Member for Mayo and Centre Alliance education spokesperson Rebekha Sharkie has drawn widespread criticism after confirming the party would back the federal government's controversial higher education reforms, which will see some university courses rise in cost by up to 113 percent.
The Morrison Government requires the vote of Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff to pass their Jobs-Ready Graduates Package, which aims to cut the cost of "job ready" degrees including science and engineering, while hiking the cost of humanities and law degrees.
Ms Sharkie confirmed the party would back the legislation, following negotiations with the government which resulted in new funding for South Australia's three universities to accommodate an additional 12,000 students over four years.
Ms Sharkie, who previously described university fee hikes as "grossly unfair", admitted the reforms "are by no means perfect".
"But overall Centre Alliance recognises what the government is trying to achieve and what the university sector is calling for which is funding certainty following the 2017 indexation cuts," she said.
"Without change, many universities were at risk of significant job losses and campus closures going into next year.
"I believe we also need to give the government the opportunity to incentivise students to study in fields where we have serious skills shortages."
Senator Griff said Centre Alliance's negotiations with the federal government had delivered an "excellent outcome for South Australia".
"[This] will address the concerns expressed by the Vice-Chancellors of Flinders University, UniSA and the University of Adelaide who all pointed out that the original government proposal favoured universities in regional areas and those in cities experiencing high growth," Mr Griff said.
Former Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick, who will vote against the reforms, joined with Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in criticising the reforms yesterday (October 5).
"We believe this Bill will have a negative impact on South Australia's young people, research capacity and job creation in our state," they said.
"The government's proposed changes will be devastating long term for SA families, at a time when we actually need more options for our state's young people to be engaged in study and training, if they are unable to work.
"South Australia's three major universities oppose this legislation and so should Senator Griff and Rebekah Sharkie."
Mr Patrick said young Australians were the future and required national investment.
"We should be increasing, not decreasing, investment in our universities. These changes go in the wrong direction," Mr Patrick said.
"This Bill is bad for students, bad for universities, bad for research, bad for South Australia, and bad for Australia."
Taking to Twitter today, Mr Patrick directly criticised comments made by former colleague Ms Sharkie in June.
"I will be forever grateful to [Flinders University] for [my Arts Degree] It took me ten years to complete while working and raising three children. I would not have had my career or the privilege of sitting in the [House of Representatives] without it," Ms Sharkie posted on June 20, 2020.
"So, whilst you are forever grateful for the opportunity afforded you, you don't care for future students in your electorate or state that might want the same opportunity," Mr Patrick posted in response today.
Federal Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek also took to social media to criticise Ms Sharkie, referring to a video Ms Sharkie posted to social media today, relating to her advocacy for $12 million in federal funds for upgrades to Victor Harbor Road.
"Unbelievable. Rebekha Sharkie boasting about getting $15 mil [sic] road funding for her electorate the same day as selling out thousands of South Australian kids who will now pay up to $58,000 for an ordinary uni degree," Ms Plibersek said.
The video posted to Facebook by Ms Sharkie had about 100 negative comments in relation to Centre Alliance's decision to back the Jobs-Ready Graduates Package as of Tuesday afternoon, October 6.
Ms Sharkie said something had to change in the way higher education was run in Australia.
"It is ridiculous that year after year we churn out thousands of law graduates, many of whom will never work in law, and yet we import engineering graduates," Ms Sharkie said.
"We also appreciate that there may be increased costs for students studying the humanities but we recognise that these reforms will provide a significant increase in university places from 2021 and that universities have the discretion to set fees that reflect the delivery of some courses.
"Students will be able to substantially reduce their fees if they study subjects or majors in areas that Government has identified as areas of need, such as studies in English or languages."
As part of Centre Alliance's negotiations with the federal government, funding has been allocated for four study hubs across regional South Australia to provide extra support to regional students.
"We also advocated for the reinstatement of a 10 percent discount for upfront FEE-Help student contributions, the confirmation of a professional pathway for psychology and social work and a formal independent review of these legislative reforms after 18 months," Ms Sharkie said.
"Another positive outcome of these reforms will hopefully be a strengthened focus on domestic students, particularly domestic students from the regions who have under-represented in our universities.
"Many Australian universities are on their knees suffering devastating financial losses due to the loss of international students thanks to COVID-19."
South Australian university representatives have backed Ms Sharkie and Mr Griff's support of higher education reforms.
"I very much welcome the efforts of the Centre Alliance team to secure a better deal for South Australia in the passage of the Job Ready Graduates (JRG) legislation. We will be best placed now to grow participation and attainment in higher education in our state," University of South Australia Vice-Chancellor Professor David Lloyd said.
"The guaranteed increase in funded places means that Flinders University will be able to continue to meet the growing demand for access to higher education as we develop the highly skilled graduates required for the future workforce," Flinders University Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling said.
"I thank Rebekha Sharkie MP and Senator Stirling Griff for their ongoing advocacy for the South Australian community. Greater Adelaide and regional South Australia currently have the lowest proportion of university-qualified adults on the mainland," University of Adelaide Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Mike Brooks said.