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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.