it too. On behalf of the Premier, I know he would welcome the honourable member's question and his interest in this particular area. This is a particular passion of the Premier and indeed the government. He has been working actively with the Minister for Health, the minister for industry and trade and their respective officers in relation to this issue.

You can rest assured that the Premier and the responsible ministers and officers have active proposals before the commonwealth government for their consideration, but it does require approval of the commonwealth government. It is not just the New South Wales government that's interested in this area. The Board of Treasurers discussions I have had over recent months indicate that certainly Chief Minister Andrew Barr from the ACT has been actively engaged in this space, as has the New South Wales government, as has the South Australian government.

So there are a number of jurisdictions that have varying proposals, of varying nature and complexions, before the commonwealth government, but ultimately it does require the agreement of the commonwealth government in relation to these issues. We are not able to take these decisions as sovereign nations in ourselves because we are not a sovereign nation in South Australia. We are part of the commonwealth and, clearly, the federal government has the major say in relation to this.

I know that the Minister for Health and his officers, as I said, have been actively engaged. We do have, in our view, a viable proposition awaiting approval and we will have to sit back and work together cooperatively with the commonwealth government, as some of the other jurisdictions are, to see whether we can get an early response from the commonwealth government.

We are certainly very hopeful that it will be much sooner than the middle of next year that the honourable member has raised, which is the general federal budget assumption about the opening up of borders more broadly—the attraction of international students in pilot programs, specially controlled, monitored, etc., with all the sorts of rigorous controls that Australians and South Australians would want to ensure the safety of South Australians in relation to this program.

But the member is right, there is a genuine passion from the Premier. He recognises, as the member does, that international students and international education are an important part of our universities' financial experience and our state's export performance but it is also our state's future attractiveness in terms of hoping to keep some of these young students on, all with an ongoing interest in what occurs here in South Australia. It is a win-win from the state's viewpoint, and the Premier and the government are actively engaged.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:00): Whilst these discussions are ensuing between the state and federal governments, will the state government commit to providing our higher education institutions with a lifeline to ensure that there are no further staff cuts or potential campus closures?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (15:00): That is where we might diverge: the answer is no. I have had that discussion with vice-chancellors in the universities and they have very strong balance sheets. The honourable member is probably familiar with some of our universities. They have strong balance sheets, considerable assets and, yes, they have faced challenges to varying degrees, but I would invite the honourable member to look at the recent financial report of one of our three universities which indicates that, contrary to their earlier expectations, they have emerged in a relatively strong financial position.

As I said to one of the vice-chancellors, their balance sheet was very attractive to the state Treasurer. We envied the fact that they weren't running deficits and debt levels the size that the state was having to run to try to save jobs, save businesses and to help households. I made that comment half in jest, tongue-in-cheek but, nevertheless, the answer to the honourable member's question is the same that I gave to the universities on behalf of the government, that we weren't going to help them out.

I hasten to say that we did provide emergency assistance during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year via my colleague the Minister for Human Services—in terms of emergency assistance. My recollection is that we provided a financial package of around about $13 million, not to bail out the universities but to actually use them as a mechanism to provide assistance—some of that money; I think it was $10 million of the $13 million—to students who were struggling for food or basic needs: emergency assistance during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Mr Simms has a supplementary.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (15:02): If the balance sheets of these universities are so spectacular, could the Treasurer shed any light on why our South Australian universities might be laying off staff?

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (Treasurer) (15:03): I am happy to have another conversation, which is consistent with the standing orders, with the honourable member after question time, but the reality is that universities have to make decisions and some of them may well be related to COVID. In many respects they may not be related to COVID, but whatever decisions the universities have taken, they are significantly less than they were contemplating through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Running universities, big institutions, there are always challenges in relation to how they manage their budgets. However, they are in a relatively very healthy position given the strength of their balance sheets.